The Disappointment With Free

Around last Christmas Amazon brought in its Select program which among other things allowed independent e-publishers to make their books free for 5 days in a 90 day period. The results of going free were, in some cases, astonishing. I should know— it worked for me. I made my book The Inquiry Agent free for five days during the holiday period and when it came off the promotion it jumped into the top ten bestseller lists for its category, and hit 70 plus sales a day for a while. This was in historical mysteries, a genre in which I have no track record and where people have no reason to buy any book with my name on it. This happened to a lot of early adopters, not just me. Recently, it seems to have stopped happening and people are not happy.

There is a lot of complaining among indie publishers about the failure of the Select program. It no longer works the way it used to. Whatever bonus factor that caused books to sell like hotcakes after they came off free is no longer there. Books don’t spike onto the front page of the popularity lists at the end of their free run. Post-free sales are down across the board, often way down.

This may very well be true but I think such complaints show a misunderstanding of the uses of this sort of promotion. Originally the point of going free was simply to get your book in the hands of readers, to give them a sample of your work at no risk to their wallets. The theory was that if they liked your writing, they would buy something else by you. Lately it seems that people assume the purpose of free promotions is to game the system and allow them to sell more books coming off the spike that such giveaways used to create.

Obviously Amazon is tinkering with its algorithms, and equally obviously it is tinkering for its own reasons. Some folk have detected a sinister purpose in all of this, that Amazon no longer cares about independents, that Amazon is preparing to get back into bed with the Big Six now that US trustbusters have effectively ended agency pricing.

It might be the case but I doubt it. I don’t think Amazon cares who they sell. They just want to sell. I suspect that the huge bursts of sales after coming off Select promotions were never intended to last. Indeed, it is perfectly possible they were an accidental by-product of coding, a simple glitch in the system. It is equally possible that Amazon built the benefits in to encourage people to contribute to the Select program as it was launching the Kindle Fire with its two months of free Amazon Prime Membership. This gave users access to the Kindle Library as a perk and Big Publishing was singularly failing to take part in that, so content had to come from somewhere. The truth is that I don’t know. Nobody does except the people who work on this stuff at Amazon and they don’t seem to be talking.

I think people read about the huge sales spikes following Select promotions and saw this as the whole point of the exercise, and let’s face it, if you are an author, that’s an easy thought to have. Hundreds (in some cases thousands or tens of thousands) of extra sales are a big enticement. I also think that, in all the excitement about this, people began to see it as THE purpose of the exercise. Now that it is no longer happening people feel disappointed and let down. It sort of misses the original point of having a free promotion, which was simply to get your book into the hands of readers who would not normally buy it. I am pretty sure that still works. However people have to actually read the book they get for free and like it enough to buy the rest of your work. That’s a lot slower than an algorithm driven sales spike. It might also be a lot surer in the long run.

8 Replies to “The Disappointment With Free”

  1. Great analysis, Bill. I think a corollary point is that, as this proves, no one really knows how any of this works yet, and the lesson there is to bank only on the things that we do.

    1. Exactly, Matt. Things are changing so quickly that what works one month does not work the next. You need to treat each new month as a new beginning at the moment. Thrilling times to be in the business though.

  2. My freebie giveaway in early February generated a few thousand real sales when it went back to the regular $2.99 price and I was very pleased with that, so I can see how someone might feel like the program isn’t “working” if they gave a book away for free now and only generated a fraction of the real sales. But that’s the nature of these things.

    That said, I think the big question is one you raise toward the end of your post: “However people have to actually read the book they get for free…” Of the 10,000+ free copies that were downloaded from Amazon during the 5 day window when my book was free, how many of those actually will get read? There’s no way to know, of course, but I’m really quite curious about that!

    1. I think it will probably be years before you work through the effects of 10K copies given away, Brian, (and congratulations on that, by the way!) I don’t think everybody who even reads and likes a free book rushes out and buys another one right away. I know that some of the free and cheap (99 cent/pence) books I have bought have simply moved some writers on to my radar. I intend to buy another of their books some day, when I am in the mood for that style of writing, but I simply have not done so yet. It’s possible that I might even forget some of them by the time that comes around but what the hey…The way I see it, it’s a numbers game. I will buy some books by some of those people. I am guessing that’s probably the way it will work across the board with most giveaways.

      1. I suspect there is a real advantage if you’re writing a series and give the first one away for free. Assuming, as you note in this post, that the first one is so good that readers say, “Well, now I have to read more!”

  3. Or perhaps seasonal fluctuations are beginning to emerge? Brian James Freeman above mentions
    that his freebie give away in early February generated a few thousand real sales.

    Maybe that was in the wake of Christmas, with new kindle and ipad owners etc, happily buying ebooks? After five or so years, patterns may emerge, and we will begin to understand what times of year we should be uploading new books to benefit the most from promotions such as free book offers.

    Just a thought.

    1. It’s almost certainly the case that you are right about seasonal fluctuations, Steven. I would be very, very surprised if overall sales in May (let’s say :)) were anything like those in December/January. It’s that way in traditional publishing, and it would be odd if e-books were hugely different. Of course, it may be that sufficient numbers of people are still buying e-readers in May to overturn the seasonal downtrend –nobody really seems to know these things except the main players and they are not telling. And as you say this is a very young industry.

      I believe there is a lot of evidence to suggest that Amazon are tinkering with their algorithms in ways that have impacted the effects of giveaways. As far as I can tell,it seems people are giving away just as many books as always but not getting the bounce in sales that they used to generate.

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