“Free is dead.”
So goes the claim of most indie authors with regard to running free events through Amazon.com’s KDP Select program. Once, a successful free event meant solid sales for the next 30 days. It could create a breakout for a relatively unknown author.
Not so much anymore. At least, that’s the theory.
I decided to test that idea last month. I planned to release my new novel, Roses Are White, at the end of April. So at the beginning of the month, I ran a free event for State of Grace, the first book in the Wolf Dasher series (Roses Are White is Book 3). My goal was to raise the visibility of the series, getting people interested in Books 1 and 2 as well as the permafree short story, so that, when Book 3 hit, it would have some legs.
To accomplish this, I knew I would need to have strong numbers on my free event. Whether free was dead or not, I knew that the game had changed from a year ago when I gave “Sleeping Beauty: A Modern Fairy Tale” a fairly significant boost through a free event. I was going to need downloads approaching five figures to change my sales numbers in a meaningful way (based on anecdotal information I’d gotten from my writers’ support group). To do that would require advertising.
The kingmaker in eBook sales right now is BookBub. I’ve applied to them in the past and met with no success. They have a high bar to entry. At the time, State of Grace had only nine reviews (it has 11 now), which is a pretty low number for BookBub to consider. However, I had a 4.6-star average and I had nothing to lose by applying, so I took a shot.
As expected, they turned me down. (More on the significance of that below.) I therefore turned my attention to the second-tier sites. I applied and was accepted by Kindle Books & Tips and Book Sends. I also advertised with BookGoodies and the new eBook Soda. I contemplated FreeBooksy, with whom I had had good luck in the past, but I’d already spent significantly with the other two sites and wasn’t sure I could afford Free Booksy’s $50 fee. I applied to eReader News Today as well, but they didn’t respond.
I had no idea what to expect. The game had changed, but I had listings with some of the bigger boys. I crossed my fingers and waited to see what would happen.
My first day went pretty well. I got over 700 downloads — a solid day’s work. I had the KB&T ad on the first day, and while I had hoped to do better with them, I am certain I wouldn’t have breached the 700 mark without them. Book Sends was landing the next day, so I was hoping I’d pick up steam.
As the morning wore on, though, I was not getting very significant numbers. From the time I first checked in around 7:00am to about two in the afternoon, I had only secured about 250 downloads. Book Sends was not producing any significant numbers, and what momentum I had built was dissipating.
Curiously, I was charting very well in the Free Store on Amazon in the Thrillers>Espionage category. In fact, I’d made it into the Top Five. But I had not even sniffed the charts in Fantasy, and while State of Grace is a fantasy-thriller mash-up novel, I market it more as fantasy due to the presence of elves and magic. In fact, advertising with the discount book sites requires you choose a category for your book, and I always list it as fantasy. So it seemed strange I could do well in the category I didn’t list (and is generally more popular) but not in the one I was directly marketing to.
Then, in mid-afternoon, things changed. The ENT email hit my inbox. State of Grace was the last book they listed in the free category. But it was there.
Suddenly, the downloads shot into the sky. For the remainder of the day — all the way to midnight — I averaged 150-200 downloads an hour. On the first update after the ENT ad, I hit #1 in Thrillers>Espionage. Shortly thereafter, I finally made it onto the Fantasy chart. eReader News Today gave my beleaguered free event gas. With my ads with BookGoodies and eBook Soda landing on Wednesday morning, I was hopeful this event was going to have the momentum necessary to achieve my goals.
But that was the end of the excitement. By noon on Wednesday, the ENT fuel was exhausted. I vanished from the Fantasy chart as quickly as I’d appeared there. I went from 200 downloads an hour back to 200 a day. The ENT effect was powerful, game-changing, and short-lived.
Totals and their Effects
By the time it was said and done, this was indeed the best free event I’d ever run for State of Grace and the highest U.S. numbers I’d ever received for any book. (“Sleeping Beauty” had superior numbers when adding U.S. and U.K. downloads together.) I got over 3000 total downloads. Short of my hoped-for goal but respectable in the grand scheme of previous events I’d run.
Of course, the purpose of the event was to raise the profile of the Wolf Dasher series ahead of Roses Are White‘s release. Thus, I was looking for things other than how many free books I gave away. I wanted to see sales of Book 2: Red Dragon Five, post-free sales of State of Grace, new reviews of the book, and more subscriptions to my mailing list and likes to my Facebook page.
Virtually none of that happened. In the almost two months since the event, I’ve gotten two new reviews, sold less than five copies of each of the first two books in the series, acquired about five new likes to my Facebook page, and one new mailing list subscriber.
Worse, Roses Are White came out of the gate completely flat. By the time it hit, what little momentum there was completely gone. On the surface at least, free appeared to be dead.
By way of contrast, a friend just ran a very successful free event. He got listed on BookBub (he has tons of positive reviews) and that led to a combined 65,000 downloads on two books, which have led to over 800 sales in just 10 days. His reviews, mailing list subscriptions, and Facebook likes have ballooned nicely.
That indicates to me (and he agrees) that free is not dead, but it’s only alive if you can get five-figure downloads. And as far as we can tell, the only way to do that is to get listed by BookBub.
There are a couple of other variables I need to explore. First, I think I am meeting price resistance by listing my books at $4.99. Last year, there was evidence this was an acceptable price for indie books, but it now appears that asking for more than $2.99 is a barrier to entry for indies. I need to reconsider my pricing structure — free is free, but if the other books are too high, they won’t get picked up subsequently.
I also think my marketing copy needs some work. I plan to take a little time with that as well.
But free didn’t work for me this time. I took the most successful free event I’ve ever run in the U.S. market and turned it into nothing. Last year at this time, the numbers I got would have led to strong sales post-event and a solid launch for the third book. Now the rules have changed.
Free is not dead. But it is extremely handicapped. Where it once was a license for 30 days of solid sales, it now is a tool that only works effectively for more established writers. The changes in Amazon’s algorithms have made, at least for the moment, BookBub the undisputed kingmaker in the Brave New World of digital publishing, with ENT a solid second. ENT’s standards are lower for free books (minimum of four reviews with a four-star average) but about the same for paid ones (minimum 10 reviews with a four-star average).
That means, at least for the moment, it’s much more difficult to break out and build a platform for indie authors. It’s certainly not impossible. There are a variety of long-slog ways to get there. But the ability to get up and established quickly that KDP Select free events once provided appears to be gone.
Breaking out is, once again, hard to do.