Analysis of a free book promotion: what I did, why I did it, & the results…part 1

I’m probably one of the last Indie authors to drink the make-your-book free Kool-Aid. I knew the strategy behind a free promotion: give away a book to sell more books. But, I didn’t know if it would work for me, and I had opposed the practice on principles I won’t go into here (that topic is worthy of another blog).

However, by the end of March I knew needed to do something. I was selling other books, but my 5-book Cy-Ops Sci-fi Romance series was circling the drain. In March, the five books combined averaged only 2.6 sales per day. I had nothing to lose by making one of the books free.

So I made Stranded with the Cyborg (book 1) free.

My goals were:

  1. Introduce the Cy-Ops Sci-fi Romance series to new readers.
  2. Increase sales of the rest of the series.
  3. Increase reviews for book 1.
  4. Grow my newsletter subscriber base.
  5. Test which newsletter ads delivered the best return on investment (ROI).

My initial plan was to make Stranded free for a limited period of time, like a week. I had scheduled a couple of ads I thought would deliver a high number of downloads for the end of April and planned to book a few smaller ads several days before to prime the pump.

However, to make Stranded with the Cyborg free on Amazon, I had to make it free on other booksellers first, then get Amazon to match the price. I didn’t know how long the process would take (days? weeks?) so I started early. The price change occurred much faster than I’d thought, so since the book was free the beginning of April, I decided to begin promotion and bought additional ads. I booked 2-3 ads each week of the month.

The ads:

I spent $352 on 13 newsletter ads. The most I spent was $100; the least was $4. Because of objective No. 5 (determine ROI), I did not stack ads so that I could determine which ones were the most effective.

My personal challenge

Targeting to the right genre is important. However, Stranded is a science fiction romance. Most advertising venues don’t have an SFR option. So, I was forced to select from three lesser alternatives: general romance (readers are looking more for contemporary romance than SF), science fiction (hardcore SF fans don’t want romance), or paranormal (fans are more interested in shifters and vamps than aliens and cyborgs). The latter is where I generally placed the book, although I tried some of the other options too.

My expectations

I had no idea how many downloads I would get. I figured 10,000 in a month might be pie-in-the-sky, but I thought 5,000 might be doable, and I’d be happy with 3,000.

Some unexpected surprises, positive and negative

  1. An author I know on FB included my freebie in her newsletter one day and I had nearly 500 downloads!
  2. A multi-author 5-day paid promotion (Space Kissed) had negligible effect on downloads. I doubt I got more than a handful.
  3. The debacle: The day of my $100 Freebooksy ad, which was supposed to be one of my heavy-hitters, Amazon unexpectedly upped the price of my free book to full cover! All the people who clicked on the link thinking it would be free found it wasn’t on sale. Amazon fixed it by the next day, but it was too late. I lost about 1,000 downloads, and who knows how many future sales.
  4. The silver lining to the debacle: Some people who clicked on the link bought the book anyway, and I had my single best sales day in 8 years of publishing. It didn’t make me rich, but yeah, I wish I could make that every day!

The results – goal v. achievement

  1. Introduce the Cy-Ops Sci-fi Romance series to new readers – I got 6580 downloads  of Stranded by the Cyborg
  2. Increase of the sales of the other four books of the series – Almost immediately, sales increased to 6 books per day and by month’s end I averaged 9.2 sales per day on the other books of series.
  3. Increase the number of the reviews for Stranded with the Cyborg, book 1. – I gained 7 reviews in April, with others continuing in May
  4. Grow my newsletter subscriber base – Added 110 organic subscribers to my NL list.
  5. Test which newsletter ads delivered the best return on investment (ROI) – check!

By figuring out the cost per download (CPD), I could compare the ROI between newsletters. Generally, but not necessarily, the more you pay for an ad, the more downloads you get.  However, I found one $10 newsletter that delivered more downloads per cent than any of the more expensive ones. A good CPD is about 5 or 6 cents, 10 cents isn’t bad, but way over 10 cents is poor. Anything over 20 cents is a dud.

In conclusion

I was pleased with the results of the promotion. I think I could have hit 10,000 downloads if not for the Amazon/Freebooksy debacle and if I had booked a couple more ads. It’s a numbers game because many people who download free books  don’t read them. I’m glad I decided not to stack the ads, because it did give me a good idea which ones work for me, and which ones don’t.

Like I said, the more you pay, generally the more downloads you’ll get, but my opinion is that 500 downloads  per day is my benchmark when booking a low-to-moderate priced ad. If you can get 1,000 DLs or more, that’s exceptional. Less than 200 isn’t worth the ad at any price. Between 200 and 500, it depends on how much you paid. A $100 ad should deliver at least 1000 downloads (that’s 10 cents per DL) in a single day.

My review rate seems low, but it took 2 weeks for the first new review to post, but then in May, I started getting many more, which probably came about as a result of books downloaded in April. As I write this (mid may), I’ve had 15 total new reviews.

The final thing I’d like to say about doing a free promotion is that it’s fun. Even though you’re giving books away and not making money (it’s costing money because of the advertising), seeing huge numbers of downloads is a kick. And the goal is that it will pay off later.

After April’s experience, I decided to continue the free promotion for another month and follow a similar strategy, but the plan quickly went awry. Find out what happened in May in part 2 of this series on Wednesday. On Friday, in Part 3, I’ll share which newsletter ads were the most effective.

Stranded is FREE! – Amazon US ~ iBooks ~ BN ~ Kobo


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16 Responses to Analysis of a free book promotion: what I did, why I did it, & the results…part 1

  1. Some interesting statistics, Cara. Thank you for publishing this. I’m not an indie writer, so have little control over pricing, but my publisher has recently made my latest book free for one day on Amazon. I didn’t pay for any advertising, but I publicised it as well as I could, via my websites, FB page and Twitter. It’s too early to learn if the free download has increased sales of my other books, but I hope so. My biggest problem is the lack of sales information, which I guess as an indie you have access to.

    • Cara Bristol says:

      Having access to real-time sales info is one of the biggest benefits of being Indie.

      For an Indie book, making a book free will boost downloads for that day, but without advertising, the overall effect will be minimal. However, if your publisher did it, I’m assuming there was some additional promotion such as posting on the publisher’s website, perhaps a newsletter that went out, you probably got a good boost for that day.

  2. EG says:

    Thanks for sharing. I’ve been tinkering with freebie versus 99c deals for awhile. I seem to better in follow-on sales with the 99c promos. I’m looking forward to the next post.

    • Cara Bristol says:

      I think there is probably a bigger commitment from readers who pay for book (even 99 cents) than there is for clicking on a freebie. That’s why a large number of downloads for a freebie is so important.

  3. Very interesting, Cara. Thanks for sharing. Good idea not to stack the ads so you could get specific information on each ad.

    That glitch with the price going up sounds like a nightmare, but you made the best of it.

    Looking forward to the rest of the reports.

    • Cara Bristol says:

      I couldn’t believe it when Amazon upped the price. I was freaking out. But it did have that silver lining. And I rebooked Freebooksy the next month and had great results (that’s how I know how many downloads I lost).

  4. Kathy Watts says:

    Ok, I’m not an author but found this very interesting. Let me say that as a BUYER of books (and I spend over $2000 a year on e-books) I have found many authors/series by a FREE book, and then I would want more and go buy them. I will also say, that to help support authors, I will jump all over a 99¢ book(s) when an author runs sales. I will even buy it, redo my review if I read it as ARC, so that it will now be a Verified Purchase review.

    Sorry about the Amazon/newsletter debacle. I don’t know what the idiots running Amazon think at times. You definitely are not the first for me to hear of something like that happening. I’m still in a fight with them over removing a review for a verified purchase book from last April 2016. Even the people I spoke with on the phone did not understand that one. The fight is still on.

    • Cara Bristol says:

      You’re awesome! You really go above and beyond! Thank you.

      Besides being an author, I’m also a reader, and I’ve gotten hooked on a lot of new authors through free & 99 cent books.

  5. Sharon Chalk says:

    Im a voracious reader and I also read a lot of arc books and I do the reviews on them always.I had gotten your first cyborg book from another scifi authors web site,its SFF and is now joined by Alphas’s and Aliens and when you join you will recieve one free book a month by the participating authors.I did get one free but I already owned all the others which sucked.I loved your first cyborg books and though I purchased it and it wasn’t free or an arc,I will be doing a review on it.I also have you on a list that I check Amazon once a month to see if any are on sale and I always go to freebooksy and book bub.For people like me who are on a very strict budget,but read a lot (about 60 to 70 books a month) I simply can’t afford $4.99 for a book and a lot of times authors that write in the scifi romance genre only have the book on sale for 99 cents for the day of release and maybe 3 days after then it goes to full price and it may be a year or two before you see it on sale,but if it’s someone like you that I really enjoyed all 3 of the books Ive gotten so far so I will constantly check to see if you have a book on sale.And if you open your arc list,I will be one of the first to apply and I have a lot of reviews on my profile page for scifi books that I have read and constantly tell people how good they are,so I hope that you do have sales or freebies every so often so people like myself who simply can’t afford $4.99 can get your books and enjoy them and believe me when I say word of mouth can also add to your sales.I have one author who told me that the day after I posted my review that she got 30 replies from people who said they decided to try one of her books due to my review and in fact that whole series sales picked up.It made both her and me happy because if people don’t read her books then she might quit writing and that would be a big loss.I also post my reviews in groups I belong to and that also helps sales.So getting to know your readers will also help sales because when a writer I like advertises another author in her newsletter I usually will buy the book because I like the author that wrote it.I don’t know if any of this helped you but hey if you ever need another arc reader,give me a holler because I would love it!!!!!

    • Cara Bristol says:

      Wow, Sharon, thank you for the comment. I’m so glad you enjoy my books. I do have sales and special promotions every now and then, and I offer contests where I do giveaways. I’ll contact you about my ARC team.

  6. Great analysis, Cara, thank you. Would you consider making Stranded by the Cyborg permanently free, now that you’ve established the series?

    • Cara Bristol says:

      Stranded is permafree right now and will continue to be indefinitely. At some point (months, a year?) I may up the price to full cover, but having it permanently free seems to be working for me.

  7. Many thanks for sharing so much information! I need to come up with a plan for the summer, but I also need to write. I try to do both and sometimes my head explodes. lol I will look forward with great interest to the rest of the series.

    • Cara Bristol says:

      I know exactly what you mean about feeling like your head will explode. Sometimes it is overwhelming. When I’m writing a first draft, that’s my No. 1 priority, and it takes precedence over everything. Then I schedule myself “catch up” days when I set writing aside and get other things in order.

  8. Diane Burton says:

    Thanks for sharing such great info, Cara. I’ll definitely be back to read what happened next. I’ve been debating about putting the first book in a series at free. I think that will be my goal for this month. So sorry to hear about your Amazon/Freebooksy debacle. What a pain as well as a loss. I did a much smaller version by making the 1st book of a series at 99 cents and found a good increase in sales for it and for the next 2 in the series. You’ve given me what I needed to try again only free. Thanks!

    • Cara Bristol says:

      Ninety-nine cents is another way to go. You get far fewer downloads, but I think the readership is a little more committed to the book.

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