Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Free E-books from a Reader Perspective

Recently, Jinx Schwartz and Polly Iyer shared their experiences as authors using free e-books through Amazon's KDP Select program. (Click on their names to read those posts.)

About a year ago, the BBT Cafe authors put together a short story collection, The Corner Cafe, as an author sampler and to test Amazon's KDPS free days. As a result of that project, I've watched other authors and publishers implement their assorted approaches to this marketing method. I'm signed up for three e-letters hawking free and inexpensive Kindle books, and review them daily, and also occasionally use NetGalley. Here are some thoughts (based largely from a reader and reviewer perspective) on how I view the free e-book marketing tactic and its evolution:

1. Giveaways and samplers work as well as they have since the idea was first conceived (which historically probably goes way back). If the product is good, the experience pleasant, and the customer has a reason to come back and spend money, they will. Is the concept watered down as more free offers become available? Probably, but this will hurt an inferior product most. Cream still rises to the top.

2. Free e-books work best if they are the first books in a series, especially if the genre is one the reader loves. I can't count how many first mysteries I've downloaded since Poisoned Pen Press tried this approach, but I continue to follow numerous authors and buy their books. Also, I'm a sucker for any kind of how-to or cookbook. So if you have a special free book you're using for promotion, I'd suggest you format it with lots of info embedded about your other books, and links to all your sites online. This is a proven sales tactic with me. More than once, I've finished a Kindle book, read a description of another title, clicked over to Amazon from the live link, and made an impulse buy. (Actually, I've made hundreds of impulse buys for my Kindle, but that's another confession... er, I mean, story.)

3. I've become much more circumspect about what I download to my Kindle. The book description in the daily e-letters has to be compelling. If the writing is bad there, forget it. If the blurb doesn't tell me enough about the characters and plot, forget it. If the description uses three sets of ellipses, forget it. However, if description is solid, I'll even jump genres. For example, I got a Carola Dunn regency novel for free, and was so enchanted by the witty dialogue (which turns out to be a hallmark of regency romance), that I continued reading and *gasp* buying more of them. Now I'm reading modern romance too. *double gasp* If anyone had forecast this behavior a year ago, I would have rolled OTF and laughed MAO. I blame it all on that one pivotal regency novel offered for free. (And I'm happy to announce Carola will be joining us as a regular blogger in 2014.)

4. One reader tactic I've developed is clicking over to the buy page, and reading the negative comments. If there are mentions of too many typos, poor English, and bad formatting, I usually pass. Those are telling reviews. If a poor review says something stupid like "I thought The Cat in the Hat would be a fashion book...", then, of course, I ignore and download the book anyway. My point: don't worry about a bad review or two - just make sure it's about the right thing.

So as a reader, does a free Kindle book sell more books? Well, yeah. I do like seeing more books from authors I've discovered - either ones they already have in print or releasing soon, so don't make me look for you. Give me links to your information at the end of your e-book. One-trick ponies who keep giving away and trying to sell the same ol' book aren't an attraction for me. So maybe your free books should be marketing your next book? If you haven't jumped into the free e-book game, I'd recommend you give it at least one whirl. It might not give you thousands of direct sales, but it will most certainly heighten your name recognition, which will boost sales of all your books over the long haul. You are in publishing for the long haul, aren't you?

Dani Greer is founder of the Blood-Red Pencil. This week's to-do list includes painting icon murals with her husband for an eastern orthodox church, processing picture book and middle grade manuscript submissions for Little Pickle Press, and marketing BBT Cafe authors at the new social networking site on Facebook. In her spare time, she'll be tucking her garden away for the winter. Please connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.


  1. A lot of the on line indie author groups I belong to are posting their results with free books. They report diminishing "returns" as the market is glutted with freebies. Since I don't own a Kindle (I'm a Nook person), I don't pay much attention to Amazon, but I have met people who say they have more books than they'll ever read on their Kindles and they boast that they haven't paid for a single one of them.

    And that's the problem. Yes, you may rise in the rankings (which is usually the goal of those who put books out for free), but if the people don't read them, then the entire discovery and crossover sales goes out the window. READERS who take advantage of free and actually read the books are a small fraction of those who download it.

    As with everything else, everyone's mileage will vary. I tend to be very selective with what I download, and always go for the free sample if it's a new author to me. I'll gamble on bargains or freebies, but I'm not clicking 'download' just because a book is free.

    1. I'll agree with you, Terry, when Amazon dumps the KDP Select program. They keep it because it sells product. It's about as simple as that. As to my Nook - I haven't used it much since I bought the Kindle. The Kindle platform is infinitely more user-friendly, as is the entire Amazon platform. They might be bullies in the publishing world, but they have customer service down pat. ~ Dani (on hubbo's gadget)

    2. I agree with Terry. My post in this blog mentioned that I'm moving away from KDP Select and making my books available on other platforms, foreign wholesalers, and libraries. I just found out that the one book I have so far with a distributor just made it into the Los Angeles Library System and the SC Low Country Consortium. I have three other books that will be up and running soon, and I expect more exposure when they're visible. Writers have to keep ahead of the curve or they'll stagnate.

      The free books are still doing well if you spend the money to advertise with the right promo sites. That money is getting more expensive each time, and follow-up sales are becoming less. At least that's how I see it.

      As for series, you're right, Dani. I just had someone Facebook me and ask when my third book will be out. But this will probably be the last one. I like standalones.

  2. ... 'if the description uses three sets of ellipses, forget it' ... oh, oh ... I'm in trouble.

  3. I once wrote a custom murder mystery game in the Regency period and one of the unexpected pleasures was creating Austenish dialogue for the players.

    I'd be interested in knowing how sales behave on one's paid offerings after the hook has been baited with the free worm.

  4. I'm proud to have lured you into a whole new world, Dani!
    Elspeth, I can't answer that question--I didn't even know Lavender Lady had been offered free, though I did know A Lord for Miss Larkin had been on sale for 99c. The sales of that went soaring but I have too many books available as ebooks to keep track of everything. Sales of that particular book did soar, but the reduced royalties certainly didn't make it profitable and I don't see an overall rise in Regency sales. At present Crossed Quills is on sale for $1.99. I won't know till next month how it's doing but at least the royalty per book is much better than the 99c sale.
    Overall, jury's still out.

    1. Carola, if you link to Jinx and Polly in the first paragraph - they give numbers. A little math and you can figure out the take. With e-books, especially back-list titles, there has to be profit for the author even at .99. I mean, we're talking an e-book here with much lower production costs than a print book.

    2. I get monthly figures on all my Regencies--for the 99c one sales were up but the take was down because Amazon pays a much lower share on 99c books. I have 56 ebooks (all originally in print) and simply can't follow all their fates. At my age, I 'm content to let my children pretty much make their own way in the world ;-)

  5. I do get an uptake in sales after a free promotion, but sitting back during a promo won't do the trick.Be prepared to work hard to get results.

  6. You made some good points, Dani. Authors still are seeing some success with future sales after offering a book free. I'm trying it again with Boxes For Beds starting this Saturday and running through Thursday.

    I'm glad you pointed out about checking the reviews for warnings about poor editing or formatting. There are some folks who say reviewers should never write anything negative about a book, but I think we owe it to other readers to point out significant lapses in professionalism.

  7. I agree that offering the first book of a series free is a good tactic. However, doing it through KDP Select means that you have to eliminate all other distribution channels because of Amazon's exclusivity clause.

    I'm toying with the idea of selling my first book of the Sapphire Brigade series at 99 cents through Amazon and free elsewhere--as soon as I finish the third book. Once readers report that they have found a book at a cheaper price, Amazon will lower the price.

    Barnes & Noble and iTunes are performing well for me through Smashwords. I can't afford to lose them.

    1. That is an issue with KDP, but unless your sales through Smashwords are exceptional, a downtime of three months is still an option to consider. You really do that well with Smashwords? Good to hear!

  8. As I reported in a earlier post here, I have had good luck with my freebies, but love hearing about their effect on readers. I will say I am getting emails from new readers...good ones! That alone makes it worthwhile to me. And yep, helps with that long haul thing.

  9. I too am glad you brought the strength of the marketing materials, Dani. As an editor and author, I don't need to read any old thing—my pile's a mile high as it is.

    To me, free still means "any old thing." If the marketing materials are strong enough—and even though I'm frugal—I'd rather purchase a book so the author makes some money from it.

    I can see the point in giving away #1 in a series if it's right before #2 comes out—that sounds like an effective ploy, because those who would have been enticed by the marketing materials alone would have already read it, so this would serve as an extra incentive for additional readers—but since I rarely read series books, it wouldn't necessarily entice me as a writer/reader. I have too many other authors and their stand-alones to try!

  10. Since I have not yet entered the e-book arena to any extent, I will listen (read) and learn. I do have Kindle on my computers, but I still like the feel of a book in my hand. I'll get there...

    Reviews are another matter. Negative comments about numerous flaws will discourage me from purchasing a book or even downloading a freebie. Errors always distract from my reading experience, and my limited time to read for pleasure is too precious to allow a poorly edited (or unedited) book to take it up.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...