Hang Up Your Pimp Costume, Kids: Why Free Book Promos on Amazon Don’t Work Like They Used To (No Matter How You Spin the Numbers)
[Before diving in and reading this post, I highly recommend that you read this excellent piece on Forbes.com today by David Vinjamuri: “Hard Numbers For Successful Free Book Sampling On Amazon.”]
There I was on Facebook one day this past November, fielding Farmville requests for pigs from total strangers, and for some reason that got me to thinking about Kevin Bacon. I spent a few, sad moments recalling how he and his wife had lost everything in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, and how Kevin announced shortly thereafter that he would have to “go back to work,” and not long after that I saw the first Footloose remake trailer, and I had a brief thrill of horror envisioning Bacon throwing his aging, wrinkly, scrawny body around an abandoned warehouse in an angry, whirling, geriatric frenzy à la “Footloose” 1984—until I realized the remake stars a brand-new, real-life teenager.
Anyway, it’s been estimated that each person on the planet is only six “I am the friend of a friend” statements from every other person on the planet. Six degrees of separation was all it took to turn Kevin Bacon into a trivia game. And just look how an expertly-managed Ponzi scheme changed Bernie Madoff’s life forever!
You’ve probably heard this riddle: “Would you rather have a million dollars now, or a penny a day—doubled every day—for one month?” If you don’t already know the right answer, your first instinct is to jump on the million dollars like the TSA on a water bottle. I know that’s what I did (but to be fair to me—and I love to be fair to me—I was in, like, 5th grade).
As many of you may know my first novel, The Frog Prince, became an Amazon bestseller in December 2010. When I released my follow-up novel Sleeping Beauty in September 2011, I was confident that I had a fail-proof plan to turn it into a bestseller. Forget pennies—Facebook would become my mighty “million dollar” marketing pimp, and I would use it to prostitute myself (in a manner of speaking). My Profile Page would become the internet equivalent of a poorly lit street corner, with me clad in a spandex outfit the size of a dinner napkin, shaking my hips, and calling out to potential readers: “Hey sugar, you look like you could use a gooood, loooong read. I got a big, giant hardcover for you, baby.”
Unfortunately, my “million dollar plan” failed. No matter how many times I mentioned my new book in my Facebook status updates in September, October, and November, no matter how many times I guest blogged, or what kinds of flashy graphics I used, Sleeping Beauty was in trouble. Despite very good initial reviews on Amazon, sales flat-lined—badly. As in: “Hold the defibrillator, let’s save it for something that might live.”
And then in December, along came Amazon’s KDP Select, with its royalties for “borrows” and its “promo days,” during which authors can offer their novels for free up to five times in a 90 day period. Since my novels had never gained a lot of traction on Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, iBooks, Kobo, etc, signing up for KDP Select was a no-brainer for me.
Right away, KDP Select boosted my royalties by 25% with the money I received from readers “borrowing” my novels through the Amazon Prime program. I knew about the free promo days that came with KDP Select, of course, but as an early proponent of “creating imputed value,” and “pricing high,” I was skeptical. The glut of under $2.99 novels was already, in my opinion, devaluing self-published novels across the board. Wouldn’t giving books away make everything worse?
Finally, given the sluggish sales for Sleeping Beauty, I decided that I had nothing to lose by trying it out. On February 13th, I came up with a plan to not only offer my novels for free, but (and this is critical) to market the promotion. This would, I hoped, help generate critical word-of-mouth, which, in turn, would result in paid sales once the price returned to normal.
How did I promote the promo? Well, I treated it like the penny riddle: “Would you rather have a million dollars, or a penny a day—doubled every day—for a month?”…only this time I chose the penny. Sounds insane, right? But watch what happens in those 30 days:
Day 1: $0.02
Day 5: $0.32
Day 10: $10.24
Day 15: $327.58
Day 20: $10,485.76
By Day 20, anyone who’s chosen the million dollars is feeling pretty smug. I mean, $10,485.76 is a far cry from a million bucks. But it’s after Day 20 that the magic of exponential growth really kicks in:
Day 21: $20,971.52
Day 27: $1,342,177.28
Day 28: $2,684,354.56
Day 29: $5,368,709.12
Day 30: $10,737,418.24
Day 31: $21,474,836.48
Rather than just “taking the million dollars,” and throwing out a general announcement about the promo on my Facebook page, I emailed every contact and friend I had on Facebook, asking if they’d please Share my Valentine’s Day promo on their Wall. And most generously did. Whenever their posts generated comments from their friends or fans, I would chime in and encourage those people to please feel free to share on their Walls. And most generously did. I contacted websites that blasted a daily list of free books for the Kindle and asked them to list my books, or tweet the information to their followers. Many did.
By the time I got out of bed on Valentine’s Day, my promo had become the “penny a day, double every day”—going viral on Facebook, Twitter, and jumping to reader websites such as GoodReads, and “free Kindle books” sites until it had infected the entire interwebs with my Valentine promo cooties. Or, as the old shampoo commercial goes, “And then they told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on, and so on…”
By midnight on Valentine’s Day, Sleeping Beauty and The Frog Prince were #1 and #3 in the Kindle Free Store. Since the Kindle Free Top 100 and the Kindle Paid Top 100 are juxtaposed on the same page, Sleeping Beauty was right beside Twilight, The Frog Prince sat next to Catching Fire—the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy—and I had given away 45,000 books. You read that right:
I gave away 45,000 books on Valentine’s Day.
Now, you may be thinking: THAT’S CRAZY! And I’ll be honest: By the time 11:59pm rolled around, I was sweating bullets. Why? Because there was no real proof available (Amazon is notoriously proprietary with its stats) that a successful giveaway would translate into “real sales” once the books weren’t free. My entire “penny a day, doubled every day” model hinged on whether or not those readers left positive reviews for the books, and then recommended them to other readers.
Luckily for me, it worked. I returned the prices to $2.99 on February 15th, and over the next two weeks, readers bought or borrowed (through KDP Select) over 4,500 copies of Sleeping Beauty and The Frog Prince, netting me close to $9,000.
“Why, that’s fantastic!” you’re probably thinking. “I’m going to try that too and make tens of thousands of dollars!” Right?
Here’s the thing: If you’d have asked me in late February or early March, I not only would’ve wholeheartedly recommended that you do this, but in a blog I wrote in early March, I actually taunted authors who eschewed the opportunity the KDP Select promo days afforded:
So, what’ll it be? Will you take a chance on the “penny,” and combine the forces of Facebook with the basic concepts of a Ponzi scheme (without the scheming), how cooties turn into pandemics, and the imaginary way women talk to each other about their shampoo?
Or will you jump for “one million dollars,” working the poorly-lit street corner of your Profile Page, prostituting yourself for Facebook to your 200 Friends, and seeing nothing in return? I don’t know about you, but here’s what I decided: I am the pimp.
And now? What advice do I give authors today when they ask me?
Don’t. Do. It.*
When you read the Forbes piece (“Hard Numbers For Successful Free Book Sampling On Amazon”), your eyebrows no doubt shot skyward when you saw these figures:
- Books sold before promotion (weekly): 5 – median
- Books sold after promotion (weekly): 49 – median
But understand that in February, the conditions on the ground were different than they are now. Very different. How different?
- There were fewer authors in KDP Select. Many authors chose to take a cautious “wait and see” approach, letting other authors pull their books from the other platforms to use as guinea pigs. It was only after the initial success stories that authors began to “pile on.”
- The free promos were still relatively few. This meant that there was more visibility for those authors who did do a free promo in those early days, and an author had a decent chance at finding success this way. Today you run the risk of being lost in a sea of free promo marketing campaigns.
- A large percentage of readers appeared to actually have read the free books in those early days. Sure, the glut of free promos today has readers stockpiling e-books like bottled water in a fallout shelter, but all those free books mean that you have less of a chance of reaching the critical 13% of people who will “buzz” about a product they’ve personally experienced in those essential first days after the promo ends.
- The post-promo bounce was bigger and lasted longer. Sales after my Valentine’s Day promo were dramatically better than sales before, a bounce that lasted the better part of four or five weeks before slowly returning to normal.
By way of comparison, my April Fool’s promo resulted in a less-dramatic and shorter-lived bounce, and the Memorial Day promo—which resulted in a lot of books being given away, but almost no post-promo increase in sales at all—was an incredible disappointment. That said, if the majority of authors saw numbers like I had on Valentine’s Day or April Fool’s Day, I would wholeheartedly recommend that everyone continue doing the book giveaways! But all indications, anecdotal and otherwise, seem to indicate that my Memorial Day flop is fast becoming the rule and not the exception.
Many authors are innovating by banding together in collectives, or trying “bundled” promotions [full disclosure: I participated in the "Labor of Love" bundled promotion linked to here]–offering multiple titles from different authors and even different genres–at a reduced price.
The Forbes piece cites a source attributing the waning effectiveness of free promotions to the “slumping summer sales,” but this simply sidesteps what I think is the true problem: A glut of low-priced and free novels, and a reading public weary of the constant bombardment of ads and email blasts and Facebook events.
I hope I’m wrong, but based on what I’m seeing and hearing (plus a healthy dash of “hunch”), I predict that we will continue to see a downward spiral in the effectiveness of the free promos across the board.
As the renewal date for my KDP Select contract neared, I did a lot of hard thinking, and I finally decided to remove my novels from the program, and work with other sites to launch my novels on their platforms. It’s been a calculated risk not without anxiety, especially as I saw my regular sales and overall revenue plummet on Amazon in September.
On the other hand, taking risks and moving quickly to shift my business model in response to changing conditions has been par for the course since I got on this crazy ride. Perhaps more significantly, I’m fortunate to have the kind of revenue that allows for a few months of slumping sales in order to experiment.
Listen, for the sake of all the authors out there with books that deserve an audience, I want to be wrong about the efficacy of the book giveaways. Maybe you try it, and maybe you prove me wrong. This would thrill me to no end!
But something tells me that my free promo pimp costume is going to be mothballed all the way through this Halloween—and for a long, long time to come.
As always, thanks for reading.
*Exceptions include authors introducing a new novel—especially one of a series—or first-time authors with no previously published work.
[Note: I will be speaking at the Digital Book World Discoverability and Marketing Conference in New York City, taking place Monday & Tuesday, September 24th and 25th. Indie-pubbed? Traditionally published? Self-pubbed? Any or all of the above? Grab your pimp costume and I'll see you there!]
- THING 3. Prostitute Your Book: The Art and Science of a Becoming a Successful Free Book Pimp on Amazon
- Readin’ o’ the Green: the Anatomy of a Free Book Promotion