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Promotions – The Long Summary, Part 3

Part 3: Free Promotions, Discount Promotions, Stacked Promotions, and Reviews

Previously, on Part 1:Forums, Groups, and Blogs, Guest Blogging, Blog Tours, and Endorsements.

And Part 2: Mailing Lists, Giveaways, and GoodReads

“But,” you protest, “I don’t want to take 5 years to build a fan base! I want to know about promotions I can whip out in the next few weeks!” Okay, let’s start with the currently-most-popular ways… but even this is an arena where professionals are setting the stacked promotions up two or three months in advance, in order to get in at bigger sites. Again, balance the money / time availability for your own circumstances.

You can promote your books by putting one at a discount up to and including free. I don’t recommend this approach if you only have one or two books out. If an author only has one book, and they give it away for free or near as, how will they make any money? If readers get one free or deep discount, and then buy and read the next, they’re likely to forget who you are by the time you have a third out. If you have five books out, then binge readers and new fans deliver four sales for every free download. Also, they’ll be more likely to remember you and come back to check for more stuff later.

Backmatter becomes very important, too, when promoting a book as a loss-leader. You need to make it as painless as possible for readers to find the rest of your catalogue. Therefore, make darned sure you have links in the back of each book to your others, and it wouldn’t hurt to repeat the blurb in the front matter. I know, some readers are annoyed, when they’ve just downloaded something, to read the blurb they’ve just read on the website. However, it’s very useful to the people poking through a massive To-Be-Read pile and thinking “Why did I download this book six months ago? Why was it interesting enough to pick up?”


Free Promo:
If you have a few days free and little to no money, and a series of linked stories, then you can try offering the first in the series free of charge. Such promotions aren’t nearly as popular as they were before Kindle Unlimited attracted most of the readers who couldn’t afford their reading habit, but you can still boost your sales by getting people to download the first book free, and then, if they like it, buy the rest. This will take a fair amount of time in terms of finding promotion sites and mailing lists that accept free ebooks, and filling out the forms.

There’s one major drawback to this technique: most people don’t value things they get for free. There’s no urgency to get their money’s worth of entertainment out of reading it, and they may never get around to it. Conversions from promoted free downloads to paid purchases usually range between 1-3% (in scifi; other genres have a wider spread.) That is, for every hundred downloads, even if you correctly target the market, only 1-3 readers is likely to buy another story of yours within the next month. That makes this technique a numbers game. If you give away 54 copies, you’re not likely to earn back the money spent on promoting your book ($5 here, $7 there, those 4 free places, $15 over there). If you give away 30K free copies, then you’re likely to have a pretty good ROI.


Discount Promo:
If you have a little more money available for promotions, you can run a campaign for a discounted book, usually priced at $0.99. Why does this cost more than a free promotion? Because the promotion Web sites and e-mail lists usually charge more for discounted-book slots. The brass ring of this particular carnival ride is a slot with Bookbub, who have the largest mailing list, with a good solid track record on their typical click-through, and the data to prove it. (Beware: there is no such thing as guaranteed sales. Some people have completely lost their shirts on Bookbub promos. If it’s their fault you may get a refund, but you might end up scheduled on a school holiday when no one’s buying, or not ‘click’ with their readership. There are no guaranteed success.)

Even though 99 cents isn’t much for a book, it’s still more than free, and buyers are statistically much more likely to actually read the story, and to buy the next in series.


Stacked Promos:
I have plenty of sales data. None of it can give me an ROI for a single site, because I stack the promotions. Thus, when you ask me, “How many sales does Ebooksoda give compared to Ereader News Today?”, the answer isn’t something I could tell you.

What is a “stacked promotion”? It’s a technique that leverages multiple individual promotions per day for several days, with your sites most likely to give you the most sales / downloads toward the end of the promotional run, in order to create increasing sales/downloads & visibility on the popularity lists for several days. The goal is to hit the bestseller lists in subgenre, and if applicable the Hot New Releases list.

Amazon’s Web site is designed (as is iTunes) to show people the most popular stuff, because that’s most likely what people want to buy. The sales you make through the promo sites, if you gain good visibility, will be between 15% and 50% of your total sales during the promotion period and up to two weeks afterward, as the visibility boost remains for a while. The rest will come from browsers on the retail sites noticing your book’s improved sales rank, recognizing it as a hot item, and clicking over to check it out.

To achieve this, I set up a 3-5 day run of promotions. I usually schedule 3 days of promotions, with a day on either end to give me ‘padding’ in case the promotions don’t start on schedule, or in case the reduced price cuts back to full price earlier than scheduled. The ‘padding’ also provides a pre-promotion baseline for sales, and provides additional time for those who open the promotional e-mail late to click through to the book on the last day of the sale. If I can give the promotion lots of care and attention, I’ll sometimes schedule 5 promotion days, with everything carefully checked to make sure the discounts kick in before the advertising emails are transmitted.

The first day or two goes to lots of small, lower-hitting campaigns. Here you hit the money-versus-time tradeoff, as you can spend a lot of time filling in forms and spending $5-$15 here and there, with a sprinkling of free promo sites. Ideally, as the promotion progresses, I use more and more heavy hitters, with the biggest reach & sell-through anchoring the very last day. Often, though, when trying to get a promotional slot only a month away (or less) it ends up slightly randomized as to the dates each site has available.

If your books are in Amazon’s KDP Select program, you must absolutely make sure that your proposed promotion isn’t crossing a rollover period – the boundary between the 90-day periods for which each book is enrolled. You’re restricted from changing the price of the book within so many days of starting or ending one of those periods. You don’t want that restriction to affect your promotion schedule, so plan the latter accordingly.

Let’s talk real numbers. Advertising at a free site is likely to net somewhere between 0-5 sales, with 15 as the outlier. Advertising at some of the smaller sites results in 0-30 sales, with 50 as the outlier. The numbers vary by genre, as well as by site. There’s a much smaller market for military science fiction than cozy mysteries, in total, and a site that has a bunch of space opera fans may not have much market penetration among, say, urban fantasy even though they’re in the same SF/F category.

Thus, I can’t say with a straight face “You’ll get 5 sales out of Betty Book Freak and 15 out of bknights.” At best, I could say “On Day 1 of the stacked promo, I advertised in 6 places and had 35 sales. On Day 3, I had my heavy hitter site and 4 smaller ones, and had 1,545 sales. ”

Do Not Track The Success Of Your Marketing Campaign On The Sales Of The Discounted Book Alone. (Or the number of free downloads.) You can reasonably expect to “lose money” on the small sites, and “barely break even” on the larger sites. But if you don’t have the ramp-up of visibility from the smaller sites, Amazon’s algorithm will see your popularity suddenly shoot up, and will spike it back down just as fast. (There’s also a bunch of market research on the number of times a consumer has to see a product before they’ll buy it. That was lies lots and lots of research from the soda and beer companies, and it’s heavy going. There is something to it, though, and there are readers who say “Well, after I kept hearing about X, I took a chance and downloaded the sample to see if it was any good.” Instead, track all sales of all your books for the week prior to the promotion, and for up to 4 weeks afterward.

“Betty Book Freak? Bookbub? Ereader News Today? Where do I learn of all these places to promote?”
Start here:

Caveat Emptor!

Once again, this is not only about click-through and purchase percentages, and but also about sell-through, otherwise known as how many people read Book 1 and then buy Book 2. When you were giving away Book 1 for free, it was pretty obvious that you couldn’t measure the return on investment by how many people paid for book 1, as it was free. Authors tend to get confused when they’re selling at a discount, but the principle is still exactly the same. The money is all made, and long-term fans gained, by getting them to buy books 2, 3, 4, and so on.

When promoting discounted books, you’re going to sell a whole lot less than you would have given away for free. However, readers as a whole tend to value what they pay for, and a much higher percentage read the book (and read it much faster), and go on to buy more books.

A minor note here: there are two types of sell-through rates. “Organic” sell-through rates are what happen between promotions, as people find your books by whatever means (word of mouth, seeing you post or comment somewhere and liking you enough to look up your books, browsing also-boughts, running across an old review, whatever). Organic rates vary by genre, as well as by writer, but they usually are 50-90% on paid books (this percentage isn’t dramatically affected by first in series being 99 cents or full price), and 3-10% on permanently-free first-in-series to the paid second in series. “Promoted” sell-through rates happen when you run a promotion, and they generally vary by genre and promotion from 0.01% to 15%.

If you just looked at the percentages, you’d wonder why anyone does promotions – but it’s a numbers game. 15% of 20,000 eyeballs is a lot more than 85% of 20 eyeballs.

Each successive book in a series is another checkpoint for sell-through numbers, and they’re all about your writing and blurb instead of promotions. By the time a reader goes from Book 2 to Book 3, the sell-through percentage should pick up dramatically. If it doesn’t, then something in your writing in Book 2 is losing them. We’ve all picked up a sequel to an exciting first story, only to experience the “sagging middle” in the trilogy, or the sequel where the creators gave us what they thought we wanted, but with nothing of what we actually enjoyed. (Let us all nod solemnly, and agree that there is no Highlander II. If we ignore it, maybe it’ll go away…)

By the time readers go from Book 3 to 4, they’re hooked. Sell-through percentages should be in the 80’s to high 90’s. As the series stretches on, you’ll have some fall-off, but it should be pretty consistent. Major changes in sales patterns are indicative that something went wrong – a cover that didn’t clearly signal it was part of the series, concentrating on a character that the readers don’t care for, a dramatic change in series tone, killing a popular character in the prior book… detection is easy, diagnosis is harder.


When you get wrapped around the axle and think that the discount promotion lists are your only option for discovery, then the mandatory number of reviews and ratings suddenly seems like the biggest, most terribly cruel dictates. They’re not, any more than posting a 5mph speed limit in a parking lot with a day care is “the man keeping you down.” The sites are just trying to set a minimum bar so they can say to their subscribers “Everything we recommend has at least this much recommendation and indication of quality going for it.”

Instead, look around, and try something else. There are other ways, and time will often give you the reviews, as readers accumulate. Nobody is going to kill your cat if you don’t have 10 reviews by the end of the first week, and nobody’s going to make you wear a scarlet letter if you don’t sell 1500 books and get 150 reviews by the end of your first month. As a general rule of thumb, you’re going to run 1 review per 1000 readers. Some genres, and some authors with a lot of audience engagement, it’s closer to 1 in 100. Others, not so much. Treasure your fans who leave reviews, but don’t harass them to do so and drive the ones who faithfully buy but don’t review off, eh?

Next week: advertising – sidebar, keyword, banner…. yeah, all that stuff you installed adblock to ignore, and still can’t get rid of? That’s a promotional method, too.

  1. A couple of reviewer points: Do you know if Kindle Unlimited has ANY impact on increasing sales, versus making a book a freebie for a short time? Anything in KU is, essentially, a freebie for me, because I’ve already entered the $9.95 per month it costs into my budget. If the KU subscribers could be motivated to pick up the book, that’s a better win than freebies, right? Maybe there IS no way to target KU subscribers.

    Okay, that passage was so incoherent, I don’t even know what I said.

    Oh, yeah: if you write it, and put it in KU, I WILL review it (213 Amazon reviews since July 6, 2014). And if it’s not in KU, you can give me a loaner copy; that’s absolutely ethically permitted. And if you want the review someplace other than Amazon, I can do that, too, if the site permits.

    March 20, 2016
    • Yes, KU borrows do impact the rating and make a huge difference there. There’s no way to directly appeal to KU readers, but achieving a high sales rank (and getting into the right sub-genre’s Hot New Release or Bestseller List) will do the trick nicely. Subscribers will see the book cover and the attached sign saying it’s free on KU.

      March 20, 2016
      • CJ – I keep looking for a way to specifically market to the KU subscribers, but all I’ve found so far is the same as the rest of the amazon readers and browsers: as you said, a lot of it is getting visibility on the subgenre bestseller & hot new releases lists, and populating the also-boughts.

        Interestingly enough, there’s a distinct subset of people who use the promotional emails as a curated recommendation engine. That is, they’re not price-sensitive, they sign up so recommendations for new books they don’t know will arrive in their inbox instead of having to go browse the hot new releases / bestsellers lists.

        Some of these are clearly on KU, because a good promotional campaign will show a spike in borrows / reads before the spike in sales starts moving your book up the rankings and into high visibility.

        Pat – yes, a KU read is definitely better than a freebie, because the author gets paid. (Money to buy food is good!) Since I can’t target KU specifically, I roll marketing to them into the paid-marketing camp.

        March 20, 2016
        • Like you, I’ve seen spikes in page reads in response to promo emails. The one time I was lucky enough to score a Book Bub promo, I tripled what I made during the sales period (it was a $0.99 promo) in pages read.

          March 20, 2016
      • KU is kind of weird too where a borrow will affect your rank, even if they don’t read it (Meaning you don’t get paid).

        March 21, 2016
  2. Max #

    In my own experience, it does have an impact on sales. Kindle Unlimited effects the sales ranking, which in turn makes the book more visible to others who browse Amazon, which in turn means more eyeballs … ergo more readers/buyers.

    Kindle Unlimited, if you’re writing books of a solid length, also pays pretty well too. At this point, buy it or read it on KU, it’s all the same to me because I make about the same amount.

    March 20, 2016
    • Max #

      Dang it! This was supposed to be in reply to Pat’s comment above. That’s what I get for using a mobile. Sorry Pat!

      March 20, 2016
  3. Excellent advice all around, and it matches with my experiences self-pubbing (including a bunch of things I learned the hard way). The bit about making your only book free is particularly on-point. It’s heartbreaking to see so many new writers make their books free out of the gate. It not only hurts their sales, it kills their chances of making it to the Hot New Release List for paid books, which means losing the one chance to benefit from Amazon “first-month” benefits.

    March 20, 2016
    • Laura M #

      I remember when I was first trying to figure all this out with just one book out, and people kept talking about how making books free helped sales. I don’t know if they were just speaking loosely and failing to mention that they meant the sales of their other books (the non-free ones) or if the ranking boost and word of mouth helped them. It was confusing. Since it made no sense to me, I didn’t do it.

      March 20, 2016
      • Laura, back when you released your first book, Amazon would carry the kindle store ranking over when you switched your book to paid or free. So some enterprising people would give away a bunch of free books and get to a high spot on free lists, and then switch back to full-price-paid, and the visibility would carry over.

        Then Amazon stopped carrying the rank over, and that was the end of that.

        March 20, 2016
        • Yes, that change (free rankings no longer affect paid rankings) makes free promos all but useless, IMHO.

          A $0.99 sale has the triple advantage of, as mentioned in the post, having an increased chance the buyer will read the book rather than store it with all the other hundreds freebies, making some money (writers got to be paid, as a certain International Lord of Hate is fond of saying), and finally, those sales will impact your ranking and visibility where it counts, the Paid section.

          I’ve pretty much given up on free promotions at this point.

          March 20, 2016
          • bearcat #

            Free promos do work, at least with me. While the vast majority of free books I read don’t interest me enough to entice me into buying more of the authors work, I wouldn’t have bought the first one in all likelihood, if it hadn’t been free. And if I do like the authors work enough to figure it is worth the regular price, I will try another “paid” book by the author. And some of them end up with me buying everything an author ever wrote. I can think of one author right offhand that sold me an over 20 book series by offering the first book free. I had never heard of the author, and haven’t heard of him in any other places since, so it is highly unlikely I would ever have discovered him if he hadn’t placed that first book free. Others have sold me multiple books, sometimes every book they have published, by providing me with a free taste, but most of those I had either previously or subsequently heard of, so it is possible I would have tried them eventually at the $.99 price point.

            March 20, 2016
  4. My books are on KU, Pat; have fun.
    As to the blog post: this is an excellent article. But if you’re new to publishing, you might want to sign up with Goodreads and find your way to the Best Bang for the Buck Book Promos group. It’s all free, and you’ll learn a lot without having to pay for the privilege.
    As to the numbers game: the author is able to budget a certain amount of money, which allows for stacking promotions. With the exception of BookBub, which posts statistics on its page, you’re buying a pig in a poke. Most of the small promoters are overpriced. I’ve found two who break even or do a bit better than that, but for most, the return on investment just isn’t there. There’s a third one that supposedly beats the break even point, but so far they’ve imitated BookBub and refused my promotions. Maybe my underarm deodorant carries through the ‘Net?
    But the best promotion of all is to write more good books. Good is subjective, but when you reach that point, you’ll know. More is straightforward. I’ve read that ten books on Amazon is the point where you should begin making a living from writing. I won’t argue the point; I’m doing well with nine novels. As for the novella and short story, they sell, but not very often and even when they do, they don’t generate much money.
    One day, you’ll write that book that immediately takes off and begins selling without being promoted. As the writer mentioned, Amazon takes notice and the company begins promoting your book at no charge to you. Ditto the sequel. Amazon begins sending you messages, “Would you like to promote your book to your fan base?” It reads something like that, and this is the good kind of letter to get. You also get a chance to add something in the message, a kind of mini-blurb, and you’ll get those Amazon letters about once per week as long as your book is climbing up the bestseller list.
    It gives a smart writer enough time to write the sequel before readers forget that earlier book.

    March 20, 2016
    • I’ve gotten a few of those “Wanna promote to fans?” notes from Amazon, but have not yet made use of them. I didn’t want to inadvertently spam people for a short story (most recent releases). I thought I’d do better if I saved the spamming for novels. 🙂

      March 20, 2016
      • Laura M #

        I think you want to say yes. I did. The note goes to your followers, people who specifically want to know about you. Also, if you say no, will you get more notes?

        March 20, 2016
        • bearcat #

          How does Amazon decide you are a follower? I ask this because I am certain I have only ever followed two authors, and yet I get a promo email from Amazon every time at least a dozen authors release a new book, including a couple of authors who I have never read. I’m not complaining, it isn’t really that hard to hit the delete button once every couple of weeks while checking my email. I mean I get twenty or thirty emails a day that I delete without opening, I’m not really concerned about one every couple of weeks from Amazon, and a couple of times a year those emails actually alert me to a book I want, and haven’t already purchased.

          March 20, 2016
          • Readers can sign up to be followers to authors they enjoy. On top of that, Amazon will send promo emails based on any book you clicked on (and commonly Also-Boughts related to those books). I keep getting bombarded with emails trying to sell me my own books because I click on them fairly often (checking reviews and the like). .

            March 20, 2016
        • Since *crosses claws* I’ll have a new book out next week, I’ll use it then and see what comes of it.

          I’ve gotten notes for the last four releases, although my March sales are so flat that I may get bumped from the list. (My fault. I didn’t have a back-up release ready in case this one ran late. And therefore it is running a month late. I’ll have two smaller works ready in case the next big scheduled release is behind.)

          March 20, 2016
  5. I wouldn’t mind having a few more reviews. That way I know at least some people have read it….

    Putting your only book up free insures nothing beyond the folks who go around scooping up everything free but never reading it (Who are predominantly German, for some reason) getting it.

    March 21, 2016
    • bearcat #

      “(Who are predominantly German, for some reason) ”

      Dutch treat.

      March 21, 2016
      • I really ought to tabulate it sometime.

        March 21, 2016

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