Online Marketing Symposium - Free Book FYI

Hey, gang! So sorry for the blog silence and dropping off the grid this past week. We had a death in the family and I traveled back to Oklahoma for services and such.

Obvs I'm back, and I'm really excited to be taking part in the inaugural, What Works - Online Marketing Sypmposium. What is an Online Marketing Symposium?

Per Arlee Bird, Yolanda Renee, Jeremy Hawkins, and Alex J. Cavanaugh, the masterminds behind the event: 

"We want you to tell us your stories of success (or not so successful) as we present a blogging event that will help us learn. Tell us about a marketing idea that you've used and what worked or didn't work. Your post could describe a campaign that succeeded in a big or small way or one that failed drastically. Tell us about a business campaign, an organizational event, a fundraiser – anything where a bit of promotion was necessary! The What Works.. Marketing Symposium is not limited to authors but also to anyone in a business that has a promotional aspect – online or otherwise!"

For my part in the event, I've decided to share what I know (and maybe don't) about offering up your work for free. So let's get to it!

Ever met someone with a really nasty reputation that you've only ever talked about (not to) and thought heythey aren't that bad. Then you get really confused and conflicted about what all the fuss was over. Free books are a lot like that.

You'll hear all kinds of things about free books, bad and good. 

They're undermining the value of all of our work, because readers won't want to pay for books once they're accustomed to them being free. 

They're just desperate attempts to get noticed by fledgling authors.

Only amateurs offer their work for free.

If it's free, it must be crap.

Free book promotions rocket people to the top of the Amazon charts.

Many successful authors have become so by building off of free books.

Every other industry (including traditional publishing) uses free promotions to "hook" consumers, so it works.

On and on it goes, and like all reputations, there's partial truth in all of the rumors. Giving things away for free CAN deteriorate the perceived value of a product in the eyes of the consumer. There ARE a lot of crappy free books out there. Lots of very successful authors HAVE used free book promotions on their way to the bestseller lists (M. Louisa Locke being one of my favorite indie success stories). Letting consumers sample a product for free IS a tried and true marketing technique.

So what's the real story? Are free books good or evil? Answer: Definitely. (Go ahead, throw something at the computer and curse E.J., I'll wait...)

Here's what I know for sure:

Free Books Are Not A Magic Bullet - A year (or two) ago, Amazon allowed free books to inhabit the same bestseller lists as paid books. As a result, if Free Book X got a ton of downloads and went to numero uno in the Kindle store, it was up there ahead of the big girls and boys (the Grishams, Rowlings, Kings, Browns, etc. of the world). In those wild days, a successful free ebook could easily get the attention of millions of readers. 

Nowadays that's not the case. Amazon (and most online vendors) have changed their algorithms. A rocking free book is going to get noticed, but it's not going to get the star treatment. Which leads to...

Free Books Are Tools, Not A Toolbox - You can't build an entire house with only a hammer, and you can't build a writing career with a single free book. A free book is best used as part of an overall strategy, not as THE strategy. 

The authors who seem to be using free books most successfully are those who have multiple works out--particularly in a series. It's merely a gateway into their other work.

I write a series of urban fantasy novellas. There are five of them out, and I keep the first one permanently free in hopes that readers will sample it and move on to the next in the series. (I'll share my own findings in a list below.)

Don't Be Free Just To Be Free - ALWAYS have a plan or a point to your free books. Is it permanently free to hook readers into a series? Is it a onetime promotion to try to get your book in front of new readers? Whatever the reason, just make sure there is one.  

The Clever Mouse Gets The Cheese - Being creative with your free book is as important as having a marketing strategy (see also - not being free for the sake of being free). Use holidays to your advantage (i.e., if you write horror, consider giving something away around Halloween). Band together with other authors to give your book away as part of an organized "event" of free books to increase exposure. If you write novels, consider creating a novella or short story to offer as a freebie sample. If you have a free book coming out in a series, celebrate it by offering previous titles free for a limited time.

Also recommend using your free books in conjunction with other marketing things. If you've got a big blog tour coming up, it might be a good idea to offer something free on some of your bigger stops.

Knowing The Rules Wins The Game - Every online retailer has different policies regarding free books. Amazon doesn't allow them, UNLESS another site is offering the same book for free. Then, customers can report the difference in price and (once enough reports have been received and the great Amazon Eye of Sauron has investigated) Amazon will price match. (That's how my first Moonsongs story is permanently free incidentally.)

The other way you can offer your book for free on Amazon is by enrolling it in the Kindle Direct Publishing Select program. In exchange for offering your book EXCLUSIVELY on Amazon for 90 days, they let you pick 5 days to offer it free.

Smashwords, on the other hand, allows you to price your work at whatever you'd like (they even have a setting that allows the reader to donate whatever they think it's worth). You can also use coupon codes to give your work away free on Smashwords.

Understanding the rules, and then taking advantage of them, is key to making free books work for you.

Utilizing Free Book Promotion Sites Is HUGE - Readers love books, especially when they're good and free. Surprise! Consequently, a poop-ton of free book promotion sites have sprung up. Basically, readers follow these sites and get updates when popular books go free.

It's the best way I've found to let the world know your book is free for a limited time. Unfortunately, other authors also know this.*shakes fist at other authors* :) As a result, the really popular free book sites have been inundated with requests to feature books. So there's often a waiting list and an application process to get your book featured. 

To further complicate things, many of these sites aren't exactly clear on how they pick the books they feature, so it's kind of a guessing game once you apply. A few things most of them require: 1) A set number of positive reviews for your book--usually 10-15, 4 star or better reviews are required. 2) The exact date your book will be free. 3) Cover image, description, category and genre, links, and possibly author bio.

There are lots of these sites now, and the best way to find them is via word of mouth (ask other authors who they've used) and a quick Google search. Also, I recommend the shotgun approach. When you've got a plan for your free book promotions in place, apply to as many of the sites as you can. You likely won't hear back from several, so it'll decrease your chances of striking out completely.

NOTE: Several of these sites charge to promote your book. I cannot speak to the viability of these specifically, but as with all things be wary of who you give your money to. Ask around first.

E.J.'s Free Book Story

As I noted earlier, I've made the first story in my Moonsongs series permanently free on Amazon and Smashwords. It has been that way for several months now. Since it was price matched, it has consistently stayed in the top 20k free Kindle books (out of the few million that are free, so I'll take it), and spends most of its time in the top 10k.

That has not made me rich or famous. :) But it has, I believe, resulted in more sales of the other stories in the series. (Things have been a lot more consistent since it has gone free. Prior to that, most of my sales came during the release month. Now I get downloads trickling in every month.) 

Before being permanently free, I enrolled it in the KDPS program. I coincided my free days with stops on a blog tour I was doing at the time, selecting the biggest blogs to have as my free days. I had more downloads of the story that month than I've had combined since. So it was a success. (Looking back, I got very lucky I think.) 

I recently enrolled my Moonsongs Anthology (books 1-3) in KDPS to take advantage of another blog tour. The results, although not as good as last time, were still great. Hoping to see some sales for books 4 and 5 in the next couple of months as a result of so many downloading the anthology. (Many, many readers download and stash the books until they have time to read.) I'll be sure to let y'all know!

What about you? Have you used a free book promotion? Was it helpful? 

There are lots of folks sharing tips and experiences just like this today, so be sure to hop around (and join in)!


Online Marketing Symposium Blogs

1.Arlee Birds Tossing It Out
2.Yolanda Renee at Defending the Pen
3.Ninja Captain Alex J. Cavanaugh
4.Jeremy Hawkins at Being Retro
5.Insecure Writers Support Group
6.Blogging from A to Z Challenge
7.C. M. Brown
8.Aloha! Mark Koopmans says hi from HI
10.Writing Wings
11.M. J. Joachims Writing Tips
12.Spunk On A Sticks Tips
13.Ink & Alchemy
14.Christine Rains
15.J. L. Campbell
17.Stephen Tremp
18.Philipscom/Ariel's Jottings
19.Regarding Silexare
20.Notes Along the Way - Mary Montague Sikes
21.Susan Says
22.Jay Noel
23.Crystal Collier
24.Sandra Ulbrich Almazan--Speculative Fiction Author
25.Livia Peterson - Leave it to Livia
27.The Write Game
28.The Open Vein - E. J. Wesley
29.Tyreans Writing Spot
30.Sydney Aaliyah Michelle
31.About Myself, By Myself
32.Sharon Bayliss
33.Julie Flanders
34.Ella's Edge
35.Swagger Writers
36.Laura Pauling
37.Elizabeth Seckman
38.Liz Fichera
39.Trisha @ WORD+STUFF
40.Angela Brown in the Pursuit of Publishness
41.Mama Diaries
42.Literary Chick
43.Cold Lake Cathy
44.Official Site of Horror Author Alex Layourne
45.Chrys Fey
46.Jemima Pett
47.The Musings of a Hopeful and Pecunious Wordsmith
48.Scribblers Sojourn
49.tara tyler
50.Steven Symes, Writer
51.Meetings with My Muse
52.Dreamers Perch
53.Sand Castles and Snow Forts
54.Nicki Elson
56.Buck Inspire
58.The Story of a Writer
59.Ellie Garratt
60.melanie schulz
61.Carrie-Anne's Magick Theatre
62.Coming Down the Mountain
63.Im hoping to learn
64.From Sarah With Joy


  1. I know several authors with series that offer the first book free and it's a great way to hook readers. Offering a free book when that's all you have - not so much.
    While I can't do mine for free, my publisher is planning a lower-price promotion for February that I hope does really well and gets others to find my series.
    In the meantime, I just keep writing.
    Thanks for participating in the symposium!

  2. Yes, the free book promo has worked for me in terms of bringing me new readers.

    1. Same experience here, JL. I've gotten people to try my work who don't usually read in my genre, etc. because it's free. :)

  3. That's what I plan on doing with Secondhand Shoes when Killer Stettos is out there.

    1. Let me know when it's out, Shelly! Always happy to help spread the word! :)

  4. Interesting reading. I'm not yet at the point where I have had or can have such experiences, but I like reading everyone else's stories to keep in mind for when I do get where I'm going.

    Thank you for sharing!

    1. That's how I learn, too, MJ. I just try to listen carefully to what others are doing and try to make it work for my stuff.

  5. Great post! I offer the first novella in my 13th Floor series for free, and it's a terrific teaser that does pull in readers. Does every reader who downloads my free book buy the next ones? No. But there are readers that commented who said they loved the first book and that's what drove them to buy the next one.

    1. Definitely my experience, Christine! And I watch what you're doing with the 13 Floor stories very closely. I really think you've done a great job getting them out there and promoting them in unique ways.

  6. I've heard great success stories and not so great stories. Things have definitely changed, the author who made $60,000 the first time she did it says this last time it was more like $6000. I think it's time has come and gone, but I like the idea of offering a short story free to introduce your characters and writing style - to give the readers a taste. But I don't like offering a book free until a second or third is out and needs a push. We'll see, for me - the publisher controls this, but when I self-publish again, I'll check it out!
    Thanks E J for being so open and honest about your journey - that really helps! And thanks so much for participating!

    1. Yeah, it's hard to manipulate much if you're traditionally published. But I know some traditional folks who are writing unrelated short story collections, etc. and putting them out there for free to spur interest in their other stuff. (All depends on your contract stipulations I suppose...)

      One thing I'm pretty sure about: Don't do any marketing, etc. with the intent of it making you lots of money. There are way too many factors outside of your control for their to be certainty. I always try to have a 'big picture' mentality, and understand it takes most successful authors years to build a solid fan base. But every little bit helps! :)

  7. Sorry to hear about your loss, E.J. Life has a way of throwing us for a loop from time to time.

    I'm really interested in getting to all the posts in this blogfest. It's a great idea.

    1. Thanks Patricia! I've definitely already had to take a step back this year and realize I can't control everything. Sickness, life, etc. will do what it does, and I have to find a way to stay focused and productive around it.

  8. Replies
    1. Enjoyed the read, a lot of useful information, something for everyone. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Great post EJ. I can attest to the fact that a free or 99c first book as a hook to a series works. I'm much more willing to take a chance on an unknown author that way.

    Sorry to hear about your family's loss. You're in my thoughts.

    1. I do the same! Plus, it always entices me to pick up books from my writer friends. I'd love to buy all of their books at regular price, but I'd be poor. LOL So if they offer something at a discount I'm always quick to snatch it up. :)

  10. Thank you for sharing so much information about free books in this post. It's like with anything I suppose. Moderation is the key, and using free books as part of the strategy, rather than relying on them to be the magic bullet.

    1. Totally agree M.J.! Try a little bit of everything, and be cautious about putting all of your eggs in the same basket. :)

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

  11. Free books can work to get people to read your books and write good reviews (provided you have a good book). But like you said, you have to have other marketing options as well!

    1. Definitely have to mix things up, Sherry. As you say, #1 thing is having a good book to promote. :)

  12. You have to be smart with a free book promotion. And you have to have other books that people can buy.

    1. I think having more than just one book is key to getting some value from free book promotions, LD.

  13. I'm so sorry for your loss, EJ. My condolences to you and your family.

    I know Mary Pax has had great results from offering the first book in her Backworlds series free. It's great to read about your experience as well.

    1. Appreciate it, J! MP is definitely a role model for me. :)

  14. So sorry to hear about the death in your family. That's more than a good enough excuse to disappear from the blogosphere!

    Great post, btw! Never realized there was so much to consider when offering a book for free...

    1. Thanks Heather! The free book issue is a very polarizing topic among indie authors for sure. :)

  15. Great post and discussion on free books! So many promotional ideas to choose from, this can be a good one with a series!

    1. Definitely! Always great to see your face, and hope 2014 is rocking along for you KP. :D

  16. These are great, great, great thoughts, EJ. Thank you so much! I feel like I've bookmarked every one of the symposium posts. So helpful!

    1. Welcome, Liz! I'm just now getting around to all of them... they're a great resource for sure.

  17. Thanks for sharing these tips EJ.
    So much useful information here, especially what's involved when offering a book for free... and the fact that there have to be other books in the pipeline...

    1. Very welcome, Michelle! I've bookmarked so many of these little nuggets from others over the years myself!

  18. So much info - almost too much to process (especially after a full day of work, a sleepless night, and with a headache). You've changed the look of your blog again! Obviously I don't get here often enough. Anyway, great info for me to store up for someday.

    BTW, I sent you a DM on Twitter...


  19. This is a really good post of using the 'free book' method as a marketing strategy. I've always cringed a little inside when I hear authors give away their work for free, but it makes sense if you're using it as a way to promote/increase the sales of your other books. Great advice, EJ! And I'm sorry to hear about the loss in your family. Sending you positive thoughts. <3

  20. I want to be a clever mouse! =) Awesome thoughts, EJ, and so true. We shouldn't be giving away books without an end game. Or at least, that's what my publisher stands by. I don't think anyone should list a "free" book when they only have one publication on the market. That's just silly.

  21. All good information. All I see now are the boxed sets for .99.

  22. Very interesting read. I like how you point out that there might be long term results, because yes, I "bought" three freebies this week, but won't be reading them for several months. I will have to check out a few other ideas!


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