I decided to write this post after talking to several newer self-published authors about whether or not free promotions for a first book are worth doing, and what results they should expect. Much of this will also apply to those who have written two connected books (one book and its sequel, or the first two books of a series), or anyone who has not tried a free promotion before.
What are free promotions for? The answer may seem obvious, but here it is:
- To get your book on Kindles far and wide.
- To find new readers for your other books, or those soon to be written.
- To get more reviews and ratings.
- To boost the book's visibility on Amazon.
So do they work? Points 1 and 4, above, will depend on several elements:
- The extent of your social media presence.
- The cover and the blurb.
- The quality of reviews already present.
- Whether or not you are willing to pay a promotional company for extra exposure - more about this later.
Points 2 and 3 will depend on:
- The quality of the free book - more about this later, too.
- Whether or not it is your sole publication and, if so, how soon your next book will be published.
1. The extent of your social media presence, and Amazon visibility.
How it used to be: I did my first free promo in April, 2012, with just 1000 Twitter followers. I put my first two books on free, and got around 33K downloads. All I did was tweet about them, and get them posted on sites that featured free books at no cost, none of which exist any more. I will not detail the effect this had when the book went back to 'paid', but it was pretty amazing.
A major factor in determining how well your book sells is how often Amazon's computers show it to potential readers, e.g., in recommendations, in the 'also bought' and 'also viewed', etc. If 20K people have downloaded your book over one weekend, Amazon's AI thinks, 'People like this. I'll show it to everyone, and it will make money for the Mighty Zon.'.
That was 8 years ago. Times have changed - a lot!
These days, everyone has Kindles jam-packed with books they will never read. There are hundreds of thousands of freebies on Amazon every day of the week. Many readers will have downloaded free books that shouldn't have been published in the first place, and assume 'free' means 'crap'. Now, you have to sell a free book in the same way you would if it wasn't free, using hooks, quotes and taglines that will make people think, hmm, that sounds interesting. If you have only 1000 followers on Twitter, it is likely that, because of the site's algorithms, only a few hundred, if that, will see your tweets. Out of those, not all will be takers; probably under 100 of them.
From my experience and observation, you need to get at least 2K downloads to make any difference to the book's visibility on Amazon. You can get more by using Facebook (I am not on the site any more, but I believe there are lots of groups and pages that publicise free books), by retweeting others on Twitter so that they will retweet you back, and by paying a promotional site (yes, I shall get to that soon!).
Having said this, every time someone downloads your book, they are a potential new reader - and going free can introduce you to readers who have not noticed you before, simply because they check the book out. I find that my other books sell better during a free promotion, too.
2. The Cover and the Blurb
These are of varying importance, depending on the individual. If a book's subject matter is something I want to read about, and the blurb draws me in, I don't give a stuff about the cover; it's the genre and blurb that 'speaks' to me. Others are attracted mainly by the cover. It makes sense, though, to have the best cover you can afford or make, and to make sure the blurb is sharp, to the point, enticing and error-free. You could always try running it past some honest friends to see how it might be improved.
3. The Quality of the Reviews Already Present
Obviously, it makes sense to have as many reviews on the book as possible before doing a special promotion. Most new writers start off with reviews from friends, family and online writer friends, who usually make the mistake of saying it's the best book they've ever read. If your only reviews are one or two liners of this type, especially if they have never reviewed any other books, it will scream 'reviews from family and friends'. It helps if you have a few from regular reviewers and book bloggers, too. You can read more about getting reviews by looking in the 'Reviews' section of this list of articles: HERE.
4. Paying for promotion
'Is it crazy to pay for promotion for a book that's free?' No, it's not. On average once a month, I do a free promotion for one of my books using Freebooksy. To book it, you choose one day during your promotion, pay your $90 or £72 (those figures are approximate), and your book will feature on their daily email to 1000s of subscribers. These will be mostly in countries that buy from Amazon.com, such as the US. The boost this gives will get it high in the book's genre charts, so that on the days that are left, the downloads will carry on coming. This is why it's best to choose the first or second day of your promotion. Have a look on the Freebooksy site before booking it on Amazon KDP, as some days will be sold out.
I have also had reasonable results with The eReaderCafe , EReaderIQ and less so with Book Doggy but this is reflected in the price (it's only about £12).
In my experience, a Freebooksy promotion will obtain 2K - 5K downloads, though some genres may do better; others, worse. But this is enough to give a sagging book a lift, get future sales - especially if your book is the first in a series - and obtain new reviews and ratings. Maybe even more importantly, doing Freebooksy promos makes a BIG difference to my Kindle Unlimited pages read - and not just for the book that is being promoted, but for all of them. I can only assume that the increased visibility brings my other books to the attention of readers, too.
nb: September 14: To illustrate this, here is my KU pages read report on Amazon, from September 1st to 13th, 2020. I did a Freebooksy promotion for one of my books starting on September 6th, with the Freebooksy promo on September 7th.
I have also got lots of new ratings and the odd new review since this promotion and another in mid-August - it's good that readers can just rate, now, instead of having to write a review. The book I made free in August has gained over 20 new ratings on Amazon, and a few reviews in the last few weeks.
Now: BookBub. You've probably heard of it. It's fabulous, and has not 1000s but 1,000,000s of subscribers. It costs about £540 to promote a free book for one day (it works in the same way as all the others), but it's worth it. You have to submit the book for their consideration, and they only take around 10% of those submitted, but you can keep trying; I know of one writer who submitted the same book about 16 times before finally getting accepted. I've been accepted twice so far, and got 37K downloads the first time, and 45K the second. For each, I got over 300 new reviews or ratings across all sites (all Amazons, Bookbub itself, Goodreads) for each book (it's probably more by now), and the boost this gave me in Amazon visibility meant that I made the money back several times over in the two or three months that followed, in sales for the book that had been on promotion, and others.
For more details of any of these promotional sites, take a look via the links provided. Do be aware, though that the wider your readership, the more likely you are to get some bad reviews. Most of the ones I got for The Devil You Know were extremely positive, but I got a few humdingers for The House of York! Unless you're getting a great deal of bad reviews, in which case you need to take a long, hard look at the book itself, it's just something you must learn to accept. And you can learn from them, sometimes.
5. The Quality of the Free Book
The ideal world: 1000s will download the free book, read it immediately, think, 'Wow! I need more!', then leap to Amazon and to buy more of your work. Of course, this rarely happens.
Think about your own reading habits. If a book really grips you, you'll buy the next in the series or another novel by that author. If it's just 'quite good' but didn't really grip you, or it's okay but still needs some work, you probably won't. Similarly, if you can see that it's good but it's just not your thing - no book appeals to everyone.
I have a four book series, and put the first one, Tipping Point, on free a couple of times a year. I get around an 80% 'read-through' to Book #2, Lindisfarne, and 70% for #3, UK2, and 60% for #4, Legacy. But the people who do read all four often go on to buy others; the associated short stories, another book set in the same world (Blackthorn), The Devil You Know, and my most recent, 2-book series. These are the ones who like my writing style—the more downloads you get, the more likely you are to find them.
If your free book is not soundly edited and proofread, with great pacing, characters that the readers care about, realistic dialogue and a well-constructed plot without any dodgy bits, you will get less read-throughs, and less reviews. I say this from observation and, sadly, experience - my first two books needed better editing and proofreading. I thought the fantastic free promo would get me started. It didn't. That came several books later, when I was more experienced in every aspect of novel-writing. I did get some great reviews, and found readers who stuck with me, but I got some bad ones, too, and made errors with the subject matter of the third and fourth books - basically, the first few years were a learning experience!
Putting one book on free is no guarantee of future sales. However! A lack of them might not necessarily mean your book is a mess. It might be simply because of my theory, which I will now explain:
The following amounts are general estimates, so please don't take me to task about it; it's not meant to be actual figures, but to illustrate why you should not expect your free promotion to propel you into Amazon best-selling glory.
Your book is downloaded 1000 times. What happens next?
- 500 people will never read it. It will get lost in the thousands of other free books on their Kindles.
- 50 may discover it in 6 months' time. Or a year, or two years. I was still getting the odd review for You Wish (that first book) two or three years after I put it on free.
- 100 will start it, not like it, and abandon after a chapter or two.
- 50 will start it, think it's okay, but not be that bothered about it; they may abandon simply when they see another book that excites them more.
- 100 will finish it, and think it was good, but won't be gagging to read any more.
- 100 will like it, and probably read more. Some time. Not necessarily immediately.
- Out of all the above, you may get the odd review or rating, though they probably won't be 5*. There are now just 100 readers left.
- 50 will like it alot, and get another one, though this may be on Kindle Unlimited, so you won't see an immediate sale.
- 50 will like it alot, even adore it; these could become 'your readers'. But half of them may not get round to buying another book just because... well, just because. How many times have you said, 'Oh yes, I really liked his first book. I'll get round to reading the sequel some time.'?
- Of those 50, 10 will tell other people about you, in person or on social media. They may tell you, too, how much they liked the book.
- The 100 people in the previous three points are your possible 4/5* reviewers. However, they may mean to, but never get round to it. It's better now that readers can just rate on Amazon without having to write anything, though; 99% of readers don't review. Also, do not forget that these magic people might not actually read the book for a few months.
6. Is It Your Only Book?
I would not advise paying for promotion for a lone publication, because however much a reader loves it, he or she will have nowhere else to go once it's read. On the other hand, you may get some new reviews; generally, though, the only time I would advise paying is when the next book is imminent - and by that I mean will be published within the next couple of weeks. If so, it is a good idea to write something to that effect either on the blurb or in the author's note at the back. Or leave the option to sign up for a newsletter if you do one, or follow you on social media.
If the book is #1 of a continuing story, it's best to wait until the series is complete before spending out, or have at least three books ready to download.
Otherwise, people tend to forget. There are 1000s of books published every week - it is easy to forget about an author, even if you really liked them.
7. What else can you do?
When promoting your free book on Twitter, do a good new pinned tweet every day of the promotion, giving an indication of the book's genre, and a line or two to say what it's about, or quotes from great reviews (from book bloggers, not your best mate or your mum). Vary the tweets. Use pictures. RT others alot, tweet it a few times during the day. You can also DM Twitter friends to ask them to help you promote it.
- Go overboard with the tweets; it'll annoy your followers (yep, done it myself!).
- Try to entice the reading public by tweeting how many downloads it's already had, unless it's at #1 in a main genre chart, or has had something like 10K, which is a pull in itself. On the whole, though, amounts of downloads don't mean much to prospective readers.
- Say things like 'Let's get #1 of The Dragon Chronicles into the Top 100 #Free chart!'. Some people will want to help, but, basically, you're the only one who cares.
- Ask for reviews in the tweets: 'Please download, read and review'. That's a huge no-no.
- Call yourself a 'best-selling author' if you're not. Getting to the top of an obscure genre chart for one day does not make you a best-selling author.
If, having read this, you've decided against going free, you can always try a 99p/c promotion, for a week. If it is published on Amazon KDP, you can do a Kindle Countdown promotion, which means that you can put the book on for as low as 99p/c and still get the 70% royalty. The price can be increased gradually during the week, or you can just leave it at 99 for the whole week; I do. Again, it is best to do this once the book has got some decent reviews, and has an enticing blurb, etc, etc.