The Hottest Word on the Internet These Days

That would be the word “free.”

Whether it works or not, free has always had magic qualities. As an advertising copywriter, I know that tucking the word “free” into a headline was always considered the Holy Grail of benefit advertising. (What’s better than free?) So it stands to reason, that the word would prove to be alluring in other avenues. I read on Passive Guy’s blog yesterday that the publisher, Sourcebooks, revealed that they experience “full-price sales that are 46 times greater on average after a “free” promotion than the four weeks before the promotion.” And if you go on Kindle Boards or Twitter or anywhere else writers congregate, you’ll get a first-hand snapshot of how the Kindle Select promotions are going for them. (This is where writers put a title up exclusively with Amazon and for that, they get to offer their book free any five days of their choice in a three-month period. )

I must say, I was curious enough that I had to try it myself. I have a three-book mystery series and offered the first book in the series free last week for two days. 500 downloads later, it’s still selling heaps better than it did before the Kindle Select “bump,” (as it’s called.) I typically sell twenty copies of this particular title a month. I sold that much in two days (over the weekend). Today, however, it’s back to selling two copies a day so I don’t know whether the “bump” is over or what, but even if it is, I’m happy to have had it.

People like free stuff. Who knew? If it’s crap, you’re not out anything, and if it’s good—hey, you got it for free! The executive director of Small Publishers, Artists and Writers Network (SPAWN), Patricia Fry, wrote a great piece in the October 2011 issue of IBPA Independent called “Give Something to Get Something.” (The piece was taken from her book, which looks great, BTW, “Promote Your Book: Over 250 Proven, Low-Cost Tips and Techniques for the Enterprising Author.”) In the IBPA piece, she reinforces something that grocery stores and used car salesmen have known for decades, and that is the concept of the loss leader. This is where you give something away of value, in order to enhance the prospect of gathering a customer you might’ve missed before. Hopefully, if the customer is happy with the free thing, they’ll tell their friends and come back for more—at full price.

From Ms. Fry’s article, here are six ways to give it away and have it come back to you:

  1. Donate your book as a prize in an online contest, especially if that means it is prominently featured on the site—which is free advertising for you.
  2. Give a copy of your book to your local library. If your book can be ordered (so, not a CreateSpace edition) there’s a greater chance of that happening if the librarian is holding a copy in her hands.
  3. Offer your book in local charity events. I put the second book of my French mystery series in a big basket with lavender soap, flowers, a Provençal coffee mug and a decent bottle of wine (the mystery happens in a French vineyard) and donated it to the silent auction at my son’s middle school. It sat on exhibit for hours and was then verbally and enticingly described (I wrote the sales copy) by the auctioneer. In my case, I was also invited to sell and sign books after the event but even if that doesn’t happen, it’s still good visibility for your book. (Make sure you create a decent sign to prop next to the basket that sells the book.)
  4. Leave the book in professional waiting rooms. If you have a nonfiction book especially, distribute a few to waiting rooms around town: doctors, dentists, veterinarians. (Note: these’ll go “walkies” on a regular basis so be sure and check back often to replenish the supply.)
  5. Focus on the unique promotional benefits of certain genres. Children’s books or books with a special hook: (equestrian fiction, travel or food-related plots, etc.) can often be put on display at tack shops, gift shops, open houses at schools, even restaurants. I have a little neighborhood café that positions itself as all-things-French. The people who run the café are friendly and were happy to add another tincture of Frenchness to the ambiance of their place by putting my Provençal mystery series on display by the cash register. It’s true these aren’t free, but they are loss leaders in that I sell them for much, much less than customers could buy them (after shipping) from Amazon. (Note: because my print-on-demand books are created through Lightning Source, I can typically sell them for $5 a piece and still break even. Remember: I’m trying to spur word-of-mouth and create goodwill in this instance, not make a profit.)
  6. Say “yes” to endorsements for other books. There’s nothing that says “free advertising” like a line on someone else’s book (if it’s good) that reads: “Blah blah blah,” by Susan Kiernan-Lewis, author of the award-winning mystery “Little Death by the Sea.”

So there you have it! “Free” really is the hottest word—on or off the Internet—and there are a lot of different ways to make it work for you. If anybody else has ideas of something they’ve tried at the local level to give their books away (whether it worked or not), I’d love to hear!

14 thoughts on “The Hottest Word on the Internet These Days

  1. Reblogged this on compandcomp and commented:
    Susan Kiernan-Lewis reveals her thoughts on what she believes (probably accurately) to be “The Hottest Word on the Internet These Days.” What does “free” mean for pedagogy? Not only does it mean that we instructors have a vast array of internet content that is free and easy to access, it also gives us points to discuss with our classes. In fact, as a discussion of composition might go, it may behoove an instructor to consider with his or her students Kiernan-Lewis’s statement: “I must say, I was curious enough that I had to try it myself. I have a three-book mystery series and offered the first book in the series free last week for two days. 500 downloads later, it’s still selling heaps better than it did before the Kindle Select ‘bump,’ (as it’s called.)” We may view Kiernan-Lewis’s free offer of her first book like an introduction: this is where we become acquainted with the work, and if it’s not worthwhile, then why invest (either monetarily or intellectually) in the remaining work(s)? I’m sure others will have more ideas, but this stood out to me.

  2. From a reader’s perspective, free books are a great opportunity to get acquainted with an author. If you have 3 books, and give one of them free, I’ll be more likely to read it, because, yes, I love free stuff. And if I like your book, I’ll buy the other two. It may not work for every author, but giving some samples of your writing to readers is just a smart thing to do. But i have to admit, if I don’t like the book or I think that writing is not up to par, I will not come back for more.

    • Nor should you. I see it as another form of “sampling.” If it’s something you like, you know where to get two more. If it’s not your cup of tea, you didn’t invest anything but the time to read the first one. I think most authors are genuinely trying to find their readers. Nobody wants to “trick” people into buying and reading their books. The giveaway idea is a good way to see if the material and the reader are a good match.

      • Susan, are your books available for Kobo? I find with some authors, even when I am willing to buy their books (for a reasonable price of course), I can’t find them in the right format. I don’t like ordering from, because I pay more for shipping than it’s really worth. doesn’t always have every book I am looking for. And I prefer to get e-books, anyway. So, if any of your books are available in e-format, I’d be interested in getting a copy, if you point out where I should look. 🙂

      • Hi–You are in Canada? Most of my books–except the ones I just made exclusive with Amazon–are available via Kobo, Barnes&Noble, Sony, iPad, etc. You can go to and choose your preferred e-reader format or straight to the online distributors. The two that I’ve made exclusive with Amazon for the next three months are “The French Women’s Diet” and “Little Death by the Sea.” Thanks for your interest; even if you find my books aren’t right for you, I’d love to hear what you think.

  3. Good advice. I recently started putting free childrens stories on my blog. I was inspired to do so after reading some books by Deepak Chopra. It’s not about the money, I think stories are to be shared and enjoyed so if even just one person feels entertained by one of my stories that, for me, is success as a writer.

  4. I’ve toyed with the idea of going Amazon Select now and then but been afraid that if I do then I’d be missing out on the other venues where people could buy my books. But since the vast majority of sales are through Amazon anyhow…. Now I’m extra tempted to give this a try! As soon as everything else in my life calms down I’ll have to reevaluate… 😉

    • I’m not totally convinced I did the right thing. Dean Wesley Smith says you shouldn’t eliminate any sales avenue for your books and it makes me a little nervous to have done that. I’ll let you know if the sales bump has made it worth it; too soon to tell right now.

  5. I have often thought of writing, but have not made the jump yet in my life. I really appreciate your writing and I find that after I read your comments I am inspired to do a little writing myself. Thanks for all the great insight and suggestions!

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