KDP Select Free Promotion: Discoverability Experiment, Part One

Ok, I confess I stuck the term discoverability into the title since it seems to be the new marketing buzz word. As a professional historian who has spent most of her life in the past, I am getting rather a kick out of riding the wave of change within publishing — even using new words for old concepts like marketing, promotion, and publicity.

In this blog I have frequently posted about these issues, the importance of branding, the possibilities of blog tours, and the use of tags and categories, all describing what I have learned about how to sell books as an indie author. The bottom line of all those posts has been about how an author can get potential readers to discover their books, when they don’t have the same opportunities available to traditionally published authors (publishing house book reps, catalogs, big name reviewers, organized books tours, shelf space in book stores, etc.).

Today I am going to look into the newest tool that Amazon has given indie authors — the free promotion through KDP Select.

Some background. The pros and cons of offering a book for free has been the matter of a debate that has ranged between the argument that offering books for free devalues literature to the contrasting belief that an author should offer their books for free as a matter of philosophical principle.

What I am talking about here, though, is offering books for free as a short-term promotional strategy.

Very good arguments have been made that offering free copies of a book is a way of getting your book noticed, getting people to read it and decide they want to buy your other books, and — my particular obsession – using it as a way to improve your rank in the Amazon browsing categories so that is was more likely to be discovered by readers.

However, until recently, if you published your book through the Kindle Direct Platform (KDP) and wanted to get the 70% royalty, you had to sell your book at a price between $2.99 and $9.99. You could decide to sell the book at a lower price, (reverting to 35% royalty rate), but you could not set a price of $0.

The only way, as an indie author, you could do this was to set your price to $0 on other sites (e.g., Smashwords and its affiliates, your own website), and if Amazon’s bots found it, they would discount your price to $0 (and of course you would stop getting any royalties.) Authors did do this, but it has a big down-side: you have no control over when or how long your book will be available for free on Amazon. It could take months for the Amazon bots to reduce your Amazon price (it took a year for Amazon to lower the price of my short story), and when you want to end the free promotion it might take weeks or months for the Amazon price to go back to normal. This means this is not a useful strategy to use for a targeted promotion — for the launch of a new book for example.

Then came the Kindle Owners Lending Library Program (“KDP Select”). When first instituted, it was very limited. It was only available to traditional publishers and it only gave readers who were members of Amazon Prime the opportunity to “borrow” one book a month for free. (Amazon Prime is a subscription service that gives members other benefits such as free shipping, free downloads of games and videos for the Kindle Fire, etc.). There was a good deal of controversy over whether or not publishers had agreed to allow their books to be borrowed for free, what if any compensation authors would get, and, again, whether offering books for free was a good thing.

However, the breakthrough for indie authors came on December 8, 2011 when Amazon offered authors who publish through KDP the opportunity to participate in KDP Select. There were caveats. They had to sign up for a three-month commitment and stop selling their enrolled books through any other venue. The carrot? Those authors who signed up would get a share of a pot of money and they would get five free promotional days in the three-month period. This was and is controversial — particularly the exclusivity required — and it left unanswered questions about how the pot of money would be divided up and whether the bulk of the money would go to just a few big names in indie publishing. What interested me, however, was the free promotional days.

Last Christmas the sales of my one historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune, were fantastic, and I sold 4600 books on Kindle in December and January, and another 1400 in February. This Christmas I had a second book, Uneasy Spirits, available. It had been selling well since I published it in October. I put my short story into Kindle Select as a harmless experiment, but decided to delay putting either of my novels into the program until I saw how well they sold during the days after Christmas on both Kindle and Barnes and Noble.

Something unexpected happened the week before Christmas, however. The historical mystery category on Kindle, which had been artificially small because of a glitch in the KDP program (I had been posting about this for nearly a year and a half), expanded from having only around 81 books to suddenly having over 1600 (I assume the glitch was finally fixed.) Almost overnight, both of my historical mysteries, which had been hovering in the top five best selling books in this category, slipped down in ranking to the teens and twenties. The top ranks were filled with books that had been traditionally published, had been out longer than mine, or were classics. (I did find it amusing that someone — probably a publishing house techie — had put such classics as Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Conon Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books, and Dorothy Sayers’ Cloud of Witness in this category.)

In addition, during the week after Christmas, a number of other authors began to report that their post-Christmas sales were not living up to their expectations compared to last year. The greater number of ebooks available (estimates are that the number of ebooks doubled in the last year), the greater numbers of ebooks offered at 99 cents, and new patterns of consumption by the newest Kindle owners, were all offered as reasons for this. The best discussion I have read so far on this subject has come in Kristine Rusch’s post, “The Holiday Surprise.”

To make a long story short, it seemed clear to me that, although the market for ebooks had increased considerably with all the ereaders sold for Christmas, I was facing a great deal more competition for those new consumers.  I needed to do something to make my book stand out so it was easier to discover.

So, when I got back home after visiting my family for the holidays, I put my first historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune, into the KDP Select program and then created a two-day promotion for it by making it available for free on December 30 and 31. I hoped that this would make Maids more visible and that there would be an echo effect that would send Uneasy Spirits up the ranks so it would also become easier to discover. Finally, I hoped that, after the promotion was over, both books would stay highly ranked (at least in the top ten) in the historical mystery category long enough to generate a greater number of sales than they had been generating. In my experience, a high rank can beget better sales, which in turn will sustain the high rank.

I tweeted and announced the promotion on Facebook and Goodreads and on a few lists and forums on the day before the promotion and then on the two days of the free offer. (I only have about 500 Facebook and Twitter followers — not great, but not terrible.) And I crossed my fingers.

The day before I started my free promotion, both Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits were bouncing around in the 10,000 to 15,000 rank in the overall Kindle Store. While I know that some authors would kill for those rankings, I was used to being around 4,000 to 5,000. Both books were also bouncing between 18-24 in the historical mystery category. I was selling about 15 of each title a day.

At the end of the first day of free promotion, 6500 people had downloaded Maids of Misfortune, it was #67 on the Kindle store free book list, #1 on the free historical mystery list, and #1 on the free women’s sleuth mystery list. And Uneasy Spirits had risen to #12 on the historical mystery bestseller list, selling 26 copies that day.

At the end of the second day, over 14,000 people had downloaded Maids of Misfortune, it was #35 on the Kindle free book list, still number #1 on the historical mystery and women’s sleuth lists, and even #3 on the free mystery list. Uneasy Spirits had risen to the #8 position on the historical mystery bestseller list, and had sold 54 copies that day.

I clearly had reached my goal of making Maids of Misfortune more visible! The morning after the promotion ended, Uneasy Spirits still was in the #8 spot and Maids of Misfortune was in the #3 position. Clearly it was now easier for readers to discover both books with these high rankings. I am not the only author to report this sort of success, see this post and comments on the Passive Voice.

What remains to be seen is how long this bump in visibility will last, what kind of sales it will produce, and — if there is an increase in sales — how much will it be and how long will it last?

I will report on the results in Part Two of this post. So stay tuned.

Apart from the marketing angle, I couldn’t be more thrilled personally by the success of this free promotion. As anyone who has read my posts (for example my last one assessing my second year as an indie author) knows, I was already quite pleased by the fact that I had sold 15,000 copies of Maids of Misfortune in the two years the book has been out. Now, the number of people who have the book has doubled.

Do I mind they didn’t pay for it? Not a whit. Even if the sales I hope for down the road don’t materialize, for me it has never been strictly about the money. When I wrote as a 17 year old in my high school yearbook that I wanted to do with my future is “write happy books” (I know, I know, not a particularly felicitous turn of phrase!) I meant that I wanted to write books that gave readers the kind of enjoyment that authors like Georgette Heyer gave me, (Laurie King calls it frivolous fiction, and I love that phrase). Being an indie author has given me the opportunity to do just that. And today, Amazon’s KDP Select just gave me the opportunity to tickle the fancy of a whole lot more people. How grand and what a wonderful way to start the New Year!

13 Replies to “KDP Select Free Promotion: Discoverability Experiment, Part One”

  1. Do I mind they didn’t pay for it? Not a whit. Even if the sales I hope for down the road don’t materialize, for me it has never been strictly about the money…

    I don’t mean any offense or anything, and I know this is your blog and I’m a guest here, and I respect that….but….if you don’t care at all about making money, why not just post your work up on Facebook for free? Or Worthyofpublishing? Or a site like Fanfiction dot net (I know you don’t write fanfic but I just meant a site that was similar to FF.net)? There’s also Quizilla, and other free sites that don’t pay.

    Why come to a business site where the platform is trying to make money, and professional authors are trying to make money, and put your stuff up for free & say you don’t care about earning money?

    You mentioned an anecdote from when you were 17 and…no offense intended but…I could understand why a 17 year old person wouldn’t care about working for a tiny bit of money or even free, because they get their money from their parents. But what I can’t really understand is why a grown adult person (who I assume has bills, a family, mortgage, car insurance to pay, and so on) would be drawn to spend their time working for free. If you stand back and look at it, it doesn’t really make that much sense, IMO. The time and energy spent on developing free stuff and counting downloads could be spent actually earning money with which could go towards helping to sustain yourself.

    14,000 downloads would be GREAT…if you were earning revenue from it. I don’t mean 99 cents but REAL, sustainable revenue. And the wording in the article kept mixing the word sales and free downloads (at least for me, and I got confused). Do you ever refer to free downloads as sales? For me (and for most people in any kind of business) a SALE means someone paid money for your product. Now, did you sell 14,000 ebooks or were they free downloads? If they were sales, how were the books priced? And how much revenue was earned? Those are the real questions.

    1. Dear “Does it make sense?”

      Thank you for your response, however, I do think that you have misunderstood both the reason that I put up my book on the KDP Select program and what I intended to convey in writing this post.

      First of all, as the title reflected, my intention in putting Maids of Misfortune up in the KDP was to see if using the free promotion would make it easier to find by potential readers (who look for free books) because I wasn’t selling as many copies of the book as I had last year. I sell Maids at $2.99, and get 70% royalty, and, as I have written in several other blog posts, the money I have made gave me what most writers want, an income that permitted me to write full time. (In my case this meant enough money to retire completely since I live on a fixed income at this point in my life.)

      Second, except for the very last paragraph, my discussion of the effect of the free promotion was all about how the free downloads (and I was careful not to call them sales—I only used the word sales when referring to actual sales) did result in pushing Maids of Misfortune up the rankings—which I believed would lead to higher sales—and also resulted increasing the sales in my second book, which I had not entered into the KDP Select program. I thought I was very clear that I was not getting into the argument over whether offering free books or cheap books was good or bad, but was talking about whether offering a book for free for a short period of time was a good marketing (ie selling) strategy.

      Finally, you will notice in the statement you quoted, I said “for me it has never been strictly about the money.” In other words, I write and self-publish for additional reasons besides the monetary rewards. I said the same thing about teaching–that I was never in it strictly for the money. I think you will find that many writers feel this way, if only because this has seldom been a monetarily rewarding career. I never meant to imply that this was the way all authors should feel, or that I don’t feel my work should be compensated. I simply wanted to express why I didn’t feel badly about all those people who got the book for free (and believe you me, I never expected that number of people to take advantage of the free promotion.)

      Although I suspect we would not agree about whether or not offering a book for free (for a short period of time) or for 99 cents devalues authors work, I do think that you should read my post next weekend about the results of using KDP Select as a marketing tool after one week. Because it did work for me as a sales strategy. In the first 4 days after the free promotion ended, I sold over 500 copies of Maids of Misfortune a day. I don’t know how long those numbers will last-but I can certainly attest to the fact that just because the book had been offered as free hasn’t discouraged people from wanting to buy it. And I will certainly be glad to be getting royalty checks from Amazon for a book that has been on the market for 2 years. Checks that are probably a lot larger than any I might have gotten if I had taken the traditional publishing route.

  2. Thank you for this article, Louisa. I’m new to indie publishing (although I’ve been traditionally published in fiction and non for years). I tried the “free” thing for the same reasons you did and I was equally impressed with it, albeit not equally successful. I’m very interested to learn how this ultimately panned out for you.

  3. I’m a retiree on fixed income, so I download about 8 free books for every one I pay for. I downloaded the free Maids of Misfortune, and enjoyed it so much that, within 3 minutes of the time I finished it, I downloaded (paid for) Uneasy Spirits. If there had been a third book available, I would have scooped that up, too. (providing it was priced below $6.00 — I really have to keep my book spending in check.) I realize that this is anecdotal, not empirical, evidence of the success of your “discovery” strategy, but I doubt that I am alone.
    I’m a Laurie R King fan, also. But I tend to get her books from the Library. Price matters.

    1. Dear Laura,

      I do so enjoy hearing your kind of story. I am glad you enjoyed reading about Annie’s world. I hope you have already discovered Dandy Detects, the short story I wrote about Jamie, and his mother, and dog, it is 99 cents on Kindle. and I just put up a second short story about the elderly boarders, the Misses Moffet, It is free on this blog at http://mlouisalocke.com/2012/02/12/free-victorian-san-francisco-short-story/

      Thanks again for your kind words.

      M. Louisa Locke

  4. Thanks for taking the time to write this. I’m new to KDP and not sure but it was three months of downloads daily on the borrow system then suddenly it just stopped –I imagine Amazon powers the book for three months then drops it–maybe. I will try the promotionals next

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