The Challenge with Free: KDP Select and Selling Books

- David Biddle

I recently ran a Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) free day campaign for my novel, Beyond the Will of God. The kickoff was on a Friday, so it got listed here at A Knife and a Quill, in the WTFBF feature. I did some long legwork getting a number of indie websites to include my novel in their “free” listings. I also tweeted the crap out of my offering. And I bombed my FaceBook friends and Google+ buddies with information on these free days.

It all turned out better than I could have hoped for. My little novel was downloaded by over 10,000 ereaders in a three-day period of time. Before that, I’d made 62 e-book sales (at $2.99) and 13 paperback sales (at $15.99).

So, more than 10,000 people can now read my story. That’s incredible. I’m not letting myself think about the fact that I gave away over $30,000 worth of books. I know the value of having my book in the hands of 10,000 people. The idea of the KDP free days promo is to give your novel lift for a while on the Amazon lists and to make it likely that word-of-mouth about your book will pick up. According to Rex Jameson in his article “Preparing for Your KDP Select Free Days,” “It will take 2-5 days for paid sales to start rolling in after a free period.”

Well, we’ll see. I’ve been getting about 10 purchases a day for the past week – not huge, but consistent.

But I realized something pretty important by Sunday morning during my free run: people who download things for free are not the same as people who buy things for real money.

In the world of indie books this truism is especially poignant. I mean, my book has been priced at $2.99 for well over two months. It’s a 380-page novel selling for under $3.00. Until my free days, it had sold just 62 copies. A writer friend of mine was shocked when she heard I was going the low-end route with the Kindle Store. Indeed, she’s probably right. I very likely would have sold 60 or so copies of my book at $6.99. It’s still cheaper than an offering from a traditional publishing house. (Plus, most of those 62 sales I made were to family and friends).

But the true sticking point here is that Free is a lot different than even $0.99. It’s easier to morally hit return for a “buy;” there’s no risk; and you’re giving writers a pat on the back without having to pay one red cent.

Actually buying an indie book is a wholly different experience. There’s a lot of risk, even at $2.99. And while you’re patting an indie writer on the back, you’re also quite aware of the fact that sometimes indie writing is not as smooth and happy a read as a book published by a traditional house.

There’s a schism, then, in the marketplace. I doubt it’s really an either-or situation, but most definitely the majority of people who wanted my book for free also downloaded 5-10 other books. Many of these people may have massive libraries on their Kindles and iPads. It’s not easy to manage more than 30 books on a relatively small screen (a lot of people also read on their smart phones, which must make library management very difficult).

Without doubt, most people with ereaders and digital tablets have both free and paid books in their libraries. How you treat those books has to be different. It’s surprising, in fact, that there isn’t a sort command based on the cost of ones books. But the truth is that in most cases, a book you pay for is likely to get a lot more benefit of the doubt than something for free. It may well get more focus, too, as the reader starts it.

My problem then is that the 10,000 free versions of my book may sit unread for weeks or months. And when they are finally perused, my writing better be good, my story better be provocative, and my characters interesting or I lose that word-of-mouth I was investing in.

I actually know I’ve done a good job of drawing readers in with my story and characters – at least, some readers. But that’s all you can ever ask for with any piece of fiction. Some people are going to be interested and some won’t be. I have faith that a good portion of those 10,000 are going to be happy enough with my novel that they’ll let others know about it and that they’ll want to download my collections of short stories and read my blog. I also have faith that happy readers will take my suggestion they write me seriously.

But I also wrote this little essay on “The Problem with Free” for a reason. Without the KDP Select promo days, I might get a few sales a week for years before I had enough readers to make a career out of. In one weekend, I expanded my reach dramatically. So did several hundred other indie writers during that weekend in August. Readers downloading free books know that every once in a while they are going to bump into a writer or a tale that really touches them or that makes them laugh out loud. They know that they may be discovering the next EL James or Amanda Hocking.

And you can bet that when a reader finds someone like that, they’re going to let everyone know how smart they are and that there’s fresh meat out there … and that $2.99 is still a really good deal since Free is already used up.

David Biddle is the author of the novel Beyond the Will of God as well as several collections of short stories. He is also a contributing writer and columnist with TalkingWriting.com. Find him at The Formality of Occurrence

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7 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this. Like so many of us, I’m mulling over the “free” thing, and trying to decide if it’s the best thing to do.

    • I personally say it’s worth it. But then again I don’t care about sales. I give like 90% of my stuff out for free and have a small fan base because of it. But I believe you can’t make money if no one knows you.

  2. The “free” book situation has pretty much gotten out of hand and more and more indie authors are resenting it and discussing it. Thanks to Amazon for initiating it, indie books are viewed as being of little value. Equally problematic, readers are starting to expect “free.’ I know several people who have stopped buying ebooks and go on the free list every day to ‘stock up.’ I’m sure there are thousands like them. Even the .99 and $1.99 pricings are not benefiting the indie movement. If a writer’s book is worth no more than that, (or if it is a short story or booklet) then that’s fine. But a writer who has produced a quality book is foolish to give it away free or even price it at pennies – in my not-always-so-humble opinion.

  3. [...] The Challenge with Free: KDP Select and Selling Books (aknifeandaquill.wordpress.com) [...]

  4. Well-thought out reasoning, and kudos for giving away 10k books.

    I’m all for the KDP promo. The free book model is not new. We’ve had it for hundreds of years – its called the Library.

    Sure, the author makes a sale for each book the library buys, but then each of those books gets read (for free, of course) by potentially hundreds of people, at least some of whom will then go out and buy a copy for themselves or for a friend, or recommend it to others.

    Word of mouth is essential for all writers, indies in particular. Your book can’t be on people’s lips if no one has even seen it.

    And yes, I’ll be offering my comic novel, a political satire about the 2012 election, for FREE, next week.

  5. I hadn’t thought about how readers might treat “free” and “cheap” differently. I try not to think of how many dollars of books I’ve given away on KDP Select. But since it’s really electrons, not dollars, I’m giving away, I’ve concluded it’s best not to do the math. Thanks for the essay.

  6. [...] article comes for David Biddle and A Knife and A Quill. Please visit http://aknifeandaquill.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/the-challenge-with-free-kdp-select-and-selling-books… for the complete article. It’s well worth reading if you are thinking of offering your book [...]


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