The Impact of Free Promos

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigDeath to the Stock Photo Book Sale

I had to answer a questionnaire for self-publishers recently and several of the questions stumped me.  I have a feeling that this isn’t a good thing.

One of the questions was ‘How many books have you sold (not given away)?’  I had absolutely no idea.  And this information is not exactly as easy to come by as you might think.  There is no way on your KDP dashboard to find lifetime sales.

I also had no idea how many books, total, I’d given away.

Another question was ‘What is your strongest selling title?  How many units have you sold?’

Hmm.

In my defense…I have been very busy writing several series.  My self-published books number six which, although not a huge number, certainly adds a bunch of lines and some complexity to each month’s KDP excel sheet.

Sadly, I did not take the excellent advice of writer Jack Welling and have one or both of my teenage children work on this stuff.  Somehow my clerical needs always seem to coincide with massive projects on their end.

My printer is upstairs and my laptop was with me at the kitchen table.  I pulled up all of the KDP reports from 2011 to 2015.  Then I started clicking ‘print.’

I failed to notice that some of my monthly KDP reports were 12 pages long because of the number of books and the countries that the books are selling in.

I also failed to notice that I had not set up the reports to print in ‘landscape’ and not ‘portrait.’

My son, who was actually working on a computer in the room where the printer was, found me after a while.  “Mom, what are you doing?”  He indicated that he had just noticed some of the pages that were printing only had a few words on them.

Sigh.

Some findings from my Amazon reports (doesn’t include other retailers):

My foreign sales became strong after price matching freebies ran.  Somehow, clearly, those free books gained me visibility on Amazon’s international sites.  I did set it up for the international prices to be based on the US prices.

I’ve given away 429,944 free units.

Looking at the months where I had a lot of downloads of a free title, in general the sales of the same/other titles increased.  But sometimes, the sales the following month declined and then dramatically bumped up the next month. I’ve never seen sales decline more than one month following a free promo.

So, I conclude that free promos tend to give me visibility in international markets as well as here at home. That bump in income may not show up the following month, but two months later.  I think that, for me and my genre and with the number of titles I have, free is a good strategy for me for visibility in a crowded marketplace. I recently read a thought-provoking post from Jane Friedman: “The Strategic Use of Book Giveaways and How They Can Increase Earnings Potential.”  In it, Jane says, “Giveaways (or freebies) are popular for good reason; they’re a classic, frictionless way to make people aware of your work.”

Strategies for the free books?

I was interviewed on Tuesday by Camille Fabre-Pergola and Phin Lambert at Vook and they asked me if I had a strategy for which titles were free.  It was a good question and it made me realize how undeliberate I can be when I’m running a free book promo.  Since my books don’t really have continuing subplots, I haven’t found it strictly necessary to make the first book in the series free.  In fact, I can’t make the first book in the series free, because it was traditionally published by Midnight Ink (and that ebook is actually currently priced over $8, I believe).

So I choose my free title a bit differently, since I have no control over the pricing of that first book and the books don’t have a continuing story arc.  Usually I take a look at the Amazon ranking and reviews of all the titles.  If there’s a title that could really benefit from a boost in either rank or number of reviews, I pick that one.  I make the book free on Smashwords and then Amazon (usually very quickly…24 hours?) price matches.

Things I’m going to start tracking better (some related to free promotions, some for other data):

Sales per title (unless/until Amazon does a better job helping us collect it on the dashboard). I still don’t know my strongest title or the number of units because I completely ran out of time.  I think this will be something I give the 13 year old to do on a rainy day when she has little homework.

Monthly sales totals.

Monthly downloads totals.

And to keep up with it better, I’m going to print out those reports each month.  Then I won’t have such a huge chore. Somehow, it’s easier for me to add the stuff up when it’s on paper.

Have you tried these types of promotions?  How did it work for you?  Any revelations of your own from your sales and downloads reports?

Tweetable:

Potential benefits of free book promos: http://bit.ly/1BDBrhZ via @elizabethscraig   (Click to Tweet)

Image: from Death to the Stock Photo

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31 thoughts on “The Impact of Free Promos

  1. Fascinating – here you are allowing us to peek into the experience of a best-selling author. Giving away almost half a million books, wow! And seeing bumps in sales two months later! I would never have suspected that. Yes, please, do keep track of your performance overtime, it would be interesting to see if the positive results keep up or whether you hit a “ceiling”, that might indicate the organic “depth” of your market…

    For authors that are only beginning to sell (and were never trad published in the US, like me, though I was trad published in Italy – for the two books I wrote in Italian), the situation is totally different. And there’s been a VERY noticeable downtrend in the impact free campaigns are having on sales: back in 2011, I’d get a lot of sales following on my periods of giveaways – now, I get none. Yes, you read that right: NONE! Amazing! Yet, I am the same writer today as in 2011 and still get good reviews.

    It’s obviously not me but the market. It has turned against newbies (i.e. those that don’t have a recognizable name and too small a following). At first, the novelty of the Kindle and other e-readers carried new writers forward. But now, the novelty has faded and no longer are we, the newbies, carried forward! Everybody and my uncle is going free, there are tons of books in everyone’s Kindle, more than most people can find the time to read, so one more makes no difference…

    1. Claude: Something else I could have included with this information, which goes along with your question of hitting a ceiling. The highest number of downloads of my books when they went free, over the lifetime of my sub-pubbing on Amazon, was in May 2013. That month I had 85,650 downloads. And that has been a while back! Compared to that, in January I had 5,682 downloads of free books. So, yes, the totals trend downward over time.

      I think your observations about new writers breaking into the market have a lot of merit. I believe I had several things going for me: 1) I had a couple of trad-published books out with more on the way in late 2011 when I started self-pubbing. 2) I was–at the time–one of the *only* cozy mystery writers who was self-pubbing and I was under-pricing *everyone*, including myself and my own trad-pubbed books 3) I had the ability to put more books out quickly and, since I don’t have a day job, I was able to focus intensely on putting together a solid team to help me put out a professional-looking product.

      For new writers looking to break into the market…at any cost…I would probably recommend finding a genre or sub-genre that enjoys a strong reader base but has few titles as competition. Basically….that’s what I did by accident. The field was crowded with books, but nothing really priced at 2.99 or .99 or free. I’d also recommend continuing to write as many books as possible in that genre or subgenre, having a positive online presence, and finding a professional team to package your books in a good cover with excellent editing. But I think the most important thing is the popularity of the genre and the number of books in it. The reason I say “at any cost”, though, is that the cost to the writer may be loss of interest in the pursuit of commercial success. But who knows what could happen if those books took off?

      1. I think that’s spot on! Yes, you’re right, those are the two main criteria for a newbie to break out of the crowd: (1) the popularity of the genre coupled with (2) the numbers of books in it. Wow! Very clever. I’m afraid that as far as I’m concerned, I’m not really capable of doing it this way. I write because I feel like writing something I’m deeply, emotionally interested in. I just can’t write on command, according to criteria, no matter how good they are.

        So I’m withdrawing from the game. My books are up there, on Amazon’s virtual shelves, I won’t pull them down but I’m no longer promoting them…Instead, I’m working hard now on non-fiction, a book about the United Nations, that’s something I really believe in and I’m desperate to see how the world is by-passing it, ignoring it even tough it’s our best instrument for world peace. If we go on this way, the world will sink again in the horrors of war – and it won’t be limited (as it is now) to the Middle East and some places in Africa like Nigeria or Mali…But if you happen to read my blog, I guess you know that’s what I’m up to already! And, needless to say, I don’t plan to self-publish this book. I’m actively looking for a trad publisher…

        Anyway, thanks for your very insightful comments and let me tell you, you’re one of the writers whose blog I still read with pleasure!

        1. Claude–I was hesitant to even mention it because I think that *most* writers would really rather write what speaks to them instead of what speaks to a general market. And that makes complete sense.

          And I don’t think you’re withdrawing at all…you’re very wisely diversifying what you’re offering while leaving your fiction up. I downloaded it, myself…hope you’ll return to it one day. You’ve got a great voice.

          I’ll look forward to your non-fic offerings on world peace. After I traveled with family to Kenya in 2013, the attack in the mall happened in Nairobi. Such a sad thing and indicative of the kind of thing that’s been popping up lately.

  2. Elizabeth – I agree with you about the KDP reports; they don’t have as much information as I wish they did. And I’m sure that keeping track of everything is even harder when you have multiple books out there.

    The whole question of free book promos is a challenging one, and I think you’re right that you have to choose carefully when it comes to which book and when and so on. And what I also find is that you have to set aside time to do these ‘business’ things. It’s almost as though you switch roles from creator to business manager, and that’s not always easy.

    1. Margot–I really do believe that Amazon will eventually give us a better sales dashboard. It’s already so much better than it was before. You’re right about switching hats from creative to business…it’s tough. I’m determined….but it’s tough.

  3. Thanks for posting this, Elizabeth. Since I’m not even a month into my self-publishing debut, I don’t have anything to compare to, but this information is still helpful. And it gives me hope.

    I haven’t tried the free thing yet. Right now, my ebook is at 3.99 and I thought I’d give it a month to see what it can do, then I’ll give it a freebie day or two (I went with Kindle Select out of the gate) and see how that goes. Sales are slow – naturally – but they’re there, and I’m working on my next books. Maybe next year I’ll have something worthwhile to contribute to this conversation. =o)

    1. B.E.: Sounds like you’ve got a good plan! $3.99 is a great price for a new release. And a free day (or even a .99 sale) would hopefully offer a boost of visibility and reviews. Then, when your other books release, you have more latitude with pricing.

  4. So the free ones had a bigger impact on foreign markets?

    I think for any author, it would be difficult to go back to day one and count how many books have sold. Maybe that’s something to tell new authors to keep track of from day one.

    1. Diane–I think, when they initially started leveling off in the States, the benefit for the sales *here* started dropping, but that’s when the freebies finally trickled down to the international markets (particularly UK and other English speaking nations) and started making a difference there.

      I think you’re right. Good advice to new authors–track your sales each month. My monthly sales reports were telling…no sales in July 2011 (first month). 67 sales second month. I’m thinking, “I’ve got this.” I thought there was no need to really track. But when things got to 740 sales in the 4th month, I never revised and asked, “Do I *still* have this? Am I still on top of tracking sales figures?” And I never thought back on it.

  5. “I’ve given away 429,944 free units.”

    I’m blinking. I’m still blinking.

    Here’s where I become your father. Watch me. I’m taking the pipe out of my mouth and putting down my scotch.

    [ We’ll pretend we have T.V. parents instead of those we really have. Say, oh – Cliff Huxtable without the cocktail implications. Hey, I write crime. What sort of sick humor you expect?].

    Strategic investment is different than marketing. I’m concerned about that differentiation here.

    You tell me this and it makes me think you aren’t holding any energy stocks.

    You’re not holding anything in the energy sector, are you? You haven’t invested any writing income in a monthly investment buy. Your asset-based holdings are not growing beyond the IRA and maybe a 529 plan.

    You know how many people you see at the marina who have no ready holdings in the energy sector today? How about in the lounge waiting for their timeshare jet to be brought to the ramp?

    Money makes money. That’s how you get it.

    We still burn oil. We’ll still burn oil the day they put you and I in the ground.

    Immediately go and set up a defined contribution monthly to a fund buying into any of a number of solid mutual funds dealing in exploration, production, refining, transport and wholesale distribution of oil. Stay away from anything with shale: it’s just like oil only it isn’t oil and costs 6 times as much to get out of ground …

    If you told me you gave away 429,944 free units over 5 years as The Waffle House, I’d still blink at you as if you had a third eye and horns.

    Better.

    Don’t take my advice. You’ve gotten an accountant. If your accountant is not in partnership with someone doing financial management (contract CFO) for small business – fire your accountant and get one who does.

    Your writing: great. Wonderful. Adored by fans. Your advice? Sought after by thousands of writers. Brilliant.

    Get out of the business side. Pay an expert and have them make you money from what you do. You are a consultant. Your product contribution is fiction. Do that. Have someone who manages business manage the business.

    We’re not sending you to Wharton. Buy someone who did go. They’re expecting it. That’s why they went.

    You are brilliant at this stuff. Hire someone who is brilliant at THAT stuff.

    Businesses change in 48 hours, or never. You are a business.

    I’m still blinking. I’m gonna need more scotch.

    Is this the part where your mother and I say “we still love you, honey” in that patronizing tone implying that you aren’t actually our child but were left on the doorstep by fairies?

    I got this speech when I said I wasn’t going to Annapolis. Well. That was a different speech. More yelling.

    I got this speech when I said I wasn’t taking a law degree.

    Ever see a doctor file for bankruptcy? I’ve got ten pictures of Ben Franklin in my pocket that say he managed the practice’s business himself. Wanna bet?

    I mean this in the best possible way. I see brilliant people all the time who are fumbling around managing themselves as a business – earning, but not earning well enough.

    What do I do for them? I bring them into my consortium and make a slice myself off their new increased earning potential. Nobody cares about that slice when they (a) end up doing what they love about 100% more of the time and (b) earn more for that work than ever before without dreading the constant promotion, marketing, billing, and chasing the dollars.

    I had to do it myself. I make it work for other experts, too.

    Do I need to go find a former senior managing editor at a mid-sized publishing house for you? We can do that. There are plenty hanging around worth having. Some went to Wharton, even.

    Feel free to ignore my advice. I have to call my rigger and see if the custom black sails are done for the good ship _Despot Island_.

    And refill my scotch.

    1. Jack–I love it. And you’re right in so many ways.

      I have, actually, had some of my Manhattan publishing contacts offer to help me out. I think, perhaps, I need to take a closer look at their offers. :)

      At the same time…what I’ve done has worked for what I was shooting for. It hasn’t worked on nearly the same level it would if I had gotten someone to thoughtfully manage what I’m doing. But it’s gotten me very reliable monthly sales. It’s given me a solid base of readers (if I didn’t have that before, from the trad pub…because, really, who knows where my band of readers came from?)

      The way I’ve seen it is that I’ve given away a lot of free books…some of those books have gone to people who can’t pass up something free. These would be the folks who pick up the dirty penny in a puddle of oil at a gas station. Many, many of these people didn’t read the book and wouldn’t have read the book regardless. Many more started reading it but found that it wasn’t the genre they enjoyed reading–because they’d only bought it because it was free.

      And then the more helpful part. Some of the people who read the freebie hadn’t heard of my books and were introduced to them (the real advertising portion of this equation). Some of them hadn’t read this genre and may have been converts.

      And then comes the part where you’re absolutely right–some of these free downloads are from readers who *would* have read my books. They would have paid full price for them. They would have paid more than the normal sticker-price for them.

      For me, also, there are more books to come in the series. So the financial impact is lessened. It probably, I’m guessing, would be *further* lessened if I would stick with just keeping one title free instead of bouncing around with it.

      As Jane Friedman mentioned in her post, though, the path I’ve chosen has been similar to the funnel graph she displays with the article: awareness–opinion–consideration–preference–purchase.

      The difference between what Jane covers and my own situation is that…how strategic, ultimately, am I being in this process? Historically, not very! I’ve been busily typing away to create more content. I need a kick in the rear end (think I got one from my data) and possibly a manager (on my to-do list, I promise!)

      No energy stocks here! And college tuition on the way. :)

      And if you’re doling out scotch, let me in on some of it! :)

  6. Yeaaaaa! Scotch. And sales!

    You’re a successful author. Getting here – a path. Got it.

    The good news, 429,000 units. That means champagne in my book. Well done you: free or not. Well done.

    Should even be cake in that number. Cake! Wonderful job.

    1. Jack–Is the cake gluten free? :) Heck, I might even take it if it’s not!

      Yes, good stuff. But plenty of work to be done, sigh. I think I’m undergoing a Kate Chopin “Awakening” in the business arena.

  7. Hi Elizabeth – what an interesting post … anyone who publishes needs to start keeping stat info right at the beginning, but not fret over the numbers … it looks like you might be doing more work on recording info – than actually writing …

    Fascinating post thanks – Hilary

    1. Hilary–And this is a big worry of mine! I definitely would like to spend more time being creative and less time doing the business end. I’m thinking that once I set a monthly system into place (printing, making note of sums) then it will go a lot quicker. And then I probably need to outsource what I can’t manage.

      1. Hi Elizabeth – outsourcing and/or getting help re your system makes sense – what you can’t manage, or what you don’t want to manage – they can be the time wasters as we procrastinate with the negativity of doing it/keeping it up to date. Good luck! Cheers Hilary

  8. I just recently acquired a piece of software called TrackerBox. In under thirty minutes, I imported three years of publishing reports from Amazon, Nook and KOBO and had answers to the questions of how many I had sold, where and how much each book made over any given time period and on what platform. After trying the time limited free version, I was happy to pay the modest price for the software.

    I am not at all related to the software manufacturer, but I am thrilled to recommend a product that actually solved a huge business problem for me.

        1. I’m glad you’re liking it. I didn’t want to sound like a commercial, but when I find something that really works, I definitely want to share it and support the person who created it.

  9. I’m glad it’s not just me who can’t figure some of this stuff out on Amazon. Plus I’ve heard other indies mention that Amazon could definitely do a better job of making info readily available.

    I’m horrible at tracking anything. Seriously. I’m impressed that you do as much as you do, while also putting so many books out there.

    Great info, as always.

    1. Julie–It’s not very user-friendly sometimes, is it?

      I’m going to break it down into manageable bits. Weekly, monthly tracking. It seems like a time suck at first, but if I let it go…then it’s *really* a time suck.

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