UPDATE: Author David Gaughran has also kindly answered a few additional questions.
Using free as a tool can be very beneficial to authors. When Amazon first started their KDP Select program, many authors were able to take advantage of the five freebie days offered during every 90-day exclusivity period, and shoot to best-selling status. However, Amazon has since changed its algorithms, and as CJ Lyons pointed out on Jane Friedman’s site, KDP Select is not the same tool it used to be.
Now, some authors are using other freebie strategies to promote their books, including making some of their titles permanently free (permafree). One way to do that is to price a book free on Smashwords, and wait for other distribution sites to price match.
Inspired by a student in my Udemy course How to Create Beautiful E-Books who asked some excellent questions on how to set e-books free on multiple sites, I reached out to a few authors to ask them about their experiences.
Three authors, Keith Robinson, Susan Kay Quinn, and David Gaughran shared with me. Keith Robinson is the author of the sci-fi/fantasy Island of Fog series for ages 9+, Susan Kay Quinn is the author of YA sci-fi Mindjack Trilogy, as well as the Debt Collector series, and David Gaughran is the author of Let’s Get Visible, Let’s Get Digital, and A Storm Hits Valparaiso, among others.
One of the most effective permafree techniques is to have the first book in a series free. This strategy helps to attract new readers, who then hopefully get hooked and are willing to pay for the rest of the books in the series.
Robinson said that Book 1 in the Island of Fog series is permafree, while Books 2-6 are priced at $3.99. Other books in the series, including the 7th one coming out this November, will also be priced at $3.99.
Quinn said that currently Book 1 in Mindjack, Open Minds, as well as Debt Collector Episode 1, Delirium, are free.
Why go permafree?
Both Robinson and Quinn said they chose to do permafree to encourage new readers to try out their books.
“Previously I had Island of Fog (Book 1) priced at $2.99, slightly cheaper than the others in the series,” Robinson said. “This worked fine, but I had gotten some good results during KDP Select free promos and wanted to go the permafree route. Since I had five other books in the series, I saw no harm in giving the first one away for free and trying to hook readers who otherwise wouldn’t take the risk of forking out a few dollars for an unknown author.”
Quinn said she wanted to introduce her work by making the first book in a series free. “Debt Collector is a serial, so I made the first episode free to encourage readers to try a new format,” she said.
The results of permafree
For both authors, the results of the permafree strategy have worked out well.
“I make more money overall when I have a free book available for readers to sample (because I have other books for sale),” Quinn said.
“The initial permafree status auto-alerted quite a few important sites who placed the book on their ‘latest freebies and bargains’ lists,” Robinson said. “Also, Amazon itself seemed to give it a boost. Within a week I had 6000 downloads, all without doing a thing!”
He also added that it helps to have multiple books available. In his post, “Going Permafree on Amazon,” he goes into more details about what happened when Island of Fog initially became free. At some point, he reached an overall ranking of #52 Free in Kindle Store.
(However, Bryan Cohen wrote on 30 Day Books that he had mixed results when his book went permafree.)
The process of permafree
On some channels, including Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo, authors can directly set a title to free and see the change within a few hours. Other channels however, take longer.
“For B&N you have to distribute free titles via Smash, which can take anywhere from a week to a month,” Quinn said. “For Amazon, they have to price-match, and this is not in the author’s control (nor guaranteed) – it can take anywhere from a day to a few weeks.”
Robinson said he was fortunate that Island of Fog (Book 1) went free “on its own.” He said, “Up until the end of June 2013, the series was exclusive to Kindle because of the KDP Select plan. Once that expired, I made the books available on Kobo and Apple, with Book 1 for free. I had planned to wait for them all to publish and then ask people to tell Amazon that Book 1 is cheaper elsewhere. As it happens, they price-matched it anyway within a week. I assume they have some automated bots to check prices. Anyway, I just happened to notice a bunch of free price-match downloads in my Kindle reports one day! Amazon UK took quite a bit longer, about 3-4 weeks.”
Quinn said she only recommends authors price books free if they have more than one book out. She also explains the upsides and downsides of going free in a recent post, “Pricing Your EBook.” Robinson said authors need to have some priced books available, in addition to the freebie book.
“There’s no point giving away your book for free unless you have something else for eager readers to buy,” he said. “The purpose of going permafree (in my opinion) is to get your book into the hands of thousands of new readers. It’s like shoving it into their hands as they pass by. Many will take it home and throw it in the corner. Some will actually read it. And a handful will like it and go to check out what else you’ve written. In my case, about 2% of those who downloaded the book liked it enough to buy the next book(s) in the series. For me, this translates to five sales per happy reader (because I have six books in the series at the moment, and the first is free). So 3000 free downloads means about 60 new fans, and if you have a Book 2 available, that’s potentially 60 sales. For Books 2-6, that’s 300 sales.”
Robinson also said he ran a BookBub ad about a week after Island of Fog went permafree, which helped boost his readership.
“I had a double-whammy success with 11,600 free downloads, of which 257 readers (about 2.2%) bought Book 2,” he said. “Since I had Books 2-6 available, I actually sold 805 in total in August.”
What about KDP Select?
Quinn said she is not a huge fan of KDP Select, because of its exclusivity.
“I don’t care for exclusivity in general,” she said. “While getting traction on other channels can be difficult, having a free book actually helps with this. And the longer you’re on those channels, the more visibility you have. KDP restricts you from that, so I’m not (generally) in favor of it. However, I’m in favor of experimenting, so having one title in KDP could be worthwhile (to capture the lending market there).”
Robinson, on the other hand, said KDP Select was great the first time he used it. “It was 6000+ downloads and resulted in 635 sales that month,” he said. “In this case, Book 1 was free for 3 days and then went back to paid status, so it’s slightly different to the permafree system. Subsequent promos weren’t as good, no more than 5000 and sometimes as low as 800. The effectiveness got so pitiful that I ended the program and went for permafree.”
Running freebie promotions on sites other than Amazon
In addition to choosing KDP Select and running five freebie promotion days, and making a book permafree, authors have the option of running freebie promotions on all or multiple distribution channels (including Smashwords, Kobo, Apple, and Barnes & Noble). Another new(er) distribution channel is Draft2Digital, which is similar to Smashwords. You can read more about the similarities and differences between the two in Gaughran’s blog post, “Choosing the Right Distributor: Smashwords vs Draft2Digital.”
Gaughran said the basic method of having freebie promotions on other sites is via price-matching.
“You make your book free on a competing retailer, notify Amazon of the free ‘price’ via the link on your book’s product page (“Tell Us About A Lower Price”), and then wait,” he said. “It normally takes a few days, but sometimes you might have to nudge them again – they do it at their discretion and there are no guarantees.”
Additionally he said that Amazon seems most sensitive to price-matching Apple and Barnes & Noble. “You can set a free price directly on Apple if you publish directly with them, but not on Barnes & Noble. Or you can set a free price on a distributor like Smashwords and then when that free price gets pushed to Barnes & Noble and/or Apple (it’s the only way of going free at Barnes & Noble), you then inform Amazon using the same method above.”
Quinn said she has used the freebie strategy on multiple channels with two of her titles. One was her short story Mind Games (currently priced at 99 cents on Smashwords, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble), and the other is her novel Open Minds. Open Minds is currently free, she said, but it was also free for one month in February, and back to paid in April and May before becoming permafree.
Though some authors may worry that once you set a book to free on multiple channels, Amazon price-matches and doesn’t let the book go back to paid, Quinn said it is not true.
“It is true that it may take some time to price-match, but if nothing else, you can request Amazon to raise the price again (as long as it’s not lower anywhere else),” she said.
Gaughran also said that price-matching to free is not permanent. “As soon as you want to come off free, simply change the price at the retailers where it is free, and when that takes effect, email KDP to tell them it’s no longer free anywhere else, and they’ll return it to the paid listings in a few days.”
However, he did warn that in some cases, authors may have difficulty changing the price back.
“Please note that they won’t do so if it is still free anywhere,” he said. “Sometimes Smashwords users can get caught in what we call ‘price-matching hell’ because their book is still free in some store like Sony or Diesel (or Kobo) who can be notoriously slow about changing it back. Often self-publishers will opt out of those stores (as they don’t sell much at Sony or Diesel anyway) before attempting this.”
The most successful authors are the ones who have multiple books and are constantly at work on new titles. That said, both Robinson and Quinn are hard at work writing and promoting their next books.
Robinson recently released Fractured, a sci-fi/fantasy blend he co-authored with Brian Clopper, that readers can download for free on Issuu, Kobo, and Apple, or pay 99 cents on Barnes & Noble and Amazon. The plan is to have it free on all channels. Find out more at worldofapparatum.com.
“It’ll be interesting to see if and when Amazon price-matches it,” he said. “It has yet to go live on Apple, but it will be free there too eventually.”
Quinn said she finished her middle grade fantasy and is seeking publication. But she’s also working on two other books.
“Right now, I’m putting final revisions on my steampunk fantasy romance Third Daughter,” she said. “Next up is a new young adult science fiction series (Singularity) that I can’t wait to get started on!”