The Utility of Free: Some Thoughts on Free EBooks

I was planning on posting my guide to creating ebook covers in PowerPoint today but these posts are quite labour intensive and yesterday was Valentine’s Day and I decided I would rather go out for a nice dinner with my lovely wife than spend the evening making annotated screenshots. Go figure, huh!  So it’s next week for the PowerPoint guide unless my monkey brain gets distracted by something else…

Over at Terribleminds Chuck Wendig has an excellent and thoughtful post about the costs and uses of going free in ebook publication. Go read it, I will still be here when you get back. A warning for the easily shocked, Chuck is somewhat more profane than I am, just so you know. He has put into words some of my own reservations about making your books free for promotional purposes. He also provides some useful facts and figures about the results you can expect to achieve (or rather which he got), which I will endeavour to do later as well. Reading Chuck’s post reminded me that I had promised to report back on my own free experiment and never did. I am going to rectify that today.

I have actually done two experiments with free, using two different methods. In the first I made my short story the Guardian of the Dawn free for a number of months. To be perfectly frank, I had no idea what I was doing when I did this. I just wanted to test the price-matching mechanism for making books free via Smashwords which was, in those pre-Kindle Select days, the only way of doing this. I thought I might get my name out there, acquire some recognition and maybe prepare the ground for the upcoming Kormak novels I was going to write. On reflection this was kind of dumb but it did give me some idea of how to do things.

For those of you who are wondering what I am rambling on about, price-matching your books to free simply means you set the price at zero on Smashwords and its affiliates and then wait until Amazon matches the price on its site and drops the price to free. It’s a hit or miss method which grants very little control compared to Select but has the advantage of letting you set your book to free almost indefinitely. It’s the difference between surgical strikes and carpet bombing.

Amazon’s Kindle Select program allows you to make your book free for five days of your choice over a ninety day period. It has some other advantages including making you eligible for a share of the money from the funds Amazon puts aside to recompense people whose ebooks are borrowed by members of its Kindle Select Library. For many people it’s the ability to make your books free that is the important thing.

Right about now, unless you have some experience with the wacky world of selling your own ebooks (or read Chuck’s post) you’re probably wondering what is so gosh-darned wonderful about the ability to give your books away to strangers for nothing. After all the royalty on something priced at zero is zip no matter how many books are given away.

The answer is complicated because no one but Amazon really knows what actually happens with its algorithms so all I can give you are my best guesses combined with the best guesses of people who know more about these things than I do. The important bit is that when you make a book free the downloads appears to count, at least in part, towards your sales total for putting you in Amazon’s charts when you come off free. I know, this hardly seems logical, but take the matter up with the folks at Amazon, they designed the system, not me. Based on my own experience, this does appear to be what happens.

Doing this can put you high enough in the charts when you come off free to generate extra sales. Getting into the charts gets you extra visibility. The hope is that once you get there, your chart position will garner you enough sales to keep you there. People will see your name on the bestseller lists and be tempted to buy your books. I’ve had some experience of Amazon’s bestseller lists and this also appears to work. I discussed what happened when I dropped the price of Death’s Angels and it jumped into the UK charts here.

The other advantage you get is embedding yourself in Amazon’s recommendation engines. This means that your book will show up in the also bought lists because of people downloading it and other books. How this works is that Amazon makes a little note of what people buy every time they buy something. When you look at one of the books in the store along the bottom of the screen you’ll see a list of other books that people who bought this one also bought. This gives your book some extra exposure if it appears here. A person may decide to buy your book rather than (or as well as) the one they initially looked at. (The process is a whole lot more complex than this but I am giving you the gist!)

There are people who will, quite correctly, tell you that all this means is that your free book will show up in those lists alongside a random selection of books that just happened to be downloaded by people looking for free books at the same time your’s was free. This is not exactly the way you would want this to work.

Normally also boughts have a higher chance of getting you a sale because people tend to buy books in genres or styles or types that they like. For example, fantasy fans will buy a lot of books in their genre so someone who buys Brandon Sanderson may well buy Robert Jordan or vice versa. This is something that Amazon takes note off and so there will be a higher chance of Mr Sanderson’s books showing up in the also bought lists associated with Mr Jordan and vice versa. Presumably people who see them there will consider buying those books if they have not done so already because they are of a type they know they like.

When your book is acquired as part of a random grab-bag this does not happen. There may be no connection between your books in terms of genre and subject with the other books on the also bought list so you don’t get the advantage of selling to someone who already may like books of the same type as yours. Your also boughts might include things completely outside your genre and subject. That said, you will show up in also bought lists and, for an unknown, this sort of scattershot recommendation is better than no recommendation at all. Anything that might lead to an extra sale should be welcomed, particularly when it involves no work on your part.

I made my book The Inquiry Agent free just before Christmas. My basic reasoning was that it was a historical detective novel, not a field in which I have any name recognition and I wasn’t risking much by making it free. I wanted to test the effects of the new Select program and I wanted to do it in an area where my risks were few. In the five day period running up to Xmas I got 1293 free downloads in the US and 4332 downloads in the UK. When I came off free on the 26th I got between 50 and 70 sales per day for the rest of December. This put me onto several genre bestseller lists and the hot new releases list. Moving into January sales began to deteriorate dropping to tens and then single digits until at 30 days out I was selling 2-3 a day which is where sales remain. As you would expect from the breakdown of the free downloads, the majority of these sales were in the UK.

In total between coming off free and today I made just over 600 sales, earning approximately  $1600/£1000. (I can’t be bothered to total up the exact numbers with correct exchange rates so these are ballpark figures.) I have to say that the initial post-free period was thrilling and then a little depressing as I watched the sales dry up. I did get a bunch of great reviews and some lovely emails from people who liked the book. Given the fact that this was a novel that I had a blast writing but which I never expected to see the light of print, all this was a huge bonus. The fact that the book continues to sell gently is gravy.

So what are my impressions of the whole process of going free? It obviously works at least in the short term. It can generate a burst of extra sales and recommendations although these seem to die off in the long run. It’s hard for me to come to any real conclusions because I don’t really have anything to compare the results too at the moment. This is one book, not in my genre, and I have no idea how it would have sold without going free. Worse is my suspicion!

And the downsides? Most of these are covered by Mr Wendig in his post and I don’t want to rehash them here. Chuck raises a valid point when he says we may be training readers to the idea that if they wait long enough to get books they want for free although the counter-argument is that not all readers do this otherwise libraries would have killed the print industry long ago.

As you may have gathered from my previous posts I am actually a big fan of loss-leaders for series and it is easily possible to see making the first book in the series free as the ultimate loss-leader. After all by the time, you have reduced your book to 99 cents you are only losing 35 cents per book if you give it away and if you look at this as part of your advertising and marketing budget you may very well get acceptable results for it.

That said, I am doing very well thank you very much with my Terrarch books right now and I am loath to tinker with what has been a winning formula so we’ll have to wait until I write a new series before I try any more experiments with making books free.  Basically at the moment, the also boughts of my Terrarch books have the other Terrarch books lined up nicely with each other along the bottom of the screen and I don’t want to disturb the symmetry. Also Amazon are obviously recommending the books to people who want to buy them and I don’t want to risk disrupting this by introducing a random grab-bag of also boughts into the recommendations.

Anyway, to quit waffling; would I recommend going free? My conclusions are probably self-evident from this post. Particularly if you are an unknown, I can see no harm in giving it a try. You may well luck out, particularly if you already have a series on the stocks. I am conservative enough not to want to attempt the use of free while I am doing well enough from my own series. I would certainly consider it launching a new series in a field where I don’t already have an audience. I may very well try it again with the Inquiry Agent when I have a few more books about Brodie written.

12 Replies to “The Utility of Free: Some Thoughts on Free EBooks”

  1. Yep, I definitely agree with you! I won’t take up the comments section of your blog to discuss my own experiment, but my 5 free days for my short story collection earlier this month (ending on the 4th) generated about 3,000 real sales since then, which is pretty amazing considering the collection had previously sold less than 200 copies total in 18 months! 🙂 The only reason I enrolled the collection in Select was because it wasn’t available anywhere else anyway, and now I’m really glad I gave it a shot.

  2. Fascinating stuff. I enjoyed Chuck’s post, though I have to say I stopped taking anything in after he spoke about something “Hammering in the 9th and final nail in the coffin” For the rest of the post, all I was thinking was “Why nine nails? And in what pattern? Two at the top, three at the bottom, two on either side? Or three on either side? Or maybe two on each side, and one in the middle?”

    Long after I’ve forgotten about free ebooks, I’ll remember the nine nails…

    (Were they red nails? Rusty? What sort of coffin? Who knows?)

  3. I’m slightly leery now of book giveaway for this reason – they don’t necessarily get a book into the hands of the *right* audience, just a general audience. Fergus’ book got a middling, not so great review from someone who had downloaded it just because it was free at one point, and clearly it hadn’t gelled with them. Which made me think – the way to make a book successful is not so much getting it into the largest number of hands, but getting it into the *right* hands. And once you have the attention of that particular audience – whoever it is that *should* be reading a particular book, as opposed to those who read the most general and possibly banal fiction – that way, I hope, lies success.

    But how to find the right readers?

    1. That is a GREAT point about the readers who just grab something that is free and then don’t like it, even though they probably should have recognized it wasn’t going to be a book they’d like in the first place. I have a couple of reviews like that from free promotions I’ve done. The upside of the freebies I’ve done is the thousands of “correct” readers who have found the book through word of mouth, etc. So it’s definitely a trade off!

    2. Can’t fault your reasoning there, Gary. It’s pretty much always been about reaching the right audience . One of the beauties of Amazon’s recommendation engines is that they do eventually kind of get you there. This can be short-circuited by the process of going free. That’s one of the reasons I am reluctant to go free with my books that are already hitting the target. I suspect Amazon will eventually get you there anyway even if you start from free but it will take longer. I also suspect it may depend on what genre you are in. If you go free with a generic modern thriller, you may well wind up on the recommendation lists with a lot of other generic modern thrillers anyway because there are a lot of them out there. In this case, you’ll do just fine. If you are aiming at a more specialised audience, it won’t be such a good thing.

      1. There are days I wish I wrote generic modern thrillers just because it’s so easy to find the readers. 🙂 My books usually don’t quite fit within the labels that have been put on them, but you need some kind of category as a starting point so there they are. It’s a matter of finding the right readers and hoping they’ll spread the word to other like minded readers, I guess. 🙂

        1. Definitely true. When I was starting out, back in the Jurassic Period, I remember an agent saying that simply because of the nature of human experience every writer has a potential audience. There will always be those for whom a particular voice resonates. The hard bit was to get that particular writer in front of their particular readers. Speaking as a man with a Lovecraftian gunpowder fantasy series, which is about as specialised as things get, somehow Amazon has managed to connect me with an audience. It gives me a lot of hope. The reader/writer connection is definitely, in some ways, easier to make these days.

          1. Ah, remember back in the ’80s when every publisher was rushing out paperback originals in the Lovecraftian gunpowder fantasy series genre? 😉 It’s definitely nice to be able to just write your own story, in your own way, and know there’s a much better chance these days of finding those readers who are looking for that story — even if they don’t realize it yet.

        2. Looks like we’ve reached the bottom of the comment trail! My own blog won’t let me reply to your reply, Brian :). You’ve hit the nail on the head there. For me, absolutely the best thing about the new era of publishing is the chance to write in genres which I love but have always been told there was absolutely no market for — which really meant there wasn’t perceived to be a big enough market there. There’s going to be lots of interesting new stuff out there because of this.

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