The Free Machine: Deep In The Belly of a Free Promotion of a Self-Published Romance Novel on Amazon

So I wrote a book. Big whoop. A million or so of your friends and neighbors have already written a book or are writing one or are thinking about them. The difference now is that Kindle Direct Publishing has made it super-easy to get e-books published, so every two-bit hobbyist with a day job is trying his or her hand at joining the ranks of the literary elite.

The cover of my novel, WREATHED (beautiful chalk artwork by Dangerdust).

The problem is that, as it turns out, it’s a lot harder to sell these books than it is to write them. You can have a successful and lucrative career selling self-published books — I’m not saying you can’t — but the simile you always hear is that publishing a self-published book is like buying a lottery ticket, in that the odds of success are just about the same. And, really, the comparison is unfair to lottery tickets, because all you have to do is stroll down to the local bodega here where I am in Trenton, NJ and buy a lottery ticket for a dollar. You have to write a book.

And, with self-published books, sometimes you have to give them away. Every three months (if you’re exclusive with Amazon) you are given five days in which you can give electronic Kindle copies of your book away. Free giveaways can help launch interest in a struggling book, enough to generate some real sales in the days following a giveaway. Giving away lots of copies tends to lead to more reviews, which in turn can help to attract more readers. My book, a humorous contemporary romance novel called WREATHED, hadn’t sold more than a handful of copies in months (outside of a one-day 99-cent promotion that resulted in a hundred sales). It only had 17 reviews on Amazon, most of which were positive. (That is, aside from this one.) I didn’t want to put the book out for free, but I had to do something, and this is what I came up with.

So this is the story of how I gave over twenty-five thousand electronic copies of my book away over five days, and what I learned.


After my Texas Rangers had, somehow, blown a five-run lead by giving ten runs away to the expletive-deleted Yankees, I made the command decision to go to bed early the night before, which means that I hadn’t done Thing One to promote the first day of free book sales. Normally, I’d at least have ten or twenty spam e-mails set to go on my Twitter account. (I have two Twitter accounts — the semi-normal @Curtis_Edmonds account and the very spammy @ScaryHippoBooks account. Guess which one has ten thousand followers. Guess.)

The logo for my publishing company, Scary Hippopotamus Books.

So when I woke up and crawled my way out of bed, I did what I always do and grabbed my phone to check and see how many books I’d sold overnight. And, really, when you’re not selling a lot of books, there isn’t a more depressing way to start your day, outside of learning that the Yankees went on to drop three touchdowns on the Rangers.

I had, at that point, already given nine books away, and I hadn’t done anything to promote the giveaway. I have no idea how these nine people knew about the promotion when I hadn’t done anything to let anyone know. I checked again over breakfast and it was up to fifteen books given away. My guess is that these people had price alerts set up on Amazon to let them know that the book was free. The overriding lesson in all of this: people are cheap.


The Sports Guy, even between jobs, is so much better at Twitter than I am that it isn’t funny.

I did a few tweets about the book being free in the morning, and shortly after, made the mistake of looking at Twitter Analytics. The one tweet I send out about my book being free got thirty impressions. I did another little snarky tweet about my Dallas Cowboys, directed at Bill Simmons, the ex-ESPN Sports Guy. That tweet got over three thousand impressions. I stand in awe at my Twitter incompetence. I am now at 190 books given away, which is OK but not spectacular. I have to stop myself from looking at my sales dashboard on Amazon and refreshing it every five minutes, because that way lies disappointment.


Please, dear God in heaven, if I ever get on television, please allow me to retain at least one shred of dignity. I am not asking for much.

I am a fan of the thing that noted awful dancer Drew Magary does every year where he previews all the NFL teams — I just finished reading the one on the Atlanta Falcons. The best part of these columns is that he opens them up for contributions from self-hating readers. (Full disclosure: I have contributed to this effort in the past.) What you don’t hear enough of, for my tastes, is self-hating self-publishing testimonials. Because, you know, there is so much room for that kind of thing. At its nadir, WREATHED was something like #477,000 on the Amazon best-seller list, which means that there are, you know, a couple of million people out there whose books have not done so well. God, I bet they have stories to tell. Horrible, horrible stories.

Anyway, I say that to note that I’m now up to 275 units given away, and that puts me fairly high on the Amazon free-Kindle list. (I am not so vain as to say that this makes me an “Amazon Bestseller,” but that doesn’t stop other people.)

“Amazon Best Sellers”, here, used as a euphemism, because I haven’t sold anything. Yet.
With the Papyrus fond and the toned torso, this may be the most emblematic book cover of our times.

What this means, of course, for you, the reader of self-published romance fiction, is that there are — literally — thousands of books that you can get for free on your Kindle. Like, well, I don’t know, The Billionaire’s Secret, or I Married a Billionaire, or Releasing The Billionaire’s Passion. You know, high-class stuff like that. Really, it’s just an honor to compete on that level.


The Rangers are batting a little more effectively against the Yankees tonight, and have the early lead. I have done next-to-nothing to promote the book since I’ve been home, and I’m up to 730 free books given away. And tomorrow I have my BookBub promotion, so there’s that.

Oh, I’m in love.

If you don’t know about BookBub, it’s one of the best ways to promote self-published books. If you’re an author, you can pay BookBub several hundred dollars to promote your discounted book. (It’s about half that for free books.) You want to pay BookBub that money, because they have a very large mailing list of people who have been trained, like Pavlov’s dogs, to buy your e-book just as soon as the e-mails hit their in-boxes. There are all sorts of people who will take your money and tell you that they will help you sell your self-published book. BookBub delivers.

I want to be that complete.

The problem is that BookBub will only take your money if it thinks your book is any good. BookBub is unique in that it has self-published authors all over the country lined up at their door to give them money, and BookBub says, “No, thanks, try again next month.” Part of this is because traditional publishers are making inroads on BookBub, and there aren’t as many slots left. But whatever the reason, it’s getting harder to get a BookBub promotion. (I, quite literally, threatened to stand in front of BookBub headquarters with a boom box, playing In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel, the way that John Cusack did in Say Anything, and it worked, although I do not suggest that anyone else try this.) After several rejections, I paid $65 for a spot on the BookBub “chick lit” list for my free book. And sometime tomorrow, BookBub will send out the e-mail, and lots of people will download my book all at once. Or that’s what’s supposed to happen.


The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

So WREATHED is in the top 100 for romance novels on the Amazon list for free books. Okay, it’s at #98, but that still counts. It’s in the top twenty for several of the other sub-lists like contemporary romance and new adult, which is good, because Amazon puts twenty books on each page on the lists. Not only is this helpful, it’s free, which is all to the good. I am still not going to call this an “Amazon bestseller,” because I haven’t sold any books yet, but people do that. We’re at 330 books so far today, which is better than yesterday at this time. I don’t know if the BookBub e-mail has gone out yet, but it’s possible.


Welp, the BookBub e-mail must have gone out, because I gave away just under a thousand books in the last hour. God bless BookBub. Here’s what the spike looks like:

Whoa doggies.

So, why do this? Why give thousands of copies of your e-book away? Well, part of it is that it feels good to have some success. Look at that flat line off to the left. That’s what you’re really looking at most of the time — statistical evidence that nobody is buying your book. It’s nice to have the spike, even if you don’t make any money (I’m actually $65 in the hole with the money I gave to BookBub).

Still. Lookit. And it’s over 1,500 today, just as I am writing this. Two hundred books given away in ten minutes. Wow.


I went to lunch at Five Guys up in Ewing (they haven’t made it to downtown Trenton yet) and I came back to the office with a barbecue sauce stain on my shirt because this is how I roll. I checked the sales dashboard on my phone in my car before I went back inside. The BookBub e-mail has definitely gone out. I’ve given away over 7200 free books today, and that plus the 800+ from yesterday is over 8,000 books. That’s the power of BookBub, ladies and gentlemen. That’s the Free Machine at work.

I do want to stress that this number is not extraordinary — I want to say I gave away something like 17,000 copies of my first book over five days when it came out in 2013. But it’s still, Good Lord God, a lot of free books.


So it’s now over 9,000 free books today, with over 10,000 total over both days. You’d think that would put me in the top 100 overall, but no. I am still behind classics like Werebear Teacher, which is depressing. The good news is that BookBub has, as usual, written better copy for my book than I have:

Meeting a new boyfriend at a funeral may not be ideal, but Wendy Jarrett can’t help but fall for sexy Adam Lewis. A tricky inheritance situation soon takes them from the graveyard to an old Victorian estate in Cape May in this witty romantic comedy!

Damn, that’s good stuff. That’s worth the $65 right there.


Warning: not actual ship.

The smart thing to do with BookBub is to let them schedule the dates, because if you ask for a specific date you might get it or you might not, depends. They offered me July 30, which was fine except that we had planned to take our kids to see Elmo and Cookie Monster at Sesame Place on Friday. We’re staying the night at the Sheraton across the street, and I check the sales dashboard on my phone before I got to sleep, and I’ve given away over 15,000 books over three days. I sleep the sleep of the just.


I didn’t have my phone with me (Sesame Place is also a water park) most of the afternoon and couldn’t check sales and anyway it kind of gets old just spouting numbers after a while. The good news — the really, really good news — is that a number of people who downloaded the free copy yesterday are ALSO members of Kindle Unlimited, which means that, thanks to the largess of Jeff Bezos, I get a wonderful, glorious, six-tenths-of-a-penny for every page read from Kindle Unlimited users, and that’s over five thousand pages today. WREATHED has 445 pages (in the “normalized” system), so really that’s only eleven full copies read, but still, that’s at least some money to recoup my costs even if I don’t sell another book next week. I don’t know how much money that translates to exactly yet, but it’s something. (It’s a reason for everyone else to do free giveaways targeted at Kindle Unlimited users.)


The number of giveaways have slowed down considerably on the fourth day of the promotion (1600 so far today, down from just under 3750 yesterday). I am pleased — you don’t want to give away too many books, or I don’t think so. I don’t know what a healthy number is. BookBub says that the Chick Lit list (which I used) tends to top out around 14,000 books, and I’ve given away over twenty thousand, which kind of tops that.

The Kindle Unlimited page reads are now up to 14,000 “pages,” which is all to the good, but is really a tiny number compared to the 9.1 million pages I’ve given away so far. And, all of a sudden, there are a lot more people who have added the book to Goodreads — about 70 or so. Three of them have rated the book — one two-star (boo!) — one three star (meh) — and one four-star (what, you couldn’t give it five stars? What’s WRONG WITH YOU?)


My six-year-old twin daughters are hanging out on the couch of my office, amusing themselves by taking my Texas Longhorns hat on and off my head (tolerable) and grabbing the back of my chair and yanking it (STOP THAT). On the last day of the promotion, giveaways are winding down. Only 800 so far today — about as many as in the first day of the promotion. The good news is that the Kindle Unlimited results have been stellar — seven thousand yesterday, five thousand so far today. (Oddly, it’s split about evenly between America and the UK.)


I am writing this paragraph on the laptop that I wrote the book on, as though that makes a difference. The numbers today are… I hate to sound positive, after years of being a professional negative person, but they’re swell.

In my defense, it’s a very nice backpack.

I only gave away two thousand e-books today (putting the total up to twenty-five thousand total), but, holy cats you guys, I had thirteen thousand KU page reads, which translates to 78 dollars if — and this is a BIG if — the sixth-tenths-of-a-cent payout is accurate. (The rest of the world and I will find this out on August 15.) This is still not a lot of money (I paid more than that today for this backpack), but nothing to sneeze at, either.


The final tally:

  • America — 19,165 free books
  • United Kingdom — 5,911 free books
  • Canada — 100 free books
  • The rest of the world (mostly Germany)— 291 free books
  • TOTAL: 25,467 free books given away by me.

And in terms of ROI:

  • Cost of BookBub promotion: $65
  • 37,712 Kindle Unlimited pages read (at six-tenths of one cent): $226.27
  • TOTAL ROI so far (without selling one book): 348%

It’s actually more than that, as I’ve sold ten books today (they are not showing up in my Amazon royalties for reasons I don’t quite understand, but still. (And I got the nice blurb out of it.)

So what have we learned, if anything?

  1. It is definitely worth your money to pay BookBub to help give your books away. (Assuming you can get a slot, and assuming you have a nice cover and a good blurb.)
  2. In the age of Kindle Unlimited, you may make a great deal more giving books away than you used to, depending on how much Amazon actually pays per page.
  3. People are cheap. This really can’t be stressed enough. People are cheap. And that’s what makes the Free Machine run.

Curtis Edmonds is the author of WREATHED (well, duh, as if you hadn’t figured that out by now), RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY, and LIES I HAVE TOLD. He is a frequent contributor to McSWEENEY’S INTERNET TENDENCY. Other works have appeared at Untoward Magazine, Yankee Pot Roast, The Big Jewel, and the Tulane Maritime Law Journal. He works as a civil-rights attorney in the crumbling ruins of downtown Trenton, New Jersey.

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