Tuesday, December 9, 2014

How I Gave Away Over 2,000 Books on Kindle in 3 Days Without Any Prep Work

As many of you know, I co-edited an anthology of sci-fi and fantasy short stories this year with my good friend and fellow author J.M. Ney-Grimm.

The result is Quantum Zoo, a book near and dear to our hearts, and the hearts of the ten other writers who contributed excellent stories to the collection.

If you want to read more about how J.M. and I put it together and released it (including some harrowing moments in Logan Airport trying desperately to get my phone to talk to my computer), you can take a look at the "nuts and bolts" of the launch over on esteemed fantasy author Lindsay Buroker's blog.

We were able to craft an excellent launch using our collective promotional talents--we made it to #1 "Hot New Release" in Science Fiction in all of Amazon, as well as charting in "top 5" territory on several other Amazon bestseller lists.

All of us involved with QZ were thrilled--we never dreamed that the launch would be quite so successful.

But that was only half the battle.

You see, part of the impetus for releasing Quantum Zoo was that we wanted to get it in the hands of as many people as possible using a variety of promotional methods to see what works to promote fiction these days, and what doesn't.

To those ends, we put the book in Kindle Select for its initial 90-day term, and figured we'd get around to setting up a free promo at some point.

Of course, life got in the way, and before I knew it, we found ourselves scrambling in September with only three potential promo days left!

J.M. and I worked tirelessly to brainstorm some ways to give more books away--after all, we didn't want to do QZ or our fellow authors a disservice by watching a piddly 30 or 40 people download it for absolutely free!

So we came up with a gameplan that was part foresight, part improv, and a good amount of luck.

And we gave away over 2,000 books on KDP Select over the course of those three days!

The good news is, the "luck" portion of our formula is pretty easily to replicate if you have the foresight to implement it several weeks before your free promo...but more on that later.

So what kinds of strategies did we use to give away so many books in such a short amount of time?

1) Get a Killer Cover

The days of "not judging a book by its cover" are long gone. For a lot of readers, a professional-looking cover is the first indication of quality in a publishing world filled with increasing amounts of people who don't take the business terribly seriously.

It doesn't have to be "flashy" or "garish," but a professional-looking cover will set your books apart from the "mountain of crap" out there that so many people complain about.

What this means is that you need to do one of two things:

-Take the time and effort to learn how to put a truly professional-looking cover together. Invest in the right tools (like inDesign) and skills (like Dean Wesley Smith's excellent cover class) to gain the ability to pique readers' interest and draw them in with the cover alone.


-Hire someone to do it for you. This might run you anywhere from $100 to $1,000, depending on the artist.

Fortunately, for Quantum Zoo, J.M. is a talented graphic artist and cover designer. The finished product, seen here, is pretty amazing, if I do say so myself. We've received a lot of compliments on it--J.M. really outdid herself on this one. And while it's great for her to be able to know she's done great work and receive those compliments, it's the kind of dynamic cover that looks professional and piques readers' curiosity enough to click through to its Amazon page.

2) Choose THE RIGHT Keywords

Amazon only allows KDP authors to use 7 keywords (in addition to the keywords in the title) to promote your book in their vast search engine. 

 At first, it can be a daunting task--which 7 words do you choose as a new author? I remember using plot-related keywords with JWATT at first, things like "dinosaur hunt," "Isaac Newton," etc.

Over time, that sense of enormity has shrunken down to something more akin to "frustration." For the longest time, it seemed like no matter which keywords I chose, there was little or no effect on sales.

In promoting Quantum Zoo, J.M. and I had a bit of an epiphany, probably spurred on in one of our brains by David Gaughran's excellent book, Let's Get Visible:

Make the keywords Amazon subcategories, or at least related to those subcategories.

You see, Amazon puts fiction books into a vast web of categories and subcategories. I want to say that about a year ago, they vastly increased the size of this web, with a whole bunch of new subcategories. For a while, it seemed like there was no rhyme or reason to where a given book ended up--Jesus Was a Time Traveler (JWATT) was in Time Travel, Technothrillers, and a few others for a while. Rogue ended up in "hard sci fi."

I think it was Gaughran who advocated making these new desired subcategories keywords themselves, to ensure that your book got in the subcategories you wanted. Essentially, you get the 7 keywords, plus the 2 categories you can select in KDP, plus whatever Amazon's algos glean from your title.

The reasoning? This is the key part of the strategy! The more categories and subcategories the book is in, the better the chance it has to appear in a given top 100 list for that category or subcategory. The more top 100 lists the book appears in, the more visible it is to people who browse those top 100 lists for their next reads.

We actually followed this strategy with Quantum Zoo--since we have a lot of different takes on sci-fi and fantasy, we have a lot of potential genres we could be in. So we listed a bunch of them out: "first contact," "technothrillers," etc. in addition to picking the obvious "sci-fi anthologies" as one of our Amazon genre selections.

And this is also where the "luck" portion of the strategy came in. While we recognized the utility of being in as many different genres as possible for keyword searching purposes, we didn't understand just how important being on those top 100 lists for both paid and free purposes was until we saw the results of our promo.

The strategy definitely helped us come out guns blazing--we noticed that the higher we got on those genre top 100 lists, the more books we sold, to a point, at least.

But it's exponentially more important to be on the top 100 lists when giving away your book for free! That's because as a "crap filter," even the free book hoarders will scour the top 100 lists, using them as a form of "social proof" for which books are decent, and thus "worthy" (of a free download, no less!). The more lists you're on, the more you can put the algos to work for you, and the better the chance you have of getting downloads.

The more downloads you get, the more potential reviews you get on both Amazon and Goodreads, and the more word of mouth you might start to generate.

About a month after publication, though, when reading up on the topic a bit more, I came across the following helpful page:

Amazon Categories with Keyword Requirements

In a rare look "inside the algorithms," Amazon essentially has given us the tools to craft titles and use keywords to drill down into some previously esoteric sub-subcategories. I've since tried using some of these terms in my books, and while it can take a few weeks for Amazon to index them with your book, it works.

Now that you know just how important those keywords can be, have fun looking through the list for some ideas on what words you can use to get your next book in as many different categories as possible.

3) Plan a Weekend Giveaway

Just by dumb luck, our giveaway was slated to begin on a Friday and end on a Sunday. After putting the tricks in this post to good use, I can unequivocally say that weekend days (meaning Friday-Sunday) are more popular for free giveaways than weekday days, absent any sort of outside promotion such as Bookbub. Friday and Saturday alone we gave away nearly 2,000 books, and ended up close to the top 200 free Kindle books list. In my experience on other days of the week, the totals are far less impressive--maybe a hundred or two hundred copies. While that's great (I've had some books register a lowly "6." As in "6 copies given away...for a whole weekend!"), it's not quite as wonderful as giving away hundreds or thousands of copies in a single day.

4) Start Making Connections With Interested Social Media

There are a ton of essentially free promotional outlets across your preferred social media outlet of choice. I tend to be partial to twitter, so I started announcing my free book giveaways on twitter using some tried-and-true hashtags, namely #kindle, #free, #ebook, #kindledeal, etc.

Before I knew it, I started to get a number of promotional outlets following me on twitter, and came to find that they had promoted my books to their audiences without even telling me!

A few takeaways: first, I have some books with great covers, and some with "not so great covers." I have books with a lot of (good) reviews, and some without many reviews at all.

I've found that the better the cover, the more good reviews the book has, and, in turn, the more frequently it'll get picked up by these free book promo sites and twitter accounts.

It may not be fair, it may not be right, but that's just the way it is. That's not to say that getting "sock puppet" reviews is the way to go, either--I've never done so, and that's despite even my most successful (albeit modestly-so) books languishing with only a handful of reviews for months, if not years before I started giving more books away, and getting some more traction.

Also, I'm not sure how sustained the bump is that you get from some of these promo sites and accounts. But there is a bump, and you can use that bump to get on the free lists, which gets you in the algos and more visible to the list-browsers.

See a pattern here?

5) Forge Alliances With Fellow Authors

Part of the beauty of having a group of talented authors like we do with Quantum Zoo is that each person can promote giveaways in whatever way they feel most comfortable. Some of us prefer twitter. Others like facebook. Others still like talking to people face-to-face.

The point is, it's a lot easier to spread the word with twelve voices working in tandem than with just one person shouting "buy my book!" a thousand times into the void, praying that the equivalent of "reader SETI" will pick up a signal and run with it.

Much like the social media "boost" I wrote about above, if possible, you should try to time things so that each author gives the book a "mini boost" that can lead to incremental hops up the top 100 lists, all the way to becoming #1 in several categories.

So what if you don't have these kinds of built-in alliances? As a twitter guy, I have to say I've met numerous fantastic indie authors and reviewers by monitoring hashtags on twitter (#amwriting is a good way to encourage your fellow authors with a built-in conversation starter) and by putting myself out there in related discussions.

If I see an indie cover I like, I'll tell the author and the artist. I'll tweet and retweet interesting articles that people share. Before QZ, I was a part of an online writer's group that sadly eventually disintegrated, but was, for a while, an excellent source of discussion and ideas. You can get active on a forum like KBoards' Writer's Cafe, and meet like-minded folks that way.

There are tons of ways to connect with other indie authors, but they all involve one thing that a lot of semi-introverted writer-types (like me) sometimes have a problem with:

You have to be willing to put yourself out there in a friendly, "non-spammy" manner, engage folks with similar interests, and actually forge a genuine emotional connection with them.

That's probably a topic for its own post, but for now, try reaching out to 3-5 new people a day, and see what happens.

6) Price Appropriately

Up until the giveaway, we priced Quantum Zoo at $0.99 for a number of reasons. We wanted to reward our various fanbases and early adopters who were actually waiting for the book with a lower price. We also wanted to move copies more than anything else at the start, so we figured $0.99 was the best way to do so.

Right before the promotion, though, we upped the price to $4.99.

I think this helped for a couple reasons. First, raising the price provides more value to the reader. If someone sees that they can get something worth $5 for free, it's more attractive than getting something valued $0.99 (already almost essentially a giveaway) for free.

It's especially true of the "free book hunters," who tend to be (how can I put this gently?) somewhat more "frugal" and "value-sensitive."

Second, a higher price will drive more revenue once the giveaway is over, and will bump your book's Amazon ranking more, should you time it properly (see "The Kicker: How to Make Money Off of Free Kindle Giveaways" below).

A Successful Giveaway

Despite going into our giveaway without having done any prep-work, we managed to give away over 2,000 copies of Quantum Zoo in a three day period. I'm convinced that it was because:

-J.M.'s great cover gets peoples' attention, and gets them to click on any social media posts we make, or draws them into our Amazon page.

-We had the foresight to maximize the number of categories we were in via keywords, which meant that we had the potential to (and actually did) make the top 100 lists in a half-dozen categories or more.

-We promoted quickly and efficiently to various social media outlets. The right kind of paid advertisement can work wonders on a free giveaway (more on paid vs. unpaid book ads in an upcoming post), but until you want to put the proper resources into a proven route like BookBub, the biggest "bang for your buck" will be engaging your existing social media followers.

-We leveraged our group into using a variety of promotional tactics, using each group member's strength. We had people promoting the giveaway on sites ranging from Facebook, to twitter, to Kboards, to Reddit. No one really tried anything new--we all just stuck with what we already knew.

-We let the algorithms take over, do their job, and let us climb the top 100 free charts, all the way to the top of several of them.

While it sounds fairly simple, I can't stress how fun it is to watch your "Amazon free" rank shrink over the course of a few days as you keep giving away books, without much promotion, each copy a chance to connect with a potential new fan.

The results?
Friday: 709 copies given away
Saturday: 1,117 copies given away
Sunday: 396 copies given away (without much of a change in rankings...)

Total: 2,222 copies given away!

The Kicker: How to Make Money Off of Free Kindle Giveaways

Giving away thousands of books is quite the accomplishment in its own right--after all, especially with a project like Quantum Zoo, where visibility of the authors is the most important goal, simply getting copies out there was important to us. We got a number of reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads, and continue to get people adding the book on GR.

But what if I told you that you could use your free giveaway to boost sales of your book, too?

The simple fact of the matter is, you absolutely can! This is despite countless people complaining that you no longer get "a boost" after letting your promotion run its course.

The fact of the matter is, they're right! If you simply let your promo run its course, no matter how many books you give away, the "sales bump" you see will be small to non-existent.

The key words are "let it run its course." Did you know that you can cancel a free book promo at any time? And that if you cancel a giveaway in the middle of the day, you'll still get the algo boost as if you're still on the free list?!

It may sound crazy, but it's true. I figured this out doing a similar giveaway for JWATT earlier this year. I gave away close to 800 copies over two days. This was no small feat--before the promotion, JWATT was absolutely dead in the water--I was lucky to get a download a month.

I had read about the "cut the free promo short" strategy in another book, and come mid-Sunday, after a few football-watching beers, I decided, "What the hell? Let's see what happens...", and cut the JWATT promo short.

For those of you who don't know, I write a weekly NFL column over at insideSTL, so I went back to finishing it up, and didn't think much about the promo until later that night.

When I checked the dashboard, I was shocked:

26 sales!

This is for a book that had been absolutely dead in the water the week before! And guess what? Ever since, it's been steadily building up reviews from that giveaway, and selling into the low double-digits per month.


So there you go--how to engineer a successful Kindle giveaway AND make a little cash doing so. While you may not have the same immediate success we enjoyed with Quantum Zoo, try sticking to these principles for a while, and see if they help you out.

One other thing to remember: we figured all of this out by researching and experimenting. Amazon is constantly changing their algorithms and services that authors can use. For example, before Kindle Unlimited, I had my books across a variety of ebook platforms. Now, since I get paid more for KU borrows and get increased exposure through it, pretty much all of my books are in KU.

Some of these steps may not work for you--it's really up to you to figure out how to best leverage 1) Your own talents, 2) Your specific book, and 3) Amazon's algo structure into giving away as many copies as possible.

Questions? Thoughts? Let me know in the comments.

Shameless Plug

One more thing...Quantum Zoo is free once again! From December 8-12 (Monday-Friday), you can pick it up for free on Kindle over at Amazon. Feel free to spread the word, and thanks for reading!


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