The crazy, mad crack high of free books is now officially over.

I can’t say for sure, but I am about 99% confident that Amazon has made changes to its algorithms, so instead of seeing massive spikes in sales coming off free, you will see a paltry spike, if that.

I have several friends who just came off free in the last week, saw 15K downloads, and saw a marginal increase in their sales – maybe 10% of what they would have seen a month ago.

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BREAKING NEWS: New interview with Kevin Rau and yours truly. Because it’s all about me.

NEWS: An excellent new blog featuring my thoughts on promotions by @inkwellHQ. A good read.

MORE NEWS: New book review for King of Swords sequel, Revenge of the Assassin, by bestselling author Steven Konkoly.

UPDATE: Yours truly was in the Top 50 indie authors by sales for the second month in a row!

UPDATE TWO: A lengthy interview wherein I cover everything from the war on drugs, to central banking, to writing.

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I just did the same thing with Zero Sum. Actually, that was an odd one. I think Amazon hates Zero Sum. Remember that it “lost” the book for 24 hours, trashing the ranking when it “found it.” Went from #1300 or so to #8500, and never recovered. Nice. Thank you, Amazon. Whoops!

But this time, Amazon didn’t pull it off free at midnight when it was supposed to, at the end of day two. No, 12 hours into day three, and it was still free. Which made the promotions I’d scheduled a moot point. But it saw over 10K downloads and hit #30 overall. So not terrible. Certainly not bad for the third time it’s gone free.

Day one paid, I priced it at .99 for one day, to boost paid sales on the critical first 24 hours, when the algorithms used to give a sh#t. I saw a whopping 100 sales at .99, versus 350-500 on similar promos just a few months ago. So not as large a bump – maybe a quarter or less what April might have brought. Then, in the first 24 hours at a discounted price of $3.47, I saw 21 sales.

To put that into perspective, the book typically sells 20 a day. Some days 15, some 25.

So a modest effect on deeply discounting the book, and then virtually nothing once at normal price.

Two months ago, I was seeing 150 a day following a free promotion at full price, and that lasted 7 days. Now, not so much.

Thus, the giddy days of big sales from going free are officially over. I’m hearing similar tales from everyone I know. So it’s O-V-E-R. We’ll have to come up with something new.

I won’t be doing any more free promos if there’s no lift from the free days. Makes no sense. I’ve already seen well over 150K of my books downloaded free over he last 6 months, so another 10K of one title or another ain’t going to bring in the tide of readers. I’ll run out the clock on the existing promos, and collect the loan fees on the borrows – which DO offset sales, contrary to some claims to the contrary (I’ve seen it now for several months, where the first few days of the month borrows go through the roof, and sales drop by precisely the same amount – makes sense, as those folks are waiting for their free book from Select, rather than buying the title). But as to breaking big on a book because of free, I believe that’s finito. It was certainly fun while it lasted. But now the hangover sets in.

I wonder how long it will take others to figure this out? My prediction is 30-60 days, if they don’t read this blog. Allow me to be the first to proclaim the end of the free era on Amazon. Long live the new, new thing. Whatever that might be.

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Comments

  1. Mon 07th May 2012 at 12:50 pm

    Interesting, Russell. I’m new to KDP Select and did my first free days in April. My sales were fabulous (for me) following the free days and continue strong. My sales have never been the level you report, but they’re still excellent for me. So I wonder if the free days still have value as a way to launch a new book or a new author. But not repeated free days for the same book, as you note.

    I’ve been pleased with the loans. Given my book pricing at $3.99, the loan payout is less but not a huge loss. If it makes the readers feel like they got a deal and I still get paid, all is good.

    Obviously the whole free day thing is shaking out. I’ll be staying tuned to your thoughts. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 07th May 2012 at 1:03 pm

      This changed, as far as I can tell, in the last 10 days to two weeks. So whatever happened in April (I had 3 or 4 promos, all good) was great. But now it has changed. So we have to either, A) recognize it as such and develop different strategies, or B) hope and wish that this month will be like last month, and that the reports coming in from everywhere are wrong.

      I’ve had great success with the program until the last two weeks, at which point I saw maybe 10% of the effect, at most. So my gut says some bright lad at Amazon set the effect on the algorithm from 100% to 10%. Too many others have seen the same thing. I suppose another way you could check is to just look at the books that are free right now in the top 40, then track them for the next three days to see where they wind up on paids over the first 72 hours. I know mine would hit the top 10, then surge to #250 or so on paids, slowing to maybe #6000 over three weeks. Now, day three, if I see #2500 0n a title that was #4500 before the promo, I’m pleasantly surprised. Again, this is just very recent. As in days, not months.

      Reply
  2. Mon 07th May 2012 at 12:52 pm

    Hey Russell, great insights. I noticed the exact same thing. Great enthusiasm in March. Wow, was March just two months ago? The bump lasted an entire month.

    Now? Four days to a week max. Why? Because the first time, I got people emailing me, “Really? I didn’t know you can get free books on Amazon. Wow! Let me tell my friends.”

    After that it’s, “Wait, why buy books if there are free ones every day? I’ll put it on my wishlist and wait for it to go free. My kindle’s memory is full anyway and I’ve got enough books stockpiled for three life sentences in solitary confinement.”

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 07th May 2012 at 1:06 pm

      March was a dream month for me. Huge, and I mean really huge, sales. With loans and international, around 14.5K sold.

      April, more like 10K.

      May, tracking to see 7500-8K. Could be seasonality, but I look at where the sales came from in April and May, and it was a direct function of running a free promo every week or so, and having at least one title always in that post-free sales surge that lasts 5 days then slowly trails off.

      Reason May will be lower is that effect is now gone. Sniff. It was fun while it lasted…

      Reply
  3. Mon 07th May 2012 at 2:12 pm

    IMHO, those authors that were on top when KDP Select went live in Dec took a sudden nosedive. Those coming up the ladder soared to the top. Now the new batch is making its way up. And so on and so forth. Over-saturation (I posted about it on your Rambling Man blog). Maybe it’s not so bad. Every author with quality books will have an opportunity to rise and shine, even if it’s just for a short time. But that’s all it takes to get your name and product out there before it eventually levels off. Amazon is all-powerful. A nudge from them can rocket you to the top (Kindle Daily Deals and special promotions). I will be pulling several novels out of the program this month. It’s not working for me. Never did.

    Reply
  4. Mon 07th May 2012 at 3:00 pm

    At least you don’t have to start writing in a different genre. The experience from my last two free promos, different books, was lackluster at best. You know what happened to Black Flagged. BF’d. I chose not to enroll my upcoming release in the KDP Select program. When June rolls by, I’ll free the other book in that series, and see if I can’t generate some interest at B&N…unless Amazon changes things around to keep authors in Select. The tide is pretty clear…authors are slowly seeing less and less impact with their free promotions, which means there will be less reason to stay in the program. Amazon is pretty smart. I’d be surprised if they didn’t figure out another way to keep us interested.

    Reply
  5. Mon 07th May 2012 at 3:03 pm

    By the way, both of my books broke back into the top #10,000 paid Kindle. I’m so happy…you know this is all sarcasm. At least there is some improvement after the BF debacle.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 07th May 2012 at 5:05 pm

      Your also boughts now being all YA or historical romance is near tragic – it basically guarantees you won’t see many sales while that’s the case. A tragedy, and one that others might want to keep in mind when dancing around the Amazon tree proclaiming it all to be wonderful. As I have experienced, it is great until it isn’t. And when it isn’t, it really isn’t. As you know.

      Reply
  6. Mon 07th May 2012 at 4:18 pm

    I made the first of our ‘A Vested Interest’ books free on 5th & 6th April. The effect on sales was fantastic. We (my co-author and I) sold eight times the number of books in the 15 days following as we sold in the previous 2 years.

    What was more pleasing is that I estimated that most readers would take 10-11 days to read a 131,000 word book and that if they liked the first book we aught to see an increase in sales of the rest of the series after that. That’s exactly what happened.

    For us it seems that giving the first book away has a very positive effect on the rest of the series. I’m planning on repeating the process still, despite Amazon’s change. For a single book I think you are probably right.. The big sales from free promotion are over.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 07th May 2012 at 5:03 pm

      I saw great response from just about all my promos in April. I believe they changed around the end of the month. The last week. That’s the problem with drawing conclusions from dated material – I was seeing nearly miraculous results in March and most of April, and it was great…until it wasn’t any more. So your results being good the first week of April mirror mine. A wonderful time. My point is that’s over now, and so it will take new strategies to create the same results.

      Reply
      • John Chapman  –  Mon 07th May 2012 at 6:44 pm

        My point was that it might still be worth using the free promotion for a book which is part of a series.

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Mon 07th May 2012 at 7:41 pm

          Could be. I do free on the first book of my Assassin series, which has helped sales. I see free for something in a series as viable, but frankly, not due to the sales effect we would have seen, more by familiarizing readers with the work. Viewed from that perspective, I think it still makes sense.

          Reply
  7. Stef
    Mon 07th May 2012 at 5:32 pm

    Have the algothingys changed or are they just being diluted by the increasing ‘free kdp’ traffic in the advent of the recent success stories of these promotions.

    Perhaps, a few months on, when the latest bunch groan at the effect it has had and duly abandons it, the graph will show an upturn – perhaps not as giddy as in the recent months.

    But either way, I hear you on giving all that love to Amazon with no guarantee of return and would be looking at other ways to increase exposure. Free promo KDP is victim of its own success, I’d venture…

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 07th May 2012 at 7:44 pm

      No, the algorithms have changed. I keep getting more e-mails from other authors noting the same thing, starting maybe 10 days ago. I think they tuned them down from, say, 100% to more like 10% – which makes sense, as they have won the market share war they were waging over Xmas and the spring buying season. So now there’s no real reason to push or reward free like they were. Back to pushing $9.99 books and their own brand. Bad for us as indies, or rather, the candy bowl has been taken away, so now we need to go back to the plodding grind of organic marketing, versus a miracle in a bottle that was the 120 days of living in Camelot we just had.

      Just as there will never be another John Locke or Amanda Hocking, I think it’s safe to say there will never be another period like we just lived through. It was awesome while it lasted, but anyone that believed that was a sustainable new norm is in for an ugly surprise.

      Reply
  8. Mon 07th May 2012 at 11:34 pm

    RB-
    I had 11K free downloads and sold about 200 books the following month. I think there has been some pull back, but I think this is good. I feel Amazon should cap the free program and find better ways to promote the Good KDP authors like yourself.
    W4$

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 08th May 2012 at 12:38 am

      I have gotten at least two dozen e-mails saying the same thing, but I have to stress – the past does not equal the future. I sold a lot of books on most of my free promotions – until it stopped working. I can’t co-mingle my success three weeks ago with the obvious results of the last ten days. Different times. And it’s not just me. A friend had 15K downloaded two weeks ago. Sold maybe 120 books the five days after. An improvement over his sales without anything, but nothing like what he would have seen the first two weeks of April after a free promo, which would have been still better any week in Feb or March. None of us wants this to be the end of free – but I’m collecting the data points, and I’m telling you that if you see 10% what you would have a month ago after free, you are the norm.

      Is it worth it? I won’t be doing any more free promos on titles that have run their course. Because the reward isn’t there any more. I don’t want to be the blue haired lady who is pulling on the one armed bandit, mechanically feeding nickels into the slot, chain smoking Salem 100s while I do what I have always done, in spite of the fact that I’m not winning. That’s crazy.

      People can do what they want, but I’m calling free as being at or near its end. My prediction is that some will still do it for another month or two, hoping against hope that their 20K downloads will translate into sales, but my hunch is few will see anything like what was the norm just one month ago. Because when the house has its foot on the pedal under the table, it controls the spin. And Amazon has changed the reward system, which is its prerogative. But if we behave like rodents, or salivating dogs, responding to a stimuli that is long over, then we aren’t making smart choices.

      Like I said. If it is a book in a series, perhaps that will carry other books, and familiarize some with the work. That seems worth doing, and I can say I have two books free since December, both of which I’m not in any hurry to take paid. Other authors selling better than I am are also seeing success with their long term free offerings. So free as a mechanism to familiarize readers is valid. But I’m here to tell folks that free as a mechanism to climb the algorithms and get enhanced visibility appears over.

      Reply
      • Richard Herley  –  Wed 09th May 2012 at 3:53 pm

        >free as a mechanism to familiarize readers is valid

        Yes, that’s the point we’ve reached. I advertise my other Amazon titles at the end of each ebook and include links to my author pages and blog. My blog stats show a number of hits coming from Kindles, so the strategy seems to work. I now have one title (my first novel, and the first in a trilogy) on permanent free offer, just to get those ads out there.

        Reply
  9. yoon
    Tue 08th May 2012 at 12:21 am

    Well, you’d better stop going to bed so early and start writing more. A book every 2 weeks. Yup, you’ll do fine.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 08th May 2012 at 12:39 am

      I’m working on it.

      You’re a harsh mistress. Keeps me honest. In a manner of speaking…

      Reply
      • yoon  –  Tue 08th May 2012 at 12:59 am

        Um… that’s a compliment, right? Although “keeping you honest” never occurred to me. That was an unfortunate side effect, not that you’d ever be honest… I was just trying to make fun of you going to bed so early, you know, after an early bird special at the local diner and such.

        Reply
  10. Tue 08th May 2012 at 10:14 am

    I read your other post (downside of free – linked my blog to it) and I have thoughts on the whole free thing as well (and my results), and an interesting comment from Anthony at Digital Book Today that you might be interested in (http://tobecomeawriter.com). Funny, I was telling people when KDP Select started that it wouldn’t last. But if you read Anthony’s comments and the blog, it may all make sense lol.
    Thanks for sharing your results.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 08th May 2012 at 10:43 am

      I understand the seasonality effect, but that generalization has zero to do with what I am describing. Specifically, that up until roughly 10 days ago, you could go free, and if you placed high on the free list, about 18 hours after going paid, you would see sales take off like a rocket, as your book showed up on Movers and Shakers, Also Boughts, Recommendations, etc. Something changed, and when it did, free no longer translated into that boom. That something is Amazon. They changed the way the algorithms treat free. I don’t think they differentiated between free and paid for the purposes of those lists before. Now, I believe they have tuned their algorithms to exclude most, or all, of the free downloads from the Movers and Shakers and the Recommended lists. If that’s correct, the dip is explainable as something besides seasonality, which Anthony is correct about, BTW. It’s that an effect we were seeing Dec-April is no longer there. That explains 100% of it, and is completely consistent with all observed phenomena.

      Reply
      • Renee Pawlish  –  Tue 08th May 2012 at 11:09 am

        Huh, I don’t see in your post where you describe the movers and shakers part :), but I see what you’re saying. I would agree that Amazon just figured this out and changed their algorithms, which they have every right to do (unfortunately for those of us who use freebies to promote). I’m not sure it would account for 100% but that’s just my opinion.

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Tue 08th May 2012 at 11:34 am

          Perhaps it was the earlier post. I describe why free works to boost sales. 18 hours after coming off free, the placement in the algorithms would kick in and your book would appear on the Movers and Shakers list, receive preferential recommendation, and also benefit from Also Bought visibility. The first two no longer happen, so the value of free just dropped through the floor, other than to try to raise awareness. Like most things, it’s good until something changes, and this changed about 10 days ago. They have every right to tweak their algorithms, but our job as authors is to keep up with the changes, and seasonality accounts for zero of why this strategy would work until 10 days ago (I know – I am a huge beneficiary of it) and then abruptly stop. As an example, using Anthony’s explanation, my sales should have slowly tapered off after Feb. Exactly the opposite happened. I sold mid-3K in Jan, 3K in Feb, then 12.5K in March, and just shy of 10K in April. The reason my sales exploded were largely attributable to KDP Select, and aggressively working the algorithms as I just described. But all good things come to an end, and this did. My last two promos were non-events, even with well five figure downloads on both books. A month ago that would have been good for 150 sales a day for 5 days, with a long tail that lasted 3 weeks. The last two promos, I saw 10% of that effect. And I have received dozens of e-mails from authors confirming this sudden change. So it is real, it was fun while it lasted, but this is the new reality, so we either have to recognize why things are happening and adjust, or we fail. I do think Anthony’s point about being ready for the next selling season is a valid one, as is his seasonality explanation – under normal circumstances. I would expect to see the 2012 holidays more in line with history for that reason. We had 120 days of a kind of miracle, but it’s over, so until something new comes along, it’s back tot he grind.

          Reply
          • Renee Pawlish  –  Tue 08th May 2012 at 11:43 am

            Yes, I understand and agree, except that I know of a few authors who followed the “plan” of layering free with paid promos in March and they didn’t see the huge rise after the free days. I think genre certainly may explain some of this. I know my middle grade book didn’t see the downloads and thus benefit from algorithms that my mystery and horror books did. Thanks for the discussion and as you say, on to the next thing (and writing more books lol).

          • Russell Blake  –  Tue 08th May 2012 at 2:42 pm

            It was never a guarantee. Of the maybe 10 fee promos I did, seven were great, and three were so so or non-starters. Day of the week, who else was on the lists, all had something to do with it, but it was more hit than miss. Now, I think it’s going to prove to be mostly misses. Call that a hunch. You can see why from Ed’s great post describing the algorithms a bit more scientifically…

  11. Tue 08th May 2012 at 12:18 pm

    Oops, beat you to it. Yes, Amazon changed their algorithms. It happened on May 4:

    http://www.edwardwrobertson.com/2012/05/amazons-ever-changing-algorithms-part-2.html

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 08th May 2012 at 2:40 pm

      A very good technical explanation of why Satan has taken over Amazon and cursed we, the righteous indies who were finally getting a hint of a break. Now I’ll never sell a Gazillion eBooks in no time. Phooey.

      It also explains why I, in my own clumsy way, said it seemed to me that I was seeing maybe a 10% net effect, rather than a 100% effect. Your research confirms that hunch. Now the question is whether it is worth going free and giving Amazon an exclusive for a 10% or so effect. I’ll keep everyone informed, but at this point, I’m not sure it’s worth it for me. With my titles at $3.99 and $4.99, I’m losing money on each borrow compared to a sale, and if the free days have negligible effect, I see no point. I’ve already given away more than 150K books, and have two titles free full time, so don’t think another 50K is what’s stopping me from hitting the tipping point…

      Reply
      • Ed Robertson  –  Tue 08th May 2012 at 3:23 pm

        I’m doing a bit of teeth-gnashing myself. I’d just started to build an audience through Select. Guess I’ll have to cancel that helicopter purchase.

        We can be certain things will change at some point. The big question, obviously, is whether Amazon will act to specifically change Select for the better, either by tweaking the algos again and/or adding new incentives to Select. If they don’t, the program’s not going to be very useful for an awful lot of authors.

        Me, I’m pulling two books that weren’t performing anyway but letting two others stick in for one more term. In wacky ebook-land, three months should be more than enough time for another revolution to render all this moot.

        Reply
  12. Tue 08th May 2012 at 6:33 pm

    As a reader, I can’t say that all the free stuff going away is a bad thing. I know that might sound strange, but I was downloading so many books that I got spoiled. Basically, my logic was, “why bother to pay money when they’ll eventually give it up for free on Amazon. Eventually.” Yeah. Not great logic you want to encourage in your readers. I know I’m alone there, either. So maybe moving away from free isn’t a bad thing. Maybe?

    As a writer who plans on self-publishing, I have no doubt there will be other methods that give good promo and/or marketing. Sadly, I get the feeling any marketing and promo events indies manage to come across won’t stick around, but I guess that’s the industry for you. Or… yeah.

    I’m just thinking with my fingertips to the keyboard. Don’t mind me, lol.

    Reply
  13. Fri 11th May 2012 at 5:11 am

    Well, this explains a lot, and thanks to you guys for working out what’s happening. Like many here I had a fantastic spike in sales for March, not as good as yours Russell but still a quantum leap off a couple of free promos, and then in April when I gave away 10,000 books which was slightly higher than those in March, the resulting sales were minimal, very disappointing. At least I know it’s not just me now, it’s happening to everyone.

    But looking positively, this world is changing all the time, so in a month or two maybe something new will arise. Let’s hope so!

    Reply
  14. Sun 13th May 2012 at 2:52 am

    I also had a major drop in sales after the free-day promotion and I believe it has to do with Amazon tweaking something. I agree: Those days of massive sales after free-day promotions are over, if not winding down.

    Reply

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