9 Ways To Unleash The Power of Free In 2021

Authors are giving away more stuff than ever before: permafree books, reader magnets, and ARCs are just the tip of the iceberg. What’s going on? Should you jump on the free train? Does any of this stuff generate money? Let’s break it down.

The self-publishing landscape today looks very different from when I started ten years ago, that heady time when ebooks first exploded in popularity.

But some things are suddenly feeling quite similar. The impact of the pandemic and lockdowns has seen a lot of economic change occur in a short space of time. With an increase in online purchasing for painfully obvious reasons.

That also means there are lots of new ebook consumers up for grabs.

Just like in that first wave of 2010/2011, readers today respond well to free offers and discounts. Many people have less disposable income right now – or worry about having less tomorrow. Freebies also look particularly enticing when you have a new device to fill with books.

Here are nine ways to unleash the power of free in 2021, so that you can tap into this surge of new readers, build your audience, and make more money too. Yes, all these freehunters can be more than happy to pay for things… if you hook them.

Free Promotions

The easiest and most obvious way to tap into the power of free is to run a free promo. Although it’s not quite as straightforward as it looks.

On non-Amazon retailers, you simply set the price to zero, or schedule your price of $0.00 for the date you wish the promotion to start. However, Amazon doesn’t let you set books free directly. You must wait for it to go free one one of the other retailers, and then ask KDP to price match.

The exception to that is if you are enrolled in KDP Select and exclusive to Amazon. Then you can do this easily and automatically via a Kindle Free Promotion, but there are a bunch of restrictions.

If you are a wide author, the main logic behind a free promotion is to drive sales to your other books. If you are exclusive to Amazon, you get that benefit, plus the gravy of Kindle Unlimited page reads – which can spike after a free promotion, if you rack up enough downloads.

In either case, it’s strongly recommended that you advertise your free deal to have any impact. There are a range of effective and affordable book promo sites where you can pimp your freebie.

My list is recommend book promotion sites is heavily curated and right up to date, and has all sorts of options depending on your budget.

One quick tip: start planning about thirty days out so you have the full suite of recommended sites to choose from.

curated list of the very best book promo sites in 2021

Permafree

New authors can sometimes be wary at the thought of doing a free promotion. And aghast at the suggestion that they might give a book away for free permanently.

However, it’s one of the easiest and cheapest ways of getting eyes on your work in a crowded marketplace. And it’s especially powerful at hooking readers on a character whose adventures play out over multiple books.

A permanently free – or “permafree” – series opener is an established and effective ebook pricing strategy. One that is particularly popular with wide authors.

Of course, this strategy won’t pay out unless you actually have more books to sell. But if you have written a series or you are planning one – which you really should, if you want to make money – then making the first book permafree is something you could consider.

Authors don’t usually make Book 1 free from the get-go, in case that thought gives you hives. Often they will launch at full price. Then as more books come out in the series, they drop the price of Book 1. Some authors swear by a 99¢ series opener, whereas others will rave about free.

No need to sweat this decision. You can experiment.

Important note: if you are too fixated on individual price points (e.g. “my book is worth more than a coffee”) then you could be missing out on the huge boost in overall income that a cheap series opener can deliver.

Experimenting, and being flexible, is the key to a savvy ebook pricing strategy. And in 2021 when free offers are hotter than ever, having a permafree book can dramatically expand your audience. Which can dramatically boost your income as readers devour your entire series.

If you are worried about self-publishers or cheap books destroying the publishing industry, then read this superb post from Ed Robertson on how our supposed bargain basement pricing is perfectly in line with historical paperback prices. Which led to a huge expansion in reading, of course.

Reader Magnet

A reader magnet is a free bonus which encourages readers to sign up to your newsletter. Usually it’s a free story or book, but it can be anything really. Some authors have gotten extremely creative here. Readers love them too — find them magnetic, even.

But to really attract readers in great numbers, consider that the most powerful magnets share two key characteristics. They are enticing, and they are exclusive.

How to make a reader magnet enticing

First the enticing part: a short story will do, a novella will more than suffice, but a full book is the most attractive to readers — all other things being equal, of course. But the actual length of the reader magnet doesn’t matter as much as tying it closely to your main series, the world you write in, or one of your popular characters.

Remember that a magnet has a twin role: attracting new-to-you readers and encouraging existing ones to sign-up.

If you tie the magnet closely to the universe of your books it will handle both jobs pretty well. Existing readers will always want to spend more time in the worlds you have lovingly created. (Or non-fiction readers will always want more key insights and practical takeaways on your area of expertise.) And then new-to-you readers who like your magnet will be very interested in more adventures featuring the same characters or settings.

Some authors go further again and make two reader magnets – one for existing readers and one for totally fresh ones. It can be a particularly effective strategy if you have lots of shorter pieces laying around that you don’t know what to do with. And a very savvy one if you are using Facebook ads to aggressively grow your mailing list.

Why your reader magnet should be exclusive

And now the exclusive part: make signing up to your list the only place readers can get this story. Even for money! Don’t sell it on Amazon, or anywhere else for that matter.

Enticing… and exclusive. Put those two together, and you have one powerful reader magnet.

Make sure to have an optimized sign-up page on your website dangling your magnet. Then advertise this in the front and the back of your books, and your social channels.

There are more resources on email at the end of this post. But in case you are wondering, I use MailerLite to manage my newsletter (affiliate link). And I use BookFunnel to distribute my reader magnet.

If you want to see how all that works in practice, feel free to sign up to my marketing newsletter. You will see my sign-up page, my welcome sequence, how I dole out my magnet. Plus you’ll get free marketing advice every Friday if you decide to stick around. (No hard feelings if you don’t.)

ARCs

Advanced Review Copies or ARCs is the name for the practice of distributing free copies of your upcoming release to a select group of readers — usually to garner reviews but sometimes to generate buzz.

It’s a long-standing practice in the print-focused world of traditional publishing. And something that has really come into its own in the more digital world of self-publishing, thanks to it’s low cost and effectiveness in generating reviews especially.

Authors sometimes worry that giving out ARCs will cannibalize launch sales among their most passionate readers (and most likely buyers). But they should zoom back a little. Reviews are worth more than sales, especially during launch week when your book has no reviews but extra visibility. Besides, you only need to give out a handful of ARCs really.

Here’s the kicker: often the recipients of ARCs are the kind of loyal fans who buy the book anyway to support you — they want more books by you, remember? — and also champion your work to further readers as well.

I don’t particularly worry about book piracy myself. But if that is a concern of yours, you can gift books securely via BookFunnel – which is just one of the awesome add-on features you will get as part of your subscription.

Ugh: jargon! Okay, so a cookie is just the nickname for any freebie doled out to a mailing list subscriber — terminology which will be familiar to anyone who has read Newsletter Ninja. Reader magnets are a type of cookie, for example.

A re-engagement cookie is a freebie whose aim is to turn a reader’s head when they are eyeing the exit. Feel free to explore Newsletter Ninja if you want to get into the mechanics. In short though, you need to segment out readers who are terminally disengaged – i.e. not opening or clicking anything in your newsletters for ages. Ask them if they want to stay or go, and dangle the cookie as a reward.

They get a free story, you get a more engaged list — a leaner one too, after you have trimmed those who have no interest in being there. And really, if someone doesn’t want a freebie from you, they are highly unlikely to ever buy anything in the future.

There’s little point keeping them — they only drag down the performance of your list, and can ultimately affect your overall deliverability, meaning the people who actually want your newsletters can stop receiving them.

Relationships take work. Not every reader-story has a happy ending, but sometimes you can spice things up with a well-timed cookie.

Short stories can be perfect for the this job, especially if you have some gathering cyberdust on your hard drive.

BTW, if you have several such stories you might want to check out my primer on publishing short stories – which goes through the many ways you can publish them, but also how you can use them for marketing purposes.

Content Upgrade

This is where hyper-productive non-fiction authors can really shine, especially if they have a website like this one, and all sorts of content for their target audience to enjoy.

Content upgrades are context-specific reader magnets. An example might be this: imagine you wrote several books on financial planning. You might have a blog post on how to file your tax returns. A cool content upgrade you could offer at the bottom of that post might be a tax calculator.

And then if you had another blog post about controlling costs, you might offer a content upgrade specific to that post – for example a short guide to allowable business expenses.

Many readers in that target market would happily fork over their deets for either of those freebies. Tailoring freebies to the context can be very powerful indeed.

Do this on several of your most trafficked posts and your list will get a tremendous boost.

Advanced Preview

Authors have tried generating interest in upcoming books by publishing previews directly on Amazon — but it’s a risky game. Even huge household names with loyal fanbases have incurred reader-ire with this approach, so tread very carefully indeed.

A safer way might be to avoid retailers altogether with this strategy, especially when it’s an open question how Amazon feels about the practice.

Instead, consider using your email list for this — somewhere you set the rules, and where there are less chances of reader misunderstandings (and no chance at all of angry one-star reviews!).

An advanced preview can function as a reader magnet, a general cookie for your list, or even a re-engagement cookie.

How might the latter work? Well, if life gets in the way and the next instalment in your series is delayed, some readers might become disengaged over time.

An exclusive sneak preview might be just the tonic which will convince them to hang around. Giving them just enough of a taste to keep them hooked on your product.

Public Beta

If the last idea gave you heebie-jeebies, you might want to head for the panic room right now because we’re about to turn things up to 11.

Some authors write with the door closed — which is fine; whatever works. But non-fiction authors in particular might be intrigued by the idea of a public beta: letting readers paw through your upcoming release… and pull it apart.

I appreciate this might be nightmare fuel for some authors, and I would never do it with fiction, personally. But it can be a very potent tactic.

I gave away over 10,000 copies of the first edition of Amazon Decoded. It was only available as a reader magnet at the time; you couldn’t buy it anywhere, even though it was a book which was in high demand. (Enticing and exclusive, remember?)

At the back of the book, I didn’t have a hooky CTA. Instead, I invited readers to share feedback with me directly and then used that to explicitly shape the second edition — which was release as a full-length book 18 months later. One with a price tag.

It was a very successful launch, made me a fair bit of money, and if the Amazon reviews are anything to go by, readers loved the content too. Perhaps because they felt involved in the process — because they genuinely were.

Readers got a better book for their troubles too, one they were more than happy to pay for.

This isn’t a new tactic at all. Software companies and games and various online services have been doing versions of this for years. And I vaguely remember Guy Kawasaki doing something similar several years ago with his bestselling author guide Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur.

However, I wanted to share my direct experience with this one because it is kind of crazy. And to assure that, with the right circumstances, it really can work.

Yes, advanced previews and public betas are different things

In case anyone wonders what the difference is between an advanced preview and a public beta, fair enough. Let me explain.

Advanced previews are giving people a glimpse of upcoming finished work, and the aim is to generate buzz or drive sign-ups to your list.

Public betas show unfinished stuff with the aim of incorporating feedback in the finished product, but can also generate buzz, sign-ups, or engagement as a happy side-effect.

Audio Magnet

This is where I might lose you.

It’s one thing to give away a book which you have labored over, you might reasonably object, and quite another to give away an audiobook which you have labored over… and possibly invested thousands of dollars in as well; audiobook production costs can be considerable.

However, that’s not quite what I’m suggesting.

Audio magnets are exactly what you might think: a free short story, novella, or book in audio format which is offered as a sign-up bonus.

Why might you want to do such a thing? Well, for all the same reasons you might have a reader magnet: namely to attract audiobook consumers to your list.

If you have invested in audiobook production, you will be seeking to repay those costs. Marketing audiobooks can be challenging — we simply don’t have the same tools and strategies are still developing. But the audiobook market is growing fast and can be extremely lucrative.

Like many of the marketing options starting to spring up for audio, this will probably work best if you have (a) paid for production and are not involved in royalty-share entanglements and (b) are not exclusive to ACX.

If you are fully free to play around with your audiobooks, then you have a freer hand marketing-wise and can explore audio magnets, building up an audio-specific mailing list (or an audio-focused segment of your existing list), and even many of the previous options on this list in audio form instead.

And if that has your mind whirring about building up an operation to sell audiobooks directly to your fans, then you should really read this post from BookFunnel.

Final Note From Dave:

I hope this post gave you some ideas, but also some confidence to use the power of free effectively and strategically.

It’s not about giving away the farm and then crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.

It most certainly is about coming up with new and creative ways to get readers to try your work, with the specific aim of converting them into lifelong paying customers.

A lot of the above ideas aim to drive more sign-ups to your mailing list, something that free offers are exceptionally good at. But to ensure you are making the most of your newsletter, check out these handy tips.

What about you? Do you use the power of free to grow your audience or generate future sales? Did this post give you any confidence or ideas? Let us know in the comments.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.