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.