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Free book giveaways – when do they work? When don’t they?
Posted by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris in Book marketing on January 25, 2015
Once upon a time, authors could get a great start if they made their book available free. Back in 2008 and 2009, I got huge traction for the original Nail Your Novel when I offered it free as a pdf. There wasn’t much free material out there, so it got attention. Indeed, as far back as the early 2000s, science fiction writer Cory Doctorow had been giving away digital copies of his novels on a Creative Commons basis, famously saying that his chief problem was to battle obscurity.
But times change. ‘Free’ soon became a deluge. If readers grabbed them in the digital equivalent of a supermarket sweep, they probably didn’t even remember they had them. In all likelihood, those books sat unnoticed in the bottomless vaults of their Kindles.
I flirted briefly with free when KDP Select started. Indeed, I organised a free event to coincide with World Book Night for Authors Electric, a group blog of published authors I used to belong to. We each gave away a book for five days, campaigned our socks off, tweeted until we grew beaks, watched the tallies mount in our KDP dashboards… and virtually nothing came of it afterwards.
Now, is a giveaway the way for authors to get noticed? I contend it is not for everyone.
Where free works
I’ll admit that I worry we give away our work too easily. If we create a culture where a book costs less than a sheet of gift-wrap and a greetings card, there’s something badly wrong. An ebook may not have material form, but it does give you more time and experience than something you glance at and throw away. And tellingly, the people who get cross with me for speaking out are the ones who say they refuse to spend more than a couple of dollars on a book, or berate me for not putting my books into Kindle Unlimited.
So that’s my rant done. However, free does work in some cases – where it adds value, rather than dilutes it.
Lest you think I’m waxing hypocritical, with my WordPress blog and Hootsuite account, let me state that I think free works very well with certain kind of services.
And certain kinds of book. In the kind of genre markets where the series rules, making the first book free can work very well. The authors who do this have plenty more titles to offer once readers are hooked. (Joanna Penn has had great results giving the first book of her series away free, and offering free books as incentives to sign up to newsletters – her post about it is here.) These authors are using free books in the way that WordPress and Hootsuite give starter packages free – to build long-term trust and familiarity. (When I want to upgrade my web services, WordPress and Hootsuite will be my first ports of call.)
Where ‘free’ may not work
But outside those genres, how do readers decide to try an unfamiliar author? Especially those who write the more individual kind of book, perhaps not easily pigeonholed? Usually, it’s by deciding if they like to spend time in that author’s company.
How do they do that? By reading something that sparks their interest. That could be anything. It doesn’t have to be a book. If you’re one of those authors, every post you write, every meaningful conversation you have on social media is already giving a sample of your voice, your personality, your tastes, your passions, the workings of your unique mind. The books you write will be made from that same material. If that doesn’t persuade readers you are fascinating and intriguing, giveaways and free books won’t make much difference.
Giveaways as prizes
Indeed, I have evidence that free giveaways with delayed prizes aren’t working any more. Every week I offer a guest spot on The Undercover Soundtrack. In past years, book giveaways got good uptake. Now, they hardly get any. The blog’s readership has grown enormously, but no one’s bothering to contend for prizes.
Perhaps it’s partly impatience. If a reader likes the look of a book from its Undercover Soundtrack, they don’t want to wait a week for the giveaway result. They buy it immediately. So who’s left to take part in the giveaway? The people who don’t much mind whether they read it or not.
Even giveaway campaigns to well-targeted readers don’t seem to produce much return these days. I recently donated copies of Nail Your Novel for a fellow writer’s launch campaign, which should in theory have resulted in more exposure for the series. I saw no increase in sales afterwards.
I have, however, had great results when I’ve done a giveaway of something special – like the NYN notebook or the My Memories of a Future Life antimatter edition. But those were specially made prizes, limited editions. Readers will pitch up for a unique prize, but they seem pretty indifferent to an ebook they might or might not get.
Spend your free books wisely
I know this is contentious. But I see a lot of writers who think they’re not trying hard enough if they don’t give books away and don’t examine whether the tactic is working for them. I think we have to look hard at every free ebook we spend. If we get a worthwhile return, that was an ebook well spent, no doubt about it. If not, we should stop.
Thanks for the pic Constanca Cabral
So let’s discuss. Where do you think free works and where doesn’t it work? How has this changed over the years? Do you think authors are being pressured to do giveaways all the time?
Authors Electric, Cory Doctorow, Fix and Finish With Confidence, free books, free works, genre fiction, Hootsuite, how to market a book, KDP Select, Kindle Unlimited, literary fiction, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, politics of 'free', publishing, Roz Morris, series fiction, undercover soundtrack, Wordpress, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel
Blogging for authors – should you be self-hosted? Part 2: two bloggers who favour self-hosting
Posted by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris in blogging, How to write a book, self-publishing on July 9, 2012
Yesterday I discussed why an author might not want to self-host their blog and how to make the best of platform-hosted blogging. But many authors strongly advocate self-hosting – so today I’m going to ask two of them why.
First up is author-entrepreneur Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn. Joanna has built a formidable following among writers who want to take charge of their publishing careers and make the best of what the internet can offer. She also develops multimedia courses and she’s hit the bestseller lists with her two thrillers.
Joanna, why did you chose self-hosting?
I have control over everything – including affiliate sales and plugins that you can’t use on free blogs. Google takes you more seriously so you get better SEO results and rank better on Google.
You use a paid-for theme, don’t you? Why?
I use Thesis, which has SEO design in the back end and is very easy to customise so it looks professional. I model success and all the top blogs are self-hosted and use premium or custom design themes. Why look like a second-rate blog?
Is self-hosting and/or using a paid-for theme more hassle? Do you need to be more tech literate?
I have Joel the Blog Tech guy as help but once the site is set up, the back end is the same as WordPress. So no, you don’t have to be tech literate.
How much does this all cost you?
My hosting is less than USD $10 per month, my premium theme was USD $70.
How much do novel-writers need to worry about search engine optimisation (SEO) and what key things should they do?
You need basic SEO – good site design, so that spiders can crawl you. Free themes have a particular SEO rating and my first blog was really crappy for this until I learned about it. Then you should use an SEO plugin. I use All-in-One SEO. Also you should use consistent keywords for your niche and have a lot of relevant content.
My second self-hosted blogger is Jane Friedman, web editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. Jane is a former publisher at Writer’s Digest and a prolific and respected speaker on writing, publishing, and the future of media. Her expertise has been featured by sources such as NPR’s Morning Edition, Publishers Weekly, GalleyCat, PBS, The Huffington Post, and Mr. Media. She has consulted with a range of nonprofits, businesses, and creative professionals, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Creative Work Fund, and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati.
Jane, prevailing wisdom seems to be that self-hosted is always better. Why is this?
Because not self-hosting means:
- You’ll have a weaker functioning site overall (customisation is usually quite limited)
- You rarely have access to advanced analytics unless you’re allowed to install Google Analytics (which can be important, see below)
- You’re not fully in control of what happens to your site. Over time, services ARE discontinued, bought, changed, etc.
Are these considerations relevant to novelists?
If you’re planning to be a novelist for life, yes. You should be concerned about the long-term potential, growth, and stability of your site.
Whether self-hosted or not, why might authors use a paid-for or upgraded theme – apart from being able to look distinctive? How much does it generally cost?
The cost is very little (generally less than USD $100), given that a premium theme offers robust or improved functionality, as well as better looks (and often better readability). Also, premium themes generally have better SEO tools.
How much do novelists need to worry about SEO? Do readers really find them through Google searches?
If readers buy your book, or hear about your book through any medium, they might be likely to google your name – in which case, your site should be easily found. Often, you don’t have to ‘worry’ about SEO for this to happen as long as your site meets basic standards (usually the case with any premium-theme sites) and you don’t have an exceptionally common name.
I like to say that if no one can find you through Google, it’s like you don’t exist.
Is Google all there is to SEO? What key things should writers do to increase visibility?
Not exactly, but Google is 70% of the search market. The best thing to do is to use a premium theme that focuses on SEO, which will help ensure your site is looking its best when search engine crawlers visit.
This is my SEO strategy – how does it look to you? I write attention-grabbing headlines with key words, and use plenty of tags, including my name, my book titles and keywords for my subject area (in this case ‘writing a novel’).
This looks fine! There are other steps, such as making sure your site’s meta title, meta description, and meta tags are appropriate for the type of reader you’re trying to attract. These things are also adjustable on a post-by-post basis if you’re blogging. When you get a premium theme focused on SEO, generally these fields are available for you to adjust as needed. It helps you customise what exactly appears when your single posts (or when your site) comes up in Google search (site title, site description, brief description of post, etc).
How can writers check how well their measures are working?
You can tell whether your efforts are working if you improve your search ranking for your name or book titles (how high in the listings you appear), and/or if you see your organic search results increase—something you can watch, over time, in Google Analytics.
Thanks Joanna and Jane – and thanks also to Catherine Ryan Howard for helping me argue for platform-hosted blogs yesterday.
Anything to add? Cautionary tales, theories…. has your mind been changed by anything you’ve read here? I’m sticking with WordPress hosting for now, but Jane’s suggestions have sent me back to my site descriptions to make them work harder at grabbing readers. If you’re going to do anything new, tell me in the comments!
If you’re new to blogging and want some basics, you might find this post of mine helpful – How I get time to blog as well as write and Your new writing blog: avoid these faux-pas.
If you are thinking of upgrading to a bespoke theme, you might like this by Dan Blank – How I redesigned my website.
Joanna has scores of helpful posts about blogging – starting here. (And we’ve joined forces to create a multimedia course How To Write A Novel. More than 4 hours of video and audio with 86-page transcription and slides)
authors, bestseller lists, blogging, blogging for authors, blogging for novelists, blogging for writers, business, fiction, google, Google analytics, how to blog, how to write a book, how to write a novel, Jane Friedman, Joanna Penn, marketing, model success, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, novel writers, novels, publishing, Roz Morris, search engine optimisation, self-hosted blogs, self-publishing, SEO, starting a blog, technology, The Creative Penn, Thesis Wordpress theme, Virginia Quarterly Review, Wordpress, Wordpress blogs, Wordpress themes, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, writing business, writing life
Blogging – should authors go self-hosted or not? Part 1: two bloggers who don’t
Posted by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris in How to write a book on July 8, 2012
You must self-host. You mustn’t use an off-the-peg theme. You mustn’t, on pain of ethernal damnation, have links in blue Times Roman.
There’s a lot of strident advice about blogging. Even that remark about blue Times Roman came from serious advice on a high-profile site trying to tell quivering newbies what they should do. Perhaps blue links matter in some quarters, but what matters to an author who wants to connect with readers? Should you be spending money on hosting, and on customised, SEO-friendly blog themes?
Today and tomorrow I’m going to examine both sides of the electric fence. Four bloggers, evenly split between self-hosted and not. On the ‘not’ side are me and Catherine Ryan Howard. On the self-hosting side are writer and author entrepreneur Joanna Penn and digital publishing guru Jane Friedman.
In a way I speak from both sides. I started with a self-hosted blog, when a friend insisted I camp out in a corner of his webspace (because he felt it was infra dig to be anything but self-hosted). And it didn’t go well. More about that in a moment.
You’ve lost me already. What does all this mean?
Quick tutorial – your blog is kept on a server so anyone in the world can read it and lots of people can access it at the same time. With self-hosting, you pay for disk space (also known as a domain) and you can put whatever you like on it – blog software of your choice, websites, pay buttons, video, anything. With platform-hosted, like WordPress.com and Blogger, your files are kept by WordPress and Blogger, you can’t customise the design or have pay buttons or video – although paid upgrades will allow some features. It’s like the difference between renting a house – with landlord’s furniture and rules – and owning the whole space outright.
Just to confuse you, there’s a version of WordPress for use on self-hosted blogs – WordPress.org.
With freedom comes responsibility
The biggest difference between the two is, obviously, freedom. This can go rather wrong. When I was self-hosted, I imported a cool plugin that broke my entire blog. I would never have got up again if not for (another) expert friend who was prepared to poke around the upper, scary database levels and unravel the damage. (Note to self: self-hosting is not for the insanely curious.)
The other problem is security. Most blogging systems are open source – which means the code is available for anyone to read, and hackers can find the loopholes easily. WordPress.com and Blogger don’t let you change anything that threatens security, but on self-hosted blogs there are no padlocks. My self-hosted blog got hacked – which might or might not have been because I was sharing with a friend of less secure habits. But after the stress of that I decided I was out of my depth and didn’t have time to sort out software and security headaches. I rebooted on WordPress.com, which has been able to do everything I need.
Obviously you don’t want your blog to look like everyone else’s, but there are only a limited number of visual templates (themes). However, there’s a lot you can do to customise. My blogs all use the same template, Fusion, which I’ve tweaked with my own headers and logos. You can buy upgrades to let you customise even more, but everything I’ve done is free.
But themes aren’t just about the blog’s appearance. Themes also allow you to draw in new readers through the hocus-pocus of SEO – search engine optimisation.
Here, the paid-for themes have an advantage as they are designed to worm their way more effectively into search pathways. Tomorrow I’ll discuss this in more detail with Jane and Joanna, but there are ways you can optimise your free non-self-hosted blog:
- use attention-grabbing headlines with key words
- optimise post URLs – Google looks at post URLs, so I make sure mine show the headline, not the post date or number. Your blog will probably have an option for changing this
- use plenty of tags – you’ll see my posts all have shoals of tags, including my name, my book titles, and general tags like ‘write a novel’. Those tags are not for you, reading this page – you already know every post is related to writing novels. Those tags are for Google. Make sure each post contains the keywords for the specific post and the keywords for your blog in general.
Buy a URL
I also bought my own general blog URL and pointed it to the free one. The rationale is that when someone hears about you they search for you.com or yourbook.com. (It’s usually .com they plump for first, even if you’re as English as Earl Grey tea). So the actual web address of this blog is nailyournovel.wordpress.com but for a few dollars I bought nailyournovel.com and through a very easy process, pointed it at this blog. I did it for My Memories of a Future Life too.
Anyway, I promised you a second opinion on platform-hosted blogs, so here’s Catherine Ryan Howard, of the indefatigable and unfatiguable Catherine, Caffeinated…
How did you start?
‘I started off with Blogger.com, but I always felt there was something about Blogger templates that said ‘amateur’. This was back in late 2009 so chances are they’ve improved since then but when I went to WordPress, it felt like a whole new level of professionalism and the choice of themes was just fantastic. I think it’s a credit to WordPress that I’ve had enquiries about who designed my blog – people think it’s been done professionally but it’s a free WordPress theme (Bueno) I love how easy WordPress.com blogs are to use, how easy it is to integrate them with the rest of your online activities (Twitter, Facebook, etc) And my all-time fave WP feature is their custom menu, which enables you to link to external sites (or wherever you like) from the menu at the top. For example, on top of my blog I have a ‘newsletter’ tab, and when you click it on it, you’re brought to the MailChimp sign up form.’
Is there anything you pay for?
‘The only thing I pay for is the domain upgrade, i.e. www.catherineryanhoward.com instead of www.catherineryanhoward.wordpress.com.’
What limitations are there on a WordPress-hosted blog?
‘Paypal buttons is the big thing – you can’t sell anything on your WP blog although you can have a donate button.’ (editor’s ahem!… it’s possible to fudge it – see the How To Write A Novel course in my sidebar…)
‘Also a lot of external widgets don’t work. BUT I think this is a tiny price to pay for such a great, easy service that lets me have a professional home online for very little cost.’
What about SEO?
‘I don’t worry about SEO at all. Not one tiny bit. Maybe I should, but I’m quite happy with the way things are for me and my blog at the moment. The only thing I want – and I have it – is for my blog to be the first result when people google my name. I think if your blog is the core of your business, you should worry about things like that. But for a writer, their books are the core – or should be, anyway.’
Roz again… I couldn’t agree more. So here are my tips for making the most of a non-self-hosted blog, if we can use such a horrible term…
- Tag your posts with an eye on SEO
- Get your own URL
- Check your URLs show your post headline, not just a date or a post number
- Find a theme that you can shape to look distinctive (so people really feel it’s your online home)
- Remember your online presence isn’t just a blog – you reach much further if you use social media as well.
If you blog, what platform do you use and why? Do you have any thoughts on self-hosted versus platform hosted? Share in the comments…. and come back tomorrow when Jane Friedman and Joanna Penn give their reasons for self-hosting.
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