Free As A Tool

If someone had told me five years ago when my first book was published that I’d be mentioned in a NYT article, I may have had trouble believing it. I’m very, very blessed. Let me get that out of the way. It’s something I try to remember every day, no matter how craptastic the day is.

The NYT article entitled With Kindle, The Bestsellers Don’t Need to Sell – is on the front page of this morning’s New York Times and it’s about how free can be a great promotional tool. I think the title is a bit misleading – sure if you do a free giveaway you can rank at the top of the bestseller’s list in the Kindle store, but the point of a free giveaway is to expose a large group of readers to an author’s voice to hopefully bring a portion of them back as readers who will then pick up your other titles which aren’t free.

This happened to me, but the giveaway in October wasn’t the first time. I’ve always given my books away for free in contests. Before Triad came out I have believed that giving away my books is the most effective form of promotion. Other authors disagree, but as this is my blog, LOL, I’m saying it’s effective and that’s backed by five years of experience.

I not only give away my own titles, but I love to give away other people’s books too to hopefully hook readers on something I really loved. For me, the cost is not about – “I spent X and on this title I need to make Y in royalties” because promotion should never be about a single title. It should be about an author’s voice. When you’re starting out, you need to find a way to stand out, to give readers a reason to choose your title over the twelve or twenty also out that day. Banner ads can’t compete with word of mouth, IMO. Real people talking to their friends about something they loved. Of course you take a chance that people who read the book you gave them will hate it, LOL, but that’s a chance you always take as a writer. You do the best job you can and you set the book free out there. Some people will love it, some will hate it. You just hope the balance is weighted in the love it camp.

A free book is the absolute best way to show your work. How can it not be? How can a banner ad compare to that? Sure it gets your name out there if people visit whatever site you’ve placed the ad on and name repetition is important too (I do blog ads so I do obviously believe in the efficacy of ads as well). Digital books are even easier to give as prizes – you can send them immediately, there’s no trip to the post office and the cost to the author is lower just due to those facts alone.

Let me quickly distinguish this form of free from piracy – piracy is NOT free. Piracy is people other than the owner of the material offering up a download to everyone and their brother online to steal. Thousands of downloads at a time. This is not helpful. This is not “sharing” because you can’t share what you don’t own. And pirates don’t own those sorts of use rights. Piracy sucks. It hurts authors and my opinion of it is quite clear. Don’t do it and call yourself a fan or a booklover. You can steal an MP3 player from Best Buy and call yourself a fan, but you’re still a thief.

Back to the topic at hand – free as a tool. Because my numbers are quoted in the article and because I don’t normally discuss them in such detail, let’s break out what success means in this context:

Giving Chase is a title that released from a recent start up at the time, Samhain publishing, in 2006. The other three books in the series followed with the last releasing digitally in 2007 and appearing in a staggered fashion in print roughly 10 months after digital release. The books were not erotic romance, but highly sensual, small town romances, a total departure from what I had written before.

Samhain did a Kindle giveaway for Giving Chase once before and I got a nice bump but at the time, it was print that really pushed me into a whole new readership. At that point, Kindle wasn’t as widespread as it is now, not all my books were available at the kindle store and so that success was moderate, but still nice.

Some years later, with Kindle being far more successful, I began seeing increases in my numbers as my books began to list there. It was at this time that they asked me if they could use Giving Chase as a free giveaway for the whole month of October. I agreed.

Why did I agree? The book still sells well for a book that is now 4 years old, but it’s an old title. What did I have to lose really, from all that exposure? If it fizzled, I wouldn’t be out a whole lot and sometimes it’s good to take a chance.

Samhain promoted it. Kindle promoted it and I promoted it. The huge number of Kindle fans who’ve started blogs and lists of the free offerings at the Kindle store listed the books. The level of chatter about the free offerings was far greater than the last time we did a giveaway. This, IMO, was hugely important.

But in publishing, time moves at a different pace. Everything is a lot slower. I saw the ranks so I figured I was doing well, but pretty much forgot about it in the chaos of the holidays, having my family visiting and the kids being home. (I did just stop looking at the Amazon pages for the books because free also means people who don’t really read romance will grab the book and hate it. Hate is fine, but really, my skin is only so thick so it’s best for me not to read those reviews, LOL.)

So I got a ping from Crissy Brashear, the publisher of Samhain some weeks back wherein she told me what those numbers were and I nearly passed out. When she broke down how the other three books in the series did – I realized we’d achieved a 10% return on those who got the free download who then went and grabbed the other books.

10% is a big number. A really big number when you consider the age of the titles. My other kindle available books got a nice bump too. When I look at the numbers what I see are the small press books doing the best. Why that is I can’t say for sure, but I think several things are in play:

  • Price Point – my Samhain titles are priced at under seven dollars for novels and under four bucks for novellas.
  • Availability – my titles with traditional NY print publishers are more available in stores (in print). For the time being, I think there are a few different streams of readers who access reading material in “go to” ways in divergent fashions. I do believe the dominance of the Kindle will change this, IS changing this. I think in a year, the numbers will have a far less dramatic difference
  • Comfort with digital books in general – This relates to the point above in a major way. I started in small press, many of those in my reader base have at least one, if not more, ebook reader and have read digital books for years. Many started with some of the first wave digital publishers like Ellora’s Cave so they’ve got a comfort level built in. Again, this is changing as ebook readers become more readily available, easier to use, less expensive and more omnipresent in our culture.
  • Am I a millionaire? No. I still get excited when I find a five dollar bill in a pocket of old jeans. Do I believe that in this case, free books have bumped up my name recognition and overall sales? Yes. Yes and it happened with something that’s an expression of who I am as an author. That’s priceless in an age where you can go into any bookstore and see shelf after shelf of books. I’m not a NYT bestseller (yet), I don’t get book tours or even free ads from my publishers. I’m scrambling and fighting to reach midlist and beyond.

    Promotion is a fact of life for authors. Most of us find it time consuming and exhausting. Some authors don’t do any at all, but I can’t afford not to. What I have to do is think about promotion in a comprehensive fashion because like most authors, I have a thousand other responsibilities in my life and I still have to write the books I need to promote. Spamming a thousand people at facebook every day with comments about my book being the awesomest on the planet will not help, in fact it turns people off. Spamming twitter won’t help either.

    To those who repeat the “just write the best book you can and they’ll come” mantra – I have to disagree. Unless you’re already established, what’s going to get that reader to grab your book over the one a shelf over? Each month you’re competing with hundreds of other titles similar to yours in some fashion. Those of us who aren’t at the Nora Roberts level (which is most of us because hello, it’s pretty rare to achieve that – and you know she works her butt off too to keep that) have to be smart about raising our titles above the rest, about standing out in a non-trainwreck way (and you all know who you are – all publicity is NOT good publicity in this case).

    At the end of the day, something like giving away a book or a track from a new album IS important. Free won’t make you a success if your book or your song sucks, or if you can’t keep up pace and continue to put out good work. But it’s underrated. It’s totally simple, which is part of the beauty, isn’t it?

    17 comments to “Free As A Tool”

    1. Shannon Stacey
      January 23rd, 2010 at 1:20 pm · Link

      A random list of facts that makes me agree with you:

      I got my 1099 from Samhain today.

      In October, the first book in my Devlin Group series, 72 Hours, was free for Kindle for two weeks.

      My most recenty royalty statement included October’s Kindle sales.

      My Kindle-only sales for October were more than my entire 2009 earnings.

      And to illustrate the ripple effect of a free title, my highest Kindle sellers in October were not books 2 and 3 of the Devlin Group series, but Forever Again, a traditional romance which was a launch book for Samhain, so that was…Jan of 2006?

      My upcoming release from Carina is a straight-up contemporary romance which will hopefully appeal to the many people who read Forever Again because 72 Hours was free and got my name mentioned many, many places.

      So far, that two week period of having a free book available for Kindle is the best thing that’s happened to my career.

      Will it last now that I don’t have a free book in the limelight anymore? Let’s just say I went and bought my new Macbook now instead of waiting until next month. But I’d like think that some of those readers who saw my name out there and gave me shot, whether they paid for the book or got it for free, will come back again.

    2. Zoe Winters
      January 23rd, 2010 at 1:28 pm · Link

      I totally agree with what you’re saying. My beef with “freeconomics” is the camp that says you should give away ALL digital versions and rely on that to drive your print sales.

      It works wonderfully for authors like Cory Doctorow, but the only problem is… if Ebooks ever become the primary delivery method then those who were giving “ALL” E away for free are screwed because it’s very hard to monetize something after you’ve conditioned your entire customer base to expect it for free.

      After a certain point if a reader isn’t willing to pay for anything and expects it all for free, they’re just taking advantage of you. (IMO)

      I plan to always have “something” out free, and definitely to take advantage of “limited time only” free offers, because that drives more demand to “get it while you can for free.” With “indefinitely free stuff” there isn’t quite that urgency.

    3. Lauren
      January 23rd, 2010 at 1:45 pm · Link

      Zoe – yeah well people should feel free to do whatever they want with their own titles, but I’ve got to say my digital sales make me more in royalties than my print does, so that logic is backward.

      Shan – Yeah, I’m with you on that! I’m interested to see what November’s Kindle numbers are going to be like. I know readers are going to come back to you because your books are amazing and now they know it because of that giveaway.

    4. Roni Griffin
      January 23rd, 2010 at 1:59 pm · Link

      Yeah, the free thing so works on me. I just recently downloaded a free harlequin on kindle and sure enough, as soon as I finished, I went and bought the next installment from that author.

      I think it’s a great idea for authors, especially when there are more books in the same series.

    5. Zoe Winters
      January 23rd, 2010 at 2:04 pm · Link

      LOL, yeah. I know I gotta put down the crack pipe and let people do whatever they’re going to do. I just get so damn crusade-y about it.

    6. Lillie A
      January 23rd, 2010 at 2:36 pm · Link

      There is at least 2 auto-buys on my list that started out with freebies. The last time Jaci Burton had a large promo, she was giving away books by other authors. I won Adrenaline by Shannon Stacey. Two days later, I had it in my hands (thank you amazon prime) and two days after that I was hunting down Shannon’s backlist.

      I hadn’t heard of Moira Rogers until a friend RTed one of their twitter contests. I started following Bree, won the book, and became a total fan-girl. And I’m one of those obnoxious people that has to tell everyone when I find a book I’ve enjoyed (including my poor non-reader husband.) I talk about in on yahoo groups, I blog about it, and I rave. So, just from a readers perspective, free works. Loooove free!

      Oops! Didn’t mean to type that much. Going away now… ๐Ÿ˜ณ

    7. Shannon Stacey
      January 23rd, 2010 at 2:39 pm · Link

      And Iรขโ‚ฌโ„ขm one of those obnoxious people that has to tell everyone when I find a book Iรขโ‚ฌโ„ขve enjoyed…

      Our favorite kind of people! ๐Ÿ˜†

      And thank you. ๐Ÿ™‚

    8. Laurie London
      January 23rd, 2010 at 3:40 pm · Link

      Congrats on being singled-out in the NYT article. Wow!

      (Okay, when you get your next numbers, we’ll want a report on whether you noticed a bump from the free publicity.)

      I love freebies and have gone on to buy books from those authors as a result–authors I probably wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.

      Also, reading a book digitally is a new experience for many. By offering free downloads, someone can try it w/o risk and hopefully enjoy reading books that way.

      This happened to me with my Iphone. I wouldn’t have believed I could read a book on my phone until Harlequin offered a bunch of free downloads. Now, I can read in the car, at the orthodontist office, at the bank, because I always have my phone with me. It was a way for me (don’t own a reader yet) to try that format without any risk. I’ve now bought books just to read on my Iphone.

    9. Lori
      January 23rd, 2010 at 4:09 pm · Link

      I agree. I found some authors I’d put off reading until their book was free. And of course, I went and bought more from them. (You can’t include me in your Kindle sales #s, though, since I already have all of yours and Shannon’s books ๐Ÿ˜€ ). But I think it’s a fabulous way to introduce an author to thousands of people. And we consumers appreciate it, too!

    10. Jamie D. (@VarietyPages)
      January 23rd, 2010 at 4:36 pm · Link

      Congrats on your article!

      I’ve always thought that freebies would help drive book sales, and I love being able to “sample” work before I buy. Quite often I’ll read something free (downloaded from a web site or blog – I don’t have a kindle), and go buy that author’s entire backlist, so it definitely works on me. That’s my strategy with my blog serials – get people wanting more, then when/if I finally get published, I’ll have at least some people who will be in line to buy the first “official” book (and hopefully more after that).

      So often artists and writers are told to “never give their work away” – I’m glad the tide seems to be changing on that (though giving away all digital editions seems too far).

      Great post – excellent information. ๐Ÿ™‚

    11. Tina S.
      January 23rd, 2010 at 5:24 pm · Link

      I love getting free books, especially if they are a first in a series. Usually if I like the book I will go and buy the others. It allows me to read other authors I might not have heard about or just might have overlooked.

    12. Meg
      January 24th, 2010 at 7:54 am · Link

      These promotions do work! I have found several authors that I would’nt have picked books from if they weren’t offered free! I learned from you Lauren that I could go to diffrent authors web sites (and other forums) to find out what they are offering free which allows me to afford to try new authors and genres ! Thanks for all you do to make your readers feel special! Meg ๐Ÿ™‚

    13. Jackie Burris
      January 24th, 2010 at 1:07 pm · Link

      ๐Ÿ˜€ ๐Ÿ˜€ ๐Ÿ˜€ Free you say, like that word when it is used in the same sentence with books! I have bought more new books because of something I won in a giveaway drawing than because I was already reading something by a particular author. I love following all the contests and posts like this one by you Lauren because you are dead on, promoting is all about building a fan base and if you start out by using free books and they are good the readers like myself will then buy
      Reading is a treasure and people like yourself who are willing to share that with free books and help other authors like yourself by promoting their works, these people are treasures also. Keep it up and we the fans are behind you all the way, even those like me who now have more books to read than may ever find the time for!!!

      jackie b central texas

    14. MichelleKCanada
      January 24th, 2010 at 1:41 pm · Link

      You know my favorite form of publicity? (besides of course the awesome book giveaway contests that you hold)
      I love to read the reviews on Amazon. I can tell a good book review and a lousy one. I really like the honest ones where the reviewer really tells like they feel. I have purchased more books that way than any other way. As such, I try to do reviews back hoping that I can help someone else like me.

    15. Sheri Salazar
      January 24th, 2010 at 8:12 pm · Link

      I totally agree with you. I buy a lot of books, digital and print. So I am a good risk to give a free book. I have found a several new authors through free books or $1.00 books, (almost free). I also think as far as digital books go, bundling is a good thing. I actually bought the first three books for the Chase series in a bundle at Diesel Ebooks, because it was a great deal! Since then I’ve bought everything you’ve done that I can find!

    16. Taige Crenshaw
      January 25th, 2010 at 8:43 am · Link

      Congrats on your mention in the NYT article.

      And I totally agree with free as a tool. It costs nothing and is a great way to try out an author. Also I get a real rush out of doing free reads. Giving back to readers who have supported me.

    17. Teddypig
      February 11th, 2010 at 10:09 am · Link

      Well sure, people responded well because that Chase series is one of your best. I read the first one and immediately bought the rest.

      I keep telling you that you rock with the whole small town, big family thing. I hope you do more for Samhain like that. Even Lora Leigh does not have that trick.

      I also think people respond to you personally because you are positive and because you are excited about ePublishing and you embrace it’s potential. That’s going to make you stand out from the traditional crowd.