Sunday, May 18, 2014

Anatomy of a Free Book Promotion

Monday 12th May marked the official publication date of A Poison Tree, the third book in my Time, Blood and Karma series.

To give the launch party a bit of a kick-start, I decided to offer the first book in the series - Everyone Burns - free on Amazon worldwide for five days from 12th to 16th May.

In the run-up to the launch, I went to a whole bunch of websites specialising in mailing lists etc to promote free books (most of them are featured in the Author Marketing Club website: click HERE). None of these were paid advertisements, so in many cases there is no guarantee your book will feature - in the event most did,  some didn't. I also paid for an advertisement on BookBub for 13th May, which cost me a hefty $310, but BookBub has a mailing list of over a million readers of mysteries. Last time I used them I got a good result but achtung, it's not easy to get on there since they only accept a limited number of books per day. Be persistent if this is the route you want to go down.

As the free promo started I tweeted like a maniac, and used various retweet groups as well as Facebook and a Goodreads event. If you're short of time, you might want to skip the Goodreads event. I've always found the results to be disappointing, and sometimes I think we authors might just be p*ssing off the 'genuine' readers on there. I digress.

The first day of the free promo was mildly disappointing, but on the second day when BookBub kicked in the downloads soared, taking the book up to No. 4 in free bestsellers, and to No. 1 in the categories of Crime Fiction and International Mystery and Crime. The fame is short-lived, however, so celebrate quickly. 24 hours later the next BookBub mailshot hit the ether and Everyone Burns dropped down to No. 13, where it clung on tenaciously for another 24 hours, before sliding to a still-honourable No. 23. It ended its promo at No. 37, and No. 2 in Crime Fiction and International Mystery and Crime.

Total downloads over the five days ran out at just over 36,900. Here's a day-by-day graph for the geeks among us.

BookBub made a big difference on Tuesday!

If you are interested in how that equates to velocity of downloads, here is how frequently a book was being downloaded (daily average - of course this varies a lot depending on the time of day).

On average over the five days (120 hours),
5 books were being downloaded every minute.


Well, that's not so obvious as it might seem, my friends. Sure, around 37,000 downloads gives you some bragging rights - and allows you to boast about it on your tweets etc - but being a guy for the financial numbers, I always do a cold analysis of how the dollars stack up.

As an exercise, this is not so easy. You have to make some judgement calls. So let me share with you how I do this. You might not agree with my analysis, but that doesn't matter since you can easily insert your own assumptions once you know how I carry out the assessment.

Author warning: this might depress you. A lot.

I see the financial benefits as being of two types: (1) the 'bounce', and (2) further sales.


A free promo creates visibility for your book(s) - something we Indies need. When I've run free promos in the past, a 'halo' effect emerges. In the aftermath of the promo, you will sell more of that book than you would otherwise have done; and furthermore you will sell more of your other books too, both during and after the promo. In my experience, this phenomenon lasts about four weeks. Then you're back into obscurity again.

So my 'bounce ' impact I determine by the following formula:




So for example, suppose I sold a total of 1,000 books during this period, and I estimate I would have sold 500 regardless. Let's also assume my net royalty per book averages $1.50. If my BookBub advert cost $310, then my net 'Bounce' is:

(500 x 1.50) - 310 = $440.


In case you are wondering how I arrive at the figure for 'books I would have sold anyway' over this period, I take the average daily sales of  my books during the month immediately before the promo and then adjust it by whatever black magic factors seem appropriate (e.g. if I've just had a new book launch). I told you this wasn't scientific, but it gives you some kind of idea. Cause and effect is a dodgy phenomenon, and a slippery one.


This is where it gets really subjective, but what the hell. Disagree if you like.

Free book downloads are largely an impulse thing, and Amazon has made it so easy to do that for the reader if they think they MIGHT want to read the free book, it's better just to download it anyway then worry later about whether they want to read it.

The consequence of this is: THE VAST MAJORITY OF YOUR BOOK DOWNLOADS WILL PROBABLY NEVER BE READ. They will sit on Kindles and laptops feeling sorry for themselves, lost among all the other free and paid downloads, forever. Now then, if somebody doesn't read your book, how likely is it that it will spur them on to buy another one of your books? Not likely at all - in fact, forget it.

My approach to quantifying the unit and financial impacts of this is to make the following assumptions:

a) Only 5% of my downloads will ever get read at all. Yup. Only 1 in 20. Does this sound pessimistic? If so, think about how many downloads you personally have made in the last 12 months - and how many of those have you actually read? If you haven't read a book within 12 months of downloading it, the chances are that you never will read it. How fast is your personal TBR list growing?

b) Of the downloads that ARE read, only 1 in 3 readers will like my book enough to put their hands in their pockets and buy another one. Btw, forget your four and five star reviews on Amazon. They are NOT an indication of how well your writing is perceived, since only a very tiny proportion of your readers will write a review. If readers in general only 'quite' like your book, the chances are they won't part with their hard-earned cash to 'quite' like another one. They have to LOVE it. We should always remember this, so we don't get carried away.

So, for my Everyone Burns 'further sales' my calculation runs as follows:

Free downloads (say)    36,900 
Downloads that will actually be read = 5% (say)    1,845
Further sales over next 12 months = 1/3 of this (say)    600
Extra sales per month over say next 12 months average units    50
FURTHER SALES Revenue at say $1.50 per book    $900

SUMMARY: given factors a) and b) above,  36,900 downloads will translate into 1,100 extra paid book sales over the following 12 month period. If I'm lucky.

OK, that's enough for now. My brain hurts.

You can, of course, get rather more sophisticated in your analysis if you want, and substitute your own assumptions and percentages for mine. But remember: all this is rather subjective. It just gives you an idea of how you are doing. If you review your actual sales for the six months after the promo, it might give you a better idea of what percentages etc you should be using, but be mindful that other factors - seasonal, pricing, competition, blog posts, change in the number of social media followers etc, further promos and book launches - will all muddy the waters of knowing.

Happy promoting! And ... um ... don't forget to keep writing too. Good books only, please :-)


  1. I wanted to thank you for your help with my free promo and this article. I have never been lucky enough to get on bookbub, but have wondered how good it is as far a sales go. While I didn't get 36,000 downloads (slightly okay way way way less) I have had a boost in sales. My head would hurt to figure out if the ratio was the same, but I think it might be similar. I also paid way less for my advertising. I always compare selling my books to losing weight I keep hoping for that magical formula that allows me to sit back eat what I want and not exercise. I know it doesn't exist. Just as in selling books it takes a lot of hard work and vigilance and that's the secret formula. Still a girl can dream.

    1. Yup. We can all dream. Though we guys tend to dream about things other than book sales though :-)

  2. See my Facebook comment... 'Your brain hurts!' Mine exploded thirty seconds in! After all is said and done, you will get there, my friend!
    Billy Ray

    1. I'm sure I will, BR. Now I just have to work out where 'there' is. And for that I might need another spreadsheet. thanks for the comments and all your fine support :-)

  3. John, my experience has been similar (with Jack's book, mine goes free this week, so I'll see there) - Book Bub is the key for downloads in the respectable 5 digits. Glad you did so well.

    1. Cheers, V. And bonne chance as the Czechs say ;-) John

  4. Hello John
    Very interested by this post, as a newbie writer and an oldie reader.
    As a reader I behaved predictably by downloading Everyone Burns on a free promo, along with lots of other free stuff, then putting it on the cyberspatial back burner. But... then I got into the magic 5%! Started to read your book last Monday. A quick reader (and also immediately hooked by the cad Braddock), I finished it, shot back to Amazon and bought (yes bought) Book 2. Finished that this morning and have just...bought...Book 3. Do those of us in the 1 in 3 category get a gold star?
    However I am already feeling depressed before reading the first word. Could this be my last tango with David Braddock? There’s a faint stirring of hope on reading your post on The Big Sleep. You mention a fourth ‘noir’. I am not going to peek at the ending of Poison Tree. I am going to keep hoping.
    As a newbie writer (self-published March this year) I did a free download and was overwhelmed to get...4000 free downloads!! The dollars stacked up at about.... £9.75. But I did get a thrill from reading comments by totally unknown people who actually liked it! Don't the Americans call this psychic income? Anyway, am ploughing ahead with Book 2 (a romantic novel, not your cup of tea, the odd tastefully erotic interlude, no heroes covered in scratches so far but might have to up the ante now I've seen what David and Kat get up to in the boudoir). Happy writing - are you going to tell us if this new book is part of the TBK series, or keep us hanging on??
    Laurette Long

    1. Hi, Laurette. Thank you for your kind comments. I am so glad you are enjoying the 'Time, Blood and Karma' series. And yes, you definitely get a gold star ;)

      It is always a pleasure to connect with a fellow writer. Is 'Biarritz Passion' your book?

      I don't know whether you are afflicted with the Curse of Twitter or the Eternal Damnation of Facebook, but if so, let's connect there too, so we can chat (and I can tell you all about the plan for the rest of my series - if it won't bore you to tears - and exchange tips and gossip). I'm @JohnDolanAuthor on Twitter and here's my Facebook link

      Congratulations on your promo. Keep writing, Laurette!

      Kindest regards,


    2. Dear John
      Happiness is :
      -just finishing reading A Poison Tree :
      ‘Aren’t you excited too?
      Just a little bit?’
      -having a good sob
      -clicking Kindle next page button and reading the words:
      ‘David Braddock returns in
      Quelle joie! The tango continues!
      Thank you so much for taking the time to reply, and for being so encouraging. Yes, Biarritz Passion is mine and Hot Basque is simmering nicely.
      So far I have resisted The Curse and The Eternal Damnation, in spite of pressure from my marketing gurus (ex-students who know about computers). However, I have linked, with Linked In. Are you on that site and if so would you like to link? Apparently there are no trolls, and to my surprise and pleasure I’ve re-connected ;-) with quite a few friends from the past. It’s a sort of ‘six degrees of separation’ thing. It would be a great pleasure to chat, it’s a bit lonely for a would-be writer in the depths of the French countryside (any other lonely writers nearby? The Tarn? Kleenex anyone?).
      I will keep writing and I hope you will too, it says Book 4 is due out in 2015, if you don’t make the deadline you could end up like George R R Martin, the recipient of reproachful e-mails...
      All best wishes
      PS you could get two versions of this, my marketing gurus being on holiday, and I think I just pressed the wrong button...

    3. Hi, Laurette. I just sent you a friend request on LinkedIn. Hope to talk soon!