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)

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

 

[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.

Crisis averted.

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?

Probably not.

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:

  1. Books sold before promotion (weekly): 5  – median
  2. 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?

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

And no – this is not me in the lady pimp costume, so don’t ask.

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!]

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Elle Lothlorien

About Elle Lothlorien

A “military brat,” Elle Lothlorien was born in Germany and spent her childhood in such far-flung places as Puerto Rico, Charleston, S.C., Italy, and Washington D.C. Sadly, the only language she ever became semi-fluent in is English. Elle’s first two self-published romantic comedies, THE FROG PRINCE and SLEEPING BEAUTY went on to become Amazon bestsellers. She is considered a “reluctant expert” on the business of electronic, independent publishing (also called “indie-publishing”), and frequently writes and speaks on the topic. Elle lives in Denver, Colorado. She keeps two dachshunds around the house to provide comic relief. Find out more about her and her books by going to her website, or by following her on Facebook and Twitter.

15 thoughts on “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)

  1. Jen Talty

    We’ve tried free on KDP select a few different times and a few different ways–each with a different result. It is a saturated program, with a select few making it to the top. We’ve had a few books get in the top 10 on the FREE list, but the even more important has been first the increase in people using their FREE as part of their Amazon Prime, and second, the cross over to other titles. Bob Mayer has a unique backlist, and not everyone is going to come at this with 50 books. Our recommendation has always been wait until you have at least 3 books.

    You nailed it when you said, “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.” Bob and I have tried many things and we’ve adjusted each time something failed, or something succeeded. We sit down and rewrite our business plan at least every 6 months if not more. We constantly email goals and priorities, which often changes quickly as this business changes and different opportunities present themselves. Thanks for your insight!

    Reply
    1. Elle LothlorienElle Lothlorien Post author

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I often tell people, “I go to bed every night thinking I know what’s going on in publishing, and I wake up every morning and go, ‘Oh, #$%@.” We’re all like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, I think: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

      Appreciate you taking the time to post your thoughts!

      Reply
  2. Evan Jacobs

    It seems like it makes sense to divide the marketing of a sequel into two buckets: reaching new readers and reaching existing readers. KDP might be useful for the first bucket but it seems that a best selling author should be able to directly address her existing readers in an easier way.

    Are you able to tell how many of your readers only bought your first book, only the second one or both?

    Reply
  3. Gayle Carline

    Although I don’t have nearly the numbers you have, my results have mirrored yours. I’m still in the KDP Select program, but I’m not doing the free promos anymore. What turned me around was that my book, HIT OR MISSUS, was the featured book of the day on eReader News Today. I sold about a hundred times more books that day than in any other month (SOLD, not GIVEN). However, on the ENT Facebook page, one commenter said, “I’m not buying it. I’ve seen that book offered for free, so I’ll just wait for it to come around for free again.”

    Don’t hold your breath, Gentle Reader.

    I’m reluctant to go to some of the platforms. The PubIt program for the Nook has some disturbing terms in their contract. One is that you’re not allowed to put any hyperlinks in your file INCUDING your email address. I mean, really? The other is that they are allowed to make changes to your cover art. I think not.

    My books used to be on Smashwords, so they were available on all the other platforms. The problem was that ALL of the platforms combined barely accounted for 10% of my sales, and payments were oh-so-slow (not Smashwords’ fault). B&N were the worst – typically over 6 months behind anyone else.

    Any advice, Elle?

    Reply
  4. Robert Gregory Browne

    I re-upped all but one of my books on KDP Select. Why? Because I’ve found that the library borrows bring in a lot more money than B & N or Kobo do. So, for me, at least, it’s a no-brainer.

    I have kept Trial Junkies on BN and Kobo for the month of September, simply to see what it does, but if it doesn’t perform the way I hoped it would, I’ll return it to Select.

    Select has been a godsend for me. I did my promotion in May and giveaways, then sales, went through the roof.

    As far as September goes, it’s my understanding that hardly anyone is selling books this month. Sales have pretty much tanked for everyone I know. And several authors have told me it was the same way last year.

    I can only assume that Christmas and New Years and the new Kindles will bring readers back.

    Reply
  5. David Thomas

    What is poignant for me is that your experience mirrors what mid to large size publishers have struggled with for decades. Pre-publication galleys are required for publicity and marketing efforts and somewhere in the mid-eighties their mass production shifted to books of smaller initial print runs rather than large runs reserved only for the leading titles. With every publisher attempting to get the gatekeepers to read the book and get word of mouth buzz going before the book landed in-store, there was an inevitable flood of choices (distractions to competitors) that ultimately increasing returns to scale for most free book marketing efforts. Despite being labeled \Not For Sale\ it is assumed that some percentage wound up in used bookstores. Considerable marketing funds were developed and continue to be employed to distinguish one advanced reader over another, such as special boxes, themed tschokeies, introductory letters from the editor, and organized distribution with direct response requests. There is a cottage industry of taste-makers within the industry who blog/review and are actively courted by publishing professionals to get a galley \in demand\ status.
    The galley of the first \Sisterhood/Travelling Pants\ novel was initially marketed as a freebie included in pre-selected, purchased care packages for summer campers. Attempts to recreate the success were diluted by a plethora of books.
    Your experience over the course of six months (?) demonstrates exactly the conclusions I reached many years ago about the process, and even if Amazon manipulated the algorithms or overextended the program it is likely the program would have exhausted its utility because it ignored value maintenance.

    Reply
  6. Amy Lichtenhan

    Thanks for sharing this insight, Elle. KDP Select was something so many authors jumped on, it’s not surprising it became saturated so quickly. It’ll be interesting to see how many authors pull their titles and what changes Amazon makes to counter it. I look forward to hearing more from you in New York next week.

    Reply
  7. carmen webster buxton

    Interesting! I agree those heady days are gone. A few books make it big in promos but not that many. But promos do help break the chicken/egg cycle which is you can’t get sales without reviews, and (absent sock puppetry) you can’t get reviews without sales.

    I think free books also offer the most direct payback (irony intended) when the book being given away is the first in a series.

    Reply
  8. Mark Ernest Pothier

    Your thinking and your hunches are spot on, and oh, do I wish I’d read you before making my Kindle Single free for five days over the holidays. Downloads were rising fast on Christmas Eve as all those new Kindle gifts were opened, but it was too late to go back: I’d already set up the giveaway and promoted it on all the freeby lists and websites. Yes, it was downloaded over 2,000 times in five days. No, I don’t think many people read it afterward, probably for the reasons you list, especially the glut of free content available and how easy it is to hoard it. Thanks for your insight!

    Reply
    1. Elle LothlorienElle Lothlorien Post author

      Mark, I would urge you to please take a look at my blog from Thursday, March 16, 2013 “THING 3. Prostitute Your Book: The Art and Science of a Becoming a Successful Free Book Pimp on Amazon” (http://alturl.com/sajw8). You’re right that you fell into the same trap I did; namely, doing a promo during a holiday–a big no-no! But take comfort in the fact that even if you’d given away a lot more books during that time, you would have been unlikely to see a large post-promotional bounce. (I gave away just shy of 20,000 copies of my novel Alice in Wonderland and saw a VERY short-lived bounce of about one week.)

      Read the blog I link to above and you’ll find some tips for a successful promo. And yes, one of them is definitely “DO NOT do a promo on or during a holiday.” Lesson learned on both our parts.

      Best,
      Elle

      Reply

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