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 http://www.authormarketingclub.com 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 http://jakonrath.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/doom-destruction-not.html (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: http://www.timvicary.com
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