Saturday, December 03, 2011

The free story experiment - first results.

Some time back, I decided to try out an idea for getting those books known at zero cost to me. I have no marketing training so the thought of throwing money into ideas that might be utterly pointless did not appeal.

From this non-marketer's viewpoint, it seemed to me that the first hurdle to overcome as a writer is getting known as a writer. Publishing is no longer such a hurdle, I have one book with a traditional publisher and prefer to send novels through that route but I have a growing number of self-published titles too. It helps if you are obsessive about spelling and grammar and it's essential to get someone to read over the book before releasing it. If you release a terrible book full of spelling errors and meandering plot lines that lead nowhere, you will certainly get known but for the wrong reasons. It will not improve your chances with the next book.

The idea I came up with was to put out a few short stories as free eBooks and include advertising for the other books in the back. These went to Smashwords because that site allows me to track page views and downloads of the free stories and to examine their effects on pageviews of the other, advertised books.

Smashwords is a terrible place to sell books. It's well known among writers but not so much among readers. Readers tend to go to their preferred large-scale online bookstores such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and others. If your book languishes on Smashwords you won't sell many so it is essential to format it and prepare it correctly so it gets through the 'premium' screening.

Once through that, Smashwords will distribute your eBooks to the major retailers (there seems to be some issue with Amazon but it's easy enough to put eBooks there yourself. It just doesn't seem possible to make them free). That is where people who read will find them.

My zero-cost marketing plan involved, so far, three short stories. These went up some weeks apart as follows:

A Little Knowledge...           25th September
Room Service                      15th October
Bernie's Bargain                   29th October

The pageviews for each peaked after two days and then declined. My guess is that two-three days is how long it takes to scroll far enough down the 'free' listings so that nobody sees it any more.

Each story caused a temporary rise in pageviews of the two short story books on there, Fears of the Old and the New and Dark Thoughts and Demons. Each subsequent story also boosted views of the previous ones. Sales of the short story books were not noticeably improved but on Smashwords, I didn't really expect them to be. I needed those free shorts to get through the 'premium' screen and onto Barnes and Noble and other sites. They did.

As of today, Smashwords downloads for those free stories are as follows:

A Little Knowledge...            200
Room Service                      365
Bernie's Bargain                  163

I don't know how this has affected Jessica's Trap but even if I assume that the same people are downloading all the free ones, then 365 people have adverts for Jessica's Trap and the two short story books. They might not have bought them yet but they are now aware of their existence - and mine - and that's a start.

The main distribution sites report roughly every three months or so. Today Barnes and Noble reported that two of those free eBooks have been picked up from their site - downloads were as follows:

Room Service                     268
Bernie's Bargain                   37

I don't know what happened to the other one. Maybe it didn't make it through the strict B&N requirements.  It doesn't matter. I have at least another 268 readers who now know I exist and who have ads for the other books. This little scheme has reached at least 633 people worldwide and it has cost me nothing but a little time. I don't yet know the figures for Kobo, Diesel, Apple etc but I do know there have been sales of the short story books on Kobo and Apple at least.

Best of all, it's still going. New readers are still trickling in through those free eBooks and I have another planned which should, I hope, boost activity again. I will definitely have one out for Christmas because lots of people will get shiny new Kindles and Nooks and they'll be looking for things to fill them up.

The frustrating part is the time it takes to get sales information. I will get a sales report for Jessica's Trap at the end of December but will it show increased sales? Well it depends. It depends on whether there has been any effect on sales and it will also depend on when the retailers report back to the publisher. If they don't report until January then those figures won't be in the publisher's December report.

It's going to take a long time but then this is a new line of business for me, and involves developing an entirely different set of skills from what I am used to. My natural impatience will have to be curbed.

If you decide to try this, here are three important tips.

First, read the Smashwords style guide and do what it says. You really, really need to get through into premium distribution. It costs nothing and it gets those books onto the sites that readers use.

Second, don't include links to books you've published elsewhere in your 'by the same author' pages. Put in your own website, put in publishers' websites, but don't put any bookseller websites. Amazon will not list books that advertise Barnes and Noble, and vice versa. The best option is to have your own website and link to that.

Third, if you have already placed books with Amazon or others, remember to opt out of Smashwords distribution for those sites, otherwise you will just cause confusion. And make sure the prices are the same.

I did this again with 'Ghosthunting for the Sensible Investigator' using a separate Smashwords account because my fiction is under another name.  You can load books onto Amazon using different names but Smashwords don't allow this unless you want to set up a publisher account. They do allow second accounts.

I put up both the first and second editions and not much happened. I then put up an extract from the second edition as a free sample and the downloads started - as did the pageviews on the main books. No sales there yet, but some on Amazon and the first edition is already selling on Barnes and Noble and Apple via, who also do the print versions. I always thought the print version of the first edition cost far too much for such a small book. The second is three times the size and doesn't cost much more in print. As an eBook, that first edition sells pretty well.

Using freebies to boost market reach does seem to be working. It is, at least, getting my name known among readers and it is not costing me anything. Any book sales resulting from this attempt are all profit, no cost.

Am I wasting a good short story? Well, if I sell them, I'll get a one-off payment of $5-$10 and that's all. It's not as if I'm giving away novels here. If those shorts result only in two or three book sales each they'll have made as much as a magazine would have paid anyway. I think this is a more effective use of these shorts, although I will also continue to send them into magazines. I no longer care if the magazines pay - the stories are adverts now.

I will return to this subject in future. There is no point looking at these figures more than once a month because they are subject to the whims of bookseller reporting and won't change much over a week or so.

There might be something to report after Christmas. We'll see.

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