Pricing is one of the most difficult challenges for any product. Charge too much, no one will buy it. Charge too little, no one will value it. So where does the free model land in the publishing spectrum?
Amazon’s KDP Select program grants authors five free promotional days in exchange for keeping their e-book exclusive to Kindle for 90 days. Free copies target new readers with the hope that they’ll write reviews and recommend the title to their friends. In turn, this strategy is supposed to increase revenue for both that book as well as the author’s other works after the promotion ends.
However, whenever I have offered a free giveaway on Amazon, I’d get over 100 downloads without any uptick in sales immediately afterward. (I’m not alone here; other authors have reported the same.)
As an alternate marketing idea, I’ve also given away paperbacks on Goodreads for my novel The Last Night. Almost 700 people entered the contest, many of whom bookmarked the novel to read later, and in this case, the promotion actually yielded a measurable result. One of the three winners gave the book its first five-star review, which is exactly how the free model is supposed to function.
Goodreads differs from Amazon in this example in that only a limited number of books were available. Maybe the scarcity increased the value of the prize. The same could be said that a physical book is valued more than an e-book. Paper also allowed me to personally inscribe each winning copy. These variables certainly didn’t hurt the equation.
In contrast, part of the disconnect between Amazon’s theory and practice is that some people troll the free Kindle lists to grab as many books as they can. The number of possible downloads are unlimited; then the file sits unread on their devices. But I can’t blame them. Who doesn’t like free books? And maybe one day they’ll get around to cracking its digital spin—which is a definite possibility and one of the reasons it’s so difficult to measure the effectiveness of these campaigns in any reasonable timeframe.
The way I see it, there are two problems with Amazon’s model:
- Regularly pricing a book as free will train readers to devalue the product and discourage sales as they wait for the next gratis promotion. KDP Select assumes that giving away a copy will create goodwill toward the author, but in my case, that has not yet occurred after the five months my novel has been on sale and the 11 months for my short story collection. (Please note: regarding the handful of reviews my readers have been generous enough to write, I am truly grateful. Never think that I’m not, especially since they are all four or five stars. You rock. I’m simply acknowledging that the ratio between downloads and reviews is quite small.)
- If you are an author with only one or two titles—especially if the stories are unrelated (like mine)—the possibility of a revenue boost is less likely compared to a writer with multiple titles in a series. For the series author, pricing the first book at $0.00 or $0.99 entices new readers. This also increases the perceived value of that title when compared to the higher price tags of subsequent books. Then, if readers like it, they’ll be more inclined to purchase the next installment.
So if you’re writing a series, KDP Select has an increased chance of benefitting your exposure as well as your bottom line. For authors with fewer, non-series titles, Amazon exclusivity might not be the best approach, even though the Kindle marketplace is much larger than Nook or Kobo at the moment.
In both cases the free model is a long-term investment that may or may not pay off at some unknown future date. There is just no easy way to measure this due to anonymous data. Yet, as an eternal optimist, I know the only way to make the free model work is to write a story that readers will find compelling. Then be sure to write that next manuscript.