I’ve always argued that “free” can drive up your sales, but it really needs to be part of an overall strategy.
In July, fantasy author Moses Siregar III wrote a fascinating guest post on a radical approach he was taking with “free”.
He also promised to come back after his novel was out to tell us all if it worked or not. We spoke at the end of August over the course of a couple of days.
Dave: Hi Moses. The last time we spoke, you were about a week away from releasing your first novel The Black God’s War which came out on August 1st.
In your guest post in July, you detailed the steps you took in building your platform and getting your name out there. Part of your strategy was the release of a novella which was essentially carved out of the novel. When you were able to get Amazon to list it for free, downloads went through the roof.
I think a lot of people read your post with interest, wondering what effect the free novella would have on your launch. So, I guess the first question is, how is the book doing?
Moses: Thanks very much for having me back, David. For a debut indie novel, sales have been very good, averaging 15 sales a day so far, now that we’re almost at the end of August. The first monthly total is projecting to around 450 sales, which I consider good because August is probably the worst month of the year for book sales.
If we try to judge how much effect having the free novella has had so far, I think it’s a mixed review. On the one hand, the book is selling far more copies than a typical debut. On the other hand, I’ve been doing a lot to promote it and it’s not selling at an obscene rate (despite approximately 20,000 free downloads on the novella).
It’s also too early to know where my sales are going; I won’t be shocked if sales drop off a lot in September, though I’m hoping that word of mouth will start to carry the book, because so far people seem to be really enjoying it (judging from reviews).
I feel like the book is right on the edge between early success and early failure. It’s generally getting enough sales to stay in the top ten of the “Hot New Releases” in Epic Fantasy (a list you can only be on for one month, unfortunately), but not enough to be in the “Best Sellers” in Epic Fantasy, although for the first ten days or so, it was on that list, too.
So far the reviews have been very kind, but I know that if the book eventually reaches a large audience, it will get a spectrum of reviews—as any successful book inevitably does. But it’s received some fairly glowing 5-star reviews from the normally stingy MotherLode and IndieFantasyReview, as well as some other blogs.
Dave: And of course, you can use those reviews for promotional purposes to help spread the word even further. I think that’s a phenomenal first month though, by any measure. And if you consider that a lot of people that downloaded the novella probably haven’t even heard that you have released the book yet, that number can only climb.
You’re right, it’s all about word of mouth. The #1 reason people buy a book is because they have read something by the author before and enjoyed it. The #2 reason is a recommendation from a trusted source: a friend, a colleague, a teacher, a review, a blog, whatever. With those 20,000 downloads, you have done all you can for #1, and it sounds like you are making headway with #2.
You have all the pieces in place: a good book in a popular genre, a striking cover, an enticing blurb—a professional product all round. It sounds like your main task here is to get eyeballs on your book listing, and to get the book into the hands of people that will spread the word.
It seemed like the launch went perfectly. Is this spread of “word” of the book something you are going to let take its own course now, or do you have a specific promotional strategy? I guess what I’m asking is, are you focusing on writing more, or promotion? How do you balance that?
Moses: I’m learning now what a tough balancing act it is. It would be great to get to the point when Amazon’s automated recommendations were doing 99% of the work, so that you don’t have to promote, but for now my strategy is to spend a month (August) doing everything I can to promote the book and get word of mouth going. Even though I’m losing a month of writing time, if the book begins to get on a roll, maybe this month of promotion will be worth it in the long run.
Next month, I’ll have to force myself to stop doing so much promotion and focus on writing the next book. I’m enjoying the promotional work, but I’m weird. I see it as a fun challenge. I think most writers find the promotional stuff a drag. However, I’d gladly trade my amusement with book promotion for the ability to write four novels a year.
By the way, just after we started this interview, I got the following email. Keep in mind that it’s just one person, though:
I should also mention your marketing strategy worked for me. I read the novella back in May then I searched for your blog to find the release day. I’m such a book geek I have a special color on my iCal for book release dates. I bought your book the day it came out.
Dave: That must be satisfying to hear. It can be difficult to accurately evaluate promotional strategies, but to hear direct confirmation like that is great. You mentioned writing speed there. I’m not a particularly fast writer—certainly not for book-length fiction—but I think I’m improving as I gain more experience.
I heard you say something just after your book came out. You were talking about the relief of finally getting it out there, all the work that was involved to get to that point, and that a couple of days after it came out, people were asking for the next one!
As you gain more fans like the one quoted above, they are all going to be asking the same question. Do you feel under pressure to write faster? Am I going to have to write a blog post in 6 months – aimed at your rabid fans – called “Moses Siregar III is not your b*tch”?
Moses: Haha! You do realize you just volunteered for this, right? This has surprised me, but I actually am starting to hear from (a handful of) readers who are already—dare I say—impatient about waiting for my next book.
The pressure I feel to write faster is, luckily, coming from within. I’m a big believer in being motivated from within. For example, I never want to try to write faster to compete with anyone else or to prove anyone wrong. That gives away your power to others and you’ll never be happy if I’m always measuring yourself against others. I want to write the best books I can. I hope to write them quickly, but the more important thing is to give readers the best I have to offer.
Since this post is mostly about whether or not my free novella marketing strategy was successful, I’ll summarize my thoughts. I think the free novella helped me to generate early buzz about me and my work—no doubt. I think it’s helping me to sell some books right out of the gate—no doubt. I think the main risk to this strategy is that if the free work isn’t good enough, you could be turning away readers before your book even comes out.
But here’s what I think I’ve learned about the Most Important Thing(TM): All the promotion in the world can only do so much for a subpar book. Promoting a book is hard work. The only thing that will carry your books for years and years is good word of mouth.
If you don’t work on your books until they are just about as good as you can possibly make them, you might get some good sales for a short period of time, but you’re unlikely to continue to sell books after you burn out on promoting them.
The Most Important Thing(TM) is to write a book that’s going to take people on a ride that is so thrilling that you won’t have to spend all of your time doing book promotion. Instead, you want to be able to move on to writing the next book in your series and let happy readers become your voluntary sales force. That’s my goal.
If you want to check out the free novella, that’s here, but Moses strongly recommends only reading the first five chapters before progressing to the novel, as they diverge after that point (in terms of chapter order).
Thanks to Moses for taking the time for a great chat!
Note: This post was scheduled to run in my absence while I am on vacation. I won’t be able to join in the comment fun, but please be my guest.