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Opinion: The Value of Free Books – by Jan Ruth

Self-published author Jan RuthSelf-published novelist Jan Ruth, based in Wales, shares the success story of how she used free book giveaways to raise her profile and boost sales of her novel Silver Rain, while querying the rights and wrongs of having to give books away in order to sell more books.

‘You’re giving away your latest title? That’s crazy!’

I agree.

However, the indie industry is still relatively new and as with all things Internet, the goal-posts are forever changing. Even in the ancient days of traditional publishing, books were gifted in an effort to raise profile, so paying for promotion and offering free material is not going to go away. My experiment was more about the quest for visibility.

Controversial…

Giving away books remains a controversial argument. I admit, I find it hugely discouraging that, as indie authors, we are expected (quite rightly) to present carefully edited books with professional formatting and covers… but for free.

I’ve never done it, not with a full-length novel which has taken me a year to produce. I have a set of short stories long-term free, but I’m not convinced it directs readers to seek out my other titles, no matter how much they enjoyed the material. Why should they? All readers need to do is wait for the next email from Bookbub or Book Blast and choose accordingly; they don’t even have to wade through Amazon’s list of free books, because their preferences are catered for and sized down to a couple of choices a day. Two clicks, and their reading material is sorted for the following week.

My Approach to Free

From the author’s standpoint, this is a double-edged sword. I’ve had good results with both these promotional tools, but constantly relying on paid promotions is not really a viable long-term strategy. There has to be a bigger picture!

I chose to promote my latest title in this way partly as an experiment, because this time I wanted to split the performance between my own efforts through Twitter and my Facebook Author Page, and Book Blast. I did it this way because I wanted to achieve something long-term, I wanted to attract readers who would hopefully stay engaged and add to my slowly growing audience, my personal readership.

Over the three years I’ve been self-published, I’ve heard various reports about Facebook and Twitter being no good for authors. I’ve never quite believed this because these two mediums are immensely powerful in the commercial world. Companies with far more sales awareness sink considerable funds into Facebook and Twitter. I suspect the real truth is that they are either under-used, or misunderstood and not used properly. Yes, I fell into these categories!

Facebook Author Pages

I was most certainly under-using my author page. It had some 500 likes on it – peanuts, and mostly other authors. I was talking to myself. Thousands of readers who may be interested in my book didn’t know I was there, so I began by building the audience on my page by Promoting the Page. Facebook gives the option of targeting to subscribers who have expressed an interest in various subjects, so I chose keywords such as Kindle, reading, fiction, Snowdonia, and so on. Then I targeted the age and gender.

This cost something like £25, but I’m hoping this will be a long-term investment, reaching beyond the promotion of a single book. While the likes were building, I concentrated on garnering well-penned reviews from bloggers and beta-readers and posting these on the page, along with chat and photographs relating to the locations of the book – a soft sell approach. I created a pinned post about the upcoming free book. I was careful not to share items or books that were unrelated.

I did something similar over on Twitter, increasing the quality of tweets and the regularity of the flow, with Feed 140.

Selling My Brand

It’s very easy to get lazy with all this stuff and turn it to spam, so I gave it some thought. I wanted to sell me: my books, my brand. This is an important point. I’ve spent considerable time (and money!) on creating my look, my branding and who I am. I wanted to key into this, to make my products work harder. It was labour intensive, but I actually enjoyed it, because it felt like a real investment.

What happened?

I promoted the book in two phases.

I set up Book Blast to mail out Silver Rain on Valentine’s Day only, which means in the UK the promotion didn’t go live until 5pm. To cover all bases with different time zones, NS to be able to split the experiment with Facebook and Book Blast, I used 3 free days in KDP Select(13th-15th).

Cover of Silver Rain by Jan RuthDay One: Facebook Promotion.

On the 13th, I stopped promoting the page and instead drew direct attention to the pinned post advertising Silver Rain as being free. This meant selecting Boost Post. This is the direct promotion of the free book via the pinned post, to all those people who have liked the page PLUS their friends. The estimated reach was something like 11,000. I was er… sceptical! There is a lot of data collected by Facebook during these types of promotions (see insights) and it was interesting to cross-reference the information with the use of Bitly. I could see the sales links clicks were telling the same story.

Silver Rain, at a price of £2.50 and a ranking of 250,000, was well down in the charts. I wanted to see if my efforts with Facebook (and a tentative dabble with Twitter) could bring the book out of obscurity before the paid promotion took over.

The results were astonishing.

From my Author Page alone: (and some Twitter)

  • US downloads 2,848: ranking at 44 free in store, 17 in Contemporary romance and 1 in Family Life
  • UK downloads 1,027: ranking at 27 free in store, 10 in Contemporary romance

Day Two: Book Blast Promotion

Book Blast increased these figures to:

  • US downloads: 5,500 ranking at 53 free in store
  • UK downloads: 2,500 ranking at 11 free in store and 5 in Contemporary romance

Conclusion

Facebook and Twitter can equal the power of Book Blast.

8,000 is a lot of downloads, and let’s be honest, half of those people may never read the book, BUT they helped push it under the noses of thousands of readers who didn’t know I even existed. I’m currently selling at normal price, with the book ranked in the top 3,000 overall and a small take-up of the other titles. I don’t think it made any difference whether the free book was my first, third or hot off the press. Those new readers will not be aware of any publication dates. All they see is the price, and then the cover.

What is interesting is that my sales in the UK have doubled, and I know this isn’t down to Book Blast.

Did I devalue myself? In a way, yes. It’s almost smelling like vanity publishing, and I’ve made more money from paperbacks purely because people will pay for a tangible item.

But this isn’t traditional publishing, and I think it pointless to compare with old methods. Experimentation with the tools we have available is vital. The only danger is to maybe exploit the reader or even ourselves, and this is where constantly offering free and heavily discounted IS under-selling and devaluing, but I can see how that black hole is ever-present and very easy to fall into.

Quality remains as my keyword, not only in what I produce, but in the way I promote too, and if used sparingly, I believe that free can be included under that umbrella.

What’s your attitude to free books? Please feel free to share your views via the comments section?

 

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18 Responses to Opinion: The Value of Free Books – by Jan Ruth

  1. Suzi Henderson May 14, 2016 at 11:36 am #

    Great article, Jan. I’m joining in late but I just wanted to say that while it no doubt feels as if you have devalued yourself. you really haven’t. I think part of the feeling comes from having to really sell your brand and for many writers, it’s not something we’re comfortable with. And it’s hard work. In traditional publishing, it’s still hard work, but there are “experts” to do a lot of it for you, especially with the larger publishing houses. After doing an agent pitch workshop, I learnt a few insider secrets and the truth is that traditional publishers spend a lot of money in buying “best seller” space in bookshops etc. I never knew that – the agent ‘s words. In this world of marketing, I can believe it. So, you’re only doing what thousands of others do all around the world. Best wishes.

  2. Chester March 20, 2015 at 12:53 pm #

    El año dos mil catorce se cierra en el sector de la abogacía de negocios en España con un fichaje de
    altura. 1/2004, de 5 de marzo, al El hashtag #JeSuisBasque,
    además, ha servido para que miles de usuarios mostrasen su repulsa por la operación.

  3. Lucinda Roberts November 11, 2014 at 10:53 am #

    Looks useful. Would like to receive Self-Publishing Advice Weekly

  4. Terry Tyler March 12, 2014 at 1:21 pm #

    Hi Jan, what an interesting post, and congratulations on giving everything a kick up the pants! Have you told me about Book Blast? I can’t remember! If not, is there any possibilty of you dropping me a quck line? I’ll be away from the internet from Thur to Mon, but any time you can manage it that would be wonderful, thanks! email is terryctyler@hotmail.co.uk if you can’t see it on here.

    ps, I have never gone for this ‘devaluing’ argument. For me there’s only one – do you want people to read your books, or don’t you? My short stories will be free again next week! I am thinking of doing another big free promotion at some point, but obviously I want to make sure it’s worth it if I’m going to do it, and that it will have good effect – and it sounds like Book Blast is the way to go.

    Good for you!

  5. Joanne Phillips March 12, 2014 at 1:00 pm #

    Thanks for this brilliant article, Jan – one I’ll be bookmarking to follow for the launch of my next book! I’m trying to push my ‘friends’ on my Facebook profile – many of whom are readers or fellow authors – to like my page, but it’s a slow process. And I still find it frustrating with Facebook that you can’t do everything when you’re logged in as your ‘page’ – join and interact with groups, for example. But your example is great, and I’m so glad you’ve had such positive results. Well deserved.

  6. Mike Coville March 11, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing this valuable information. WIth self-publishing becoming so readily available, authors need to educate themselves on marketing in order to make the most of it.

  7. Jan Ruth March 11, 2014 at 10:58 am #

    Thank you for all your replies. It was an interesting experiment!

  8. Alison Morton March 11, 2014 at 8:14 am #

    BookBub was undoubtedly the best in terms of units downloaded of my first book in the series, around 700 at 0.99c/p, but the receipts weren’t fabulous. However, the objective was to get my name and brand under people’s eyes, so I consider the lost receipts to be an advertising cost. I did sell quite a few of the second book at full price during and in the weeks after that promotion.

    I’ve also use post-boosting on my FB author page and the big plus point is that you can reach people of your target demographic in specified countries at a minimal cost. I always gather a few more likes on the way. My page likes are modest, around 515, but I am happy to grow this number slowly with followers who’re truly interested.

    It’s a long game, I think!

  9. Michael La Ronn March 11, 2014 at 12:07 am #

    Nice article, Jan. I think the key point is that free should be used sparingly, or when it makes sense, like having the first book in a series be permafree. I’ve noticed that another unintended consequence of going free is that it attracts people outside your target audience—and the chance for a bad review goes up.

  10. Grace Brannigan March 10, 2014 at 11:38 pm #

    Sorry for the typo. Meant to say I have 12 romances out now on Amazon and everywhere else through Smashwords.

  11. Grace Brannigan March 10, 2014 at 11:37 pm #

    I’ve tried all kinds of promo practices since my romances went live in May 2012. I’ve paid $300 or so for the more well known promo packages, etc. I now have 12 out romances. I no longer am willing to pay for the services that are out there as I see no real connection to sales past a fourteen day or so period (if that much) where the books stay at a good ranking on Amazon.

    I’ve done free on many of my books with and without the promotion, and the results, interestingly in downloads, were about the same. Lastly, I did a lot of Facebook ads, targeting markets/people/interests in relation to my book of the moment, hit up to 50k people seeing the ad, supposedly. That was about $75.00. I’ve done $5 ads on Facebook that hit supposedly 8k people. I’ve come to the conclusion Facebook ads don’t work. So now I just concentrate on producing the best product possible. I use a professional editor and copy editor and professional cover artist. My books range from about 3.8 to 5 review ratings. This of course is just my experience, but paying for promotions is too unreliable and costly at this point. 🙂

  12. Warren Shuman March 10, 2014 at 10:01 pm #

    Hello Jan: Thanks for your practical insights. Based upon my years in advertising I consider an E-book the same as any product or service, in that it requires a marketing platform to find and bring it to the attention of likely buyers. There are many I-net sources that can be utilized to faciitate the marketing plan at far less cost than paperback, I have done both, without repeating several services that you have mentioned. The questiion is who are the potential buyers for the special genre(s) of the e-book? Keywords and categories are critical, as is the metadata. It’s a learning curve that Indie Authors must follow if they are DIY. As you pointed out, it is a labour of love.

    Best of Success…

    Warren.

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