Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Is the Free Ride Really Over?

By Andrew E. Kaufman, Author of Psychological Thrillers

I’m hearing a lot of talk lately among 
authors that the Amazon Select program is losing steam and no longer spurring the kinds of sales it once did. Many are reporting diminished numbers and poor results after their free giveaways. Rumors are spreading from blog to blog that on May 1st, Amazon abruptly changed its algorithms (The “customers also bought” section) so that free books are now given only ten percent weight in the rankings, in effect making ten free downloads really only equal to one sale. Also, borrowed books supposedly no longer count as sales where rankings are concerned.
I don’t know if all this is true, but a lot of people seem  pretty upset. Authors are complaining that Amazon wants them to give away their books for free with no benefit to sales. They're threatening to withdraw their work from KDP Select and upload them to Smashwords.  Others are trying to decide whether to stick it out with a wait-and-see attitude. 

Many have benefited greatly from the Select program. I am one of them. My sales are still going strong, and I haven’t seen the diminished numbers others are reporting. I feel fortunate for that, but my suspicion is that while the free promos may have given me a good bump at the outset, what’s happening now is something entirely different. I never stopped promoting once the giveaways ended, and I've never relied on the Select program to carry me forever. I'm not saying that others have; I'm simply recounting my own experience.

But in the back of my mind, I've always wondered just how long the Select Effect would last. When it began, it seemed like a mad free-for-all, literally, and suddenly the market was flooded with free books. It only seemed logical that eventually, consumers might feel overwhelmed by it all, that they would grow tired, and yes, that the value of e-books might become diluted. After all, there are so many books and so little time to read them all. There’s no telling how many free books are sitting on Kindles now—and even worse, how many of them will ever actually be read. 

I’m not a gloom-and-doom person, and I suspect that even if my sales weren’t doing well, I wouldn’t be one of those complaining right now. I still choose to see the glass as half full. Many authors are forgetting that even if they give away a lot of books and don’t see an immediate boost in sales, those are seeds that have been planted, and they’re getting the benefit of gaining new readers they never had before. I’ve learned that in this business, too fast never lasts, and that slow and steady wins the race. It’s how I’ve built my audience over the years. Besides that, there’s still the Kindle Owners' Lending Library, and at least for me, it’s been like having extra books up for sale—money in my pocket I wouldn’t normally have.

The thing is, I don’t think the Select program was ever intended to carry authors forever; I think it was intended to give them exposure, help get their books into new readers’ hands, and ultimately, help them grow their readerships, and I still think it’s doing that. What happens after is really up to the authors. It’s not Amazon’s job to do all the work so our books can sell—it’s ours—and it's not much to ask if we meet them half way.

The truth is, the free ride really isn’t over because in fact, one was never offered.


  1. Great post, Andrew. My Amazon book sales are staying steady too, and like you, I never stopped promoting or counted on the effect to last forever. The giveaways did give me great exposure and expand my readership in ways I could never have accomplished on my own.

    I understand pulling books from the Select program if it's not working for you. But it surprises me that people are saying they'll leave KDP altogether. Has anyone ever made more money on Smashwords than Amazon?

  2. I, for one, made about 10% of my sales on Smashwords, compared to my Amazon sales. Smashwords feeds the Nook, Apple, Sony, Kobo, and whatever else is out there to e-read on, so that all those COMBINED were ony 10% of my sales made the switch to the Select Program a no-brainer.

    I still get exposure for my books with the giveaways, although I'm not doing as brisk a business in the lending library as I thought I'd do. But I'm an Amazon Prime customer and I don't borrow that many books.

    We've all been talking about "the cream rising to the top" in this free-for-all self-pubbing era. Perhaps that's what's happening to these authors... they weren't so creamy after all.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I blogged about the "free frenzy" recently and considered the comparison of free books to sample downloads. If I know rather quickly I don't like a story or the style of writing (or the obvious lack of quality editing or formatting), I have no problems deleting the book. So another element of poor follow-up sales might actually be a poor book.

    The 10,000 plus downloads of a brand new author's first book hold a lot of potential for me, but I'm not sitting back and waiting for tomorrow and more magic to happen.

    Thoughtful post, Drew. Thanks.

  5. Excellent post, Drew, and I also learned something from each of the comments of LJ, Gayle and Peg.

    Drew, you said that on Amazon now, "free books are now given only ten percent weight in the rankings, in effect making ten free downloads really only equal to one sale." That makes perfect sense to me. Lots of people will "buy" a free book, whether they ever read it or not, whereas readers will take more care in choosing an e-book they're paying for, and will very likely read it, and maybe even recommend to others.

  6. LJ Sellers: The answer to your question, at least in my case, is *yes.* My sales via Smashwords' various distribution outlets (B&N, Kobo, Apple, Sony, etc.) vs. Amazon are on the order of 100:1, and that is no exaggeration. The majority of users on those sites use readers with ePub technology, which Amazon does not provide for. I was unwilling to cut off that part of my audience by withdrawing *any* of my titles on the off chance that KDP select might boost sales here and there.

    (Some of my titles were picked up by Fnac and WHSmith, in France and England respectively, which would not have happened without the Smashwords exposure.)

    Mainly, what I'm seeing from Kindle *users* is that they see no need to pay for books at this point, since KDP-S results in so many freebies being available to them. One friend has downloaded 350 free books to her reader since January and is not sure when she'll ever read them.

    While everyone will run their business as they so desire, I find that discoverability is far more important than marketing at the end of the day. That means that it makes more sense to have your books available in more places.

    I have been an outspoken critic of KDP-S from the very beginning specifically because of the discoverability issue.

  7. Sharon: I find that fascinating that you sell so well everywhere but Kindle, which has 65% of the market. For most indie authors, Kindle represents more than 90% of sales.

    I had my books on B&N, Kobo, and Sony for a year and could never gain any traction (but lost a lot of money through discounting.) And I had promotions/advertising that were widely directed, meaning not just to Kindle users. Everybody's experience is clearly different.

    Within a few years, the e-reader loyalty question will be moot, because readers will shift to tablets and read on a variety of aps. It's also likely the format (epub versus mobi) will become standardized as well too. But discoverability will always be key to sales.

  8. KDP Select was a no brainer for me as well as ALL my books were with Kindle Exclusively anyhow....had to pull one book from elsewhere out of some fifty. No brainer whatsoever. I have from the beginning placed up out of prints but all my NEW work has been as I put it Original to Kindle Only titles. I tend to be faithful to those who open doors for me, and has done more for writers than anyone for what, Centuries? When's last time an author got a RAISE? Had never to worry about returns, remainders, royalty statements unreadable and all manner of ulcer-creatiing nonsense found elsewhere? Those who are complaining are in my humble opinion being very foolish. Like Drew, I never counted on Amazon doing all the work and have never stopped promoting my books MYSELF. My giveaways have dropped off sharply but they do not and never did earn money in and of themselves in the first place; that giveaways have dropped off does not mean sales will follow, not in my case. In fact, my sales are twice what they were this time of month BEFORE KDP Select began.


  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. One more thing.... anyone seeking good advice for ebook promotion vist us at KDP Community - ala Voice of the Author/Publisher and find "What Mioves Kindle Bks. off the Shelf" - misspell on Moves intentional. Great help there.

    Rob Walker

  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  13. Great post Andrew. So many good points. I agree that the "Free Ride" was great for introducing your work to new readers. I still believe that the people who seek out free books are a very small part of the market.

    One of the problems with the glut of free books is that they aren't being read for a while. But when they are, they are an opportunity to increase sales.

    Sharon, I wonder why you don't sell more on Amazon. I've never done well on Smashwords or B&N. I wish I knew where you were doing your promotion!

  14. Great post, Andrew!
    I have been very happy with the Select Program. My sales have increased nicely since the program began, and not only on my books that are in the program but for others of mine that are not. My Smashwords sales have never come close to matching the Kindle sales. I began publishing books with Smashwords, etc., in July 2010, and had over 30 books there, and all those plus others at Kindle, even longer. I withdraw some of the Smashwords books to go exclusively with Amazon. The high percentage (about 90% plus) of my sales have always come from Amazon, and not from Smashword's retailers.

    Kindle sales have slowed some for April and May, as have borrows, but I expected that. Tax time-summer time... I have over 50 fiction and nonfiction at Kindle now, including a back list of my husband Don Pendleton's books. I also credit the Select exposure to increasing sales of my print books, as I have many of the Kindle editions at Createspace.

    This promotion often times keeps my books in the Paid top 100 in various categories and that can increase sales nicely. So I am grateful for the opportunity Amazon has given me, not only in sales, but in exposure. I agree with your view, Drew: "I still choose to see the glass as half full." That is a great perspective as it keeps us from getting to "thirsty."

  15. CJ, in all honesty, I promote on Goodreads, my FB fan page and my personal website. I also send out periodic press releases. I let people know where they can find my titles. I do not push a particular retailer. Discoverability is far more important than marketing and promotion; I don't want to spend all of my time annoying my readers with billboarding (because I know how much it annoys me when that's all an author does).

    Let me be brutally honest. I use an ePub reader. The very clear message I get from authors who choose KDP Select is that I am not wanted in their audience ... and from discussions I have had with other Nook, Kobo, Sony and iPad/iPod/Blackberry users (all of which run on ePub technology), I'm not alone in getting that impression. Perhaps that is not the message you intend to send, but that's what people are receiving.

    I look forward to the day when authors with some books that sound quite interesting will welcome me into their readership again. I pay for eBooks and don't just worry about what's available for free (although I have accepted freebies from time to time). As I mentioned earlier, I know people who got Kindles for Christmas and have yet to pay for a single title on the grounds that there are so many freebies out there that there's no reason to do so.

    I *will* continue to say that each party should run his or her own business the way they see fit, because that is as it should be.

  16. One of the things I find interesting--and confusing--is when some authors assert that Amazon is asking them to "give their books away for free." That's not so. While the borrows are given to consumers free of cost, Amazon is still paying the authors for them--and in some cases, more than some would normally get if they "sold" them.

    As for the free promotions, nobody is forcing authors in the Select program to participate in that feature. It's entirely optional, as is the whole program itself. So which is the part where Amazon is bending people's arms back?

  17. I agree, Andrew. I may choose not to put my book up for free again, but I love the lends. And at my sales price of $2.99, I make at least as much, if not more, when someone borrows my book. Consider further the fact that anyone who purchases a book (ebook or paper) can lend it to whoever they want and the author doesn't get paid, the Kindle Owner Lending Library is a very KOLL thing. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

  18. I realize Select has been very successful for individual authors, but I worry that it is a very blunt instrument that undermines the value of the huge amount of work that goes into writing a book. As you say, Andrew, there are readers out there with more free kindle reads than they could finish in a lifetime. I suspect some don't see the point in paying for new authors' work any more. I believe a better instrument, if we are to do this, would be a coupon arrangement, where discounts could be applied in specific cases, like Smashwords offers. True, while nobody is forced into anything, you are required to be exclusive to Amazon to be in KDP-S. Smashwords offers its coupon arrangement (which can be free or a discount price) without requiring exclusivity. Given Amazon's power, I would have thought this additional leverage was unnecessary, and monopolistic.

  19. The interesting thing for me is that my main benefit these days from giveaways is for series book. I recently did a 3 day giveaway for Book 2 in my fantasy series, and for a week, sales of Book 1 shot up by 6x the usual sales rate. My non-series book and my pen name erotica books (also non-series) don't really see any benefit from going on freebie promotion (other than getting in the hands of more people... but who knows if people actually *read* all these free books?) and worse yet, after being off the radar on paid sales, my non-series books' ranking tumbles after a promo, meaning it actually *hurts* paid sales to give away these books. For now, I've pulled all my books from the auto-renewal for Select. I have another month before my second term with them is up, and I'll spend that time considering next steps. I just don't want to be auto-renewed and have the decision made for another 3 months while I wasn't paying attention to the date.

  20. The advantage of joining KDP Select has been increased visibility and discoverability. In exchange for those I pulled my books from other outlets.
    I've been happy with the results thus far. I've never viewed KDP Select as a free ride, rather, I view it as a tool, a marketing tool.
    As a tool, with the recent changes, it's becoming less useful. I can accomplish just as much by making my books available via other outlets rather than exclusive to Amazon.

  21. What an author does with his/her books is their business of course. But I'd like to say this as a multi-published ebook author: avoid offering your books for free, unless it's 200% a hobby.

    Ok, I've got one free book available at my site so readers can get a taste of my writing. But you know, they can do that with a book for .99 cents too, or any book under $8.00.

    I don't recall the last time I got a free ice cream folks. Don't give away your sweat and tears so easily, not to mention that it teaches readers to expect freebies, which screws up the market to an extent.

    My 2 cents.

    With love,



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.