This week, we’ve been talking about the strategy of taking a book free to increase its visibility and subsequently its sales. Today, I’m going to talk about the Amazon program KDP Select which is how I took my book, THE COUNTESS, free.
First a little background. Twelve to eighteen months ago, a number of authors discovered the mechanism we talked about on Monday, of how making a book free could increase their digital sales by improving visibility for a specific book.
How did an author make a book free?
Amazon’s publishing platform for authors is called KDP, but Amazon does not allow a book to be listed for free through that program. They will, however, price-match the lowest online price from a major retailer. So, these authors would make their book free at Smashwords or Barnes & Noble, then Amazon’s internet spiders would notice this and automatically make the book free on Amazon under their price-matching policy. This worked pretty well for a while. Authors could also make a book un-free pretty quickly – they’d change the price at the other seller and Amazon’s spiders would find that, automatically restoring the book’s previous price. Authors had a reasonable amount of control over the price and the timing of the change.
With the explosion of new content uploaded in 2011 and the recognition of the success of this marketing strategy, servers were apparently overwhelmed. The spiders didn’t always notice changes in a timely fashion, and even reporting the discrepancy might not be effective in making the book free. Getting the book un-free has become more and more of a challenge, particularly in terms of managing the timing. It now is common for a book in transition to have different prices at different outlets, sometimes for several weeks, which does not make readers (or authors) happy.
I suspect this is why Amazon came up with the KDP Select program in December 2011. It adds that control – and it gives their spiders a break. There are several elements to the program (and you really should read all the terms and conditions to understand it fully if you intend to register a title in it) but for me, these are the main bits:
1/ the enrolled work must be a digital exclusive with Amazon for 90 days. It can be available for sale in a print edition elsewhere, but not a digital one. It can’t be included in a digital anthology elsewhere either.
2/ the work will be available for loan to Amazon Prime members, and the author will be compensated for these borrows on a model which is a whole lot like the Public Lending Right commission here in Canada. (Essentially, there is an allocated pool of money to the lending library. At the end of the month, the number of loans are tallied up. The pool is divided by the total number of loans to give a payment per loan. That number is multiplied for each author by that author’s number of loans and the money paid to the author. So, an example would be that the pool at Amazon works out to $2 a loan for the month in question. The author has had 200 loans during the month, so he/she will get $400 of the allocated pool of revenue.)
3/ the work can be given away for free for five days in total over the 90 day enrollment period.
I had tried some sales events through Smashwords last year, and some discounting of my titles on Amazon, without seeing any real results. I was skeptical about the power of going free, and reluctant to give away my work in case it wasn’t an effective strategy.
I enrolled THE COUNTESS in the KDP Select program because I wanted to control the free mechanism if I was going to try it at all. (When I enrolled, I still wasn’t sure I would try it.) With KDP Select, you actually book the dates ahead of time, and their server makes the book free at roughly midnight Seattle time, then takes it off free at the end of the specified date at roughly midnight Seattle time. It’s easy, easy. You just sit back and watch. (And yes, it is addictive to monitor the book’s progress!)
One big downside of KDP Select is that readers can get pretty agitated about books not being available on their e-reader of choice, and I did hear from a number who were unhappy with my decision. On the other hand, this book is backlist and had been unavailable digitally for a number of years. It seemed that another delay couldn’t be that big of a deal. Also, with my sales volumes at other outlets the way they were, it didn’t seem as if there was much to lose.
THE COUNTESS was in the program for about a month before my first free dates. There were almost no borrows and virtually no sales. I thought the program was a total wash for me at that point, then another author raved about her success with going free. So, I tried it. The book went free, an astonishing number of copies were downloaded, and the book rose to #1 on the free historical romance novel list. I was pretty surprised.
All the same, I wasn’t sure what to expect afterward, still being skeptical of the whole free mechanism. Well, the book stayed on the PAID bestseller list for a few weeks. It sold very well, with sales gradually slowing over 60 days or so from that initial peak. Wow.
In addition to this, my Amazon UK numbers increased for all titles. I also had my first downloads and sales in Amazon’s other territories. Plus the book was borrowed a number of times, particularly in the first 30 days after it was free, which netted me a nice payment from the Prime lending program.
Even before the free days were over, I noticed a bump in sales for my other titles, not just the linked books (THE BEAUTY and THE TEMPTRESS) which I’d anticipated, but all across my list. I saw increased sales for the linked books at other outlets immediately, as well. This tells me that people with other e-readers do take advantage of the free books on Amazon, but then buy any additional titles in their format of choice from their retailer of choice. Interesting, isn’t it?
KDP Select gave my sales a huge spike on Amazon, which then settled to a new high which is roughly five times what my Amazon sales were before I offered THE COUNTESS for free. That’s a huge change and makes my enrollment of THE COUNTESS in the program well worth it. One of my other titles – THE LAST HIGHLANDER – has since risen in sales to be on the Top 100 Time Travels list of bestsellers, and is staying put, selling steadily there. This is all good.
I had hoped that a high tide would float all boats and that my increased sales on Amazon would increase my sales at all outlets, but that hasn’t really been the case. Before KDP Select, my Amazon sales were roughly half of my monthly sales on my self-pubbed backlist. The rest came through the Smashwords portal (Apple, Sony, B&N and KOBO) and through All Romance eBooks. After KDP Select, my sales at other outlets remain fairly consistent with my 2011 numbers – they might be up 10 or 20%. Given that I have more titles available, that’s not really an increase.
What does it mean for the future? I did renew THE COUNTESS for a second term at KDP Select and that book will come out of the program in June. At that point, it will be published everywhere else. Subsequent days “free” have been less dramatic than the first time, but still are building my sales. I will publish THE RENEGADE’S HEART at all outlets as simultaneously as possible, because it’s a new title and that’s been my plan all along. But I will be listening to any promotional programs offered by Amazon, and I will be watching the sales of the new book to see how it performs throughout the market.
These really are the “interesting times” of the ancient curse, but in a way, it’s exciting, too. There are so many opportunities for authors and so many things changing moment by moment. I’m enjoying the challenge of it all.
So, tell me – if you’re a reader, do you watch for free digital books? Do you buy digital books too? If you’re an author, have you had luck with going free? Has KDP Select worked as well for you?