This week on Wild West Thursday, we’ll talk a bit about one of the sales mechanisms used to promote books in the digital marketplace – making a title free.
The core idea is that the free book is what is called a “loss leader” by marketing people. This is similar to a free sample – the difference is that it isn’t a trial size (a chapter or two) but the entire book which is usually sold for a higher price than free. That it’s often a limited time offer increases the appeal – customers are getting a deal. Ideally, the customer tries the free book, likes it, then buys other books by the author. Also, because the book is free, more people download it than would otherwise be the case. This can drive the book on to free “bestseller” lists – actually they’re lists of most popular downloads because these books aren’t sold. The fact that so many people try the book gives it more visibility on online portals in display positions and bestseller lists, which makes more people aware that it is free, leading to more free sampling – and ideally more sales.
Publishers have given away free print books for years to stimulate this same result. Online distribution of digital books allows a more immediate effect, and the opportunity for momentum to build quickly.
Not all sites allow the price of a book to be set to $0.00. Neither Amazon nor Barnes&Noble allow a book to be set to free, but both of them clearly offer free books. There are several ways to make this happen.
There are two ways to make a book free at Amazon. First, Amazon offers a promotion called KDP Select. To enroll a title in this program, the indie author must make the digital book available exclusively at Amazon for 90 days. Within that 90 days, the book can be offered free for a total of five days. The title also is available for borrowing by Amazon Prime customers, a program which compensates authors for each “borrow” in a way similar to the Public Lending Right Commission. One thing that is very appealing about KDP Select is how easy it is to make a book free at a specific time. There’s no squish and no wiggle, no fuss and no muss. It’s a lot less trouble and a lot more precise than the other way of getting a book to be free on Amazon.
The second way to get a book free on Amazon is to encourage Amazon to match the price at another portal. Other portals (like Apple, KOBO and Smashwords) allow the author to set the book’s price to free. There is no guarantee that Amazon will match a free price – they do so at their own discretion, and on their own schedule. On every product page on Amazon, there is a link (scroll down to the product information, where the publisher information and sales ranking is listed) to report a lower price elsewhere. When authors want a book to go free on Amazon, they often will ask readers to do this reporting in the hopes of encouraging Amazon to price match. The rumour is that Amazon is more likely to match Apple and KOBO than any other vendor. The advantage of going free this way is that the promotion can last more than five days. The disadvantage is that you can’t be sure it will work, or even when it will work if it does. It’s more trouble.
As mentioned, B&N does not allow a book to be set free through PubIt. B&N does take a feed from Smashwords, though, and if the book is set free at Smashwords then distributed to B&N from there, B&N will list it at the free price. This is a bit goofy, but it works – obviously, the title must already be approved for premium distribution at Smashwords. To save confusion, both the SW and the B&N edition should have the same ISBN#.
1. A well managed free promotion – even one of only several days duration – can propel a title on to the free “bestseller” lists. These actually are most popular download lists, but they have similar visibility to the bestseller lists. On Amazon, the lists run side by side: paid on the left, free on the right. All lists are self-propagating, which means that once a title is on a list, it is likely to stay there for a while. The higher it is on the list, the more visibility it has. That leads to more downloads of the free title and more visibility for the authors’ other titles. This is the BOOM of going free and it can be quite amazing to watch.
2. Obviously, the intent of going free is to drive sales of other titles. I generally put the first title in a series free when I’m going to do this kind of promotion. People who want to read on will naturally gravitate to the next book in the series. The first result that I routinely see in my sales when I offer a title for free happens within 24 hours: any works that I have for sale for 99 cents begin to sell at an accelerated rate. At 48 hours in, the book in the series that comes after the free title begins to sell at an accelerated rate. It’s quite interesting to watch the ripple effect pass through the sales spreadsheet as interest flows to the other linked books, then to other titles in my list. The avid readers lead the charge, followed by a big wave of readers who get to books in a week or two. There is trickle for up to six months, as readers get to the books they’ve downloaded for free. Overall, I find that the main effect spikes and drops over 60 days or so, at which point there will be a new higher baseline established for my monthly sales rate.
3. When a book goes free, sales of other titles increase but so do returns of those titles. Clearly there are people who like to read for free and want to continue to read for free through an author’s entire list. It makes sense for online booksellers to allow returns within a tight period of time – it is possible to one-click-buy a title by mistake, but the buyer knows his or her error immediately. A one hour return window would be perfectly fair. Instead, these portals seem to allow returns indefinitely. When a book goes free, returns of other titles increase in returns, particularly on that subsequent book in the series. These returns occur days or even weeks after the purchase is made, which leads me to conclude that the customer is reading the book and then returning it. This pattern is particularly pronounced on Amazon.com.
4. Another effect of having a book go free is a proliferation of one star reviews for that title. I’m not sure why this happens but it certainly does – and some of these reviews can be very nasty. I don’t understand this behavior as the book in question is free and the reader doesn’t have to download it, but there is definitely anger and resentment in these reviews. Again, it’s a pattern that is more pronounced on Amazon.com than on any other portal. I don’t think that overall it’s that important – as reviews build for a title, things even out – but authors new to free are often startled by these reviews. (Yet another reason to not obsessively read reviews, IMO.) In recent months, there appears to have been a bit of a backlash amongst readers – I’ve noticed a proliferation of four and five star reviews when a book goes free, which balances things out a bit. It’s nice of readers to do this. 🙂
5. On all portals, the availability of a free title will ideally drive sales of the author’s other titles. This is a natural result of some percentage of readers liking the book and wanting to read more. On Amazon, however, The Algorithm ensures that there is more of an afterburn from a free promotion. As far as I can tell, this is peculiar to Amazon and ensures that there are greater results from a free offering. Consider first the visibility that a free title has: it’s on free download “bestseller lists”; it’s displayed as “also boughts” along with every title that has been downloaded or purchased in the same order by customers; it may be suggested elsewhere on the site due to its popularity as a free title. When the title comes off free on Amazon, all of those display positions hold – with the exception that the price changes from $0 to whatever the list price of the book is. It looks as if all of those people bought the book at its current price. That supplies an extra boost to the title in terms of sales and visibility.
Given the benefits of going free, there are still lots of questions. How long should a book be free? Some authors advocate for the short term (2 – 5 days), others prefer a week or two, while still others are convinced that one title in an author’s list should be permanently free. There are authors who write a novella introducing a trilogy of books and make the novella free to promote the books. There are authors who leave the first book in a trilogy free, or the first novella in a linked series free. There are authors who offer a seasonal freebie – this is often billed as a thank-you gift to readers, and might be a Christmas themed novella. There are authors who compile or write anthologies with other authors, then offer that anthology free, as a sampler for all of their work.
I suspect that the results vary based not only on the author in question, but the work in question, the promotion associated with going free and the genre or sub-genre of the work itself. What other titles are free in a given sub-genre will also affect results, as will events in the big wide world. Like so many things in indie publishing, there are so many variables that it’s difficult to identify every element that contributes to success.
There are many many ways to play with this mechanism and use it to advantage, and I suspect that new ideas will develop all the time. The free book is here to stay – the issue is how to make it most effective in promoting a particular author and his or her books. That is in flux and will remain so, which is part of the challenge.
How about you? Do you download free books? Do you read them right away, or get to them later? What determines when you read a free book? Do you ever buy other books by the author, if you like the free one? Do you post reviews of free books?