Soft-Selling Books in the Digital Age

hard selling eBooks I’m an Indie author, with only a shaky grip on the whole concept of Marketing, however I recently stumbled across something that really resonated with me as a reader:

‘We are all competing for clock share. First our work has to be worth our audience’s time; only then can we talk about trying to get some of their money.’ – Tom Simon, Clock share: Writers vs. the competition, February 2, 2015

The context for this comment was a discussion about pricing, and the value of ‘free’, or to be more exact, the devaluing of free.

The commenters were indicative of the two opposing camps on this issue: those who believe that we should not devalue our books by putting them up for free, and those who believe that free is merely one more tool in the quest for visibility.

The camp that believes ‘free’ devalues our work equates time and effort with value. Those on the other side believe that a book, once published, becomes a product, and products have no intrinsic value other than whatever the market will allow.

The idea of ‘clock share’ however, puts a whole new perspective on the question because it puts a value on the reader’s time, i.e. even if the book was free, the reader is still investing something of value in it.

Teasing this idea of clock share out a little further, I believe that every time a reader downloads a book, and is disappointed by it, they have wasted not just time, but a little bit of ‘faith’ as well. What value do we place on faith and trust?

Yet even if we concede that both writers and readers invest something in a book, how does that answer the conundrum about pricing?

Again, I want to look at this from a reader’s perspective. When I had more money than I have now, I rarely downloaded free or 0.99 cent books because:

  1. If I knew the author, I wanted to support that author by actually paying for their work,
  2. Or, if I did not know the author, I worried that I’d be getting what I paid for – i.e. not much.

Now that money is a bit tighter than it was, I’m more prepared to check out the free books, and have recently discovered two, new, sci-fi authors as a result.

Ergo, ‘free’ can work, even in 2015. But how much ‘free’, and when, where and how?

To answer at least some of those questions, I’m going to go back to my previous example. The authors in question were recommended to me by another Indie author whose work I respect. So chalk one up for word of mouth, but I was still a long way from biting; I had books on my TBR [to-be-read list] already. I didn’t need any more.

Then, having been told about said authors a couple of times, and having been given the link to their website in an email, I thought – I’d better check them out, just so I can say I’ve done so. That got my foot in the door, so to speak. The kicker, however, was that the authors had two of their earliest books up for perma-free.

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to guess that I downloaded those two free books, and read them. However this voyage of discovery would have ended right there if the stories had not fired my imagination as a reader. Luckily, they did, and now I’m a fan who will go back and buy everything else they have ever written.

And right there, I think, is the moral of my story – word of mouth, a free sample, and great quality turned me into a repeat customer!

Wooing the repeat customer is nothing new – the concept has been around forever, and used to denote the difference between a ‘hard sell’ and a ‘soft sell’. Used car salesmen were notorious for selling lemons via the hard sell because they did not care if the customer came back again, so long as they got his money now. Quality goods, however, were sold via the softer sell of word of mouth and tasteful advertising …in order to woo the customer back.

I believe much the same situation still exists in the digital market place of today. Free may be the hard sell that suckers readers in, but if the quality is not there, they will never go back to that author again.

By contrast, a softer sell that uses ‘free’ in conjunction with quality, and other tools, may not work as fast, but it will bring in repeat customers, and isn’t that what we all want, longevity?

21 thoughts on “Soft-Selling Books in the Digital Age”

  1. Exactly! Free may get their attention, but it’s wasted effort (for both the writer and reader) if they don’t come back for more. Excellent analogy. I think you’ve nailed this perfectly.

    1. I know you can make things perma-free on Smashwords but Amazon is still the place where we need perma-free the most. Good luck, and let me know how you do it.

  2. “Free may be the hard sell that suckers readers in, but if the quality is not there, they will never go back to that author again.”

    Same is true if the suckers paid for their disappointment, isn’t it?

    “Free” is an offer of the author’s time producing a work to readers willing to reciprocate by consuming it. Time is a finite commodity. The challenge is to produce work worth more than the reader’s time investment.

  3. Quality and word-of-mouth–I agree those two are the major determinants of success. Maybe not always the former as some might argue about hugely popular commercial books, but certainly always the latter.

  4. Yes, free works. I was encouraged by a bestselling Indie author friend to put out a book (in this case book one of a sci-fi series) and make it free. I wasn’t supposed to invest a lot of $$ into the book, but take my time and do the best job I could. So when the book went live, Amazon would only let me price it at .99, and all the other sites were free. After much pestering, the Mighty Zon finally placed it for free- which opened up the door to gaining free promos from some large websites (eReader News Today for one). I had over 1,000 downloads in a day- not bad for a nobody author. That free promo I think helped to gain new readers who then ponied up the $3.99 for the next book in the series. Have I achieved major fame and fortune? Na, but I am getting new readers every month as I track my sales on Amazon. And that’s all that counts.

    1. Congratulations Kathy. I think you’ve just shown where and how free can be incredibly effective. I’m a sci-fi fan so I’ll have to check your books out. 🙂

  5. There’s always an economy of scale…
    Free book, for a while is a great marketing tool. But the product has to be good to [hopefully] reap the reward of reciprocal positive reviews.
    Free book, because the author has written it and wants it out there is a waste everyone’s time. Wait, put into the hard yards, earn it and truly enjoy the accomplishment.
    Sequels… my pet e-book hate is slim volumes, initially free or cheap, and the rest rolled out with bigger price tags. C’mon give us readers some credit for intelligence.
    Sequels… my pet hardcopy hate is sequels that have nothing new to say. C’mon give us readers some credit for discernment.

      1. The serials I’ve encountered have been more than a dollar each, and when added up the cost has far exceeded what I’d expect to pay for the complete novel… just sayin’.

  6. If these all-you-can-read subscription services like Kindle Unlimited and Scribd pan out, I think that’s the end of free book marketing “value” for e-books. It already feels like it’s become challenging just to give books away — the competition to stand out in the free/99 cents market is just as tough as the paying market. It seems like you need to take out ads and list them on sites like this that market free book Thursday or something similar just to get a third of what was once so much easier. Time magazine swears the e-book market in reversing, but I don’t believe that –> But it is interesting to think where the book market will be in just 3 or 4 years from now. I think it’s going to be vastly different with more people signing up for subscription services.

    1. I’m a hoarder in more ways than one so to me, subscription services are like libraries – a great idea for other people. I like to own my favourite books too much.

      I definitely agree about the rate of change though. We live in interesting times. 🙂

  7. FREE gets attention, but the quality of the “product” (aka book or short story) is the serious part of the soft sell. I truly hope that by posting short stories for free on my site and by pricing my ebooks in the “impulse purchase range” of $2.99 and under, that my marketing is respectful of the reader and doesn’t diminish me.

    1. I think your books are exactly where they’re meant to be, Candy – right price, great quality, all ticks. All that’s missing, perhaps, is the effective frequency Lynne mentioned.

      I hadn’t heard about effective frequency until Lynne posted about it a while back but basically, the theory is that consumers [of any product] require 6 [help me out here Lynne!] exposures to a product or brand before they’re prepared to take a chance on that product or brand – i.e. one of our books.

      I know it took a confluence of happy circumstances to get me to try something new. Perhaps this is where having a body of work comes into the equation – the more titles you have, the more likely it is that a new reader will stumble across at least one of them the requisite number of times.

      Anyway, apologies for the long answer. My morning caffeine hasn’t hit yet. 🙂

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