Report from the Front

Nine Hundred and Forty-Two Million. According to Wikipedia, that’s the number of English speakers in the world. That includes 603 million people for whom it is a second language.

As a writer ever in search of an audience, my first crass thought upon hearing that statistic is: I wonder how many of them might want to read my books?

A study by the Pew Research Center reported that 23% of all Americans didn’t read a single book during 2014, and there’s not much reason to expect that number to improve. In addition, some of those other 77% who did read a book only read one, so they probably aren’t exactly hopefuls. So how many are real potential readers? Well, that same study showed that 42% of Americans read 11 books or more in the past year, roughly one a month. So lets use that figure. Let’s say 42% of 942 million.

That’s almost 400 million readers. Sell to a mere one percent of those folks, and you’re one of the most successful writers on the planet.

This sort of number crunching has been on my mind because I ran my first ever free promotion on Amazon a short while back for my book Spark. As most of you probably know, Amazon lets you sell your book for free for five days out of every ninety. I chose to spend the whole five days in one swoop. Here’s how the whole thing went down:

Day One: I decided to do Day One with a minimum of promotion. I was originally going to do none at all just to establish a baseline, but I got impatient so I did a couple of Twitter posts on sites that promote free books (maybe a dozen altogether). Day One total: 69 downloads.

Day Two: Here’s where the promotions kicked in. I chose two paid sites: Book Barbarian and Free Kindle Books and Tips. Total paid: $60. I set those up about a month in advance. I also submitted the book to a whole bunch of free promotional sites as well, about thirty. This was a very tedious and time consuming process. I also kept on promoting on Twitter, although not a lot. I have to admit, Day Two was kind of exciting, mostly because it was fun to watch the numbers climb. Day Two total: 1475 downloads.

(Note: some of the free sites posted my ad and some didn’t. It’s hard to be certain but I know the following sites posted: Reading Deals, My Book Cave (very helpful), It’s Write Now, eBookasaurus (but no cover picture), Bookangel, Ask David (very nice), Ignite Your Book (again, no cover), frugal freebies, discountbookman (first listing on the page. Nice.) and bookbongo.com. Some of these listings were little more than a postage stamp-sized cover on a page full of the same, and others were pretty nice. Next time, I’ll check them out a little more carefully beforehand, but hey, what d’ya want for free?)

Day Three: I kept on posting on Twitter and on a couple of free Facebook promotional pages, but I was probably mostly still riding the wave of my Day Two promotional push. I might have also been getting some downloads from Amazon’s own internal marketing machinery by now, because the book received pretty prominent placement on the Top Free Books lists. It was number one or two in Children’s Books Fantasy, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Magic, categories like that, so anyone browsing free books in those categories would have seen it. I topped out at number 4 for Free Children’s eBooks overall and was high up on that list for a couple of days.

(A note about that: Children’s Books is not the label I would have chosen. Young Adult, sure, but Children’s Books was a very confused category. Spark was, at times, sandwiched between The Lonely Balloon, How to Draw Sea Creatures and Sinful Cinderella (which wasn’t porn, despite the name.) I think it would’ve done better if it had been on the YA list, but I must have entered it wrong. (Incidentally, there were other YA books on the list. In fact the comparable paid list was mostly various Harry Potter. But still, it wasn’t the ideal category.)

My best position for the overall free list occurred on Day Three. For a few hours, Spark was the 88th most downloaded free book at the Amazon Kindle store. That was cool, but I’m sure my placement on the smaller category lists got me a lot more looks and downloads (Who peruses page eight of the Free Book List?)  Day Three total: 752 downloads.

By Day Four things were slowing down. I continued to post on Twitter, and I did a boosted Facebook post which got a fair number of looks. It cost me eleven dollars, reached 1185 people, and garnered about 50 likes. It’s hard to know if it resulted in more downloads but certainly no more than those 50, so that was clearly the worst-spent money in the campaign. But I got some new likes on my author page and probably moved a couple of books. Day Four total: 409 downloads.

In the end, after five days, my downloads totaled 3061 units.

In truth, I’ve never been crazy about the idea of giving away my books. I know a lot of you feel the same. You worked hard on your books, and you believe them to be things of value. Giving them away is like saying “Hey! These are trivial and expendable! Have one!” And, as you’ve probably seen when established independent authors grouse about the glory days of two or three years ago, the free days don’t really work as well as they used to. Most of the people who love eBook giveaways have kindles already jammed with hundreds of books they haven’t read yet.

Kristen Lamb strongly discourages free giveaways, because it sets the expectation bar so low. People now expect eBooks to be free, which undervalues all of our work. I don’t disagree, but I also think that ship has sailed. It might be admirable for me to refuse on principal, but who’s going to notice? The millions of people who are already so actively not buying my books?

You have to have an audience. You just do. It’s fine for Kristin Lamb to preach, and I’m glad she is, but she already has people listening. I don’t.

Look at it like this: I wasn’t selling books anyway. Now 3000 people have the book and might read it, might like it, might buy one of my other books. One percent? Two percent? Dare I hope for five percent? One hundred and fifty new readers?

I’d call that a start. Of course, I’ll never really know just how many, but I have sold seven copies of Spark since the promotion (which is more than the week before. Hell, it’s more than the month before) and over 4000 pages have been read through Kindle Unlimited (plus 400 pages of Flight of the Wren, which I suppose was just a random occurrence). I’ve had two new fivunknowne-star reviews on my Amazon page and 33 people have added Spark to to their “to read” or “reading now” lists on GoodReads. So at the very least it means people saw it and wanted it, and that means it must be okay. The cover, the blurb, the Amazon landing page, they can’t be as unappealing as I sometimes think they must be, given the deafening roar of indifference I usually experience. So I’d do it again and I’d recommend it to others. And I’d recommend using as many forms of promotion as you can manage or afford. Make the most out of your giving. If my baseline of 69 books on Day One is any indication, my promotional efforts increased downloads by a factor of almost nine, so that’s highly significant.

I know it may seem odd crowing about how many books I gave away. Even odder that I spent money for the privilege. And it’s true, I spent $72 on my giveaway and so far I’ve made maybe 30 bucks back, but it’s only been a week or so. The books are out there. It takes time for people to read them.

This is the long game we’re playing.

I’ll keep you posted.

(This is also posted over at the Writer’s Coop. Just thought I’d share it here in case anybody missed it.)

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