Anatomy of a “Free” Run

AbandonHope_ToU2_ebookcoverFirst of all, as a thank you to all those who downloaded Knot in Time last week, I’m running a countdown deal this week for Abandon Hope, starting today at 99 cents! I would have started it sooner, but didn’t realize I had to wait 30 days after a price change to run one.

Now, for all you other Kindle authors out there, we know that “free ain’t what it used to be”. Gone are the days where a free run could make a year’s wages in just a week or two. Numbers have dwindled drastically since Amazon adjusted their algorithms, yet free can still be a powerful tool for gaining recognition — that all-important visibility which is so hard to come by in a sea of over 2 million titles that grows daily.

KnotinTime_ToU1As most of you know, simply selecting some dates and telling Amazon to make your Kindle Select title free for those days isn’t enough. You have to spread the word. Fortunately, there are some excellent sources out there for doing just that. The downside is, the most effective ones either cost money or won’t let you know for sure whether they will post your listing. Your best bet for getting as widespread coverage as possible is to submit your listing to as many sites as you can. Admittedly, I did not take my own advice here because I wanted to get some real data on two of the major services, once I knew I’d been accepted for BookBub.

BookBub is currently the King of the Hill, the Holy Grail, the — well, you get the picture — of ebook promotion. They own a massive email list of readers, broken down by genre/category. They are also rather selective about what books they choose to feature. You must have a decent cover, a work that isn’t riddled with errors, and reviews from more than your mom and your second cousin who only posted because he owes you money. I submitted two or three times last spring and summer and did not get accepted. With the release of book two in my scifi series imminent, I decided to try again with Knot in Time since I’d garnered a few more reviews from the time I’d tried before. I put an explanation of why I wanted to promote (the release of book two) in the final comments and also indicated that I was flexible regarding the date I’d chosen. I received an acceptance notice in between Christmas and New Year’s, to my delight, and then went about planning my approach.

Because I was laying out some hard-earned cash for this. I wanted to be sure the service I paid for was what brought in the numbers — whatever they turned out to be. Thus, the only other submission I made was to Ereader News Today, for two days after my BookBub listing had been scheduled. That way, if ENT picked it up, I could get some idea of the overlap between the two services. Did people sign up for both? Or did the two have distinct clientele?

P-Day (Promotion Day) came and I sat on pins and needles, fearing either Amazon would fail to set the book to free or BookBub would misplace my listing. (My luck tends to run that way as anyone who has watched me play games of chance can attest) Everything, however, went smoothly and by noon that day I was developing carpal tunnel from hitting refresh on my browser, marveling at the numbers on my KDP dashboard.

The first major decision I made had been to ask for the Science Fiction category on BookBub rather than YA/Teen, which Knot in Time nominally is on Amazon. Following the listings in my email each day, I noticed that the vast majority of YA/Teen stories offered were romance of one type or another, much like the YA section of any book store. Knot in Time has an older teen protagonist, but most of my reviews have come from adults who enjoyed the story. BookBub’s Science Fiction list, and price tag, were larger than YA/Teen, but it made more sense to spend the extra money and try it as it seemed a better fit for the book.

Know your audience. Even if you wrote your story for elderly nuns, you might find it appeals to middle school boys who enjoy having their knuckles rapped by rulers! All kidding aside, pay attention to who leaves reviews for your books and what they are saying. Find out what else they’ve reviewed and what they said about those books. Patterns will eventually emerge and you may find some surprises.

Numbers, man! Give us numbers!

Okay, okay. Here you go. By the end of that first day, Monday, downloads topped 12,000 and Knot in Time was #9 in free listings for the whole of Amazon. This was just past the top end of the download range BookBub listed for Science Fiction at the time I submitted, so I was extremely pleased. I asked my group of Emblazoner friends for a few tweets, I tweeted a few times myself, and it was picked up by a few small free ebook promoters on Twitter, but nothing major so far as I could determine. I’ll discuss some of my hunches for why it did so well in a bit.

By Wednesday morning, it had reached around 22,000 downloads and ENT listed it, as I’d requested, soon after my first numbers check. The pace picked up slightly for U.S. downloads, before dropping down again late Thursday and into Friday. Foreign downloads picked up through the week, though they only accounted for approximately 2% of the total. Here are the total downloads at the end of the run on Friday night/Saturday morning, broken down by country:

US: 27,854
UK: 200
Germany: 169
France: 1
Spain: 6
Italy: 3
Japan: 4
India: 36
Canada: 127
Brazil: 9
Mexico: 1
Australia: 28
Grand Total: 28,438

That’s all fine and dandy, you may say. But you had to pay to give away books! How does that help? Here’s how: During that week, I sold over 80 copies of Abandon Hope, which more than paid for the ad. Downloads of my perma-free book, A Measure of Disorder, AMOD_ME1_JF2grn2also received a bit of a bump, as did sales of A Cure for Chaos and Mother’s Heart. These were less significant than sales for Abandon Hope to be sure, but hey, sales are sales, right? I’ve also received 12 new reviews for Knot in Time as of this posting.

Since going off free, Knot in Time has been selling at a steady clip, keeping it in the 25-30,000 ranking range. Abandon Hope has held around the 10,000 mark for several days, climbing as high as 6-7,000 on a couple of occasions. We’ll see how the countdown deal does for it this week. All in all, the only thing that would make me happier is if Steven Spielberg knocked on my door asking to buy movie rights.

Conclusions: I couldn’t be as scientific as I’d like with all of this. There are just too many variables when dealing with the Internet. I do have some hunches and ideas though, based on the data and trends I was able to observe during the week.

1)  Three to four days is probably optimal for a free run. Bookbub instructed me in their email to make the promotion last until the 31st (the full five days), so that’s what I did, not wishing to gain their ire. Downloads fell dramatically on the final day, except in the foreign markets, and I think I might have captured a few more sales of the book if it had come off free a day earlier, but that’s just supposition on my part.

2)  I believe there is a great deal of overlap in customers for BookBub and ENT. This doesn’t surprise me, but it was good to have some real confirmation. I’ve had ENT promote books for me before and the surge in downloads was far greater than what I saw in the middle of this run. That leads me to believe a great deal of the folks who saw the ENT post had already gotten the book through BookBub. Although ENT may have more international subscribers as those downloads seemed to pick up late in the week. YMMV

3)  Writing for adults is more lucrative than writing for teens. This may sound like a no-brainer, but with all the press and hype surrounding many YA books over the past several years (Harry Potter, Twilight, etc.) YA has seemed like a virtual gold mine for authors. For some, it certainly is, however, I’d venture a guess that many of those readers don’t actually fit into the “teen” age group. Again, it’s extremely important to know and understand your audience.

4)  The benefit of free may be picking up again. With Amazon’s changes to their affiliate program last year, we’ve seen an ebb in the tide of free books being promoted on the major sites like BookBub, ENT, Pixel of Ink, etc. With fewer free books gaining visibility this way, it’s possible that having a well promoted free run might be of more benefit than it was a few months ago when these changes occurred. Again, this is pure speculation on my part based on my unscientific sampling, but it does seem to make some sense.

Lastly, I’d like everyone to know that I didn’t decide to post these numbers and information to brag. I know of others who have done far better than this and some who have done worse. My purpose here is to impart knowledge so that anyone reading this may be able to make some better decisions with their books based on some real life data, rather than just making guesses as we so often have to do. My experience was my own and yours will likely be entirely different. I hope, however, that some of this information will help you make more intelligent choices for your publishing exploits. Below are some links to sites I’ve found extremely helpful over the past few years.

List of helpful sites, including those offering promotion of free and reduced price books: The Writer’s Guide to E-Publishing
JA Konrath’s blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing
David Gaughran’s blog, Let’s Get Visible

What’s your take on all of this? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


About Alan Tucker

Writer, Dad, Graphic Designer, Soccer Coach … not necessarily in that order!

Posted on February 3, 2014, in Books/Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Alan, thanks so much for sharing the cold, hard data. I appreciate the stats as well as your speculations about why. I also appreciate your keeping BookBub and ENT separate. Very interesting. I ran a BookBub ad most recently on Oct 4th that gained me over 10,000 free downloads. I subsequently had an ENT ad on Jan 24th that gained me only 40 downloads. I must caveat that ENT would not let me do a freebie, so it was at $.99. Overall, the ENT showing was disappointing to me. Based upon your results, it seems BookBub folks may well have downloaded the free version so the ENT offer was not attractive.

    A couple things I take away from your post – consider trying a category you haven’t tried before on some of these big promo sites. I love that idea as it should hit a different audience. Also, I think you may have something with your free promo idea in terms of running a freebie even though Amazon is no longer rewarding you for it, for the sake of selling other books. That’s the key though, you need other books to sell for that to make sense.

    Great post Alan!

    • You’re most welcome! I’m glad you found it interesting. As Indie writers, the one thing we all must be is flexible. The landscape changes so often and so fast, I often feel like I’m at sea when I’m standing on dry land!

      It’s a proven fact (among very few out there) that the more books you have, the more likely you are to be successful. Write, edit, and write some more!

  2. lynnkelleyauthor

    Wow, you got great results from your ad! Thanks for sharing all this info with us, Alan.

  3. Great data, Alan. I just got my tax docs from my my ebook sales. Rather dismal. Time to try something new! 🙂

  4. We ran a freebie sale around the same time without Bookbub and while the numbers were not nearly as impressive as yours, I did come away with the conclusion that free days that are well planned, may still be beneficial. There was a significant bump in sales to the other two books in the series. This is a new for me as I have been personally against free days for quite some time.

    Thanks for posting your data, I know it will be helpful to everyone.

    • It is a bit counterintuitive to think that giving something away will lead to sales, but it seems to me to be the best way to build a following. If readers find an author they like, they will often seek out all the works by that author. When we present them with something risk free, it’s much easier to get folks to try something new.

  5. Whoa! That’s a lot of sales! 😀

  6. Alan,

    Very interesting read. In any case here is free promotion 🙂 :

    “A Measure Of Disorder” is highlighted today on

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