The End of Free?

We’ve talked about authors making books free in past posts here on Wild West Thursday, and about the way that free can give visibility to an author. (Here’s one of my earliest posts about free, and some reflections on implications, then a more recent one about free’s effectiveness.) The benefit of free is particularly seen in linked titles — for example, when Double Trouble was free, sales of One More Time, All or Nothing and Third Time Lucky increased dramatically. In a nutshell, making Double Trouble free gave the Coxwell series the visibility it needed to populate the algorithm at the various online portals and to find readership.

Free, however, doesn’t directly make money for the online bookseller. It creates expense but not revenue. It requires capacity in the network and storage space on the servers. There are many authors who don’t use free strategically to drive sales of other titles. Before Christmas, the rumor was that there were over 2 million titles that were free on Amazon, and that 3000 – 4000 titles went free every single day on that site through KDP Select. With that kind of volume of titles available free, it’s fair to say that a culture is being established that ALL books should be free—or at least that an ever-growing number of readers are coming to believe that they need never again pay for a book.

It stands to reason that online booksellers would want free to go away. The question is how will they do it — and the problem is that it works so very well to promote linked titles. (I talked about this a bit in January.)

Amazon is one portal on which authors can’t set a free price. Every book must have a minimum price of 99 cents. (B&N is another portal that doesn’t allow authors to make a book free.) Amazon chooses to match a free price elsewhere, or not, at their own discretion. What authors often do is make a title free at Apple, KOBO, and/or Smashwords (which feeds content to both of those portals as well as B&N and others.) Amazon then may choose to match the price. The other option is to register a title in KDP Select, which allows the author to pre-select 5 free days in a 90 day period, but also requires exclusivity of that title for those 90 days.

In my experience, going free everywhere has been much more effective. It has helped to build my sales on every portal by populating their respective algorithms, which diversifies my income source. It also doesn’t require exclusivity, which is something resented by readers who shop at portals other than Amazon. You can probably guess that having done this has weakened my own relationship with Amazon: in December 2012, probably 95% of my online indie sales were made at Amazon. In December 2013, that would have been closer to 60%. My sales at KOBO and Apple exploded in the last half of 2012, and B&N grew significantly, as well. That’s a big change and if my experience is mirrored across the entire publishing platform, that’s an issue from Amazon. (Last week, I saw an industry report that Amazon’s market share had dropped from 90% to 60%, which indicates that my results are typical.)

In December, I had several books free on all portals, which were driving sales of linked titles very nicely. I was all ready for the Christmas gifts of e-readers and finding new audience with those free titles. To my surprise, Amazon unmatched free on my books just before Christmas, returning them to their regular prices. My marketing plan, at least on that portal, was completely trashed. I think they must have had some pushback from customers, though, because they were matching free again before New Year’s. The momentum had been lost for my titles, though, so I returned them to regular prices elsewhere, too, and changed strategies.

By mid-January, though, free was back in place at Amazon, much as it had been a month before. It appears that the first attempt to get rid of free – by teaching new Kindle users that content must be bought – was unsuccessful.

Tomorrow, the next stage in the plan goes into effect: Amazon has changed the rules for Amazon Associates accounts. These are sites that drive traffic to Amazon with buy links and receive a percentage of all purchases made by those customers who follow their link. Although the amount of money per unit sale is small, sites that drive high volumes of traffic—like many of the services that advertise free books to readers—do well enough to pay their expenses. As of March 1, however, Amazon has changed the terms of payment. If most of the downloads/sales driven by an associate’s links are for free books or if downloads of free books exceed a specified number of units, that associate will forfeit payment from Amazon for that month.

This is an interesting strategy and it remains to be seen whether it changes the game or not. Either way, get ready for more discounted books and fewer free ones. Will Amazon continue to encourage authors to sign up for KDP Select? I suspect they will, and as getting rid of the free price-match may be a means to compel authors to use KDP Select to get books free on Amazon. We’ll see.

But the funny thing is I had booked a sale for March well in advance of this announcement. I feel psychic!

Jewels of Kinfailie Boxed Set by Claire Delacroix

March 4 – 31, the Jewels of Kinfairlie Boxed Set will be discounted from $9.99 to $2.99. That’s three  full length medieval romances and a linked short story for less than $3. It’ll be on sale at Amazon, KOBO, B&N and Apple.

Check back on Monday for one-click buy links.

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