Free Promos--Do They Work?

Sheila Lowe, forensic handwriting analyst and mystery author

When my Forensic Handwriting Mysteries series was first published I spent a tremendous amount of time and money traveling all over the country, publicizing the books at conferences, book signings, and other activities. The cost amounted to about $10,000/year for the first four books, but I figured it was an investment and counted on a good ROI.

The books continue to sell well, but not well enough for my (second) editor at Penguin to offer me a new contract after the fourth book. I probably should have hung on to many of those promotional dollars.

Three years went by after the publication of the prophetically named Last Writes (the saga of that name is another story). Last summer I decided to self-publish my next novel, What She Saw, a standalone story of suspense about a young woman with amnesia in which my series characters play an important, but secondary role. The book was well received, garnering 40 four and five star reviews, and happily, Suspense Publishing has just brought out the fifth book in my series, Inkslingers Ball.

Needing a way to publicize IB, I decided to offer What She Saw as a free download through the KDP Select Free Days program. As of this writing, 20 hours into the 4-day offer, there have been 62,190 downloads! I had done the same with Poison Pen, the first book in my series, last January, and over the 5 day promotion, it was downloaded 57,000 times. What’s the difference between the two promotions?

In both instances I bought an ad in BookBub, a service that sends a daily email advertising free or low cost e-books. Subscribers choose the genre they prefer and get notices of a few books available in that genre. As BookBub’s subscriber base has increased, which it seems to do exponentially, so has the price of advertising. In January the mystery category had about 900,000 subscribers and that ad cost $230. Today, the mystery subscriber base has grown to more than 1 million and prices start at $310 for a free book. If you charge .99cents for your promo, the ad price is $620, and it goes up from there, depending on book price.

This time, I also bought an ad in Bookends, which is the same as BookBub but with a much smaller subscriber base. Including a Book of the Day slot, the price was $120. In addition, I spent days researching sites that will list a free or cheap book download, some at no cost, others offering a menu of ad types starting at $5 or $10 for a listing. So, instead of spending $10,000 on travel, etc., I invested about $500 in these ads. I miss out on the opportunity to appear on panels, and the camaraderie of conferencing, but as a dyed-in-the-wool introvert, I can live with that tradeoff.             

With the Poison Pen promo I saw a big effect on the Amazon rankings of my other books, which means sales, and the effect lasted for more than a month. In addition, PP got about 80 new reviews. Not all of them were favorable, but most were four and five stars. A handful of those free downloads resulted in people spewing real nastiness about the book because they thought it was a cozy and it’s not. You’d think that the cover, which shows a woman in sexy lingerie, would have given them a clue. I would love to offer those people a refund, but authors who respond with sarcasm get flamed without mercy, so I bite my tongue.

Today was a challenge on that score. The first two new “reviews” were one star, complaining about profanity in the book. However, these were from people who admitted that all they had read was an excerpt, and even though it “looked like a good book,” the (one) four letter word in the first chapter stopped them. Several people piled on after that, thanking them for the warning. Then others jumped in on the other side, and as I write this, there’s a full-blown war on the amazon page. I’ve just checked my rankings and there has already been a big improvement over my entire series, and What She Saw is at #1 in Kindle books, so I won’t cry too much about those 1 stars.

So, does giving away books pay off for an author? Having this number of downloads with three days to go, I would call my promo a success. I accept that a percentage of readers won’t like the book, but there are bound to be many among that group who do, and who will go on to purchase my other books.

The key is to publicize the promo in the organizations and groups of which you’re a member. Groups such as Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, Goodreads, etc. Also post your promo on Facebook and Twitter, and ask your friends to share the post. I’ve kept a spreadsheet of the websites I contacted, many of whom listed my offer at no charge, and I’m happy to share it with anyone who cares to ask.

Unless you’re writing just for yourself, you will need to make some kind of investment in getting the word out—time, money, energy—how much is up to you. But your free promo can help build your reader base.
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M.M. Gornell said…
Really good, Sheila, hearing what other authors have experienced--and are experiencing! Continued success...

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