Friday, September 9, 2011

“Going FREE” on Amazon: Insane, Inspired Marketing From The Frontier of Self-Publishing

by Lucy Marsden

Note from Lucy:

Hi, Folks—

Today, rather than geeking-out about some aspect of craft or genre, I thought I’d shamelessly capitalize on the recent success of friend and fellow writer, Ruth Cardello. Since the release of her second self-published romance FOR LOVE OR LEGACY two weeks ago, Ruthie’s sales have been phenomenal—a circumstance that she ascribes, in part, to her decision to give away her first novel, MAID FOR THE BILLIONAIRE, for free.

Lots of authors on Amazon are giving away short stories and prequels, but the decision to make a first book free is still considered radical. Here’s Ruth herself, to answer questions about what going free with the first book seems to have done for her and other self-published authors:

Free? Are those authors crazy?

Yes, crazy smart.

Giving your first book away is the most powerful promotional tool you have to get your book into the hands of hundreds of thousands of new readers. People like FREE. The new generation of readers has an almost limitless selection of books to choose from. Plenty of good books get lost in the shuffle. To be read, your book will have to be “found.”

But, Ruth, I’m going to use coupons and strategically give them to romance groups as an incentive for people to read my book.

Coupons are wonderful, but how many are you going to give out? Twenty? Two hundred? A thousand? In the four months that MAID FOR THE BILLIONAIRE has been free on Amazon, about 200,000 people have downloaded it. Let’s be conservative and say that one fourth of those people liked it and will purchase book 2—that’s 50,000 people.

FREE made MAID FOR THE BILLIONAIRE visible. Four months after publication, it remains in the top 10 in the Contemporary Romance Amazon ranking. It’s still in the top 10 on iTunes. How much would you pay for this kind of visibility? Eight-hundred to one thousand people download the first book in my series every day. Let me repeat that, because if you’re still wondering if putting your book up for free is worth it, then you need to consider how my reading base is expanding every day from this one single promotion strategy: Eight hundred to one thousand new readers every day.

Do they all love me? No. Will they all return to buy book two? Hell, no. But if only a fraction do, I’m still making $300—$500 a day on the sale of my second book. Every day.

How long are you going to leave MAID FOR THE BILLIONAIRE up for FREE?

It’s up for the foreseeable future. For now, there is no reason for me to charge for it, since it continues to bring new readers to my other book.

I hear you, Ruth, but won’t putting my book up for 99 cents deliver the same impact?

My numbers suggest otherwise.

Four months ago, before I put the book up for FREE, I was selling one hundred books a day at 35% ($35/day sales). I was pretty happy with those numbers, and was a little nervous when MAID finally did go FREE. Some of that reticence dissipated, however, when almost instantly, 35,000 people downloaded it. I just released my second book in the series, FOR LOVE OR LEGACY, and it’s shot up the ranks with high sales. In fact, it’s only been on sale for slightly over two weeks, and I’ve already made about $7,000.


You might be right; this approach might not be for you. It’s only one of many promotional strategies that self-pubbed authors are experimenting with, and the bottom line is that if you want to make it in what has become the Wild Wild West of publishing, you need to keep yourself informed. That doesn’t mean that you have to follow my formula (which isn’t even mine ... it was already being discussed by various authors on blogs), but it does mean that you need to aggressively seek out what people are doing, and compare their results. The market is changing at a remarkable speed. Today’s best advice might not be relevant next month. That’s why writers should network and share. We can all benefit from helping each other out. We need to stay informed.

So, what happens if that well dries up and Amazon doesn’t match Smashword’s free pricing anymore?

It’s already getting harder to go FREE on Amazon, and the option may not be there in the future. For now, the gamble is paying off for some new authors. It’s a strategy that is still worth considering.

What do you think the next big promotional trend might be?

I don’t know; but if you find out first, email me at, and we’ll call it even.


Richard said...

Good post. What's the moral of this story. Write as many story, books, etc. that you can and get them out there. All of this strategy is useless if you have nothing to work with.

colbymarshall said...

I'm still trying to decide how I feel about this particular strategy, but I always enjoy reading opinions on it!

P.K. Dawning said...

I'm in the same boat as Colby. Not sure how I feel about self-pubbing in general, but it seems to be paying off for a lot of writers.

Luce said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone!

Richard: Hmmm. I think that the marketing approach of "more is better" only works if the product is sufficiently good to start with. But it's certainly true that our stories can't find the people who are meant to love them, until we take a risk and send them out into the world. Being delusional won't help us to get an audience, but neither will being unduly perfectionistic. :)

Colby and P.K.--Yep; I think it's about knowing what you want from being published, and then assessing all the different means of achieving those outcomes. And as daunting as this new frontier is, authors now have more choices and more freedom, and that's never a bad thing.

J. Lea Lopez said...

It's definitely an inspiring story. The more I hear, the more fascinated I am.

I do wonder if this tactic would have the same effect if the author didn't have a series, but unrelated books instead. Who knows? I just hope one day I'll have this kind of success, whether traditionally, indie, or self-published.

Jemi Fraser said...

A huge thank you to Ruthie for sharing her amazing story! Such an interesting and inspiring tale. I really enjoyed the Maid story - the Legacy one is in my TBR pile! I love to hear success stories like these! :)

Donna McDonald said...

I met Ruth Cardello in June when she contacted me via several of my social network sites to tell me that my "free" book had temporarily passed up hers in the Amazon list (the key word being temporarily). I see her work everywhere I go now online. I was absolutely astounded at how nice she was being to contact me. I've been a fan of hers ever since she first wrote to me and can say sincerely that she is as great as her stories. I couldn't be more pleased to hear that her sales are doing well and am so glad I happened onto this blog.

Everything she says about offering a free book is exactly as I am finding it myself. My downloads are about the same as hers on my free book. My sales are strong and I know that "free" book continues to bring me more readers.

Great blog interview, Lucy!

Luce said...

Hey, there!

Jen: I think people like following series, no question, but I also think that folks are just delighted to get more of a voice that they've fallen in love with.

Jemi: It's been wild to watch it all unfolding, but in the best possible way. Thanks for stopping by to share in the insanity and the excitement!

Donna: So lovely to meet you--Ruth's spoken of you warmly. And thanks for passing on your own experience with the FREE strategy; it really helps to hear from other folks on the front lines!

KellieM said...

I scour the Free NookColor Book section looking for books. I will now have to look for your Maid for the Billionaire. What a great marketing tool if you can quickly come out with a second book while everyone remembers your name.

Stephanie Queen said...

What a fabulously successful strategy, Ruth! Congratulations.
I note that you said it's getting harder somehow to post free books on Amazon, but I'm not sure I understand how or why it's hard. Do they not allow it, or do they somehow restrict free books? Make you promise your first born son???

Ruth said...

Kellie M - B & N never made my book FREE...but you could download it FREE on Smashwords in the correct format for your Nook. :)

Stephanie - I'm sure someone at Amazon knows how the decision is made to make people FREE, but no one within my network does. I thought it was a computer, but then I spoke to the owner of a large epublishing house and told me that it is a person who decides if it would be profitable to make you FREE. Is it a man, woman, gnome? I have no idea. I just know that when I speak to publishers they congratulate me on achieving it -- so that translates to not every does.

Jemi - Thanks for the nice comment on the book :)

Donna -- Thanks for chiming in. When I'm sharing the strategy I'm careful to say it wasn't my invention. So many great authors, like you, thought of it first. Donna, do YOU know how they decide who goes FREE?

Calista Taylor said...

I had also debated whether or not to go free with my first book, and after talking to Ruth, I saw it was a great way to get the most amount of people reading my book, VIRIDIS, so that they might buy the second.

It's currently free on Smashwords, but I keep hoping Amazon will follow suit and make it free, so that I can make the most of this pricing strategy.

But really, seeing the difference in numbers between Free at Smashwords and .99 at Amazon, convinces me that free is the way to go. Right now, it's about a 10:1 ratio!!

Ruth said...

Calista, You know I'm cheering you on. I hope the strategy works just as well for you.

Calista Taylor said...

Thanks for all the support, Ruth! I hope so too! ; )

thebewitchinghour said...

Ruth is an amazing writer and an even more amazing woman.

I am headed to smashwords now to pick up Calista's book.

Good luck to all.

Calista Taylor said...

Thanks, Bewitching!! It's greatly appreciated!!

Ruth said...

Congrats to Calista Taylor! She just went FREE on Amazon and her book is already #21 on the FREE list. Here is hoping it goes right to #1!

Calista Taylor said...

Thanks for the shout out, Ruthie!! Going free on Amazon has been amazing. The numbers definitely make it worth while. : )