Should I Make my First Book Free?

By Sean Platt

Frustrated writer

Today I want to talk about making your book free. A lot of authors want to know if they should make their first book free, or any book free, because for the first couple of years of the indie publishing revolution that was a really great way to get attention.

(If you prefer audio, you can listen to this episode on the Smarter Artist Podcast)

Free isn’t what it used to be.

When we wrote Write, Publish, Repeat we said that it was really important to have those funnel starters out there. And that for every series that you had, ideally you wanted to have your freebie, like the free version of Angry Birds. The free episode of Friends before you buy the DVD set. Those were the two analogies that we used.

While there is still a lot of truth to that, the marketplace is different. It’s really crowded.

Amazon doesn’t promote free the way they used to, in visibility. There used to be a pretty easy to access Top 100 Free list, now it‘s kind of buried.

We also have the weight of a free download is counted differently. You used to be able to run a free promotion, get a lot of downloads, turn it to paid and you would get some extra weight. Now a lot of times free of downloads don’t even show up in Also Boughts. So, there are a lot of things that have really changed that.

shutterstock_269516258Besides which the market is just saturated.

When Yesterday’s Gone Season One was first free, or actually Episode 1 at the time was just free, we got a lot of very consistent downloads. But now it’s Season One and not even Episode 1 and it was up in like the top 3,000 free downloads.

That’s pretty hard to get noticed. We went from 100 free downloads a day to just a few, and that’s a lot harder to convert those buyers to subsequent books in the series.

If you think about it, you’re lucky to get 5% conversion out of all the free downloads.

Because let’s face it, a lot of people are digital hoarders and when they see free books, they’re just loading them onto their e-reader. They’re not necessarily reading them.

You have to get somebody to actually download the book, read the book, enjoy the book enough to go on to the next one, and those numbers aren’t ever going to be as high as you want them to be.

If you have just a few downloads a day, then that’s not sustainable, so you need to find other ways to market your books.

Look at your catalog and know your most desired outcome before you decide whether or not you’re going to make a book free.

Our latest big success really was Invasion.  Our Invasion series was kind of engineered to be a hit.

It was the first book that we ever wrote as a company where we were pre-optimizing it. We wanted it to be a home run so we made sure that the cover was a home run.

We called it Invasion so we could call the series Alien Invasion, which we knew would get traffic.

We really wanted it to be a hit from the outset.

We wrote all three in a row before we launched the first one, and we figured that by the time the third one was out, we can make the first one free.

But we’re looking at it now and that’s exactly where we are. All three books are out. The fourth one will be out in a few months and it’s time to turn the free switch on that, but we haven’t.

We have no plans to in the immediate future because we’re really looking at it and we’re not doing it just because that’s what we’ve done in the past, or that was best practices before.

Now that we’re looking at it and we see that that doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s still moving briskly as a paid sale and we would actually be hurting our visibility if we were to turn it to free.

Because even though we would get a nice rush of downloads, it would soon disappear from all the Also Boughts, and right now the Also Boughts are driving a lot of those sales, and it’s helping us to keep the book ranking high.

It’s at about 2,000 right now and it’s holding. It’s been that way now for more than a month, and it’s not really dropping from there.

Anywhere between 2,000 and 3,000 every single day for its sales rank in the whole store, and if we were to move it to free, we would not only lose those sales, we would lose the subsequent sales because we would drop out of Also Boughts.

For us, in that instance, free doesn’t make any sense.

Yesterday’s Gone Season One,  we’re debating that. But right now it still does kind of make sense because we have a First in Free promotion at Apple that drives a lot of traffic to the first one in the series. And we need that to be free there and Amazon would price match it anyway, so it just makes sense for that to be free.

If you’re an established author, you’re going to be less dependent on free.

If you’re just starting out then free absolutely makes sense, because even with a saturated market, and even with a lot of competition to get your free book noticed, it’s still better than nothing.

You still have to earn that attention right away.

You just want to understand what your motive is.

Free definitely works better with series books than with stand alones, because you have something else for them to buy.

Free definitely works better with series books than with stand alones, because you have… Click To Tweet

With a stand alone book, someone could read it free and even if they loved your writing, even if they loved your book, it’s kind of a complete experience, and there are so many other free books.

Series of multicolored booksThe person who downloaded that free book is more likely to go get another free book from an author they’ve never read than to go read something else that you have written, because they’re a free seeker. That’s why they got your book for free. Whereas in a series book, you left an open loop. You’ve given them characters that they like if they want to go on. You’ve given them a question mark at the end of the book probably, what else is going to happen in this world to these characters, and that gives them a reason other than they just like you as an author.

That’s much more compelling. We all want to be loved as authors and we want people to like our writing style so much that they go from book to book to book, even if they’re stand alones. But that’s not really the way it works, unfortunately.

Free does work a lot better with series books.

You also want to think about the message you’re sending.

For us, we’ve been at this for four years now and we kind of like not putting something for free. There’s something that is validating about not having to turn the first book in the Invasion series free and knowing that people are willing to pay for it.

I like sending that message.

Sometimes putting your stuff for free sends the wrong message about the quality of your work.

Remember, you can always run specials too. You can make something free and then move it back. You could graduate from it.

We are doing free less and less, but probably we’ll run Invasion even if we don’t do it perma-free, which at this point it looks like we’ll probably won’t, we may price flare.

That means we’ll make it free, hopefully get an add on BookBub or maybe run something through Facebook for a short period of time to just pump some life into the entire series. Maybe around the time Annihilation, the fourth book in the series comes out.

The key is to monitor your business and do what’s right at the time.

You’ve probably heard that free always works, but it’s not 2010 anymore and now free sometimes works.

With the right title, on the right platform, at the right time.

Don’t be afraid to experiment and know why you’re doing it and what you want your most desired outcome to be.

Best of luck, free or paid.

Sean Platt is the founder of Sterling & Stone and loves that he not only gets paid to make up stories and come up with crazy ideas, but that he gets to do so with his best friends. Together, they've also co-authored the bestselling non-fiction titles Write. Publish. Repeat., Fiction Unboxed, and Iterate & Optimize to help Smarter Artists get smarter, faster.

Sean lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Cindy and their two children, Ethan and Haley.

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