How to get 1000 new readers every day with a permafree book

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I started publishing fiction this year, and I’m still just getting my feet wet. After the first 3 months in KDP, and after a bunch of work, effort, time and money spent promoting my book launches, I’ve gotten really lazy (in my defense I was finishing my PhD) and I wanted an easier way to reach readers.

This was actually my original plan: to publish 10 “beginnings” of ten different potential story threads I could build into series and put out for free. Instead, I wrote the first halves of complete novels (four so far). I might still get to ten… there’s at least one more I plan to add soon.

But I’m already up to 1000 downloads A DAY with my free books. I have an extra 5,000 or so per month coming from Draft2Digital, which I used to put my books on other platforms.

So that’s about 35,000 new readers, that I’m reaching for free, with no effort or time.

I understand writers don’t like giving away their work for free and don’t see how it will be worth it in the future. I’m still betting that all these free downloads are building fans, followers and subscribers and that this will help me sell a shit ton of books later – but that’s an assumption until I prove it (I’ll share my earnings once I start publishing full books and doing real launches).

But this still beats the hell out of desperate marketing techniques or worrying about nobody buying your books, or wasting time on social media either promoting your book or asking other people how to market your books.

It’s easy, it doesn’t bother anyone, and you can easily write some new short stories to give away and build your platform.

Plus, I’m looking forward to the day (in about 3 years) when I can add “OVER ONE MILLION DOWNLOADS” on all my marketing materials.

But you have to do it right…

Even if you give your books away for free, they still need to stick at the top of your category. There are other free books fighting for attention (though not that many, since few authors are really willing to try this out).

You need an amazing cover, great reviews and an excellent sales description to keep conversion high. Mine is pretty decent, but could actually be better. My free books tend to hang around the 1000 rank.

My paid books were having trouble sticking in the top 10,000 – and once they drop past 20,000 they quickly disappear.

Eventually, I’ll have starter books for free to get people on my list, which will build a fan base and keep my paid books selling enough to keep them visible (or better yet, launch really hard, get a ton of reviews quickly – which I can do because I’m building a big list – and stick in the top 1000 paid for a few months.

Update: Actually, 2000 a day now…. if that keeps up, it’s 720,000 free downloads a year. Zero promotion.

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Doesn’t it “devalue literature?” and train readers to like free books?

I’ve written about this before, again and again and again, but what you produce is only worth what you can convince someone to pay for it. First you have to get it in front of them and make them aware of it, then you have to convince them to buy it.

Art is not a charity, it’s a business.

I give away books because it’s the most effective, cheapest and easiest way to reach readers and get them to take a chance on my writing. If they like my free books and want more, they will pay for my paid books (and even if they don’t, I can use them to get hundreds of book reviews in a few hours, which will sell the books to loads of new people.

I’m not giving away books because I’m desperate. I’m not giving away books because I don’t value my work.

I’m doing it because it’s smart business and I’m serious about making a full time living as a writer.

Sure, you can disagree with me now because it’s unproven (by me personally, though all my clients who have taken the risk and done it right have immediately seen a boost in income). I’m not making millions on Kindle yet. Maybe I never will. Time will tell.

Let’s say I put all my books for sale at 2.99 and rank instantly drops to 500,000 – meaning less than 1 person buys my book a day. I might get 20 sales a month. 20 versus 60,000.

Instead of making $25 books in earnings, I’ll happily give it up to reach 60,000 readers. I would gladly give it up if I was making 10x that. I also love that I’m not spamming social media; email blasting reviewers; posting my promotions on Facebook pages, or any of the other stuff most indie authors do. There’s too much of that shit already. I’m invisible, and yet my free books are in the top 20 of about 10 major categories on Kindle. You can’t buy that kind of visibility.

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More experienced authors are probably right that this random spike is unsustainable – these spikes happen. Most of the downloads are coming from one book – out of four. Maybe some book reviewers mentioned it. The Scarlet Thread, however, has always outperformed the other books, and I made it free over a month ago so it’s not the newness that’s doing it (maybe Amazon sent out  a recommendation email to a bunch of people… but they did that because it’s been going strong for 8 weeks or so).

It will probably drop back down again – but even that is an opportunity (if your rank sinks after a spike, and how quickly it sinks, tells you how good your conversion rate is. If it sinks, everything needs to be better, and tighter. That’s tricky, but it’s a work in progress. If everything is amazing, it shouldn’t sink, it should climb. (However, most authors only have one free book, I plan to have 10 – so even if I “only” get 100 downloads a day per book, that’s still 1000 qualified leads on autopilot).

The other massive benefit of publishing a lot of free books like this, besides free exposure and zero marketing, is because you can test which books will succeed instead of writing a three book series and then starting another one. I wrote a followup post about that, called “minimal viable novel.”

About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me
  • This has been an ongoing discussion with a bunch of other authors in my genre (M/M Romance) There’s an over-saturation of free books in the market and readers are getting far too comfortable with getting authors work for free. In the long run it devalues what we do. I have seen threads in reader chat groups where people complain about having to pay £4.99 for a 100K words novel. There was one recent ‘scandal’ where a reader admitted paying, reading an author’s book and then returning it to Amazon for a refund. The reader had the nerve to complain to the author that she had to pay in the first place, because the other book she had read by the author was free.

    The ‘numbers’ in the graph do look impressive, but in my experience, these downloads don’t necessarily translate into future paid sales, reviews, fans or follows. One free book I published was getting downloads,but when it surpassed 1000 and I hadn’t received one review I pulled it. Readers will gladly download all the free things and a lot of the time they will sit on devices unread. I am guilty of this myself, and have a list of books as long as your arm that I’m still determined to get through. I really don’t believe giving out free reads is sustainable or healthy for the publishing industry.

    • I’ve heard this argument before. Personally, I don’t care about “the publishing industry.” There’s only, how can I, as a writer, reach my readers? Authors who are afraid of giving their books away for free are probably spending a lot of time and money trying to figure out how to reach readers. I’d rather spend that money travelling and the time writing more books, because this technique works for me (also, I get about a review or two a day per book on autopilot… you also need to be asking for reviews, giving readers a reason to sign up to your list, and building relationships with your readers). Yes, it’s possible to do it wrong, and it can be ineffective if you haven’t set everything up right.I give away free books, and in return I get reviews, email optins and more readers. It’s my work, I can sell it at any price I choose, even for free, if that’s what I want to do with it. I’d rather have people read my work for free than not read it. As for whether it will also later earn me lots of money, I believe it will – I’ll post updates and case studies as I experiment with earnings.

      • New books that are recently free for the first time always see a spike and then settle down. I make a new book free at the end of June and have already given away 12k copies with some promotion, but I don’t plan to leave it free and it’s down to 100 copies per day after two weeks. Next time I make it free (if I do) it’ll spike again, but not as high as the first time. I’ve seen this from my other permafree books that have been on and off free for two years.

  • Come back and let us know how the downloads are going in about two to four weeks. 🙂 Because yeah, this is great now, but I can tell you from experience, it won’t last. These spikes are because you’re offering something new and free, but the “newness” will wear off and then you’ll be back to promotion.

    • I’m sure you’re right about it being a spike – the book that’s causing it is up at #101 in the Kindle store, and I made it free over a month ago, so it has no reason to suddenly take off now. The newer book I made free recently isn’t doing as well, nor the older books with more reviews. The other books were all at about 3000, with several hundred downloads a day each, and are now close to 1000 (one book doing super well builds people into my funnel and towards the other books). But yeah, ranking this good is probably a fluke, it’ll probably settle back down to around 1000 copies a day again soon.

  • BGroves

    I have no problems giving away my work for free. I am trying to build a readership. It’s been slow, but steady. I am in the middle of doing an aggressive campaign to put my work in front of people, and guess what, it’s starting to work. Companies, and even famous authors give away goods for free all the time. If you look through the Goodreads giveaways, there are famous authors, and their publishers giving away up to 100 hard copies of their books all the time. Companies who are trying to build their business give out free samples in stores, and other market places to build a loyal customer base. In fact, just the other day I tried a sample of some food, and I bought it because I liked it so much. They just gained a loyal customer. It’s the same thing. Luckily, I have another income to fall back on, so I can do this without much loss. I know we all want to make money writing, but from what I learned in my business courses in college was if you want to make money, sometimes you have to spend money first.

    • Good points – now that I have a book review site, big publishers have started offering me free copies /ARC books. The trick is to offer free books to influencers first, but that takes a lot of work and outreach. This way works better for me with less effort.

      • BGroves

        Thanks Derek, and I agree. I love all your videos, and advice. It’s helped me out a lot. I’m about to start reading Shearwater, and I’ll make sure I leave a review when I’m finished.

  • Carol Kadel

    Hi Derek,

    I have just completed a book in Chinese of the real story of my family from 1950s to 1980s. Amazon kindle doesn’t support Chinese language but I read ur article of having successfully published a book in Chinese 绿牡丹. I bought it and it reads perfectly fine on my iPad. I would like to do the same. Can I hire you to design a cover and help me publish it on kindle? Contact me through Facebook if you want.

  • Great article! I made my historical fiction novel free on Amazon back in July. It has mixed reviews- I know the book needs a little editing but that’s why it’s free. (I’m currently having it re-edited and making it an audio) Anyway in the last month and a half, around 9000 copies were downloaded. People are finding my new novella because of it and although I’m far from rich, I’m still making money. I’ll definitely be giving more away in the near future!

    • that’s great! it’s a lot easier than trying to reach 1000 readers through marketing…

  • Nope, just put them for free – though you may need to boost them there are some sites you can list your free promo for free. You need to drive the rank up enough for it to be seen.

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