Using “Free” On Standalone Books – Guest Post by Indie Author Hollister Ann Grant

I think we all know at this stage that “free” can be a powerful promotional tool. Usually, when writers go through the somewhat convoluted process of making a book free on Amazon, the aim is to introduce a new pool of readers to their work who might otherwise never hear of it.

Often, it’s the first in a series, and the hope is that out of the thousands that download it for nothing, a reasonable percentage will (a) actually read the book and, (b) enjoy it enough to pay for the rest of the author’s work.

Some of the most successful self-publishers out there have employed this strategy – with fantastic results – so its effectiveness is not under question.

There have been plenty of case studies of what happens to the sales of the rest of the series while the lead-in title is free.

However, there has been less talk of what happens when the book in question is a stand-alone title, and what being free does to the number of sales once the book has returned to the paid listings.

Luckily for us, indie author Hollister Ann Grant is here to share her results. Warning: they may surprise you. Here’s Holly:

***

This summer I e-published two books: Lost Cargo, a sci-fi novel, and Haunted Ground: Ghost Photos from the Gettysburg Battlefield, a non-fiction book.

My late husband Jack was a military history buff and nature photographer who took thousands of photos of the Gettysburg battlefield, including some mysterious ones (you can see one of his photos on the book cover). For fun, I collected his photos in a short ghost photo, history, and travel book.

Both books sell in small numbers, but the ghost book outsells the novel 80 to 1 across all channels.

When I found out about free as a sales tool, I decided to try it with the novel to work out any pitfalls before I tried it with my more popular book. The novel had an obscure rank on Amazon, about 390,000, and was selling four to six copies a month, so I had nothing to lose.

Free results

Over 4,000 people downloaded Lost Cargo the first day. The novel went to #1 on Amazon’s free sci-fi chart and stayed there during its free run. It went up and down between #1 and #3 on the free fantasy chart.

When I priced it back after ten days, the novel went to #253 in the overall paid Kindle Store, #7 on the paid sci-fi chart, and sold 1,605 books in two weeks. It’s losing momentum in its third week back to paid. The general rank has fallen to 400-600 and the sci-fi rank to the 20s. Still, those are good numbers for a book that was only selling six copies a month.

The principle of free

Free works best as a “loss leader” when you have a series of related books. If readers like the free book, they might buy the next one in the series.

Romance writer Ruth Cardello began with tiny numbers this year and found huge success when she gave away Maid for the Billionaire in her Legacy series.

The free process can also work to a lesser degree with stand alone books. Bargain websites and lists pick up free books, which equals free advertising. A stand alone book will make money when you price it back.

Free back to paid: price

Yes, I would have made more money if I priced the novel back to $2.99, but I priced it at 99 cents to keep it on the first page of the paid-sci-fi chart as long as possible. In addition, people who see a free book on a bargain website are more likely to buy it when they click through and see 99 cents versus $2.99.

My timing mistakes

I’m finishing a related sci-fi novel and probably should have waited until I put it online. Amazon is also running a big sale to promote their new Kindles, so I hit the sale when I priced the novel back.

The basic process

Amazon will not allow you to price a book at 0.00, but will usually price match if a book has a 0.00 price on Apple or Barnes & Noble. I’ve been told that Apple will allow you to price a book at 0.00 and will even let you set the time length. Most people, though, put their books on Apple through Smashwords because Apple has so many hoops.

If you went the Smashwords route, price your book at 0.00 there and check the Distribution Channel to see when they ship the change to Apple or B&N. Apple makes the price change in one day, B&N within two weeks. If you don’t own Apple products, you can see your book if you Google: “Your book title in quotation marks” iTunes.

Once the free price appears on Apple or B&N, go to your book’s Amazon page, find the “Tell us about a lower price” link below the product description, and paste in the Apple or B&N URL.

The process took about ten days for my novel. Some books go free in three days, some after a month, and some never go free. Amazon doesn’t grant every free request. They do, however, allow an author to have more than one free book.

Free problems

Some people say Amazon wouldn’t price their book back until all the small retailers put the price back. I didn’t have this experience. However, since Smashwords has never shipped my books to Kobo because Kobo is backed up, I opted out of Kobo to be safe.

Other people say that the free process knocks out related books on their book’s Also Bought list. True, but it’s temporary. However, remember that the main benefit of the Also Boughts is not the books that show up on your book page, but where your book shows up.

Amazon bases the Also Boughts on sales. It was fun to briefly see my novel in the Also Boughts for The Mill River Recluse, the #1 paid Kindle book, before the next tide of books swept it away.

Google Alert

Set up a Google Alert for your name and book titles, if you haven’t done that already. A Google Alert told me that torrent sites had my novel, which meant pirates were sharing it. The Google Alert didn’t pick up all the bargain websites that featured the book, though, so Google the book title if you want to see what’s happening with it.

***

A big thank you to Holly for sharing her experiences. You can pick up Lost Cargo for 99c at Amazon, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Smashwords. If ghost stories are more your thing, Haunted Ground: Ghost Photos from the Gettysburg Battlefield is $2.99 at Amazon, Amazon UK, Apple, and Smashwords.

Holly’s blog is here, and you can follow here on Twitter here.

I think Holly is being a little humble here, so I would just like to underline her achievement.

Her debut novel – self-published for the first time less than three months ago – was only selling a handful of copies a month. Aside from the huge amount of free downloads Lost Cargo achieved for the brief period it was free (I believe it was over 10,000), it has had phenomenal sales since it returned to the paid listings.

Most of us will never have a book that reaches as high as #253 in the paid Kindle Store (or to know what it feels like to sell over 1,600 books in two weeks), so my sincere congratulations to her.

Looking at Lost Cargo, I can see why it was so popular – once she found a way to greatly increase its exposure. The cover is striking, the blurb is enticing, the formatting is perfect, and the opening grabs you straight away.

Going “free” is no guaranteed strategy for success. But if you have written a good book in a popular genre, and you present it professionally, you are giving yourself a real chance of generating that elusive word-of-mouth.

And whether you have a free book or not, you should have Google Alerts set up on your name and all your book titles. It has alerted me to several reviews of my work that I wouldn’t have none about otherwise (some which I have since used for excellent promo quotes).

On top of that, it’s always nice to thank the reviewer and offer them free copies of your other titles. On that note, I would like to thank Shane Ede for this review of Transfection, and Neal Hock from Bookhound’s Den for his review of If You Go Into The Woods.

I’ll have another fascinating guest post on Wednesday from two more indie writers who are thinking outside the box, and later in the week I’ll reveal an exciting project of my own.

For a sneak preview, keep your eyes peeled for my regular column on IndieReader.com – it should go live later today and I’ll update this post when it does. Until then, here’s the last one I wrote for them, which I forgot to link to before. It’s called There’s No Magic Bullet.

Happy Monday!

EDIT: My new IndieReader column is up – Crowdfunding: The Indie Advance.

About David Gaughran

David Gaughran is Irish, living in Prague, and the author of Mercenary, A Storm Hits Valparaiso, Let's Get Digital, Let's Get Visible, and this here blog.
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33 Responses to Using “Free” On Standalone Books – Guest Post by Indie Author Hollister Ann Grant

  1. I had thought about putting Kissed by Darkness free when the second in the series came out. But then sales took off like crazy, so I figured why mess with a good thing? lol I know having the first novel in a series free has really boosted sales for a LOT of people and I’m still considering it for the future. For now, it ain’t broke so I ain’t fixing it.😉

    Like

  2. Hi Shea – hey, if your sales are going well, they’re going well. Holly really had nothing to lose here – she was only selling a handful of copies of her novel a month – so there was no real risk. I feel the same way as you – my sales are okay, and have been particularly good around the time I launch something, so I’m not sure if I would mess with that. However, if I had a full-length title that was underperforming, I would consider it for a very limited time, especially during a slow time like summer or a Big 6 sale.

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    • Hey David, yeah, I absolutely agree. If something isn’t moving, there’s no harm in putting it free for awhile to see what happens. It’s certainly a good way to gain more readership!

      Like

  3. Adam Pepper says:

    Congratulations to Holly for a great run. A lot of helpful info here.

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  4. Shea, when you say “took off like crazy” it depends what you define ‘crazy’ as? We were selling 790 books a DAY when S&S was at number 2. The free thing is defo worth it. We stuck the US version of S&S on SW for free and it is now selling in the US Kindle PAID store, where it wasn’t before. Coincidence? Methinks not.🙂
    Stay dark😉

    Like

    • Saffina, I mean “crazy” for me. I’m definitely not yet selling 709 books a day! But I am selling enough and making enough off them to make more income per month than I was working full time as a PA in London! To me, that’s “like crazy”! lol

      Like

  5. laurenwaters says:

    Fantastic numbers Holly! I’m so happy for you and thanks so much for sharing your success.

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  6. Thanks for the info! I recently made three of my books free on Smashwords – the first books in two series and a standalone. I wasn’t sure how that was going to make them “go free” on Amazon, but now I know thanks to this post. The series books have been out for over a year and were slowing and the standalone never really took off. Wish me luck!

    Like

  7. Thanks for taking the time to tell us all about this Holly. I had been thinking of releasing a free short that explores some of the back story of one of my characters. I got the idea from reading David’s interview with Moses Siregar III and your experience has convinced me that it’s worth doing.

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  8. Hollister Ann Grant says:

    Congratulations to everybody else on your successes.

    Andrew, I think a free run is better than any advertising you can buy — the trick is to leave a stand alone book free long enough for the lists and bargain websites to pick it up, but not so long that it loses the optimum rank it could have when you price it back. Also, you can’t predict exactly when Amazon will “unfree” it.

    Dave, Lost Cargo had about 18,000 downloads when I pulled the plug and put the price back. Downloads indicate some interest, but a lot of people hoard free books on their Kindles and only read a fraction of them, so I don’t put too much into those numbers. I hope over the next few weeks the book will pick up more reviews from its free run. Thanks for having me here today!

    Like

  9. Hollister Ann Grant says:

    Question for the UKers: did your books go free in both Amazon US and Amazon UK, or just the country where you live? My book never went free in the UK even though I reported the free price and asked UK friends to report it, too. I either didn’t give it enough time (ten days), or maybe Amazon is reluctant to let books go free on all its sites.

    Like

  10. TimGreaton says:

    Fascinating information. Thanks for the great blog and guest blogger🙂

    Like

  11. Thanks so much for the great post, Holly (and David)…this is excellent info and I really loved reading about it! Congrats, too!
    I’m planning on listing my book “44” for free soon, as I have 44 Book 2 coming out in mid November. Can’t wait to see what happens…
    Jools Sinclair

    Like

  12. S. Whitmore says:

    This is great info. I’ve been thinking about putting my novel on sale at 99 cents during NaNoWriMo (since it was originally a NaNoWriMo project), but maybe I’ll make it free instead. I really have nothing to lose on it, since it’s not selling at all.

    Like

  13. Lindsay says:

    I’ve been trying to get Amazon to list my first novella as free (the above route worked with my short story collection last summer), but no dice. It’d be nice if they’d just get over themselves and allow authors to upload one of their offerings for free straight from the KDP dashboard. Of course, the more free ebooks there are available, the less this sort of thing will work. You’ll end up doing all sorts of promotion to sell something that’s free.

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    • Lindsay, I know Amazon is pondering the idea of allowing anyone to make their books free–but it could also have big, unknown effects on their market. (In fact, they’ve asked me my opinion of this–and I said there was good and bad.)

      Congrats on your success, Hollister–every innovative tool should be used to help our books find readers. But this furthrer confirms what I’ve believed for a while–it’s almost entirely Amazon algorithms that sell our books, not our spectacular talent, our sheer marketing genius, or our good looks. (I must exclude myself from that last group…) In other words, most of it is luck.

      Like

  14. Simon Jenner says:

    Holly,

    A lot of useful tips here for using the free strategy. I have an illustrated book ‘The Mystical Wood’ (kids 5+ years) which I figured wouldn’t sell on kindle because they only show up in b&w (ignoring new Kindle Fire coming soon). I published ‘The Mystical Wood’ via CreateSpace at $9.99 (even though I am in UK) because otherwise I would make a loss.

    After reading this post, I am considering releasing it on the kindle and making it free (it is a standalone book) to start with. My worries are that because it has full color illustrations, and as it is for kids, that it won’t make any difference to my hardcopy sales and it won’t sell on the kindle when I put the price up again. I’d love to hear any thoughts on this.

    A great article with much food for thought.

    Like

    • Simon,
      Don’t forget that people often read Kindle ebooks on other devices and software clients that support color. And as you say, Kindle Fire is coming soon. I think you don’t have anything to lose by publishing your book on Kindle.

      Like

    • Simon,

      I know authors doing well with children’s picture books for the Kindle (one in particular has sold thousands and thousands). As Hynek said, many people with iPads, iPhones, or other devices use the Kindle apps to buy and read books. You absolutely should put your books up there. I wouldn’t make it free either. Charge for it.

      Dave

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      • Simon Jenner says:

        Dave,

        That’s great to hear. Since I wrote my first comment I have been looking at a few illustrated books that are high in the Kindle rankings and some are formatted well and others very badly. I think getting the formatting right is paramount. I’ll spend some time on that before I put it up as an ebook and let you know how it goes.

        Maybe I’ll start with a low price – say 99c – see what happens – and go from there?

        Cheers
        Simon

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      • Simon,
        You probably won’t be able to price your book at 99c if it contains many illustrations. Depending on the file size, Amazon won’t let you go under 1.99 or even 2.99 and they will also charge a fee for every MB if you choose the 70% royalty. Be ready for this.

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      • Simon Jenner says:

        Hynek,

        Thanks for the heads up. Sounds like I’ve got a lot to check up on.

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      • These are the full details: https://kdp.amazon.com/self-publishing/help?topicId=A29FL26OKE7R7B
        Since the “delivery costs” don’t apply to the 35% royalty option, it is sometimes more profitable for you to choose 35%. But I’m talking about ebooks with 300+ bitmaps, which probably won’t be your case.

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      • Simon Jenner says:

        Dave,

        After reading Guido Henkel’s guide as suggested in Let’s Get Digital I have now uploaded my illustrated book to the Kindle. It was quite a learning curve but the guide was well worth reading and without it I would have been completely lost.

        I Priced the book at $2.99 and it finished up at $3 forty something after taxes are added. I will look at reducing it later if sales are poor and if I can get it up on other sales channels which then allow me to price match.

        Now it’s time to keep marketing and hope for the best. Also looking into formatting for Smashwords which is a little worrying as it seems less in my control, being mainly just a clean Word file!

        Thanks for all of the good advice.
        Simon

        Like

      • You’re welcome Simon. You will crack the Smashwords formatting if you just read their guide. I think anybody can wrap their head around it in a day or two – less if you are very proficient with Word and especially styles.

        I think you have a good starting price. You can always experiment with other prices later.

        Like

  15. Will Amazon price match an ebook that is available for free download only on the author’s website? And how do you tell Amazon to restore the price when the free download is no longer available? Thanks!

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    • Hynek,

      No they won’t. They only usually price match with sites they consider competitors: Sony, Kobo, Apple, Barnes & Noble. They won’t price match with your own site (or even usually Smashwords itself).

      Dave

      Like

  16. LKWatts says:

    This is such a fantastic post and one that I have been wondering about for a very long time. Now I know the situation a little better. Thanks so much!

    Like

  17. Pingback: Thirteen ghosts: A collection of spooky tales for Halloween (Part Three) « Sapphicscribe's musings over darkness and light

  18. I’m definitely intrigued by the idea of giving something away for free to build interest and then raising the price accordingly. It’s basically what I did with the http://www.DownloadTheDarkness.com experiment last year, although my focus there was promoting the hardcover edition of THE PAINTED DARKNESS, which the free version did very well. So it wasn’t until *after* the free eBook changed to a paid eBook — when I saw the eBook sales still growing — that I realized the other benefits of that free eBook! Kind of a win-win. 🙂

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  19. Pingback: How to Get Welcome to the Shit Show for FREE, and other news « by.dana.sitar

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