Since I know nothing at all of marketing methods, I decided to apply scientific ones to the selling of books. An experiment, in other words.
Smashwords is the best place to do this because they let you see how many pageviews you're getting on each book. At this early stage, this information is even more useful than sales numbers.
The way Smashwords and pretty much every other self-publishing distributor operates is that their front page shows the latest releases. So if you put a free story on there, it appears on the front page but rapidly scrolls off. Smashwords allows readers to select by genre and by price so those looking for free horror stories will see it scroll more slowly than those looking at the general list.
What happened with the first free story was that it peaked after two days, both on pageviews and downloads, then dropped away to a level of around two to three views/downloads a day, and then it died altogether after three weeks.
What's interesting was that the pageviews for the two collections followed the same pattern (these are advertised at the end of the free story). There was no remarkable boost in sales, but the free story means that a lot of people who didn't know the collections existed, now know they exist. Whether they come back and buy them, only time will tell.
I put up another free story on Friday morning. That has, so far, followed the exact same pattern with the pageviews on the collections following again. This time, it also boosted pageviews and downloads of the first free story - so those who have both stories now have two sets of ads for the collections. Will it improve sales of the collections? They are modestly priced, so it's possible.
It might take a few free stories to get those books moving but so far, it seems the best way to do this is to put up a free short story every 2-3 weeks or so. Too many and you're doing too much free work, using up time you could be applying to full-size books and collections, and swamping out the paid books. Too few and people forget about you.
Am I wasting short stories? Well, if you sell a short, you'll get a small one-off payment and that's it. No multiple sales, no royalties, just that one payment. Giving the shorts away free is not going to lose you the cost of the mortgage. Maybe the price of a beer.
If you publish in a magazine, your story is surrounded by the advertisers who pay the magazine for space. There's nothing wrong with that, it's how most magazines stay alive. On the other hand, if you give away the story yourself, that advertising space is all yours and it's free.
At this stage the free stories are not getting the other books sold but they are getting them noticed - and nobody can buy a book unless they know it exists. The experiment is in its early stages so it's too soon to say how well this will work, but it's costing nothing more than time. Time to write and edit the short story and time to produce a cover. Both of these must be treated as if they were for a 'selling' book. Don't think 'Ah, it's free, this'll do' because the advertising is not confined to the 'by the same author' part at the end.
The advert is the entire story. If it's rubbish, readers will assume the paid-for books will be rubbish too. You haven't just wasted a story, you've done terrible harm to your reputation. The idea is to get readers to think 'That was good. What else is there?' rather than 'Well, that was terrible. I'm not paying to read his other stuff'.
So these free shorts get edited, they get proofread, they get rewrites and tweaks just as the full books do. The covers take time and with little artistic ability, I use photographs and Paint Shop to make them. I only use photos I've taken myself so there's no issue of copyright. They take time but the cover is the first thing anyone sees. If it looks awful, that 'back' button is just one click away.
The sudden surge in sales of 'Ghosthunting for the Sensible Investigator' is entirely separate, and mostly applies to the Apple iBooks which I can't access. My fiction is under the name 'H K Hillman' so nobody would see an immediate connection between that and the ghosthunting book. That surge is, I suspect, due to the approach of Halloween and I wish I'd had that second edition ready! There might still be time.
I also (obviously) include ads for Jessica's Trap but as that's published by Eternal Press, I don't have instant access to sales or pageviews. I can only assess that one on the basis of quarterly reports, of which there have been two so far. The first was dreadful, the second was less dreadful, the third might reach the dizzy heights of almost good. I'll know at the end of December. For a first novel by an unknown author, it would have been surprising if it had done any better.The silver lining is that it's making money, not costing money. Not very much but it's early days.
The second novel has progressed to a full-manuscript request which is good (but not certain, not yet) and the third is just about ready to start going through the process. Hopefully this experiment will translate into the world of publishing, where the appearance of the second novel boosts interest in the first.
Publishing is just the start. Nobody can buy your work if they aren't aware of its existence and that's what marketing is supposed to achieve. I have no idea how to be a marketer so I'm applying the techniques I understand instead. Experiment, modify and experiment again.
Eventually I might get this right.