Barry Eisler on Discounting His Entire Backlist to 99 Cents

Hi everyone!  Today I’m happy to welcome Barry Eisler back to the blog.  If you’ve been paying any attention at all to publishing news lately, you already know about his fascinating publishing journey.  Barry started out traditionally published with his bestselling John Rain series.  Then, in 2011 he turned down a $500,000 deal from St. Martin’s press --  first to self publish, but then he then accepted a deal to publish the series with Amazon.  Since then, he’s continued be a leader and innovator in the digital transition.

About a week ago, Barry ran a special promotion where he offered his entire backlist for 99 cents.  As a fan, I thought it was awesome (and may or may not have dropped everything right then and there to run to Amazon).  As a writer,  I thought it was a really interesting strategy, and Barry graciously agreed to chat about the goals behind that promotion and how it went for him.

Great to have you back, Barry!  The last time you visited the blog, you’d just released The Detachment with Amazon Publishing.  Since then, quite a lot has happened.  Would you mind quickly catching us up?

Hi Livia, good to chat with you again and thanks for the invitation.  Let’s see, catching up... well, The Detachment earned out in less than two months, which was nice, and has sold a healthy six-figures worth of units since then.  I managed to get the rights reverted to my entire Putnam and Ballantine backlists, and have since repackaged and self-published those eight titles.  I’ve published a short story and a novella with Thomas & Mercer -- The Khmer Kill and London Twist -- and they’ve both been doing well.  And I’ll be turning in the new novel, a Rain prequel, this summer, to be published by T&M later this year.

So this past weekend, your entire backlist was available for 99 cents.  Can you tell us about the goals and reasoning behind this promotion?

I’ve done a couple of free promos of individual titles through KDP Select, advertising the sales using BookBub and EbookBooster, and the results were good -- the #1 free spot for my first novel, A Clean Kill in Tokyo, and the #2 slot for my second, A Lonely Resurrection.  I like the free promos because if things go well with the giveaway, the title in question tends to bounce back much higher in the paid store, with more visibility and more sales.  Possible shortcomings of the free promos, though, are:  (i) the people you’re initially reaching are by definition a demographic that is motivated to download books for free, and that might therefore be less interested in buying them; and (ii) people who get books for free are probably less motivated to read them, meaning fewer new customers and less word of mouth.  So I started wondering what would happen if I tried a 99-cent promo instead... and what would happen if instead of doing it for only one title, I did it for my entire backlist.

I mentioned the idea to Thomas & Mercer (one of the reasons I love working with Amazon is that they love to experiment).  They were game to drop the prices of all my T&M-published works during the same three days during which I wanted to run the sale of my self-published works, and they did some email promotion, too.  In the end, the only title that wasn’t 99 cents for the 72-hour sale was The Detachment, because that was slated for a separate promotion, which as it happens is going on right now.

The primary goal of the experiment was to move the rankings of the books higher to give them more visibility -- specifically, to get onto various sublists.  I didn’t expect to make more money during those three days themselves, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t, though I haven’t crunched the numbers and I’m not sure.

Now that promotion is over, how did it turn out?

I think the results were mixed.  On the one hand, all the books made it back onto all the subgroups they’re listed under -- Mysteries and Thrillers, Spy Stories and Tales of Intrigue, that sort of thing -- and at single-digit slots.  They also shot way up in the Kindle Store rankings overall (the title I promoted through Bookbub, Winner Take All, topped out at #57 in the Kindle Store -- not bad for a book that was first published in 2004).  But the benefits lasted only a few days, and in the ten days since the sale, my numbers have dropped back to more or less where they were beforehand.

On balance, though, I’m glad I did it.  The three days of dropping the price of my backlist from $3.99 to $0.99 cost me little if anything during the three days in question, and it’s really too soon to conclude there were no lasting benefits.  Certainly I reached hundreds of new readers, many of whom have already posted reviews (most of them positive, but not all... London Twist is (“pornograhic sputum?!”).  And it’s been my experience that the primary benefits of marketing exercises tend to be less tangible and longer-term than we might overall like.

FWIW, Joe Konrath did something similar for his entire backlist a month or so ago, and he seemed to get better and longer-lasting results than I did.  The difference could be due to a variety of factors; my guess is that primary among them is that Joe has three or four times the number of titles I do, and I think there’s a multiplier effect at work with these kinds of promos.  In fact, the multiplier effect was a big part of what I was going after:  “What if I advertise a single 99-cent title through BookBub, and customers then discover they can get all my titles for 99 cents?”

In fact, Joe was so pleased with the results of his across-the-board promotion that he’s doing something similar now, even offering his latest novel, Haunted House, for free.  It’ll be interesting to see how the latest experiment turns out -- so far, it seems to be going well.

In retrospect, I also think there were some things I could have done to optimize my results.  Better communicating the limited-time-only nature of the sale, for one; making people aware that it applied to the whole backlist, for another.  But on balance, I think the theory behind the experiment was sound, the results overall were good, and the lessons learned valuable.  Also, a lot of my fans loved it -- they were glad for the opportunity to acquire my entire oeuvre in digital for less than the price of a single paperback, and I think their enthusiastic mass purchases were a significant part of why the books shot up as high in the rankings as they did.

Ha! Pornographic sputum, huh? London Twist was actually my favorite work of yours, thus far. It’s the most tightly plotted, nuanced, and exciting piece of sputum I’ve ever read. :-)

That would make, hands-down, the best blurb I’ve ever seen. :D

Publishing London Twist has actually made for an interesting, albeit unintended, sociological experiment.  Some people were obviously just freaking out about the lesbian aspect, with one guy writing, “Eisler's usual good work. But I get a little bit tired of the social cheer leading for gays. I hear and read enough of that stuff already.”  By “social cheerleading,” he pretty obviously meant, “Acknowledging that gays exist and depicting them as fellow humans.”  Because, can you imagine someone making a comment like that about a straight character?  And he was far from the only one.  Society has come a long way on the homophobia front, but we’re clearly not all the way there yet.

Since we're on the subject of bad reviews, it’s been noted that *free* promotions often produce a larger proportion of 1 star customer reviews because people end up downloading it who wouldn’t usually read that genre, and then they trash it because it’s not what they usually like to read.  Did you notice any difference in the proportion of bad reviews between your free and 99 cent promotions?

I’ve read about that potential problem and the theory behind it makes sense to me.  I’ve read the customer reviews my books have received in the wake of promotions, and they might skew a little less favorably than is usually the case, but not so strongly so that I’ve noticed anything definite.  What I have noticed is that post-promotion reviews seem shorter.  You’re a brain scientist -- explain that one! :)

I'll start looking into question that right away :-)

I'm also curious -- I know you don’t have data to customer behavior at the individual level, but I’m curious as to whether you got any feel at all about buying patterns.  Do you feel like a lot of people were scooping up your entire backlist, or were most buying one or two?  And for the former case, do you worry about lost income from selling all your inventory at once at such a low price?

I heard from a lot of my existing readers on Facebook, Twitter, and my blog that they were vacuuming up the entire backlist.  They already had the books in paper, the explanation went, but at such a low price they couldn’t forgo the opportunity to get the whole series in digital, too.  I hadn’t been expecting this, but of course it makes perfect sense:  offer enough perceived value, and people will spend more money.  So that aspect of the sale feels like a huge win for everyone:  I reached a group of readers who wouldn’t otherwise have purchased my books in digital, and they got to buy the whole digital backlist for a ridiculously low price.

And because I only promoted one of the titles through BookBub but saw a huge lift during the sale for all eight novels, I don’t think my existing readers were alone in going for the plate-piling buffet option.  I can’t prove it, of course; Amazon did some advertising itself and there are various other elements that would render the experiment less than perfect for determining whether people were mostly buying one book or buying multiples, but yes, my sense was that quite a few people were buying more than one.  Which is what I expected -- it’s like when, back in the day, you would go into Borders expecting to buy a DVD, and you’d see they were doing a three-for-two sale.  You’d wind up buying twice what you’d originally planned on because of the additional perceived value (at least that’s what I used to do, and I figure I’m not so different from other consumers).  This is why one of the things I’ll want to do better next time is find ways to more clearly communicate that *all* these titles are on sale for a limited time only.  That way, no matter how a person finds her way into the sale, she’ll see it’s bigger than just the one title that brought her in.

BTW, one thing I’d like to see KDP offer authors is the ability to do three-for-two sales.  Very powerful tool (though, in fairness, it wasn’t enough to save Borders).

As for lost income, I don’t worry about it at all.  The digital marketplace is growing all the time, and the more people who are aware of my books, the more inroads I’ll continue to make into that expanding market.

In fact, in general I think one problem a lot of people (myself included) sometimes have in understanding the digital marketplace is that we try to approach it through an analog prism.  The analog world is characterized by finite shelf space, various either/or decisions, and a greater danger of cannibalization (though I think these limitations are exaggerated even in analog).  But I see far fewer such constraints in digital.  Which is why I not only don’t worry about piracy, fan fiction, free promotions, etc; I embrace them.  They all help increase my exposure in an expanding digital marketplace.

Sometime we’ll have to talk more about the tendency of the human mind toward false binaries.  I see a lot of it at work in publishing and I find it fascinating.  In fact, I think there’s usually more going on in the world than an either/or framework will allow you to see.

I’m actually reading a book now called Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman.  While it doesn’t directly address an either/or framework (Or at least, the parts I’ve read so far) it does offer some really interesting insight as to how people think and make decisions, and about how we are perhaps not as logical and careful as we think we are.  You might enjoy it.

Anyways, thank you so much for dropping by and sharing your experiences!  And now I’ll turn the floor over to commenters.  What have your experiences been like with promotions, either as a reader or a writer?

Hope you enjoyed this blog post!  To get regular updates from this blog, use one of the subscription options in the sidebar.  

Also, friend of the blog Roz Morris recently released her new writing guide Nail Your Novel:  Bring Your Characters to Life.   Here's the blurb.  Go check it out!  (Also, she quoted one of my unfortunate attempts to write realistic male characters in the book :-) )

How do you create characters who keep readers hooked? How do you write the opposite sex? Teenagers? Believable relationships? Historical characters? Enigmatic characters? Plausible antagonists and chilling villains? How do you understand a character whose life is totally unlike your own?

How do you write characters for dystopias? How do you make dialogue sing? When can you let the reader intuit what the characters are feeling and when should you spell it out?

I’ve mined 20 years’ worth of writing and critiquing experience to create this book. It contains all the pitfalls and sticky points for writers, laid out as a set of discussions that are easy to dip into. And it wouldn’t be a Nail Your Novel book without a good dose of games, exercises and questionnaires to help you populate a novel from scratch.

Whether you write a straightforward story-based genre or literary fiction, Bring Characters to Life will show you how to create people who enthrall readers – and make you want to tell stories.


  1. Very informative! I can relate with the "pornagraphic sputum" review-I got something similar on my book The Good Daughter, the reviewer said something like it was filthy with vile language (really, it's not, lol, it's quite restrained for what I could've done with a Mafia novel.) The sad thing is that someone commented on that review-thanks, I won't be buying this now. :( Then I realized, well, it probably saved me from getting another 1 star review...always looking for the positive here. :)

    1. I saw a goodreads review (not my book) once where the reviewer got the facts of the story wrong (said a guy raped someone when that wasn't what happened). And then people commented saying thanks and they wouldn't buy it. That was really frustrating.

  2. What I find most interesting is the exclusivity to Amazon. I know Joe Konrath did this a while back, using Select with great success. We'd put most of our titles through Select around two to one years ago. We're starting back up there with our first book going free in combo with a Bookbub ad in the middle of this month, but also going about it in a different way that we're really excited about.

    At BEA it was interesting who was there and how they were there. Kobo had a huge spread, but it was focused on the device. The author portion was around the corner in a tiny booth. Apple graced us with 15 minutes, but it felt like the Infantry where everyone was replaceable parts. They were nice and gave good info, but we had our fifteen minutes with them; literally. We met Nook Publishing for lunch. Amazon had none of its imprints represented like they did last year, which kind of indicates they're happy where they are with those and probably have almost too many titles to process. But the KDP and Createspace people were great, as always.

    For me, taking the publishing partnership approach and working with Jen Talty and having authors like Jennifer Probst and Colin Falconer and Shannon Donnelly is starting to pay great dividends, because it allows us to approach platforms in a different way. I think there is a place for an entity like Cool Gus somewhere between a publisher and an agent offering a self-publishing option. Something that actually puts the author in the driver's seat but gives them a powerful engine and a lot of experience from the passenger seat.

    I remember seeing The Detachment in Costco and I know Createspace is really focusing on distribution; it's mainly a question of price point on the POD. But then again, as the world goes more digital (contrary to the crowing from many at BEA), the reality is the eBook will rule.

    1. I love hearing about what you're doing with Cool Gus, Bob. It sounds like a great model. I hope you'll keep us posted about how the promotion goes.
      Interesting what the different epublishers' approaches at BEA suggest about their priorities. Amazon's customer centric approach seems to have served them well thus far.

  3. That's really interesting - and I missed the Eisler collection price smash, I'm sorry to say.

    FWIW: I'm currently doing a free promo with Select for the second book in my series and also offering the first book at 99 cents - I started the 99 cent deal a few days before the free promo and will continue it a few days after in an effort to 'smooth the tail' of coming off a free run.

    Unfortunately, I've got the first book distributed by BookBaby - you can't control the book details on the dashboard like you can on KDP - so it's not easy to tune the price with them - therefore it's only at that price on Amazon. Someone needs to wake up over at BB. Otherwise, it could have been a good bump to non-Amazon sources as well.

    It's also my first time to have a promo, and I only have the two books in the series so far. But it's fun to experiment and I am sure I will learn a lot about who (in terms of nationalities) buys books.

    And it's also good to hear what other people (especially the big guys and girls!) are doing in terms of promo runs. Thanks and congratulations!

    1. You raise a great point about the downsides of working through a distributor, Sharon.

  4. Timely information, as we are preparing to run a promo as well with our first 2 in the May the K9 Spy series. Third due out this fall, so we're approaching this as promo for the

    We're new to digital, so very much appreciate this terrific interview. One thing I learned... Write more books! :)

    Thanks again!

  5. I bought all of Barry Eisler's books that I didn't already own during the special, and I've been wondering how that worked out for him. In other words, I bought three titles (oh, how I hated that he renamed 'em).

    I probably would have bought them all eventually. I suppose sacrificing a few bucks to people like me is probably worth it if in the process you get -more- people who'll auto-buy future releases.

  6. Regarding the shorter reviews post-promotion phenomenon, I suspect that's from the "How many stars would you give this book?" emails that Amazon send out to a small percentage of purchasers. When you are selling (or giving away) lots more than usual in a short space of time, there will be a bigger burst of those emails going out - and I suspect they get a lot of people in their net who don't normally review, and, as such, who write shorter reviews.