Self-Publishing Secrets Revealed –
Comparing Free and Discounted Promotions

Let’s assume for a moment, or at least for the length of time it takes to read this article, that all authors realize that free promotions are a necessary tool that will help sell books and build their reader base. I know – many of you disagree. Some of you are philosophically opposed while others have different reasons. Leave that discussion for another blog. There are lots of them – and, there will always be lots of them. Instead, let’s analyze something much more important. I’m going to compare the after-effects of free and discounted promotions.

I was one of the lucky ones. I got on the KDP Select train at the beginning of 2012. I ran a free promotion and sold a lot of books afterward. The cliff, or reckoning – that sad day when the inertia ends and your book goes back to its normal rate of sales, happened a month after my promotion ended. I had a glorious month with many paid sales every day. As many of you know, the algorhythms were very much in the author’s favor in those days. At that time I had but a single published book to my name. So, in the months after my initial promotion, while I was furiously creating more works, I ran other free promotions on the same book. I gave my book away once every three months. The results were good, but never as strong as my first run. Bit by bit, the algos continued to change and the period of time between my sale ending and when I hit the cliff became shorter and shorter. I was lucky though, even when the cliff became a measly seven days, and my paid sales went back to their normal rate, I was still earning well and connecting with lots of readers. Then, I hit the wall.

Two things happened. Even though I was receiving information from my colleagues in Indie World that free had become far less effective, I was still a believer. I didn’t want to acceptmartinslide2 that the results I’d had with my first run couldn’t be duplicated. But, I was wrong. When I released my second book – My Name Is Hardly, I ran it for free, gave away thirty thousand’ish e-books but only sold a few hundred copies afterward (as opposed to the thousands I’d sold during my original promotion). Then, as I continued to think that my books would produce different results from my colleague’s efforts, I ran my original book for free one more time. One more time. That was mistake number two.

This produced another thirty thousand’ish freeloads, but afterward – very few paid sales. There was no cliff to hit because I really didn’t see a significant increase in sales compared to my pre-free numbers. I saw some peripheral sales on my other book and that allowed me to make back my advertising costs but the results were very disappointing.

So, having had my head handed to me on a platter, I made some changes. I began running discounted, $0.99 sales. Then, when Kindle Countdown was offered from Amazon, I took advantage of that opportunity to run discounted promotions and pick up a 70% royalty as opposed to 35%. And, it worked. The results during the sales were fantastic. Typically I’d sell a few hundred books at the discounted price as well as a few hundred of my other books (which eventually numbered five). I hit the cliff early after my discounted sales though – very early. Once my sale ended, I’d see an increase in sales of my other books but the promoted book would typically spike for three or four days before hitting the cliff and dropping down the rankings back to its original position. It was okay though. The world had changed and in order to connect with readers and introduce my work I utilized the most effective promotion available to me. I was always tempted though. I could see her, that seductress, smiling at me, calling to me every time I saw a post that heralded the benefits of KDP Select. I never left Select, but I did not run a free promotion for over a year. For one year I limited my major promotions to discounted sales only. Then, I succumbed to her charms. At the end of July, I ran a free promotion on the book that has been so good to me, my first novel – My Temporary Life.

Even though this book has been given away over one hundred and fifty thousand times, it still produced some great results. Readers downloaded my book for free over thirty thousand times. During the promotion I sold hundreds of my other books. In fact I had recouped my costs from my BookBub and Kindle Books and Tips advertising by the second day of a four day promotion. Then, something interesting happened. The free promotion ended and the book that had been on sale spiked. Yes, it did. I sold some books. And, my other books continued to sell well too. And, it didn’t end after a day or two. It continued. I’ve always believed that a promotion should be run toward the end of a month because borrows seem to increase at the beginning of a month, and if you can run your post-promo sales into the new month you’ll see a maximum amount of borrows. This happened. Lots of readers borrowed my books – all of my titles, including the book that had been featured. And, the sales continued. I had a day where they dropped to twenty sales, but then the next day I hit fifty. The cliff hit four weeks afterward. That’s where the difference occurred. I don’t get that type of inertia when I run a discounted sale. It just doesn’t happen.

When we offer our book for free during a promotion its placement is included in Amazon’s Popularity Lists as well as their bestseller rankings. The Popularity Lists include paid and free 30k ebook print-final-080114books and are an important tool in matching readers with books. According to my research Amazon seem to have recently added some weight to the Pop Lists. This doesn’t mean we’ve returned to those heady days when free resulted in huge returns, but it does mean that you may be able to avoid the cliff for a little while longer and sustain some decent sales on your featured book and any others you may have too. And, this means that your post-promo returns may result in significantly higher sales after a free promo than after a discounted promo. Additionally, in the month since my free promo I’ve had forty-five new reviews posted for my books (2 – 3 stars, 6 – 4 stars, and 37 – 5 stars). Again, I don’t see that type of return after running a discounted promotion.

These, of course, are merely my numbers, but they do seem to line up with the results many of my colleagues have experienced. As with any promotion, your mileage may vary. And, my timing was quite opportune with this last free promotion. Kindle Unlimited had been announced a few days before, so my borrows, or KU units went through the roof. I had days where my borrows (or KU units) exceeded my sales. And lastly, I also stress that these types of promotions – free and discounted – are only effective when supplemented by advertising. And, in order to maximize your results the advertising needs to be with a major site. I’ve tried the no-advertising, and advertising on only the smaller sites (which need to be supported too of course). Although smaller, more limited promotions have some benefits, they don’t make the splash that advertising with one of the major players does. Good luck avoiding the cliff. I hope your cliff is but a distant image that doesn’t materialize for a long, long time.



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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Karen Magill says:

    Interesting article Martin. Personally, I don’t have a problem with running free promos and I don’t feel it degrades the value of our books – our work is only worth as much as the public is willing to pay for it. I don’t know how effective the free promotion is any longer.

    As for the Kindle Countdown. I did really well with Missing Flowers when I did the countdown the way it was designed. When I set my non fiction at 99 cents for the four days it didn’t do as well in numbers or in after sales but perhaps that was the genre’s fault.

    It is always good to hear your perspective though.

    • Martin Crosbie says:

      Hi Karen. I agreed with you on the effectiveness of free – until this recent run. This last free promo gave my books a boost that Countdown was not able to. I won’t run another book for free for at least six months but at least it’s given me another option.
      I’m glad you’ve found what’s working for you. That’s the key. Thanks for commenting.

      • Karen Magill says:

        Well, I’ll have to wait and see if it continues to work.Right now, I am so busy getting the personal workshops together I haven’t had time to think about anything else.

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