Self-publishing: A Guidebook for the Tourist#7: The ‘Free’ book experience

Back in March, I published a post about ‘free’ books. It was rather a long one and went into a lot of detail on the subject and my opinion such as it is. To quote myself (because no one else is ever likely to go around quoting me.)

If you have written your first novel and are thinking of making it free, even just free on a kindle countdown type deal… STOP NOW… Seriously, don’t do it, you’re making a grave error.

Safe to say I have opinions on the subject. You can read the full post here if you haven’t read it previously. This post covers the same ground to an extent, but from an alternative perspective. This is because I recently put ‘Cider Lane‘ on a free promotion for a week. Yes, I am aware that contradicts my own advice… but there were reasons and the circumstances are different to the context of the quote above.

With this in mind, I thought it might be helpful to share the details of the experience here. So while I may be repeating myself a little on the subject, for which I apologise, I would like to make it clear my views on ‘Free’ have not changed. This post is not so much about making the choice to give away your hard work, but the implications and results of doing so.

A little perspective first, however. ‘Cider Lane: Of Silences and Stars‘ was my first published novel, and it came out two years ago. Which is to say, I sent it out to the world and ran for cover. Publishing your first novel is a mildly terrifying experience…

cider lane new cover

Is it really ready, does in need one least edit, one last proofread, will anyone read it, will anyone care, will I look like an illiterate incompetent wazzock who should never again be allowed within one hundred feet of a word processor…

Then to further add to the terror, some people bought it, read it and occasionally even left a review behind. People expressed an opinion, something I actually invited people to do, while being terrified of what those opinions might be… But on the whole, despite my basic background paranoia, and utter conviction I was being humoured by most people, they seemed to enjoy it. More people bought it…

Then, as is the way of these things, sales started to drop off…

This came as little surprise, as it would to anyone else, I suspect. No matter how much of your own hubris you inhale. With a few notable exceptions, the first month of sales of a new novel will always be largest. You may get a bit of a surge if you release a new book and it is successful., but for 99% of indie writers, the first month is the one where you get the majority of your sales. It is when family, friends and your extended fanbase are likely to buy a copy. Such sales are a lot easier to get than sales to people who have never heard of you. Indeed, a wise self-publicist will try and optimise these sales, build up pre-release hype and get the book as high in sales charts as possible, because that’s how you get noticed beyond your fan base.  (Interestingly this is also the basis of the biggest mistake I made on the release of ‘Passing Place’ but I will talk about that another time.)

‘Cider Lane’ has been successful sales wise, in my own terms, but after a minor surge with the release of ‘Passing Place‘ it has settled down to the odd sale once in a while. The market for it has fallen away and even reducing the price of the E-book makes no real impact. As it stands it is listed for £0.99 and it’s not going to start selling a great many copies no matter how hard I push. It has, to put it simply, had it’s run. An odd sale now and again, while it may please me, is unlikely to make much of an impact on the rest of the world.

So, why keep it listed on KU, after all, I have said before listing it on KU is pointless unless you use the promotion tools? Well, the simple answer is because I forgot to unlist it. Also, truth be told, because it actually makes me slightly more as a KU book, and it still gets the odd KU sale… I can’t, however, put it on a promotional sale, (0.99 is as low as it goes). The only option, therefore, is to put it out on a free to buy promotion. Which on principle I abhor.

However, I am not losing much putting it up on a free promotion. Yes, a few people may pick up a free copy rather than buy it, but that only really means anything if those few people were going to buy a copy anyway. It is not even as if I make anything on the sales. (0.17 per book is not going to buy me a retirement home in the Algarve) Ultimately, readers mean more to me than money at the end of the day. After 24 months, its safe to say everyone I could tempt to buy a copy has bought a copy, and if I could shift fifty more copies on a Free book giveaway what do I actually lose?

(£8.50, if you’re interested in the maths, or the price of a round of drinks for me and my girlfriend on a Friday night in Leeds, and quite a lot less than I make in my day job.)

Fifty free book sales seemed a reasonable target, gettable but a nice number, and even with all my reservations on Free books, the upside of gaining potentially fifty new readers was enough for me take the plunge.  It was also a way to test my own theories of how best to approach a sale, and if I could hook readers with one book, well that’s certainly to my benefit as a writer. If I was going to do it, however, I was going to do it right.

Right means some concerted advertising on social media, Facebook posts on book groups, several tweets each day, posting on Goodreads, posting on my blog so my mailing list was informed etc. A certain portion of each day (about an hour as it turned out) devoted to getting the message out and letting people know a couple of days in advance.  And, importantly, making use of my network of other authors etc to help get the message out, which is to say, I asked people to share a post and give likes etc. All the things I listed I the previous post on the subject in fact. Which certainly worked better than I expected.

I don’t normally go into details about book sales, but my target of fifty ‘sales’ over the five days of the offer proved to be wildly out. In the first day, thanks in part to Amazon’s approach of highlighting promotional offers, I sold 133. By the end of the five days, it was just the other side of 250. Five times my conservative target. I was in short very pleased and still am. If these figures seem small it is important to remember this is a book that has been out for two years and has already sold fairly well. None of these ‘sales’ I suspect were to people who had even heard of me, or ‘Cider Lane‘ before the promotion started. These are all cold sales, the hardest ones to get.

In terms of ‘sales’, this makes for the best month the book has had since its release. Even if only a fraction of the buyers read the book (again see my earlier post on ‘free’) its a lot of new readers, but let’s be optimistic and say everyone who took advantage of the free offer will read their newly purchased Ebook, or at the very least start to read it. I could be looking at a nice boost to sales of ‘Passing Place‘ in the next couple of months, even though the two novels are wildly different both in subject and genre. I could also be looking at a few reviews, (ever the optimist, as they have failed to materialise so far but one lives in hope).

Most importantly for me personally, however, is ‘Cider Lane’ is getting read by a whole bunch of people it wouldn’t have reached otherwise. All my reservations on ‘free’ books remain. If ‘Cider Lane’ was not 24 months old I wouldn’t have done it.

What then have we learned through this experience, well I guess people like a bargain, but people like a freebie more. Whether they value your work when they get it for nothing is another matter. Hopefully, a few will, hopefully, some will go one to read ‘Passing Place‘, the forthcoming Hannibal Smyth novel A Spider in the Eye and other books I write over the years. Also, if people have read and enjoyed it they may suggest it to other people, which in turn will sell a few more copies of ‘Cider Lane’.  There has been a noticeable upswing in sales since the free offer, not many, but in comparison to the last month before the ‘free’ sale, it is a definite improvement, so some have recommended it to others.

Has the ‘free’ offer been a success? Well, time will tell on that score. It is not an experiment I intend to repeat, the law of diminishing returns being what it is a second free sale would be less successful one suspects.  My reservations on the use of free promotions remain, but if your novel has been out a long time and has ground to a halt with sales, and importantly you have other books out as well, it is certainly worth considering.

There is a distinct lack of quotes in this post so I will leave you with a favourite of no relevance at all….



adios for now



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Other posts on writing and self-publishing are collected here:

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3 Responses to Self-publishing: A Guidebook for the Tourist#7: The ‘Free’ book experience

  1. brad217 says:

    Thanks Mark for the post. I’ve been wondering when to actually offer a novel for free. The 1st draft of my 2nd novel is completed and going to my editor. I know I have months before it is done. Maybe April 2018. And I’m still pitching my 1st novel which is only out 7 months. But I’m concerned with sales – and would rather be read – and as you mentioned – grease the audience for the arrival of the 2nd novel. So I guess timing is everything. Lots to think about. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • darrack1 says:

      You’re welcome Brad
      Mildly amazed you are letting an editor loose on a first draft, you’re clearly a braver man than me, I don’t let anyone see it till the second draft is done at the very least.
      As far as putting your book out for free is concerned I have written too much on the subject to offer my view, you have read my thoughts.
      However, I would avoid doing so until your second novel is ready to go, though reduced price sales through Amazon can work well as an option. (think I mention them in the kindle unlimited post earlier in this series.) It depends on where you have priced your first novel I suspect.
      Best of luck to you all the same, in all honesty, there are no right answers, so do what feels right to you is my advice.


      • brad217 says:

        Oh – I should have clarified about that 1st draft. It has been reviewed by me at least 4 times with major edits and over a period of a few weeks. So I guess it’s not really a true 1st draft – but it still feels like it. And i’ll keep in mind that reduced price. Thanks for the tip.


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