The Promo That Changed Everything

Yes!  The numbers are (mostly) in at last and I can tell you all the story of the most nail-bitingly terrifying and outrageously successful book promo that I’ve ever done!  This was the big one, folks.  This was the one that changed everything, hopefully permanently.  Here’s what happened….

So for my birthday I decided to run a little promo.  I had read months ago in The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success, by Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords that a good free promotion should last at least a week.  I had done a mini free promo of the first book in my medieval romance series, The Loyal Heart, over Easter weekend and saw a handful of extra sales.  Cool!  So taking what I knew from the book I planned to extend that a little more.

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On about July 14th I set the price of The Loyal Heart at free on Smashwords.  Yay!  In the next couple of days I saw some downloads.  Twenty, fifty, up over a hundred.  Awesome!  I was pleased.  Sometime at the beginning of the week the book went free on iBooks.  Now, because I distribute through Smashwords I couldn’t see the exact number of free books I was giving away, but I did notice that I was suddenly getting more star ratings.  A handful a day as opposed to one every month or so.  Okay, that must be good.  A day or so later, The Loyal Heart went free on B&N.  Still hard to tell exactly how many copies were being downloaded, but my rankings were inching up, so that was nice.Then came my birthday.  I had been getting a lot of star ratings on iBooks, so I went onto my iTunes product page to see what the specifics were.  Well, a LOT of the ratings were 5 stars.  A couple were one or two stars.  Sweet!  Bad ratings mean legitimacy!  Then I went looking for my ranking.  Lo and behold, I was in the top five books for What’s Hot in Historical Romance!  These are not just free books either.  It was ALL Historical Romance.  On Saturday I was at number one.  I then spent the next week hovering around on that list in various spots.  Very, very cool.  But I still had no idea what the numbers were.

Then it all blew up.  I awoke on Tuesday morning, July 24th to notice that The Loyal Heart was suddenly free on Amazon through price-matching.  Yes, you don’t have to be a part of KDP Select to have a free book on Amazon.  The thing with Amazon, however, is that you can see your book sales/downloads in real time.  When I first looked at the page it said 151 free downloads.  I clicked over to Facebook and about a minute later I went back to Amazon.  The number was at 163.  I blinked.  12 copies of my book had been downloaded in one minute?  I clicked refresh.  The number jumped to 169.

By lunchtime it was at 1200.  The next morning it was over 3000.  By the weekend it was at 20,000.  By Monday it was 36,000.  I hit number two on Amazon’s list of free Historical Romance downloads, number one in Historical, and I topped out at number 9 on Amazon’s top 100 Free Kindle Books.  During the time The Loyal Heart was free on Amazon I averaged at around number 20 on the list of Top 100 Free Kindle Books.  That’s for all genres combined.

I kinda felt like this
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Fantastic, right?  Well, sort of.  The problem was that I had no idea when it was going to stop.  No control whatsoever.  The numbers were so mind-blowing that I became obsessed with checking them.  Every hour or so I would feel the insane pull to look online.  It wasn’t comfortable at all.  It was all a little like being in a runaway train and not knowing when it was going to jump the tracks or fall off the bridge.  And then came The Bad Review.  Because the thing about having a popular free book is that people download and read it who don’t actually like the genre or the premise.  They’re just reading it for free.  Whether they “get” it or not is another story.  And still the book continued to be free.  Even though I was ready for it to stop.  For the love of God, STOP already!I set the price back to normal on Smashwords on Saturday, July 21st.  By the end of the next weekend Smashwords’ price distribution engines had finally gotten the message across to iBooks and B&N.  The book returned to its regular price of $2.99.  It took about two or three days to have it switched from regular price to free, but it took over a week to have it switched from free to regular price, about three times as long.  But it was still free on Amazon.

That’s when I started noticing sales of the second book in the series, The Faithful Heart.  Free books are one thing.  People forking over $4.99, yes, $4.99, not $2.99, for the sequel is another thing entirely.  That was the true test.  It started with a sale here or there.  Then those sales picked up to high single digits per day.  Then they moved into double digits per day.  Something was definitely catching on.

After eight days of being free on Amazon because of price-matching, The Loyal Heart finally returned to regular price.  So what was my total free download number on Amazon?  Just over 42,000.  Total free downloads on B&N was about 2000.  Apple hasn’t reported free downloads yet, but I’m going to make some assumptions and estimates based on where it was in the sales ranking all that time and say that I probably had over 50,000 copies of The Loyal Heart downloaded across various retailers during this promo.

What about residual sales, you ask?  Everything I’ve heard from my fellow Indie authors who have done a free promo in recent months suggested to me that the moment the promo was over the numbers for The Loyal Heart would drop back to what they had been before.  Yeah, that’s not what happened.  Since the book went back to full price on Amazon on August 1st, I have sold for real cash money well over 200 copies.  Since the start of the promotion I’ve sold over 400 copies of The Faithful Heart on Amazon and over 100 between iBooks and B&N.  Oh yeah, and several copies of Our Little Secrets on all three of those platforms as well.  I keep waiting for the momentum to slow down.  It hasn’t yet.  It might at some point.  Or maybe it won’t.

To all this I have but one thing to say:  WHAT THE HECK?????  What did I DO????

And you may be asking yourself, what did you do that I can do too?

The truth is, I have no earthly idea what I did.  I can tell you this much, I did several guest blog posts in July, The Loyal Heart was reviewed in In’Dtale Magazine right before the promo and was featured on Romcon.Inc during the promo, and as soon as it went free in all its different locations I posted the link on Twitter and to all of the Facebook groups I’m a part of.  But that’s it really.  I don’t think I did anything drastically different than anyone else.  Maybe I somehow pleased the algorithm gods?

I will tell you one thing that I did do.  I wrote the best book I could.  I had it professionally edited and I had a professional cover design created for me.  Never underestimate the power of professionals to do what they do best.

But I will say this too:  Not knowing how long the promo was going to run or how many bad reviews I would get out of it was absolutely terrifying.  I do not enjoy being out of control like that.  It was incredibly stressful.  So was my temporary addiction to checking numbers and reviews.  It reminded me of my days suffering from anxiety disorders.

So would I do it again?  No and yes.  I don’t think I will ever offer The Loyal Heart or any of the Noble Hearts trilogy for free again.  But once I have all four of the books in my Montana Romance series published I do believe I will offer Our Little Secrets for free.  But I will expect it to be free for about two weeks.  Also note, I won’t do it until the entire series is finished.  Why?  Because as fantastic as my sales have been this month, I’m kicking myself for not waiting until The Courageous Heart was published as well.  Then readers who got hooked on the first book could have bought the entire series instead of having to wait.  Lesson learned.

So the moral of the story is that free sells.  Oxymoron, I know, but it’s true.  Did I devalue my work by offering The Loyal Heart for free as many of my fellow Indie authors (who I absolutely respect to pieces) like to argue?  I don’t see how when hundreds of people have been willing to pay $4.99 for the second book in the series and hopefully the third when it’s out.

And maybe it was luck that put me in exactly the right place at exactly the right time across three different platforms, but that’s the kind of luck I will take any day.  Well, I’ll take the luck and I’ll take the royalty checks that I will be getting this fall.

UPDATE:  A wonderful writer friend of mine shared with me today after reading this post how she had posted the link to a review she had done of TLH all over Twitter via Triberr and on a Reddit message board for free book links.  I believe that this really helped the initial download spike, which probably seriously helped the algorithm and enabled the book to get such a high ranking so soon.  So when and if you do your free promo, be sure to post the links to your book on as many free book sites, message boards, and Facebook pages as you can!

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29 thoughts on “The Promo That Changed Everything

    • Exactly! And like I said, I just wish I had published the third one in the trilogy before attempting this. Ah well, it’s so close to being done anyhow. 😉

  1. Awesome way to do a promo, Merry! Thank you so much for sharing your numbers with us. I found your experience VERY helpful!
    I think there’s definite value in offering a book in a series free. Like you, I figured out the benefit of the “free” thing works best when you have other books in the series. (A rising tide lifts all boats!) I had the first book in my Maggie Newberry mystery series at 99c for MONTHS with only half a dozen sales a week for the other two books in the series. (So much for hooking readers, which was my initial plan.) Last month, I put the first book up at free on Smashwords and a week later, Amazon followed suit. Like your case, the downloads started to pour in and the other two books started to sell—doubling and then quadrupling what they had been selling. (I look at the first book as a “lost leader” and will likely keep it free forever, hoping that those people who downloaded it this month, will read it next month and go on to buy the other books in the series soon after.) So, yay the power of free—IF you have other books in the series that can benefit from all the interest.
    Having said, a caveat: last fall, before I knew about Amazon’s price-matching, I put my nonfiction book Horse Crazy at free on Smashwords and was surprised to find it, a week later, also free on Amazon. Unlike you, (horror story coming!) I never could get it to go back to its real price thru Amazon! After I’d raised it on all other sites and after four months of watching the free downloads continue to rise into the multiple thousands—with no other books in the series to benefit from all the downloads—I finally had to kill the original book, isbn and all, and republish it on Amazon.
    BTW: you are so right about all those downloads plopping your book onto the radar of ALL kinds of people. And the downside of that, is the negative reviews that come with the territory.

    • That was one of the things that made the promo so nerve-wracking for me: I didn’t know when or IF it would ever go back to regular price on Amazon. I knew that if it didn’t revert everywhere else I could complain to Smashwords, but Amazon? Fortunately it did switch back. But I had resigned myself to a lifetime of TLH being free if that’s what happened. I’m glad it didn’t though.

      I also found out today that a very sweet, wonderful friend of mine also posted the free links to TLH all over Twitter through her Triberr connections and through a Reddit message board for free books. That leads me to think that the more sites you can hit with the links the better!

  2. Great numbers, congratulations. And thanks for sharing. I’m glad the sales continued after the price went back to normal, but I’d be a little concerned about the length of time it took to revert.

    • I was absolutely terrified about the length of time it took to revert! However, in the end it did end up reverting and the change happened before I lost momentum on the free boards. I think that definitely worked in my favor. If I had peaked and then sagged in the ratings before the book went back to regular price I think I would be singing a different tune. I got lucky, no doubt about it! In the end it worked very well.

  3. This is something I’ve been considering. I just released the last book in my series a few months ago and have been debating on putting the 1st book free. May have to really put some thought into that now. Originally was looking at writing a prequel short and putting that for free. Not sure if that is a better idea or not. LOL

  4. Hey Mary – just thinking. What if you had started by changing your Amazon price to 0 first, then added Smashwords, then changed SW back, then, when all was back to normal, changed Amazon back as well? Would that have worked better? It would seem that Amazon wouldn’t be able to do a rougue price match then with no idea of when it was going to change back.

    • You can’t really do this because Amazon doesn’t let you change the price to zero unless you enroll in Kindle select. even then, you get a total of five free days in 90 days and you have to make the book exclusive to Amazon–A very painful requirement.

        • Exactly. The exclusivity clause is one of the reasons I never considered KDP Select. Why cut yourself off from 40% of the market for eBooks that way? And now that I know they do price-matching it’s a no-brainer. Except for that whole risk that it might never go back to regular price. I still don’t know how that works.

            • Thart’s definitely a possibility, but if you do that you lose all of the ratings and reviews for your book. On the other hand, if Amazon doesn’t change the price back automatically, I’m sure you could send them an email asking them to change the price. They would rather make money than give away books, I’m sure.

  5. Glad to hear this worked so well for you! Another thing you can try is to give just a chapter or two away for free. A kind of try before you buy. Just as your readers paid for the sequels of your free book, they’ll pay for the rest of the book if they liked the beginning.

  6. Major congrats, Merry, I’m really excited for your success. The “free sells” thing is so funny to me, because one of the mantras I absorbed about selling theater tickets, in my first job out of college in a theater PR office, was that few people would actually come to a free event. We would have to slap a price on it so reservation-holders would bestir themselves and actually show up.

  7. Hi Alaina, I think the thing to remember and what Merry says as well is that it only works for a series and if you’ve written something people like. So if you give a book in a series away (or in the same genre), if readers like it, they are more likely to buy your other books. Otherwise, you effectively give a bunch of books away and get no sales out of it. That’s why it’s different to theater tickets.

  8. Pingback: How Social Media Helps Sell Books | Susan Kiernan-Lewis

    • Well, if you’re part of their KDP Select program you can set your book’s price as free for up to 5 days at your control. I’m not part of KDP Select though. In theory I shouldn’t have been able to give it away on Amazon at all. But when I set the price as free on other sites Amazon picked it up automatically through price-matching and set the price at free. I didn’t really have any control over how long they would keep the price there based on price-matching alone. Fortunately, a day or two after it was back to regular price everywhere else, Amazon reset the price to normal.

  9. Need to clarify: you are saying that you sold “well over 200 copies” at $2.99… so you made about $600 from this promo?

    • Yes and no. After writing this post I sold many more copies of The Loyal Heart (the book that had been a free download). But it was really the sales of the sequel (and now the third book in the trilogy) at $4.99 that turned a profit. So the net amount from the promo was much more than $600. I think this strategy works best with series books.

      • Ah, great point. I write nonfiction but do plan a follow up book at a higher price, so this could be a great strategy. Thank you and best wishes!

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