Many Kindle authorities claim that launching a book for free no longer works (I’ve definitely said this recently.) Fortunately people like Nick Loper (the Chief Side Hustler at SideHustleNation.com) are proving me wrong.
With the right amount of effort and smart work, you can parlay a free book launch into a profitable stream of income. In today’s guest post, Nick details that exact strategies he used to get over 20,000 free downloads and create a lifelong asset.
So take it away Nick…
Last month, I released my latest book project, Work Smarter, into the world.
The book actually started out as a blog post idea, but as the text grew past 10,000 words (eventually totaling 20,000), I figured it would be better suited for book format.
The project is all about the online tools and resources today’s entrepreneurs are using to get their work done. I’m always excited to learn about new tools, and I know other people feel the same way.
There’s a joy in discovering something that can make your life easier or make your work more efficient — and that’s what Work Smarter intended to do.
(And based on the feedback, it did. If you missed it, I guarantee you’ll find something new, novel, and useful among the 350+ resources — or your money back.)
Here are some of the hard numbers from the launch:
- 20,215 free downloads
- 559 contributors
- 1247 paid downloads (so far)
- $427.83 in royalties the first week, and over $1400 in the first month
- 413 individual emails sent to contributors (183 responses, 44% response rate)
- 378 resources shared
- 334 new email subscribers (out of 580 visitors – 57% conversion)
- 246 emails to featured companies sent (64 responses, 26% response rate)
- $208.23 in “production costs”
- 200+ retweets and a social reach in the hundreds of thousands
- 156 borrowed copies (Borrows on Kindle earn about $2 each)
- $108.43 in affiliate commission (explanation below)
- 79 Fancy Hands requests (more on this below)
- 70 5-star reviews
- 3 guest post opportunities, including one on EntrepreneurOnFire.com
- 2 podcast guest appearances on shows much bigger than mine
- 2 free t-shirts, including this one from Buffer.
In this post I’ll share the step-by-step process and methodology I went through to create and market the book, including which tools I used most from it to get it done, what worked best, and what mistakes I made along the way.
(Including why I changed the title mid-launch, what I could have done better on social media, and how the first 17,000 readers got a hard-to-navigate version of the book.)
Ready? Let’s do this.
Every project starts with an idea. In this case, my idea was to compile a list of entrepreneurs’ favorite online resources.
And I knew from listening to John Lee Dumas that the Entrepreneur on Fire show notes archive would be an excellent place to start, because at the end of every show, he asks his guests that very question.
I thought the resulting list would make a pretty epic and hopefully viral blog post, but it quickly became something bigger than that.
I added in a few dozen contributors from my own network, and in total, 559 entrepreneurs named 378 unique resources for the book.
Now would be a good time to note that I didn’t have any particular expertise to write this book; anyone reading could have done it as well or better than me.
And I’m certain there are other similar opportunities out there as well.
Writing the Book
To begin gathering the data, I had the virtual assistant service Fancy Hands comb through the EoFire show notes to collect all the online resources that had been named in the 500+ episodes that were live at the time (now over 600).
They added the tools along with the contributors’ names into a Google Docs spreadsheet.
Note: Even though this is public information, I still made sure to ask for John and Kate’s blessing before launching.
I relied heavily on Fancy Hands to build the foundation of Work Smarter, and this was just the start of everything they did. The service costs $45 for 15 fifteen-minute tasks per month.
I upgraded to the Premium plan that included 25 tasks for $65, and then to a “secret” Super-Premium option (50 tasks for $130) when I maxed that out.
Because tasks are limited to 15 minutes, it often took several requests to complete one job, but it was certainly faster than having to do all the tedious data entry myself.
Next, Fancy Hands helped categorize all the tools, find descriptions, links, and pricing information.
After that, they translated (15-minutes at a time) the massive spreadsheet into sentence and paragraph format.
Of course it would be cool to say that a VA service wrote the whole book for me, but that would be a stretch. It still took a solid couple weeks of adding my own content, formatting, and editing before I was comfortable calling it complete.
For this portion of the project, I used 46 tasks.
(Full disclosure: I have several months worth of Fancy Hands credit in the bank for referring other users to their service, and it can’t be cashed out — so this was essentially free to me.)
I had a Skype conversation with product launch expert Pat Romain during my research and writing phase.
The first thing she asked me to do was to clarify my goals of the launch.
I replied the project had two major goals:
- To capture email addresses during the free launch phase.
- To generate enough momentum that paid sales carried on after the free promo ended. With any luck, this could be a passive income asset for months or years down the road.
Amazon doesn’t share customer information with the authors, so even if the book generated thousands of downloads, I’d have no way to follow up or communicate with the readers.
To combat this, I offered a free bonus in the book (a trick I learned from Steve), and linked directly to a dedicated landing page (this one).
The bonus ebook, 53 Takeaways from the World’s Best Business Books, was something I’d already created, and that I thought would have a broad enough appeal to perform well.
I included this offer 3 times in the book; once at the beginning, once in-context in the middle, and once at the end.
Before the launch, I also spent some time building out an autoresponder sequence in AWeber, so new subscribers would be exposed to my best material over a 2-month drip campaign.
Pat also suggested I begin to tease out the project on social media and in my email newsletters, which I did, though I probably should have started earlier to build more anticipation.
She recommended setting up a dedicated squeeze page to capture “hand raisers” and others expressing an interest in being the “first to know” about the launch. I did not make this a priority, but definitely think it’s a great strategy.
I could have used this opted-in list to help build some initial buzz, give pre-release copies to, ask for cover feedback, etc, and really make them part of the process.
If you want more book marketing ideas, definitely check out Steve’s rankings and ratings for 16 different strategies.
Picking a Title
Many book marketers will tell you that Amazon is just a big search engine, and that the title of your book is the single most important factor in “Amazon SEO.”
I used a tool called MerchantWords to estimate search volume for certain keywords on Amazon, but unfortunately I didn’t do this until AFTER I launched the book.
Originally I wanted to lead with the “meat” of the book — the 350+ online resources, but thankfully the members of my mastermind group advised against it. Instead, they wisely argued, I should lead with the benefit.
That led to my original title: Work Smarter: 350+ Online Resources Today’s Top Entrepreneurs Use to Increase Productivity and Grow Their Business.
Why “work smarter”? Because that’s how I feel every time I discover an awesome new resource!
And it turns out, there’s already a decent Amazon search volume for that phrase according to MerchantWords:
The phrase “online resources” returned 0 results, so I was happy with that selection.
“Increase productivity” also did well, with roughly 6500 monthly searches:
But then I started running into trouble. I knew I wanted the word “entrepreneur” in the title, but I wasn’t in love with the wording at the end.
In a conversation with Chandler Bolt in the middle of my launch week, he pressed me on the search volume for the keywords in my title. I didn’t have the data at that time, and that’s when I started playing around with MerchantWords.
It turns out I got lucky with the first two keywords, but made a mistake with the third one, “grow their business.”
That phrase (and variations of it) get almost no search volume:
After some searching, I found some good numbers related to goals, so I changed the last part of the title midweek to Increase Productivity and Achieve Their Goals.
“Reach goals” had a search volume of 8000, but “achieve goals” had an estimated monthly search volume of 12,500, so I went with that.
And that’s one beautiful thing about digital publishing — you can make changes like that in a matter of hours.
Designing a Cover
I get really excited when it’s time to design a cover for any book project, because it’s generally one of the last steps before a launch.
I created a single mock-up concept of a cover, and was about to send it off to a handful of cover artists on Fiverr to see what came back when my wife intervened.
She’s a PowerPoint rockstar and turned this:
So I ran with it.
Formatting for Kindle
Each Kindle device is essentially an html reader, meaning you have to convert your Word document into the “web page, filtered” file mode. It’s as easy as hitting “Save As” and selecting that option from the drop-down menu.
(Alternatively, you can outsource your Kindle formatting to Fiverr, Elance, or another professional.)
I ran that html file through the Kindle Previewer desktop software to make sure everything looked OK. This usually takes several iterations because you’ll always catch something that doesn’t look quite right on one of the Kindle hardware emulators.
The software creates a .mobi file, and that’s the version you upload to your account at kdp.amazon.com.
And that’s where I screwed up. Turns out I skipped a crucial step, one that makes it so Kindle can’t access the Table of Contents — making it difficult for readers to navigate to different sections inside the book.
In Calibre, you can set up the Table of Contents to show properly in Kindle devices.
Unfortunately for me, the first 17,000 downloaders got a less-than-optimal version of the book.
Submitting to Amazon
If you don’t have one already, you can set up a free author’s account at kdp.amazon.com. That’s where you’ll input your book details, including the title, author, and description, and upload your .mobi file from Calibre.
The KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) site is also where you’ll input your pricing and royalty information, and decide if you want to sign up for KDP Select.
KDP Select gives Amazon exclusive rights to your content for 90 days, and in return, you have the ability to promote your book for free for 5 days and Prime members can also borrow it for free.
Why Do a Free Promo?
Why would someone spend all this time and effort writing a book, only to give it away for free? That doesn’t make any sense!
The free promo at launch simply an attention-getting tactic. The idea is to drive as much traffic and interest and attention to your book in the form of downloads and reviews that it “sticks” in the charts and continues to make sales after your free promo ends.
It’s also an opportunity to expose your work to a massive audience who otherwise wouldn’t be bothered, and maybe even recruit a few new members to your tribe.
One contributor asked why I was sending people to Amazon and not giving the book away on my own site, but requiring an email opt-in.
I reasoned that people would be far less likely to share a link to an email squeeze page, and that sharing campaign was a main component of my marketing plan. I also thought I could reach many times more readers (and hopefully buyers later) on Amazon — even if I don’t capture all their emails.
I set up the free promo to run for the maximum of 5 days, Monday through Friday of launch week, following the lead from Scott Britton on his successful Kindle launch.
(According to various Kindle publishing sites, Sunday is a strong day for a free promo, but I thought my business-to-business oriented launch would be better suited to start on Monday instead.)
A Small Pricing Psychology Trick
My recommendation is to price the book slightly higher than you normally would, to give it a higher perceived value.
For example, even though it was my intention to eventually sell the book at $2.99, I priced it at $4.99 during launch week.
You could even go higher if you like. It’s all a psychology hack; getting a free $5 thing is a better deal than getting a free $3 thing.
Make sure to give yourself a few days worth of lead time after you submit your book to Amazon and before the “official” start of your launch.
There are a couple reasons for this. The first is to give yourself time to make any last minute changes and edits. It can take 12-48 hours for Amazon to review and publish your changes (though they’re generally faster than that).
The second reason is you want to generate a few user reviews before launching to the general public. The sad thing is even when a book is free, if it has no ratings on Amazon, people will hesitate to download it!
We’re Live on Amazon! Now What?
Generating Pre-Launch Interviews
I was able to finalize the book and get it published to Amazon a few days in advance of my planned Monday launch. My #1 goal during this time period was to generate some initial reviews.
I’ll share what I did, and what I could have done to potentially have a bigger impact.
I sent some personal connections a free pdf copy of the book. Since many of them had contributed a resource to the guide, I positioned the gift as an advance copy to thank them for their help with the project.
In my email, I also linked directly to the review page on Amazon for the book, explaining how I was planning to launch on Monday and if they had a minute to drop in a quick review, it would be very much appreciated.
I sent out around 30 of these emails, and was very grateful to collect 12 reviews by Monday morning. (Thanks guys!)
“Real” authors do this all the time — sending out dozens of advance copies to influential reviewers and members of the press hoping to gain a favorable review.
Now here’s the thing, because all of these reviewers were given a copy OFF Amazon, they show up as “unverified” reviews.
It’s not actually as bad as it sounds, but Amazon differentiates between those reviewers they actually have a record of downloading or buying the book, and everyone else.
Naturally, it makes more sense for verified reviews to carry more weight in Amazon’s ranking algorithms.
This is a topic of hot debate among authors. Amazon wants to remain open, since they know that for most of their products, they’re not an exclusive supplier but would still welcome the honest user feedback. But on the flipside, some hateful or spiteful reviewers could trash a new book without even reading it.
One way to get “verified” reviews is to buy Amazon e-gift cards for reliable people in your network for the amount of your book, and explaining the reason for the gift in your message to the recipient.
This method may be more reliable than simply “gifting” the book through Amazon, as some authors report having directly-gifted book reviews removed.
Of course, the risk is you have some upfront cost involved and the recipient could turn around and use the gift card for anything on Amazon — not just your book.
The challenging thing with soliciting reviews during your launch is you need them NOW to fuel better exposure and more downloads — but in most cases you have to give people a chance to actually have time to sit down and READ the book first.
That means to plan ahead and give yourself at least a few days leadtime to collect reviews.
Cost: Free! (Or $30-50 to go the gift card route)
Marketing the Launch
As a Kindle author during a free promo, your primary goal is to generate enough initial traction and downloads that your book starts to rank highly on Amazon’s internal charts.
Their reach and scale will go far beyond anything you can muster on your own.
Reaching the top 5 in your category will virtually guarantee a strong download performance, so you should focus your efforts on getting enough volume to pump up your rank.
Once you’re there, Amazon will do the work for you. People will naturally discover it through the site; indeed, that’s the beauty of tapping into the marketplace power of the world’s largest store.
Here are the tactics I used to build that initial momentum.
(Of course I emailed my own modest list as well — less than 1000 subscribers at the time — but not until Wednesday and Thursday. I also mentioned the book launch on my podcast for the week, which was released Thursday morning. Throughout the week I kept asking for reviews as well from pretty much anyone who emailed me.)
My 659 Email Outreach Campaign
The nature of this book, with 500+ contributors and 350+ companies named, lent itself well to a massive email outreach campaign.
My efforts were broken up into 2 segments:
The first step was gathering contact information, and I relied on a combination of Fancy Hands and my dedicated virtual assistant to help with this.
I spent an additional 25 Fancy Hands tasks building out the contact info (email addresses and “contact us” pages) in a Google Docs spreadsheet.
In many cases, I used Rapportive to guess/verify common email formats for these messages. In total, we were able to find reasonably reliable contact info for 659 different contributors and resources.
However, this was not without its own challenges. Rapportive temporarily blocked queries from my account 3 different times — probably for making too many database or API calls within a certain timeframe.
I spent 2 and a half days writing individual messages to everyone I could, and queued them up to send out Monday morning starting around 5am.
The tool I used to schedule the messages was Streak, a free Gmail extension.
To write all the messages, I used my beloved TextExpander for Chrome browser plugin, but tried to add in at least a line or two of personalization.
For example, if Rapportive showed me someone was in San Francisco, I’d mention I was based nearby. If they’d named a tool that was one of my favorites, I’d say so.
The reason to do it this way instead of in some sort of mail merge or mass-mailing was to hopefully avoid the spam filters and get a better response rate. But honestly I had no idea if it would work or not.
Subject line for contributors: “I cited you as a contributor in my latest book project!”
Subject line for resources: “[Resource] is featured in my new book!”
I didn’t get fancy and test different subject lines, but I just needed something compelling enough to get opened, coming from a complete stranger.
The interior of the message had 2 goals:
- To generate downloads
- To generate social shares
My hope was people would be curious enough about the project to go to Amazon and download a free copy. Each download helps push a book up the ranks.
Click to Tweet
The next goal was social sharing, and I focused on Twitter because of the “click to tweet” tool. In each message, I included text that simply said:
And if you think it’s a cool project and want to share, here’s a click-to-tweet link:
With Click to Tweet, you can set a pre-written tweet for people to share. Here was mine:
The idea was to make it as easy as possible for people to help spread the word, which in turn would generate more downloads.
One missed opportunity was not including a hashtag in the tweet. #Business #Entrepreneurship or even #Kindle could have led to wider discoverability, sharing, and possibly even becoming a trending topic.
By Sunday evening, I had nearly 400 messages ready to go out in the morning. I’d never attempted anything like this before and didn’t how reliable Streak would be or if my Gmail would get shut down.
(As a small hedge, I scheduled the messages to go out roughly a minute apart from each other, rather than blasting all of them out at 5am!)
I could barely sleep on Sunday night because I was nervous and excited to see what would happen on Monday morning!
To be fair, I have nothing to compare it to, but in my mind the email campaign was a huge hit. It generated an excellent response rate (37% overall, and 44% among contributors).
More than 200 people shared the book on Twitter and Facebook, with a combined “reach” in the hundreds of thousands.
Cost: $65 worth of Fancy Hands tasks
My Vanity Domain
You’ll notice my Click to Tweet pre-populated text included the vanity domain worksmarter.co, rather than a direct link to Amazon.
I wanted to do this for a couple reasons. First, I thought it would look cooler, and second, it would give me a way to track the clicks.
Plus, it gave me an easy to say and remember domain to mention on my podcast, and if I ever wanted to build out a companion website to the book, I’d be set.
In my hosting cPanel, I set up the domain to redirect to the book’s page on Amazon. And you know what? I used my affiliate link.
A surprise benefit
Normally it would be unheard of for hundreds of people to share your affiliate link on twitter, but that’s exactly what happened.
Since I was giving the book away for free, I didn’t really expect to make any sales from it; it was just the only way I knew how to track the click volume. (Amazon doesn’t share their analytics with you.)
But to my surprise, because that vanity URL was spread so far and wide, it actually generated over $100 in Amazon affiliate commissions during the launch week. ($108.43 from 5071 clicks!)
Cost: -$18.34 domain registration + $108.43 commission = net gain of $90.09
Free Book Promo Lists
In addition to your own marketing efforts, there are dozens of sites that share free and cheap Kindle books.
I don’t know how effective these are because there’s no way to track how many downloads come from each. Still, it doesn’t hurt to submit your book.
I had Fancy Hands submit Work Smarter to these sites:
- Pixel of Ink
- Bargain eBook Hunter
- eReader News Today
- Free Book Dude
- Author Marketing Club
- Free Booksy
- Indie Book of the Day
- Frugal Freebies
- Digital Book Today
- eReader Perks
- Free Digital Reads
Not all free promo sites will make a great fit for your genre (for instance, some specialize in fiction), and not all will promote your book. Your best bet is to cast a wide net and try and generate some downloads by sharing on these sites.
I used 2 Fancy Hands requests on this. (There are also Fiverr sellers who promise to do this for you.)
Aside from your regular social media updates, there are several Facebook groups dedicated to sharing free Kindle books.
To me, it looks like these groups are primarily filled with authors eager to “check the box” and cross this marketing channel of their list, but when the membership numbers are in the thousands it can’t hurt to post.
Here are the top 5 free Kindle promo groups on Facebook in terms of members:
- Free E-Books Download
- Free Kindle and Nook eBooks for Readers
- Free Kindle Books
- Awesome Free Kindle Books Here!
- Free Books
I wouldn’t depend on these types of groups to deliver you many downloads, but it only takes a second to join the group and drop in your book’s info.
Naturally, if you’re active in any Facebook groups already and the content of your book is relevant, be sure to post there as well. I’m confident those posts will perform much better than the random Kindle freebie group posts.
For example, I’ve been a member of Pat Flynn’s Kindle Author Facebook Group for a couple years, so I made sure to share my launch along with a little insight on how I used Fancy Hands to support the book’s creation and marketing plan.
One thing I screwed up on Facebook during the week was on my own personal sharing. I posted a screenshot picture of the book at #1 on the Business charts, with a link to the Amazon page, but didn’t think to adjust my privacy settings.
My settings are that only friends can view my photos, even when they get shared by others — so when the post got shared a dozen times, it didn’t have nearly the reach it could have if I’d opened up the privacy settings for that one photo.
Live and learn.
I searched LinkedIn for groups I thought might be interested in the book’s material.
This included keywords like “small business,” “entrepreneur,” “entrepreneurship,” “productivity,” and a handful of others. I was surprised to find some groups with over 10,000 members.
All were “open” groups that anyone could join, however some put my book promo posts into moderation while others allowed me to post immediately.
I just wrote a short post explaining what the book was about and how it might benefit the members of the group, and dropped the link to Amazon, mentioning that it was free today.
Again, I don’t have any way to measure the effectiveness of this effort, but it didn’t take much time and had a “nominal” reach of tens of thousands of people. (I say “nominal” because I’m sure only a fraction of those group members actually saw it.)
With Quora, I had Fancy Hands create a list of Quora questions related to online resources, Internet tools, productivity apps, and other relevant keywords.
Then I went in and offered an answer to the question, throwing in a link at the bottom with a note like, “And if you’re interested, I just finished a book project on this very topic. It’s free this week on Amazon.”
The Free Promo Results
In total, I gave away 20,215 copies of Work Smarter over the 5-day launch.
By the end of my email and Twitter blitz on Monday, I’d cracked the Top 100 free books on all of Amazon — fiction, non-fiction, everything — and added another 9 reviews.
Yet while the bulk of my external efforts were focused on Monday, the biggest download days were Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.
That’s because the early efforts helped bump up the book’s rank in Amazon.
The book continued to pick up more reviews and climb the ranks throughout the week, eventually hitting #1 in Business, #2 in all non-fiction, and #13 overall.
But while giving away 20,000 copies (and generating a few hundred email sign-ups) is great, it doesn’t exactly pay the bills.
The Transition from Free to Paid
Like I said, I originally set the free promo period to run all 5 days, Monday through Friday, but it was that conversation with Chandler Bolt that changed my mind.
He explained that every book that comes off a free promo has roughly a 3-hour window during which it will still rank on Amazon’s free charts.
If you let your free promo expire naturally in the middle of the night, your odds of capitalizing on that exposure are not great. But cut it off manually in the middle of the day, different story.
So on his recommendation, I pulled the plug around mid-day on Friday, and changed the price to $0.99.
I put the book at $0.99 on Friday (and actually through the weekend) with the hopes of continuing the launch momentum. If people were browsing the free charts and thought the book looked interesting, a $0.99 hurdle should be relatively small one to overcome.
Between Friday and Sunday, I sold 460 copies at that price point, earning roughly $160 in royalties. (Amazon only pays 35% for books less than $2.99 or over $9.99.
Marketing tip: I also updated the first line of my book description to read “Just $0.99 for a limited time!”
You can make this text bold in you KDP description by adding <b>tags around your text</b>.
The book was still ranking well, just on the paid charts now. Transition success!
Adding a Paperback Version
During week 2, I added a paperback version of the book using CreateSpace.
CreateSpace is a print-on-demand service that’s owned by Amazon. There are a couple reasons why every book should have a paperback version:
- Not everyone has a Kindle.
- It makes your Kindle book like a comparatively better deal.
If you price your paperback version at $8.99 or $9.99, your Kindle version will look like a relative steal next to it:
Love that prominent “You Save: $7.00 (70%)!”
And on top of that, a certain percentage of buyers will opt for the paperback edition, so it’s nice to give them the option as well.
A Passive Income Asset?
Going forward, my hope is that Work Smarter can continue to help people looking to be more efficient and productive online. If it does, it stands a great chance to become a passive income asset for months or years into the future.
(Already looking forward to a revised and expanded 2015 edition!)
So far, it appears to be working. In the 8 hours it took to write this post, it sold another 14 copies.
Nick Loper is an author, online entrepreneur, and life-long student in the game of business. His latest role is as Chief Side Hustler at SideHustleNation.com, a growing resource for aspiring and part-time entrepreneurs. Looking to add more financial freedom to your life? Grab Nick’s free resource guide to the 5 Fastest Ways to Earn More Money here.Take Action. Get Results.
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