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Why Free Is Your Best Marketing Tool (And How to Harness It)

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It seems that everyone wants a freebie these days, doesn't it? It's gotten to the point that when I mention doing a free eBook giveaway to authors, they just cringe. "I don't believe in free," they'll often say. Believe me, I totally get this. We get hit up all the time for free this or that. Let's face it, when you're marketing something there will always be freeloaders, but most people aren't trying to score a free ride - what they are doing is trying to sample content.

Let's move past the people who just want free stuff. Those aren't the people who will drive our success. In fact, I want you to ignore this demographic altogether. What I'm focused on are the consumers who love sampling, because if you start your career off by making them pay, you've just raised the barrier to entry. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying don't charge for anything, but you want to get them hooked. You want them to say, "I love this author, I'd read anything she writes." Now you have a fan and, possibly a Super Fan (which we will discuss in more detail in next month's article).

The challenge with publishing these days is that there is a lot of it. With over 3,500 books published each day, it gets daunting. Also, though you think you have control over the pricing, you don't. It's not set by you, it's set by your readers. This is an important statement because I often will talk to authors who have ridiculously high prices on their books. Their reasoning? They want to earn back the money it took to produce and market the book. All right I get that, but pricing your book too high won't get you there. I promise. Look at other books in your market and see how these authors are pricing their books. Look at a cross-section of books and see if there is a "norm" or average. Also, if you're self-publishing, just forget about doing the hardcover, or do it as a special edition. The cost of printing a hardcover, especially if you're printing via print-on-demand, will virtually price you out of the market.

When you're doing this price-comparison research, go to Amazon since most online book buyers will default there anyway. Plug in your genre and take a look at both the print and eBook pricing. Keep in mind that you'll see a lot of free pricing in eBooks. This is either from a freebie promotion they are doing or because it's part of the Kindle Owners' Lending Library service through Amazon, so it pays to check this out and be sure which it is.

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Of all of the industries to suffer with "free" it would be the music industry. They screamed and threw tantrums about how free was ruining their business, and I agree, it was. But it had a negative impact mostly because they did not understand how to harness it. They didn't understand that consumers were tired of buying an entire CD just to get one song, especially if the other songs were terrible (and this happened to me several times). Smart musicians have learned that, regardless of the paywalls that get put up, users will still get their music for free, whether it's on pirating sites or YouTube. The point being: free will always find a way, and to fight free means you're putting your energy towards an unproductive goal.

Whether you like her music or don't, you have to admit that Lady Gaga is a marketing and branding machine. Surprisingly, she does not make her living off music sales; in fact, 69% of her income comes from merchandise and touring. I'll talk in a minute about why this matters to you.

How Free Helped Me

For years people thought I was crazy because I gave away so much free stuff. Keep in mind that I gave away free before it was so in vogue, too. We had ridiculous amounts of content out there. You want some insider tips on pitching media? Check the blog. You want a walk-through of how to use Amazon's algorithms to your advantage? We have about five videos on YouTube that cover all of that and more. You want to listen to me speak but can't fly to an event? No problem. I teach free webinars all the time. I've given away content for years and that's a good thing because now free content is one of the main keys to driving traffic to and getting visibility for your website and blog. Fourteen years later here we are, still in business, and I'm not living out of a cardboard box. Free does work and it works well.

How to Maximize Free

Now comes the really fun part. This is where you get to put free to work for you because there are certain things that you can put into your book, and put into action afterwards, to start building your tribe.

First, let me share a story of a publisher I met at a recent book event. She told me that she's no longer going to offer free eBooks because she finds that it drops the sales of all of her books. This sort of surprised me so I decided to dig a bit further. I asked her if she was cross-promoting her books in the freebie blogs. She wasn't. I asked her what her follow-up plan was with the freebie downloads, and she didn't have one. Well, if you don't follow up you can't get in touch with those readers, can you?
I had an author who did a freebie last year who gave away 37,000 copies of her book over 2 days. The day after the promotion ended she sold 1,300 books. Now, you may gasp at that 37,000 number but consider this: the old way of thinking is viewing these as lost sales. The new way is to view this as a conversion number. The higher the number, the better the conversion.

Now, we all know that some people just love downloading free. They'll never read it and probably never become a fan. Then you have the folks who downloaded it thinking it was something it wasn't. They open the book, thinking it's X when it's really Y. You don't want those people, either. But then there's the core readership. Out of a big number like 37,000, that may only be 1,000 readers. Again you may gasp, but stay with me for a minute because what I'm going to show you will blow away several outdated marketing theories.

You only care about that sliver of readers. The 1,000 who will open the book, read the book and (if you're lucky) write a review. Why? Because that's how you start building those Super Fans I mentioned previously. You will never capture 80% of people into your funnel, but you may capture 100 or 1,000. When you do, these are the people that you want to market to. Keeping in mind that out of 100 or 1,000, not all of these people will turn into fans. Some may not like your work, but some will. This is how you start to grow your tribe.

Putting Your Book to Work

Earlier in this piece we talked about the ways your book can cross-promote other books. If you have read any of my other pieces on this site, you know that I often talk about a letter to readers. This letter is from you, to them. You're thanking them for getting the book, telling them that you hoped they liked it, and asking them to stay in touch with you and, if they are so inclined, to review the book. A sample letter is below but you'll see that it's pretty simple. We just want readers to know that we care about what they care about and, that they matter. This is a very big deal. This letter alone will turn your book into a powerful communication machine.

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When you're a non-fiction author I think using free promotion is pretty easy. You do free eBook giveaways, you offer great content. You share your ideas freely. You dialog with people on social media. You're not stingy. You're a free-wheeling font of help and information. People love you, they love what you have to say, and when they need to know something, guess who they check with first? Yep, that's right. You. Welcome to Super Fan-dom. Let's have a look at what you may be able to do and what results it will leverage. In each case, if you write a book and then end it with "The End," you aren't using your book real estate in the best possible way.

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These are some pretty basic ideas, I'm sure you'll come up with more. I had an author who did a "solve the mystery" in the back of his book (yes, he was a mystery author). This helped keep readers engaged and they headed on over to his site (he offered a prize = incentive). In another case, an author offered to name a character in her next book. She referred them to her site, offered a simple quiz (based on the book), and the winner would get a character named after him or her. There were other prizes, too. People love prizes and contests and quizzes so give them a reason to go to your site.

Now comes the hard part: Engagement. If you're a fiction author this is a little tougher. I mean your book is fiction so what can you talk about, really? Well, actually, lots of stuff. Let's start first with your website. Forget the static site, we already know that you should not have a static site but to go even deeper than that, your site should be a glimpse into your world or the world of the book. Open the Kimono and give readers a look inside your world and your book.

Here's an example from an author we work with, who also works in the industry she writes about in her fiction books. You can see that she takes both real-life events and some writer-reality and blends them:

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Why does all of this work? Well, clearly there's some fun engagement going on but it's more than that: We're really taking the time to spend time with our readers, even if it's just virtually. You lure them in by offering freebies, then you build the relationship by informing, entertaining, and building relationships with them. You'll want to do this utilizing social media, your blog, video content.

And speaking of video, I was at a big publishing event earlier this year and someone asked a speaker, "Do book trailers sell books?" The speaker replied emphatically: no, they do not. I would disagree to a point. Book trailers, like anything else you do, do not sell books. One action, one trailer, one Facebook update does not sell a book. Consistent engagement with your reader (not at them, there's a difference) now that does sell books. How do I know? We've tested both ways. Unknown authors with a first book in a super cluttered market selling a lot of books, maybe not New York Times bestseller-worthy, yet, but give them time. By lowering the barrier to entry, by letting readers sample, giving those same readers proactive ways to engage and reasons to stay in touch, they will build a campaign worthy of big sales.

Next time, we're going to look at some more solid engagement ideas to transform your readers from a freebie loving fan to a Super Fan.