Five Reasons Free Isn’t Working
A lot of authors choose to price their new release free to raise awareness and build readership. Or KDP Select members might use their five free days to increase visibility and sales. But free isn’t working the way it used to. Authors aren’t seeing the increase in visibility or the spike in sales from free books that was common two years ago (and which is why, if you are looking for books about marketing your novel on Amazon, I don’t recommend buying any book written before 2013).
Here are five reasons free doesn’t work as well any more:
1. Bestseller lists
Free books used to count towards bestseller status (in that one sale of a free book counted in the same way as one sale of a full-price or sale book). This changed in March 2012, and free sales no longer contribute towards bestseller status. Strike One for free books.
2. Popularity status
Free books used to count towards popularity status (the books that show up first on a category search) in the same way as they counted towards bestseller status: one sale of a free book counted the same as one sale of a paid-for book. No more. Free books still contribute towards popularity, but you need ten free sales to equate to one paid sale. Strike Two for free books.
3. Amazon Associates
Strike Three was the changes to the Amazon Associates affiliate marketing programme. This programme allows websites to link to Amazon products, and the affiliate then earns a percentage of any purchase resulting from that link. Many websites are a member of the programme, if only because it allows us to use book cover images without infringing copyright (for most websites, it’s not for the money —I’ve earned less than $20 in two years). As an example, if you click on any of the book cover images on this site, they will take you to Amazon. If you click buy, I’ll earn a small commission (paid in the form of an Amazon gift voucher).
Anyway, there were a lot of websites making use of the affiliate programme and getting to the maximum fee percentage by advertising a lot of free books. While this was good for the websites, it was less good for Amazon. Since 1 March 2013, free ebooks no longer count towards sales. And—to discourage websites from advertising free deals—if more than 20,000 free Kindle books are ‘sold’ and those books make up 80% of the volume of ‘sales’, the affiliate is not eligible for any fee. These websites have moved to promoting cheap or discounted books in order to preserve their revenue stream, and it’s now harder for authors to get publicity for free books.
This is explained in detail by Ryan Casey. A number of bloggers have postulated that 99 cents is the new free (in fact, someone’s even written a book about it), as this is low enough to attract attention from consumers, yet gets around the restrictions in the Amazon Associates programme.
4. Free listing
In August 2013, Amazon started tinkering with their Best Seller listings. Previously, each page had the Top 10 Paid and Free Best Sellers (in the chosen category) listed side by side, so the#1 Free book was displayed right beside the #1 Paid book. Now the two are on separate pages, further reducing visibility. It’s another strike against free.
5. Owner behaviour
The first thing most new Kindle owners do is fill their Kindles with free ebooks (yes, I did). Each of those free books counted as a sale for the author, but most of them—probably close to 1,000—are still sitting on my Kindle, unread. I’m now more astute and tend to only download books I’m planning on reading.
How do I prioritise my reading? Well, as a reviewer, I obviously have to read those books I’ve promised to review. As an editor, I also read books on editing and book marketing. When it comes to choosing a book to read for pleasure, I tend to choose a book I’ve paid for, whether as an electronic or a dead tree version, even if I only paid $2.99.
And that’s the final strike against free ebooks: just because I download them doesn’t mean I’ll read them. I’m going to read the books I’ve paid for first.