Going perma-free on Amazon

Posted on June 26, 2013 (Subscribe to Blog)

Is it worth getting your ebook listed perma-free on Amazon? Does it helps sales?

Like many others before me, I wondered for ages if giving a book away for free would help sales overall. I think the biggest disagreement over whether this method works or not comes down to one simple question: Do you have other books to sell while you're giving one away?

If you only have one book and you give it away for free during a KDP Select promo (for maybe 2-3 days), readers will download it but obviously won't be able to buy anything else you have, so this won't help your sales much at all. Sure, when your book reverts to paid status after the promo, it will likely retain some exposure and garner a few sales – but your book will quickly drop out of sight again, and that will be that.

If, on the other hand, you have an arsenal of books and you offer one for free, then you'll likely make some sales. Readers will sample your free book without obligation. If they like it, they'll come back for more. They'll trust you as an author and will happily spend a few dollars for each of your other books. So you'll give one away but gain followers that you wouldn't otherwise have had. It's simple and logical and well worth doing.

Island of Fog Series

I suspect this works even better with a series. I don't know this for sure because I ONLY have a series and can't compare to sales of non-series books. However, when I think about (for example) the Maze Runner trilogy by James Dashner, I bought the first book hoping it would be good, read it in record time, and snapped up the second and third without hesitation. And the prequel. But it took me a while to move on to other books by the same author. Even though the author had gained my trust as a reader, it was that one particular series I was drooling over.

Then again, plenty of authors write only one-off novels, and once you've read a couple and trust what the author delivers, you tend to snap up the others pretty quickly... so maybe it doesn't matter whether they're series books or not.

Anyway – after many promos between August 2012 and June 2013, I put Island of Fog (Book 1 of what is currently a 6-book series) up for free at Kobo and iBookstore. I imagined I would need to do what other authors do, which is to encourage friends to visit Amazon and "complain" that this $2.99 book is available for free elsewhere. Once alerted, Amazon would then price-match the book and set it to $0.00.

As it happens, Amazon price-matched it automatically within a few days. I suppose they have automated bots that seek out and check the prices of other copies of books they're already selling.

Island of Fog went free on Amazon on June 21st. Downloads started immediately although at a moderate pace. Things gained momentum over the next couple of days, and my Amazon ranking started rising. The best day was June 24th. It's slowing again now, though still chugging along quite nicely. Five days later I'm at around 6000 downloads.

Sales have picked up as a result of this, so I'm happy. It's interesting to see how sales of Book 2 in particular are strong, and soon it will be Book 3, and so on as readers devour the free Book 1 and move on through the series... but not ALL readers, of course. Really it's just a small percentage of those who downloaded Book 1, mostly because many readers grab free books while they can even though they don't have time to read them all. Also, some will read Book 1 and hate it. (Yes, that really does happen.) But anyway, since Book 1 is perma-free, the number of downloads will just keep on rising bit by bit, and overall might be more consistently better than occasional KDP Select promos.

So there's no question in my mind that free promotions and/or going perma-free are well worth the effort – as long as customers have something else to buy, otherwise it's pointless. It stands to reason that if readers get hooked on Book 1, they'll work their way through the rest of the series however many more books there happen to be. Therefore, I'm planning a 20-book series. (Just kidding.)

Anyway, back to downloads and Amazon rankings. Here are a couple of screenshots of where my brief 15-minutes in the limelight got me. When you first go free, your ranking is way down there at 50,000-100,000 or whatever, but it rises fast as readers start downloading your book. Getting up into the Top 100 is some sort of milestone, and previously I had reached an overall ranking of #97 Free in Kindle Store. This time I beat my own record, reaching #52:

There's also a ranking for each category you end up in. Anywhere in the Top 20 means a placement on the first page of that category, which in turn means more downloads:

In the aftermath, my overall ranking dropped to #100, then rose to hover around #95 and #96, then up to #86, then down to #202, then back to #180... Meanwhile, my category ranking remains relatively high at the moment. So things have gone off the boil but hopefully will keep simmering rather than go cold. Only time will tell whether I'll end up making more sales overall with a free Book 1. I'll add updates below over the next few months.

Comment by CAREY on Wednesday, June 26, 2013...

So Keith, here's my question. Would you recommend then, to wait to release book 1 of a series until a book 2 (or more) exists? I can see the logic of it, but am not sure I want to (or can) wait that long!

And BTW, how's the update to the software coming (to include graphics)?

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Wednesday, June 26, 2013...

Carey — If I understood you correctly, no, I wouldn't recommend waiting at all. In fact, I'd recommend the opposite. Get Book 1 out at cost (say, $2.99) and start promoting it, and especially get reviews for it. As far as I can tell, having reviews works wonders for the day you finally go free. I'm not certain but I *think* it's part of Amazon's secret algorithm in that they treat books with reviews as more "important" than books without — although don't take my word for it.

Also, having reviews means it's easier to get listed on certain book-promotion sites. Many require that you have at least 5 or 10 reviews with an overall rating of 4+ stars.

So I would get Book 1 out and price it. Then work on Books 2 and 3. Personally, I would wait for the release of Book 3 before attempting to give Book 1 away for free. Maybe even use the giveaway of Book 1 as part of your Book 3 launch.

As for the epub tool... I'm, er, working on it! Seriously, it might be helpful to know what kind of images you're including and where they're being placed so I know what I need to be allowing for. I have a rough idea, but nothing beats an actual example. Send me some examples to keith@unearthlytales.com when you get a chance.

Comment by JAMES L. WILBER on Sunday, August 4, 2013...

I truly wish this was my experience. I have been trying for three weeks now to have Amazon zero price match a book I have on Kobo and Smashwords.

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Sunday, August 4, 2013...

James, I'm sure it'll happen eventually. What are you doing (or what have you done) to get Amazon to notice?

Comment by ARTISTIKEM on Monday, September 9, 2013...

Hi Keith! Thank you so much for this post. I've been banging my head against the wall trying to come up with a marketing plan for my series and this comes exactly when I needed it! I published Book 2 of my series (The Caregiver) this past May and plan to release Book 3 in December. Been thinking of setting Book 1 to free as part of #3's launch for some time now, since I think it will help boost sales for the other two more than just KDP Select promos, and now you've convinced me it's the right way to go. Thanks again. :)

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Monday, September 9, 2013...

You're welcome, Artistikem, although I should mention that even free downloads dwindle after a while. It's so frustrating! You end up back at square one no matter what. Also, BookBub just announced the other day that they're no longer as interested in promoting permafree books — something to consider, perhaps. Sorry to confuse you further, but I thought I should mention it. ;-) All that said, the boost I got with going free was great, so I would say do it if only for a few months — and then you need to bear in mind that Amazon may or may not take your book off permafree later, something I may find out for myself in due course.

Comment by ARTISTIKEM on Tuesday, September 10, 2013...

Thank you, Keith. The constant dwelling on downloads is super frustrating and I often opt for not looking into my KDP account for weeks as not to give myself a headache. And with the changes made to the Amazon Affiliates program everything's gotten more complicated for free books.

Something else to consider would be a detail I didn't know and that was brought up on another self-published author's blog, (I haven't confirmed this, maybe you know a bit more about it?) that free books are not appearing on the also-bought lists for paid books, only for books that are also free. So, if someone lands on the page for the 2nd or 3rd book in a series and your first is free, they won't see it there and will have to search for it further and we all know some people are just lazy.

There's a lot to ponder on when taking a decision like this one and I must thank you for your insight on the subject!

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Tuesday, September 10, 2013...

Artistikem, I can prove that free books show up on paid "also bought" lists just fine — have a look at my Book 3, for example.

When they were all paid, all six of my books showed up together, and when Book 1 went free, suddenly it was orphaned and lumped in with other free books for a while... but gradually my other five paid books came back onto the Book 1 list (and vice versa), and now all six are listed together again no matter which book page you look at. It just took a few days or a week to update as people continued buying. As long as people buy all your books, they'll show together.

That said, I'm sure a few free books are thrown into the mix as well, because Book 1 is free after all.

Comment by ARTISTIKEM on Wednesday, September 11, 2013...

Thanks again, Keith. Now I see, the other blogger probably wrote that without giving it enough time for the system to link the books. Anyway, I still think it's a good idea to give the first one for free (even when my husband wants to kill me because of it). :)

Comment by PHIL DUKE PH.D. on Monday, January 13, 2014...

Having thousands of free downloads eliminates thousands of potential buyers. I believe that generally it's a mistake. But there appear to be a (very) few exceptions.

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Monday, January 13, 2014...

You're right in one way, Phil, but I think in my case it works. Having a series makes the difference. Giving away a free standalone novel is pointless, but giving away the first novel of a series is a winning formula.

A large portion of those thousands of readers who downloaded my free Book 1 probably would not have risked spending a couple of dollars on it. In that case, giving it away for free is better than the alternative. At least then they MIGHT become a fan and buy the others in the series.

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