If you read the cool comments under my posts, you may remember a dialogue I had with author M T McGuire, where I offered her a guest post spot if she’d share her experience making her book, Few Are Chosen, permafree.
She not only came through, but has written one of the most comprehensive, honest and fascinating posts I’ve ever read on the subject. I hope you find it as interesting as I did!
My Permafree Experience
Hello everyone and thank you, Nicholas, for inviting me here today. I’m going to talk about permafree books, or my permafree experience, to be precise.
So, Permafree? that’s like Born free, right?
Not exactly. In case you’re new to this and don’t know, a permafree book is free to download from all the major retailers. In my case, the book we are looking at started as a nascent kernel of utter bilge in my twenties and finally came to fruition when I was 40 years of age … although if I count the time I was honestly trying to write a novel, I’d say it took 13 years to whip it into a decent book. Subsequent novels have taken about 18 months to 2 years each.
Neat, so how do I do it?
Well, you have to sell your books across all the retailers. Then you make it free on their sites and get as many folks as you can to click on the ‘tell us about a lower price’ on the book’s Amazon page, pointing out that it’s free on other sites and giving a link. B&N in the US and iBooks in the UK are the ones that seem to cut the mustard. You can also write and tell Amazon what you’ve done, asking them to price match.
Why would I do it?
It does sound counter-intuitive, I know. Some authors see it as wrong on every level; devaluing our work and decimating the earnings of other authors. Some see it as simple marketing sense; try before you buy. I’ve even met people who think it as immoral trickery, luring the reader in, getting her hooked and then saying, ‘er, stump up, you have to pay for the next one.’
Personally, I see it as simple marketing sense. No-one has a blind clue who I am, I have no credentials and no ‘real’ publisher. Why should they take a punt on my book? However, if it’s free and they like it, most readers are happy to pay for the other books and pleased to have been given the first for free.
Does it work then?
Oh yeah … especially if you use the first book in a series. Indeed, I think this is probably where the ‘write a series’ advice to indie authors comes in because if someone downloads the free book and gets caught up with the characters, they’ll buy subsequent books to find out what happens. Anecdotal evidence from my fellow authors suggests that it’s not working quite as well as it did.
However, what better way to show you the free book effect in action than a case study. I’m going to use a practically unsellable book to show you what permafree does for sales of even the most unmarketable novel: mine.
Few Are Chosen is a humorous, science fiction, fantasy, action, adventure aimed, officially, at teenagers although it’s really aimed at anyone, any age, with a certain mindset – the oldest and youngest fans who’ve contacted me were 93 and 10 respectively. While teen/YA is a hot category, this book lacks any vampires or zombies and nobody shags a shapeshifter or an alien cyborg so as far as the category YA goes, it’s pretty much dead in the water. I’ve been marketing it as a humorous science fiction book after reviewers kept comparing it to Douglas Adams. It is first in a complete series of four. Over the series there is also a dash of romance – without squelchy bits though – and possibly in too small a quantity for the series to appeal to romance readers. As well as being a completely unknown author, I have difficulty keeping my books uppermost in the minds of readers because I write at a speed which compares unfavourably with that of continental drift.
Few Are Chosen went permafree in February 2014 and I’d like to share its fortunes with you. I’ll also share a few tips about the execution of permafree which may help you to get more out of it than I did, if you’re thinking of trying it for yourself.
It’s February 2014. My book is not selling. When I say ‘not selling’ I really mean that. Here’s a snapshot of my earnings at that point, in all their torrid awfulness. Partly to cheer you up but mostly because I believe this is about average for standard (ie no vampires, no zombies and no significant amount of romance) sci-fi and fantasy authors who do not have a free book out. So if you want a laugh let’s see what I earned for January 2014 …
Figure 1. M T McGuire’s sorry earnings for January 2014.
Ah yes. A princely £2.99.
That’s about five dollars.
This was entirely in keeping with what I was earning every month up to that point, a point at which a total earnings of £5.00 in a month would be considered bumper. Indeed, the entire year’s earnings for 2013 was £93.28 … 39 copies of Few Are Chosen and 28 of the second book, The Wrong Stuff.
Few Are Chosen went free on 3rd February, 2014. It was picked up by one of the free book sites, and to this day I have no idea which, on 10th of that month.
In February that year, 1,296 people downloaded the free copy of Few Are Chosen. To put it in perspective that is 1,297 more people downloading that book in one month than had downloaded it in the entire year of 2013. Even more amazing, on the back of that, 10 people bought the sequel and 10 people, the same 10 I presume, bought the short prequel I’d written.
Behold! M T McGuire’s book sales chart for February 2014 showing a move from total obliviousness to tepid interest from the reading pubic.
My earnings for that month were about 400% up on the one before to a mighty £17.16.
Crap as it may seem, people, this was huge for me! So huge that I’m going to do that in capitals. Yes, HUGE!
In one single month I had earned just over 18% of the entire previous year’s hugantic earnings total of £93.28.
Now I appreciate most of the ‘proper’ authors reading this are going to be laughing so much they may be in danger of internal rupture. BUT it’s all about scale, innit? There are things about my career as an author that I cannot change, the time I devote to it, for example. I doubt I will be able to spend more than an average of about 3 hours a week on it for at least the next five years. Also, I write stuff I like, which means it’s about as commercially appealing to readers (before they buy) as a dose of herpes. I did nothing to publicise this book – because I’m so switched on, I hadn’t even noticed it had gone free – and it did that!
If you keep the truth of my sorry unpreparedness in mind, those percentages are gargantuan, and they can still happen today. Although you can improve on them or, at the least, make bigger numbers a lot more likely.
So, if you want to maximise the moment your permafree book goes free in a way that I never did. Here’s how.
Make your book the best it can be
Obvious this one, but make sure you have a decent book, properly edited and with a decent cover. I am just coming to the end of the final re-edit for the K’Barthan Series and I finished the bloody thing two years ago. It’s easy to make a lot of expensive mistakes with editing. You need someone gimlet eyed who knows about things like what dash to use where, em or en? etc. You need a grammar spud.
Work out who you are ‘talking’ to in your book and give them a clear message
You need to decide which ‘genre’ your book sits in and who your audience is before you even list it. If you can write a book that really obviously sits in one genre, even better. My latest book is Science fiction comedy with a LGBT heroine. Quite niche but in theory that means I can target my marketing much more effectively.
Write the best description and listing that you can. Also, remember you can optimise your listing so people can find your book more easily when they’re searching their favourite book site for say, ‘lesbian sci-fi heroine’. Some authors find a niche where people are searching for books but not getting many results and actually write a book to fit that. If you can write quality books, fast, that’s worth doing but be warned, things do change quickly – unless you can get your book written and listed in weeks rather than months it might be best to leave that alone.
Very important point, then, make sure you can plop your book into a really obvious genre so it will appeal to a wide audience. At the same time, perhaps give it a quirky extra; alien contact, telepathy or the like. That way, your book will be popular with lots of people BUT you can also fit it into a niche category where there fewer competing books. That way your precious tome has a higher chance of getting into the top 20 of that category, even with a small number of sales. This, in turn, means the retail site, itself, may see it as a bestseller, of sorts, and start to market it to customers for you.
To be honest, I didn’t follow this advice, and I still don’t because I can only write the word char my brain spews out. However I do have a very clear view of the kind of reader to whom my work appeals. If you have world enough and time to produce books fast, you are much freer to write what you like. I know plenty of writers who do quite well with a smaller number of loyal fans who buy everything they write. But if you are going for that route and can only write a book every 2 years it will happen very slowly. That’s why I only earn about £70 – £200 per month of course. But it is worth noting that volume of books rather than volume of sales can also be your friend in the quest to bin the day job.
Get a decent/appropriate cover
Yep a properly designed one with fonts they had to pay for and stuff. It’s particularly worth thinking about what you want your cover to ‘say’.
My series is quite strange. I’ve aimed it at readers of humorous sci-fi. I wanted the covers to stand out and say ‘this book is not quite normal’. I admit I would get a lot more downloads if my book covers followed the standard trope of being mostly monochrome with a few sparkly bits and a smug attractive bird on them looking sexy. But at the same time, I suspect my weird covers give a more accurate reflection of what’s in the book.
It’s a trade off. I get less customers, but on the whole, I get the ones I want, ie the ones who will like my writing. This may be why quite a decent number of those who’ve read the book go on to join my mailing list or read my other stuff. Looking back on it, though, I got the cover designed with paperbacks in mind so the most interesting bit isn’t actually seen on an ebook cover.
So, very important, once you’ve decided who your average reader is, get a cover that speaks to them. It’s worth remembering that accurate targeting of your audience beats everything. It may even beat sales volume, long term. I’m pretty sure it does if your book is madder than a box of frogs. You want lots of downloads, sure, but what want is downloads from the kinds of people who are going to like your free book enough to buy the ones you’re selling. Because … you have to eat, right?
Plan your permafree and/or use it to your advantage
Above is my sales graph for 2014. You can see the big lift where Few Are Chosen (pink) went free. A few months later, when I release the third and fourth books in the series you can another lift in free downloads as I publicised that.
Obviously, you can’t tell the exact date your book will become free on the sites where it has to be price matched. However, you can control that on sites like Kobo or any sites you submit to through aggregators so you can plan promotions on those sites and do another sweep with Amazon links when they price match.
If you have a new book in a series about to come out, try to get the first book to go free as you come up to the launch date for your new book. That way, you can get a bit of buzz about the launch going and people who are interested can try one of your books for free, your new book will be uppermost in their mind as they read and if they buy … well, everything that boosts the ranking, or contributes to sustained sales, is good right?
So: big thing this; plan as much as you can. And where you can’t plan, try to get paid publicity for your free book within 30 days as soon as it goes while it’s enjoying its novelty, newly-free status.
Make it easy for new readers to find your other books
Before you apply to get your book set to permafree, make sure that there are links in the book to your other books. Clearly you can’t put store links in but you can link to a page on your website that lists your paid books and has links to buy. I’d recommend you use affiliate links, too. Also, with Amazon where you have to set up links to different national sites, I use something called booklinker. You can put your affiliate links into that and set it up so one address links to the local Amazon store (with your affiliate code) for the person browsing. Other similar services to booklinker are available.
Optimise your book listings, free books and others
We touched on this earlier. It isn’t the be all and end all some folks think – not anymore – but it should be part of your strategy.
Sales for 2015. As you can see, I optimised my book listing early February and got a solid 700 downloads every month – mostly from Amazon – until May 8th when the Amazon ones stopped. For two months I advertised on free books sites (ENT etc) but the conversion rate to sales of the other books plummeted, and with it, my income.
All book sites have a search function. This search function is given various degrees of prominence on different sites but basically, you try to identify the keywords people are looking for. So think about what people who are looking for the kind of book you’ve written would put into the search box and try and ensure you use that phrase in your description. There’s a good firefox and chrome add on you can use to help you do this called KindleSpy.
If you write in a particularly competitive genre then optimisation can be tricky but even so, any you do will help your book to stay visible for longer after the first, initial uplift from permafree/companion advertising. Where this is good is that in my experience, conversion rates from folks who download my free book after finding it in a search are significantly higher than those of folks who download it from paid promotion – unless it’s a really laser targeted Facebook ad. This is why there is such hot competition to get noticed on some sites, Amazon, particularly.
This is how my paid books did in 2015. As you can see, in February, March and April, where Few Are Chosen, the free book, was enjoying good organic downloads earnings were up. In subsequent months even with similar numbers of downloads, a smaller percentage of the folks who downloaded the free book went on to read the others. The only thing that rivals this was a bookbub ad for the free book and you can see how big a difference that made as the effects of onward sales kicked in in the December.
However, BIG, BIG, caveat here. It works because the people who want to read your book are seeing it. But if you can’t put your book in front of those readers, putting it in front of other readers ‘just to get it on the first page’ isn’t going to work.
Be honest. Avoid being tenuous. Three of the right customers are better than 300 of the wrong ones. Also, it’s dishonourable.
OK I may be in the minority but personally, I think that if you’ve written an erotic novella about a lady who likes getting her wicked way with American Football jocks, then writing a description that will get it appearing high up in the results of searches for ‘sports books’ is nuts! Absolutely hatstand. More than barking lunacy, it’s spam. Sports romance or sports erotica, yes knock yourself out, but people who are looking for ‘sports books’ are probably looking for … well … books about cricket and the like. The logic of offering them erotica is the same logic used by people who email me about penis enlargement products when I’m actually a woman, and therefore have no knob.
Sometimes, if you optimise them well for one market you can’t help your book appearing in the wrong place – that’s why Amazon warns sternly against using generic stuff like ‘kindle’ ‘free’ and the like – but try to target places where your target readers actually are, even if it is hard to get your book seen. You can always give it a lift with advertising.
Advertise your free book
This one goes without saying especially if you’re in a competitive genre or if you write a genre where there is some bleed from one of the huge high volume, high sales genres like romance (fantasy authors will know what I’m talking about here). Set yourself a budget and once your intended permafree book is free take a few ads in things like E-reader News Today, Pixel of Ink and if you can get it, Bookbub. There are a whole host more, BKnights on fivrr and bookhippo to name but two. You can sign up to get a list of these sites evaluated from https://www.book-buddy.net/#!promo-sites-review/gv04b for the princely sum of $4.99. It’s a great report and is regularly updated.
Set up a mailing list and reach out to people: your readers and other authors
This is scary but so worth it. Yes, you have to have your actual home address on the bottom of all your emails because of data protection laws. Yes, you are putting yourself out there but it can be a really enjoyable experience, once you get going. You might also think about offering anyone who signs up something free as a thank you for joining – yes, on top of the free book.
For example, I have a link on my site offering folks Few Are Chosen, delivered right to their in box. If they take advantage of this and give me their email address, I explain that I will also add their name to my readers’ group and that they’ll get emails from me once a month. Then, as a thank you for joining my mailing list, I tell them they will get the second book in a few days, after they’ve had time to read the first one. You don’t have to give them a free novel, it can be something else: a spin off novella or short story, some free content of some kind … This may sound incredibly counter-intuitive but I have found that if I give my first two books away readers are much more likely to buy the last two. Strangely, by giving two books away for nothing, I earn more than if I charged for them.
A big reason you should try and get a mailing list going is because it’s the only thing you can control. If Amazon tweaks the way its search results are displayed and your free downloads stop overnight the way mine did at least you have some folks there, engaged, who want to know what you’re doing, want to know about your stuff and are pleased to hear from you.
Swap mailings with other authors
If you are looking to offer your readers a discount or free book every month, and you’re not a prolific enough writer to furnish their requirements, yourself, why not tell them about books you’ve read and enjoyed? Once you get a decent number of subscribers – ‘decent’ for me is any number over 500 – you can contact other authors whose books you like who have free books or promotions running. You can say you are going to tell your folks about their book and ask if they’d like to tell their folks about yours. If you team up with authors in similar genres this is a great way to find readers in your target audience. It’s win-win. Your followers get a free read they are likely to enjoy and they may also sign up to other author’s email list. You get the same benefits from the other author’s followers. In both cases, you have a mailing list of folks who like your kind of book and will be interested – and pleased – to know about it.
Think outside the box (sorry)
In May, 2015, when downloads of my free book from the search results on Amazon, in particular, dried up, I started paying for advertising. But that gets expensive and in early June, 2015, I started using Facebook ads, instead. I wasn’t trying to sell my books but to grow my mailing list ready for the next book launch. I added a further 500 folks to my mailing list in 6 months using targeted advertising and a budget of $1 or $2 a day. The results were clear in the launch of Escape From B-Movie Hell. With a mailing list of 400 people, at that time, the book sold 65 copies on its first day, a huge increase on the 16 copies both my previous releases had sold on day one. Again, the numbers are still small but when you look at that as a percentage, it’s a great deal more impressive.
My mailing list currently stands at 900 people. When I launch my next book in 2017 it will have grown, I hope. Therefore, if I’m lucky, my next book will sell more on its first day than the previous one. My aim, one day, is that my mailing list will have grown to the extent that even if only 10% of them buy, there will be enough folks buying my book from all the ebook retail sites in the first week to make a big splash. My books are not bestseller material but if enough shift, at the start, for them to be sustained best sellers in their categories, then the retailers, themselves, will notice the books are making them money and start marketing them, too, to help them sell more. Authors who have achieved this say there is a noticeable step up on Amazon, especially, when the site’s own sales machine kicks in. It’s a big ambition but if I ever want to earn a living as a writer it’s my only option and while the earnings graph is going upwards it’s even remotely possible. I honestly believe I can get there, one tiny step at a time.
One day, but not quite yet.
So where next?
Right now, my books get more downloads and reader interest from mailing list swaps than from promos or advertising and the huge benefit of that is they take far less time to arrange and they cost me very little. As you can see, I’ve discovered tricks along the way which have kept my monthly earnings at roughly the same level on a lower and lower budget – which is good because I ran out of cash. I am hoping to build on that this year and start seriously implementing what I’ve learned.
If you can afford it, there are two excellent courses I can recommend which outline some of the tactics I’ve used here far better than I can. The first is Nick Stephenson’s ‘Your First 10k Readers’ course and the second is one about Facebook advertising which was a real eye opener, and very helpful, from Mark Dawson. Neither is cheap, they were about £390 a pop for me but I have earned that back. They do also give outline courses for free – see the resources list below – and the costs of the courses are worth it for the Facebook forums, alone.
Perhaps the moral of this story is not so much that permafree worked for me, but that the market will keep moving and evolving and authors will need to change and adapt with it. Permafree is not the magic bullet it was but if you’re savvy and you mix it with other things, it can still be pretty potent.
Here are the numbers for K’Barthan Series sales, year on year.
- Free books: 0
- Paid books: 67
- Royalty revenue: £93.28
- Free books: 3,088
- Paid books: 320
- Royalty revenue increase on previous year: 379%
- Free books: 11,115
- Paid books: 792
- Royalty revenue increase on previous year: 212%
2016 (so far)
Looks good for about 50% so far without any paid advertising. However, I won’t know for sure until I re-start paid promos and FB advertising in June.
Thanks to everyone who has waded through to this point, and thanks to Nicholas for kindly allowing me to witter on at such length. I hope this information is useful to somebody. 😉
All the best,
M T McGuire
- Your first 10k Readers https://www.yourfirst10kreaders.com – the books are worth buying too.
- Mark Dawson’s free course and more info here: https://www.selfpublishingformula.com
- Make your geo-specific Amazon link here: https://www.booklinker.net
- Get a mailing service here: https://www.mailchimp.com
Who is M T McGuire?
M T McGuire is a 46-year-old stay-at-home mum. She used to do stand up but sat down to write books when she got married. Sixteen years later, she has finished the K’Barthan Trilogy. She still checks all unfamiliar wardrobes for a gateway to Narnia, which probably tells you everything you need to know about her. She lives in Bury St Edmunds with a McOther a McSon and a McCat.