Free promo weekend redux

by AA on 2 February 2012

I spent most of my time online this past weekend interacting with redditors realtime as I watched the download numbers for Realms Unreel soar on its first free promotion day (which I decided, about twelve hours in, to extend to two days to shoot for the highest sales rank possible). People asked some good questions in the different posts I made about the promo on /r/kindle/r/writing, and /r/books. I’ve pulled out some highlights below.

Question: Can you only do a free promo on your Kindle title if you’re enrolled in KDP Select?

My answer: (Background: As you may know, you can’t just post an ebook on the Kindle store at $0.00. Amazon sets a minimum price at $0.99. As you may also know, free books sell like hotcakes, so most indie authors will at some point consider going free to get their stuff in front of readers. As another commenter here has noted, a lot of indie authors have offered anecdotes of a major paid sales bump after a free promo — sometimes a permanent bump in baseline sales. So there’s a monetary incentive to going free, especially on a limited-time basis.)

Right now, the easiest way to run a free promotion for your book is to enroll the title in KDP Select. Amazon lets the publishers of KDP Select-enrolled titles to pick up to 5 days per 90-day enrollment period to make the title free. Today is the first of the 5 days I’ve used, and I’ve been in a state of shock as I watch the download numbers tick up.

The other way to get your price set to free, or so I’ve read on the Kindle Boards, is to change your ebook price to free on iBookstore or Barnes & Noble. Then you need to have a bunch of people report to Amazon that your book is free on one of those other sites. There’s a thread on the Kindle Boards where indie authors provide this service for each other, sort of round-robin style. Amazon aggressively price-matches, so in some period of time (it can be days, weeks, or even months) the Amazon system realizes your book is free somewhere else, and they’ll then set your book price to free unilaterally — I guess somewhere in the fine print on the KDP publishing platform, Amazon says they can price your stuff however they want.

Going free using the latter method is a pretty blunt instrument. You have no control over when your book becomes free, and I don’t know how you can get your book back to paid status. If you have to contact KDP support to get your book back to paid, you could end up with your book free for far longer than you’d intended that way. A lot of authors in the past were content to do this for a possibility of a long-term sales bump, and there was no other way to do it. But since the KDP Select announcement, you do have the option to hone your promo efforts to a specific dates.

It’s been worth it to me. B&N Nook platform has some major shortcomings, and I’ve had some [notably bad customer service experiences with them]( Also, again anecdotally, indie authors’ book sales for all other platforms, including nook, tend to be much lower than for Kindle, so it hardly seems worth it to stick with B&N and give up the KDP Select promo tools.

Comment: I recall reading something on Reddit a few weeks ago that compared standard sales to the percentage-based Select program. From what I can tell, payments per-unit through the Select program pale in comparison to those received through conventional sales. It’s for that reason that I doubt works like short stories would benefit much from the program, if at all, primarily due to their low price point.

My response: I’m pretty sure the “percentage-based Select program” you’re referring to here is the part of the KDP Select program that allows authors to receive compensation when Amazon Prime users “borrow” their books through the Kindle Owners Lending Library. So just to clarify, this percentage-based part of the program is in addition to, notinstead of, regular full-price sales.

Not sure if this supports or contradicts your point but, just to clarify:

The actual amount that you earn as the author/publisher when someone borrows your KDP Select-enabled book through the Kindle Owners Lending Library is (X / Y) * $700,000, where X is the number of loans of your title in a given month, Y is the total number of loans of all titles in a given month, and $700,000 is the amount of money Amazon has put on the table for a given month. In the most recent month (December), Amazon said authors will receive approximately $1.70 per borrow for books borrowed by Amazon Prime users. If your book is normally $0.99, this means you made more per borrow than you did per paid sale (most likely, you had a mix of both — I had mostly regular sales, but some borrows, too). My book is normally $2.99 when I’m not running the promo, so $1.70 is a little less than my normal take of ~$2.05.

The possibility (but, as you say, unquantifiable/untestable) benefit of the Lending Library program is that you may get your book in the hands of someone who wasn’t otherwise inclined to pay full price for it. But, for low-priced books in the $0.99 – $2.99 range, it seems unlikely, in my mind, that you’ll get a ton of borrows. Since Prime members only get 12 borrows per calendar year, I’d expect they’d only choose to borrow high-priced bestsellers in the $7+ range. I’m a Prime member, and that’s how I’m using my borrows — I save them up for expensive ebooks I want to read. So probably the majority of people getting their books borrowed are fancy authors in the higher price ranges. For them, they are probably losing money per borrow. For us non-fancy authors, we’re probably netting more, since we may be getting more total sales + borrows than we would have gotten with just sales.

The ability to run a free promo at the click of a button (rather than via the aforementioned hack method you used to have to use) is, I think, the biggest and most definite (but still not perfectly quantifiable in a monetary sense) benefit of the KDP Select program. I moved over 1,200 copies of my book yesterday. I’m not sure what other marketing option would have gotten that many copies of my book onto peoples’ Kindles, short of a NYTimes book review column. Once my promo ends tonight, I’ll be able to see what paid sales do on Monday. Whatever I sell over my normal baseline, I’m probably going to attribute entirely to the free promo.

Question: How many books have you given away during your free promotion, and what does that mean for you in the long run?

In the long run, a free promo day is an investment in building readership. It looks like I may move 1,000 copies or more today. That’s fantastic for me! Even if a small percentage of those downloaders actually read the book, every new reader has the potential to like the book, and/or comment, and/or recommend it to a friend, and/or blog about it. When you don’t have a traditional publisher, that word-of-mouth buzz is critical to getting your title in front of readers.

Ebooks are (usually) cheap entertainment, but even though $0.99 to $2.99 is a pretty low barrier to entry for a prospective reader — a few bucks for potentially 12+ hours of entertainment — a lot of readers won’t even consider paying a dime for work by an unknown author. But the more people are talking, the more people are hearing, and the more people may be willing to leap the $0.99 – $2.99 price threshold for an indie author.

Anecdotally, we indie authors hear that titles that break the top #500 in Kindle on a free promo day often get a sales boost of 1000 units or more. I’m at #341 as of right now, so I’ll get a chance to see whether that’s true when my promo runs out. I was originally just planning to run the promo for a day, but some friends are telling me I might want to extend it to 2 if it looks like I have a shot at making the #1 slot in any of my genre categories. Even if you only hit #1 for ten minutes, once you screenshot it, it’s immortalized :)

Question: How did you get the word out to start with? I mean, there are a lot of free ebooks out there. Did you get a reddit-push?

Redditors have definitely been a big help throughout the process. I typically post in some subreddit or another (/r/kindle, /r/writing, and /r/cyberpunk in particular) when I have major news.

The biggest promotional effort I ran since the book launch on November 22 was the Kickstarter project I ran to produce a color illustrated hardcover version of the book with an artist friend who does character modeling at Pixar. We successfully reached our funding goal (even overfunded it — $6,666 of our $5,000 goal) on January 15th, and the whole month of the campaign was great publicity for the book.

This free promo is the second big promotion effort, and so far it’s going really well in terms of getting the word out about the book — 1,400 downloads and counting, and I’m at the top of the charts in my two main sub-genres (#3 in free Sci Fi, #8 in free Fantasy, #198 overall). So that’s fantastic for me.

I’ve been process-blogging the self-promotion effort on my blog, as well as answering questions in reddit (including a recent IAmA that got lots of good questions).

Question: You told us on Reddit that you saw a huge jump in downloads when you ran the free Kindle promo. Did you do a lot of pre-promotion to make an event out of that? I’m wondering if FREE BOOK was all it took to make people look and download, or if you were funneling views in from previous groundwork, or what. Would you care to comment on that?

I did a sort of “alpha release” of the e-book version of Realms Unreel in late October, a release that I publicized only to my immediate friends and family. My goal was to get the book into the hands of a friendly audience so I could work out any technical kinks in the delivery (like find out if there was any weird formatting stuff going on, or technical problems with different peoples’ e-readers), familiarize myself with all the different tagging, commenting, liking, etc. tools Amazon provides, build up my author website/Facebook/Twitter, and all that. I didn’t want to do a full-on launch of the book to a broader audience until there were plenty of things going on to make the book page look active and loved.

I spent a couple of weeks on the Kindle Boards and at Authonomy lurking in forums and learning quite a bit, and I eventually joined the Author Tagging Exchange thread on Kindle Boards to start building up the list of keywords tagged on my book’s Amazon listing page (you’ll see them if you scroll down). It’s time-consuming, but supposedly once you start getting a large number of tags on your book, it helps with placing your book high on Amazon’s internal search results pages.

Around that time, I also contacted about two dozen indie book review blogs to get on their schedules for reviews. My first review is coming up in February. I only heard back from two others — they’re swamped with review requests like mine, and some of them have waiting lists of 6+ months.

I did a slightly larger “beta release” to my broader network of friends in late November, and that’s when I started seeing my first real downloads on Amazon. Around that time, some of my alpha release readers started writing their comments. The comments from alpha, beta, and later readers have been trickling in slowly since. Not everyone really reads long-form fiction, and those who do don’t always read fast, so it takes a while to get those reviews going. I would have started soliciting reviews earlier if I could have, but I was so busy writing the book I didn’t really have time to think about promotion stuff — that’s where having a traditional publisher is really nice, I’m sure :)

My first big public promo effort was running a Kickstarter project with an artist friend from Pixar to fund a color illustrated hardcover version of the book. That campaign ran from mid-December to mid-January. Kickstarter is a whole different ballgame than publicizing an e-book, and I haven’t quite decompressed everything I’ve learned from that experience on my website process blog, but it was a fantastic experience. I got a few great blog write-ups from the Kickstarter project, so that was my first bit of press from total strangers.

Because the Kickstarter experience was so interesting, I followed it up with an IAmA on reddit on the advice of one of my Kickstarter backers. There’s lots of good Q&A on that thread, too, for you indie writers.

Since the Kickstarter project wrapped up two weeks ago, I’ve been busy shipping out my first wave of Kickstarter rewards (e-signed ebooks, signed paperbacks, and tee shirts first; signed illustrated hardcovers and illustration prints coming in June). But I figured while I was doing all that packing and shipping, I could try out one of my promo days, since at that point I had 13 good-looking reviews up.

So that’s what happened before the free promo. Obviously, with 2300+ people [update as of January 29: 4000+] now in possession of the book, it’s a bit out of my hands. We’ll see what happens.

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