To Free or Not to Free?

A Different Sort of Free Book (photo by Todd Bol)
A Different Sort of Free Book (photo by Todd Bol)

So you’re finished writing your book. It’s revised and edited and ready to go. You’ve formatted it for Kindle, but you have a choice to make. To enroll or not to enroll–that’s one more question you have to ask yourself.

When I first launched Take Back Tomorrow a little more than a year ago, I formatted it for Kindle and, like any other self-publishing author going through Amazon, had to consider whether I’d enroll the book in Amazon’s KDP Select program. Since conditions of enrolling require a book to be exclusive to Amazon, I thought that was a bad idea. Why limit myself?

So I then jumped through the hoops to reformat the book for Smashwords and again for Lulu. Sort of a pain, but I thought it was worth the trouble as all of that work would get the book available for the Nook at Barnes and Noble, make it available on iBooks at the Apple site, not to mention all the exposure it would get at Smashwords and Lulu.

The book sold slowly at Amazon, but I think I only got one sale at Smashwords and none at Lulu. So after about six months, I re-thought my original choice and pulled the book from Smashwords and Lulu and went with Amazon exclusively. Sorry, Nook owners.

It took me a while to start taking advantage of KDP Select’s free days. I was leery of giving books away, as I think is true of a lot of people new to self-publishing. I’m trying to make sales here, after all. Not gestures of good will.

Still, after a lot of reading other bloggers and writers on a variety of sites, I decided to give it a shot. The logic behind giving books away is this: as a new, self-published writer, readers don’t know me from any other writer. And unless there’s much word of mouth, they’re not likely to stumble across my book. And if people do stumble onto it, they’re not likely to buy unless there are some trustworthy reviews.

But if a book is free…people are more willing to give it a try. And if it’s free for a limited time only, then people are getting a bargain. Who doesn’t like a bargain?

So I decided to give it a shot. My first free day was used on my novella, Dead Man’s Hand. I did nothing to promote it as free except to put up a post on Facebook. I gave away 110 copies. Not bad, I thought.

After a few weeks went by and no new reviews came in, I started feeling soured on the whole Free thing.

But I did some more reading, and found out (1) that novellas tend not to do well on Free days (I still haven’t heard a good explanation as to why). And (2) if you really want to make the most of KDP free days, you have to do some work ahead of time to promote.

So I tried again, still skeptical that KDP free days were right for me, but definitely open to the idea that getting my book into people’s hands (or into their Kindles) for free could lead to some reviews and some positive word of mouth.

There are a lot of sites that will promote free books without charging the author, and a lot more that will do so for a small fee, and some that will do it for a large fee. Several are listed here and here.

I went with the free sites at the end of November with Take Back Tomorrow. Sometime around noon, I’d given away around 250 copies and thought that was pretty cool. Then I checked again and the number had jumped to 600 in the space of about an hour. I still don’t know what happened, but after that it took off. People were downloading the book at a rate of 5 per minute for the rest of the day.

I added another day and then a third. By the end of the third day, downloads were slowing, so I ended the giveaway.

I had given away more than 5000 copies in three days, cracked the Top 100 of free books on Amazon and reached #2 on the free science fiction list. I was astounded.

Now the question was whether those 5000 copies would actually get read. And if the readers would post reviews of the book on Amazon.

In the days that followed, I got a small but steady stream of sales. That stream slowed and slowed as December rolled into January, but I did get some reviews. I had 5 before the 5000 downloads and 14 a month later, mostly 4-stars.

I decided to go for it again this past week, and this time I went through the same steps of contacting free book promotion sites. 2 days free and just over 2000 copies. Not bad at all. Again, I’m hoping those 2000 copies actually get read and that a solid number of those readers post reviews.

Whether that happens or not, though, I’m now a firm believer in KDP Select. More free days to follow.

A bit of advice for people new to KDP Select:

  • Work at getting some reviews before you go free. The free promo sites will be more likely to list your book if it’s got some reviews behind it. Try contacting book bloggers here to see if they’ll review your work for free.
  • Definitely use the promo sites. Again, you can find some good lists of them here and here. It’s a bit time consuming to input all your information, but if you can get a few of these sites to list your books on your free days, it’s worth the trouble.
  • If your free promo is going well, extend it another day to keep the momentum going.

I’m curious to hear how successful others have been in offering free books on KDP Select and whether they feel it’s been worthwhile in the long term. Does giving away free copies eventually lead to steady sales and plenty of word of mouth? Or is it forever a case of ebbing and flowing downloads–free and paid?


2 thoughts on “To Free or Not to Free?

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