Let’s Talk Free As A Strategy

I currently have seven different titles set to free across all of my pen names. Three are because I’ve basically abandoned those pen names and so having a permafree title that I actually don’t advertise (because they’re short stories) is all the promotion I do for those names.

If I did nothing with those series I would sell nothing. But because I have a free short story under those names it leads to a little bit of a trickle of pure profit. The stories still have to be something people want, of course, which is why one of those names made me $200 last year, another made $75, and the other made basically nothing.

But for no effort and on short stories which generally do not sell well anyway, why not.

Now, the reason I wanted to talk free today is because of my cozy mystery series.

This is a completed nine-book series where readers can either buy each individual book for $3.99 or three books at a time for $9.99 in ebook.

When I released the final book in the series earlier this month I put both Book 1 and Book 4 to free.

Prior to this month I have at various points in time given away 22,000 copies of Book 1, but it has never been permanently free. I did limited-time free runs with it instead. Sometimes as short as a week but last year I think I did the last three months of the year at free.

I had a few reasons for also putting Book 4 to free this time around.

One, because in Book 3 I hurt a dog and in cozy that can be a reason for someone to drop off of the series. But Book 4 is a cute no-murder mystery with a sad little kid who needs someone to find his mom, so it was a good chance to pull back in readers who may have dropped off of Book 3 a while back and give them a chance to restart the series without any monetary risk.

Two, because Book 4 is also a romance. The whole series has an overarching romantic arc for the main character but Book 4 is where she and her love interest finally get together. So if someone reads Book 4 standalone they not only get a mystery that’s cute, they also get a romance. And I figured that might loop some people back around to Book 1 (which is free, so no risk). And if they’re good after two books they’re probably good for the whole series.

Three, it allowed me to advertise a different cover and title. Maybe potential readers who bounced off of the cover or title for Book 1, will be attracted to Book 4.

Four, summer is a slow time for book sales. Different genres are on different cycles and some books are just perennial sellers but most authors will tell you that they sell better at some points in the year than they do at others. So a free run now is a good way to goose sales during a slow period.

(New releases and big promotions can skew this for individual authors so it can sometimes be hard to tell when your slower times of the year are, but for me it always feels like summer is very sluggish.)

Now, because these are novels and I am actively trying to promote them, I did do more than just set the titles to free and walk way.

I had a Freebooksy that did very well on Book 4, Nook promoted Book 4 for me, and I’ve been running some Facebook ads as well for both Book 1 and Book 4.

I find for free that AMS ads cost too much since it’s per click (whereas FB reports your cost per click but they’re calculating that based on clicks per impressions). Also, for me personally Bookbub CPC ads also don’t do well.

So what were my results?

As of today for Book 4 I’ve given away about 8,000 copies in the last few weeks. And I’m pretty sure I’m seeing some people cycling around to Book 1 because on Amazon alone I’ve given away 2,000 copies of that one.

On FB I’ve spent $62 and the Freebooksy was I think $90. The Nook promo was free. So $150 total.

Now, we can’t directly look at results because I had a new release, too, so that’s going to potentially skew things. And my FB ads were evenly split between Book 1 and Book 4. And people are still reading through the series from previous promotions and some people read slower than others.

But what we can do is run some hypothetical numbers.

So let’s just go with 2,000 downloads of Book 1 and treat it like an eight-book series. I’m assuming here, incorrectly, that of the 8,000 people who downloaded Book 4, a quarter of those already read it and circled back to Book 1 and downloaded it, too.

Also, I’m assuming that they are no more likely to go on to Book 2 than a normal person who downloads a first-in-series freebie even though they probably are if they already read Book 4 and liked it.

So. 2,000 people.

If 1% of those people go on to buy Book 2, that’s 20 people. If 2% do that’s 40 people. If 3% do that’s 60.

(And I will note here that as of today Book 2 sales on Amazon are at 18 for the period in question so it looks like we’re already at 1% with room for more in the future.)

I’ve heard of authors who can get as high as 10% for free downloads to next-book purchases, but I am not one of those authors. I do not hit in the center of the genres I write for.

So, 1%. 20 people who buy Book 2 at $3.99. I get 70% of that. That’s $55.

If it’s 2% of people I get $110. If it’s 3% I get $165 and have already made a little profit.

But that was just Book 2. Let’s say half go on to Book 3. That’s another $25, $55, and $85 respectively.

(And right now I’m showing 14 for Book 3 which is 78% but again that could be not all the same people so 50% is a conservative estimate.)

Let’s say about 75% of readers will then go on to Book 4 for this series. And then it’s pretty much 100% from there to Book 6 but we’re leaving out Book 4 this time around. So let’s just say 75% to Book 5, 100% to Book 6.

At that point we’ve got a total of $125, $250, and $375 for 1%, 2%, and 3% sellthrough assuming that 2,000 is what we’re looking at from that Book 1 number. And we still have Books 7, 8, and 9 that aren’t factored in there.

Those three books incorporate the pandemic so maybe not everyone goes on to them. But if half do that brings even the 1% sellthrough up to breakeven.

And I forgot to include the two related short stories which are often the ones people pay for first rather than one of the other novels in the series. So every time I do a free run on this series I will see a bump in sales of the related 99 cent short stories, often before I see a bump in the novel sales.

I assume that is because people got something for free, liked it enough to want more from the author, but are more willing to pay 99 cents for a short story than $3.99 for a novel.

(Which is something I hadn’t anticipated when I was writing the series and sometimes I wonder if those short stories are the best way to further draw people into my writing, but they are what they are and at least it is the same characters.)

So no matter how I slice it, this free run with Book 4 and Book 1 at the same time will be profitable. If in the long-term I get as high as 3% sellthrough then it’s going to triple my money. Not big numbers, but still. Profit is nice.

And that’s assuming some lower sellthrough numbers than I’m seeing in the short-term.

Now, let’s talk through the factors that came into play here.

Genre. Cozy is one of those more voracious genres where people will download freebies more readily and will read them soon after doing so. I find it much harder to get movement when a book is free with YA fantasy than I do with either cozy mystery or romance.

Price. With my cozies I’m asking a reader to go from free to $3.99 which isn’t the easiest jump, but it’s not that extreme. With my YA fantasy I ask them sometimes to go from free to $5.99. That will impact how many people buy the next book after they read the free title. I find that at the higher price point for the YA that my sellthrough percent is almost 100% to Book 3, though, so sometimes keeping it up there actually does make me more. It all depends on how price-sensitive those readers really are.

Series Length. In this case I have a nine-book series. Even in the less ideal scenario of 1% from the free book and then 50% sellthrough to the next followed by 75% sellthrough to the one after that before people get hooked on the series, by the time we get to book 6 we’re still breakeven. But my YA fantasy is only three books which makes a free run a lot trickier because there’s less room to make up the ad spend in. (It does still work, though.)

Sellthrough. Free runs don’t work if people don’t like the free book enough to go pay for more of your books. It’s like giving out rancid cheese samples at the grocery store. If no one wants more of what you gave them, you just wasted your money. And the more people who like it the more you make. In this scenario 1% was breakeven, 3% was tripling our money, 10% would be a 10x return on spend. And that’s before factoring in word of mouth effects which will likely boost the number of books downloaded.

Hookiness. This is one I don’t do particularly well, but I’ve seen recommended and discussed. And that’s how much a book ends with a hook that drives readers on to the next book. If you have five standalones you are going to see less sellthrough than if Book 1 ends with a hook that makes readers need to read Book 2 and so on and so on. (I wrote about cliffhangers at some point on this blog and my general opinion is that they work really well if people were enjoying the story up to that point but that readers will kind of hate you if they weren’t enjoying the story and were just slogging through to the end.)


So. In conclusion. I think free definitely does still work. I do think it is not what it was back in the day when someone could put a book to free and get 90K downloads without promotion. And sometimes people definitely do download books and then the books sit there on their e-readers forever untouched and forgotten.

But there are enough readers who are looking for something new to read that you can in fact make a nice profit from having a book free for either a limited period of time or permanently.

I expect that I will be leaving Book 1 of that series free going forward because the series chugs along with sales when I have some sort of promotion going but falls dormant when I don’t. And for this series I find a small FB ad spend isn’t that hard to maintain.

Also, now that I have nine books in the series keeping one free doesn’t hurt as much as it does with a three-book series.

So there you have it. If you’ve been scared to try a free run but you have a series that should do well with it given the factors above, dip a toe in and give it a shot.