Saturday, February 23, 2013

Power of Free: A Continuing Debate

In a sea of freebies available through from authors through Amazon KDP Select and online sites that curate the listings of available free e-books for their visitors, it's becoming increasingly difficult for authors to leverage the power of giveaways. How can we, rather our titles, stand out?

In almost three years of of self-publishing, I've offered a few freebies to grow an audience and encourage readership, and discussed the pros and cons HERE and HERE. The latest is for Sultana on the two-year anniversary of its publication via four channels; Amazon.com, Kobo, iTunes and Smashwords. This giveaway ends in five days, so get a copy before the offer expires. The goal is to boost interest in the series leading up to the third book, which comes out later this year. Since February 10, there have been 19,012 downloads of the title on Amazon, 2,319 on iTunes and maybe 120 via Smashwords; haven't paid as much attention to the latter. Kobo doesn't provide information on freebies downloaded, but the total tally is around 21,451 downloads in almost two weeks. I view this figure in a variety of ways; some will like the title and want more, or never read it, or just added another free book to their growing list. It's 21.5K people I didn't influence before the title was free.

If you're considering offering freebies, be prepared for the following:
  • You won't be entirely able to control pricing updates, particularly if you're not enrolled in KDP Select or channels where you can easily edit the price. 
  • You can't control when or if Amazon decides to price match, based on a  freebie offered elsewhere. Outside of KDP Select, experience suggests it takes up to a week for Amazon to offer a title for free and up to two weeks to revert to the original price. Why do you care if Amazon price matches? Because they have the most impact in the e-book market. For now.  
  • You can't assume freebies will gain you additional reviews or sales of your other books; mine typically do, especially last year at this time when I offered Sultana for free and saw the boost in sales of Sultana's Legacy. Not so much now. Experience suggests going free works best when you have a series; I would never suggest it to an author who has only one book available, and slightly on par, if you write stand-alone books. 
  • You must accept that some people hoard free books which they will (1) never read (2) never review  (3) trash with one-star reviews because it's not a genre they normally read (4) truly, only downloaded the title because it was free.  
So, what can you control?      

It still starts with the book. If you've written and edited the best book you could, you've laid the groundwork for lots of interest in your freebie. It might surprise you to know, but I think Sultana's Legacy is the stronger of the initial books in my series; Sultana sets up the relationships and conflicts to come, but the consequences that follow in the sequel make it richer and more poignant. But it's not one readers automatically gravitate to after they've read the first book. Interesting, but what do I know? I'm just the writer.

What happens if you haven't produced your best work? Be prepared for those one-star reviews. No amount of planning and promotion is going to help you if everyone thinks the book is a dud. Remember, you can lessen scathing comments by offering up your best work. Mistakes happen, which most except the truly unforgiving trolls will overlook in favor of a good story. Don't feed the trolls by giving them a half-baked book they can devour and spit back at you.  

Setting up distribution channels. You can determine when to make a book available for free via certain channels. For authors still enrolled in KDP Select, one of the benefits is having the power of free at your fingertips are at least for five days in your KDP dashboard. What about the rest of us?

Since removing my titles from KDP Select, this has meant relying on making a title free through Smashwords and its distribution channels. An action that more often than not led to wasted time, tremendous effort and nightmares in general, as certain channels took forever to alter the pricing. In the meanwhile, I'm sitting on my hands waiting for Amazon to price match - here's how it happened this time. I set the title free on Feb. 10. Sales during the week boosted it to the top 100 on Kindle in the Biographical category. Just as it's taking off, Amazon price matched. Figures.

Did you know that if you make your book available directly through Kobo, you can set the price as zero? You do now. Even better, there's now Draft2Digital, which lets you upload a title and distribute via Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo and Amazon (I haven't verified the latter due to my direct uploading to KDP). Even better, using Draft2Digital, you can alter your price to free AND see the number of downloads. Draft2Digital is still in its infancy and doesn't have access (as yet) to Sony, Diesel, Page Foundry, Axis 360 or Blio as Smashwords does. If you're like me and selling next to nothing on these sites, it may not matter. What does, if your title is going free or reverting to the normal price, is the ability to edit and see a change reflected in a business day. Keep an eye on Draft2Digital.  

Planning promotion. Another area you can influence is the number of sites that feature and promote your freebie. You aren't planning to do it all via your website, blog, social media outlets and newsletter, right? Word-of-mouth is key in building momentum for your freebie, especially when you want your title to stand out among the rest. The good news is that most if not all of these sites have Twitter and Facebook accounts that will gain your title more exposure. Experience shows there are tons more sites that will feature your title if it's free on Amazon than any other distribution channel AND there are many that expect you to pay for promoting your free title.

Yup, you read that right - expect to pay something to promote your free title. Seems strange to pay someone to promote what you're giving away, doesn't it? Doesn't mean you have to do it. Your title just won't be featured of those sites that ask for payment. The largest are E-Reader News Today (ENT) and Pixel of Ink (PoI), but BookBub is growing. So are their prices. BookBub did a free spotlight for me so I could test drive their abilities. Otherwise, I wouldn't necessarily want to pay a couple hundred to promote. I'm keeping an eye on them though.

These sites often operate as affiliates and earn commissions off of the traffic they deliver to the online retailers. Most affiliate sites book slots early and often. Here are a few you can approach that have little to no cost associated with featuring a freebie. Also, they don't just highlight Kindle titles.

AddictedtoEbooks.com: free titles on Kindle, but with links to distribution channels at Barnes and Noble, iTunes, Kobo and Smashwords
AskDavid.com:  free titles on Kindle
Epubdeals.com: free and bargain titles on Kobo
Ereaderperks.com: free titles on Kindle, Kobo and Nook
Trindiebooks.com: free titles on Kobo

Some sites indicate they don't take erotica. The two that I found, Free Erotica and Spicy Romance are either defunct or closed for submissions.

Interestingly, Amazon fired off an email to these sites and others participating in its Amazon Associates program that suggests sites which heavily promote freebies will see negative consequences. This might mean those sites would have less ads featuring freebies and more paid books, AND increase the likelihood of authors paying to promote. Personally, I like the latter scenario better than paying to promote a freebie. Author David Gaughran dissects the email in part HERE.

The debate remains whether free is a viable strategy for growing readership. As I've outlined above, there are ways to make it profitable but no guarantees. The takeaway from this post should be about the planning; (1) write a great book worth reading, (2) schedule distribution via channels where you can control the pricing and (3) promote the title as much as you can, through paid and free means. Your mileage may vary, but those three factors within your control will help you expand your reach as an author.      

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