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Before you send your masterpiece out to the world, consider publishing a sub-masterpiece first.

I’m talking about an additional book, smaller, not lesser in quality, just in size and scope. It should be a good piece of work containing most of the attractive elements of the mothership, in a smaller package you can deliver quickly and promote in advance of the big book. This smaller book would be made available for free, as a promotional product. A number of authors, and marketers, call these “funnel books”—books that send readers through a marketing funnel to their main and for-sale product.

It’s an old concept, and not limited to publishing. You see it at your grocery store where companies offer free tastes of food and other products. (The shampoo I’ve used for many years first came to me as a free sample.) One web site on general marketing ideas said, “When companies introduce a new product to the market, whether it’s a perfume or a pizza, they often give away free samples. They hand out product to consumers and send free coupons in the mail. They offer free coupons to people who ‘like’ the product on Facebook. While people may be hesitant to try something new if they have to pay for it—if they’re disappointed, they’ll have wasted their money—many people will try anything once if it’s free. If the product is good, they’ll want another pizza or more perfume.”

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The advantages of free have been suggested over and over by authors and marketers. No marketing tactic has an airtight success record, but the results on this one are strong. The reason is simple: Free attracts people easily, and if they see strong quality—what they’re looking for—in the freebie or cheap piece, they’re far more likely to invest actual cash in your writings next time.

This can work especially well in fiction, if you offer a series or a group of otherwise similar books. Many authors offer the first full book in a series for free, finding that satisfied readers will be highly likely to pay for the second, third and beyond.

The idea is to create a “funnel book” that is shorter than a full-priced book but still provides most of the same reader experiences: The same major recurring characters, similar setting and atmosphere (if these are consistent), and the same kind of emotional charge. If you have a series in mind or have started one and you have a story or novel idea that isn’t quite complete, isn’t enough to sustain a full-scale book, this may be the place to use it.

The novella, long thought to be an outlier in commercial fiction, has found a whole new use in this area.

Author Nick Stephenson is among the writers using this approach as a standard method. He first creates a funnel book designed to bring in readers and ease them to the next step; the funnel can be an already-existing book set permanently for free, or a new short book also set for free; sometimes he gives readers two free books in a series before charging for one. In addition to earning the trust of the reader—that you will deliver an enjoyable or useful book—you can set up the delivery system to capture the reader’s e-mail as well. (You could send the free book to the reader by an email autoresponder.) That way, you can let your reader base know about new releases.

Stephenson said he pulled in a thousand new readers after first embracing this approach, and over several years has developed an estimated 15,000 new e-mail addresses.

Sean Platt and Johnny Truant, hosts of the Self Publishing Podcast, report that, “the most frequently visited topic [on their podcast] is how to build funnels.”

Another thing you can do with funnel samplers, if you’re still planning and developing your series, is to test your options. Some authors send out several sampler funnel books, all drawn from the same prospective series but varying in key respects: Pacing, the number of characters, locations and atmosphere, or other variables. If you can write three or four brief funnel books and send them all out to the world, you can see which generate the best reception.

Writer Derek Murphy tried this with four short titles. “All are pretty similar, in pretty similar categories, with similar covers, [but] only one has really taken off,” he wrote.

Murphy reflected, “I could have done the normal thing and wrote a series, then another series, then another series … I might spend 5 years before I wrote a popular series that could actually make money. Instead I wrote four 50K half novels, as a market test, to see which of my ideas was most marketable. Obviously, I have my answer.”

One of the authors I work with tried the funnel book approach on a small scale for a local non-fiction book about how a city park was created. I suggested he develop a smaller free book, providing a tour of the park area, that could be promoted in advance, develop a readership base and link him to the subject of the park system. When time came to release the main book, his audience seemed to be a little more ready for the full book than it otherwise might have been.

You can release free funnel books in eBook rather than print format; the out of pocket costs for doing it this way are minor. You will need to create and obtain the eBook files for your books (mobi files for Kindle, for example) so that they’re easily obtained by readers. Bear in mind that even though they’re free, your funnel books still need promotion so readers will know they’re there. Follow your usual book marketing approaches for doing this.

Distribution of free books is generally easy through most eBook channels. Kindle has several categories that can distribute at low cost (usually meaning 99 cents), and it will distribute free in special days in the KDP program. An alternative, or an addition, is to work through Smashwords, which actively encourages use of free samples as part of their distribution program.

If you want to keep track of exactly who is ordering your free book—and this is helpful for building e-mail and other lists—you can store the books on Google Drive or Dropbox, or a similar service.

Another approach, which comes with a small fee (starting at $20 a year), is a third-party distribution service like Instafreebie or Bookfunnel, which stores the books and simplifies downloading, through a single click, for readers. Because they can handle significant volumes more easily than an author website usually could, some large-selling authors use them. (I spotted a new Janet Evanovich title on Instafreebie this month.) For new authors, however, the issue of handling big volume generally won’t be a big consideration.

Some authors dive into the marketplace with full-sized novels and find success. But a softer entry, with the chance to review what works and what doesn’t, may be the surer route to success.