The Power of Free in Book Marketing


The post today focuses on the power of free in book marketing. To be frank, I really dislike the concept of permafree (permanently free) eBooks. The popularity of this marketing tactic produces at least three very negative things for authors and publishers.

  • It conditions readers to believe it is unnecessary to pay for eBooks because there are plenty of great books available that don't cost a cent.
  • The popularity among self-publishers of making the first book in a series permafree has created a literal glut of free eBooks. Not only is Amazon awash with them, but you can also find heaps of free books on all the other online retailer sites as well as on the sites of the many book promotion sites that have sprung up over the years.
  • Permafree books, in my opinion, is one of the biggest reasons that most indie fiction authors are unable to price their books above $2.99. The massive numbers of permafree books conditions potential book buyers to believe that all eBooks should be cheap because they have little value.

Of course, I understand the thinking behind permafree books. The idea is that if an author offers the first book in a series free, some of the readers who download and read the free book and really like it will return and purchase the other books in the series. I know that works at least to some extent, but I also know there is a huge number of readers out there who will take the free book, but never pay for another book in the series no matter how much they may have enjoyed reading the free one.

Still, the fact remains, people love free.

A Turkish proverb says - “Vinegar that is free is sweeter than honey.” But how can we explain the power of free?

In studying the response of consumers to free offers, Duke University behavioral scientist Dan Ariely found that free, “only had an upside. It creates an emotional reaction. It makes us value it more.” He goes on to add, “We don’t think of zero as having any downside. It’s a category by itself, and we think about it very differently.”

If you listen to the advice of self-publishing experts today, nearly all say there are two things an indie fiction author should do to have the best chance of publishing a successful book.

  1. Enroll the book in Kindle Select, the Amazon exclusive deal.
  2. Once an author has a second book published, the first book should be made permanently free as a way of attracting more readers and gaining more visibility for the author on Amazon.

More and more self-published authors are taking the advice of the experts. They are enrolling their books in Kindle Select and making their first book in a series permanently free.

I've resisted both. I've always published wide, and I've never made a book permanently free. Until now. I've given up. I'm drinking the permafree Kool-Aid. You've heard the old idiom. "If you can't beat them, join them." So many indie fiction authors are offering a permanently free book these days, in a real sense, they have already made the choice for the rest of us. The permafree crowd is getting visibility for their books in the marketplace, while stubborn authors like me go begging. All of the self-published authors I'm trying to compete with offer a permafree book. I've finally accepted that as long as I stubbornly resist the idea of doing the same, I can't compete with them. My books will just continue to sink into the morass of the now estimated 8 million eBooks on the virtual shelves of Amazon.

Last week, I made Come What May, the first book in the Malone series free on all the retail sites that allow you to do it. That included every retailer except Amazon of course. Amazon does not like free eBooks anymore than I do. They don't make it easy for an author or publisher to offer their book permafree on Amazon. Amazon is all about making money, and giving stuff away doesn't make money.

Several days after I listed Come What May as free on the other book retailer sites, and it showed as free on all of them, I started nudging Amazon to match the free price using the "Would you like to tell us about a lower price?" link found near the bottom of every book page. After 3 days of that, Amazon hadn't budged. So, I emailed KDP Support. I informed them that Come What May was available permanently free at all their competitors. I told them neither they nor I was going to see any further income from the book. Why would someone buy the book on Amazon when they could get it free everywhere else.

Twenty-four hours later, Amazon relented and price-matched the free price of the other online booksellers. Here is what happened when the Amazon price dropped to $0.00 last Friday afternoon. People started downloading Come What May in numbers I haven't seen in a good long time. On Saturday, the number of downloads soared. On Sunday that continued. Thousands of people downloaded the book.

Before this massive uptick in downloads, Come What May was ranked in the #300,000 range on the paid Kindle store list. It ranked between the #5000s and #10,000s in the three categories the book is in. Starting Friday evening, Come What May started rocketing up the free Kindle store rankings. By Saturday evening the book was at #261 on the Kindle store free book list. It was at #8 in two of its categories, and #10 in the third. It got as high as #6 in crime fiction on Sunday, before the upward momentum started to level off. I was literally gobsmacked. With all the permafree books on Amazon now, I never for a moment expected any of that to happen.

Realistically, getting high rankings in the Kindle store free books list is nothing to get terribly excited about. After all, you don't make a penny in royalties when giving away free books. But, what was exciting was getting the benefit of the massive increase in visibility not only for Come What May but the other books in the series.

To be sure, it was only a tiny fraction of the number of free Come What May downloads, but I did get sales from the other two books in the series, as well as a few sales from some of my backlist titles. That was exciting indeed. The summer months are traditionally the worst months of the year for book sales. So far, this summer has been hands down the worst summer ever for book sales for me. But, in only one weekend, my book sales for the month is now approaching what I have historically seen during the winter and fall months, traditionally the best months for me for book sales.

Obviously, I have been wrong about the power of free in book marketing. Evidently, it really is a case of a rising tide lifts all boats. Making Come What May permafree has already resulted in more book sales than my most successful AMS ads. So, if you are a fiction author with multiple books, especially if you write series, the experts are right. If you don't offer a permafree book, and your book rankings on Amazon aren't as high as you wish they were, you probably should think about offering a permafree book.

It remains to be seen whether my decision to make Come What May free will translate into gaining new followers or getting more book reviews. But, I'm already reaping the benefits of more visibility on Amazon, visibility I've not been able to achieve with any other marketing tactic I've tried. So, unless Come What May falls precipitously in the rankings, I expect to leave it permanently free.

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