Thursday, November 20, 2014

To Free or Not To Free

I recently attended the Novelists, Inc. (NINC) Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida. This conference is one of the few devoted totally to the business of publishing. Members are all authors who have published at least 2 books, and they're a savvy group. Industry professionals—editors, agents, lawyers, publishers, as well as representatives from the big e-tailers, aggregators, marketing experts, cover designers … well, it's a wealth of information sharing.

One topic that came up frequently was whether authors are "cheapening" the reader perception of what a book is worth by selling their wares for deeply discounted prices, or even—gasp!—giving them away. If you're an indie author, you have the right to set prices for your work that make sense for you. While traditionally published authors bemoan the $3.99 e-book, those indie authors are making more per sale than those with traditional, mass-market paperbacks. If you can attract readers to your series with discounted books, or free books, it might be worth a shot.

I've never been big on bouncing my prices around, but I had the opportunity to take part in a "First in Series Free" program at Kobo Books, and then another one at iBooks.Was I satisfied? Very much so. What I've learned:

First, not all channels permit indie authors to drop a price to free. To have a free book at B&N, you'd have to go through one of the aggregators, such as Smashwords, and since I prefer to hold control of my work, I don't use Smashwords to get to any of the major stores. I do use Draft2Digital to get my books to iBooks, because Apple has more hoops than I care to jump through. I also want my books everywhere they can be (something stressed as very important at NINC by everyone other than the Amazon reps), so I don't play the Amazon Select game. However, so far, Amazon has price-matched my free books, at least in the US and UK.

Free, or deeply discounted pricing--loss leaders--are marketing tools used across the board, not just for books. A lot of readers are willing to take a chance on a new author if they're not investing a lot of money. For the author, it's a discovery tool. For it to work, there are some caveats.

1. You have to have more than one book. Getting your first book published, then setting the price to free, might get you a blip in the rankings, but what happens when the readers finish the free book. Where do they go next? Not to another one of your books, because you don't have one.

2. Even better than several books: have a series. Offer the first one at a discount, or free, and if readers like it, they're going to want to continue reading that series because you've earned their trust. In fact, many best-selling indie or hybrid authors have their first books in their series perma-free.

3. Take advantage of sites that promote free books to get the word out beyond your own circles. BookBub is good, but it's a tough nut to crack. Others include eReader News Today, eBookSoda, The Fussy Librarian, and Bookli, and there are many, many more. There are blogs, Facebook pages, Genre-specific newsletters that exist to get the word out on free or discounted books.

What can you expect? In general, your sales spike at the beginning when your book is free. Sales will drop, but they'll level off at a higher rate than before the promotion. Only a teeny-tiny fraction of the people who grab your free book will even open it. But of the ones who do, and who finish reading it, about half will buy your next book. And that "halo effect" is what free can get you.

There's also the consideration of what your goals are. Boxed sets for 99 cents were/are popular, but the goal of the authors who participate is not to make money; it's to make a NYT or USA Today best-seller list so they can proclaim themselves best-selling authors. But that's a whole 'nother topic.


Deadly Secrets, A Maplton Mystery, by Terry Odell
For those of you who might be interested, Deadly Secrets, the first in my Mapleton Mystery series is currently free. You can find it at the iBooks store, Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords. It's 99 cents at B&N.


What are your thoughts on free? On discounted books? Have you discovered authors and gone on to buy more of their books?


Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She's the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

26 comments :

  1. I don't e-read so I haven't taken advantage of free or discounted offers. I have offered them on my books. There can be thousands of downloads and I mourn the loss of the royalty. I wonder how many readers hoard free books but never read them? Free or not, a book still has to have a premise and genre that perks my interest. When I peak inside, I want the writing to be good. I have discovered some tremendously talented indy pubbed authors. I do hate it when I pay full price for a traditional pubbed book and the book tanks. Think of all those .99 cent books I could have tried instead. :)

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  2. When you offer a book for free, it should be an enticement for people to read the next books, so while you're giving up royalties on one title, the idea/hope is that you'll see more sales on the rest of the books and make up for it that way.

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  3. I have not explored doing this, but I should have 3 or so books ready to try it by spring. Great post, Terry! It's definitely a keeper. :-)

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    1. Yes, Linda, you do need several books before the 'free' will work for you. Otherwise, while you might see good rankings in the 'free books' category, there's nothing else to sell.

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  4. I've tried it all, Terry ... various pricing, free, what have you ... none of it really seemed to make much of difference. In my humble opinion, I don't think pricing is all that important, the only thing that really impacts sales is better marketing ... and since I suck at marketing ... and can't afford to have the pros do it for me ... I'm doomed to be a bottom-feeder.

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    1. Chris - there's no silver bullet for marketing (or we'd all be doing the same thing). It does help to have your books in a series, or at least themed the same way, so you can connect them. It's also important to have hot links to your other books at the end of each one. And, getting into promotions with the distribution channels is a huge help - they've got a much bigger reach. But hang in there. Write the next book. The more product out there, the better you'll do. It's been said that the tipping point is at about 5 or 6 books.

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  5. Yep. I did a short story collection project with my BBT Cafe group just to examine the free e-book process. Sure enough, free days in KDP Select created a sales bounce in the weeks after every time. The real pearl of wisdom in this article is in the comment above. Keep writing more books - the momentum of new material is really the best driver for any artist's success.

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    1. The number one marketing "tip" is that you have to have books to sell. Too many people spend more time marketing than writing; a new release, especially in a series, will most likely boost sales of the other title.

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  6. What a great informative post, Terry. I've done many free books through Amazon Select and always get a sales bounce. It's not as lucrative as it used to be, say in 2012, when I actually made it into the top 60 Romantic Suspense authors on Amazon, but it still works. In fact, I have two freebies coming up the second and third weeks of December. BookBub has gotten very picky and way too expensive. They are taking only 20% of the people applying, and they are more interested in the .99 and 1.99 books because they make more money. I've stopped with them because of it. EReaderNewsToday, ENT, is a much better deal. They've started charging, but the cost is nominal, and I've always done well with them. The trick these days is to plan ahead, something I'm not very good at. I've decided that if I get a fourth Diana Racine Psychic Suspense book written, I'm put Mind Games, the first book in the series, at a permanent .99. I have one book finished and in edits before I tackle that fourth book, but I will do it. I agree with Dani--keep writing more books. I will mention that I had all my books on all the platforms for almost a year and didn't get the sales I'd hoped for, so I went back on Select and did more in borrows that first month than sales of all the other platforms together in a month. I do think Kindle Unlimited is not good for indie authors, and I hope they up the kitty or it won't be worth staying with them in the long run. We shall see.

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    1. There's talk that KU is more 'successful' for shorter works, since readers are discovering they can't finish all the books they download for their $9.99. I still refuse to give Amazon exclusivity, and now that every iPhone, and any other Apple device is supposed to make ordering from the iStore easy, the word is that Apple will be major competition for Amazon. Competition is needed in the business place. Right now, with the iBooks 1st in Series Free Mystery promo, I've made more in sales with them than ever before. We'll see if that continues.

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  7. I made all four of my Kindle releases free for a week in June, and was delighted when I saw over 12,000 downloads. Unfortunately, it resulted in no sales increase, and few reviews, so I can't say it was a good move.

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    1. If all your books were free, then why would anyone buy them? As I've mentioned, it's a much better marketing ploy to discount only the first book in a series. I've noticed a small uptick in reviews of my free books. Of course, there's also the danger that the reviews will be less favorable because people are trying the book for free, often when it's a genre they don't like.

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  8. I just did a free 3-day promotion on two short books, to get reviews. Had 150 downloads and 6 reviews (so far, more will probably come), so I'd call it a success. Getting the reviews for just-launched books was my goal

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    1. Glad you met your goals (and that's something that wasn't mentioned in my article, but you do have to know what you want to get out of any promotion.)

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  9. Very helpful post, Terry, and the comments are great, too. I do love your last reply to Jim about the importance of knowing what you want to get out of the promotion.

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    1. Thanks, Maryann - and yes, you do have to know what the promotion can do for you. It might be sales, but with free downloads, it could be weeks, months, or longer before someone reads the book (if they do at all), and then goes on to buy more. Or, your goal might be to see a rise in the rankings. Or maybe it's simply getting your name and the book title/cover out there as one of those magic "touches" that marketing requires.

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  10. Loss leaders are great, only if they are leading something. It is difficult to wait on a release for other projects to get completed, especially for us "day-jobbers" who take a bit longer to complete the work. Quality does sell, more quality is even better.

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    1. Best-selling indie author Liliana Hart waited until she had 5 books to release, then released them all at once. She now has who knows how many books out there and is a strong supporter of 'first in series free.' She said if she had to do it all over again, she'd have done 5 books in a series instead of book 1 for 5 series when she released her books.

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  11. 3.99 is reasonable for an author one likes. The 6.99 or the 14.99 ebook is where things get crazy.

    I have downloaded a bunch of free books. I do eventually crack them open, but if they can't hook me after two chapters, I stop reading.

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    1. I'd say you've got it right ... a free book is a 'free sample' but of the author as much as the book (since you can download free samples of the beginnings of books from just about any e-tailer.) It's the equivalent of browsing in a book store, or checking a book out of the library to try a new author (which I will do). Nobody forces anyone to finish reading (which is another reason to make sure the books you're offering free/discounted) are your best work.

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    3. So true. Lots of crits and editing must be done.

      I have read a few free books from indies and I've ended up reading their entire series - one had five more books.

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    4. And we love readers like you. (I'm one of them ... if I like book 1, I get the entire series. My record was catching up with 14 books. Not an indie author, but I don't discriminate.

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  12. Thanks to Maryann for pointing me to this post, Terry, because I missed it when it first published. I've been toying with the idea of a free promo op on one of the ebooks so your thoughts are a big help.

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    1. I'm a recent convert, Pat, but I've seen very good results as long as it's the first book in a series.

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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.

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