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Grabbing at Zeroes: The Free E-Book Promotion Strategy

Orginally written in December 2014

As you might have noticed, I have a little e-book out. A Christmas book of festive horror stories called Merry Gentlemen available for 99p on the Kindle. A few copies have been dribbling out as people take a one pound punt, amused perhaps by the blurb or the gloomy front cover or by silly old me. It's nice. It's fun to have a thing to waft around in people's digital faces.

Earlier this year I attended a writers conference in Preston where successful self-published crime author Conrad Jones stated, on writing books, that the 'writing is the easy part, it's the promotion that's hard.' While I utterly and fundamentally disagreed with the first part of that statement, it's difficult to disagree with the second bit. Promotion is hard. Selling books is hard. Reaching lots of people, and the right people, is hard, confusing, frustrating. Amazon don't do a whole lot to help despite being, nominally, the distributor and, despite monumental shifts in the world of self-publishing, there is still a huge reluctance to spend money on someone else's vanity. I know this first hand because I very rarely buy self-published books and I almost never buy self-published e-books, unless I know the author personally. Fact is, the world of self-published books is still massively dominated by unappealing, badly edited and terribly designed titles - particularly schlocky horror, depressing crime, uninspired fantasy and bland erotica (scroll through Goodkindles and feel the burn). I know there is some great stuff out there, I know e-books is where I'll find the finest in experimentation and boundary-pushing, but it's far too much effort to sift through and find the elusive good stuff. I'd rather just bob into a charity shop and buy another Iain Banks, even one of his bad ones.

So if I'm indicative of the pervasive attitude to e-books, then how does an author go about promoting a self-published e-book? There's one technique that dominates all the advice: give away your book for free.

In many ways it is a very sound suggestion. Once you've uploaded your file and it has gone live, Amazon lets you - in fact actively encourages you - to start up a free book promotion whereby your book clicks down to £0.00 for up to five days. You get complete flexibility as to when, how and for how long to do this and you can do it as many times as you like - simply take down your book and re-upload it and Amazon lets you go around the free book rollercoaster again. Pretty much every article on promoting e-books heartily recommends it as the first and best course of action. For it to work properly you do need to strategize: saturate social networks and as many of the multiple free-listing sites, Facebook promotion groups, Twitter hashtags and Goodreads forums as you possibly can manage. You can pay for this privilege in some places but for the most part you can do it for free. Free, free, free. Everyone together in a happy world where money just melts away and ceases to exist.

What happens next is that loads of hungry e-book consumers grab your book while they can and you get giddy while your book start to rocket up the rankings. The guzzling beast-body which houses Amazon's algorithms twitches and jumps and raises a few stalk-eyes from its feastings to have a look at this new tasty morsel. Satisfied, it grabs your book and sticks it on the rolling 'Recommended for You' bar, and links it to other, similar titles. In short, your book starts to appear in more places for more eyes to see. And when your price clicks back into place you should have the book up to a higher-status-plateau where it can wear the cape of popularity - the final enticement needed for people to start actually forking out cash-dollar. On top of all this you might start getting favourable reviews. Someone gets your book for free, is pre-disposed to enjoy it, does so, and slaps it hard with a lovely 5 stars. More recognition, more nods, up and up goes your book, and with it your chance of more sales in the future. Giving your book away for free is an excellent strategy and it actually works.


But, but, but. Urgh. Do we have to resort to it? Are there no other ways? Is it the glorious dream it appears to be? I have some concerns.

Firstly, are e-book buyers more hesitant about paying actual money for books, just sifting through the free promotions instead? Is it so inevitable a strategy that you might actually be able to get every book ever self-published for free if you are canny enough?

That doesn't matter. It's a silly anxiety: people will always spend money on stories, and will always be able to get stories for free. Libraries and bookshops have long sat happily and healthily side-by-side. But still. Ok, another thought:

Should we give so much time and energy over to promoting the idea of freebies? Does that help or damage the overall image of e-books? I fear it damages it. It's a rare thing to walk into a bookshop and come out with a freebie without breaking the law. By slapping on that zero are we authors quite literally cheapening our own writing? Are we actively saying: the stuff in here isn't all that great but it's fine if you get it for nothing? And for what? Fame and fortune? But I worry: how much of that fame and fortune is genuinely earned?

Perhaps that doesn't matter either: authors need all the damn help they can get to find readers in the frenetic and disparate digital age. And the zero is only temporary and easily missed by the masses. And all this is perhaps a bit hypocritical from a guy who has set his book at a price of a penny short of a measly pound. So think on this instead:

How many of the tens, hundreds or thousands of the free-book buyers actually read your book? And how many just tuck it away in the distant infinity shelves of their Kindles until the inevitable pulsewave of a sunstorm that frazzles our worldly devices and clouddrives and eviscerates all trace of your words from the web? How many digital copies of your freebie remain unread because readers prefer to get their money's-worth from the titles they actually paid for? How far down the reading list do you go?

Does that matter? In one sense not really. If a few hundred people download but don't read your book, at least the book itself benefits by rising through the rankings where it can seek a wider, giddier audience. But in another sense; isn't it sad? Isn't it sad that you spent time and effort, love and energy, passion and graft on crafting those words together to that lovingly produced whole only for them to get grabbed, groped, but not appreciated? Isn't it sad to not have the confidence to place a value on your craft and stick by that value through thick and thin? I think it is. I think that is quite sad.

I haven't put this collection together under any illusion that it will lead me to fame and fortune. I certainly want it to do well, I want people to enjoy it and I want people to react to it in the form of reviews, discussion, collaboration or inspiration - positive or negative. But most of all I want people to read it. I want people to sit down, set aside some time, and take in the grisly horrors of "Children Playing, Having Fun" and the bizarre atmosphere of "Deck the Halls", the defiant blasphemy of "The Jesus Placenta", and the angry shout of "War is Over". I don't want to people to raid my works like a tomb of dubious treasures, I want them to feel the satisfaction of goods received in exchange for moneybits, the acquiring of a item that can be treasured. That's the difference I think.

So I won't be doing a free book promotion. I do give a lot of my fiction away for free, but when it comes to collections I want people to pay, even if it is just a small, rather nominal amount. I want people to make that decision because they are intrigued enough by the concept, the design, or by me into making that purchase. I don't want people to grab at zeroes because, in reality, there's probably nothing there to take hold of.

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