Testing the “First hit is free” Approach

Attractions - Joshua Edward SmithThere is a very popular marketing strategy in which you make the first book of a series free. The theory is that it removes a sales barrier to readers trying a new author. And if they like the book, they will go on to read the subsequent books in the series. Like many popular book marketing strategies, I think it’s probably nonsense. But I decided to do a little experiment.

Rather than make my first book free, I made a short story free. This has some benefits:

  • I’ve only written two novels so far. By making the short story free, I’ve left open the possibility of two subsequent sales instead of just one.
  • It takes literally 20 minutes or less to read this short story, so I’ll know right away if people are enticed to read the novels.
  • The short story is apparently very, very good. People are raving about it. (4.9 stars with 16 reviews at the time I’m writing this.)
  • I have the first scene of Entropy (my novel) stuck on the end of the short story, to further entice people who liked the story to jump right in. There’s a link there, too, of course.

I went ahead and advertised the free day on Fussy Librarian, in order to get as many people as possible to download the free short story onto their Kindles. That worked great. I got about 200 downloads from that, plus another 75 from plain old Twitter promotion. I landed at the #2 spot for fiction short stories for two days straight, but of course those rankings mean absolutely nothing.

Finally, I left my novel at the empirically determined best price of $2.99 to maximize the chances that someone coming to the page would buy it. At that price my book has a consistent conversion rate of 5% for people who look at the page completely cold from Twitter Ads. So at least 5% of the people who follow through are probably going to buy the book, and probably higher since they already have read maybe the best thing I’ve ever written.

I cannot think of anything I could have done to better position this to succeed.

So it’s been a few days. Guess how many sales of Entropy I’ve had.

Nope. Lower than that.

Lower.

Lower.

There you go. One. One fucking book. And of course, I don’t even know for sure that it was the result of a short story reading. I did suspend my Twitter Ads during the experiment, though. So let’s assume it was.

Shake. My. Damn. Head.

Okay, so my intuition that giving away the first book in your series is a stupid idea: that’s confirmed.

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5 thoughts on “Testing the “First hit is free” Approach

  1. This is a fascinating idea. I myself am looking into a short graphic novel of the prelude to my novel. It takes place 30 years prior, is a visual type read, and fast. I’ve been told it leads people into wanting to know what happens next. While I would definitely love to do a short graphic novel of it, it seems such a huge undertaking! The short story idea could be the way to go.

    • Except it totally didn’t work for me as a marketing tool. Maybe your luck will be better. I’m still glad I published it, though, because the response to it has been so amazing. Every now and then people actually shell out $1 for it. Weird.

  2. I think the only problem with thinking it didn’t work at all is the scale of it. If you only gave away 200 copies of your short story for free, 1 sale coming from that is probably actually a decent percentage (however sh#tty that sounds). If you gave it away on say, bookbub.com, you’d have likely gotten more like 12,000 free downloads (or so I hear) and you might’ve sold more books using that strategy. I don’t think you should give up on that strategy yet. ~eternal optimist here. Even though it costs a lot more to use bookbub’s services than Fussy’s. I dunno, just a thought.

    • The math doesn’t work. Suppose I do bookbub and it costs $400. That means I need to sell 200 books to break even. At 1:200, I’d have to get 40,000 downloads of the freebie.

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