Sales for every author I know have been dumping since March, on a month over month basis. This could be due to seasonality, but I suspect that it has far more to do with changing consumer behavior. We, as authors, have trained readers that they don’t have to buy books. They can just wait for them to go free. What kind of chump pays for a book when they can get the same thing for free, fer chrissakes?

I’ve heard this again and again. So while free has been good for some authors (like me) in the short term, in the longer term, it has established a new kind of hoarding behavior where the value of the work is degraded. We have done this to ourselves. We have seen the enemy, and it is us.

I’m guilty of it. Most I know are, too.

And sales across the board are languishing. Since Amazon changed the algorithms, my sales are down 35% from April, which were down about that much from March (which were almost 5X what Feb and Jan were, so can’t complain too much). The difference is the free promotions, or rather, the success thereof. In March, I would do a free promo, see 15K downloads in two days, and the sales would boom to couple hundred a day of that title for four to five days, then slow gradually, maybe hundred and fifty day six, hundred day seven, sixty day eight, and then settle into a “long tail” where they would bottom at around fifteen to twenty a day by week three.

The point is that by running a free promo every week, I would see that spike on one title per week, which was an extra eight hundred to thousand books a week. Averaged across a month, that was four thousand books. That’s a lot of books.

Now, though, I have done three different promos in three weeks, and seen 10K per free promo, I’ve seen sales struggle to maybe 20% of what I saw in March and early April, with the fall happening much faster. I believe that’s because of how the books appear on Amazon’s lists – they aren’t getting favorable placement any more, due to the algorithm change. So now you are invisible to readers, just as you were before, except for maybe one or two days of placing far down a list that has also been changed, again, as noted in earlier blogs.

That would argue for pulling out of KDP Select. No more free lunch. No benefit. And an actual harmful net effect.

And yet, I am staying in, for now, even if I’m not going to do many more free days.

Why, you ask?

Loans. As of April, Amazon increased the loan fee for each borrow to just a hair shy of $2.50. So if you get 1000 borrows, there’s an extra $2500. It’s actually not extra, as it cannibalizes a sale, but at $2.50 net, what do I care? That’s great compensation on a net basis (even if you have your book at $3.99, you won’t see $2.50 average net, as all the affiliate and non-US territory sales cut into that at a 35% commission rate, as opposed to 70%, blending out at more like $2.25 on average across a month). To my thinking, I’m now being compensated as if all my titles that are borrowed were retailing at $4.50 or so. That’s a sweet deal. Sweet enough to have me keeping my titles in the program to reap that reward.

I see about 30% borrows to sales. Sell 1000, you see roughly 300-350 borrows. How does that suck? Well, you are foregoing nook and other platform sales (although not really, if someone is willing to convert the MOBI and you haven’t enabled digital rights management). But no way are my nook sales 30% of my total.

One tell is that my UK sales have now grown to be 30-40% of my mix. But they don’t have borrows there. That would explain why sales have been growing even as US sales are falling. Far fewer seem to take advantage of free promotions there, and they can’t benefit from loans, so they just buy the books. I also note that the refund rate is far lower. In the US, I see roughly 1.75-2.25% returns. Doesn’t matter what title. That’s the average. I used to think it was because some were offended by language or politics or religion, but no – my dog bio sees the same returns as my most controversial work. In the UK, the return rate is more like around .25 percent. Perhaps there’s just a philosophy in the US of refunding things for whatever reason. Perhaps UK Amazon’s return policy is harder. Dunno. I just know that UK readers seem to whine less, return less, and buy more.

Viva the UK!

So what does this all mean for authors? Free is over, as I said before, unless you consider a 10%-20% effect worth it. Instead of seeing 150 books day two, you’ll maybe see 20-30. And that’s if you placed in the top 40 free overall. There will be exceptions, but that’s become the new rule, so free as a mechanism to increase sales due to the heightened visibility of the free/paid cycle is done. I do think the negative is that it is going to be a long time before the fringe crowd that would pay to read a new indie title does so – why buy when you have 100 free titles already on your kindle? That fringe buyer is who many of us were courting, and they are largely out of the game. Hence, sales slump, in addition to seasonality. And what you are trading for that extra 20-30 books sold for 5 days, is the death of your longer term sales market. Seems like a dumb tradeoff, to me, anyway. Maybe it’s worth it to some. But only, by my math, if you plan to sell maybe 200 books total per title. Otherwise, free is a bad deal now.

My tactic moving forward will be to run out the clock on the promotions I have scheduled, keep my books in KDP Select, but not offer them free. I will do this for the $2.50, no other reason. And if that declines, I’ll be out completely, focusing on other promotional tools.

And writing.

I think the single biggest differentiator I have from most of my peers who started publishing when I did, is my large and growing backlist. I’m so convinced that makes a difference I have committed to writing five more novels this year, if it kills me. I think once you have critical mass of, say, 15 paid titles, there is a lot more chance for someone to stumble upon one of your works. And when they do, they might work their way through all your books, which translates into considerably higher revenue over the long term. Because you have gained a reader, not made a sale.

In the long run, and I’m talking years or decades, I believe making a living as an author will come down to supplying consistently high quality work in the genre your readers like and want. Promotions, pricing, giveaways, hype – all are good, but nothing will build a career like putting your head down and writing as well as you are able. Not as fast as you can, but as well as you can, at a sustainable rate. So if you can only get out one or two novels a year, my advice would be prepare to do that for the next five years, and dig in for the long haul. That’s what I’m doing. My magic number is to have 15 paid titles, then next year I will back it off to maybe 3 or 4 books a year from there on out. Because it’s not like I don’t have enough titles out. But all of last year, I felt hunted and driven, because a part of me said, “You need more.”

Turns out that was right.

I have been told that summer will be miserable from a sales standpoint, and also, in the same discussion, that sales will increase due to summer beach reads being bought. My gut says free saturated a lot of those discretionary indie beach read purchases, but I hope I’m wrong. However that may turn out, I’ll still write my five more books, and be gearing up for the Dec-March boom again.

Because Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nor will any career be. Unless you’re a Kardashian. Meh.

Speaking of shameless self-promotion, check out my new box set – that’s a lot of books for a lousy ten bucks. As always, the art was done by my usual guy, whose contact info can be yours for the asking.

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Comments

  1. Mon 14th May 2012 at 2:34 pm

    Hi Russell,

    I like this blog. I agree in the long run that the quality of ones work will be what keeps them in the running for many years. I’m a newbie with only two books on Amazon. Keep up the great blogs.

    Reply
  2. Mon 14th May 2012 at 2:53 pm

    Blake, I think you have hit the nail on the head. I heard NYT bestselling author Jodi Thomas speak a few weeks ago. She said that if you take a stopwatch and time yourself while you work just on your writing, and if you write 20 hours per week, week in and week out, you will be a NYT bestselling author (She is actually made that claim). I have started the stopwatch regimen and can report that I don’t spend nearly as much time writing books as I thought I did. If I wrote 20 hours per week, I could finish a novel in a month to a month and a half and build a census of a dozen books by this time next year (I have five and a half already written). I am convinced that a strong census is the best thing an author can do for himself these days.

    Thanks for sharing your experience on KDP.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 14th May 2012 at 3:14 pm

      I took a lot of heat last year when I said I try to write one novel every six weeks. Most said it was impossible to do with any kind of quality – I’m not talking dialogue heavy action chowder with single sentence expository and a sub-custodial sentence structure. But I write 10 hours a day, and shoot to get out between 5K and 7500 words a day, at a decent first draft level. By my math, you should be able to get a book out in three weeks, then spend another two on rewrite/second draft, then another week or two on third draft/polish, then off to the editor as you start your next one.

      If I cut that down to write two hours a day, at 750 words an hour, you would have 1500 a day. Multiply that by 365 for days in the year. Not only is it achievable, but it’s not all that hard, presuming you have a decent grasp of the craft and are inventive. Hell, even at an hour a day, you are at three 100K novels a year.

      My business plan is simple. Write around a million words a year. Do that for two years. Maybe three. We’ll see. Then drop back to 400K thereafter. That will seem like a vacation after two years at a million per.

      I’m retired, and able to commit that kind of time because I’m OCD, and I play for keeps, so when I’m into something, I go in big. But even if you said you only had an hour a day, how can you not generate at least three 100K novels a year? I Don’t get it.

      Having said that, I’m not sure that it’s fair to just put chimps at typewriters and have them churn out screeds. Some will do better than others due to the sheer talent involved, but also due to genre, and just plain old luck – most of this being luck, I believe. Maybe not to scratch out a workmanlike living, but certainly to sell tons of one title. My model has always been based on mediocre results – 5K sales per title per year. That assumes that most readers have never heard of me, or think I suck a bag of d#cks, or just don’t like me for whatever reason. As in, 99.99999% don’t ever try one of my books. I think if you can build a sustainable model based on that kind of batting average, you have nowhere to go but up…

      Reply
      • Scott  –  Mon 14th May 2012 at 8:22 pm

        OCD and retired. You made me laugh out loud for real. Thank you. I needed. It. (How’s that for dramatic pauses! And what’s wrong with writing a novel like it’s a bad news article from a shitty newspaper? Haven’t you ever read Robert B. Parker?

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Tue 15th May 2012 at 12:49 am

          I aspire to writing like a bad news article from a shitty newspaper. Do they still have newspapers in the old country? Quaint, that. I guess not everyone has the internet up there?

          Reply
        • Lloyd Lofthouse  –  Fri 18th May 2012 at 9:42 am

          OCD = discipline too

          With OCD/discipline and goal setting anyone that is literate may turn out at min. one book a year. Hemingway did it by writing one full (manuscript) page a day and editing it until he was satisfied and never returning to that page. Then he started the next page the next day and so on.

          Then he went fishing or hunting.

          Reply
          • Russell Blake  –  Sat 19th May 2012 at 12:46 am

            Papa had it right.

            Although I shan’t repeat last year’s performance of 12 books in as many months. There’s disciplined, and there’s nuts. I understand the difference, even if it does make for interesting reading.

            But just about anyone with some discipline should be able to turn out 500 words a day of decent quality. That’s 180K or so words a year. Couple of novels.

            I really don’t get why so many think it’s so difficult. 500 words a day. I’ve written four times that many just responding to e-mails today. People. Please. You want to write? Hint. Write. The end.

  3. Mon 14th May 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Right on the money, Russell. Plus I love the way you take a 10,000 ft view of these issues. Yes, they have a personal effect on each of us, but it’s that distance that gives the perspective to be able to plan through the summer, decide how many more books it’s going to take to hit that critical turning point, etc.

    Great post – thank you.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 14th May 2012 at 4:13 pm

      Well, thanks for the kind words.

      It remains to be seen whether a certain number of books results in a tipping point. But I do know that the more quality material you have out there, the more likely it is that someone trips across it. Seems like a numbers game after a certain point, assuming that the quality stays high. I suppose we shall see. You’ve been there since the very beginning, so you’ve watched this little saga play out. June will be my one year anniversary – June 7, I think. Not a bad year so far.

      Reply
  4. Tue 15th May 2012 at 2:53 am

    A very informative post. I have followed friends who are moving away from free as it affects their ranking in various places. The made me decide to go with a 99c/77p launch, and then pop the price up after a month. I will reduce for special events. I am staying with KDP for the loan benefits but not for free give-away.

    Reply
  5. yoon
    Tue 15th May 2012 at 11:22 am

    Is the number of free downloads when you do a free promo staying mostly at the same level as before?

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 15th May 2012 at 1:41 pm

      It’s dropped a little depending upon the title and the day of the week, but not much. Maybe 10-15%. Point is we are talking numbers like last month I would see 13K in two days, this month 11.5K. Still more than enough to register, or would have been. I think Voynich hit the top 40 on day one, and ultimately made it into the teens. And on sales? Nothing. No effect. So if on a title that hasn’t been free except once, 8 weeks ago, almost 12K downloads doesn’t create a sales effect post-free, then it ain’t happening. I won’t be running my new titles free, based on that and a few other promos that have been lackluster.

      Reply
      • yoon  –  Tue 15th May 2012 at 3:35 pm

        Glad you aren’t going to do any more free promos. I can understand only one or two titles constantly and widely being offered free would be beneficial to get your name out there, but never quite got why you (general you, indie authors, etc) would cycle your books through free promos. I guess it had its benefits before.

        The reason I asked about the number of free downloads is that as an ex-hoarder of free ebooks, I was wondering if many other people just gave up on them as well. I’m one of those people who’d read almost any genre, well maybe except horror because I have this thing with nightmares and such… So going through all those top free books list used to be like Christmas everyday. Now more than a year later, I called it quits. Hit vs miss ratio is just too horrible.

        So yeah, I stopped downloading any new indie books. Not that I’ll have time to read them, mind you, since you’ll be whipping up a new book every week. Right?

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Tue 15th May 2012 at 7:48 pm

          I think many are like you, and have called it quits with the freebies – agreed that the hit rate is abysmal, and life is too short.

          The reason I used to cycle through em was for the sales bump and visibility bump from Amazon. That helped a huge deal. But it’s over now. Amen.

          I will try to get more books out ASAP. I’m trying to train the monkey to type faster. Damned monkey. Lazy beasts.

          Reply
          • yoon  –  Tue 15th May 2012 at 9:07 pm

            I think the monkey should work a few more hours a day, don’t you think? He just goes to bed too early, if you ask me.
            BTW, so June 7th is your anniversary? Are you doing anything special to celebrate?

          • Russell Blake  –  Tue 15th May 2012 at 9:20 pm

            I was debating binge drinking and running down the streets naked, but that’s so Tuesday.

            I’ll think of something. Maybe finish or start a book. There’s an idea!

          • yoon  –  Tue 15th May 2012 at 9:56 pm

            I thought you binge drink and/or run naked everyday except maybe Sunday? And nothing special about starting or finishing a book either since you do that twice a week. Maybe try not drinking and putting some pants on for a change? THAT would make it special.

          • Russell Blake  –  Wed 16th May 2012 at 12:35 am

            You ask too much.

  6. Tue 15th May 2012 at 12:17 pm

    Great Blog Russell! I’m glad I found it.

    I agree with you, apart from using the free giveaways for the first of a series to promote the entire series.
    I wish the world (and Amazon) would get away from FREE!
    The price paid is the value of the purchase!
    FREE has no value which means the purchase has no value, unless it is used to promote a bigger project.
    I would think that a 99 cent special giveaway has more value than FREE and free books are long forgotten!

    The KDP I hope will stay. I believe a book a month is a help in keeping people (our audience) reading. Also with a capital, free society the strong writers will survive and the weak will not.
    I think Amazon will decrease in writers and books over time as the popular books sell and the unpopular ones don’t.

    “The quality of the written word will make the author!”
    And will keep our industry alive.

    Keep up the blog!

    Reply
  7. Tue 15th May 2012 at 4:27 pm

    I hate giving mine away. However, it seemed a good way to get word out and stories into readers hands. My titles are limited to novellas and short novels. I do have a different angle when considering the free titles through KDP. I only give away book one of a series. Obviously, I’m hoping enough readers will enjoy it and then purchase book 2, 3, 4, etc.

    I’m just now in the beginning stages. Plan on using it through the end of the year and then evaluating. Will keep you updated.

    Great article!

    Reply
  8. Tue 15th May 2012 at 4:29 pm

    I wonder how everyone seems to be doing so well in the UK but me. My bestselling book is at 1800 on Amazon.com and 22,000 on Amazon.co.uk. I am selling 20X more in US and that doesn’t count the loans. Any advice? Many thanks.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 15th May 2012 at 7:49 pm

      I wish I could say I was doing something to attract UK readers, but the truth is I have no idea why the titles are doing well there. Thank God they are, though. I love the UK!!!

      Reply
    • T I WADE  –  Thu 17th May 2012 at 8:19 am

      Try decreasing your UK prices slightly. I did that, got to the lowest end on the 70% commission and the sales increased slightly. Many over there are not as well off as here in the States and appreciate lower prices.

      Reply
  9. Tue 15th May 2012 at 9:10 pm

    I agree with every single thing you just said, and have had the EXACT same experience. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  10. Tue 15th May 2012 at 10:05 pm

    I did my free promo for 3 days this April. In the previous 4 plus months I had sold 27 copies of my book The Sun Zebra. In the 3 weeks following the promo I sold 170 copies and had 46 borrows. Not great net results but they are a significant improvement compared to the previous 4 months.

    For mid level authors and higher maybe the KDP Select has lost its “allure”. But for us the little guys at the bottom of the pile it works just fine.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 16th May 2012 at 12:34 am

      No, you missed the point. It worked just fine. As in, past tense. They changed the algorithms end of April. So your results before have zero to do with the results you will get now. Different era.

      Reply
      • Rolando  –  Wed 16th May 2012 at 9:27 pm

        OK fair, I will check if this is the case for the next promo.

        Reply
        • Jimelle  –  Fri 18th May 2012 at 9:04 am

          Ooh, Rolando! If you don’t remember, we met up in the Ammy fora a while back! I loved the Sun Zebra, and reviewed it. Thanks for the great stories!

          Sorry, Mr. Blake – didn’t mean to go OT!

          Reply
  11. Wed 16th May 2012 at 9:57 am

    Nice post! As a new author, it definitely gives me something to think about!

    Reply
  12. Wed 16th May 2012 at 11:51 am

    I have noticed about the same numbers for the return rate between the UK and US for my titles — possibly a different mindset as you say or different laws regarding returns.

    In the US, correct me if I’m wrong, but the law allows (at least in California where I live) consumers to return most items within three days, which reflects Amazon’s return policy, and if someone downloads a book on Kindle, reads it in three days (when I was a teen I was a more avid reader than I am now and I could read two books a day easily, still attend all my classes and work an average 30 hours a week nights and weekends at my job as a dishwasher in a coffee shop), what is going to stop them from returning a Kindle Ebook for a refund thus resulting in a free read?

    A dedicated, avid reader on a budget (or just cheap) that is disciplined enough to buy and read only those books he or she may finish within the three day grace period could read free most of the time.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 16th May 2012 at 12:07 pm

      No doubt. As could someone who wanted to prowl libraries. Fortunately, I think that isn’t the majority. Although it does raise the question of why Amazon allows a return of a good that isn’t physical, and thus can’t be damaged in shipping, or defective for its intended purpose. I’ve read plenty of books I felt sucked, but that doesn’t mean I’d return them. Still, I suppose it isn’t a big deal. At 2% or so, it’s noise.

      Reply
      • Lloyd Lofthouse  –  Wed 16th May 2012 at 12:19 pm

        True, at 2% returns, it is just noise, and I don’t recall ever returning a book even when, by accident, several years later I bought the same book again because I forgot I already read it–the curse of an avid reader I suspect. You read so much that several months or years down the line you forget…

        Maybe some of these returns come from “Internet Trolls” that buy and then return without ever reading a word believing it will bother the author.

        I belong to an online historical fiction group and a question came up… One of the other members attempted to schedule her free promotion days and KDP Selects promotion manager blocked all of her choices and the only choice she had was weeks away from the dates she wanted. Do you know how Amazon’s promotion manager schedules the free promo dates?

        I do not have a clue. I spent the better part of an hour searching Google for an answer partly because I want to understand how this free promo program works before I get my feet wet.

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Wed 16th May 2012 at 12:21 pm

          Well, you can schedule it. She probably just had the end date or start date already set to a date, and it limited her based on that. I know of no limitation on Select in terms of scheduling…

          Reply
        • Sarah McKenzie  –  Thu 06th Feb 2014 at 1:45 am

          This is another good topic. Why does someone return a book they got for free? I was surprised to see that on my record thing. It was just one, but it was a free promo, they can see part of it already before they download it, and if they don’t like it why download it, and then return it when it is free?. The other one is that guy in Denmark reviewing over 700 books and many of his reviews he gives one star. How does he have the time to read that many books fairly? It seems to me he is not really reviewing books but scanning books to increase his ranking. Most people are pretty good and it is easier to remember the small number of people doing unpleasant things than the large number that are pretty nice.

          Reply
  13. Wed 16th May 2012 at 12:27 pm

    I passed your answer on to the on-line group I belong to and included a link to this post on your Blog.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 16th May 2012 at 4:21 pm

      Gracias. Although the usefulness of free is now questionable, except perhaps the first book of a series or serial, as I have done with Night of the Assassin and The Delphi Chronicle, which I note are enjoying a surge of popularity today.

      Reply
  14. Wed 16th May 2012 at 8:51 pm

    The usefulness of free may be questionable for a one book author but what about an author with several books out, and he or she runs a free promo with a new title?

    What are the odds that new readers that enjoy the freebie will buy the others by the same author that are not free? For example, you have a nice list of titles, have you seen a jump (small or large) for older titles when a new novel runs with a free promo?

    It probably wouldn’t be noticed right away since it might take some time for a new reader to finish then move on to the others but the average number of monthly sales for older titles might climb a bit or even hold steady.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 16th May 2012 at 9:19 pm

      The problem is then one of usefulness. I estimate that maybe 5% of those who download free ever get around to reading your book. It may be lower. I know I have at least 50 titles I REALLY want to get to on my kindle, and haven’t had the time to. Those include many I got free. At my current reading pace, I may get to read those over two years. Some I may have forgotten about by the time I get to them, so my interest may have moved on and I won’t even bother. So free as an awareness booster can work, but not much. Why? Well, I’ve given away approaching 50K of Night of the Assassin and The Delphi Chronicle – they have been free since January on a consistent basis. It used to be that I saw a roughly 2% conversion rate to sales of other books in the series or serial. Now, maybe a quarter of that. One could argue that if you gave away 10K books, and saw 50 sales, that’s not much bang for your free effort. At 200, it seemed worth doing. I believe it will continue to drop as the market saturates. Not sure how to say it, but my sense is that free was useful for 120 days, and has now run its course. I wish that wasn’t so, and I suppose there will be those who say, “Hey, I only sell 10 books a month, so if I can sell 50, hell, that’s a 5X increase!”, but my sense is that most serious authors won’t be giving away their work to sell 50 books. I’ve noticed that my results are now 10% or less what they were after a free promo 2 months ago. For me, it’s made the decision not to give most of my titles away an easy one. I have given away almost 200K books by now. Any awareness that will be created by free has probably been had – I doubt that 220K will be the tipping point for my sales success in the future.

      So the bad news is I think we are rapidly back to where we have to get noticed some other way than by using free. Just as .99 worked until it didn’t, I think we’re about there with free.

      As to older titles, I see steady sales on them, and the rankings may move around a bit, but given that none of my titles are even a year old yet, we are talking last month’s book versus this month’s. Hell, even books I released in March seem like ancient history to me, and yet they are really brand new. So I think it pays to step back and consider the bigger picture.

      My gut says free did more harm than good, and I think we’ll soon see Amazon trying to discourage it even further by pulling any effect it has on algorithms. That’s my hunch.

      Reply
  15. Thu 17th May 2012 at 10:46 am

    Love your boxed set! Can I have the artist’s name?

    Reply
  16. Fri 04th Jan 2013 at 3:21 am

    I see about 30% borrows to sales. Sell 1000, you see roughly 300-350 borrows. How does that suck? Well, you are foregoing nook and other platform sales (although not really, if someone is willing to convert the MOBI and you haven’t enabled digital rights management). But no way are my nook sales 30% of my total.
    ~ did not get how you can be in KDP select & also with others..B&N, Apple..

    Reply

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