Is Free A Price We Can Pay?

It seems that every book these days — or, at least, every self-published book — is popping up free for a short period of time, an act driven by inclusion in the exclusive Amazon KDP Select program.

I did it with SHOTGUN GRAVY, as you may have seen. To report back on the experiment, the novella has once more gone back to its two or three sales a day mark. The sales basically went like this: after going free for just over a day, the novella moved around 5200 copies. Then, after the promo ended, I sold (daily): 70, 4, 89, 48, 36, 13, then it we’re back to the two or three sales per day. During the time SG spiked, my other e-books mysteriously dipped for a couple days but then raged back strong thereafter. During that stretch, it netted be about 20 new reviews. So, I’m willing to call it a success.

And I’m not yet sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

The results were a good thing. But it’s the ramifications of those results that has me feeling wibbly-wobbly.

Here’s where I’m a bit troubled.

First, the fact we’re now seeing a new type of authorial self-promotion (my book is free! hurry up and not pay for it!) is troubling if only because I fear we’re just contributing to the overall noise — and it’s noise that spreads an intrinsic notion about the value of our work, which is to say, it maybe ain’t worth that much. This noise also helps to set up expectation: “If I wait around long enough, this book might just show up free for a couple days.” So, where before readers were becoming trained to wait for a sale — “Oh, now the book is $2.99 instead of $4.99, or now just a buck” — they’re instead waiting for it to cost them absolutely zero.

Second, the boost in sales that comes out of this process is effectively a cheat. It’s an exploit like you’d find in a multiplayer game. It’s not based on human word-of-mouth, it’s based on a programmatic exploitation of Amazon’s recommendation system — a system that is inscrutable and unpredictable. Amazon may intend for it to work that way so, in this sense it’s not strictly an exploit — but my point is that it’s based on an algorithm of recommendations rather than actual recommendations. Moreover, if that algorithm becomes dominated by this mode of juggling books to the top, then those books that are not participating may have a harder time finding a place in that already-unknowable and potentially-overcrowded recommendation system. Right? So, not only is this “free product exploit to boost sales” trick creating a potential ecosystem of lowered expectations in a story’s value (because a buck wasn’t cheap enough!), it’s also enforcing a programmatic ecosystem where if your book does not participate, it doesn’t get to play in the Reindeer Games with all the other once-free books.

Third, we’re reinforcing the notion that Amazon is the 800-lb. gorilla in the room — except now, Amazon is becoming the 800-lb. mecha-gorilla in the room (now with rapid-fire gatling gun arms!). I already sell minimally on the Nook and most authors I talk to have the same experience. On the one hand, that coffin’s already got eight nails in it. On the other hand, if our aggregated Amazon exclusivity hammers in that ninth and final nail, that means Barnes & Noble officially fails to be a competitor (which is as much their fault as anybody’s, to be clear). And a book publishing ecosystem that loses both of its main players (in Borders and B&N) is a troubled one. Up until this point, Amazon has been very author-friendly. Outside a few little stumbles and bumbles, they’re pretty good to authors and offer a genuine benefit. Amazon has changed publishing and how authors reach audiences. But, Amazon is a company. I hold no illusions that they do this to be warm and fuzzy. They’re making friends with authors so as to shank publishers in the kidneys. What happens when bookstores and publishers finally die, gurgling in their own lung-blood? Will authors continue to get a great deal in that ecosystem? Self-publishers who scream and cry about publisher monopoly plainly do not understand monopolies. Amazon has the ability to become just such a monopoly.

Let me be clear — I used the promotion, it worked, and I’m fairly happy with the results. I’m not knocking it nor am I knocking any who seek to access that exploit. You do what you have to do. If your unknown book is now known due to this process, then that’s a clear win.

My fear is that it’s a win in the short term. But that there may be harm in the long-term.

(As a sidenote, if you’ve nabbed a free book from an author and then read that book, you should do something to pay the author back: leave a review or buy other books by that author. It’s only fair.)

Curious to hear your thoughts — I’m not settled on any of this (how can you be, with the ground moving so swiftly beneath our feet?), and for all I know this represents just another step toward an authorial Renaissance. On the other hand, I worry we’re cutting out one middle-man for another, except this one is a faceless insane Amazon algorithm that lives in the dark and seeks to undo all existence with his cybernetic Hands-of-Atropos. Snip, snip.

You tell me. Have you tried the free thing either as author or reader? How’d it work for you? What are your thoughts and fears over all this? Talk it out. Curious to unpack this, see where authors of all stripes stand.

Oh! One more thing:

If you’re a self-published author, you know that one of the hardest things to come by is data.

So, go fill out this self-publishing survey. Please?

67 comments

  • “Once Amazon has slaughtered their competitors, they will turn on authors next.”

    Seriously?

    Amazon is in the content delivery business. They’re competing with other content delivery providers — they’re not going to “slaughter” content creators — because they need stuff to sell.

    Sometimes, hyperbole is NOT your friend.

  • Hi everyone – I downloaded one book for free that looked interesting. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Not bad exactly, just not good. I didn’t write a review because I don’t like writing negative reviews mostly. I don’t think I’ll bother with any more free books, partly because I don’t have time to read them and it doesn’t seem fair to take them

    I also downloaded Chuck’s book which I am reading.

    I wouldn’t have read this particular book because it’s billed as Young Adult, which is too bad because it’s a good book and I think totally unsuited for young adults. (no doubt the young adults would disagree). I plan to write a review and will consider other books in the series although I think I’d prefer the zombie book.

    I think it would be better to give away a chapter than a whole book particuarly now that the initial flutter over getting free books is over. Or give away a free book off your own web site for certaiin customers. I like the $2.99 price. That’s like an old paper book price.

    As for the Amazon monster – it didn’t really exist 15 (?) years ago. Who knows what the next decade will bring? I don’t think they’re monsters or that they’ll turn on their authors either. They haven’t turned on anyone else that I know of, and why would they? Being evil really isn’t good business.

  • maybe we need different kinds of promotions. restaurant-style. buy one get one free. free delivery (gratuities accepted). value meal pricing: separately, 3 bucks a piece, or all three for 7 dollars, and a free drink.
    does amazon have a drive-thru?
    my hands are cold because I have to smoke outside, so no caps key is being pressed today.

  • I’ve downloaded a few temporarily free books, and I’ve read a couple of those. Several were big authors I know have day jobs outside of their writing, so I felt much less guilty about grabbing their books on free promo days. But others were up and comers who may or may not do writing for a living. I honestly don’t know. One book I read was a terrible book for what it was supposed to be, and I reviewed it on Amazon as such. I should review the others, I’m sure.
    If I publish, there will probably come a time when I want to give away copies of my book for free, and I will think of this discussion and reread it to help me decide if I’m making the best decision.

  • “Amazon is in the content delivery business. They’re competing with other content delivery providers — they’re not going to “slaughter” content creators — because they need stuff to sell.”

    You really think Amazon is going to continue the 70% if they drown out the competition? Where else will all these authors go? That’s why monopolies – or those close to being one – are bad. Because neither the suppliers nor the customers have any other choice.

  • @Janelle – The thing is, though, the customers and creators will always have another choice. Setting up a shopping cart on a site is a trivial exercise these days. If Amazon really turns evil, the internet makes it pretty easy to set up an alternative. Maybe not as cheap as Amazon. Maybe not as useful as Amazon. Maybe not with Amazon’s massive customer base. But, almost definitely viable.

    Establishing a monopoly is ridiculously hard in an e-tail market. Clicking on site A is just as easy as clicking on site B. Even Google, whose very name has become synonymous with web searching, isn’t a monopoly.

    The danger is not that Amazon will establish a monopoly and intentionally screw the authors. It is that they will establish an unsupportable culture in their customer base, which will devalue the entire market, destroying authors who operate in the narrow fringe of near-profitability.

  • What’s the difference between an author giving away a self-pubbed book (through any means) and one of the Big 6 giving away books? I am traditionally published but I also have self-pubbed backlist and some original front list. My publishers ALWAYS give away copies of my releases. They give me author’s copies that I give away. If I’m lucky, they”ll steeply discount one or more of my eBooks with them. Why? Because they know that free books sell books.

    It sure seems unfair to ask self-pubbed authors to give up free as a promotional strategy, but not ask that of publishers. The sales bump for a traditionally pubbed book after such a promotion is just as “fake” as it is for a self-pubbed one.

    B&N deliberately buries self-pubbed titles in its ranking system and they don’t do any price-matching. I’d hate to seem them leave the eco-system but to be honest I don’t feel it’s my job to keep them in business and I strongly doubt it’s even possible. That sentiment didn’t save Borders and it won’t save B&N.

    It’s just too bad the other vendors don’t seem to be doing much of the things that makes Amazon that 800 lb gorilla. How easy is it to directly self-pub to Kobo, Sony or Google Books? Answer: It’s a PITA or overtly impossible.

    There’s money in serving self-publishers, so I think it’s unlikely that Amazon would find itself the only game in town, but if they’re the 800 lb gorilla, really, whose fault is that?

  • @Gareth… do not underestimate their capacity to tighten their purse strings and pay authors poorly.

    Amazon will become like Walmart, and their wages to the people they “need” will be pathetic. They will know that we (authors) need them even more, because they are the only game in town. We lose leverage, they gain it, and we’ll see that reflected in the profit splits.

    Hyperbole or not, you know that scenario is REALLY likely.

  • Conspiracy Theory Hat On: I don’t trust the e-book. I don’t trust that in 30 days it won’t be “updated” with product placement (an easy enough find and replace) or that it will be otherwise modified. As an author, why would I go back and check?

    Taking off the Conspiracy Theory Hat, I have downloaded about 3 dozen “free” [aka "tester"] [1] ebooks from Amazon, and so far, only two of them have had enough merit for me to finish them. (And I read voraciously, a book or two a day on average.) Of those two books, one was a teaser for a series I might end up picking up when it’s finished, and the other I’ve gone ahead and bought another book from the author. [2]

    [1] Meaning just like how I do free mp3s of songs – I review them on Mondays. I have a system: first I listen to the new music from that week, and I delete anything that doesn’t grab me to possibly listen to again. Then I listen to music from the last week and if I don’t like it, delete it. If it makes it to the three week pile, I add it to my regular listening list and if I like it, I pick up more from the artist (if more’s available) and recommend it to my music biz friends with less of a hipster, “Hey, have you heard of this?” and more of a, “Here’s a mix CD of new-to-me music. Tell me what you think.” Books are a little different – I download a whole bunch of free ones to see if I might enjoy them, and then if I can’t get through them I delete them, if I can, I pass it on as a recommend. You don’t want me doing reviews.

    [2] You know what would be a lot more effective for me? Discounts on buying additional books from an author. “You’ve enjoyed X, now buy Y for $1 off our already low prices!” Of course, I’ve never heard of the ability to return something. Who returns books? That’s criminal. They need to go to used bookstores. Or, in the case of some terrible books, put into a pile and sledgehammered (or axed) for charity.

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