Monday, October 27, 2014

Self-publishing, Free, and Flexibility

by +J. Lea Lopez 

Free is a hot topic in the publishing industry. Depending on who you ask, free is:
  • an effective pricing strategy
  • the only way to get people to take a chance on self-published books
  • the reason publishing as we know it is dying
  • devaluing writing and making readers reluctant to pay for good books
  • pointless
  • a way to gain exposure
And a whole host of other things. Everyone has an opinion, and if you know me even a tiny bit, you probably know that I'm going to tell you that none of those opinions are 100% right or wrong. There's often bits of truth behind each person's opinion. Quite often, authors will speak from personal experience, and in that case, I'm certainly not going to tell anyone that they're wrong about what they've experienced firsthand.

I can tell you from the experiences shared with me by several successful self-published authors that free certainly has a place in your arsenal of tools. Depending on the genre and type of book, it can be a very powerful tool. If all (or several) books in your romance series are out there and you're looking for a way to grab some more readers, putting your first book free (and yes, it is still possible to go perma-free on Amazon) could be a great tactic. Especially if each book has a strong hook or lead-in to the next.

If you're not writing a series, can free still work for you? Maybe. Maybe not. But a great thing about being self-published is your ability to analyze, react, and adapt. As a self-publisher, you have to be flexible and know when somebody else's tried-and-true isn't so true for you. Let me share my own experience with a free book as an example.

When I self-published last year, I knew I was going to publish my contemporary NA romance Sorry's Not Enough, but I was worried about readers taking a chance on me, an unknown author. Everybody was talking about the free strategy then like it was the holy grail of marketing tactics. But my book was a standalone. How could I still make the free strategy work for me? I got the brilliant (or so I thought) idea to pull together some of my short stories that had both romantic and erotic elements and package them in a collection. I figured it was a good introduction to my writing and a good lead-in to my novel because each of the short stories had elements you can find in my novel: character-driven and introspective narration, complicated relationships, steamy sexy.  It had to work, right?

I published my collection, Consenting Adults, and included an extended sample of my novel at the end of it so readers would be instantly compelled to go buy it after (hopefully) having enjoyed the short stories. Then I made it free. And then I spent many months trying to figure out if the free strategy was working like it should. I mean, I was getting a few sales a day of my novel usually, and the short stories were consistently ranked between 300 and 500 overall in the free Kindle store and in the top 10 of a couple different category lists. That must mean it was working, right? So I left it alone. Then something happened this year that made me rethink the free strategy for my books.

Sales of Sorry's Not Enough began to decline slightly early this year. I only worried a little bit, wondering if it was just a bit of a post-holidays slump. Sales continued to decline. And continued to decline. As of writing this, I've seen roughly a 60% decline in sales of my novel since the beginning of the year. Most of this year my worrying has centered on how to turn that around, how to increase visibility for the novel, how to entice more people to buy it. That included running price promotions, creating a new cover, tweaking the description and keywords, trying paid promotions on different web sites. Aside from publishing another book (which I'm working on doing), I felt I had done everything I could do and I had to stop driving myself nuts over it. And that's when my focus shifted from the novel to the free short story collection, and it dawned on me.

Free wasn't working for me. In all of my fussing with Sorry's Not Enough, I never paid attention to the fact that free downloads of Consenting Adults were still pretty steady. There's been a slight decline since the beginning of the year, maybe 15% or so, but nothing like what I've seen with my novel. My free book was not pushing readers to my paid book. And that's what it's supposed to do. That's the whole point of the free strategy. Obviously it was time to rethink that strategy.

I knew these things for sure:
  • Consenting Adults has great innate visibility thanks to my keywords, description, and categories (and magic, because I swear sometimes it all just feels like magic)
  • When you search for "erotica" in the Kindle store, Consenting Adults is the top result
  • It had a consistent download rate of several hundred a day when it was free
  • People who downloaded it for free were not going on to buy my novel
Because of that last point, I felt confident that having the short story collection out there for free was not doing me any good. That was the whole reason I'd put it out there for free to begin with. But could I make money with it? Would people pay for it? Or did they only want it for free? Based on those first three things I knew to be true, I decided that maybe some people would be willing to pay for it. I decided that even if no one bought it and the rank plummeted once it switched over to the paid lists, I'd wait to see if it negatively affected sales of my novel to further test my guess that it wasn't pushing people to the novel anyway. And if only two or three people bought it every day, that's still more money than I was making from 400 free downloads a day.

Consenting Adults switched over from free to paid this past weekend, and so far, people are still buying it. Not 400 people a day, but enough that I'm cautiously optimistic that this was the right decision. So what's the lesson for you self-publishers out there?  

Free is a tool. Use it wisely. Flexibility is also a tool. Use it to take calculated risks and to kick free to the curb if it doesn't work for you.

What are your experiences with free, either as a reader or an author?

5 comments:

LoriLClark said...

You mention getting amazon to do perma free is possible. I would love to know exactly how to do that. So far, I've had no luck at getting them to do it for me.

LoriLClark said...

You mention perma free on Amazon. I'd sure love to know how you can do that. I've yet to have them cooperate with me.

LoriLClark said...

Oops, sorry for the duplicate posts. Verisign/openid is making me work for it. Darn Mercury RX

J. Lea Lopez said...

Hi Lori! Is your book free on other venues? I think Amazon is more likely to price match to free if your book is free on major sites. So if it's only on Smashwords, definitely push it out to B&N, Apple, and Kobo as free. And getting it up on Google books would be good, too. And then use the "tell us about a lower price" button on your book's Amazon page and give them links to those other booksellers. Do it over and over and over again. Ask some friends to help you. Report the heck out of it until they match. And let me know if you're successful!

Lori L. Clark said...

I've been trying all of those things since I put it up on Amazon in September. I report the heck out of it, I've even had people buy it and return it stating the reason "Found it cheaper elsewhere." It is on all of those places, but I can't seem to get it on B&N for free, either.