What Sells Books?

It seems as if everyone ponders this question. For those of us struggling to land publishing contracts, we’re told to blog, be active on social media, create a brand, and network. Then, down the road, all of this will pay off in spades when we have that first debut novel to promote.

All of those things are worthwhile endeavors, but do they actually sell books? According to the latest research: No. Word of mouth is what sells books.

That’s right. It’s not Twitter, or Facebook, or blogging. It’s Reader A recommending your book to her BFF, Reader B. But word of mouth is elusive. Unpredictable. How do you get it, especially in such a crowded literary landscape?

Power to the People

Amanda Palmer recently gave a TED talk that I think is very inspiring if you’re a creative type:

If you didn’t watch the whole thing (shame on you!), the short story is that she promised to give away her music for free. In exchange, she set up a Kickstarter where fans can just pay whatever they want. What it turned into was the biggest crowd-funded music project to date.

Giving away art for free isn’t a new concept, but I’m fascinated by marketing and the reasons people buy. I’m also intrigued by popular culture: what makes one thing catch on while something similar–perhaps better–languishes?

We all know Fifty Shades of Gray started out as free fan fiction, where it built upon a solid following of Twilight fans then steamrolled into a behemoth. When the books began selling like hotcakes, the free story was still available out there.

Screen shot 2013-03-18 at 6.28.51 AMThere’s another book swelling in popularity right now called, “Captive Prince.” I heard about it in three different places in the source of two weeks (Dear Author and two Goodreads groups I belong to) so I went to check it out. A male/male romance, CP started as a serial on the author’s Live Journal page and became so popular that it has now been compiled and published in two volumes sold on Amazon.

I discovered the story is still free on Live Journal. I could have easily read it there, clicking back and forth between chapters, but I chose to buy the complete novels on Amazon. First, because I’m lazy and don’t want to click a million times to get through the story. I’d rather have it all in one place and carry it with me. Second, and more importantly, I wanted to support the author.

Another example is Hugh Howey’s “Wool.” This started as a short story on Amazon for .99 (which is almost free, let’s face it) and over a few months the sales began to skyrocket. He began putting up short sequels and things snowballed from there. A savvy marketer with a savvy agent, Howey just signed a six-figure PRINT ONLY deal with Simon & Schuster. He retains the eBook rights.

Another unconventional publishing path: here’s a Kickstarter raising money to help an 11-year old self publish.

FYI, she’s already exceeded her goal.

The Power of Free

I don’t know the answer, but all of this makes me wonder about the path we all take on the road to getting published. Is there value in giving away well-written, gripping stories for free? Is that the best way to build a following? I’m not advocating for piracy, but if the goal is to develop a fan base then it seems the more people that read your stuff means greater chance of that happening.

Of course, putting it out for free doesn’t mean anyone is going to like it or recommend it. Or even find it, with the overcrowded self-published landscape these days.

But I Still Need to Eat

“Yes, that’s all fine and good,” you say, “but I need to support my family.” I get it. Everyone needs to make a living somehow (unless you’re independently wealthy, and if that’s the case then you’re probably reading this post from your 200-foot yacht and you should CALL ME). I would certainly like to make a living at writing some day. But if word of mouth sells books, it seems that the more people that read your stories, the better.

It’s a quandry. A conundrum, if you will. God knows I certainly don’t have the answer. These were just things rattling around in my head this week. The self-publishing revolution is in its early stages and its effects on the traditional publishing industry are still shaking out. Who knows what the industry will be like in ten, twenty, fifty years?

So what do you think? Do you read the freebies? If so, have you discovered new authors you’ve purchased more of and/or recommended them to friends? Or is there a reason those stories have been free?

Leave a comment


  1. Joanna, fabulous post. We are all wondering about these things. I myself have been reading more blog posts and author testimonials and “expert” opinion on the value of “free” than ever, trying to figure it all out. Like you, I’ve heard word of mouth is king. It seems free can ratched up word of mouth to a degree, because if people try your stuff for free then like it, they will a) recommend you, and b) buy your other/next stuff. So this works if a) you are promoting free only for a time, b) you have other stuff to sell (maybe the rest of the series), and c) your work is quality work. I do agree, though, that there’s also something random (luck?) going on, because you are right, some great stuff languishes, some “eh” work has huge success, and some good stuff does reap it’s just rewards…
    Personally, I have downloaded freebies–and not yet read them. However, seeing these promos, sticks that author’s name in my brain…so maybe long term, there’ll be some benefit to them via me recommending them or buying them myself. Rather like a bad review is better than no review. You might not remember the details, but the name will ring a bell…I have to believe long-term is the focus.
    Thanks for posting, Joanna!

    • Thanks, Jenna. I have downloaded some freebies and been very, very disappointed. I generally don’t pick them up unless they’re an author I know that is doing a short-time deal. I’m even leery of .99 books for the same reason.

      You’re right! Long-term is the goal. It’s been crazy to watch from the sidelines, though.

  2. Mia

     /  March 18, 2013

    Hey Joanna,

    Great post. Just in the blog you advertised for a few books and made them appealing enough to check into for some of us.
    In Julia Quinn’s series Bridgerton she has a Lady Whistledown who write a newspaper column. At first it is free and people are running to get there copy for all the gossip. The newspaper writer gave high quality info for free. So one day it stops coming, which puts people in a frenzy. They are told its no longer free. Well, the gossip is so good it is now worth paying for and Lady W becomes a rich person.
    Last conference a few of our ladies put one of their books out for free in the goody room. I was able to sample Shirley Hailstock, Nancy Herkness, and C.H. Admirand’s books. Those ladies can write! Now I’m not so scared to buy a book from any of them. They made it to another reader’s tbr list. I did the only thank you a reader can give a writer and put my review on goodreads.
    Just last week I won Margaret Mallory’s latest The Chieftain. Never read a Highlander book before so I figured I would hate it – wrong! It’s the last book in a set of four, so three books will be purchased from me because of the one book.
    My point – I have none – KIDDING! – I think it’s important for the reader to mention what the authors do for their fans, how to find their books cheap or free, and if you were satisfied with spending your time with their characters. All types of media boils down to word-of-mouth some are just more formal.

    • Good point, Mia. Free giveaways by quality authors definitely work. I think the key is the quality of work being given away. It either has to be top-notch or compelling enough to catch on, a la Fifty Shades.

      Congratulations on winning a book! I never seem to do that. :-/

  3. I have discovered several authors I love – including Barbara Samuel and Margaret Mallory – after reading one of their books that was offered for free on Kindle. I now buy their books. So the promotional effort obviously paid off for them…and me!

    • Nice! I’ve snagged a few shorts by my favorite authors for free. Christmas-time seems to be a bonanza for freebie deal.

      I’m fascinated by the unknowns who publish freebies and get noticed. It’s a crowded freebie landscape out there.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Hi, Joanna,
    Yes, I do pick up books when they’re free. Interestingly, I don’t “shop” on my Nook that often, and I don’t have a Kindle (although my daughter does, and I’m thinking of getting one). The only way I know about free books is because authors tell me about them on Facebook…sooo, Facebook does help to market, even if it is only letting readers like me know of a free book offer. Also, as Mia pointed out, I’ve actually won several books on authors’ Facebook or blog contests lately, so again, Facebook has helped promote.

    Like Jenna, I have a lot of books I either won or downloaded for free, that I have yet to read. I am sure I will find new authors to like after reading them, and then, yes, I will be inclined to buy their other books.

    Being a writer, I follow a lot of writers on Facebook. Those authors that are constantly on, sharing a laugh or starting a conversation, are authors whose names stick in my brain. I may be in the minority, but when I’m perusing books on the shelf at Target, I am definitely more likely to pick up books by authors whose names I at least recognize.

    It is certainly a hot conversation right now, traditional vs. self-publishing. As you said, publishing is evolving on a daily basis right now. I still hope to experience the thrill of having my first traditionally-published novel arrive on my doorstep via that big brown truck.


    • Interesting that Facebook has become a resource for you, Jaye. I admit, I don’t participate/check Facebook as often as I should. Sounds like I’m missing out!

      And man, I would love that big brown truck, too! I think it takes time to build a following. We’ll get there one day!

  5. RoseAnn DeFranco

     /  March 23, 2013

    Great post and timely! I read through all the comments so I’m fantasizing about the big brown truck while writing this. You paint a beautiful image, Jaye, growing more elusive in this digital age.

    When it comes to freebies I usually buy (and read!) books that are offered free for a limited time by an author I’m interested in. For an untested author, if the summary catches my attention I’ll check to see if they have other books out there before investing my time.

    I love getting free samples sent to my kindle and then make a purchase after reading the sample. I’ve found some great authors/books that way and saved some money on books that fail to impress as well.

    Love the discussion!

    • Oh, the free sample idea is a good one. Read a chapter for free to see if you like it and then make the purchase. I always forget about that.

      I also use Lendle.me and BookLending.com for free books. (Amazon lending program) And if you have Amazon Prime, you can get x1 free lend a month right through Amazon.

  6. Hi Joanna. Excellent post and video clip. I am somewhat cautious to buy free books from authors I’ve never heard of or read. On the other hand, there’s my mom who only started reading romance within the past couple years. She’s always downloading the free Friday books onto her Nook. Every week she’ll ask if I’ve bought xxx book. Most times I don’t because I don’t know the author. Once, she unknowingly got 2 erotic fiction books. Well, actually, my dad unknowingly did this on her behalf. It was funny because she doesn’t read these type of books-at least that’s what she tells me :-). But this week, I got a book from Grace Burrows, who I’ve heard of but never read. So I downloaded it.

    I expect quality, even when it’s free. I see it as a platform for the author to build new readers by getting them hooked into their characters and their world. Marie Force does this with the first book in both her McCarthy’s of Gansett Island, Treading Water, and Fatal Series. Shannon Stacey recently did this as well with her Kowalski series. I take advice from writers and readers to recommend books and use the reviews to help guide me, along with a good back cover copy. Goodreads, Twitter, and even B&N and Amazon are good sources to get reviews when I’m not familiar with an author.

  7. I also expect quality, even when its free–but I fear that’s not always what you get. More often than not, it’s been thrown up on amazon almost as a dare.

    I love that your mom is getting into the digital titles. Just tell her to pass those erotic stories my way. 🙂

  1. Musings on Publishing Trends » Joanna Shupe

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