You’ve probably heard that a lot of indie authors made their careers by giving away tens of thousands of copies of their series starters. (For me, The Emperor’s Edge, has been free since late 2011). You may also have heard that free doesn’t pack as much punch as it used to (i.e. it’s harder to get people to notice your free ebook and give it a try). I won’t deny the truth of that. There are a couple of things that have changed:
Amazon “hid” the free lists
A couple of years ago, when you browsed through a Top 100 category at Amazon, you would see the top selling paid books side by side with the top downloaded free books. People didn’t have to click a special tab to see the free lists.
Amazon also doesn’t show free books in your also-boughts. If you look at the fourth book in my Dragon Blood series, Patterns in the Dark, you’ll see Books 2, 3, 5, 6, and the 3-book omnibus in the first page of the also-boughts. You won’t find Book 1 in there because it’s currently free.
This lessened visibility means it’s harder for people to stumble across your free book on Amazon. Readers have to consciously click over to the free ebook lists and browse for new stories to download. Some people still do that, but many don’t, especially if they’re Kindle Unlimited subscribers, which brings us to the next change.
Kindle Unlimited has reduced the need for readers to hunt for free books
In 2014, Amazon rolled out its Kindle Unlimited subscription service. Now, for $10 a month, readers can borrow and consume all of the ebooks in the lending library, which is a lot of books! You can see in my post from last week that Amazon offers a lot of incentives to get indie authors to enroll in KDP Select and KU.
A lot of price conscious and voracious readers — exactly the kind of person who might have surfed those free lists before — are now grabbing KU books instead of hunting for freebies. In essence, everything in KU is a “freebie” for them, so long as they keep paying their $10 a month.
There are more free books out there as competition
As I said, many authors have built fan bases and sold a lot of books by having their series starters out there for free, both in Amazon and on the other stores. Everybody now knows that you can get a book made permanently free or “permafree” on Amazon (a store that doesn’t allow you to price a book at less than 99 cents via the dashboard) by making it free elsewhere and waiting for Amazon to price match. You can also get a free ebook in Barnes & Noble (another store that doesn’t let you choose free as an option via the dashboard) by going through a distributor, such as Smashwords or Draft 2 Digital.
In addition to the widely known price-matching trick, KDP Select also allows its authors to make enrolled titles free for a few days each quarter. The result is that at any given time, there are a lot more free titles available these days than there used to be. And, as we’ve said, there may be fewer people looking for free books.
With all that being said, is having a free series starter out there still a viable option? Can it still “make” a new indie author’s career?
Yes, I believe so. In fact, I know so, since that’s how I kicked things off with my pen name last year. The pen name was anonymous at the time, so I was starting from scratch. You can read more about how that went in my 4-weeks-in and 10-weeks-in posts from last year. The short answer is that launching with three titles in a series the first month and making the first one permafree, at least for a while (it’s now 99 cents and in KDP Select), helped a lot.
But, as I said in the beginning, it’s not enough anymore to just make your book free. You have to promote it! (Most of us have always had to do some promotion, but there was a time when you could get thousands of downloads or even tens of thousands of downloads fairly easily.)
Here’s my list of five ways to get more people checking out your free series starter:
1. Buy Advertising
This is the obvious one. If you’ve got some reviews already and the average is decent, it shouldn’t be difficult to get some ads. There are a handful of lists out there with links to the major sponsorship sites (and many of the minor ones) that will promote your freebie for anything from a couple of bucks to hundreds of dollars. (Don’t pay hundreds unless it’s for a Bookbub ad!)
Ads do two things. First, you get immediate downloads from the people getting the sponsor site’s newsletter or following them on Facebook. Second, the downloads from those people help push your ebook up to a better slot in your category on Amazon, thus meaning that more of the people who surf the free lists will find and try your book.
Some authors like to buy an ad or two every month to keep the sales of subsequent books trickling in, and others like to “ad stack,” where they’ll buy several ads on consecutive days to try and stay at the top of their category for longer. Either plan can work.
2. Put an excerpt (or serialize the entire novel) up on your site and use social media to plug it.
Authors often struggle to figure out how to use social media effectively. It’s tough to get people to buy things on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc., and if you write a lot of sales-pitchy tweets or posts, you might find yourself blackballed by your target audience.
It is, however, easier to promote when you’re giving something away for free. People are less likely to roll their eyes at the sales pitch and more likely to click and take a peek. They have nothing to lose but a few minutes of their time.
Andy Weir of The Martian fame started out serializing his novel on his website. Something that doesn’t always get mentioned was that Andy had a blog readership before he got started serializing the novel, so this isn’t necessarily a path to ultra success for everyone, but the combination of free + serialized installments + social media can definitely work to build an audience.
(You don’t have to serialize, but that gives you something to promote every week when you post a new installment, instead of always promoting the same free ebook.)
I’ve posted excerpts of my books and promoted those, usually with new releases, and I’ve definitely had people tell me they first bought one of my books because they got caught up in the excerpt.
Aside from my experience with Wattpad (more on that below), where I was serializing books that were already published, I haven’t tried serializing an entire novel yet. It is, however, on my to-do list for 2016 — serializing the first book in a new trilogy I have planned (before I publish anything).
3. Using Facebook advertising to drive readers to your mailing list (where they receive your free ebook for signing up)
Facebook is different from the sponsorship sites. Instead of paying a flat fee to have your book appear in a newsletter or on a site for a day, you pay per click (that click can go to a landing page on your website or directly to your book’s page on Amazon). You can target readers far more specifically than you can on other advertising platforms (i.e. you can have your ads display only to women over 30 who are fans of X popular author who writes in a style similar to yours).
The downside of Facebook advertising is that you might be paying 50 cents or more per click. That’s a lot if your only goal is to give away a free ebook.
Thriller author Mark Dawson has pioneered a system of using Facebook to get people to sign up for his mailing list. He sends them a couple of free ebooks from his starter library and then, after they’ve had a chance to read those books, tries to get them to buy a boxed set of later books in his series. By using affiliate links and tracking clicks, he can see which sales come from his list and how much each newsletter signup is worth in the end. I.E. maybe he pays a dollar or two to get people to sign up, but if the average person ends up earning him $5 or $10 in book sales, then it’s worth it.
This is something I’m planning to try soon, but I can’t speak from personal experience yet, so I’ll direct you to Mark. He has three free videos up that explain things (his goal is to get you to buy a course on the subject, but there is a lot of good information in the free videos).
I have the first three books in my Emperor’s Edge series up for free on Wattpad. It’s a big site where authors will post everything from completed novels to installments of new projects that they’re working on. There are a lot of people that read books on the site, especially teens, who may not yet have a lot of money to spend on paid ebooks at Amazon.
Like many authors, I’ve had trouble converting those Wattpad readers to paid sales, but I have definitely had people write to me and say that they first discovered my ebooks there and went on to buy the rest of the series. I also figure that young readers who may not yet be book buyers will become adult readers with income to spend sooner or later. Maybe they’ll remember my series fondly and come back to it (or other titles I’ve written) one day.
Note: since there are so many writers on Wattpad, it’s like anything else in that it’s a struggle to be noticed. I never had much luck networking with others (I didn’t put much effort into it either), which is usually recommended there. Posting your complete novel in installments seems to help, and as time passes, more and more people stumble across the book and give it a read. If you have an awesome cover (I still need to redo my EE ones, so I can’t say that I do), that can go a long way toward attracting attention.
Note 2: I’ve never seen anyone have a great deal of luck by only posting the first few chapters of a book here, though lots of authors try it. A lot of readers, if not the majority of readers, wait until a book is marked complete before jumping into it.
Podiobooks is a site that will host your completed audiobook (so you have to turn your Book 1 into an audiobook before you can do this) for free and then send it out to iTunes, where people can chance across it, much as they would a podcast. I have the first three books in my Emperor’s Edge series out there where people can listen to them for free.
I won’t lie: audiobooks are expensive to create unless you do it yourself (and then it’s time consuming, which is expensive in another way). Because of that, this method won’t be for everyone.
That said, because there is that higher barrier to entry, there are a lot fewer free podiobooks out there with which to compete. There are thousands of free ebooks in each genre on Amazon, whereas you might only find hundreds of free podiobooks in iTunes in your genre (if that).
I published my podiobooks in 2011 and 2012. I do absolutely nothing to promote them, but I still get people emailing me to let me know that they found my series this way (and often asking if I’ll ever put the rest of the books into an audio format!). Some of those listeners go on to buy the ebooks in the series. (If I had audiobooks for the rest of the series, they would probably buy that way instead, which can be more lucrative than ebooks.)
If you’re going to be putting your books out in audio format anyway (I’m doing my Rust & Relics series through ACX right now), then you could also consider putting a free version of Book 1 out there. Then people who enjoy that can go on to buy the rest of the series through iTunes/Amazon/Audible.
There’s my list of five ways to promote your free Book 1. Do you have any to add? Or any experience with these that you would like to share?