11 August 2012 by Published in: Uncategorized 66 comments

I’ve been tracking the sales effect of the Amazon free program, and an interesting phenomenon is manifesting itself.


NEW NEW NEWS: A guest blog on by yours truly.

BREAKING NEWS: by author Bert Carson about, well, me. Good stuff.

NEWS: New guest blog on writing with the lovely Emerald Barnes is worth a look. “My Year of Writing Dangerously.”

BOOK REVIEW: A on my newest one, Silver Justice, by acclaimed author Steven Konkoly!


First, the effectiveness of free on sales is down to anywhere from miniscule to nil. I’ve run a few programs to test the water, and watched the action on several of my author friends’ books, and it ain’t happening, to put it mildly. I see 15K downloads and a few days later their books are ranked around#20,000. Guess what? If you hit #5 on the free list, and the best it’s going to do for you is position 20K, it is over. Through no fault of your own, but over nonetheless. There are a few standouts, but even those are things like, “I moved from #30,000 to #5000.” OK. Wow. So you were selling 2 books a day, and for a few days you are now selling 12. Guess what? If that whopping increase lasts 4 days, you saw 40 additional sales from 15,000 freebies. For which you also are accepting $2 on loans instead of the $3 or more you might have netted if your book was $3.99 or above. So you net maybe $120, but see at least that many loans, bringing the real net down to $80. I’m afraid that if the best the free program can do even if you’re in the top 20 is around $80 (or even $120 if you still believe that loans don’t eat into sales) of increased revenue, that’s sort of wildly unimpressive. And bear in mind that only a small fraction makes it into the top 20. Most don’t, which means that thousands of books every day see NO sales effect from giving away a bunch of books.

But because indie authors are so desperate to get visibility, they are behaving like’s Pavlov’s famed dogs, salivating when the free bell is rung and behaving as though there is still a treat being handed out, even though there’s now no treat. Authors are still doing free promos, seeing little or no sales effect, but rationalizing it as somehow increasing their readership over time – a hypothetical based on a host of assumptions, not the least of which is that anyone actually reads most of their free downloads.

It’s amazing, but it also speaks to the desperation of authors to get noticed. I know, I’ve been tempted to put one of my newer titles into the program to see that bump I was seeing three months ago – but I’m also logical enough to recognize that it ain’t working, so to do it would only denigrate my brand for no return.

I have free books available. They’ve been free for 7 months. They are the first books in a series. That still seems to drive sales. But a stand alone? Nada.

Whether it’s worth subsidizing the Prime program and giving Amazon exclusivity on a title for 90 days to get the loan $ is also debatable if you are selling your book for more than $2.99. The logic before was that loans didn’t cannibalize sales. Well, guess what? They do. I have tracked it across multiple titles and see the same thing on every one. If I sold 400 of one title last month outside KDP, I put it in the program and this month I loan 100 and see 300 sales. It comes out of the program after 90 days and moves back up to 400. So that is another folksy bromide that I haven’t seen prove to be true.

What does this all mean?

Put simply, if you are doing free programs now, you aren’t seeing much if any sales effect from doing so, and the loans you are getting are likely merely displacing sales. Maybe that doesn’t matter if you sell 50 books a month. But there is a part of me that questions the wisdom of giving away tens of thousands of books if I’m not going to see any measurable effect. Put another way, every day there is a top 100 list of free books. If you really believe as an author that yesterday’s 100, or the last 150 days worth of top 100s, are even close to landing most of those authors on anyone’s radar, all you have to do is track how many of this week’s free titles are selling well next week, and you’ll quickly find that the answer is almost none.

And one of the biggest negative effects we’ve now created as indie authors is denigrating the value of ebooks – specifically indie ebooks, as you’ll find the trad pubs don’t do much, if any, free promo – in the eyes of the audience that buys them. “Why buy your book when I can download 100 free ones?” I have heard that, and I understand the logic. To some readers who don’t make any distinction between good and not so good, all indie ebooks are now sort of the same. Imagine if wine drinkers behaved like that – all wine is the same, be it box wine given away at a picnic for a BBQ rib promo, or a bottle of Screaming Eagle. It’s all wine. Crushed grapes. Why would anyone but an idiot pay for what they can get for free?

Fortunately not all readers are like that. But I believe that enough of them are, especially in tough economic times, to make a difference in sales to many indies. Those were the readers who might have taken a flyer on an indie book they had heard good things about. Now, they must debate spending $5 versus spending nothing, and still getting something to read. Again, if all you are looking for are letters on a kindle, there is a lot of free stuff to read. Most of it’s crap. But it’s free crap.

I would love to hear about some wonderful results in the last two weeks, but I suspect that Amazon has changed the treatment of free yet again, and it is now on an order of 1/20th what it was in April. Or half of what it was in June. I might be overly generous. It could  be more like 1/30th.

My point is not to counsel authors whether or not to do free promos. It’s to accurately describe the results I’ve been seeing so we can all make informed decisions. I have my share of, “I had 15K downloads and sold 1500 books!” stories, but they aren’t from June. And they certainly aren’t from August. My bet is that nobody else has any August stories like that either. But bring em on if you do. I’d love to get some counterbalancing info.

* * *

Update. Watching the free books I have been tracking that hit in the top 20 this week, Sat afternoon the rankings started to climb, and now the rankings are more in the #2500 to 13,000 level, depending upon the book. So there is still an effect, but it’s muted. As an example, at 13,000, that represents about 10 books today. At 4000, about 25. And all of these were in the top 20. Hard to do much better than that on free, and if you were one of, say, 5000 books a day that went free, if you were one of the absolutely most popular, you were rewarded with those kinds of numbers. Little different than the good old days when the number 5 position would get you couple thousand in a week. Still, better than nothing. But my question to everyone is, how much better? And more importantly, if you didn’t hit in the top 50, you have seen virtually no sales increase. I know because I had one hit #38, and it’s selling about what it did before I took it free. So it would seem that the top 20 books still see a positive, albeit much less than before, and everyone else is sucking exhaust. Is it still worth doing on the chance you get into the top 20? I think the answer depends on whether you do or not. If so, and you go from 30K to 2500, of course it was.  If not, well, not so much. I’m still willing to roll the dice on a few of my titles, but then again, I have enough of them so it sort of is immaterial whether this week’s promo is a winner or not. For you, I guess it depends. In the words of Dirty Harry, how lucky do you feel?




  1. Stefano Scaglione
    Sat 11th Aug 2012 at 4:34 pm

    Hi Russell, I just bought Silver Justice. Full price, it’s time to change my buying habits as a reader. I started. Today. With your book!

    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 11th Aug 2012 at 5:20 pm

      Well that’s the right place to start! Thanks so much, and I hope you enjoy it. I like SJ a great deal. Hopefully you’ll find it worthy.

  2. Sat 11th Aug 2012 at 6:24 pm


    Wonderful insight as always and I love it when backed by facts. I agree with your points and just would love to expand on a couple.

    1) The author with only one book. Giving it away is probably their only real chance of getting exposure with the hope of somebody catching it and giving them the big break. All the marketing/ad efforts won’t allow them to stop working their day jobs.

    2) Who are the people downloading the free books? A) the collector who really isn’t reading them. B) the person who still buys some books but are actually reading their free books. C) The library people. I have two people in my extended family who read a lot of free eBooks. They have historically been huge library users. One even commented that they stopped at the library just to visit because they had not been there for so long. Not sure what percentage to give to each group.

    3) Total sales ($) in the book industry is still very consistent YTD even though the medium is changing. Are free downloads really hurting sales? It doesn’t seem so yet.

    4) Maybe giving away free books actually levels the playing field for indie authors when competing against ARC’s (advance reader copies). The goal is the same: giveaway thousands hoping that a few are read by influential players (agents, booksellers, bloggers). I have 10-20 books a month sent to me by publishers. Very few are read and most are given away.

    5) For the 20 years that I have attended BEA it still has the book collectors. People who pick up free books by the hundreds but probably read less than 10% of them. Most end up being decorations on their bookshelves.

    Thanks for the excellent blog post.

    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 11th Aug 2012 at 7:00 pm

      My only caveat would be that while the YTD book sales $ are consistent, I’m not so sure that the mix of indie to Trad Pub is captured there in a meaningful way. I personally believe that Trad Pub would love to see indie sink back into the ooze whence it came, and that Amazon only gave it a real boost as a lever against Trad Pub when they were getting uppity. Sort of, “We don’t need you to sell books. We’ll just push the indies, and they’ll erode a bunch of your share, while we still make money, so suck it” kind of thing. But now that the agency model is no longer an issue, Amazon can return to pushing higher overall dollar offerings from trad pub, making more absolute dollars per unit sold, and push their own offerings on the lower price end.

      B&N is so far up Trad Pub’s bottom that it can’t see daylight, so really Amazon was the real problem. Now that Trad Pub capitulated, problem solved, and everyone can return to making money – Trad Pub still can retain the power as gatekeepers that will maintain their effective monopoly over content, Amazon gets to make lots of money and satisfy their lower priced segment with its own offerings, and indies can scrounge for pennies. In other words a return to the good old days.

      I really hope this cynical view is wrong and the methodical steps being taken to favor higher priced offerings (read trad pub) in Amazon’s algorithms and reduce the impact of the only effective tool indies had (free) are purely coincidental. But I’ve found that when I assume the worst, I’m usually pretty close to the truth. I think it has tremendous ramifications for the indie author with one or two books just starting out. How to rise above the noise and get noticed? Do blog tours? Tweet a lot? With free there was a chance to gain visibility in the algorithms. That is now gone. So we are back to, barring a miracle, it’s very very tough to get anyone to notice, whether you’ve written something brilliant or complete dross. But the world is not fair, and it could be completely unintentional on Amazon’s part. We’ll know more as the year concludes, I think.

      • Anthony Wessel  –  Sat 11th Aug 2012 at 7:09 pm

        Indie authors are what the bookstores use to call local authors before the digital world.

        Still no real solution in getting out of the trenches, but it sure isn’t for the lack of effort by a lot of indie authors in the past year.

        Have a great night.

  3. Sat 11th Aug 2012 at 8:19 pm

    my question is what is in it for Amazon when the book is free? They have some costs associated with download, hosting,etc, even if it is only pennies.

    Could it be they want to sell more Kindles? Well, they can’t be making much coin on their hardware.

    Could it be the free mongers will suddenly slid over and mistakenly buy a $16.99 Penguin title by accident? Probably not.

    Amazon’s 30% cut of FREE is the same as our 70% of FREE…

    My guess is that they have had to make concessions to the major publishers and had to change the algorithms. Afterall, when one of my books in January got downloaded 40,000 times (free marketing) then sold another 4000 at full price later that month, a advertising-heavy publisher might call foul.

    So, how does Amazon protect and expand their 30%? I haven’t figured that out yet, or I would suggest it to them.

    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 11th Aug 2012 at 9:51 pm

      What’s in it for Amazon? Easy. They get thousands of FREE titles at no cost to them, making the Kindle that much more attractive to potential purchasers looking for an ereader. There’s is a hardware battle with a razorblade business. Books are the razor blades. But first they need to get people locked into only shopping at Amazon, and you do that with the hardware.

      My point is that indie authors are now subsidizing that with basically nothing in return. As you pointed out, in the good old days, you had a big download, you saw a big sales bump. It didn’t last, but it was a worthwhile tradeoff, one that I was happy to make, as were many others. But now there’s no kiss at the end of the date. We’re buying dinner, and not even getting a thank you. Which is why I have been gradually winding myself out of the program. Again, when it’s the first book in a series, it makes sense to give it away. But I don’t see it being a good deal on stand alone titles. There is no longer any carrot, and yet people are acting like there still is.

      • Everett Peacock  –  Sun 12th Aug 2012 at 12:16 am

        razor blade business…good analogy. So, they’re willing to lose money in the short term, banking that no one will come along with a better ereader, or a completely new technology. Perhaps so.

        Your point about the prostitution of words by Indie writers is on target. We’ve got to move from the shadowy street corners where we charge nothing but feel wanted to a brightly lit island where all the boats want to dock

        • Anthony Wessel  –  Sun 12th Aug 2012 at 10:16 am

          Razor blades are consumables. Books are consumables.
          Consumables drive repeat traffic. Traffic drives sales across many categories which have higher a higher $/trans and higher gross margin $’s.

          Books are like milk for a grocery store. Once the jug is empty you have to go back to the store to buy another cartoon. Of course milk is in the back of every store with the hope that the consumer buys something else as they walk through the store.

          Amzon hopes you buy something else on your trip back to the store as you replace your consumable.

          Not trying to diminish a product that is the result of great creative skill, but to Amazon it is just another ASN to sell and that sucks for struggling indie authors.

        • Ciara Ballintyne  –  Tue 14th Aug 2012 at 9:29 pm

          It’s a common business practice for large businesses to engage in a marketing campaign that LOSES them money. If the business is big enough and resilient enough they can weather the storm and out-last the competition, after which they can set whatever price/policy they like because they have a monopoly (or near monopoly). It’s called predatory pricing. In my mind, I have no doubt that Amazon is leveraging this tactic, because they are sure enough big enough to do it.

          • Russell Blake  –  Tue 14th Aug 2012 at 11:05 pm

            I think predatory pricing is what the losers call it. The winners call it good business. And I also have no doubt that they are very astute in their business strategy. If they can make that work for them, good on em, I say.

  4. Sun 12th Aug 2012 at 10:11 am

    The thing about Pavloe is that the dogs respond when it’s the only game in town. The only two perks I see in KDP Select are free days and borrows. Since indie authors don’t have budgets that allow them to do a lot of paid ads, they have to use whatever tools are available to them on the cheap. I agree with you that one book authors get little or nothing in return, but multiple book authors can see SOME (as opposed to NONE) sales in their other books while one is running free. I keep believing that Amazon will throw us another bone in the near future that will give us a nw promo opportunity. Until then I will limp along using what I can. Thanks for the great post.

    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 12th Aug 2012 at 10:21 am

      No question it CAN give SOME. If you wind up in the top 20, you COULD see SOME effect, small as it is.

      If Vegas offered odds like that it would be out of business. It’s like a lottery for lifeboats on the Titanic. Actually, your odds would have better there. And that didn’t turn out well.

      Look, I’m not telling anyone what to do. I still have two free promos left I scheduled and have in the pubs. But I’m telling you that as a guy who was just in the 30’s on a free day and have seen no net effect, the tradeoff doesn’t seem very good given the benefit received, which in this case was none. I believe that all those hoping for Amazon to do something that is not consistent with maximizing their sales and competitive edge are in error. I wouldn’t.

      I can’t think of a lot of businesses that give away a lot of their product in the hopes of success. Especially small businesses. If it worked so well for small businesses, which is what we are, you’d think there would be a lot more of it.

  5. Sun 12th Aug 2012 at 7:28 pm

    They won’t buy the cow if they can get the milk for free. Unsure where the statement comes from, but still applicable in this instance.

    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 12th Aug 2012 at 8:42 pm

      I think mothers have been telling there daughters that since time began. Still good advice.

  6. Sun 12th Aug 2012 at 9:45 pm

    Russell, nice write up. Every author needs to determine what they want out of a promo program. I just finished a 3 day KDP run, achieved the #7 spot and have seen a bump 3 days after, but it’s 1/10 of what I saw in March. It is a bump and from my experience it will slowly drop over 2-3 weeks. Probably my last KDP run. I hope to get some new readers and fans out of it.

    Now I’ll expand back out to B&N, Kobo and iBooks. Don’t expect to see much from there. But I’ll give it a try until I see what Amazon and the others my offer next for authors as we go into Holiday sales season.

    I’m off to work on my 2nd and 3rd books, best way to double and triple my sales, like you. Everyone wants to be like Russell 🙂 Good luck!

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 13th Aug 2012 at 12:48 am

      It is a nice bump, and you deserve it. But as you say, the best way to build a fan base is to write those next ones. That’s my secret formula. Not much of a secret, really.

  7. Mon 13th Aug 2012 at 12:52 am

    You’re right. It is Pavlovian.
    If giving books away doesn’t help sales, then a writer is just as far ahead not giving them away.
    The only thing free will accomplish then, is to give many readers a taste of a writer’s ability and compatibility.
    I wish writers would stop giving their ebooks away. It not only makes people think ebooks aren’t worth anything, it trains them, conditions them that ebooks aren’t worth anything.
    So a few freebies, and the rest not. Then comes the art of pricing.
    As in any system, I think persistence will pay off.

  8. Mon 13th Aug 2012 at 8:30 am

    Russell, do you know when Amazon started the new algorithms? Last May I gave away 37,000 and got 8000 sales, and in mid-June, I gave away 30000 (didn’t get good advertising) and sold 600, but this time, on Friday and Saturday, I gave away 14,000, got to 24 in FREE and #1 in Literary Fiction and #5 in Mystery, and the next dead, NADA. In fact, by this morning, I had only sold 10 books. I am absolutely stunned. Going by the old 20% rule which seemed to be accurate for the first two free promotions, I should be seeing about 2,500 sales over the next number of days. But, absolutely dead. Thoughts? I am feeling absolutely ill because I have a new book coming out and I am well aware that the KDP Select was about the only decent way out there to advertise as a self-pub. I have two new traditionally pubbed books coming out (one this week and one in Feb) but I was hoping self-pubbing would continue to be good as the publicity for traditional pubs are in the toilet barring being Dan Brown.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 13th Aug 2012 at 10:19 am

      They changed the algorithm on May 1, then again in June (far as I can tell) then again about Aug 1. Although what I’m hearing is that the sales don’t really start kicking in until 3 days after, so you may start seeing sales Tues. Which would again be another change, but it is what it is. I’d bet you see more like 5%-10% effectiveness instead of 20%.

      • Pat Brown  –  Mon 13th Aug 2012 at 10:55 am

        What may be interesting, Russell, is that Amazon will keep new Indie authors in the program because they are thrilled to sell ten or twenty books or to have someone read their book at all. Anyone who has a sales record and already had people read their books do not get all squishy because their book has a sale or two and will pull out. I just got in a box of my new book which I will be talking about on the Today Show on Thursday and I barely looked in it because the publisher has done so little for publicity (I already do the Today Show so they didn’t get that for me). Terrible attitude I know but it is massively depressing to think one worked so hard to write something and then have it be a flash in the pan that does nothing for one’s survival. Midlist authors are being cannibalized while crapola like 50 Shades of Plagiarism and bad writing make a fortune. Sad state of affairs.

        • Pat Brown  –  Mon 13th Aug 2012 at 11:09 am

          By the way, Russell, thank you for your analysis and honesty about the situation. If it weren’t for you, I would still have no clue to what hit me yesterday. I would rather be informed and depressed rather than simply depressed.

          • Russell Blake  –  Mon 13th Aug 2012 at 1:23 pm

            Well, Pat, I think it’s a bit too early to get all glum. The algorithms now appear to not really kick in till day three following the free day, so if tomorrow night you’re still in the dumps, then perhaps you have a reason to drink (I drink if celebratory or depressed, so either way I’ll be having a cocktail). Give it another 18 hours or so and let’s see how it goes. My hunch is it should start rocketing manana mid-day.

        • Russell Blake  –  Mon 13th Aug 2012 at 1:24 pm

          As I have said many times before, the best books often aren’t the bestsellers, and the bestsellers aren’t the best books. Mediocrity tends to rule the roost, whether we like it or not. If I could write any more poorly than I already do, believe me, I’d be doing it. Sigh. Always a bridesmaid…

          • Pat Brown  –  Mon 13th Aug 2012 at 1:32 pm

            Yeah, if only I wrote bad erotica or about vampires and witches, I would have something going! I hope you are right that there is a three day delay now because last two times it took off on the morning of the first day and shot up from there. I may fly down to Mexico (I thought I read you lurked around down there) and buy a round.

          • Russell Blake  –  Mon 13th Aug 2012 at 3:09 pm

            Harness that bitterness and use it like fuel. WTF, it’s either that or give yourself an ulcer…

  9. Mon 13th Aug 2012 at 9:54 am

    What’ interesting is the price of ebooks that are doing well. I’m currently in the top #20 for Police Procedural and if you look at the list, there are three of us priced at $4.99 or higher.

    My price doesn’t seem to be hurting my sales or my borrows, but it’s definitely at the higher end as authors are using a lower price to try and attract readers. Even the trad pubbed books are pricing some at a lower price as they try to attract those readers shopping at a lower price point.

    You need to troll at all levels to hook the different readers looking at different price points.

  10. Mon 13th Aug 2012 at 10:06 am

    I totally agree, Russell. I have Dark Prairies in KDP Select (knee-jerk reaction when I published it, but I am pulling it for wider distribution and it will never see the freebie light of day). My other two books, I am planning the same thing, however a group in which I participate wants to do a Labor Day free promo and I am figuring to promo my 2nd book for three days before declaring DONE.

    I had even worse results than you reported: my first book a couple of months ago saw 18,800 downloads in two days and held the #5 spot on the “Free” list for the entire second day. #4 at one point. Never got higher than the 20,000 range afterward; converted to essentially no new sales.

    The way I look at it is this: our market right now (and all the mechanisms available to it and plaguing it) are changing like the techno-market: what was new and working yesterday (and more importantly before most authors heard about it) is dead today. Perhaps not that fast, but most of the things I am doing feel antiquated and a waste of time and resources already.

    I feel like I am stuck in the same pond with the same wilted lilly pads, same frogs croaking on the shore, and the same fish (albeit some really cool fish, the population grows exponentially each day).

    Pond = Box and I am on a mission to think and plan outside of it. Keep the priority writing quality books and figure the rest out, you know?

    Thanks for a great, informative blog, as usual.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 13th Aug 2012 at 10:22 am

      That’s why I write so many blogs attempting to track what the latest is on Amazon and KDP. Because authors making decisions based upon something that happened a month ago are operating with incomplete or antiquated information and thus making poor decisions.

      There is no magic bullet I know of. Only writing good books. Which you do, so you have that part covered.

  11. Mon 13th Aug 2012 at 10:46 am

    I liked your comment about Borrows giving you less money than sales. Our chat in your previous blog.
    I launched my fourth book in the series at its higher price and did not set it up in KDP. It has sold well and netting far more income than if I had to include borrows towards my percentage. I don’t believe I have lost any sales and sell each copy at a good price. I certainly won’t be using KDP once my novels expire.

  12. Mon 13th Aug 2012 at 10:34 pm

    Russell, I agree with everything you said.

    I did the free thing a couple months ago and had disappointing results. I will never give away another work — except for a short story.

    Furthermore, I think authors should band together and discourage giving away free titles. It’s devaluing our work and hurting all of our sales, in my opinion.

    After all, if I as a reader can get a free book any day of the week, why ever buy one unless it’s a high-priced bestseller?

    One other point I rarely see mentioned is this. The few times I’ve downloaded a book for free I’ve been more impatient than a brand-new, frazzled indie author hopped up on speed. That is, if the book moves slow for even a page, or takes one wrong detour, I’m done. It’s not like I paid anything for it.

    And the worst part of this is an author gets one shot with me. Blow it, and you’re done. Life’s too short and there’s too much good shit out there for me to give you a second go.

    So, I’ve come to believe that freebies are actually VERY dangerous. A reader has little incentive to show you any patience if they’ve paid nothing, and are expecting even less.

    And you could end up losing more than just that one sale. You could lose your entire career.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 13th Aug 2012 at 11:23 pm

      I do that myself. I have a short fuse with free material, because as you say, there is a lot of good stuff out there and my time is finite.

      Having said that, I think that if the work is well written, it will stand on its own. I don’t think that readers should have to cut me any slack because they paid for my work, as opposed to getting it in a promotion. But I have noticed that when I get 1 star reviews, they invariably follow a free promo – so there is a type of reader I’m reaching that clearly isn’t my target audience. Sometimes, the reviews are so dim I wonder whether they are a put on or not – like the few on my evil parody that don’t seem to get that it was a parody. It’s like renting Zoolander and being disappointed that it wasn’t a real modeling documentary (mostly). So I think not only do you get folks with a hair trigger, but you also get folks who just don’t get it, at all, and never will, but feel compelled to parade their lack of understanding in public in the form of a poor review. I don’t think there’s anything you can do about that, but I know most authors dread the downside of the free promos, which are the bum reviews.

      But on balance, my take on this is that it is worth doing free promos judiciously, on the first book of a series. Beyond that, it’s probably worth it if anyone actually read the work, but most don’t. So at this point it is more of a gamble than a quid pro quo.

      • Stan R. Mitchell  –  Mon 13th Aug 2012 at 11:27 pm

        Great points about wrong target audience and bum reviews.

        And I missed my point about cutting slack. What i meant was that if a book is at least $4.99 or more, I think readers take their time pulling the trigger. They scan some reviews, read the sample, etc., and thus it’s more of a win-win for both the author and the reader.

        And you’re probably right about giving just the first book of a series away. I still worry about the large number of freebies out there, and would like it if authors bonded together to try to end them.

        • T I WADE  –  Tue 14th Aug 2012 at 8:19 am

          I firmly believe my below average (3) reviews have been posted when my first book in the series was on a freebie, or below $3.99. I have a series of 4 books and of course only the first one gets the bad reviews. I believe the reviews are due to offering it to the wrong audience, the free/$2.99 only audience who want 3 rapes, two murders and several hundred rounds of ammo used up on the first page, or they trash it for being boring.
          To prove the point my sales of the second series book is 85% of the first one, the third one 70% of the first one and Book 4 (which came out 14 days ago) 45% of the first one, and many new readers are still going through them; 400 pages each.

          • Stan R. Mitchell  –  Tue 14th Aug 2012 at 9:03 am

            “the free/$2.99 only audience who want 3 rapes, two murders and several hundred rounds of ammo used up on the first page, or they trash it for being boring.”

            Well said.

          • Russell Blake  –  Tue 14th Aug 2012 at 4:22 pm

            That’s my next four books. Thanks for the ideas, guys.

        • Russell Blake  –  Tue 14th Aug 2012 at 4:25 pm

          I go both ways. There are millions of free web sites out there, but that doesn’t influence my choices when I go to those I frequent with regularity. On the other hand, I do think that indies are setting up an environment where their work is considered worth nothing – why ever buy anything if you think it will be free eventually?

          Somewhere between the work being worthless and trying to change the behavior of a million authors, most of whom have zero visibility, there is a happy medium. I’m thinking that I can do a free promo only once in a while with only an occasional title. Once I have 20 books out there, I can afford to have 5 or so that have promos on them. Then again, I’m probably a special case with a backlist that large.

  13. Thu 23rd Aug 2012 at 1:33 pm

    Thanks and thanks again, Russell. I’m with you all the way on this one. I did two free promotions – two days each. Didn’t even bother to use the fifth free day, because they were a complete waste of time and energy, and most probably completely saturated my reader market. That’s the other thing to consider. When you have a reach of say 50,000 and the percentage of people within that number who may be interested in your book have already grabbed their free copy, who’s going to buy it unless you scramble to double your market reach immediately after the freebie? And I agree with you re the current flood of freebies. It’s not helping anybody.

    • Stan R. Mitchell  –  Thu 23rd Aug 2012 at 1:40 pm

      “When you have a reach of say 50,000 and the percentage of people within that number who may be interested in your book have already grabbed their free copy, who’s going to buy it unless you scramble to double your market reach immediately after the freebie?”

      Wow, J.P. Lane. That’s a great point.

      • J.P. Lane  –  Thu 23rd Aug 2012 at 1:46 pm

        Glad Russell brought this up, Stan. Think it’s time for us to take stock of how on earth to promote our books effectively. Unfortunately, I have no answers – yet (:

        • Pat Brown  –  Thu 23rd Aug 2012 at 2:36 pm

          I think it is important to be realistic about indie authros getting book publicity. Even authors with traditional publishers can’t get jack. My new book, “How to Save Your Daughter’s Life” came out on August 15. I went to NYC and did the Today Show, FOX and Friends, and Inside Edition. I did Dr. Drew (and he put up the book cover) and I have a bunch of radio like Jim Bohannon and such. Sales still suck. Why? Because I got zero magazine articles, no mention in the newspapers, not even in Washington DC where I live. I got zero reviews from any major reviewers. And why? Because the publishers put everything behind the massive earners and nothing behind anyone named Brown without Dan as a first name. There must be some collusion between the publishers and the reviewers because Dan Brown’s latest book which was totally panned by the readers (even those who loved his other books) got nothing but five star reviews from those big reviewers and a mass of publicity.

          So, now, if an author like myself is struggling to get any decent publicity and sales (and I actually forced my publisher into hiring a publicist for at least two months), how does a self-pubbed person do it? Well, if one has a huge following by way of previous books sold when the publishing industry didn’t suck, one can promote the book to long time fans. If one is a really big salesmen and spend 24/7 doing the hard sell, maybe possible. But, before the Amazon promotion method, I was selling maybe five books of “Only the Truth” a day with all my FB and Twitter fans (which number about 12,000) and readers of my past books. Then, I did the promotion and gave away 37,0000 books, sold 8000, made $25,000 got a slew of great reviews. The second time I didn’t get in the free ebook sites so I only gave away 3000 and sold only about 500 making just $1500 and getting a few more reviews. Then, my last promotion I gave away 14000 books due to a pretty good bunch of advertizing and have only sold 120 and made $360! So, it ISN’T that advertising in the free ebook sites isn’t working or that people aren’t buying; it is that Amazon has changed its algorithms and killed our sales after promotions.

          Even if one didn’t always get such great numbers in giving away books, one could maybe give away a reasonable sum and make some money. True, if you can’t get your books in the freebie lists because you are too unknown for them to pick up you may have no success, but at least it worked for those authors who had a little visibility (or luck) to get their books picked up.

          If Amazon doesn’t make your book visible by some method to large number of people ready to buy, no one knows it exists. Likewise if one’s book isn’t in the front of the bookstore; no one sees it and within six weeks of sitting hidden on the back shelves (what is called wallpaper for the big authors), most authors books are no longer in the store and won’t be reordered.

          It is a sad truth that only the big guys are making money as authors; midlistters are starving to death and so are self-published folk.

          • Russell Blake  –  Thu 23rd Aug 2012 at 4:11 pm

            Sorry to hear your experience sucked. I too had brilliant success with free promos in the early days. In March, I sold almost 15K books across all sites, with around 1000 of those borrows. March was a great month. April was also a good month, but not as big as March – mainly because I didn’t release another new book that got the lift that The Voynich Cypher did. Over 5000 of March’s sales were Voynich. That’s a lot of Voynich in a two week period (I want to say it released around the 18). That seems like ancient history now.

            In May, I watched books get 10-15K downloads and then see 10% of the sell-through as in Jan-March. I was one of the first to alert everyone about the algo change. Since then I’ve noticed that it is hit or miss – some books have seen 7K downloads over 2 days and seen big rankings pops for about a week, and others have seen identical downloads and nothing. Zip. So it seems very random. My only counsel to other authors would be that if you don’t see at least 3000 downloads on day one, you aren’t going to see any bump in post sales, so you’re wasting your dry powder, in my not so humble opinion.

            I think that this is akin to Wal Mart shutting the small store out of business. It’s the too big to fail thing applied to companies and merchants and authors. Those who are the biggest sellers will continue to be. Those who aren’t largely won’t.

            Life isn’t fair.

            Then again, this year I’m earning a better than passable income from being an indie author. I never actually thought that would happen. Whether it will continue for another decade or the rest of the week, nobody has any way of knowing. But there are atypical cases.

            Not that it does any of us much good.

        • Russell Blake  –  Thu 23rd Aug 2012 at 4:01 pm

          See my reply to Stan. My belief is that word of mouth is going to carry the day, as will favorable reviews from quality reviewing sites. Free was and is a gimmick to place higher in the algorithms to increase your reach via their recommendations. That’s all I’ve seen it as being good for. However, and this is a big however, the potential audience for a quality thriller is probably many millions, so giving away 50K copies isn’t going to even dent that.

      • Russell Blake  –  Thu 23rd Aug 2012 at 3:58 pm

        Well, it is and it isn’t. Because in my mind the whole reason to do a free promo is to place better in the algorithms, which increase your visibility to new readers through the myriad lists that use them to determine what readers see. The problem then being placing high enough in them to rate. My sense is that unless you see around 3000 downloads per day you won’t rate. That’s based on countless free promos as well as anecdotal evidence from other authors.

        Over time, I believe that what will build a career is a steady pipeline of quality work. Word of mouth is still how most midlist authors sell books. I don’t expect that to change any time soon. Unless I’m getting offered a great trad pub deal where the publisher would put its back into marketing my book, that will be how I sell. Same as it ever was.

        • Pat Brown  –  Thu 23rd Aug 2012 at 4:41 pm

          I would say if the advance from traditional publishing isn’t big enough to make you happy as in “I could never make this much money self-publishing” it is probably not worth it. So a $5000 advance may be all you see from a publisher who does zero promotion and then you have lost your book. If they give you $100,000, what the hell, I’d jump on it!

          • Russell Blake  –  Thu 23rd Aug 2012 at 8:29 pm

            The only type of publishing contract I’d be interested in was one where a substantial sum was involved. Not so much because of the money, but rather because if the publisher is pregnant and has laid out substantial resources, then it’s much more likely to put some back into promoting the book.

            Like one of my favorite comedians says about pro wrestling, if the winner of the match got to F the loser at the end, then at least one of the two would be fighting for real.

            Agreed that the average advance for a mid-list title is a trivial sum, so not worth considering. It’s one of the reasons I haven’t shopped anything. I suspect if I shopped JET I could get a few strong bites from agents, but I’d likely still be sitting here in December waiting for input, as opposed to publishing book three or four in the series. I’m not opposed to a trad pub deal if it buys you the things you can’t get doing it as I am – broad distribution, meaningful marketing, access to film deals – but I can’t for the world see why anyone would do a mid-list deal knowing everything we know.

            I appreciate your input, as I know many reading this blog do. We’re all in the same boat. It’s a pity that so much time has to be devoted to marketing instead of writing. I’ll probably do a lot more marketing next year. This year, it’s 9 novels for me. Not a lot of marketing time left, I’m afraid. But people seem to be discovering the books, so somehow, something is getting out there. We shall see.

  14. Thu 23rd Aug 2012 at 2:33 pm

    Hi Russell,

    Thanks for the informative blog. I’ve only really started social media marketing my titles within the last four months and the results have been sluggish at best. I recently did a five-day freebie promo for a title that is first in a trilogy. About 600 books were downloaded in that time period and I noticed no noticeable jump in sales.
    I haven’t studied Aamazon’s algorithms like you have, but, at this early juncture, it seems the freebies did nothing.
    Having said that, the remaining two in the trilogy are still in the publishing pipeline so I suppose it’s possible down the road the freebie promo may spur trilogy sales, as you point out.
    Time will tell.
    I sometimes feel like a little goldfish swimming in an ocean of sharks regarding social media marketing.
    I guess one of the keys is to keep marching forward and believe.
    I will say from what I’ve read of your work ( and it’s only the blog posts and the first few chapters of some books) I like your style and plan on buying a few of your books once I put a dent in an already formidable reading list.
    I appreciate your helpful comments. Insightful blog.

    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 23rd Aug 2012 at 4:02 pm

      Thanks William. I hope that you enjoy the work once you buy one or two. So far so good.

      Alas, there are no easy answers to any of this, and when there are, they change before you can implement. It’s frustrating, but so is a lot of life.

      Mush on. That’s all one can do.

      • Stan R. Mitchell  –  Thu 23rd Aug 2012 at 4:07 pm

        “Alas, there are no easy answers to any of this, and when there are, they change before you can implement. It’s frustrating, but so is a lot of life.

        “Mush on. That’s all one can do.”

        Love that, Russell. And then twenty years from now, someone will call us an “overnight success.” Ignoring the years of writing, blogging, networking, and studying to improve our craft.

      • Pat Brown  –  Thu 23rd Aug 2012 at 4:12 pm

        Mush on, heh, is quite correct, Russell! One thing I always appreciate is getting the scoop on what is really going on, so that I can make the best decisions possible in this tough publishing climate. I don’t think wishful thinking is useful or the foolish belief that things will just happen somehow which is why I appreciate you sharing your analysis here and why I am adding my experiences to the mix. The more we know, the better we can spend our time doing what works rather than what doesn’t (even if what works doesn’t work all that well; at least we know how much effort, money, and time to put in).

  15. Fri 24th Aug 2012 at 8:32 am

    How about starting a site selling Kindle and Paperback versions of Indie Books only? Same price structure, no freebies. Anybody Interested?

  16. Fri 24th Aug 2012 at 12:35 pm

    This has been a helpful post. I’m sitting here eating Nutella from the jar and reading all the comments.
    I have had similar experiences with free days. My first book came out in April 2012. It’s called For Animal Lovers. It’s a short story collection priced at 99 cents with 10% donated to the ASPCA to help homeless pets.
    The first promo I paid Kindle Nation Daily the $30.00 to promote my free day. I also got picked by Pixel of Ink YE. This was two days over Mother’s Day weekend. I got 2,000 downloads and then the rest of the week sold 29 books. I was psyched! Keep in mind this is all new to me and I have a low-paying day job. The first promo I get where I can see 40,000 downloads and make $25,000 in book sales in a month, I’m a huge success. It would cover my whole year at work in retail!
    My second promo didn’t get picked up by major places–in July 2012– and I only saw 365 downloads. But, the interesting this is like what you’ve said: right afterwards, my 15 books a week sales that I was excited about dropped. Now I’m down to 5-6 books per week. And that’s with tweeting in three different tweet groups each day.
    What to do? I continue to smile at customers at my day job and write. I know I have to pay for advertising, I think.
    Oh, and you are all gonna love this one. I had a lady customer at work mention owning a Kindle Fire. I told her about my book. She mentioned she’d buy it as she has a 12 year old daughter. She then told me that she hasn’t had to “buy” a book in ages. She gets so many for FREE. Luckily, she was kind enough to buy my book for 99 cents and contact me on FB telling me how much she liked it.
    Me? I got my first check from Amazon for $30.00. I wrote a check to the ASPCA for $3.00–their 10%–and took my husband and the remaining balance out to Panera for lunch. We both chose a “You pick 2 combo.” 🙂

    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 24th Aug 2012 at 4:29 pm

      As I’ve said many times, I believe that the free thing has hurt indie authors a great deal – at least those who aren’t established. The audience that might have bought a book for a few dollars based on good word of mouth is smaller, because some portion of that audience, like your friend, doesn’t buy books anymore. They just download them for free. Is that everyone? No. But I maintain it’s a decent segment of those at the margins that were helpful in building an indie author’s career.

      I have benefited from free. I’ve drunk from the cup and reaped the rewards. If I had to do it all over again, I would only change the timing – I missed the heyday in Dec and didn’t do my first free promo till mid jan. That was 45 days of huge sales I could have had from the original algorithms that I didn’t cash in on.

      But I think that free has devalued the book in the eyes of many, and it is questionable whether we can ever recover from that. I think everyone’s sales reflect lower sales even with more ereaders out there. There are exceptions, just as I am one, but the market, specifically indie market, seems to me to be more authors chasing fewer sales.

  17. Sat 25th Aug 2012 at 2:48 am

    I write Regency romances (genre fiction) and have three indie books up and about 25 trad published. I have had two free promotions and both times the books went up to No 1 in historical romance and high in a couple of others-sales of the first book jumped when the second came out. High sales (over 50 a day) continued for ten days before dropping back.
    Is this because of the type of books I write? Is it because I already have dozens of titles visible on Amazon? I don’t know -but I do know free promotion does work for me.
    Fenella J Miller

    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 25th Aug 2012 at 10:40 am

      Could be genre, but I suspect it is more a function of timing. Did either of those free promos happen in August?

  18. Sun 26th Aug 2012 at 7:08 am

    Here is something I can’t figure out that maybe someone can enlighten me on. I got the monthly email from Amazon with their selected 100 Kindle books for 3.99 and under and, again, my book is not there (never has been). I looked under Literature and Fiction which is my highest listed area and my book with 89 reviews (69 5 star, 4.7 out of 5 stars overall) is not there, yet a book with only 6 reviews and 2.5 out of 5 stars overall is on the list! I can’t figure out just how Amazon picks its Kindle books, why it would give advertising to those no one likes over one that is very popular. Anyone?

    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 26th Aug 2012 at 9:31 am

      Who is the publisher? If Thomas & Mercer, that’s Amazon’s label. Mystery solved.

  19. Sun 26th Aug 2012 at 12:24 pm

    Actually, no. but actually, good point. This one is not a self-pub
    No More Mr. Nice Guy
    Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; Original edition (October 4, 2011)
    Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

    I have noted this before, books with few ratings or low ratings being plugged and I wondered if one had to pay for the advertising or a company was paying for it.

    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 26th Aug 2012 at 12:28 pm

      My hunch is yes, that’s a sponsored deal. Bloomsbury is distributed by MacMillan. So there’s your possible answer. It’s probably a paid placement.

  20. Thu 30th Aug 2012 at 8:42 am

    I found your insights interesting and unfortunately, I’m starting to see indie-pubbed as a pyramid. Those who got in a year or so ago seem to be zooming ahead, even when some of it wasn’t that good. Nowadays, even good stories can get lost in the fray.

    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 15th Sep 2012 at 3:42 pm

      Well, yes and no. The year before last, it was even easier to differentiate yourself. Life isn’t fair. Never has been.

      This is an extremely tough business. I think I said in one of my blogs about 6 months ago that it would get tougher from here on out due to the algorithm change by Amazon. I would liken it more to a gold rush than a pyramid scheme. We have the wagons filled with authors who think that they are going to break big because they read someone’s work that sort of sucked (but who is a household name) and they think, hey, my crappy book doesn’t suck any worse than theirs, maybe I’ll throw it up on Amazon and see if it finds an audience.

      It’s an approach based upon a fallacy, but it is a popular fallacy. I think all one can do as an author is produce the best work we can.

      And by the way, Patterson and plenty of other less-than-stellar trad pub authors sell millions while good books go unnoticed, so it’s not just indie publishing that’s that way. It’s all of it.

  21. Ror Martin
    Sat 15th Sep 2012 at 3:31 pm

    Amazing insight. I will say, that w/o seeing Silver Justice listed on Amazon’s top 100 (side by side with the pay counterparts) I likely not have discovered you. Tremendous book, incredible insight, and then doing a little research on you I discover something eye-opening. My pet peeve with many eBooks is the abhorrent editing. I love your position on quality, and quite honestly I will bypass any book you’re forced to make free and pay for it willingly. Great storytelling, enjoy the humor peppered in just perfectly. Best read this year!
    Thank you!

    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 15th Sep 2012 at 3:38 pm

      Well thank you, Ror.

      Although Amazon just changed the interface so free books no longer appear next to paid ones on any of the list – there’s a little tab at the top that forces you to select one or the other. My interpretation of that is that it is yet another move to further reduce the odds of an indie sale at $4 displacing a $14 sale by a trad publisher. It’s not fair, but it’s their playground, so they get to make the rules.

      Please leave reviews. It’s the best thing you can do for an author you like besides telling a friend or recommending the book on a forum you belong to.

      I’m glad the work appeals to you. So far so good…

  22. Sat 30th Nov 2013 at 9:59 am

    Any latest updates on your blog above on free downloads?
    It has to be even worse a situation now, I imagine, over a year after your first posting?
    Ps I saw this via a current (end nov 2013) post on Alli which led to many other fab author comments on topic of building up readership.
    Then I realised it was from 15 months ago!
    Interestingly in Nov last year a rom-com indie pal springboarded her sales with a 12000 giveaway of first book, at launch of her second. This led to a jump of 200 in a year to 10,000 sold in the next 4 months. Fascinating how now a recent one I did led to about 400 downloaded as a freebie. It depends on the freebie of course. But amazon free promotions now seem so swamped tactics have shifted once again, to get best exposure to new audiences, maybe, as they say, Goodreads time has come.


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