Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Free is the New Black...Or Is It?

We've all heard the stories of authors putting their books up for free, clocking thousands of downloads, and then once the promo is over, selling thousands of copies. One author I know about bought a new car after her free promotion. Another paid off her mortgage.

Well, guess what, that doesn't happen every day. It depends on the book, the genre, the writer, why you're doing it, as well as the day of the week, and the position of the moon. Yeah, no not really, but luck like that is very rare. Also a back list is worth a thousand downloads.

I'll tell you my story, and you can decide if you want to put your books for free or not.

We all know I write Regency romance. In the beginning I wrote a novel -- THE LADY'S FATE. But I didn't know how to promote it. I decided to write a short story to give away as a loss leader. You know, like the prize in the box of Cracker Jacks. Give something else away for free, to get them to buy what you really want them to buy.

I gave away A WIFE FOR WINSBARREN when I launched LADY'S FATE. This was before the days of Amazon's KDP Select. It was a win-win for me. When I launched THE DUKE'S DIVORCE, I also gave away copies of A HUSBAND FOR MISS TRENT. Another win.

All my books shot up in the rankings, got me sales, made me delight in my forethought and cunning that I was so smart to do so. I thought I was the golden child of the Regency world.

But all that soon came crashing to a nasty halt. Amazon caught on to the game (If you uploaded to another venue, Smashwords for instance, and offered your book free before they went to Premium status, the spam bots at Amazon couldn't track you.)

Last December they decided to install KDP Select. Which would give you the option to offer your book for free on Amazon for 5 days. It also allowed its Prime members to borrow your book for free, but you would still get paid. Which sounded like a good deal. Everyone was still making money, and you could also use those 5 days for a loss leader promotion. It was only 90 days and if you wanted to re-up or not, that was your decision.

Well, the first month, everyone and their brother tried it. It worked for me too with WINSBARREN. I took it off Smashwords, enrolled it in KDP and although I never put it for free (as I had already done so) I did get a lot of hits off the Prime membership.

But now, we come to the big bad Amazon (in March) changing their algorithms. (Okay does anyone know how to spell that word? Really? I've seen it spelled like 3 different ways.)

For those who don't know what algorithms are, I don't actually know either. But to hazard a guess, it's a scientific analytical spreadsheet that marks (in Amazon's case) how many books are sold by genre, by price, by author, then makes calculations based on how, when, and where they're selling, then takes all that information and plugs it into another spreadsheet and figures out who's going to sell more, who's going to buy more, and who's going to make more money. (Amazon.)

Anyway, once Amazon plugged FREE into their algorithms, authors were shooting up to #1 with a bullet. Everyone was talking about it. Everyone was doing it. Authors were getting on lists, authors were selling more books, people were reading more books. Amazon was making more money. (Because that's what Amazon does.)

But then, as with every good thing that's too good to be true, authors began to suffer from lackluster sales after their free promotion. They'd hit #1 or #2 during, but after, nothing. You know why? Because everyone else was giving their books away for free so why should they buy yours. People were grumbling, authors were in uproar, marketing analysts were writing articles in the NYTimes and Huffington Post. Oh my.

So here we are, 8 months after the initiation of the KDP Select program and what's happened is Free is now the norm. Authors who are having lackluster sales decide to offer their book FREE in the KDP Select program after it's been out for awhile. You know what that does. Makes people wait to buy your book. Because they know eventually, it will be free. That's why there are lackluster sales. They're waiting. Everyone loves a bargain.

Free is what you make it. In my opinion, offering a book free at the launch would be the way to go. Making that free list, getting higher in the rankings, garnering some reviews. Then set your price and stick with it. (Which is what I did with REMEMBERING YOU. I'm waiting for the dust to settle and then once I have all my notes in place, I'll tell you what happened with that book. Probably in late August, early September.)

In my opinion, once you publish a book, instead of trying to sell it forever, write the next book. If people buy your first book and like it, they want more. It's called a fan base. (Unless you have a 1000 followers on your blog and Twitter, you don't have a fan base yet.) Perhaps write a short story and offer that as Free, possibly for the launch of the next book instead of the book itself. It couldn't hurt. And besides, how long did it take you to write the 80k words in your novel? How long did it take you to write the 15k words in your short story, or 25k words in your novella? Which would you like to take a loss on?

I think, and again this is only my opinion, now that Amazon has changed its algorithms again (June) free is not what it once was. Sure it might get you to #1 for a few days, but after that, you go back to where you used to be. Rankings don't follow the free promo anymore. So save yourself, and your sanity. Think about your loss leader before you go offering anything for free.

And again, this is only based on my experiences on what I've done. Comments, questions are welcome. No spam please. Next week I'll discuss price points.


Yvonne Osborne said...

Sanity rules!

Thanks for the straightforward advice and sharing your experience.

I don't know how to spell that word either!

Anne Gallagher said...

Yvonne -- If my experiences help just one person, then I'm glad to share.

I hate that word.

Linda G. said...

Boy, you have learned a heckuva lot during your writing journey! Thank you for sharing your experiences here.

Anne Gallagher said...

Thanks Linda. All in less than a year too. Scary to think where I'll be NEXT year at this time. Hopefully on a beach somewhere basking in the sun with a cocktail in my hand.

Liza said...

Hope that beach is in RI.

Stacy McKitrick said...

I like your idea of giving away short stories for free to get someone to buy your novels at a price. Most people who download those free novels don't read them anyway. But if they pay for them, the odds definitely go up. I would want someone to READ my novel, not just own it.

Anne Gallagher said...

Liza -- Oh yes. For the whole summer. If it kills me.

Stacy -- That's why I started writing in the first place. I had all these stories I wanted people to READ. I also think I've given enough away to build my fan base. Maybe I'll do it again next year, maybe, but for now, I'm just going to continue writing.

SA Larsenッ said...

Wow, wow, wow, and wow!! There is so much valuable information in this post. You explained it brilliantly, Anne. Thank you!

Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

Yeah, my publisher has told me all about the algorithm thing and why free just doesn't work as well anymore. I'm pretty wary about what I give out free these days. Thanks for sharing this information! It's really important for writers to be up on this sort of thing.

Anne Gallagher said...

Thanks Sherrie -- And thanks for the RT. Yeah, publishing isn't for the uniformed anymore.

Michelle -- Thanks for stopping by. Can't wait to see you on tv tomorrow!

Johanna Garth said...

Great post! In the face of all these free books my publisher actually pushed my book price up a little's still selling. Although not at rates that make any kind of list.

Laura Pauling said...

I hear that free in Select doesn't work for everyone anymore. But I do see authors putting their first book in a trilogy for free through price matching which takes patience and time, and then they see major sales that stay that way for the rest of the books.

So I do think going free is still powerful outside of Select but an author can't abuse and has to decide when the best time is to use it. Probably when they have more books out.

Nicki Elson said...

It is so refreshing to come visit your blog again - straightforward, honest advice. Your strategy of offering a free short around launch time sounds brilliant, and it would be smart for all authors to limit the free novels to release time too - because like you say, if readers expect it to go free at some point - and if they've got a whole huge catalog of other free books to choose from in the meantime - why would they buy it?

Roland D. Yeomans said...

Great post. People will wait for free books hurting our regular sales. Like a pyramid scheme the 1st ones in make money. The later ones just lose. That said. I will still offer THE RIVAL for free Friday and this weekend. But I am not expecting much. Lightning makes up its own mind where to strike. Thanks for the great post.

Anne Gallagher said...

Johanna -- I've upped the price on my novels and have not had any negative effects, although, like you, nothing to get me to a list. But that's okay.

Laura -- It's all in how you do it. Why you're doing it, and for how long. Sometimes it does bring great exposure, sometimes not. I'm just sharing my experiences.

Nicki -- Thanks. I like the idea of short stories as give aways as there's not much time invested. Well, not as much as an 80K novel anyway. And with a short, people will get the feel for your writing. And also feel they're getting so much more than just a "Take a Peek Inside".

Roland -- You hit the nail on the head Roland. Just like a pyramid scheme. Thanks for stopping by.

Jennifer Shirk said...

I don't have any experience with the free thing, but yeah, it does seem that is all I see and can see where it would lose it's effect.
Thanks for posting your experience. It's all very interesting!

Anne Gallagher said...

Thanks Jennifer. Yeah, Free isn't what it used to be. Now it's all about waiting for the fall-out.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Thanks for sharing your experience and expertise with us. See? You may not be a chef anymore, but you're still providing plenty of food for thought.

Thank you for the kind comment you made regarding my mother-in-law. I do appreciate it.

Bish Denham said...

I keep learning new stuff. So much. And I still don't know what to do! :)

~Sia McKye~ said...

Interesting information. I've downloaded free books before and I have also bought more by that author. But there have been quite a few that I've read and gone ho-hum and not bought. Even though there are a lot of free books I am selective in those I download.

Like you said, free is what you make of it.


ali cross said...

This is a great conversation Anne.

I've been very grateful for the tool of going free as a way to gain a bit of attention for my books.

I'm not on KDP and it took me seven weeks for Amazon to price match me to free, lol.

Since these are my first books, #'s 1&2 in a trilogy, I am experimenting and seeing how it goes for me. I imagine that even though my rankings will drop back down again after a few days, I will have least gotten my book onto tens of thousands of kindles that didn't have it before.

If even only 5% of those buyers read the book, that's probably 4.99% more people than would have read it before when I was a nameless book buried under hundreds of thousands of other books, lol.

It's all a gamble, all a game. And totally all luck.

I love your idea of not giving the whole novel free, but giving your shorts or novellas for free and not the book you've toiled over for so long.

Talli Roland said...

Thanks for sharing, Anne. I've pulled my books from Select for the moment. I want to see how they function on other platforms, and if I can build a readership there. I might give Select another try at some stage, but for the moment, I'm looking at other options.

Old Kitty said...

I have a headache now! LOL!!! I really respect you wonderful authors doing this e-book promotion via Amazon!!! Good luck!!! Keep writing and build on the fan base! Take care

Al said...

Interesting info, that is the problem with the internet people have developed an attitude that if it isn't free they aren't going to down load it.