Does Free=$$$ ?

To anyone considering self-publishing, you have to realize that you are becoming an entrepreneur. Almost any business startup requires someone to risk money upfront, and in this case it’s the author going it alone. If you go the traditional route, the publisher takes the financial risk by paying you an advance against future royalties that may never cover the expense. In addition, they print up books that may never sell and sink costs into editors, copyeditors, cover designers, and a myriad other employees whose talents might in the long run have been put to better use on other projects. So giving you a chance means taking a chance on their part. Sometimes it works out to the tune of 50 Shades of Gray, and sometimes it means taking a bath on the entire deal.
When you go the self-publishing direction—whether it’s by choice or because it’s the only option left as it was for me—you are now the one taking the financial risk. You can certainly edit your own book, proof it yourself for typos, design your own cover, format it, and post it online, but for most people that results in a substandard product, not to mention the non-trivial time you’ve spent not writing the next book that could earn you money. An alternative is to pay fees to a freelance editor, a copyeditor, a graphic artist for the cover, and someone more technically adept than you are to format the book so that it’s readable as an ebook.
So one way or another you have a quality product that you believe people will enjoy. Great! How does the book find potential readers? A traditional publisher may reach out for publicity in major newspapers, radio stations, magazines, and TV stations, as well as spend money on advertising. If you’re lucky, the publisher will put bucks into placing your book at the front of stores with a juicy “20% off” sticker slapped on the cover. Or maybe the publisher will feature your book on the splash page of Amazon or B&N’s website (yes, that online real estate is for sale).
As a self-published author, I looked into all of these options. Without going into specifics, I can tell you these kinds of promotional efforts can easily balloon into the tens of thousands of dollars. Even free publicity will cost you because you usually need to pay an experienced publicist with great connections to get featured in anything worthwhile.
Social media and blogging have been godsends to self-published authors because they are cheap ways to reach many readers. And the response can be instantaneous. If you post a popular blog or a Tweet that gets Retweeted by Justin Bieber, your book sales can spike within minutes because nothing’s easier than cruising over to the Kindle or Nook web page, particularly if there’s a link to your book.
However, those kinds of windfalls rarely happen. So that leaves what options for getting the word out about your self-published book?
Like it or not (and there have been billions of pixels spilled on this topic), last year Amazon introduced KDP Select. Kindle Digital Publishing gives you the option of enrolling in the program in exchange for ninety days of exclusivity on the Kindle platform. You get two exclusive items in return: the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library and the option to offer your book for free for five of those ninety days.
Books in the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library are available only to members of Amazon Prime, their free-shipping program. Every time your book is loaned out, you get a percentage of the pot Amazon has set aside for these authors (it has averaged around two dollars per loan in the past, but may increase for the next few months as Amazon has doubled the pot available) (note to Washington and Colorado readers: I don’t mean that kind of pot). So every loan means money for you even if the reader doesn’t buy your book.
The five free offer days are even more interesting and somewhat disconcerting for the author who has spent a year or more crafting a novel. Why should you give away the book you’ve sweat and cried and labored to produce? To build readership. I know several authors who’ve done very well with this tactic and ended up selling thousands of books after the giveaway ended. It doesn’t always work out that way, but I think it’s worth a shot. That’s why I’ve decided to offer The Roswell Conspiracy for free starting Wednesday morning (12/5/12) and ending on Friday night (12/7/12). Anyone with a Kindle can download my book for absolutely nothing, and I want as many people as possible to do so.
One reason for trying to maximize the free downloads is the whole obscurity issue. Although I’ve built up a loyal following of readers, I think the market for the type of book I write is exponentially bigger than I’m reaching. My Tyler Locke series of archaeological thrillers with a techno edge is in the same vein as some authors who sell a million copies or more in the US. I think those readers would also enjoy my books, but many of them simply don’t know I exist. Readers are more likely to try a free book from an author they’ve never heard of or read before.
The second reason is word of mouth. According to Smashwords, a third of book buyers make their decision based on the recommendation of another reader. You want to find those readers who will tout your book online or to friends and family. If, say, ten thousand people download The Roswell Conspiracy this week for free, perhaps two thousand of those people will end up reading it (you’ll find that many readers download hundreds of free ebooks, many of which wind up getting deleted before they’re ever read). Of those two thousand, if I’m very lucky half will love the book. Of those thousand people, maybe ten percent will be so ecstatic about the experience, they’ll become evangelists for the book. Give or take on my assumptions, that’s about hundred people out of ten thousand spreading the word, which is why I want as many new readers as possible.
The third reason is that readers who love one book are likely to try more books by the same author. I have four other books for readers to try, so giving away one may lead to sales of the others.
To reiterate, though, however good all the benefits sound, I am taking a calculated risk. To take advantage of the free offer, I have to give up sales through other channels (Nook, iBooks, and Kobo) as well as potential sales to readers who might have otherwise have paid for my book. In addition, The Roswell Conspiracy’s paid ranking in the store will drop during the three days it’s not on sale. Once the giveaway ends, my ranking may well have plummeted, which means I will need to build up my sales from scratch.
But that’s what it means to be an entrepreneur. I’m betting that in the long run I will find many more readers than would otherwise have heard about me. And if the risk doesn’t pay off? That’s why I’m writing the next book.

18 thoughts on “Does Free=$$$ ?

  1. Really important post for those considering self-publishing, Boyd. The most important takeaway is that writers have to realize they’re going into business. It requires planning and taking risks and trying things, as you are. Assessing results, trying other things.

    And, of course, continuing to produce quality work.

    The nice thing is that it’s a business that is not closed off to anyone, and where merit, over time, will be rewarded. Mileage will always vary among authors, but there will be mileage.

    Good luck with the giveaway.

  2. Nicely said, Boyd. And the one benefit that money can’t buy: “they’ll become evangelists for the book”. I’m getting ready to head down this same highway, and your advice is spot-on. Good luck with THE ROSWELL CONSPIRACY. Sounds like kind of book, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

  3. Great advice as I examine my options in the coming months. I think the take-away point, is that this is going to require a considerable investment and drive on the part of the author. It doesn’t “just happen”.

  4. This is encouraging! This is more or less the business model I’m developing in my head–give it away to build interest, and write like crazy to get the next books done. If my story is good enough and the editing is decent, it’ll appeal to somebody, right? I mean, I sure enjoy it. 🙂

  5. I’m currently on this path, but I’ve published one short story and enrolled it in the KDP select program. I used the free promotion and on the day I got 51 downloads, I decided to publish my second short story.

    My second short story sold two copies in the same day. My first short story took an entire week before I got one download. lol

    I guess at this rate I should just publish all of my shorts until I have something substantial to share.

    100 free downloads to 15 paid? So what, it’s better than 0 eyes, which is the number I’d have had I not decided to put them out there. 🙂

  6. You hit the nail on the head brother. I have been doing the giveaway thing since it started and every time I do a giveaway I see a spike in sales the days following. And a week or two later get a jump in reviews as well. Since KDP offered that option I have given away about 30,000 copies of all of my titles (8 titles in all) which equals free advertising via readers who will tell someone else. These are books that likely would not have been purchased yet because as Boyd said, folks don’t know I exist.

    It is indeed a gamble, just as giving away a free Kindle Fire every year is a gamble, but it gets people to look. The books took labor and caressing to write, money to edit and get covered so they were not free to me, but to get it going on the path to making this writing stuff a living if this is what it takes I’m right there with you Boyd on the journey.

  7. Great info, Boyd. I’m on KDP Select with two e-books but haven’t tried a giveaway yet. Thought I’d write a short but high-quality one to offer for free, to draw readers to purchase my longer ones. I would think that if writers offered a really well-written short story or novella for free occasionally, they could keep the price tags on the longer books.

    Or why not only have the one you plan to offer free on KDP Select, and leave the others up for sale on other channels as well?

    The key to making the freebie thing really work is to wait until we have at least one other book for sale, it seems to me.

    And of course, that book only needs to be on KDP Select for 90 days at a time, after which you can broaden out again with it.

    You said Amazon’s ranking for your book drops while it’s being given away for free? I would hope it wouldn’t have lost any of the ground it had gained up until that time? So you’d just be back to where you were a few days earlier, right?

    Also, I’ve heard that it’s best to not use your 5 free days all at once, but to spread them out. And promote the freebies a few days in advance as well as those days. Lots of sites to advertise them on, too.

    Good luck with this, Boyd! I’ll be checking your books out for sure!

  8. I am getting ready to put out a backlist title myself and am considering Kindle Direct. This means you can offer it on NO OTHER reader for 90 days.

    However, there is one important thing you need to stress in all your publicity, website or newsletter announcements: You don’t have to have a Kindle to download a Kindle Select book.

    You can download from Amazon a free Kindle app that can be used on any computer, smart phone or tablet. So if your readers WANT to get your book but don’t have a Kindle, this is an alternative.

    I know, I know…we are feeding the black beast here. But you do what you must to get to your readers I say.

  9. Hi Boyd. Very interesting blog. I put my Charlie Fox backlist titles out via KDP last year and it’s been a revelation for me. Not least of which is the fact I now get paid every month instead of twice a year.

    I did some free promotions earlier this year and they had a definite positive impact on sales. I’ve also been able to put together e-boxed sets of books 1-3 and 4-6, together with bonus short stories, and I’ve also done swap guest excerpts with other indie authors.

    Good luck with your latest venture!

  10. You’ve raised important points on the issues with self-publishing. It costs money up front, but you have control over your product. You get paid directly and more often than you would with a traditional or small press. But as you mention, being discovered is the main problem. The Kindle Select giveaway will help, but otherwise, how do you get reviews for indie authors? How do you persuade people to read the book if it’s not a freebie? And how much time are you willing to put into social networking instead of writing the next book?

  11. Nancy, you said “You get paid directly and more often” than with a traditional publisher. So true. What I really love is that I get 70% of the book price in royalties, as opposed to 10-15% from a traditional publisher, assuming one would even take me on. And I hear publishers are doing a lot less promoting than they used to… Not to mention skimping on editing costs, so on quality editing…

  12. Great post Boyd. I’ve read your books and agree that they are similar to some which sell massive numbers.

    Will spread the word about the giveaway.

  13. Just be careful when moving in and out of KDP Select. It can take *weeks* to get your books delisted by other sites and you can’t technically enter Select until you do. I’m at six weeks now and still trying to get B&N to answer my emails! I had to write to Apple’s legal department to get books removed from ibooks. And this wasn’t even anything to do with Select – I just wanted to change my distributor.

  14. If there were tried and true answers to your questions, Nancy, I’d love to hear them. The free offer is one way to tempt readers to try an indie author. But new traditionally published authors will have the same problem, they just have someone spending time and money to get the word out. I still believe the best thing you can do is write a story people love so much that they have to recommend. That’s why Gone Girl was such a big hit.

    All of my books were posted on Nook, iBooks, and Kobo directly, so it only took a day to get them delisted. I think if you go through a middleman like Smashwords it could take longer for the delisting.

  15. We’re told, of course, that the giveaways no longer have the impact they use to, and the bounce is not as dramatic as it once was.

    That may be true, but when I gave a book away in late May, I wasn’t disappointed by the bounce at all.

    You nailed it with this word: exposure. That’s what those free downloads offer indie authors. Exposure they can’t buy.

    Boyd, I wish you great luck with your giveaway and hope you come away from it as happy as I did.

  16. Boyd, I wish you all the best. I, however, could not bring myself to give away my book en masse. I understand all the reasons why people do it, but I just don’t know what kind of message it sends to readers, who, as you said, tend to stockpile these freebies. I think $2.99 is a fair price to pay for a new author. As I’ve said before on my blog, maybe I’ll change my mind for my next book, but for now free is not for me.

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