The Business of Free eBooks

by A.J. Cosmo

In the early days of Kindle Publishing you could take a “set it and forget it” approach to book giveaways. A free period, shortly after launch, basically guaranteed high downloads and inevitable sales. Over time, and with increased competition, free eBooks have lost a lot of their power as a promotional tool. Gone are the days of easy 1,000+ downloads. Now most authors celebrate giving away a few hundred copies.

Perma-free titles, along with the introduction of Kindle Unlimited, has further diminished the appeal of free eBooks. Anymore it feels like you literally can’t give away your books. So why then, under all this doom and gloom, do I continue to promote my work using free eBooks? There’s not just one reason, there’s ten.

  1. It’s Artistic Satisfaction– The act of giving away your material ensures that someone, somewhere, is reading your work. That’s artistic satisfaction, even if it doesn’t lead to any financial rewards. Most authors say they are grateful just to be read, but let’s be honest here, we write with the hope of making money.
  2. It’s Name Recognition– The only thing worse than no sales is having no one know who you are. Even if a reader never buys a book from you, the fact that your name has entered their conscious is reason enough to give away content. You want your name to be an option in people’s mind when they talk about books in daily conversation.
  3. It’s a Taste Test– If everyone follows the same quality standards, then the sale of a book will depend mostly on the taste of the reader. How can someone know if they like your work without sampling it? Even though Amazon offers preview chapters, there’s something special about getting a complete book.
  4. It’s a Loss Leader– Have you ever wondered why milk has been $2.99 for fifteen years? The cost of milk has gone up with inflation, yet it’s still pretty cheap. That’s because the store sells milk at a loss. Grocery stores know if you buy milk you’ll probably buy something else too. So if your eBooks have links to other titles, or if the free book is part of a series, then you are more likely to sell books when readers pick up the freebie.
  5. It Captures Emails- A free eBook, tied in with an email capture service such as LeadPages, can quickly grow your eMail list. These readers are giving you permission to sell to them, not just books in the same series, but anything relating to your work.
  6. It Keeps Up Rankings- Readers and algorithms constantly check the top of the best-seller charts. So, even though rankings reset when going from free to paid, the inbound links and “also viewed” carousel will bring eyeballs to your page and result in increased rankings. With well timed, and short, promotions you can fight constantly sinking tides.
  7. It Leads to KU Sales- Strange as it seems, many people experience a boost in Kindle Unlimited Page reads when putting a book on free promotion. The consensus is that the button to purchase the book for free looks the same as the Kindle Unlimited button to read  for free, so a simple mis-click means sales!
  8. It Leads to Reviews- Around .5%-5% of people who download your free eBook will leave a review. Those reviews can give you valuable feedback for improvement or a boost to your ego for a job well done. Either way, those reviews will inform other readers when they take a look at your work.
  9. Yes, It Still Leads to Sales- Generally speaking, around 1% of download numbers for a title will convert to paid sales after the promotion is over, so it really is a numbers game. Those small sales will lead to a higher ranking and, with luck, more sales down the line.
  10. It Gives Feedback- There’s nothing more heartbreaking than a dead book, however, even if no one is saying anything they are still saying something. If you can’t give away your book, then that means that something about the book isn’t working. Maybe the cover needs to be redone. Maybe it needs a fresh edit. Maybe the copy could be improved. And maybe, just maybe, the book came out of the oven too early. Use a bad promotion as a chance to take a look at your work and see what could be improved. It’s a tough market out there, give it your best.

In short, free eBooks are far from useless. They may not have the magical impact that they once did during the gold-rush days, but they are still an important, and sometimes very potent, tool in the independent author’s toolbox.

A.J. Cosmo is the author/illustrator of over thirty children’s books including the best selling “The Monster That Ate My Socks.” He lives and works in Los Angeles, California. Check out his website or say hi on Twitter.


Locked Out

The new update to the Kindle app for iOS contained a surprise. For years, Apple refused to allow direct links to Amazon in iBooks, now it seems they also don’t allow those same links in Kindle books.
Trying to open an Amazon link in a book inside of the Kindle app results in an error. Note that links work to any other site, so we’re left to conclude that this is a direct attack against Amazon.

Perhaps they deserved it. After all, Amazon publicly announced that they would no longer carry streaming devices on their store that didn’t support Amazon Prime Streaming. This includes Google’s Chromecast, but more importantly it locks out Apple TV from being sold by the largest online retailer. Both companies have every right to sell and modify their own products as they see fit, however, consumers and creatives are getting caught in the crossfire.

Rather than offer us a vast collection of easy choices, the internet market is maturing into a series of walled gardens. Apple started this trend but Amazon is picking up the slack. This will result in an already tapped audience, exhausted by choice, to now choose loyalties. It’s reminiscent of the old PC versus Mac war, or if you’re a member of my generation, the Sega versus Nintendo war. Consumers lose in this battle because we only get a selection of our total want. I may think Game of Thrones is amazing but I have Netflix over HBO Go, so I settle for watching Ancient Aliens rather than new content that I really want to see.

But what does this mean for books? Well for starters it puts creatives in a bind. If you want to have multi-platform exposure you will have to pass on platform specific features, mainly Kindle Select, and the creativity of your book itself will be constrained to the lowest common denominator. Apple may offer the most advanced features for eBooks, but as long as those features are absent on the Kindle Fire line, you won’t see many books taking advantage of them. That is unless the author is exclusive to Apple. That right there is what both companies want.

Here’s the rub though, as Amazon has gotten more competitive, their sales algorithm, that nifty tool that lead to so many organic sales early on, has become less effective. So increasingly authors are reliant upon their own marketing to see any sales at all. At the same time, the red tape of KDP has locked authors into the platform, forcing them to both be loyal to Amazon and perform their own marketing- calling into question the reason for exclusivity in the first place. At least Amazon has some organic sales, Apple is either feast or famine, dependent upon being selected by their curators and having your content featured.

The feeling you’re left with is powerlessness. As a creative, you have all the work to do and only receive a portion of the rewards in return. This is effectively shifting the burden of sales onto the supplier, which is something business has dreamed of since Caesar. Many authors can’t shake the feeling that they are fighting against the company they are working with. We have no idea from day to day what pay rates will be, what reviews will be deleted, or what sweeping change will rock the market- and this has sapped the industry of enthusiasm and replaced it with dread.

As a consumer, you have to weigh your tastes versus what is offered and compromise with what you actually want. You will never be totally satisfied because the content you desire is segregated. Every platform now offers one or two stand out titles and a dirge of filler content. In this regard traditional publishers have won the digital war as their titles become marquees, leaving independents to fill the box like packing peanuts. Our content is both essential to these behemoths and also completely irrelevant. They need our hits, our cream, the rest of it doesn’t matter.

We are caught in the shadows of two fighting giants. We’re not powerless though. Our decisions on where to publish, what to publish, and how to promote will have a collective effect on the outcome of this war. No platform can stand for long with only a handful of quality offerings.

They are counting on you to give them the crown.