Thursday, May 21, 2015

Subscriber Lists - are they worth your hard-earned dollars?

Ask your average Indie author what the hardest part of the job is, and I suspect most will tell you 'marketing'. Do you see my hand up? Quite early in the self-publishing rush some entrepreneurial types recognised that money was to be made by providing services for independent authors. People hung up their shingles as editors, cover designers, reviewers, formatters, organisers of blog tours and purveyors of advertising opportunities.

I could come up with a list. I'm sure we all could. But for this post I just want to talk about sites which advertise promotion for free or discounted books. I've come across a few. The idea is to offer a free book or heavily discounted book – the first in a series is good – with the intention of appearing on some of Amazon's top 100 lists. That way, you get visibility and people hopefully buy your later books, based on the one you gave away for free. It's a well-known technique in marketing, referred to as a “loss leader”.

The trick is telling the world the deal is available “for a short time only”, or as perma-free. Amazon's five free days in Kindle Select is one technique. But you're locked into Amazon, and you still have to tell the world your book's up there, available for FREE.

So what options are out there, and (more importantly) do they work? Let's look at a few subscriber services – sites that produce targeted neswletters telling readers about new 'deals'.

Bookbub is one of the best known. It's also very expensive. A listing for a free offer on Bookbub in the science fiction category is $200. Bookbub is very fussy about the books it takes, going to some trouble to match the books they offer to their clientele. I've not been able to get any of my books into Bookbub, but anecdotal evidence from my circle of friends indicates results can be anywhere from okay to phenomenal. It seems to me that Bookbub works very well if you're already doing very well. In my case, I'd have to sell a LOT of the subsequent books in a series to get a return on investment on $200.

EreaderNewsToday (ENT) The site does try to select for quality, but not to the Bookbub extent. And at $15 for an SF book the price is much more manageable. I've used ENT for my own book, and also for a box set, "Sing a Song of the Stars". More on ENT below.

The Fussy Librarian offers places in its newsletter based on number of reviews and overall rating (see the link for the details). At present, cost for a science fiction book is $6. I suppose it's as good a way as any of judging quality, and I can't offer a better alternative, but it means writers of great books who haven't been able to attract reviews can't advertise on this service. I've run ads a few times on Fussy, and saw no change to my sales graph.

BookScream is still in Beta and currently offers free spots in its lists. I paid $5 for the featured author spot, where I could list up to six books. One was my perma-free, The Iron Admiral: Conspiracy. After the time, I received a long 'analysis' of results, clearly produced from a boilerplate template. However impressive the 'analysis' was, (and in my opinion it simply produced some dubious statistics and a few platitudes) my promotion at Book Scream produced no visible change to my sales.

BookGorilla This service requires books to have at least 5 reviews with an overall rating of 4+, although exceptions can be made as explained in the site's T&C. Price for an SF book is $50. We used this site for the boxed set Sing a Song of the Stars. As a result the collection appeared in several top 100 lists.

Free Book Service has been around for about 18 months and offers money back guarantees for positions on Amazon's top 100 lists by guaranteeing number of downloads on your promotion. The cost? The gold package is $189 (5,000 downloads), the platinum package $299 (10,000 downloads) and the executive $379 (15,000 downloads). Each is for a 24-48 hr period.

The cynical part of me (it's quite large) says the downloads can be done using fake accounts. Which means only a fraction of the downloads you get will actually be real readers who read the book. But going on the results I got with eReader News Today (see below), the book might well make it onto Amazon's top 100, and that's a powerful place to be.

Let me show you what happened when I made The Iron Admiral: Conspiracy perma-free.
I have found that I make more sales on Amazon US than anywhere else, by a very long way – well over 90%. So what I’m showing here is only Amazon US, although the book is available at most large sites.

I made the book free at all outlets except Amazon (where you can’t offer a free book – I set it to $0.99) on 18 January 2015. I did not advertise, beyond one Twitter post. The graph below shows what happened after Amazon price matched.

The first peak was simply from being in Amazon’s free books section. Then the initial excitement died away. The second peak is as a result of buying a US$15 ad on eReader News Today. The book raced up the Amazon lists and was soon #1 free in store for Galactic Empires and #1 Space Opera and #1 Romance Science Fiction. The big goal is top 100 free in store. It didn’t quite get there, but it reached 110 which is pretty good for a novel in a niche market like SF romance. To date, there have been over 4,000 downloads, and the number of units moved has tailed off over time.

Of course, we all know free downloads don’t necessarily mean readers, let alone fans. Many a free book languishes on a reading device, ignored and forgotten. But some people certainly did read the book. I’ve seen a substantial (in relative terms) increase in sales of the second Iron Admiral book – in fact all three titles in the series.

I can see value in having a perma-free first of series. And I can see value in advertising. BUT – consider return on investment. In my experience (and I can only speak for myself) the only program I've done which really worked for me was eReader News Today.

I'd love to know where you might have found success – or not, as the case may be.


  1. I got an email from Free Book Service...and laughed at the pricing. $189 to promote a free book? As it would have been the Tales anthology they spotted, I laughed my socks of at the idea of paying out that much to promote a free book which would in no way guarantee further sales for any of the antho authors. It certainly wouldn't give ROI for me personally. And as you say, as soon as I saw 'guaranteed' downloads my scam sense went off. The only way to guarantee those kind of numbers is fake accounts, which does not equal readers, fans or further sales. Big nope for them.

    Bookbub - too expensive and too selective. Pass.

    Bookscream - I've seen several authors with the exact same 'stats data'. In other words, a lot of clever gibberish to make it look like they've offered some kind of value for money. They're another big nope for me.

    Fussy Librarian - tried that when they first started out and got no sales. Not likely to try them again.

    I tried ebooksoda once and got exactly no sales. Also I signed up to their newsletter for scifi recommendations and wasn't impressed by the books offered, so unsubscribed from it.

    Having just got full control of all but one of my books from a publisher, I'm going to be able to try some pricing discounts and will give Book Barbarian a go since their prices are reasonable and friends have spoken well of them. Same with ENT. Anything that's going to cost double figures is a maybe, but unlikely. Three figure cost? *Yoda laugh* Try those I will not.

    1. I'd be interested to learn how you go with Book Barbarian. For the rest - I'm obviously with you.

  2. Oh, I also submitted Keir to BookBlast as a new release announcement, which was free. No idea if that helped at all, but it was free. Keir has been bouncing in and out of the top 100 for Time Travel on Amazon for the past week, and I have absolutely no idea why it's selling. Which proves how totally pants I am at marketing and how it works.

    1. I don't think anybody has much of an idea about how marketing works. If at all. Glad to hear it's doing well.

  3. SF Signal has a feature where they announce free science fiction, fantasy, and horror books every week or so, but the columnist chooses which books to include. SF Signal also does lists of books under a certain price all the time. When MARKED BY LIGHT was listed with 384 other books under $5, I had a phenomenal month, better even than last year when they listed GREENSHIFT as free.

    I haven't put any of my books up for free in some time because that tactic doesn't seem to work well for me anymore. I do, however, get lots of borrows on Kindle Unlimited, which pays me a small amount, but what I like more about the KU feature is that I know someone was interested enough in the story to keep reading past the 20% (or whatever it is) point. That tells me the beginning is engaging, at least.

    Thanks for sharing this, Greta! And, thank you, Pippa, for sharing your own experiences with these lists.

    1. Thanks for offering your experience. It's all good stuff.

  4. I had zero results from Fussy Librarian as well. Not planning to try it again. I love his philosophy, but he doesn't have the subscriber base yet to make it worthwhile. I even subscribed for about a month to see what kinds of books were going through, and none of them were what I consider high quality.

    I tried eBook Soda with my 99 cent sale earlier this month, and I'm not sure how it went. It went out the same days as my free feature as the first book in the Read Freely newsletter, and I have a feeling most of my sales that day came from that. They were really pushing my book hard for some reason.

    I want to try out ERNT with my next one.

    1. I've heard from others that Fussy's attempt at quality control doesn't necessarily work. But then, lots of people read books I think are dead ordinary. It's all a bit of a lottery.

  5. I got good results from Bknights, a $5 Fiverr gig.

    1. Ah yes. I did Bknights. Had a small effect, but nothing like ENT.

  6. Thanks for the breakdown of the different sites.

    1. There are lots more. These are just the ones I've encountered. There may have actually been a couple more that I've forgotten.

  7. Thanks for a lovely article, Greta. The only good results I got from the paid or free services was E-reader News Today. BKnights from Fiverr made my money back, and that was about it. As much as I like the folks from Fussy Librarian, their promo didn't make back the cost. I'm about to launch the second book in my Central Galactic Concordance series, so I'll get a new round of data on what works and what does, which I'll be happy to share.


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