Is “Free” Over?

Before the rise of Amazon’s KDP Select, I had serious reservations about the merits of giving books away for free as a means to build readership.

Then the Select program came and shook things up in a big way. For what was likely the first time, indie authors were shooting up the charts on a par with authors who are household names. Numerous early adopters of the program reported post-free sales surges and sales in their back lists. Amazon had figured out a way to make “free” work.

Then they began changing it. The first thing to go was the impact of free downloads on the ranking algorithm. The freebies no longer shot up the charts, gaining and sustaining the visibility they once had.

The next bubble to burst was that downloads did not appear to equate to readership. People seem content to fill their Kindles with free books they never get around to reading, let alone reviewing.

For example, Bad Book has a little over 3500 free downloads to its credit and sports a stunning 23 reviews. So,  0.66% of the people who downloaded it posted a review. Actually, it’s worse than that, because some of the folks who posted reviews actually bought the book.

The ranking algorithms no longer support freebies, the reviews are not there to justify it, the post-freebie surge is often little more than a splutter, and back list impact is negligible. Oh, there are still a few success stories. Nothing like before. The real gold rush is over.

There had always been negatives to consider with the KDP Select program – not the least of which is the exclusivity requirement. But once all the positives have boiled away, what is left but the negatives?

Here at Indies Unlimited, we have noticed a decline in the number of authors and titles in the Freebie Friday events. I can’t say for certain that the same is happening elsewhere, but I believe fewer authors enthuse about KDP Select than used to be the case. If that trend continues, the program will wither and die on its own.

Even though I am not a fan of free, I hate to see this happen. Amazon really did find a way to make it work for everyone, and doing so opened doors for a few authors and introduced readers to books they might not ever have found otherwise.

But the Select program is not one that just ran its course or became outmoded. When it worked, it did so because of the unique way Amazon configured it. It has stopped working for the same reason. Amazon re-configured it to produce the present effects.

As usual, we are left wondering why. Amazon is not a company that does things willy-nilly. Everything they do is done with purpose. There was some sort of strategy in both the inception of the program and its atrophy. Were they targeting the wobbly brick-and-mortar markets? Were they leveraging big ink to reduce prices on their e-books? Maybe it’s not a coincidence that KDP Select quit working just as the Apple price-fixing case concluded.

The only safe conclusions are that Amazon instituted the program for a reason and that their objectives have been met. Free is now returning to what it once was: worthless.

Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

42 thoughts on “Is “Free” Over?”

  1. I have tested the FREE waters and I think the biggest advantage to the Amazon FREE program as well as Freebie Friday is exposure to your books. I will continue to use both but on more of a sparingly mode. I have attained good exposure for my two business books as well as my three historical fictions.

  2. But I will read all those free ebooks on my Kindle. I will, I will. I’m ensuring I have something to read when I’m…when I’m…(quick calculation)…143. This, EM, is called forward planning.

    1. Only 143? The self-control you have.

      I have over 2,500 free books for my kindle app (best guesstimate when remove books for review & bought). I have no self-control & too many author friends. I just wish I had enough money to buy all their books.

      I’ve forward planned into my next lifetime. 😀

  3. Yeah, gotta agree with you there, EM. The ‘Zon doesn’t do willy-nilly. I opted out of Select for my last book and sales on the other channels are taking up the slack. I still like using free sparingly, though. Just not with the ‘Zon.

  4. I keep some of my books in Select for the KOLL aspects, since I make more on loans than I do on sales. The free promotion is completely worthless now. It’s bad enough to give away your hard work in exchange for promotional value, but to do so with no commensurate assistance in ranking as it is now is criminal.

    NEVER give away your hard work for free!

  5. Well argued and balanced. I don’t think free is a good idea, because it means the market is saturated, which means there’s no business point in being in it at all. I think you’re right though – whatever the Zon wanted to do by forcing unknown authors to give thousands of copies away in a literary lottery, they’ve done.

  6. I had surprising success with it recently, and on a solo title, but I had ad support and I think that makes a big difference. Amazon’s algorithms gave me a nice bump, although it’s already tailing off. I also think I was just really lucky with my timing. So I’m thankful that option is still there. For an unknown author, I can’t think of a faster, better shot at getting reviews. I wrote about it here if you’re interested:

    Of course, I am ALSO loaded up with free titles I haven’t read yet, so I do understand that the immediate boost of these offers is not what it once was.I suspect a lot of it is simply a matter of the increasing volume of self-published titles.

  7. I’m starting to lean in this direction. I see better results with an advertised 99-cent sale. But that may change in a day, a week, a month…

  8. I suspect that from the Zon’s perspective, free worked a little *too* well. That’s why they ratcheted it back. But it sucks that we get no bounce at all from it now.

    That said, I did a free promotion over the summer with my series, and having one book free seemed to spur a few sales of the other books in the same series. I didn’t make a killing, but I made *some* money (which was a nice change! 😀 ). So free promotions are apparently still good for that. (I’m planning a similar promotion, starting next week; we’ll see if I sell anything at all….)

  9. I don’t think free is over. A few authors I know announced they wouldn’t be doing free this year but they’ve changed their mind. They are doing less free and using it more with sales/discounts. I think how to use free is changing. Having your book only for sale on Amazon limits your audience and you can’t test sales on other retailers on a short-term basis.

    I do think free followed by a discount on the book or others in the series has encouraged me to buy books I might not have otherwise. Or free with discounts at the same time of other books in a series & advertising both has certainly had me grab several books at once.

    I’ve bought a number of books by an author after trying them free. Sometimes I write reviews, sometimes I don’t, I try to put up reviews at least on Goodreads. I read over 200 books a year so I doubt I’m the average reader even when you talk “frequent readers”. I’ve downloaded way more books than I can probably read since I have over 3300 books for my kindle app alone.

  10. Great comments, everyone. I know the program still works sometimes for some people, and maybe for some titles, but even the veteran advocates of the program admit it doesn’t do what it used to, and I think for an increasing number of authors, it does nothing at all.

  11. I m so grateful for this post. I’ve been debating for ages, and have really lost faith in the Select program. Now Amazon Select has the special “twofer” kind of offer. Buy a print book and get the kindle for $2.99 or less. It’s just not enticing enough because one can discount the kindle books at any chosen time. I think I’ll be publishing at all other available e-book venues.
    With the holiday season coming up there’s a lot of opportunity to market far and wide. Now, just to find the time…

  12. I might be one of those outliers in the free world. I have used it sparingly and I’ve managed to run back up to #1 in my category in the PAID rankings several times. It gives me a nice bump. As I add more titles, does that mean I’ll use it less? Maybe, I haven’t figured out that strategy yet.

  13. I figured it as such. I have more “free” books than I should, and I’m only going to be able to read about 2/3 of them. I believe that the free books experiment is over and Amazon should try another way to guarantee sales.

    Plus, the cheapest price for my books will always be $.99, not free.

  14. What I’d like Amazon to do is to allow each author to have ONE book permanently free. To give people a taste for that author’s work. It might be just a short-story.

  15. i, for one, am SO GLAD to see it dying. I agree with Rich — Never Give Away Your Hard Work. It is because of all the freebies that sales are so low for the rest of us…well, that isn’t the ONLY reason, but it is a big problem. After all, why should a reader PAY for the cow when they get milk for free?

  16. I rarely pick up a free book just because it’s free, so my TBR list is always very short, and I tend to read almost everything I buy. Like Tasha though, I’m a voracious reader so maybe I’m not typical. I think for most readers, free ebooks are like Lynne’s buttons – something you collect but very rarely use. However things you pay for you tend to value more.

      1. The one thing I truly regret about having become an author is that I now spend so much time writing that I used to use for reading. I’d regularly get through a book or two a week before. Now… maybe one or two a month.

  17. I have never been an advocate of free, you don’t appreciate what you get for nothing (or don’t have to work for in some way), and that goes for everything, not just books. I did try Select with one book, once, and it did a little bump but nothing to write home about; however the pain in the a*** antics of taking it off the other distributors and then rebooting it et cetera was certainly not worth it for me. My timing probably wasn’t the best, as I thought too long about it before I tried it and I know other authors have had some really good results from it, but I’m with Rich on this one: I don’t think you should give your hard work and or expertise way for free! It’s rarely appreciated. And all you guys who have thousands of free books downloaded, I’m sorry but don’t be fooling yourself, you are not helping anyone but yourself.

    Excellent, and very pertinent post, Stephen.

    1. The next time an author friend asks me to download a book during the freebie I’ll be sure to say no in my reply email or PM… Or not. Most of my author friends have made it clear they appreciate my downloading their freebies. They know I’m likely to mention their books somewhere, sometime. I know my reviews on GR have led to sales and additional reviews. I also know books I haven’t read have become group reads on my mentioning I’ve been dying to read the book and I’m friends with the author. Those books have gotten more reviews than they might have otherwise.

      Thanks for judging favorably and making sure we know how selfish we’ve been by doing what friends ask of us.

      1. You, Tasha, are probably one in a million; to you, and those of your ilk, if my hasty, flip comments have offended, I sincerely apologise; that was not my intention.

        1. It was late at night. I might have overreacted. But to make another point: at least people downloading freebies are not pirating the books and just maybe they buy books that aren’t free rather than go to pirate sites because they get so much other reading free. I’m not sure how we could test that theory but its one to consider.

          Plus if an author makes their work available for free is it fair to insult people who pick it up? Shouldn’t you instead go after the retailers and authors and shame them for devaluing their work (I disagree but am trying to make a point) rather than the person who picks it up? After all there is a reason many authors made their books free (Martin Crosbie did quite well using this method). And Amazon is really at fault with KDP, followed by Shmashwords & many retailers having a “match the lowest price” policy.

          Yet during the time that KDP select has been doing its things according to a blog post by Mark Coker the “sweet spot” for books went from $0.99, to $1.99, to $2.99 over the last three years – showing that people were paying more on average for a book.

          I guess I’m just not into shaming people. If someone grabs a lot of freebie books who did they hurt? We can be pretty sure they would not have bought the books so it’s not a lost sale (I couldn’t afford the 2,500 freebies I have *holds head in horror at number*). 1. They might read a book and find a new author they like & share their new love or 2. unfortunately leave a bad review because they did not read the description before downloading/book is poorly written or 3. the book might just sit on their device never read. If it’s the 1st it’s a win for everyone. If it’s the 2nd it’s unfortunate. If it’s the 3rd what harm has been done? And their download may have helped move the book up in rankings & “also bought” which may have led to real sales for the author.

        2. I don’t really think she’s one in a million, and actually, claiming that selfless readers are one in a million is even more offensive than your original comment, which was already unnecessarily unfair and rude. As someone who regularly downloads and reviews free books, and then spreads the word about the authors of said books via blogs, Twitter and Facebook, and knows many others who do the very same things as a way to support authors, I have no words to express my disappointment over your words.

          I’d never left a comment on Indies Unlimited before, probably because I’d never been this offended here before. And also, because rather than posting comments here, I thought that my time would be best employed leaving reviews at Amazon, Smashwords and other online stores, where readers’ comments do make a difference for authors. But as a reader (I’m not a writer), I thought that this time I had the right to express my disappointment over your gross generalization and gratuitous insult. You are an author I will make sure to never support in any way, because you’ve just proven that you don’t respect readers–unless they act exactly like you want them to do, of course.

    2. And there I was thinking by reviewing it, I might be helping just a smidgen. Or perhaps by recommending it. I do appreciate a free book. A very great deal. And I do know how hard an author has worked to get that book on the ‘shelf’. That’s why I painstakingly review every book I read: believe me, I don’t find that an easy task, as what I feel frequently gets hopelessly lost in the delivery. I think the wind has just gone out of my sails.

  18. I am opposed to the Select program, and would never join it, because I believe as a matter of principle that a “real” book has always been, and still should be, available everywhere books are sold — which in the case of ebooks means all the major retailers that carry them. To grant anyone the exclusive right to sell a book turns it into a mere commodity rather than literature, and I think it hurts the reputation of indie ebooks in general.

    Nevertheless, making a book free does work well in the case of multiple-book series. I have made the first book in my recent trilogy permanently free everywhere, and the impact on the other two has been tremendous. It’s a matter of visibilty, It is almost impossible to get a book noticed without publicizing it where free books are listed, considering the number of ebooks available. I don’t look at it as giving my work away — it’s a means, and perhaps the only means, of getting a significant number of readers for a novel that doesn’t fit neatly into any category. Of course, it works only for series — readers know that the author expects later books in the series to be bought, so they too view it not as given-away work but as a form of advertising.

    1. I think the fact that we can credibly discuss it shows that it is coming to an end. Even a year ago, it would have been hard to find anyone who could have argued with the success of KDP.

      I will be very interested to see what kind of dividends the matchbook program yields.

  19. I was not a fan of free kdp ebooks myself, but I tried it with one novel and one non-fiction book. It worked better for me with the non-fiction book. I tried to convert a book to kdp status earlier in the year. I shut it’s sales down on smash words and on B&N. Com, but sometime later I received a complain from amazon that I would have to remove it from a site or it would be thrown out of the program. I explained that I had shut it down on both smashwords site and B&N. Com as well. I told them I did all I could to shut it down. I received a reply that I had to go to the offending site and make sure it was taken down (I think it was sony’s site) I told them to do it, that I didn’t have time to run around chasing this down. I was informed I had to or the book would be kicked from their program. I told them to go ahead and kick it. I immediately went back to B&N and smashwords and turned everything back on.

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