Can you give away too many books?

Once upon a time I wouldn’t have understood this question. I mean, I was a writer, sort of, and over the years I’d signed contracts with several different publishers, but distribution and sales were the publisher’s job, not mine. As for giving away books, I imagined that meant giving away a few copies to friends, family, and reviewers and then … well, that was it really.

I mean, the point is to sell books, right? Not give them away! As Dr Johnson said, ‘Anyone who writes for any other reason than money is a fool.’

Hm. Yes, well, I wasn’t making that much money either, so I wonder what the good doctor would have thought of me?

But when I became an independent author, everything changed. I started to climb up a very steep learning curve. In the first few months I sold hardly any books at all – two or three a week, maybe, in a good week. But then I read some advice from other authors which changed my life. ‘Join KDP Select,’ they told me, ‘and give your books away.’

I won’t go into the details of this here; I imagine most readers know about this already. But what I will say is that I joined at pretty much the perfect time – the early spring of 2012. At that time the Amazon algorithms (don’t ask me – mathematical magic!) were set so that a free download counted almost the same as a sale, so that if you gave away 1,000 books, for example, that counted for 1,000 sales; and THAT meant your book jumped right to the top of Amazon’s best-seller and popularity lists – up there with John Grisham and Michael Connelly, for instance, if you write crime fiction like me. And so readers who had never heard of me started to notice my books – it was like being on the front table in Waterstones or Barnes & Noble.

I gave away a lot more than 1,000 books, so my sales jumped through the roof. Not to the very top, but still, I managed 100 books a day, quite often. A BIG improvement on 5 or 10 a week.

But nothing lasts forever, sadly; as more and more writers caught on, Amazon changed the algorithms to make downloads count for a lot less. More and more sites sprang up, each offering maximum publicity for your free giveaway, and making money via Amazon Associates while doing so. Sites like published convenient links to these sites, a one-stop shop to free books. And many of these sites didn’t just make money through Amazon Associates; they actually charged authors quite substantial sums for the privilege of giving away their work, as well.

And because Amazon allows you to check your book’s downloads on an hourly basis – even minute by minute if you’re obsessive like me – it became like a competition to see how many books you could give away in your freebie promotion period. I remember watching in shock and awe the first time my free downloads mounted to 5,000 – 10,000 – 15,000 in THREE DAYS! On one famous occasion I managed 23,000! Fantastic!

And after the giveaway, the bounce. Not in thousands, but certainly tens, even hundreds, over the following weeks. It’s not as strong a bounce today as it used to be, though, and not so long lasting. As time passed, sales began to fall off a bit sooner. I began to long for the next freebie, the next giveaway to pick everything up again.

Does this remind you of anything here? I’ve never been addicted to heroin, but from what I hear it’s quite similar. The first hit is FANTASTIC, the second is pretty damn good, the third is good too, the fourth is ok … but each time the high is a little bit less, the ending comes a bit sooner, the overall effect is smaller – but the addict still yearns for the next hit, longs to get back to how it once was.

Well, let’s not get too literary. Selling books is a good thing, after all; taking heroin is not. Yes, but hang on; we’re not talking about selling books here, so much as giving them away. And just as flooding your body with heroin is different to giving it food, maybe flooding the market with free books is, well, a bit different to making actual sales?

After all, I’m not just talking about just a few free books here, to prime the pump, get the sales flowing. I did some calculations a few months ago, and the results were striking. In 2012 I sold about 10,000 ebooks – pretty good, eh? But I GAVE AWAY over 100,000!

I compared these figures to a couple of the big independent authors – Joe Konrath for one – and it seems their ratio is much the same. See here (The difference is that he sold around 21,000 in a month, and he gave away 220,000 – of just one book!)

So what are we to make of this? Honestly, I don’t know. I just think it’s weird, and something we authors should think about. On the one hand, of course, it’s very positive. In my case, I moved from selling almost no books at all to some moderately successful sales. And although I did a fair amount of advertising, I think 90% of the rise in sales was caused by the KDP free promotions, and the subsequent exposure on Amazon best-seller lists. (Of course, I’d like to think it’s all down to the brilliance of my writing, but let’s not kid ourselves: if nobody knows you exist, it doesn’t matter how good your writing is)
So on the one hand, I’m very grateful. As far as I’m concerned, Amazon is The Big Friendly Giant, and these free promotions are a sort of magic stardust.

And yet … there’s another side to this. I wonder sometimes if we’re not fouling our own nest. I mean, look around you – there are sites everywhere promoting free books, or $0.99 bargains. This is what the author spent months, maybe years, working on. Never mind that we sell our books for less than the price of a coffee in Starbucks – it’s worse than that. The world is full of readers, it seems, who will only download books when they’re free! There are ten people like that for every one person who’s prepared to pay.

That can’t be right, can it? After all, you value something more when you pay for it. Do these people actually read all the books which they download for free? I don’t know. But I wonder.

I wonder about another thing too. Some of my recent giveaways haven’t worked too well. My wife tells me that’s probably because all the readers who like my sort of books have downloaded them already – mostly for free. I think she may be right. I bet there are thousands of readers out there who would happily pay for one of my books, if I hadn’t worked so hard to give them a free copy already!

I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I worry. And I wonder. What do other people think? I’d love to hear from you. Not just authors – readers too.

Tim’s books:

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25 Responses to Can you give away too many books?

  1. I know what you mean. Last summer, I gave away 13,800 copies of my novel. It rose to #22 on the Free Kindle Bestseller (passing Pride & Prejudice) and #7 on Contemporary Romance (passing 50 Shades – ick – on the paid side). At the end of my free novel, I had a promo and sample of my other novel, so I had hoped that at least a few of those who got my novel for free would go on to get my other novel, but I didn’t see much of a bump. Then I figured it out by studying…myself. When I see a book that looks interesting is free, I go ahead and get it, but I don’t read it *right then.* I’m a voracious reader as well as a novelist. Plus I have a soul-sucking day job. So I did a little informal polling, and sure enough, I’m not alone. (I started to qualify the next statement with “Just about” but it was “Everyone”) Everyone I spoke to said the same thing. They will go ahead and download a book when it’s free – we all share it on FB or Twitter when an author has a free promo – but they might wait months before reading it. Most of them have dozens of free books in their Kindle library. I must admit, I do.

    • Tim Vicary says:

      Yes, I’m sure that happens. I suppose in a way it’s not completely dissimilar to what happens with cheap and second-hand print books. You know, you go to a jumble sale or a car boot sale and see a lot of paperbacks on sale for a few pennies, so you pick one up and think ‘that might be interesting’ and then you take it home and leave it on a shelf somewhere and maybe read a few chapters and then if you don’t like it put it down and forget all about it. I have lots of books like that, and also lots of new print books which I actually paid for years ago but never read.

      But these free giveaways of ebooks take it to a new level. Not only does it cost nothing at all to buy them but it also costs nothing to store them. They take up no physical space and you are only reminded of their existence if you scroll down several pages in your kindle.

      Having said all that though I’m pleased to see that from time to time I get a review on amazon which says something like ‘This was a free download from an author I’d never heard of but I was pleasantly surprised.’ That’s nice. I hope you get that too.

  2. olganm says:

    I think we’ve saturated the market of people who know about it. Other readers who might not use social media in the same way won’t find out about the free downloads anyway. We need to find a new goose…it’s not laying golden eggs any longer.

    • Tim Vicary says:

      You may be right. Let me know if you find one!

      • How about this? What does a reader want more than a free book? A good book. I believe that the next step is to push quality. Anything free is seen as having less value in a readers mind, no matter how good it actually is, and lets face it there is a lot of poor quality stuff out there. People must be sick of wasting their time reading a free book that after several hours they discard in disgust. Yes, you get amazing books as well (like those of our host here), but it’s a lottery and if the rejection rate for applications for the Awesome indies is anything to go by then 60% of indie books aren’t up to the same standards as the traditionally published books.

    • Very true. I just finished a free promo on Amazon June 4. Usually I get a good bounce from 200 to over 900 sales. This time? 7 books sold so far. I believe the golden goose has been squashed in the middle of the internet highway . . . and it’s starting to smell.

  3. Reblogged this on Why I Believe in God and commented:
    Books worth reading!

  4. John Holt says:

    I think that sums up the problem rather well. Now to the solution … I don’t know either. I currently have 5 books on KDP Select. I have never had really high figures for free downloads – 2000 is the highest. February, March and April were fairly good Sales months – 2200 per month; May it went down to 1200; based on current figures this month will be about 600. The time period expires on one of my books on 8 June. It will leave it on Amazon, but not Select. I will also submit it to Draft2Digital, and see if there are any sales to be had on other ereader sites.

    • Tim Vicary says:

      Good luck with that, John. I’d be interested to hear how it goes. I have one book on Smashwords as well as Amazon (so it’s not on Select) and Smashwords load it up to lots of other distributors, like Nook, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and so on. But so far sales on these sites are minimal, I have to say. I reduced this book (Nobody’s Slave) to free for a couple of months on Smashwords, which led to lots of downloads and made Amazon price match it to free too, but I started charging for it again I got very few sales, most of those on Amazon. So it wasn’t a particularly encouraging experiment.

      • The other bookstores don’t give up-front visibility based on sales rankings, the big publishers pay for the space, just like in a brick and mortar bookstore, so it will always be harder to be seen there. I sell books through the other markets, not as many as on Amazon and it’s sporadic, but I think I might have lost out by putting my YA magical realism book on KDP select for three months, because I gained no more sales from Amazon and lost the few I usually got from other markets, but then my marketting efforts have never been exclusive.

  5. Viv says:

    I’m with you on this. I’ve never given away any books though; something in me just reacted to the idea with the corresponding thought: that’s not a good idea. Part of my reluctance is based on the anecdotes of people who have found that giving away wholesale seems to result in a swathe of 1* reviews (people seldom value what they get for free), or the books simply never seem to get read. I know I have read fewer of the books I’ve nabbed for free. Human psychology, alas, tends to dictate we will devote time to something we have exchanged energy(money or whatever for) that we got for nothing. However, I have always said I am happy to send free copies to anyone who genuinely cannot afford them.
    I’m in this for the long haul. It takes time to produce a book, and while I don’t see that giving books away is wrong per se, it’s wrong for how I think.

    • Tim Vicary says:

      I understand how you feel, Viv. But there’s another way of looking at it. Go into a large bookstore and you see lots of books on the front table – these are the ones they hope to sell most of that week. But those books are only there because the publisher has paid the bookseller large amounts to buy that spot – probably paying far more pounds or dollars than they will receive for each book. So in effect they are giving books away for free too, in a way (even thought the customer pays)

  6. Alex Shaw says:

    I think the real issue is amazon letting books being listed as free. If they changed this to $0.99 or £0.60 or Euro1 then the giveaway numbers may be less but both authors and amazon would get more revenue. Of course then the issue is with the other platforms such as KOBO. I’m about to list my first free kindle book in the next two weeks and may be of a different mind then (never listed free in the past with the exception of the Death Toll anthology).

  7. Wendy Jones says:

    I am writing form the viewpoint of a reader and someone who has written my first novel. I would like to throw something I to the mix here. Amazon is making it more difficult for people to promote free books as Amazon Associates do not receive any money if the bulk of the books they are promoting are free. Therefore it is becoming more difficult to find free books. This may be KDP select promotions are not working so well any more. As a writer who is yet to enter the market I would like to thank you for the interesting viewpoints set out. I have found this, and the subsequent comments, to be really helpful. I also agree with what others are saying that people will value a book they have paid cold hard cash for over one which is free. Can I just add that I have found some great new authors through downloading a book free. I have subsequently bought other books. Tim Vicary you are one of them.

    • Tim Vicary says:

      Hi Wendy, thank you for your comment. I’m delighted that you’ve bought one of my books, of course. I wish you the best of luck when you enter the market. I hope KDP Select changes and improves again, to help writers get noticed, as it did before.

  8. Pingback: Free Book giveaways and KDP Select – a follow-up | Tim Vicary ~ Author

  9. I’m new to writing and publishing: I started less than three years ago: but I’ve never been tempted to give away copies of my work, except to friends and reviewers. My feeling is that, with nothing to pay, there’s no real commitment to read. Additionally, demand is satisfied without any cash changing hands.
    Sounds as though it was a helpful strategy for authors in the beginning, but perhaps a side-effect is the engendering of an attitude by some readers that there is no need to pay.

  10. Tim Vicary says:

    Well, as I say in the post, that is obviously a problem. But your comment reminds me of something that happened a few years ago – it may have been here in York, but it doesn’t really matter where. A local author wasn’t getting enough publicity, so he started giving away books for free – real print books, not ebooks. He left them on buses, in taxis and restaurants, anywhere the mood took him. And somehow – perhaps with a little nudge from him – the local press took up the story, and soon there were articles everywhere – first in the local press, on local radio, and then some of the nationals. And presumably his sales picked up. So there you are, you see – it’s not just an internet thing.

  11. Excellent article and WoW! Great numbers. We are lost in a red internet sea, no longer a black one.

  12. Tim Vicary says:

    red = debit, right?

  13. Pingback: Is Bookbub good for British writers? | Tim Vicary ~ Author

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