Wednesday 20 March 2013

Sayonara to Free Promos (for Tube Riders)

I know that a lot of people came to my books from picking them up as freebies on Amazon during promos. To date I have given away a shade under 40,000 books.

Maybe that figure shocks some of you. I don't really think about it, because compared to the number of ereaders and beyond that the number of people reading books, that figure is just a drop in the ocean. I write mostly spec fiction, which isn't a particularly big genre in the grand scheme of things. Some people writing romance, for example, will give that number away in a single promotion.

Most writers who've been doing this a while know all about Kindle Direct Publishing, the Select program and its five days per quarter that you can set your book price to free and get a bunch of downloads (in theory). I write this blog for readers, though, and I thought I'd explain a little bit about it.

Basically, people like free stuff. For books, that's why libraries exist. I probably only buy one in three books that I read because good books are passed around, so one sold book could end up being read five or six times, if it's a good one.

KDP is a wonderful thing. It takes literally a few minutes to publish your book and within a few hours its available for people to buy on Amazon. Select is part of KDP, but it's an opt-in program that means you have to give exclusivity to Amazon for three months. Therefore, if your book is available on Barnes & Noble or Kobo, for example, you have to pull it down while it's in Select. In exchange, Select books are available to be borrowed by Amazon Prime members, netting the author between $1.80 and $2.30 per borrow, depending on the size of the kitty that month. In addition, you can put your book free for up to five days during that three-month period, potentially exposing you to thousands of new readers. It costs a fortune to advertise in magazines or on billboards, but putting your book in the hands of readers is free, at least for ebooks. Of course, it is also possible to set your price elsewhere to free and get it price-matched on Amazon, but this may or may not happen and there aren't many promotion sites that will pick up perma-free books.

Of course, only a tiny fraction of those downloaders will ever read it - ebook readers are notorious hoarders, and if you get 1/10 people reading your book you've done well. While you might gain a few fans, these people are not your target. Your target is the paying customers who see your book in the days after your promotion when it appears in the "Customers Also Bought ..." section at the bottom of the Amazon page of other books. This is where you make your money.

However, Amazon, despite implementing the system, now seemingly doesn't like it. Back in the good old days (of course before I started self-publishing) paid and free books were listed in the same bestseller lists, so that if you came off a free run in which you gave away 20,000 copies, you'd still be listed really high up the bestseller list, getting you an absolute ton of visibility, and with it a ton of sales. Now they have separate lists, the free list is often hidden, free books only count as 1/3 of a sale for the also-bought algorithms, etc., etc. In short, when once you could have given away a few thousand books and seen a few hundred sales afterwards, now the rewards are not so much.

In my most recent major promo, I gave away 14,000 copies of Man Who Built the World. How many did I sell in the month afterwards? About 100. 14,000 free copies netted me 100 sales. I made a couple of hundred dollars, that was it.

Still, that's 100 sales more than I might have made otherwise, isn't it? Of course it is, which is why, even though KDP Select is a dying beast, I'm still prepared to play the game with my standalone novels. MWBTW is staying in it, and Head of Words might end up in it too. But I've pulled Tube Riders.


The wonderful thing that comes with giving your book away is that you're at the mercy of freebie hunters, and many of these are also torpedo reviewers.  These are people who download anything they can get their hands on and then write scathing one-star reviews of books that not surprisingly don't live up to their expectations. There are a number of reasons for this. One is that the vast majority of self published ebooks are utter junk. Sorry, but they are. I know a lot of really good, really professional indie writers, but there are literally hundreds of thousands of people out there now calling themselves authors. KDP opened the floodgates. Perhaps the top 5% of this veritable landslide of books are worth reading, the rest are just throwaway rubbish. Of course, this means that the vast majority of freebies will be junk, "books" written by unprofessional hopefuls dreaming of selling loads of copies. I very rarely download free books. I've read a couple of good ones but the vast majority are terrible, and the net result of all this crap is that a lot of people approach free books expecting them to suck. Their finger is often on the one-star button even before they've started reading.

Do I rank myself among this sea of crap writing? Hell, no I don't. 29 five star and 27 four star reviews on Amazon USA tend to agree with me. However, I've been hit. Particularly Tube Riders has been hit. My one star reviewer on Tube Riders didn't read more than a few pages before slamming it. A few pages of a 600 page book. Cheers. Another who two-stared me copied and pasted their review from a bunch of other books, suggesting it wasn't even a reader but a bitter indie author looking to drag down books in their own genre. This happens a lot, and it's very, very sad.

If someone genuinely doesn't like my book, then fine, that's their opinion. What I don't enjoy is getting hit by reviews by people who otherwise wouldn't be anywhere near it, as a result pulling its average rating down so that it will no longer be listed by any big promo sites. Tube Riders sits at 3.8 in the US, thanks to three bad reviews. Most major promo sites require a minimum of 4.0 stars on Amazon USA.

The possible exposure is worth it on books that stand alone, but Tube Riders is part of a series. If part one gets hit too many times, then I won't be able to get any exposure for part two. And while it's all very well shrugging and saying it doesn't matter, I want this to be my livelihood. A few bad reviews by nasty little assholes can cost me a lot of money.

There is a lot of stigma attached to indie publishing, which is why I list a publisher name on Amazon. I don't feel any great association with a "movement", I'm just a writer using what platforms are available to market and sell books. Indie, trad, whatever. I'm not interested in flying anyone's flag. With obvious indie books, you get reviewers complaining about typos unnecessarily or claiming something wasn't edited, even when it was, just because they assume that one or two blemishes are a sign of a greater problem (usually these readers are bitter indie writers - they stand out a mile). I found three typos in a recent Booker Prize winner that I read. Did I feel the need to complain about it in a review? No. Someone recently accused me of only using Word spell check to edit Man Who Built the World. I used five proofreaders, and I'd be interested to know how many actual errors that person found. Of course, after that review my sales tanked. Only the bunch of five-star reviews I've since received has started them ticking over again.

The problem is, there are a lot of unpleasant people in this world, and when you do something that exposes yourself to them, you're putting yourself at risk. And if I'm going to put myself at risk, the rewards have to be worth it. If I made $500 dollars for each one star review, I wouldn't care. Fact is, I don't.

Having said all that, I'm not completely giving up on Select. It requires exclusivity to Amazon, but on the books I've moved on to other platforms I've experienced approximately zero sales, so this doesn't bother me. And with carefully targeted promotions you can keep down the torpedoes a little. And it has exposed me to readers - I've had some wonderful emails from people who loved my books after finding them for free. I want to find more of these people, because they're awesome.

However, for the time being Tube Riders is leaving free promos behind. I'll still be doing bargain price promos - as many as I can - but the possibility of four or five bad reviews ruining the chances of a three or four book series that takes me five years to write is just too great a risk. I'm a small fish; my career hangs on the whim of one big company and a handful of people who may or may not choose to write a review. It's necessary to tread carefully, which at the moment is what I'm trying to do.

Thank you for your understanding.

Chris Ward
March 20th 2013


  1. Wow, Chris, your blog is outstanding. I am an avid reader; More now, since I got an ereader.When,I get a free book, I am honor to get it. Make sure that I post review of the book. But, I just get the books that I like to read. If unsure, I go to the author website read more about the book. I mainly get my books thru Overdrive, online library (my local library use it). Also, get some ARC from goodreads giveaways. I just started doing reviews for NetGalley. I want to thank you for writing great books for all to read. Sry for spelling ( lol) having to use my phone to write this, internet is down. When, I write the review spelling I over look, we all are human. Most important thing is the story that the book is about. Hope this make sense. Teresa. Keep on reading, it keep the mind sharp

    1. Hi Teresa, glad you enjoy it. I do have a lot to say sometimes ...

      I have no real problem with free books - I think it's great advertising and I've gained a lot of new fans from it. I will continue to do it with some stand alone books. The problem is, that people are far more likely to complain if they don't like something than praise it if they do. Case in point - I'm an English teacher in Japan. If you browse the Japan forums of pretty much any ESL teaching site, you'll get the impression that the place is a nightmare to work. I thought so when I started looking for a job. The fact is, the people having a hard time tend to shout about it while the rest just go about their day. In my city there are a couple of known bad schools, but that's out of dozens. From the internet you'd get the impression that Japan was a hive of exploitation.

      Same goes for reviews. People are far more likely to leave a bad one than a good one, and then you get people who just have this chip on their shoulder about anything that is universally liked. Probably my favorite book of all time is The Time Traveller's Wife. I thought it was a masterpiece, yet it has something like 200 one star reviews, and half of them have a "anyone who likes this must be an idiot" kind of tone. There will always exist people who want to put stuff down. It's been my experience and that of dozens of writers that I know that those types of people are more likely to be downloading free books than paying for them. You can't please everyone, but it's more important to target your audience specifically or encourage them to have some sort of financial investment in a product. Even at just $0.99 people will think about whether they really want to read the book before they buy it. At free it's a no-brainer.

      However, I have a tendency to change my mind, so it's not unlikely that I'll completely reverse my decision and end up with Tube Riders going free again at some point in the future... just see how it goes!

  2. Hi Chris
    I agree with every word of this blog. It's true, sadly, there's a lot of rubbish out there and it's hard to find the diamonds, although I've picked up a few. And I get so angry with the 'troll' reviewers who drag down the good books. I read recently that in a backhanded way it's a compliment. That really interesting writers will polarise their readership and get a mixture of very high and very low ratings. In other words, if you only get good reviews, it's a sign that you're mediocre! Not much help if you're trying to make a living out of it!
    Your books are excellent. I have read and enjoyed everything you've written.
    My old boss used to say,"Treat a customer well and they might tell a friend. Treat them badly and they'll tell EVERYONE." How true. Works the same with books. If they like it they may tell a friend, if they hate it, they'll put a stinker of a review on Amazon.