Slow Thriller* Writers and Free Books

(*It’s the rate of writing that’s slow, not the pace of the fiction…)

confusing author issues question-mark-1872665_960_720Back in 2012 I tried enrolling a novel of mine in KDP Select, or whatever it was called back then. I booked five FREE days, and was surprised when the book got thousands of downloads, hitting the number one free download ranking in both the US and UK Amazon stores. In the month that followed, thanks to the generous Amazon algorithms at the time, I sold several thousand full-priced copies of the book.

It was about then that I got a mail from a company called BookBub, explaining that they had promoted the title for FREE, without me knowing. That’s how BB started, targeting mainly indie authors as a means of showing how effective BB advertising could be.

I remember saying on Indies Unlimited back then that however beneficial a FREE run on Amazon might be, I didn’t think I’d ever pay to advertise the fact. Pay to give stuff away? I mean, who’d do that?

Five years is a long time, right?

These days BB slots are highly coveted, even ads for FREE books, and there are dozens of smaller sites taking up the slack for those who can’t get onto BB. FREE became firmly established as the loss-leader of choice for series writers in particular, and especially for longer series, where title #1 (of five, six…) is often priced as permanently FREE. This no doubt it keeps the sales ticking over, with sporadic ads pushing things along on both the FREE and paid titles in the series.

As I write, FREE as a marketing strategy might be on its way out. Amazon has long since limited its influence on sales ranking, and also limits the number of free titles an advertising site can push while retaining its Associate status.

So, FREE is perhaps no longer the easy road to steady sales, even for those with a long list of titles on which to base their promos. But what about those of us who write slowly, and have only one series to promote? That’s the situation with me. Book #1 of my solitary series came out in December 2011, and book #3 was published last month. Not exactly white hot speed at the keyboard.*



So, even as I stir myself manfully towards the first etchings of a plot for book #4, hoping to have something substantial on the page before the televised stages of the Americas Cup in June herald in another unproductive summer (see particularly the sun-related EXCUSES, above), what should I be doing to promote the series as a whole? Is it time to make book #1 PERMAFREE? That’s 33% of the current series, and although it’s not a cash cow, the money it generates is definitely worth having. I’d have to sell 50% more of the other two titles just to recoup the lost revenue.

The question is, am I now in the same position vis PERMAFREE as I was about paid FREE ads five years ago? I dunno. But if PERMAFREE is the inevitable route for series writers, then it seems equally inevitable that its effectiveness will diminish as more series are promoted this way. There are currently plenty of voices on Kindleboards saying exactly that, and I haven’t even tried it yet.

It may be that I’m too late. If so, how long will it be before free-based promotional strategy takes over and becomes the norm? Moreover, what will it be?

Here are some suggestions: 1) Setting up a permanent advertising budget on Amazon (for example, a percentage of net earnings for a title), effectively ceding a portion of your income to Amazon simply to maintain sales traction; 2) Bundling a FREE title with every bought one; 3) PERMAFREE for titles #1 and #2 as the norm; 4) PERMAFREE on all books until they attain a certain number of downloads/page reads, then you’re allowed to charge for the titles (it could be called ‘threshold-oriented crowdsourcing’).

Who knows… People keep reminding us that the pie has not gotten any smaller (insert link to the wiki article on zero-sum games, or a photo JA Konrath in the jacuzzi). Yet just getting a few crumbs now seems to cost more, be it in ads or lost revenue, or both. If one could pre-empt the next promotional trend, it seems as if vast sales and great riches must necessarily follow. So, any thoughts?

All I can figure out to do right now is offer up free review copies of THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS, crime thriller #3 in my John Ray / LS9 series. I figure that is becoming a necessary focus because, really, what happened to people leaving reviews on Amazon? The formula used to be one review for about 200 sales. Did reviewing stuff on Amazon become unfashionable all of a sudden? I guess I’m always late to the party.

Author: John Barlow

John Barlow writes both fiction and non-fiction, publishes occasional food journalism and also works as a ghost-writer. In addition, he is a translator, and has a side-line in eBooks for language learning. His John Ray / LS9 crime thriller series is currently exclusive to Amazon. If you'd like a review copy of The Communion of Saints, please contact John through his website.

4 thoughts on “Slow Thriller* Writers and Free Books”

  1. I only have the first book of my detective series out at the moment, book two is coming later in the year, and I already have four other titles on paper, along with a bunch of other titles, but I am debating the whole FREE thing.
    I have a short story that is currently perma-free, but it’s unconnected to the series so doesn’t drive much in that direction, and I’ve been wondering about doing a 5 day stint of free for my novel to try and get it some traction. What I’ve heard about Amazon’s changed algorhythms puts me off because the gain seems so much lower than it used to be.
    The only benefit I can see is getting additional exposure via the also-bought section and possibly reviews.

  2. Hi John,
    Someday, I hope to have your problem, but I am years away from that. What do you really want to accomplish. Do you want those who are already buying your series to get your book 4 for free, they would have had to buy 1, 2 and 3 first. Do you want to attract more new readers to your series and loose your major income producer (book 1) by giving it away permafree? Definitely not. It sounds like you want to restore interest in the series after book 1. Your readers are buying book 1 and holding back on Books 2 and 3, Perhaps, you may want to try rotating some timely kindle count down promotions for books 2 and 3 while you launch book 4 during the pre-order or Release. This might generate the renewed interest you need to get the reader to move through the series on to buy book 4 and beyond.

    I hope this helps you decide what you really want to do. And remember to promote them on your web page and in your newsletter, and what ever works best for you.

    Best Wishes

  3. Hi, John: You do have a dilemma…how best to present your work to an audience. IMO, a perma-free unit is to introduce one’s writing style and stories to a new audience. What I notice with a half-dozen of my colleagues is this: A unit is made perma-free, but is seldom smartly promoted. The free unit has to be promoted to draw a new audience to the authors list. But! If an author’s list is in Amazon Select, promoting perma-free on other venues does not draw as wide an audience as one hoped. Short stories and novellas priced at 99c/free/perma-free are a hard sell. I don’t engage in perma-free, but I do promote colleagues perma-free shorts in my newsletter and those do not get as many downloads as a full-length book offered free or 99c for a limited time. I also track books. While perma-free units may have a sales rank say at 10K, the author’s other units are not in the money and only rise in stats when in promotion. Others surely have a different experience with perma-free, but I actually only know personally one author who promotes her perma-free to advantage to her list. Her perma-free book best seller rank is usually in 400 or 500. Thus, when she promotes a unit, she has a nice response who enjoyed her perma-free. Good luck with whatever you decide to do. The nice thing about being an indie author is one can change tactics to find what works best for our books.

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