This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Rethinking Free Book Promotions

            Last week I was thinking about free promotions on Amazon and whether they work any more. I’ve been using them since I published my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, in July 2012 and have given away more than 4,000 e-books since then.
            All right, I know what you’re thinking. Go ahead and say it. At least we’ve established what my books are worth. Can we move on, now?
            Seriously, anyone who decides to start writing novels, even popular genre novels like I do, has to look at it as a long-haul proposition. Sure, there are people who get a bestseller on their first try, but maybe one author in a hundred thousand catches lightning in a bottle like that. The rest of us are doing well to be making grocery money after five or six books. Rent? You’d better have a day job.

Chasing Readers, Not Dollars

            With my third mystery novel, Not Death, But Love, about to be published on Amazon, I’m still very much in the business of going after readers, not dollars. If I build a reasonably sized, loyal audience for my books, I’ll eventually make some money. And the good thing about self-publishing is that I don’t need to have Stuart Woods or Mary Higgins Clark sales numbers to make a go of it.
            That’s just as well. My books are more Josephine Tey than Mickey Spillane, and they’re aimed at the classic mystery niche. But finding the readers who inhabit that niche takes a lot of time and effort.
            For some time now, I’ve felt that free promotions were part of that effort. When you’re an unknown writer, one way to get people to give you a look is to offer a free sample. If they like it, the reasoning goes, they’ll come back and pay for the next one.
            There’s a lot of slop in that approach. When a book is free, plenty of people will download it and never look at it. So I figure, based on the return rate for direct mail solicitations, I’d have to give away a hundred books to get two readers who will actually read my book.

Diminishing Returns

            In the beginning, I was averaging more than a hundred books a day on free-giveaway days, with a few considerably bigger blockbuster days. Over the past six months, the well has been running dry, and I’ve been wondering if free promotions work any more. I Googled that question and found plenty of other writers who shared my skepticism.
            Monday of this week, with misgivings and low expectations, I did a free promotion for my second novel, Wash Her Guilt Away. Halfway through the day, it looked as if I’d fall short of 100 downloads for the day. Then, between 1 and 4 Pacific time, the book started moving like ice cream in a Georgia July. It finished the day at #12 on the Kindle free crime fiction list, and it was the second best day ever for free downloads of that book.
            So what do I make of this? My guess is that it was an anomaly — that there happened to be a large number of crime and mystery readers who started looking at free books at the same time, and I just rode the wave. But I could be wrong. It’s hard enough being an author, but the hardest thing of all is trying to make sense of your sales numbers. My head is being perpetually scratched.