Are Free Books Finished

Two Cephalopods Cover
My free book. *cough cough*

The first is on the house.

I like to give my books away. Don’t get me wrong, I like to sell some too, but I’ve been running regular free days on my books since I published my first story back in 2012. I know a lot of indie authors that are very reluctant to use their free days, squirrelling them away for some rainy day marketing push, deploying them tactically like precision PR. I don’t have the patience for that, I’m haphazard. I drop freebies on people like British weather. You never know when the rain will come but you know it won’t be far away.

But then, I can afford to be haphazard. I love writing, I love putting my books out there, but I mostly deal in short fiction. It doesn’t sell steadily, or in the quantities novels do, so I can usually count on a good free day to put a nice spike in my sales, snag me a few more reviews and push a book a little higher in the rankings for a while. I don’t love more intrusive forms of marketing, so freebies have always been a nice way to give my books a little more life. Until recently, that is.

I noticed diminishing returns on free books last year. I scheduled a couple of free days with Amazon on two books, I submitted it to a few places ahead of time, posted at the regular spots and when the day arrived I tweeted and posted up on my author page. Crickets. It took until the book had been free for a couple of hours for it to get it’s first download, after that it wasn’t until the book started ranking in a few categories that it really gathered any momentum. Ever since then, the results have been the same. Only a paid promotion has managed to turn this pattern around, but if that’s going to be required every time, the freebie loses a lot of its appeal as a method of promotion.

The free book used to be the best marketing tool we had, but is it over now? It certainly doesn’t seem to have the same effect on the audience. If so, where do we go from here?

Before Select.

KDP Select is at the route of all this. Before Amazon launched select, getting your ebooks listed as free was an arduous task. First, you had to publish your book to two separate stores. Amazon restricted sellers from setting their price to zero, but other retailers didn’t impose that restriction. If you listed your book for free at one of Amazon’s competitors, and then reported the price disparity to Amazon, they would usually set your book’s price to match and you could benefit from all that freebie PR.

The disadvantage was that Amazon took a while to respond, though they’d usually get there eventually. Worse still, Amazon don’t like being undercut by their rivals, but they’re not so concerned about beating them; if you decided you didn’t want you book to be free anymore, it could take them a while to increase return to the original price. It was also against Amazon’s Terms of Service, which is risky if your income depended on books sales. The method is still used and is generally referred to as going “permafree”, bypassing the limitations on free days imposed by Amazon.

What Changed?

When Select came along, it gave free days to anyone willing to make their book exclusive to Amazon. This means that while there are less books going permafree now, the overall pool of free books is larger and ever changing. Worse still, permafree was usually exploited by authors who had a whole series of books to promote, usually something they had a lot of faith in. These days, any author can set their book to free at any time, meaning there’s a much larger slush pile of free books for the reader to sort through.

On top of that, the introduction of Kindle Unlimited is diluting the effect of free sales somewhat. Free books were a good sampler for new kindle owners filling up on books, with more and more freebies loaded into Amazon’s Prime subscriptions and similar services, readers have access to higher value books as part of their subscription. This has diverted attention away from indie authors, who were easily the group taking advantage of free days the most.

Lastly, probably the most significant change was Amazon splitting its rankings into Free and Paid. Pre-Select, Amazon’s Top 100s all contained both paid and free books in a single list. If you had a reasonably good Free day, you could expect to chart above some well known paid books, in the same list as established authors. The problem was, Amazon rankings spike and fall all the time on free books. Their algorithms are ever changing, and less reliable or books that have inconsistent sales. A book that sold twenty free copies in a day would suddenly rank higher than a book that sold a copy at £10 a day for twenty days. Splitting the rankings was the only way to correct that problem.

Why Amazon Aren’t Helping.

I know a lot of authors that are angry at Amazon for the various changes they’ve made to KDP over the years. I’m not one of them. Amazon’s business model has always been to bend over backwards to make things convenient, helpful and cheap for the customer. They don’t do it because they’re nice people, but because it makes them a lot of money. In the early days, Indie Authors helped Amazon achieve this by flooding the kindle marketplace with cheap, often high quality books, and Amazon fostered this by making their publishing platform easily the best for individuals and small publishers. It still is. It absolutely is.

The problem is that Indie Authors are often also voracious marketers. They need to be to survive, but they aren’t Amazon. Their priorities are the same, they want to make lots and lots of money, but they don’t often do it by putting the customer front and centre. (See LendInk, the Fake Reviews scandal and about a million other little storms self publishers have been involved in.) At the end of the day, Amazon wants the platforms that customers feel the happiest on, and when customers feel like they have to navigate pages of dross to find authors they’ve heard of… well it doesn’t create a happy customer.

Some, no doubt, are happy to be surrounded by new books by new authors, but too many people have been burnt by discovering the hard way that Amazon basically has no quality control on the kindle. Indie authors are still welcome on the kindle store, but they are certainly less necessary to Amazon as they used to be. From here on out, making your book free won’t be enough to rise up the rankings. Nor should it be.

The Future.

Going forward, indie authors are probably going to have to change their tactics. Free days used to be a guaranteed boost to your book’s fortunes, but now they are just one of a range of tools Authors can use for promotion. It just goes to show that in the long term, nothing beats cultivating an engaged audience that will support and promote your work for you. I’d like to see the self publishing community establishing a new relationship with Amazon, one that depends less on manufacturing sudden spikes in rankings, than in building a solid reputation through years of good work, but perhaps that is too much to hope for. Free days aren’t going anywhere, and maybe Amazon will add another few tools to Select as time goes by, but it all gets harder from here.

– Owen

p.s I still have a freebie going if you want to get in on that. 

  • How could I a) resist a freebie and b) resist a book with a title like that!

  • Heh, glad you approve.