Riding The Freeway To Heaven – Alison Pensy

Yes, it’s another split-shift Sunday. You may think I’m here at MWi writing this, but in reality I’m over at the Writers’ Guide 2 E-publishing writing that.

Today at WG2E the post is called Get A Grip! You’re Not Six Anymore! and is a shout-out to all those of you still on the fence about going solo.

Here at MWi, just to ram home the point that being self-pubbed won’t bring you overnight success, fame and wealth, is Alison Pensy.

Alison hasn’t made the NYT best-seller list yet and doesn’t own a private jet.

But despite giving away books for free she has made more than the average advance being dished out by the gatekeepers, and is loving life as an indie.

Here’s Alison:

Firstly I would like to thank Mark for inviting me here today.  I’m hoping I can spread some inspiration around to those of you who may still have doubts about self-publishing, or those of you who have self-published but are still having doubts.

It has been a dream of mine, and I’m sure of everyone reading this, to be a best-selling author.

My publishing journey started in November 2008.  I completed my 1st novel and was sure The Amulet was going to be the next bestseller.  My beta readers loved it, so how could it not be? J  Oh, the naivety of being a debut novelist!

I started querying with confidence and, although I had numerous requests for partials and full manuscripts, the replies were all the same. “You’re a strong writer, but…”

Around 50 rejections and 6 months later I decided to take matters into my own hands.  If I was to achieve best-sellerdom, before my ashes were spread across the countryside, I better get this ball rolling myself.  It wasn’t an easy decision but it’s one I am now pleased I made.

I self-published.  Still confident that I was to be the next big name in YA Urban Fantasy.  I mean, Christopher Paolini did it, why couldn’t I?  People just had to find the book, how hard could that be?

One and half years later I had received exactly 2 royalty checks. One for $11 (from Smashwords) and one for $10 (from Amazon).  Obscurity was my middle name, despite religiously following all the advice I could find in books and blogs about getting my name out there.

I started my own blog, but after a year I was still writing to myself, so I stopped.  I set up a website, I had a Facebook page, and I even tried Twitter, although I’m still not 100% sure I understand it.  I admit, at this point, I was starting to get a little disheartened.  Oh, all right then, A LOT disheartened.

Then something shifted.  I released the 2nd book in the series, even though virtually no one had bought the 1st one.  The Emerald Staff came out late April 2011 and I decided to try what a lot of other authors do and run the 1st book as a free promo on Kindle.  I had to put it free everywhere else first and hope Amazon would match it.

About two weeks later, in mid May, I received an e-mail from Amazon telling me their internet bots had discovered my book was free everywhere else on the Net and, not to be outdone, they were going to match it, and this would take effect within 24 hours.  Well, that wasn’t their exact verbiage, but you get the gist.

I cheered.  I heaved a sigh of relief.

The next day I thought I would check to see if my book had moved at all.  Maybe it had moved from its position of around #80,000 in the listings, to, say, #79,000.  We can all dream, right?

I nearly fell off my chair.

It had moved all right, to #22 on the free Bestseller list!!!  The day after that, it hit #14 on the free Bestseller list and #1 on the Children’s (free) Bestseller list, where it stayed for 3 days in the US and the UK!!!

To be honest, I am still baffled how so many people found a book that was languishing in total obscurity and pushed it into the top 20 almost overnight, but they did. Because of this, The Emerald Staff debuted a week later at #25 on the Children’s Hot New Releases list and made it into the top 100 Children’s Bestseller list.  Yay, I was now officially a best-selling author!

In 3 weeks over 28,000 people had downloaded The Amulet and that’s just on Amazon.  Obviously, I am not seeing any royalties from those downloads BUT the exposure I’m getting is priceless, and my new readers must be enjoying the story because sales of The Emerald Staff started coming in steadily every day.

That was four months ago.  The Amulet is still in the top 100 (free) Children’s bestseller list and has upwards of 50,000 downloads.  The Emerald Staff has sold over 3,000 copies at $2.99.  Bearing in mind the average advance for a debut author is $5,000 split into 3 payments that you share with your agent, I have already earned out that amount and sales continue daily.

Thanks to Amazon and digital publishing, the playing field has been leveled.  It’s not hidden on the bottom shelf at the back of the store, spine out, where there is no hope of anyone finding it.  The readers, not the publishers, are deciding what they “pick off the virtual shelf” and read.

Even though I had a slow start, and lots of self-doubt, momentum eventually picked up.  I think having two books helped a lot.  I have read several series where the 1st book was free and I bought the rest.  If this is an option, it may be worth considering.

Right now, though. I am glad I got rejected by those agents, I’m glad I have total control over my work, I’m glad I get to connect with readers, and most of all I’m glad that I realized my dream of becoming a best-selling author.  Maybe not on the coveted NYT Bestseller list, but you know, I’m not quite sure how coveted that is anymore.

Alison, thanks so much for sharing your story.

Alison’s website can be found here.

Alison’s blog can be found here.

To buy the books, click on the links in her post above.

* * *

So how about you guys? Have you tried giving away your books to build sales?

It sounds counter-intuitive, I know. How on Earth can you earn a living giving your work away? Yet time and time again we are hearing success stories based on this strategy.

Because life is all about give and take.

Bottom line is, most of the people who download your stuff for free would never have heard of you or bought from you otherwise. But once they have, and they enjoy your work, they then go and buy the rest, and stay with you for the rest of your writing  journey.

Giving your work away is one way of reaching out to, and connecting with, new readers.









  1. Thanks to Alison for sharing her story. Making a lead-in book free seems to be an increasingly common (and successful) strategy. I guess with all strategies, it won’t work unless you have a good book to begin with, so congratulations to Alison for taking a risk, sticking with it, thinking outside the box, and adding zeroes to those royalty checks as a result.

    I have toyed with “free” a little myself, and I think you will get best results if it is part of a clearly defined strategy. I made the PDF of my last book as a free download. That enabled people to try before they purchased, but also (cue devious cackle) prevented easy Kindle reading. I also had a donate button. At the same time it was on-sale for $2.99 in all the usual places. Some thought that strategy would cannibalize my sales. It had quite the opposite effect, almost cracking the Top 1000 (for a NF book!) immediately on release, and nearly again later in the month. Many of the emails I received were from readers who tried the free PDF first then decided to either splash out for the Kindle version or gift it to someone else.

    Other writers I know have made a prequel novella free to attract people to a novel, or the first in a series, or a single short story from a collection. Once it’s part of a strategy, then free really can make you money.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Dave.

      I’m intrigued by the idea of putting out a full length novel for free and inviting those who enjoyed it to donate.

      Looking at the UK Kindle charts its clear some books are using the free charts to their advantage. I can think of several titles which began life on KIndle Free, then disappeared and emerged days later as top 100 paid titles on Kindle, then when they dropped out of the top 100 were made free again.

      These authors seem adept at getting their free version to reappear on Amazon very quickly, and suggests there is more to it than simply reporting a free version out there and hoping Amazon will price match.

      • Mark – I think Amazon (and their bots) react quicker to reported lower prices on other vendors. This is where those of us using Smashwords to get into B&N have one teeny advantage. My hunch is that using Smashwords to make your price free on Barnes & Noble will get Amazon moving quicker than, say, Kobo or Sony.

  2. Hi, Alison! Thank you so much for letting me in on your experience. I’ve never put any of my books for free…..yet….This is something I think every self published author has been toying with lately. From what I can gather, it seems to be the first book in a series that authors will make free in hopes that the strategic move will work and like your readers and you, buy the next books.

    I have three series that I’m working on. The first novel in two of the series are out, and doing well. But I still toy with the idea of making one of those free when the second one comes out. Like any good business person, you never count anyting out. You have to be open minded in the self publishing world.

    • Good to see you here, Tonya. As per DD’s comments over a WG2E the free strategy seems to be working well for her too.

    • Thanks, Tonya.

      Your books are selling so well, though. In all honesty I did this out of desperation. I was so disheartened by not moving any books in 1 1/2 years that it was pretty much a last ditch attempt at seeing if I was supposed to be writing at all.

      If I had sales like you, it probably wouldn’t have crossed my mind to put it out for free. PS. Loved Splitsville.com and left you a review 🙂

    • Jim Bronyaur
    • September 18th, 2011

    A few key points here…

    Free seems to work in two cases. (1) series and (2) when the author has a lot of books out

    I’ve seen authors put their debut for free, get a jump on the listings, but then nothing… you need to have books out there for people to buy.

    The series idea is great because if you’ve done your job as an author, you’ll have the reader hooked in Book One. And with Book Two just sitting there… oh yeah, here comes the sales! 😉

    I haven’t played with free so much yet, mostly because my series aren’t ready and my list of novels isn’t large enough. I’ve tinkered in my brain with some ideas for free, for specials, sales, deals, etc. when it comes to series and multiple books.

    But to Alison – congrats! You’ve stuck it out and look at the success now. Hopefully a lot of other authors read this and understand that it does take time. Now, I must run off and write some more books. 🙂

    • Making a first book a givaway is something even a few mainstream publishers are doing; if you go to the Baen Books website you’ll find that several of their long-running series have free downloads of their launching stories. And why not, when it costs the writer/publisher nothing to introduce the reader to their works? I’m thrilled for your success.

        • Jim Bronyaur
        • September 18th, 2011

        Very true George, nothing states advertising like a free book. And it makes sense if it’s a series. The author’s job is to make the readers want the next book or books. People also price tier… such as releasing book two for $2.99 and making book one for $0.99. I believe that’s what Amanda Hocking did and helped with her sales.

    • Good luck with yours when the time is right, Jim.

      What intrigues me with Alison is thst she seems to have been discovered and prmoted in the free charts pretty much overnight, with no effort to let the world know.

      I guess there are a lot of readers who just trawl the free charts (and why not!) and if the genre is right and the cover and blurb work, what;s to lose?

      It’s a strategy we are toying with at the moment.

    • I agree, Jim. This would only work if you have 2 of more books. Unless, of course, you are only doing it for the fun of it and did not intend to make any money from it. I don’t think that applies to many authors.

  3. Jim – when I released the free version of my book in PDF form, I did so under a Creative Commons License. This meant people were free to copy, print, email, download, and share the PDF version any way they liked. They could even put it up for download on their own sites. They were only restrictions in the license were that I had to be credited as the author, they weren’t allowed to amend it in any way, and they weren’t allowed to profit from it.

    This enabled the book to spread extremely widely, reaching a much larger group than I could have had on my own. The book contains links to all my other work (and that of my contributors), links to the Kindle version, and a PayPal donation link. I’ve racked up nearly $200 in donations alone, and I am 100% certain that it was a huge driver of sales of the paid version. Also, it has certainly gotten my name out there.

    I’m not certain that I will do it for my next release, but it’s something to consider, and I will certainly do this for some stuff, taking it on a project by project basis.

    • Jim Bronyaur
    • September 18th, 2011

    Wow David, that’s pretty smart – and effective obviously.

    I’ve thought about offering coupon codes in series… such as if someone buys the second book, there’s a code for the first book, etc. But the problem is with Amazon… they don’t do coupons. I understand we have to look beyond one vendor but I’m not sure how the general reader feels about Smashwords.

    Amazon is so handy with storing credit card data and delivery.

    I really wish Amazon would expand that part of their business to work with authors to offer deals for returning customers, etc. But maybe in time.

    • “I understand we have to look beyond one vendor but I’m not sure how the general reader feels about Smashwords.”

      That’s something we wonder too. I’ll out that point to Smashwords founder Mark Coker when he joins us on MWi (hopefully next month).

  4. Amazon is very wary of keeping a wall between us and the customers so we all don’t go and do a Pottermore.

    Having said that, there are some things they could do while retaining that wall that would benefit everyone – like emailing purchasers of your book that you have a new one out, or even just letting customers “watch” an author so they get pinged when a book is released.

    Little things like that would really help.

  5. Jim – I guess the trick is to get readers on your mailing list. Put a link in the back of your books and on your blog. Then you can capture them, market directly to them, have a nice new release bump on opening day to get in those genre bestseller lists, offer them bundled content, discounts, competitions, the works….

    • Very true, and something authors should think about sooner rather than later.

      We started out with no strategy and no great ideas like having a mailing lists. When we look back at all the reader contact we had and never thought to keep track of…

      I’m really surprised Amazon haven’t thought already of emailing previous buyers when an author has a new book out. It would be hugely beneficial to both author and Amazon. I wonder if perhaps there are issues with anti-spam laws that are preventing that?

      • There would be no issue with spam laws if they made it “opt in” where the reader elects to “follow” and author and be notified of new releases.

        Amazon are probably covered anyway by the ToCs – I got an email from Amazon recently saying an author had uploaded a corrected version of their novel after typos had been discovered, and I hadn’t elected to be informed of that.

    • Jim Bronyaur
    • September 18th, 2011

    Very true David. Find your own avenues, right? 🙂

    I’m actually working on a new mailing list/newsletter concept. I’m taking four days off this week to finish a book and work on the newsletter idea.

    Let me ask you – is there any mailing list company or plugin, etc. that you use or prefer? I have a generic form mail vendor I deal with, which is fine, but I wasn’t sure if there was something a little more elaborate out there. And cost effective.

  6. I checked out lots of them, and for me, MailChimp wins hands down. You can make super-professional looking newsletters, you get all sorts of metrics on how clicked what, when, and where.

    It’s extremely powerful, looks great, you can link it up automatically with your blog, and best of all? It’s free.

    • Jim Bronyaur
    • September 18th, 2011

    How about that?! Thanks David, you’re always a life saver. The company I’ve been using charges a very small fee but it’s only a form mail site. They take the information and email it to you, nothing else.

    Someday, my friend, I shall buy you a beer.

    • Jim Bronyaur
    • September 18th, 2011

    haha! Cheers then! 😉

    • gerrymccullough
    • September 18th, 2011

    Lots to think about here. Thanks for sharing your story, Alison. I still wonder about the ‘free’ idea. It would be good to know other statistics – but you’ve certainly given me a clear picture of how it worked for you. I just wonder if putting up the second book would have worked anyway, even without the first being free? People seem to say that with a second book the sales increase geometrically, and so do the sales of the first as well.

    • I think the real benefit of the free book, Gerry, is reaching readers who would not otherwise be reading you in the first place. But hopefully once they’ve been tempted they’ll keep coming back.

      A bonus with the Kindle free charts is that reviews accumulated while free are carried over into the paid charts, so free can be a great way of getting quick reviews.

  7. Alison, thanks so much for sharing your story and a big CONGRATS on your success. It’s tales like this that make you want to stick your tongue out at all those agents that rejected you and chant, “nahnahnahnahnahnah!” 😉

    • Thanks, Shea.

      I do kinda feel like sticking my tongue out, but not too far. I may need one in the future when I get a movie deal 🙂 Okay, that’s another dream for another day.

  8. Exactly, Shea. And check out DD Scott’s comments over at WG2E coz it looks like she’s about to do just that!

  9. Awesome post! And what an intriguing idea – selling books for free works after all then? o_O

    • Fear not. Ms Charley. When we release St. Mallory’s Forever! we’ll be able to charge rip-off trad pub prices and people will still by gazillions just coz it’s got you two on the cover. 🙂

        • Miriam
        • September 20th, 2011

        Hey, I’m not a cover kind of person….

  10. Alison, Thanks for sharing your story. It’s intriguing to see what works for a self-published author. I would also say that part of your demographic of reader of young adults also contributes to your success with this strategy and agree with others that have said a series helps with this as well.

    For me, my demographic of women’s fiction readers seem less price sensitive. I move “some” books at 99 cents, but not enough to keep it there. The sales trickle in for both novels (1 – 2 a day) somewhat steadily at $4.99 (I follow Dean Wesley Smith’s theory most of the time). Of course, I would like to sell more. Perhaps, when I have a third novel, I’ll experiment with what you are experiencing with the “free” factor. Again, thanks for sharing!

    • The demographic issue is an interesting one, Katherine.

      We opted for cheap and cheerful simply because, first time round we were complete unknowns with an unknown title. Second time round we opted cheap again because we felt it might be viewed as profiteering if we raised prices significantly for our second book.

      • Yes, the profiteering question plays into it; doesn’t it? Then, there’s the other side of it. I have a number of readers who gladly pay $15.99 each for the printed (trade paperback) versions, so I try to balance out the pricing for the e-book version.
        However, in my experience, there is a complete division between these two types of readers: print versus e-book readers. Some look at me in a daze when I ask if they have an e-reader. (ha!)

        I don’t know. Pricing drives me crazy pretty much all the time. I just want readers to find my work so the free strategy seems like something worth looking at based on the success I hear about.

        • Thanks, Katherine.

          I toyed with several prices on my 1st book, ending with 99c and even then got virtually no sales. It really is a tricky one.

          One thing that surprises me about my demograhpic is that it seems only a minority of my readers are the intended audience. Most of them range from their twenties to their sixties. I even have several male “fans” who have written to me to tell me how much they love the stories. That blew me away because they were written for teenage girls.

          • Good point, Alison. Well written YA can reach way beyond its target audience, and as with erotica (not to compare the two in any other way!) the ability to read a book wihout everyone else knowing what it is does appear to help sales.

            What really separates YA from children’s fiction is how the writer addresses the reader. Far tpoo many children’s and YA authors assume their readers are retaded in some way.

            Harry Potter is a classic example of not talking down to your readers while still giving them all the fun and enjoyment of childhood literature.

  11. Great story, Alison!

    I just wrote about my Ridin’ The Free-Way Experiment too on our beloved WG2E:


    I think by “giving” to readers first in the form of a Free Ebook, you are treating them with a goodwill welcome into your book’s world. What a great way to not only show you’re confident in your own work, but also willing to give a bunch of reader luuuvv first, before you receive it.

    You’ve got to give – and pay it forward first – in order to receive.

    Well done, Girlfriend!

    • Well said, DD.

      Pay it forward seems a concept pretty aien to the trad pub world, even though Catherine Ryan Hyde’s wonderful book was itself trad published.

    • That’s a great way to put it DD. So glad your experiment is working well too!

    • Thanks, DD. Anyone who hasn’t seen DD’s latest figures needs to check out the comments on my post over at WG2E on Sunday.

      What an eye opener!

  12. Thank you, Allison, for sharing your indie route. Your encouragement is much appreciated and needed. As you chop your way through the gatekeeper’s jungle, you blaze a trail for many of us. Thank you and good sales!

    • Thanks for joining us again, Meb.

      You’re right, people like Alison are indeed trail-blazing for the rest of us.

    • Thanks, Meb. It has been somewhat of a whirlwind, that’s for sure. The problem I’m dealing with now is the expectation of readers who love the stories. I’m now terrified of letting them down.

  13. I’ve heard much about free promotion before but like Mr. Bronyaur, it seemed like numbers didn’t matter if they couldn’t be converted to cash. However, after reading what Ms. Pensy generously shared, I’ll definitely have to try this some time. Not with my first novel (maybe) but perhaps I’ll do it to my first novel after my second one comes out.

    Also, it’s not just the independent writers who occasionally release free books and get some success from it. Even some of the big league hitters such as Neil Gaiman (with American Gods) have done it successfully. Or Stephen King using his honor pay system with The Plant (arguably the first major e-book). Of course, independent writer’s don’t have to get permission from publishers to take marketing risks.

    I found it kind of odd though that you used a freeway as a metaphor. But maybe freeways are much less congested in the UK. Where I am (California) the freeway would be a metaphor for a book that averages one star and only sells five copies.

    “”My friends, we have the chance to become Big Publishing’s worst nightmare.” -Stephen King when independently publishing The Plant back in 2000 http://partners.nytimes.com/library/magazine/home/20000813mag-king.html

    • Thanks for that, Andrew.

      Most presient of Stephen King, though Big Publishing’s worst nightmare now must surely be JK Rowling sacking her publishers and going indie.

      I wonder if Stephen King will go the same route at some stage.

  14. Hello, everyone. I’m sorry I’m late for my own party. Been up since the crack of dawn to the setting sun doing construction. Gotta get it done when I can get the help 🙂

    Thank you for all your kind comments. I’m glad I was able to share something inspirational.

    I forgot to add in my blog (although I did ramble on a bit as it was) that sometimes fate deals you a wonderful hand when you least expect it and most need/want it.

    If it wasn’t for Nathan Bransford making me ‘comment of the week’ I would never had met Mark, who contacted me and asked me if i’d like to do a guest appearance on his blog. Consquently I started following his blog and met the equally awesome peeps at WG2E and the amazing Anne R Allen to name but a few, all right here. All of whom have given me tons of inspiration, support and advice. I feel like I have found the place I needed to be to move my writing career in the right direction.

    I doubt Nathan has any idea what he did for me that day.

    Thanks again, Mark for hosting me and sorry I was late in responding to everyone.

  15. Alison, I had no idea that it was Nathan who got this whole thing rolling for you. He’s been incredibly helpful to me, too. And thanks for the shout-out. We have a pretty amazing circle of writers here on MWI, don’t we? Mark has created a hub for some of the top international indie writers. Pretty cool place to be.

    Great post, and I love how you took a leap and made it all happen. I hope to do that soon. In fact, I just found out that the ebook of Food of Love is supposed to be available on Amazon.com in the next 12 hours! Yikes. I thought I had a month for promotion, and the print book won’t be available until then, but the ebook is going to be there today!

    It’s $2.99, not free, and I’m not exactly self-pubbing, since I am with a micropress called “Popcorn Press.” But it’s way closer to indie than it is to Big Six.

    So as of today, I’m joining all of you, having a book out there. Were you all terrified on the first day that nobody would every buy one?

    • Hi, Anne. Congrats on the ebook release of your book. It’s wonderful that your publisher is keeping within the range of other indie books. That will hopefully spur on your sales. Good Luck!!

      I just can’t bring myself to pay $10 for a tradi pubbed ebook anymore, espcially when there are so many amazing books to chose from at such low prices. Just the peeps here alone will keep me in reading material for years to come.

      I recently read one of Tonya’s (Splitsville.com), only yesterday finished Anathema by Megg Jensen (one of Mark’s other guests) and have got one of D.D’s lined up in my kindle. I have my eye on yours and some of Sibel’s too. I’m even thinking about reading completely “out of my box” and getting Snow White. Don’t think I’d do very well with Sugar and Spice, I’m a right wimp when it comes to dark and realistic.

      Looking forward to reading St Mallory’s when that comes out, though. Phew, with that kind of choice who needs to be paying tradi pubbed prices to get a good story.

      I agree with you, this is a pretty cool place to hang out 🙂

    • First day? For the first three months we thought no-one would ever buy one!

  16. Alison, I have to admit I’m with you on dark realism. I can’t deal with putting those images in my head. I’m always turning off the TV when the crimes against kids happen. I just wimp out. But I know those have to be some fantastic books. You’re right. Once I get my Kindle, if I only read books by Friends of Mark, I’ll still have all the books I need. (And lots are chick lit–my favorite. I like to laugh.)

    And Big 6 ebooks are actually going UP in price. Some cost more than the hardback. What are these people thinking?

    My book isn’t up yet. So of course I’m checking every five minutes.

    • @ Anne and Alison both – Sugar & Spice is not the easiest book to read, but certainly isn’t the standard gory slasher serial killer stuff. More an attack on the failings of the child protection systems to confront the real issue behind child abuse – why some people are attracted to children.

      It’s the in-depth research and exploration of the minds of those people that sets this apart, and has upset a few but been appreciated by many for daring to be different..

      Snow White has a degree of adult themes too, but far less serious, and very different from Sugar & Spice.

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