Is Kindle Countdown the new Free? Keeping books visible in 2014

Rory_sketch_-_confusedFor the past year there has been a good deal of hand-wringing over the question of KDP Select free promotions. Have they de-valued fiction, do they attract negative reviews, do they even work anymore? As anyone who regularly reads my blog posts knows, I have been a strong proponent of offering ebooks free for promotional purposes, and free promotions have been very good to me in terms of increasing my reviews and keeping my books visible and selling.

However, I also believe one of the distinct advantages we have as indie authors is our ability to use our own sales data to respond innovatively to changes in the marketing environment. As a result, in the past year I followed a number of different strategies to keep the books in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series visible, including beginning to experiment with the new promotional tool, the Kindle Countdown, that has been introduced as part of KDP Select.

In this post I am going to:

A.  Review how successful the strategies I pursued last year were for selling books in 2013.

B.  Address whether or not Free is failing as a strategy.

C.  Compare the Kindle Countdown promotions to Free promotions.

D.  Assess whether or not Kindle Countdown promotions can replace free-book promotions as my primary promotional strategy for 2014.

A. Last March, I became concerned by the growing competitiveness within the eBook market as the number of eBooks published soared and traditional publishers began to adopt some of the strategies of indie authors. I listed six strategies I was going to follow in 2013.

1. Have free promotions less frequently. In 2012, I had noticed that promotions too close together were less effective, so I began to space out my promotions. As a result, whereas In 2012 I ran ten free promotions, resulting in 132,552 free downloads, in 2013 I only did four free promotions, resulting in 145,494 free downloads. This meant that fewer promotions in 2013 resulted in higher numbers of downloads with each promotion—and greater effect on the post-promotion rankings and sales from each promotion.

2. Use longer promotions. I had concluded that breaking up the five free days available under the KDP Select rules into 2-3 promotions was counter-productive (more time-consuming, more expensive, less effective). So, I determined to do fewer but longer promotions. However, I soon discovered if you used a BookBub ad with your promotion—most of the downloads came within the first few days, so I scrapped this approach and kept to one short free promotion per 3 month interval.

3. Schedule promotions near the end of the month. I noticed that most of the borrows of my books as part of the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL) were at the beginning of a month. It is as if all Prime Members suddenly say, “Hey, I get another free borrow,” when a new month rolls around. So, I scheduled two of my four promotions for the end of the month so that the resulting post-promotional visibility would be at the beginning of the next month. This strategy worked: In each case, the promoted book was borrowed at least 1000 times during the month following the promotion.

4. Do more 99 cent promotions. By 2013, the evidence was mounting that the one way to ensure a successful promotion was to schedule a BookBub ad. However, it costs almost twice as much to promote a 99 cent book as a free one with BookBub. Therefore, when a 99 cent sale of my second series book, Uneasy Spirits, had disappointing results without a BookBub ad, decided not to pursue this strategy in 2013. I did, however, use a 99 cent promotion of Uneasy Spirits in conjunction with the launch of my third book, and I did begin to schedule 99 cent sales through the KDP Select Kindle Countdown option as soon as it was introduced at the end of 2013.

5. Experiment with promotions that are not tied to free or discounting. My premise here was that, if free promotions were becoming less effective, I would need to find alternative or complementary methods of making my work visible. In 2013, I did a book tour and guest posts on relevant blogs: I participated in book and Kindle Fire giveaways; I paid for banner ads and book sponsorships; and I paid to boost posts on my Facebook page. As far as I can tell, none of these alternative methods of promotion had any appreciable effect compared to the impact of a single free-book promotion on Bookbub.

6. Write more books and short stories. I published the third book in my Victorian San Francisco mystery series, Bloody Lessons, in September of 2013, and I put together the first three books in the series as a boxed set and made it available in November. I am about to publish a third short story. 

Conclusions: Looking at the effects of these six strategies, there is evidence that three of them proved effective. Having fewer free promotions increased the effectiveness of the promotions I did, placing the promotions near the end of the month did stimulate borrows, and publishing additional works did compensate for the lower royalties brought in by the first two books in the series. As a result, I was able to maintain my over all sales for 2013 near the level of the year before.

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Don’t Panic: KDP Select still works, you just might have to work it a little differently

I haven’t posted for awhile on any topic, including on indie publishing, but that is because I have been working steadily on writing Bloody Lessons, the third book of my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series (if you want an update on my progress go check out my facbook page.) I also felt I had pretty much exhausted what I had to say on the ins and outs and pros and cons of using KDP Select.

However, with the change in Amazon’s rules for Associates, a whole discussion has erupted about what this means for indie authors. See this balanced review of some aspects of the discussion. See, in addition, this good overview of the issues around free as a selling strategy and Amazon. One result of this change and subsequent posts about it is I have had a number of requests to comment on whether or not this means that free promotions and KDP Select won’t work as well any more.

The short answer is, how in heaven’s name do I know? But that isn’t very helpful so what I am going to do is remind people what I have written on this subject already, do a brief recap of how my last free promotion went, and try to predict some of the ways in which the most recent changes might require tweaking of my own (and other’s) strategies for using KDP Select. I also decided it was time to publish a list of Promotional Links, which I will try to keep up-to-date.

Posts I have already done: 

If you want to know everything I have written on this subject––put “KDP Select” in the search bar at the top of my website. Otherwise, go ahead and click on these posts I have done on selling on Amazon, the importance of Categories, and an update on this post, how to have a successful KDP Select promotion, and factors you should consider when deciding whether or not to enroll in KDP Select.

Update on my most recent KDP Select Promotion:

I put the first book in my series, Maids of Misfortune up for free through KDP Select for three days, February 23-25. This was two months since the last promotion, which was December 29-30 (where I put both of my books up for free). This time I didn’t put Uneasy Spirits up for free, although I did pay for a Digital Book Today 7-day promotion for this book for the week after the Maids of Misfortune promotion was over.

I signed up with eleven sites that promote free books (only two cost anything, Book Goodies and BookBub.) I have been trying to rotate through the free promotion sites with each promotion so as not to saturate their specific markets. Maids hit the magic top 100 Free List by noon the first day at #73. By the end of the first day I had reached #26 in the Free List and had over 8,000 downloads. On the second day, by 3:15 pm, when the BookBub email went out, the book was at #11 In the Free List and already had 22,000 downloads. By the end of day two it was #3 and had 28,000 free downloads. It stayed at #4 throughout the third day, and the total number of free downloads for the promotion was 37,086.

As you can see by the data below––the promotion was successful––in boosting my sales and   borrows, even of the book that wasn’t promoted.

Maids of Misfortune                                          Before             After

Average sales per day (over two weeks)          7.9                77.4

Overall Rank                                                   20,000s           2,000s (18 days after)

Uneasy Spirits

Average sales per day (over two weeks)          6.1                 22.3

Over all Rank                                                   26,000s           6,000s (18 days after)

Average Borrows per day (over two weeks)

Both Books combined                                       16                 59.9

The Future of KDP Select:

While I am not clairvoyant, I often pretend I am (something I share with my protagonist in my Victorian San Francisco mysteries), and I will say with some authority that KDP Select will not go away anytime soon, and Amazon will continue to work with and encourage self-published authors. While Amazon may have turned to indie authors (first with KDP, then with KDP Select) because they realized that depending on public domain books and traditional publishers wasn’t working, it was the indie authors themselves who proved to Amazon that they were both an outstanding source of the product Amazon needed and nimble innovators in the rapidly changing world of publishing.

Indie authors not only began to produce books at an amazing rate (as backlists were republished, manuscripts like my own were taken out of drawers, and genre writers began to pump out 2-4 books a year), but we also proved leaders in the changes that were going on in publishing, proving the viability of new short forms of fiction (novellas, short stories, serialized novels) and experimenting with new marketing techniques (using discounts, free promotions, blog tours, giveaways, twitter, facebook author pages, etc). Our books and our innovation helped fuel the heady growth of ebooks in a short period of time.

For example, from the beginning, Amazon’s royalty structure, which gave the 70% royalty rate only to books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, was challenged by indie authors like Amanda Hocking, who proved that the volume of sales you could make at 99 cents could make up for the lower 35% royalty rate. Amazon made money (and kept a bigger chunk of the money), and Hocking got her traditional contract (and paved the way for the idea that traditional publishers––including the new Amazon imprints––might find their next bestselling authors from among the ranks of the self-published.)

Then came KDP Select. If you will all remember, when Amazon introduced its first Kindle Fire, one of the selling points was that if you were a member of Amazon Prime you could download one free book a month. Initially Amazon had targeted traditional publishers (who––as with the whole ebook thing––ran away, screaming bloody murder), so once again they had to turn to indie authors to provide the product they needed to make the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL) effective. However, while this is pure speculation on my part, by the end of 2011 (when KDP Select was set up) they were beginning to be concerned by the way that other booksellers (Barnes and Noble, Kobo, etc) were tapping into the ebook market so they came up with the exclusivity clause. If a book is in KDP Select it can not be sold anywhere else.

They needed a way to induce indie authors to go exclusive, and, besides creating the pool of money to be shared by KDP Select authors whose books were borrowed, they threw in the 5 free promotion days, having learned from indies that free promotions could sell books. In fact, a growing number of authors who had now published their back lists (or were very prolific in self-publishing lots of books a year) had discovered that if they made their books free on Smashwords, Amazon would price match. They had also proven that a free book that was the first in a series, or a free short story, could drive up sales for their other books. No doubt, seeing this trend, Amazon thought that the chance to put up your book for free, for a limited time for promotional reasons, would be a good inducement to get indies to sign up. Which we did, to great success in the first months of KDP Select’s existence.

But there was an unintended consequence. New kindle owners loved free and were gobbling these free books up at an amazing rate. And, since initially a free downloaded copy counted as a sale, the books that had been free dominated the best-seller categories, pushing the traditionally published books into invisibility. I am sure the traditional  publishers complained, and I suspect that since indie books are by-in-large cheaper than traditionally published books this was not seen as a good thing in terms of profits for Amazon. The truth of the matter is that KDP Select and free promotions pushed the ebook environment from a level playing field for indies to giving them an unfair advantage within the Kindle store. Hence the changes to the algorithm counting downloads as sales and other tweaks to the formula that determined where a book is ranked on the popularity lists.

This was not the first time that some indie authors rent their garments and claimed that Amazon had turned its back on indies, and it certainly discouraged some authors from using KDP Select. However, while it became more difficult to translate your free promotions into high enough visibility to sustain sales afterwards, indies and those who supported indies again innovated, and a whole bunch of facebook pages, book bloggers, and websites popped up to advertise free promotions. The data above, from my last promotion, shows that KDP Select promotions remained a viable way of improving visibility and sales.

Again, however, unintended consequences caused Amazon to make the changes to their Amazon Associates because they were shelling out substantial amounts of money to websites that were primarily promoting free books. Again, the goal wasn’t to discourage indie authors, or even free books, but to direct the Associates program back to its original goal, encouraging people to go to Amazon to buy things.

So what does this mean for the future? First of all, a few of these promotion sites will go away, a larger percentage will start to charge for promotions––like BookBub.com does (to make up the revenue loss if they stop using Associates links), and others will begin to promote primarily cheap and discounted books rather than free.

If you look at the Promotional Links I have listed, you will see that there are still a significant number available, even after the Amazon change. And, one of my friends just put her book, A Provencal Mystery, up for free  in KDP Select (breaking through into the top 100 by noon the first day and getting over 24,000 free downloads in two days) so I think we can safely say these promotional sites are still doing their job.

However, I do think that as indie authors we need to continue to innovate. Here is what I plan to do––I would love to hear from the rest of you what your strategies are.

Have free promotions less frequently. I had already noticed a growing tension between my reliance on free promotions to keep my books visible (agonizing when 30 days from the last promotion had passed and my books began to drop in the rankings and then lose sales) and the law of diminishing returns (if I offered the book free too frequently, the promotions were less successful.)

Then the success of BookBub.com (as the promotion site that has been delivering the highest number of downloads) forced me to make a change since they won’t feature a book more than every 90 days or an author more than every 30 days. Because of these limitations, my most recent promotion of Maids of Misfortune came two months after my last promotion (and three months after my last BookBub promotion.) I don’t think it is a coincidence I had more downloads than ever, with the strongest post sale bump since last March (and the infamous Amazon algorithm change.)

Longer promotions are safer. I used to suggest that authors not put their books up for free for longer than two days at a time (based on the idea of doing several promotions in the three-month contractual period under KDP Select.) But now that you need to get more downloads to achieve a post sales bump (see the amusing post by Elle Lothlorien), you need to consider how long it is going to take your particular book, in its specific genre, to reach enough downloads. I would do at least a two-day promotion if you have been able to get accepted by BookBub, three days if you don’t but have your book in categories that do well in free promotions and have a strong number of reviews, and maybe the full five days if your book is new, doesn’t have a lot of reviews, or is in a tiny niche market.

Schedule promotions near the end of a month. I started to notice that my borrows are always the strongest the first few days of every month so it is helpful to have my books as high as possible in bestseller lists at the beginning of the month. March 1-3 (three days after my last promotion ended) 394 of my books were borrowed. This helps maintain visibility as well since the borrows appear to be counted as sales.

Do more 99 cent promotions. For awhile, 99 cents was considered ‘dead’ as free books began to dominate as the main method of promotion, but just last week, for the first time, a self-published book hit #1 on NYT Bestseller list (with a 99 cent book). What I plan to do is experiment more with combining a 99 cent sale with a free promotion, or doing a 99 cent promotion to help maintain visibility during those longer times between free promotions.

Experiment more with promotions that are not tied to free or discounting my books. I don’t know for certain whether or not having a week-long promotion of Uneasy Spirits on the heels of the Maids free promotion has helped keep its sales up, but as more of the sites on the list I have compiled switch to non-free promotions, there will be certainly some of them that will turn out to be successful. BookBub can charge high rates they have demonstrated that they consistently deliver enough post promotion sales to more than make up for their cost. I expect that new marketing strategies will emerge in the next few months that are not dependent on free promotions.

Write more books and short stories. I know, I know, this is not a new strategy. But I know that the time I was taking to do free promotions every month was taking away from my writing time. The launch of a new book or short story (like a free promotion), if done correctly, can bump up sales and visibility of your other books, and it can take the sting away from those months between free promotions when your sales drop.

In short, I predict that as long as free promotional days in KDP Select deliver increased post promotion sales and borrows, Amazon has no reason to get rid of them, particularly if this is the main way to get authors to sign an exclusivity contract. And, as long as indie authors continue to produce books and stories that sell and provide new innovative ways to promote those books, the partnership between KDP Select and indie authors will continue.

What do you think?

Report on my latest KDP Select Free Promotion: Getting into that Holiday Spirit

Well, Amazon announced its new Kindles devices this week, and the first of the new Kindle Fire HD devices ship as early as next week, with the rest rolling out in October and the end of November. There is no telling at this point how many of these new devises will be bought as upgrades or additions by people who already have Kindles, but if the past two holiday sales patterns are any indication, authors should expect a growing number of new users to start looking for Kindle books over the next few months, culminating in a book buying frenzy in the months after Christmas. At least that is my hope.

In December 2009, my first book, Maids of Misfortune, had just been published, my Kindle sales were miniscule, and unless you typed in “Victorian mystery” as a key word search, you probably wouldn’t have found my book anywhere in the Amazon store. Then, if you found it, the $4.99 price for an unknown book by an unknown author, without any reviews, probably would have discouraged you from buying it. In fact, only 74 people bought a copy of that first book during the 4 months––December thru March of 2010, and I suspect a good number of them were friends and relations.

A year later, in time for the next holiday season, everything was different. The introduction of the Third Generation Kindle in August of 2010 had expanded the number of devices in consumer’s hands and by December of 2010 my book was now priced at $2.99, was #1 in the historical mystery category (so was no longer invisible), and I had eight 4 and 5 star reviews. I sold 7,400 books between Dec 1 and March 31, 2011, and I was able to quit teaching for good and start writing my second book.

Last holiday season was even better. I now had two books out, Maids of Misfortune, and Uneasy Spirits (published in October 2011). I had thirty 4 and 5 star reviews for Maids and already had six 4-5 star reviews for Uneasy Spirits, and both books were on the historical mystery bestseller list (albeit pretty far down because the list had just expanded exponentially). Even more importantly, that fall Amazon had just rolled out a $79 ebook, the Kindle touch, and the Kindle Fire, and there were a whole lot of new Kindle owners looking for books by Christmas. And, as I have written elsewhere, KDP Select and the free promotions I ran at the end of December, February, and March kept both of my books visible in the historical mystery category. The result? I sold 18,970 books between Dec 1 and March 31, 2012.

So, how am I making sure I am ready for the new crop of Kindle owners shopping for books this fall and Christmas season? 

First of all, I made a price change this spring, raising the price of both of my books to $3.99. I did this because there is growing research that there a segment of the buying public out there that believe a 99 cent or $2.99 price point represents a book of lesser quality. And, while I have no desire to gouge my readers, raising my books to $3.99 seemed a way to tap into that segment of the buying public now that I am no longer such an unknown author.

Second, my KDP Select promotions have increased the number of my reviews significantly. I have gotten used to the fact that promotions also seem to attract people who wouldn’t ordinarily read my brand of cozy mystery and therefore can be negative, but I have also been very fortunate that the positive reviews tend to drown them out. Currently Maids of Misfortune has an average of 4.2 stars from 126 reviews and Uneasy Spirits has an average of 4.3 stars for 42 reviews. I know that this makes my books very competitive with the traditionally published books that cluster at the top of the historical mystery category. I still find it remarkable to have my ebooks ranked right along with the books of Anne Perry or Laurie King in my sub-genre.

Third, and probably most importantly, after my brief experiment with other booksellers, I re-enrolled my two books into KDP Select and mounted my most organized promotion yet, bringing both of my books back to full visibility.

My last promotion of Maids of Misfortune was June 23-24, 2012 and the book then went off of KDP Select (which meant no free promotions and no borrows.) That last promotion had been moderately successful, (6900 downloads) pushing Maids’ rank from the 7,000s to the 4,000s and increasing its rank on the historical mystery popularity list from 25 to 9 (although it stayed about the same, mid 20s, on the best seller list before and after the promotion.)

The last promotion of Uneasy Spirits before going off KDP Select was July 2-4, and, as usual, the sequel didn’t do as well as Maids did, despite being free for 3 days rather than 2 (I believe this is primarily because Maids is in 9 categories and subcategories and Uneasy is in only 4––see my posts on categories––which limits its visibility on free days).  Uneasy Spirits had only 1440 downloads, and its rank didn’t improve much, keeping Uneasy Spirits in the 7000s and the 40s in both popular and bestselling lists for historical mysteries. One of the reasons that I decided to try going off of KDP Select was the feeling that I had, at least temporarily, saturated the market for my books among those who routinely browse the free lists.

I signed both books back up to KDP Select August 12, 2012. At that point, both books had slipped in terms of sales to their lowest point this year, and I immediately organized a promotion for both of them for August 20-22, hoping to have sufficient success to drive them back up the rankings and increase visibility, which would increase sales. (Maids was free 8/20-21; Uneasy was free 8/21-22)

This promotion did exactly what I wanted. My ranking in categories improved dramatically, which resulted in a distinct sales bump for both books, and in the two weeks after the promotion people have borrowed my novels 365 times.

Before Promotion After Promotion During Promotion
Maids of Misfortune
Over all Rank Paid List 14, 418 1,645
Historical-mystery bestseller rank 91 10
Historical-mystery popularity rank 127 5
Total sales in one week* 40 311
Average sales per day* 5.7 44.4
Total downloads 21,767
Peak rank in Free List #7
Uneasy Spirits Before Promotion After Promotion During Promotion
Over all Rank Paid List 23,352 5553
Historical-mystery bestseller rank not on it 28
Historical-mystery popularity rank 127 11
Total sales in week 43 145
Average sales a day 6.1 20.7
Total Downloads 11, 572
Peak Rank in Free List 23

What I did to promote my free books––see a more extended post on Free Promotional Tips:

First, I thought carefully about how to schedule the promotion. I had noticed that the list of free books seemed longer on weekends (when I usually schedule mine), so I decided that I would try Monday through Wednesday this time. The fact that is was still officially summer, when some people are on vacation and not locked into the reading on a weekend routine, seemed to make this a safe bet. The success of this promotion suggests that being during the week didn’t hurt.

I also decided to stagger the promotions, putting Maids free on Monday and Tuesday, then Uneasy  on Tuesday and Wednesday. My experience is that when Maids goes free, Uneasy’s sales jump a little, so by starting it a day later, this would give Uneasy a little bump to help it in the after promotion averaging in terms of ranking (in fact I sold 50 copies of Uneasy that first day). But I also have found that Uneasy does better in free downloads if it is paired for at least one day with Maids. Remember, the greater number of categories Maids shows up in compared to Uneasy is always going to give it a better shot at getting enough downloads to reach the top 100 of the Free list (the holy grail if you want to do well with a promotion.)  From my experience, if Uneasy is free on its own, it is less likely to reach that top 100, but if I pair it with Maids, Maids drags it up (people figure if both are free, and they are in a series, why not get both at the same time.) This gives it a better shot at succeeding on the second day when it is up on the free list by itself. This strategy worked, with both books hitting the top 100 by the end of the first day they were promoted. 

Second, at least a week before the promotion (which I had already scheduled on KDP Select–this is important) I went on to the growing number of websites that advertise ebooks and scheduled a number of free and inexpensive promotions. I have tried a variety of these sites in the past year, and this time I concentrated on not just promoting the books when they were free, but also doing more general marketing that would continue in the week after the free promotion to help boost sales. For example, I notified Pixel of Ink, The Frugal Reader, Kindle Nation Dailyand Ereader News Today of the free promotions, but I scheduled general promotions with Digital Book Today and Kindle Nation Daily for the week after the promotions were over.

I also used my own website to market the free promotions. Ahead of time I put up on my website that the books would be free and made sure that this information was also at the end of two blog posts I did (one two days before the promotions, the second on the first day of the promotion). I also made sure that these two posts appealed to my two different audiences. The first post, Update on Kobo’s Writing Life, appealed to the people who are interested in my self-publishing journey, the second, Victorian San Francisco in 1880: Social Structure and Character Development, appealed to the fans of my book. I have no way of determining what effect these posts had in getting people to look for my books, except the anecdotal evidence that people did mention that week in comments and emails that they had read my posts and gone looking for the books for free.

During the promotion I took advantage of the over twenty facebook pages that cater to people who read ebooks, particularly those with Kindles. On the day of the promotion, or the night before for the UK sites, I put a brief notice on the walls of all of these facebook pages of the book, where and when it was free, its genres, and a link to the Amazon.com page.

I also tweeted about the promotion, and asked that fellow members of the Historical Fiction eBooks group I belong to tweet as well, since my books are historical fiction and would likely be of interest to their followers.

What I think these promotional efforts did was to get enough people at the beginning of the promotion to download the books so the books rose up high enough on all the separate free lists to become visible, which in turn resulted in enough downloads to push the books to the top 100 free books. In short they primed the pump. The promotions I did afterward may have helped the books make the transition from free to paid, which hopefully helped sustain the sales. I plan on doing more marketing between free promotions this time, to see what effect this might have on keeping the books visible. For example the World Literary Cafe has helped me expand my twitter followers and makes it easy to do mass tweets.

Summary:

I achieved my goal to make the books more visible on Amazon browsing categories, which in turn has increased sales. 

I am selling over seven times the number of Maids of Misfortune a day than I was selling before t he promotion, and nearly 3 weeks after the promotion Maids is now firmly in the top 15 bestsellers on the historical mystery bestseller list, but it can also be found on the historical fiction and historical romance and the U.S. history bestseller lists. Uneasy Spirits, which is only showing up on the historical mystery bestseller list, is therefore not selling as much and it as already bouncing around the 30s and 40s in ranking on that list. Even so, it is selling over three times the number of books a day as it was before the promotion. Both books have also added to their reviews, which will also continue to make the books more competitive.

However, for both books, my primary goal in the next months will remain the same, making sure that both books are visible in the Amazon kindle bookstore. Because that visibility is the best way I can ensure that when the hundreds of thousands of people (dare we hope millions) receive their new Kindles in the mail or under the Christmas tree and see my books up there at the top of bestseller lists (with reasonable prices, pretty covers, snappy descriptions, and solid reviews) that they will click buy!

What are you doing to get ready for the holiday sales period?

What I love about being an Indie Author: I can shift course on a dime!

Despite the gloom and doom of some of the blog pundits, and despite the relatively weak effect of my last KDP Select promotion at the end of March, which came in the midst of Amazon’s shifting algorithms, I decided to put the two books in my Victorian San Francisco mystery series, Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits, up for another round of free promotions this month. While my goals have remained the same, my strategy changed in response to the changing algorithms, and, as a result, my outcomes this time around improved.

Goals:

As usual, the primary goal for my promotions was to push both of my novels up on the historical mystery bestseller list and to get them as high as possible on the historical mystery popularity list. I have written numerous times about my conviction that keeping my books visible on these lists is a significant factor in my success. (Maids of Misfortune has been on these lists continuously since July of 2010, and Uneasy Spirits has been on them since it was published in October 2011.)

If my books fell off the top of these lists I would be dependent on driving potential readers to Amazon to look for the book. As a relatively unknown author with only a modest social media presence this is a difficult proposition. Instead, when my books are near the top of the historical mystery lists then people who are browsing these lists get the chance to judge my books by their covers, excerpts, product descriptions, “also bought” lists and reviews). Conversely, I have heard how dramatically sales decrease for books by other authors when these books fall off the bestseller lists.

As an aside, I don’t understand why some authors still argue that using free promotions devalues books. For example, the buyer can see a book’s fixed price (in my case my books are now $3.99––becaue like other indie authors I am feeling more confident about pushing my prices up from $2.99), so they know it is only temporarily free. I see the use of free promotions as the same as any promotion––for example, when traditional publishers pay (cut into their revenue) to get their print books onto the front tables of bookstores. I don’t recall anyone concluding “that they must not be very good books if their publishers don’t feel the books can sell themselves on their own!”

A secondary goal of doing another free promotion was to make the books visible on other categories besides historical mysteries, even if they didn’t stay there once the books went back to paid. The historical mystery category is a relatively small category (2,182 books), and I don’t usually sell enough books daily to show up in the top 100 of the larger categories like mystery–women sleuths (6,420 books), or historical romance (12,163 books), except during free promotions. In addition, I switched Uneasy Spirits from romantic suspense to historical fiction for its second category after the last promotion, and I hoped that this round of promotion would get it exposure for the first time in this fairly large category (22,000+ books). In short, this promotion would be another chance to expand my market beyond the historical mystery category.

Pre-promotion status: 

By the middle of May, before the promotions began, Maids of Misfortune had slipped into the 7,000’s overall and 40’s on the historical mystery bestseller list. Uneasy Spirits was in the 9,000s overall and 70s on the bestseller list. Uneasy Spirits was dangerously close to dropping off the top 100, and was averaging 11 book sales a day, versus 25 a day in April and 42 a day in March (all these figures are for the US Kindle store). I understand that for many authors, 11 books a day would be nothing to sneeze at, but, again, if I want to sustain visibility I didn’t want to let that daily average slip any lower.

Amazon changes:

In case you haven’t been keeping in touch, Amazon apparently started testing new algorithms for its popularity lists in the middle of March (see this post by David Gaughran.) While these algorithms are secret it was very clear that a free download was no longer counting as a full sale. The effect of these changes was a drastic decrease in the post promotion sales bump most authors had been experiencing and fair amount of consternation among indie authors.

I confess I was relatively sanguine about these changes. Even though my own promotion at the end of March was seriously disappointing in terms of over-all sales, it did prop up my books’ rankings for a brief time and then slowed their decline. In addition, what I was witnessing was a very similar pattern to my post holiday sales from the year before––when KDP Select didn’t exist. Last year and this year my sales in April were 27-28% less than they had been at their peak in the 3 months after Christmas. The difference was that due to KDP Select the peak this year was ever so much higher than the previous year.

While Amazon’s introduction of KDP Select and its free days had given many of us a great gift in increased sales this past holiday, it was creating very volatile popularity and bestseller lists, and traditionally published books were being pushed further and further down those lists. It made sense to me that, given the DofJ settlement, Amazon would have a vested interest in proving that it could still provide a competitive market for those traditional books. Frankly it never had seemed right to me that some of my favorite historical mystery authors were doing so much worse than I was––it wasn’t their fault their publishers kept making so many bad decisions (high prices, bad formatting, refusal to participate in the Kindle Lending Library, ect.)

Then in the beginning of May the popularity list settled down––for now, and there has been general agreement that for the last few weeks the popularity lists reflect a new ratio where free downloads are only counted for about 10% (some say 5%) of sales for the purposes of ranking (ie 1000 free downloads =100 sales). There is evidence that the list is also weighted more heavily by a book’s sales (maybe even its total revenue) over the previous 30 days––rather than in the immediate promotion days. As a result, the effect of the already diminished download count is further flattened by the previous 30 days of sales averages.  Edward Robertson has done a good job of summarizing the effects of these changes.

Changing Strategies:

When I read the posts about the changes in the algorithm I decided to deviate from my previous strategy for free promotions. I had been putting Maids of Misfortune up with Uneasy Spirits at the same time for one day, then continuing Uneasy for a second day. My logic had been that Maids was my most persistent seller (and usually got its largest downloads the first day) and that people would see the two up together and a percentage would decide to go ahead and get both of them, boosting Uneasy’s downloads. The one time I had put up Uneasy by itself it hadn’t done well (and this was before the algorithm changes), and I assumed that people might be giving it a pass because it was a sequel. So each time I have promoted I kept Uneasy up for a second day, thinking that it needed the extra day to achieve a significant number of downloads and that people might have started Maids of Misfortune and enjoyed it enough to go back and get Uneasy the second day.

But, with the new information about the greater importance of the sales of a book during the 30 days before the promotion, I decided that I needed to rethink this strategy.

I wasn’t too worried about Maids of Misfortune. It hadn’t slipped down the rankings as far as Uneasy Spirits, and, because it was uploaded in 2009 when you could choose 5 categories it has a better chance of attracting free downloads. It also had 98 reviews, and I knew that this would help. I did decide, however, to leave Maids free for two days this time since it was going to take more downloads to achieve any sort of bump in sales with the new ratio.

More importantly, I also decided to put up Maids of Misfortune for free a week before I put up Uneasy Spirits (something I had never tried before). My thought was that if the free promotion of Maids increased the sales of Uneasy at all (and the ripple effect of free on sequels has been well-documented), then this would mean that at least 7 days of that 30 day average would have the increased sales to figure into Uneasy’s rankings­­––improving the chances that it would experience some sort of sales bump after it came off its free promotion.

So far it appears that this new strategy is working.

Post Promotion:

Maids of Misfortune was free May 19-20, a Friday and Saturday. At the end of the two days the book had 3206 free downloads in the US Kindle store. If the rumors about the new algorithm were right, this would translate into approximately 320 sales over those two days. The previous 30 days my average sales for this book had been 20 books a day, so not surprisingly these 2 days, at about 150 a day, did push up the book’s popularity rankings, which in turn increased the books sales and ranking on the bestseller list. The fourth day after the promotion Maids of Misfortune was in the mid 3000’s on the paid list, versus the 7000s where it had been before, and #12 on the historical mystery bestseller list, versus in the 40s.

And, during the free promotion for Maids, the sales of Uneasy Spirits doubled. The bump didn’t last past the promotion, but it does mean that Uneasy was in a slightly better position going into its own promotion, and that it has a slightly better 30 day average to help it sustain the bump it got from that promotion.

Uneasy Spirits was free May 25-25 (Saturday and Sunday) and did much better than Maids in terms of giveaways. While Maids only made it to 109 in the free store the first day and lost ground the second, Uneasy made it to #33 in the Free list and remained in the top 100 for the second day. (I suspect the fact that this was the beginning of the memorial day weekend might have caused Uneasy’ greater success). This meant it had much more exposure and achieved over 3 times the number of free downloads as Maids of Misfortune did (10,142 in the US Kindle store).

This of course meant an even bigger bump upwards for Uneasy Spirits when it went back on the paid lists since these downloads would translate into 1000 sales for the two days.

In fact, doing the promotions sequentially has benefited the sales and rankings of both books because Maids of Misfortune averaged 98 book sales over the 2 days that Uneasy Spirits was free, nicely adding to its 30 day average and pushing it up the popularity rankings as a result.

To date, 5 days after Uneasy Spirits joined Maids of Misfortune back on the paid lists, my average sales for both books is double what they were before the promotions began. Maids of Misfortune is now ranked 2945 over all, and it is #11 in the historical mystery bestseller list and #10 in the historical mystery popularity list. Uneasy Spirits is currently ranked 5138 over all and #22 in the historical mystery bestseller list (although 3 days after the promotion it did hit the 3000’s and was #18 on the bestseller list), However, perhaps more importantly for its long run sales, Uneasy Spirits is currently #8 on the historical mystery popularity list.

If Edward Robertson is correct in his analysis of the new algorithm, as the older, poorer sales for both books at the start of May drop off, and the newer higher sales during and since the promotions begin to dominate the 30 day average, both books should continue to do well in the historical mystery popularity list, which in turn should continue to boost sales and help maintain these books’ position on the bestseller list. In short, they may not have risen as high in the rankings as after previous promotions, but neither will they drop as quickly. If this turns out to be true, Amazon will have achieved its greater stability in the lists, but KDP Select will still permit indie books to be competitive as well.

My final point is that I learned about the new 30-day aspect of the Amazon algorithms on May 7th when I read about Edward Robertson’s blog discussion of the changes that had been made, and I was able to immediately respond (in the words of the title––change course quickly.)  Four days after reading this blog post I had made my decision to give the free promotions another try, but this time sequentially, and I went onto my dashboard and scheduled both free promotions and began to make the arrangements to feature those free promotions on such sites as Kindle Nation Daily and Pixel of Ink. A week later the first of the promotions began.

I didn’t have to consult with anyone (like an agent or editor) or get the permission of a marketing committee to make this decision, the scheduling of the promotions took seconds, and the pre-promotional work I did took about an hour. As a result, I was able to move quickly to reverse the downward spiral of sales before my books dropped off the historical mystery lists and became invisible. I know that this is not how things would have happened in the world of traditional publishing where people keep using the analogy of how difficult it is to turn a big ship around to explain how slow the Big 6 have been to respond to the ebook revolution. And for that I once again give thanks for the power I have as an indie author to exert some control over the fate of my books, even when the winds of changing algorithms threaten to blow them off course.

Simple Steps to a Successful KDP Select Free Promotion

If you have read my previous posts on Amazon’s KDP Select Program, you will already know that I joined this program primarily for the five free promotional days Amazon gives you in exchange for selling your ebook exclusively with them for three months. (You may take these 5 days at any time during the three months.) You will also know that my participation in this program (both through borrows and free promotions) significantly pushed both my historical mystery books up the bestseller ranks in numerous categories, resulting in a substantial increase in my sales.

What you don’t know is what steps I took to ensure these promotional days were as effective as possible. That is what this post is about.

My goal here is not to persuade you to sign your book up for the KDP Program (I still think that McCray’s post on KDP Select is the clearest discussion of who should join), and if you want to learn about the pros and cons, just search in Publetariat and you will get a wide range of view points.

My goal is not to promise if you follow these steps your promotion will be successful. The KDP Select Program has only been around for three months and the information is only just beginning to filter out about authors’ experiences. For example, I know very little about how non-fiction books or literary fiction has succeeded in the program. It is only because I have had success in two of my own promotions that I am daring to offer suggestions. I want to caution you that these tips are based on very limited empirical evidence and on my reading about the promotions of a few others. Therefore, they should be read with caution.

Having covered my butt, here goes. 

First Step: Make sure your book is ready to promote:

I will repeat what I have said before many times in my pieces on selling on Amazon: don’t start any kind of promotion until your book is “ready for prime time.” Getting your book on the free list isn’t going to get people to download it, read it, review it favorably, or buy your other books if the cover is amateurish, formatting and editing are sloppy, there isn’t a well-written description, your author central page isn’t complete or the book isn’t in the right browsing categories.

Second Step: Decide which book(s) to promote:

If you have a series where it matters which book is read first, offer the first in the series first. If you look at this from the perspective of readers, this makes sense. Many, if not most, readers like to read series in order. Therefore, if one of the goals of the free promotion is to gain new readers to the series, start them off at the beginning. For me this was Maids of Misfortune. My hope was that putting the first book up for free would encourage people to go on and buy the second. After the first promotion, the increase in sales in the sequel, Uneasy Spirits, demonstrated the efficacy of this strategy.

If you have stand-alone books or series books that can be read easily in any order, the question of which books to start with depends on your goals. For example, you might want to start with your loss leader-the book that is selling the least. Here the goal would be to get people to find that book, give it more positive reviews, and start it on the way to becoming a better selling book. This is why I put up my second book, Uneasy Spirits, for free in my second promotion. I wasn’t content with the bump in sales it was experiencing. It had only been out for four months, hadn’t gotten that many reviews, and was struggling to stay in the top ten of the historical mystery category. Putting it up for promotion in mid February got it up solidly in the top three in historical mysteries.

However, you might want to start with your strongest selling book, the one that you think has the best chance of getting the largest number of downloads and the largest subsequent bump in sales. I initially put up Maids of Misfortune for a second time only six weeks after the first promotion so that for one day both it and Uneasy Spirits would be free together. I did this because I thought that Uneasy would sell better in tandem with the first book in the series, which was probably true since the bulk of the downloads for the book came that first day, not the second when it was free by itself. But what I hadn’t expected is how well Maids would do this second time around–hitting the top 100 best-seller list for three days in a row. If your main goal is making money, you may want to put your best selling book up first and more often!

Third Step: Decide when and for how many days you should do the free promotion:

Remembering that you need to sign up in advance (although I signed up the night before once and the book went up on time), do spend some time thinking about these questions. I chose my first promotion for December 30-31 for two reasons. First, I thought a Friday and a Saturday would get me my largest market because I often find my regular sales go up on these days (weekend reading). Second, these two days came near the end of the Christmas vacation. You know, when the presents are put away, the guests are gone, and you are ready to put up your feet and try out your new Kindle before going back to work or school.

I did my second promotion a month and a half later, again on a Friday and Saturday but this time before the long Presidents’ Day weekend because Monday would be a holiday. Same idea. Holidays mean people read recreationally, and I wanted people to still be on holiday when the books shifted over to paid so that I would get some sales. This worked because Maids of Misfortune, which was only free on Friday, steadily improved its paid ranking on Saturday and Sunday, and by Monday evening had finally hit the top 100 list, where it remained for the next few days.

In short, think about timing. When do your sales usually peak, and what are your lowest sale days? Is there a holiday that you can tie your book promotion into (like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, etc.)? Play around with this, who knows, maybe a Wednesday or a Thursday would work better for you than a Friday.

In general I would advise you to put a book up for free for no more than 2 days at a time. If your book doesn’t have many sales under its belt, however, it might take three days to get enough downloads to make a difference. Having seen how Maids of Misfortune did on its second free promotion, I suggest trying a 2 day promotion and then, after 6 weeks or so, doing a second one-day promotion to see if you can’t kick it up higher in the rankings the second time around. Remember it is all about visibility. The higher a book goes in both popularity and best-seller rankings after a promotion, the better the sales are going to be. See David Gaughran’s post on KDP Select and Popularity for a good discussion of this.

What I wouldn’t do is use all your 5 days at once, since it is my impression that, no matter how high you go in the paid rankings after a promotion, your rankings will almost certainly begin to slip after a month (if only because you are being bumped down by the latest book coming off a free promotion). If you have used up all your free days at once, you have to wait until you renew your enrollment into the Select Program to do another free promotion of that book, and by then your book may have slipped back to where it was before you started promoting.

I also think that you shouldn’t offer a second free promotion too quickly after a first promotion. I put Uneasy Spirits up for one day, two weeks after its first promotion, as an experiment, and had a very dismal number of downloads (less than 400, compared to the nearly 9000 downloads it got on the first free promotion).  There are other possible explanations for why this second free offer didn’t do as well as the first. I didn’t publicize it as widely as I did the first and it was free on a Thursday, not my best selling day. But I think the main reason for its poorer performance was that it was just too soon. I put one of my short stories up for free at the same time and it did much better than the novel –even though people were only getting a 99 cent deal on it — but it hadn’t been free for months.

Fourth Step: Advertise the promotion:

1. Make a list of friends and family you want to notify by email. Make a template of what you want to say along the lines of:

“I have decided to make my first historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune, available on Kindle for free for two days (put in date) to make the book more visible to readers. You could really help me kick off this promotional campaign if you could tell as many people as possible who have Kindles or can download Kindle books to go get their free copy at: (then url.)

Thanks, and I will let you know how well we did when the campaign is over!”

Then I would send this email out just a few days before the promotion starts so that people have a day or so to spread the word, but not too long so that they forget.

2. Find and sign-up for the Facebook pages that promote books and ebooks. These pages change fairly frequently so, in the search bar on your Facebook page, type in words like Cheap ebooks, Kindle, free ebooks, or appropriate genre terms (mystery, science fiction, historical fiction) to find pages that let you post about a book promotion.

3. Check out the blogs and websites that specifically promote ebooks in general, cheap or free ebooks, genre books, and indie authors. Some ask for a fee, others are free. I wouldn’t pay much, if anything, until I had done at least one promotion. You may not need it. Since many of these sites need advance notice, if you are going to do this, start early–one to two weeks in advance.

4.  Do some BSP (Blatant Shameless Promotion) on the appropriate pages for the groups you belong to (Good Reads groups, yahoo groups, Kindle Boards, etc,). This works best if you do it the day or two before, since some of the messages on these sites don’t get read right away. Always give the day of the week and the dates of the promotions so that people won’t think the book is still free when the promotion has ended.

DO NOT promote yourself on pages or message boards where this is against the rules; this angers people and wins you no friends or fans.

5. Post something related to your book but something more than just an announcement of the promotion on your blog. See this post that Abigail Padgett did the day her free promotion started on the first of her Bo Bradley mysteries as a good example. This can be another way of getting out the message and peaking people’s interest in the work.

6. During the promotion, tweet or post on your Facebook pages several times, reminding people of the promotion, mentioning how it is going, and thanking everyone for their help. Don’t be afraid to brag if your book is doing really well. I discovered some of the fans who read my messages enjoyed commenting on how much they had liked the book and recommending it to others. Some will thank you for reminding them because now they were going to tell their mother/sister/friend about how to get a free copy the book. Your friends will be gratified by your success and want to know how you did it.

I want to make it clear here that you do not necessarily have to do all of the above to have a successful promotion. For example, for my first promotion I didn’t contact any of the sites listed in #3, and I contacted only a few of them for the second promotion. If your book is already doing fairly well in terms of sales and ranking, and is in a lot of different categories, you may not need to do a lot of work ahead of time. But if you are promoting a book that hasn’t been selling well, or is on one of those large categories like historical fiction or contemporary fiction, with no sub-categories and lots of free books being listed, then advance promotion may be very necessary to get you the initial downloads you need to become visible on the free lists. 

Fifth Step: Keep track of some basic data on how the free promotion went.

The day before the promotions, I noted down the ranking of not just the book I was promoting, but also my other titles. I recorded the overall ranking and where it ranked on the one subcategory where it was in the top 100 (for both the best seller list and the popularity list.) Then during the promotion I wrote down these same rankings, plus the rankings in the other categories where the book started showing up about 3 times a day (the morning, mid-day, and at the end of the day.)

With the new dashboard Amazon has set up it is now easy to discover immediately after the promotion ends how many free downloads there were. I continued to write down this data for about a week after the promotion, because it took a while for the books to reach their highest spots on the paid list. Since I always note what my sales are each night I have also been able to watch the way in which the books’ overall sales have continued to be higher than before the promotion, despite later slippage in ranking.

Why do I do this? Probably because my training was in the social sciences and I like analyzing data (I did a computer analysis of working women from the 1880 manuscript census back in the days when you used punch cards to enter the data.) But it also helps me make decisions about staying in the KDP Select or doing other promotions.

So, has this helped? If you have had a successful promotion and have something to add, I would like to hear about it. If you did something like I did (putting up a book too soon) that you feel hurt your promotion, do share, so we all can learn what to avoid. KDP Select and the free promotion is in its infancy and the more we learn from each other, the more we will all be effective in reaching a wider audience with our work.