Thursday, May 22, 2014

Does Free Still Work? (and other book promotion ideas)

Okay, first things first. I'm running a Goodreads giveaway for paperbacks of Blood & Steam. If you can't see the banner above, or the Amazon links on the side, disable AdBlock on this page! Now on to the meat of the post:

Regular followers of this blog already know that I ran an Amazon promotion for the week of April 19th-25th. I was skeptical about doing a free giveaway for two reasons: 1) Giving away products for free is not necessarily the best way to sell said products, and 2) My past experiments with freebies were mediocre, resulting in either many free giveaways but few sales, or few total giveaways. In both cases, I rarely netted more than a few reviews, if any, and that was after giving away thousands of free e-books.

BUT... I had to rethink my strategy recently. I must admit, my sales had been slipping for a while, going back to the second half of 2013. Granted, this was mostly my own fault because I hate doing promotion. I don't like the time it takes, I don't like shelling out money for unquantifiable results, and I prefer to put my energy into actual writing and publishing. Which is what I had been doing since I started this venture in 2011. During that time frame, my approach seemed to work pretty well. I started selling one or two books a day and, at peak, have averaged about seventy-five per day. From January 2012 through the summer of 2013, about eighteen months, I sold somewhere around ten thousand books. Maybe those aren't Patterson numbers, but for a new, unknown author with no traditional publisher, no agent, and no promotion, I think it's pretty good. And for all those years, my sales consistently grew. But at the end of last year, something weird happened.

They say it was the tsunami of new self-published books drowning out visibility that made 2013 so rough for sales. I'm sure that was part of it, along with the fact that thousands of new authors were engaging their readers with promotions in a way that I never had. At any rate, during the summer slowdown of 2013 my sales had dropped to an average 15-20 a day. I wasn't too worried at the time, because I expected the usual uptick in the fall. But that uptick did not come as scheduled.

I kept telling myself that when my new books came out, sales would get a boost. I released Clockwork and H3, but they didn't do much. Then, in February or March of 2014, sales dropped again. Suddenly I was down to a trickle, averaging maybe five a day. Still, I told myself it would pick up. Or, at least I tried to, until the royalties caught up with me. When I saw my income dropping to a couple hundred bucks a month, I figured I'd better do something.

But what? I needed a plan. I did some brainstorming. I combined the knowledge of all I'd read and learned about other writers' experiences with promotion, and came up with a plan that suited my own personal needs. The time and financial investment was minimal. I scheduled a freebie week for T1 and then bought some promotional ads for the giveaway. I also scheduled a Goodreads giveaway to coincide with the freebie, hoping to grab a little extra exposure. I also did one other thing:

In all of my reading on the subject, I have learned that Amazon's algorithms pay attention to sales over time, not just daily sales. In other words, it can be better to sell 1,000 books in a week than to sell 1,000 books in a day, if you don't sell anything after that. A consistent number of sales over a long period of time tells the algorithms that it's not just a fluke. Or so I had come to believe. But could I prove this theory, and if so, take advantage of it? I had an idea:

I staggered my promotions by scheduling them on different days. I did this in two different ways. First, I started the Amazon promotion on Sunday and the Goodreads promo on Monday, allowing each to benefit from its respective place in the "recently listed" and "ending soon" departments. (I also staggered the ending dates) Second, I scheduled my promo advertisements to run on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, and then blogged about my giveaways on Wednesday. I used "Pulse Advertising" (to coin a phrase) in order to draw steady, consistent attention for the entire week. And did it work?

I'd say yes. In that week, I gave away over 4,000 freebies. As soon as the giveaway ended, my sales settled into a daily range of about 25, for about a week. Not too bad. BUT... I did one more thing. I scheduled a second Goodreads giveaway for the following week (after one week off), on T2. I timed this to coincide with an Amazon pricing promotion at $0.99, down from $3.99, using a Kindle countdown deal. And when that promo went live, sales jumped up into the 40's and 50's per day, doing even better at sales than giving away freebies. So my extended Pulse Advertising lasted for a period of three weeks, ending early in May. The result? Several weeks later, I'm still moving around in the charts in my category and averaging around 20 sales a day in this series. That's up from 5, remember? 

What did I learn?

First: Free definitely does still work. You can catch the attention of the algorithms -and the readers- by hitting those top 100 charts. But if you time your promotions for a longer, more methodical duration, you can earn a long tail in the payoff as well. Of course, you must promote those freebies or no one will notice. I can attest to this fact based on some of my previous experiences, like running a freebie on "The Last Heist" and getting about 25 downloads because I didn't promote. This time, I spent about $70 on promotional ads. I made that money back in multiples from the increased sales, so it was well worth the expense.

Second: There is a major difference in sales weighting between FREE and $0.99. The books I gave away for free got me into the top 10 in the Steampunk category, but it cost me about 4,400 free books. T2 reached the same ranking by selling about 30 books a day at $0.99. I had to move less product, and this time I was getting paid. Conclusion? If all else is equal, it's better to be selling your book than giving it away for free so $0.99 still has more appeal.

Third: The long tail of promotion does lead to a long tail of sales. I assume this is because my theory about Amazon's algorithms is correct. It also helps that Amazon is back to sending out occasional flyers for my books, reminding people about titles they've viewed but not yet purchased. Every little bit of visibility I can achieve brings more sales, and this is something Amazon does automatically once you catch the attention of the algorithms.

Fourth: Price is important. When T2 went back to the usual price of $3.99, sales dropped like a rock. It's still selling, but nowhere near 30 books a day. I believe that if I'd set the price on book two lower permanently, I'd have more sales and a better presence in the charts. Unfortunately, after a running a Kindle promotion, I'm not allowed to change the price for at least two weeks. I had inertia with that title, and I lost it because I screwed up.

Fifth: Free isn't that popular anymore as a promotion tool because of the changes to Amazon's algorithms. I believe that this fact actually helped me a little. I can't prove it or show numbers to back up that theory (Let's be honest: I'm too lazy to try) but I think the recent migration to $0.99 has made the Free ground a little more fertile. Everyone knows a low price carries more weight than a giveaway, and they're exploiting that... which means the free charts are lot more accessible than they were say a a year ago.

What would I change?  I have enough titles in my backlist to keep promotions like this running steadily, and I should have planned out something even longer. Next time, I will. I also need to put this effort into my other series books. It might be time consuming because of the planning involved, but I'm sure it will be worth it. I would also price Book Two in the series a bit lower after the promo, using a more gradual pricing tier. Jumping from $0.99 to $3.99 is a bit much for some readers.

Last of all, I've been very happy with my promoters, but I will say it now, loud and clear:  

BOOKBUB wouldn't touch me. I don't know if it had something to do with my covers or my reviews, or something else entirely. I know that they used to be a fairly exclusive club, allowing only the books with the highest number of reviews and highest average review. This of course, is bullcrap. What it does is encourages amateur writers to write fake sock-puppet reviews, talking up their own books and trashing those they think are competition. Anyone who thinks this doesn't happen should take a look at some of the one and two star reviews on my books (or many others) at Goodreads. This is how we end up with horrific books rated at a solid 4.8 stars with 150 reviews, and fantastic books by honest authors that flounder with a 3 star average. Bookbub claims they no longer work this way, but they remain elusive as to how exactly they choose their promotions.


  1. I must say I got The Tinkerer's daughter free and bought all of them thereafter as I was addicted and now I have to be patient for more, which is my downfall in life. Thanks for the good read.

  2. Thanks Bel, I'm thrilled to hear you enjoyed my books. I do have more coming this fall/winter so please be patient with me!