How to Have a Wildly Successful Promotion that Still Loses Money

I promised an update after I ran my big promo, but it turns out that it takes a lot longer than I expected to fully quantify the return on investment. Let’s start by summarizing what we are dealing with:

  • Entropy is a trilogy of romance novels. The first was published in August 2015 and the last in March 2017.
  • Entropy has 55 reviews, averaging 4.5 stars on Amazon, and has proven fairly easy to sell if I can get people to its page on Amazon.
  • None of the books had sold more than a couple a month for the past few months.
  • All the books are in Kindle Unlimited.
  • I’ve never run a free book sale on any of these titles before. I have run $0.99 sales a couple times, and those did okay.

And here is what I did:

  • May 3-7, Entropy was free
  • May 4-10, Duality and Gravity were $0.99/£0.99
  • I tweeted several times a day about the sales, starting on May 3
  • I ran $423 worth of newsletter placements on May 4 (details here)

By any reasonable standard, the promotion was wildly successful:

  • 5,846 downloads of Entropy
  • Entropy hit #26 on the overall Amazon best-seller (free) list
  • Entropy remained in the top 100 free May 4-6
  • 118 downloads of two perma-free shorts I have on Amazon
  • 7 full-price ($4.99) purchases of books from the trilogy (before/after the sale)
  • 3 full-price ($2.99) purchases of my newest novel (not part of this promo at all)
  • 225 purchases of Duality & Gravity at $0.99/£0.99
  • 12,811 pages read in KU (so far)

In hindsight, it turns out I did some very smart things completely by accident. First, I set up the newsletter promos to be stacked on the second day of the sale. I did this because I wanted time to contact Amazon if the sale didn’t start on schedule. Of course, it did start on schedule because this isn’t Amazon’s first rodeo. So during that first day, I promoted it on Twitter. I expected a dozen downloads. I got 300. What that did was push my book up into the top 500 free books. Since Amazon takes history into account when computing bestseller ranks, being at this high level the day before my big promo let my book reach its peak bestseller rank much quicker than otherwise would have happened. I never expected to break into the top 100, much less go all the way to the second page (Amazon shows 20/page on the top 100 list). While I think category bestseller lists are completely pointless, getting into the overall list certainly would seem valuable on getting a virtuous cycle going.

The idea is that if you get a high rank, then people who are browsing for something to download might notice it in the list. That leads to more downloads, which takes you higher on the list, and so on. Did that happen? There’s literally no way to know, because Amazon won’t tell authors where their buyers come from.

Lesson 1: Start the deal a day early and promote for free on Twitter the day before your big newsletter promos drop

The next genius thing I did completely by accident was run the 99 cent sales on my second two books. My thinking was that a few people who grab the free book might actually read it right away (I firmly believe most people who download free books never read them). And if they like the first book, they might want the rest of the series. But since they are smart/frugal enough to wait for books to be free, the chances of them paying $4.99 for the sequel struck me as slim. I figured I’d have a much better chance of getting those readers if the book was as cheap as possible, hence the sale price. I started it a day later than the free day, figuring it’d take people at least a day to read the first one and want the second. My logic was completely wrong.

Very few people came back to get the second two books after reading the first. What people did was buy all three books at once! They came to grab a free book, saw that they could get all three for 1.98, and about 110 of them took the bait. If I had understood this dynamic, I would have had the 99 cent sales start on the same day as the free sale, so I could have grabbed a bunch of those first-day Twitter users’ money, too.

Lesson 2: Put other books in the series on sale for 99 cents when you make the first book free

The last thing that really surprised me is the KU behavior. If a person subscribes to KU, they don’t need to wait for a book to be free. They can read those books any time for free. So why would a free book deal draw KU readers to read the free book? I have no idea. But it does.

The pages read are clearly tapering off, but they still haven’t stopped. I suppose I’ll have a few slow readers keeping that chart busy for the rest of the month. The great thing about this phenomena is that even though the book was free, I still get paid for KU reads. Last month the rate was 0.448¢ per page. Assuming it’s close to that for May, those 12.8K pages read should earn me about $57.

Lesson 3: The boost in KU reads is significant and helps offset the cost of the promo

This brings us to the bottom line. I spent $423 on the promo. I earned $182 on sold books, and $57 on KU page reads, for a total of $239. My wildly successful promo left me $184 in the hole. Sigh.

At this point, most authors would congratulate themselves because of all the exposure or branding they got for that $184. Sorry, folks. That’s nonsense. I’m an independent author with 4 novels. I’m not a brand.

I did get one brilliant review on Goodreads. But I also got a couple one-star no-review ratings there, because people are jerks, I suppose.

Once those KU reads die out, the book will be exactly as dormant as it was before I ran this promotion. And that glimmer of hope I had that this might have a knock-on effect of getting new readers for my latest novel? Seems that’s not happening either. (I sold three copies during the promo, but I think that was just a coincidence because they happened right at the beginning.)

Would I do this again? Definitely not. It is a bad idea to pay people to read your books. But I might do something different. I might do the Entropy is free / Duality & Gravity are 99 cents thing in a few months, and look for ways to promote it that are more cost effective, for example.