Sunday, February 12, 2012

eBook Launch Strategy

So you have a brand-new, stand-alone ebook ready to be released into the wild. You need reviews. You need to tweet it and facebook it. You need 10-minute spots on all the popular talk shows. Right?

Obviously, none of that hurts. But how much is necessary? As with everything in the book business, it depends. What is your expectation for sales? What is your personal view of the Amazon empire? What connections do you have? How much time can you devote?

We've launched 4 Steel Magnolia Press (SMP) titles in the past 2 months. This is how we did it and the results we've had so far. Will this same strategy work for you? Maybe. Maybe not. But when I compare sales of my first two books and sales of SMP's first novellas right after launch with the results we've had using our current strategy, it's clear what we'll be doing for our next release.

Our expectations are reasonable:
  • We want to get our books out there with enough visibility that they can be found by readers who'll love them.
  • We want a quick climb so that the books have prominent placement in the New Releases lists.
  • We're willing to trade a few dollars profit for a good foundation in the early days. 
And really? Ours is a very, very simple strategy. Nothing surprising, nothing secret. Except maybe the secret surprise concerning pre-launch activities.

Our recent titles are:
  • Vet Tech Tales (by me), a nonfiction novella-length memoir/essay book released mid-December
  • Gypsy Bond (by Lindy Corbin), a regency romance, short novella released Jan 5
  • Catering to the Italian Playboy (by Tamelia Tumlin), a category-length contemporary romance released last week
  • The Rent-A-Groom (by Jennifer Blake), a contemporary romance, long novella released last week
And because SECTOR C didn't really take off until January, I'll include it tangentially in this post to add the dimension of a full novel in a non-romance category.

The Lead-Up

Obviously you need the basics in place:
  • Fabulous book that's been edited
  • Eye-catching cover
  • Well-formatted files
  • Grabby blurb
What you don't really need:
  • Much pre-promotion
  • Reviews
The commitments you'll need to make:
  • Exclusivity for 90 days with Amazon through KDP Select (this basic strategy is for stand-alone titles or the first books in a series)
  • Giving the book away for a couple of days right after it's published
  • To keep vewwy, vewwy qwiet about the book being published until the appropriate time for promoting it widely
The Steps
  1. Keep vewwy, vewwy quiet about the book. No slamming social media unless you want to say you're working on a book and will be publishing it soon.
  2. Publish the book to Amazon in the Select program with no fanfare. Pretend it's still on your hard drive.
  3. Set the book to go free for 2 days starting 2 or 3 days out from the time it's published on Amazon.
  4. Once it's published and you have the url for it, send polite emails to or fill out the online forms on request sites that feature books for free asking them to feature yours. A list of a few such sites is at the end of this post. Give at least 2 days notice. Most sites will not feature your book. Many of the top sites want there to be 5-10 4-star reviews first and your new release won't have the requisite number. Be prepared for that, but know there are also a LOT of sites that automatically pick up and feature all the books for free. Your book WILL get mentioned and found (unless it's erotica -- those books are special-case).
  5. If beta readers or others with a fairly objective eye have already read the book, you can ask them to post a review between the time you publish it and the time it goes free. This is a helpful but entirely optional step. Not one of the SMP books had a review before it went free (except SECTOR C).
  6. Continue to keep vewwy, vewwy qwiet about the book. This is undoubtedly the hardest part about this strategy. We're told over and over to promote and pester and promote some more. To use social media till our fingers bleed from so much texting and tweeting and posting. Here's the thing: Our efforts in this scenario aren't likely to mean much weighed against the engine that pushes free titles. Trust the tools we're given and use social media at the appropriate time. Understand that the sales you run up in the couple of days before going free will mean doodly squat in the long run. Save asking for those sales until they can help the book sustain the rank it attains after going free.
  7. Now, SMP makes an exception to the gag order when it comes to our newsletter subscribers. Many of these folk are loyal fans (mainly of Jennifer Blake), and we want to do everything we can to reward their loyalty. That means we make sure they know when a new book is out and free. Understand that there is a difference between a fan base and a friends-and-family base. If you don't have a fan base, then you don't need to advertise in advance that your book will be free.
  8. The first day your book is free, let the booksite engines do their work, and continue to keep vewwy, vewwy qwiet.
  9. The morning of the second day of being free, evaluate how the book is doing.
  10. If it's been mentioned by some of the big freebook sites and it's in the Top 100 in the overall free store (NOT just a category), it has enough momentum to sustain it. Continue the qwiet routine. That's right. Your book is out. Thousands of people are downloading it, but you don't need to let your family and friends know about it yet. They'll buy it, right? The absolute best time to ask them to buy it will be after it comes off free. And while I can't make guarantees about most things, the one thing I CAN guarantee is that if you tell family and friends your book's available but can they please wait till Day X to buy it, they will not wait. The timing is in your hands and you have to have the willpower to wait for them.
  11. If, however, your book isn't going gangbusters during its free run, then you need to decide whether to use your social network to solicit more free downloads or wait till the book is back to paid to start promoting it. Unless you are very, very well-connected through social media, my advice would be not to push the freebie hard. A mention or two, fine, but I'd hold off on the heavy promoting. A few dozen free downloads in the grand scheme means very little.
  12. Once the book is back in the Paid Store, haul out the megaphone. The first 4 days after coming off free are the most crucial. Try to drive what sales you can in that compressed time. After that, it's up to the almighty Amazon algorithms to carry you on.
  13. After the book is back in the Paid Store you have about 3 weeks to promote it, get some reviews and keep it noticed. After 30 days it comes off the Hot New Releases list. Keep in mind that currently the average book will typically see the after-glow sales from being free start to decline after Day 4 and drop off a cliff sometime in Week 3, even for books doing really well.  
  14. Oh, but what's that in your back pocket? Another free day? Now's the time to put it to use! Contact the free sites and start the cycle all over again.
  15. Meanwhile, it's 30-days out from launch and you probably still haven't gotten any bloggers to review your book or any ads up for it. You'll want to work on all that, of course. Because there are no guarantees about how your book will fare in any one promotion or fare from one promotion to another. 
 The Results

So how have our launches fared? Not as well as some; better than others. We've been pleased with the results. Consider that it was easier to launch a book last spring, and that Spoil of War had 68 sales its first month and 77 its second. When SECTOR C came out in September, it had 37 sales and 75 in October.

Vet Tech Tales

In its first two weeks, VTT had 311 sales and 88 borrows.
In January, it had 228 sales and 32 borrows.
That's a 6-week total of 539 sales and 112 borrows.

It had a very modest free run, with only 1347 downloads. And it didn't get its first review until 6 weeks after it was published.

Gypsy Bond

Between its release Jan 5 and its second free run on Jan 31, Gypsy Bond had 235 sales and 7 borrows.
Its first free run resulted in 2400+ downloads. It's second free run saw 9500+ downloads and it hit #65 overall in the Free Store.

Between Weeks 5 and 6 after launch, GB had another 695 sales and 37 borrows.

That's a 6-week post-launch total of 920 sales and 44 borrows.

Catering to the Italian Playboy

This book has only been off free for 1.5 days. It had 10,700+ downloads while free and hit #47 overall in the US Free Store and #8 in the UK.

In the day-and-a-half since coming off free, it's had  262 sales and 15 borrows.

The Rent-A-Groom

This book also has only just come off its free run. It had 24,600+ downloads, hit #5 overall in the US Free Store and #9 in the UK.

In the day-and-a-half since coming off free, it's had 364 sales and 44 borrows.

At one point in the UK store, Catering to the Italian Playboy and The Rent-A-Groom were occupying the #6 and #7 spots for Romance. This made me smile:


Let's call January its relaunch month :o). It had 14,000+ downloads on its first free run on Jan 6-7 and reached #25 in the overall Free Store. Just the opposite of Gypsy Bond, it had far fewer on its second run on Jan 31 at 3000+ downloads and barely reached the Top 100.

During January, it sold 1925 copies and had 274 borrows. So far in February, it's had 435 sales and 68 downloads.

While these 5 books have done well, we can't hit homeruns every time. Some genres and some stories will just never have the same appeal for whatever the reason. But for now, this is the strategy we at Steel Magnolia Press are following.

What's yours?

Here's a list of some of the freebook sites you can notify about your free promotion. Please be sure to read through the requirements and how to submit for each of them.

Pixel of Ink
E-Reader News Today
Free Kindle Books
Indie Books List
Books on the Knob
Ereader Freebies
Bargain Book Hunter
Kindle Author


Adriana said...

Wow, thank you so much for this! I really appreciate it. I don't much like social media promoting (I feel it has to be more about being social!), so this works well for me. I'm going to give it a try with my self-pubbed book that comes out in the summer. :D

Mike McIntyre said...

Great, detailed post. In step #14, do you literally mean to use only one more free day when resuming the free cycle? Or perhaps two or three, since you have a total of five free days available? Also, I have read a lot of posts--mainly on KB--advising against putting books without reviews up for free. This is the opposite of your advice. Can you expand on your thinking in this regard?

J.L. Campbell said...

Lots of useful information here for those of us who haven't yet put a strategy in place for selling books.

Toni Dwiggins said...

Excellent post, Phoenix. The only thing I'll add is that I put book two of my series--fairly new, with no reviews--into the freebie promo because I wanted to try it with a new book, before pulling book one from other sites to enter it into Select. That promo netted me over 10K downloads and paid sales of book one, during the promo, and a nice paid-sales ride for both afterward.

Next time I go free, with either book, I'll be using your step-by-step tips. Thanks.

Alan Petersen said...

Thanks for sharing your strategy. Excellent post with great information.



Phoenix Sullivan said...

@Adriana: Good luck with your upcoming title!

@Mike: Sorry for being unclear on step 14. I don't plan on letting any free day go to waste! We're all starting to get more data around what number of free days works best at a time. I'll have thoughts on that in a later post :o)

As for reviews, it's a catch-22, isn't it? The worry many folk have is that reviews that come from free runs are going to be, in general, less favorable than those that happen otherwise. It's a gamble. Reviews do matter, but I'm not convinced a few low-rated reviews from a free run will disproportionately harm a book since the book should also be accumulating higher-rated reviews through the natural review process.

Our books are getting hundreds of sales even though they're launching and going free without reviews. In general, any mediocre review during or shortly after the free runs has been quickly countered by a stellar review.

And then there's my one book that had nearly 800 sales + borrows without there being a single review...

As with anything to do with sales, what works for one author or even one title may not work for another.

@J.L. and @Alan: Thank you for dropping by!

@Toni: Getting more data around that collateral pull is what we hope to do next. Until the last launch, we didn't really have any books that were in the same genre as the books going free. There are still a lot of scenarios to explore! Including the genres that can be worked best: obviously your thrillers and mine did well, as have the romances ;o) Congrats on your books' successes. It's a fun ride, isn't it?

Indie Books List said...

Hi there. I am pleased to see that many of you have headed over to our site to post.

Thank you so much for the shout-out.

As a note, unlike some other sites, we do try to post ALL the free books submitted on our site, save for some books we have received with objectionable and/or racist content.

So long as the cover quality/internal content is decent, we have no problem with posting books that don't have ratings as of yet.

Thanks again for the shout out, and we welcome your submissions.

Indie Books List

Kristy Carey said...

You mentioned that an Erotica book is worked differently. My goal for my first epub is a small compilation of GLBT shorts, under a PenName [as I've heard its sometimes best to use a different name for erotica]. I'm wondering then, what you would do to promote those?

cidney swanson said...

Hey Phoenix! Way cool post. I will PM you a question as it is, er, rather long. Thx for sharing your data!

Tony James Slater said...

GREAT post! And I mean that sincerely, not in the way people always start a comment with 'Great post'. I've been working on a list of places to promote free books (for Select promo days) myself, and a couple of the links you mentioned were new to me! Would you mind if I included them, perhaps with a link back to this blog post? I'll be putting the link up as a document of some Facebook groups you see (Indie Writers Unite first and foremost).
Thanks for a really interesting expose on your strategy. I do things a little different myself, but then your umbers are fantastic - perhaps I should change my tactics...

Marta Szemik said...

Thank you for this post. Very Helpful. Do you think the strategy could also work for a novella?

Phoenix Sullivan said...

@Jack: Thanks for confirming you'll help promote new releases and most comers!

@Kristy: I'm assuming you mean you write GLBT erotica and not mainstream GLBT (which would be promoted the same way as any mainstream book). Most of the big mainstream freebooks sites won't feature an erotic title, but there are specialty sites that do. So no need to spend time contacting the major freebook sites. Mainly, be sure the book is tagged erotica and also with the appropriate relationship (m/m, f/f, bi, etc). Some sites will pick up the book automatically when it goes free.

If anyone knows any specific erotica sites that feature free ebooks that authors can contact, please jump in!

@Tony: Thank you for the kind words. The site links are all public, so use away! No accreditation needed.

@Marta: We've found launching a novella is little different than launching a novel. In fact, two of our recent releases are novellas: Gypsy Bond is 16,000 words and The Rent-A-Groom is 30,000.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. What a superb post. I think I may have wasted my opportunity with the two books I have up on Amazon, one's been up for over a month, the other for a couple of weeks. Frankly I had no idea what I was doing. Still I will try this strategy from now on.

Quirky Gurl Media said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing it.

Shaina Richmond said...

Hey! I help run Indie Books List (mostly turned it over to my husband lately so I can focus on writing) but I've thought about responding to your post several times.

It's nice to see someone giving the right advice out here. Social media promotion is worthless. It's about as useful as standing on a street corner and handing out fliers to people who are too busy to slow down, or are annoyed just by seeing your face. No, it's all about the Amazon recommendations system. Also, KDP select seems to be the only way to keep yourself "afloat" at Amazon ever since it started. It's really changed things at Amazon, but it's proven to me that even though my sales may not be what they used to be at Amazon (I have several pen names) the only books I have that seem to have any sales at all are ones that have been free at Amazon at some point, whether through KDP select or otherwise. Books that used to be strong sellers have languished but with strong sales at other retailers, I'm not going to enroll them in KDP select.

Also, if you leave the program, sales seem to drop. I suspected that would happen, but this week I know for sure. And this is two and a half months after I exhausted the free days. Being in KDP select increases your visibility in the recommendations. That's the only explanation I have for it. The book has good, genuine reviews that were completely unsolicited, and sales were steady. And now, poof! No more. But at least I can place the book at other retailers so it's okay.

Anyway, thanks for mentioning us with this blog post and for putting out useful advice.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

@Shaina: You know, it's still all new and I'm betting new tools will be introduced that will skew everything we're building here and think we know, and then we'll have to start all over trying to figure out where our books will do best and what strategies will work to get them bought. And even then, it'll be a book-by-book decision. The more info we can share, the better. I also think the recommendations and the also bought lists will be getting more scrutiny in the next few weeks. Your theory may well be borne out.

Good luck with Indie Books List!

Joe Wood said...

Great post, thanks much.

Wanted to let you know that the Ereader Freebies and Kindle Authors blogs have been removed.

Joe Wood said...

Great post, thanks much.

Wanted to let you know that the Ereader Freebies and Kindle Authors blogs have been removed.