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?