Amazon Select: We are All Junkies Now

It’s been over a month since the Amazon KDP Select started, and we’re beginning to see the ramifications of the program. And although I’m making good money, I’m scared.

For those of you who don’t know, Amazon created the KDP Select program to increase their base of Prime Customers (those who pay no shipping costs in return for an $80 annual fee — kind of an online Costco). The program allows customers to “borrow” one e-book per month free. Authors whose books are borrowed get a pretty nice royalty ($1.70 per borrow) if they enroll their books and give Amazon exclusive access to those books for 90 days.

But the real hook  for authors is the ability make their books free for 5 of those 90 days.  Free, you might ask? I thought you were supposed to pay for a book. True, but it’s widely believed that giving away a book for a limited time results in instant exposure. Theoretically, hundreds, if not thousands of people, will download your book, read it, fall in love with your writing, then buy all your other books.  Presto – you’re a best-seller (whatever that means in today’s environment).

It sounded intriguing, so I decided to test the waters and enrolled a novella that wasn’t selling well at all. It went free on Christmas day, perhaps the biggest day  for Amazon downloads in the company’s history, and there were 8,000 downloads. Two days later, when it back to paid status, the sales and “borrows” rolled in, and this lovely little novella ended up making me a small fortune.

A week later I entered my best-selling book and made it free for two days. There were over 16,000 downloads on the first day alone. I panicked and pulled it off free the next day (which I now understand was a taboo and for which I apologize.). Again, sales and borrows after it went back to paid were fantastic.

I was hooked. And continue to be. The program has treated me well and has boosted sales of all my books, even those that aren’t enrolled. December was terrific, and it looks like January will be stellar.

So, of course, I drank more Kool-Aid, entered 3 additional books, and made them free. The novel did well, with over 13,000 downloads, but my short story collection didn’t. For the first time, downloads were just okay, and I did not see any kind of bounce afterwards. I figured it was because short stories aren’t as popular and dismissed it.

But then something happened.

Around the same time, I did a promotion for one of my NON-Select books with ENT. While we did drop the price, it did not go free, and because my publisher controls it, it never will. The results were great. However, someone on the ENT site commented that while the book looked interesting, they were “going to wait till the book goes free. Then I’ll get it.” Yesterday, I saw a similar comment about another book on ENT’s Facebook page: “But I wanted to get it for free…”

A warning bell clanged. Readers are becoming junkies, too. They’re starting to expect, even demand, free books all the time. And with the mounting number of authors offering free books on Amazon coupled with the churn of books going free daily, it’s entirely possible that some readers will never have to buy another e-book. Ever.

This is not what an author wants to hear.

So… authors are hooked, readers are hooked, and Amazon is our pusher. They control it all. But what happens if and when they reduce the scope of the program? What happens to authors when the reimbursement for “borrows” drops from $1.70 a book, as it undoubtedly will,  over time? What happens when, like my short story collection, “going free” doesn’t always mean significant sales once it goes back to paid?

Not a pretty picture.

It gets worse. In fact, I wonder if Amazon has even thought this one through.  By making a glut of material available free,  they’ve created a new class of reader –  the Freebie bargain hunter. What happens to them when and if the program is cut back? Will they buy books again? If they don’t, will it matter? They will have already filled their e-readers.

And that triggers another warning bell. The logic behind offering free books presupposes that readers actually read those books. But they’re not. We don’t have data yet, but anecdotally, we hear that readers are still filling their Kindles and Fires with “content,” but they’re not reading them.  At least not so much.

That is not good for authors either.

Finally, we all know KDP Select will reach the point of diminishing returns. It can’t sustain itself indefinitely.* What happens when the money and the borrows of our books dwindle? Where will we be? We’ll have had a couple of good weeks, maybe months, but then? Do we take the books out of Select and compete against a fresh surge of free books? Or do we try to hang on and hope that maybe – just maybe – if we go free just one more time– we’ll get back to our former glory days?

See what I mean? We’re junkies.

They say the first step, is to become aware of it. Well, okay. I admit I’m powerless over Amazon Select.  What about you?

* No sooner did I post this when Amazon announced the February “pot” for borrows will be reduced.

  • http://mikedennisnoir.com Mike Dennis

    Libby, I look at it this way: the free downloads are going to people who never would’ve bought my books in the first place. They’re only seeking out freebies. So if a few of them actually read my free book and like it, maybe they’ll buy another one. Maybe not.

    The real reward for the author, however, lies in the increase in internal promotion Amazon gives you as you rack up more and more free downloads. Your book begins to appear on also-bought lists of big-selling books, raising your profile immeasurably. THAT’S where your post-free sales came from. I will continue to do KDP Select as long as I can.

    Example: your book EASY INNOCENCE is on the second page of also-boughts of my novel SETUP ON FRONT STREET. Mine is ranked around 22,000 right now, below yours, but right after New Year’s, it was up to 554. It remained between 500-1500 for about ten days. During quite a few of those days, as I recall it, your book was on the front page of my also-boughts.

    And those freebie-seekers? The ones you’re afraid will never buy a book in their entire lives? Don’t worry about them. Look at them as corpses on the barbed wire for you to step over.

    • http://www.libbyhellmann.com/ LibbyFischerHellmann

      Hey, Mike. I like your attitude. Corpses can be fun to step over. Thanks.

      • http://www.libbyhellmann.com/ LibbyFischerHellmann

        My friend, Mel Comley, herself an Indie author who is a member of Select, has a few questions too. Read them at http://ow.ly/8MyBK

  • http://www.mmcdonald64.blogspot.com MP McDonald

    I can see your point about readers expecting free, but I also think readers will pay for books that they really want to read. At least, as a reader, I know like to browse genres I enjoy, and I’ll buy a book based on what I want to read right at that moment. I don’t want to wade through the freebies hoping that a book will fit my criteria. That’s not to say I don’t get free books too. I have and enjoyed several of them, but the ones I really liked were ones I’d have bought if I had been aware of them before they went free (barring a price over $10, that is.) By being free, the books were brought to my attention.

    I agree it might be harder in the future to count on going free to spur sales, but maybe by then, some other marketing scheme will take its place.

    Also, did they say they reduced the Feb. pot, or just state it’s what they had planned on all along, because that is how I see it. They have stated it would be a minimum of $500,000 every month this year. They are probably trying to figure out how many people are going to keep Prime. They should have those numbers now or in the next few days as the Christmas Day activations for the free 1-month Prime will have expired.I always expected Feb. to be smaller simply because a lot of people won’t fork over $79, but I think a sizable percentage will.

  • http://dalyamoon.com Dalya

    I think it’s absolutely true that some people will only get free books. I think it’s wonderful that e-readers and easy access to books might get more people reading books instead of other entertainment.

    You can’t worry too much about the people who won’t pay. Lots of other people are willing to pay $7.00 for a fancy coffee and $3.00 for an ebook from an author they like. Perhaps Select has converted a few people from paying to getting books for free, but perhaps it’s also converted some non-readers to loving books.

    As a new author with an unknown name, Select has been a great opportunity for me. I can’t worry about all the people who won’t buy my book. I just have to keep my hands on the keyboard and put out the next one. :-) I have no control over what Amazon does next … I just have to observe and attempt to roll with it.

    I’m glad to hear you’ve had some success with KDPS! Best of luck with your books.

  • http://www.paranormalindies.com Jeanne Miller

    Please don’t worry. They originally budgeted 500,000 per month. But they have been adjusting that figure to reflect the activity. They have just announced that January’s pot is now 700,000 and February is up to 600,000.
    It is a voluntary program and they know authors will leave if they see no gain from it, so I believe they will continue to make it lucrative for us.
    I know people are always saying not to put all your eggs in one basket, but no one buys my eggs from the other baskets, and Amazon has such a pretty bow on theirs. :)

  • http://www.BooksAndPals.com BigAl

    Most of my initial impressions have already been covered by other comments. I don’t think you can read too much into Amazon’s change in the size of the pot. I suspect they have a target for what they want to pay per borrow and they are adjusting the February pot to hit that. Total borrows are going to go down from December and January.

    But you do mention one thing I think is a good point and if I was an author I’d react to. That is the comment about waiting for it to go free. Worrying about the glut of free books is a somewhat valid concern, however I would point out that if someone truly wanted to read only free Kindle books this has been possible at least as long as I’ve owned my Kindle (about 2 years). People want to read what they want to read. Just because I can read for free (project Gutenberg alone would keep me in reading material for several lifetimes), it doesn’t mean they will.

    However, just because your book is in KDP Select, doesn’t mean you have to make it free. There is an assumption that you will from some readers. Maybe not enrolling books you aren’t going to make free in KDP Select would make sense. Enrolling the first of a series or a book that is representative of all (or a portion) of your books to drive sales of the others in the series or same genre, maybe does.

  • http://rexkusler.com Rex Kusler

    Here is an email blast I got from Amazon on Monday promoting your book and others along with some best sellers(graphics deleted). How did you get Amazon to include your book?

    REX E KUSLER, we have recommendations for you
    E-mail or print for immediate delivery › Amazon.com Gift Cards
    Your Amazon.com Today’s Deals See All Departments

    Hi,
    From historical mysteries to hard-boiled whodunits, these popular mysteries promise red herring aplenty. Browse the best sellers below or see more mysteries Recommended for You.
    High Heels Mysteries Boxed Set (Books 1-5) [Kindle Edition]
    by Gemma Halliday
    Price: $2.99

    V is for Vengeance (Kinsey Millhone Mystery) [Kindle Edition]
    by Sue Grafton

    Price: $14.99

    Loose Ends – A Mary O’Reilly Paranormal Mystery (Book 1) [Kindle Edition]
    by Terri Reid

    Price: $0.99

    Two for the Dough (Stephanie Plum, No. 2) [Kindle Edition]
    by Janet Evanovich

    Price: $8.99

    Opal Fire (A Stacy Justice Mystery) [Kindle Edition]
    by Barbra Annino

    Price: $3.99

    Good Tidings – A Mary O’Reilly Paranormal Mystery (Book 2) [Kindle Edition]
    by Terri Reid

    Price: $2.99

    Never Forgotten – A Mary O’Reilly Paranormal Mystery (Book 3) [Kindle Edition]
    by Terri Reid

    Price: $2.99

    Set the Night on Fire [Kindle Edition]
    by Libby Fischer Hellmann

    Price: $3.82

  • http://www.libbyhellmann.com/ LibbyFischerHellmann

    Hi, Rex. I don’t get those emails so it’s nice to hear from someone who does. I have no idea how or why it was included. It’s a surprise to me… I did run a promotion on ENT recently and it did well… maybe that put it high enough in the rankings to warrant being included. But I didn’t do anything directly with Amazon.

  • http://historyweaver.wordpress.com JLOakley

    Which is why I didn’t put my novel into the Select program. I did put in a simple essay. I’ve done free through giveaways at Good Reads and in the Blog de Troops which was a good cause, in my opinion. I’m just letting my book grow by hand to hand selling in book stores, libraries and talks, but the sales show up on Amazon. Definitely picked up after a great PW Select Review.

  • http://www.jenniferlynnalvarez.com/ Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

    It scares me too. I have held firm and not enrolled my book, The Pet Washer, in KDP Select. One reason is that I don’t appreciate the demand that I un-publish my book at Barnes and Noble (via Smashwords). If we all do this, Amazon will be a monopoly for ebooks which could further rob of us of our clout and choices.

    Secondly, I agree that people who snatch up loads of free books may not have purchased those same books. Because they didn’t research the book or possibly even read the blurb, they may not enjoy it when they finally read it. This can lead to bad reviews.

    I’ve heard of authors already getting bad reviews from readers who didn’t even purchase the book. If I’m going to get a bad review, I at least want the sale!

    I downloaded a free book myself and now I forgot why and I’m sure I’ll never read it. So I also don’t think these hoarders are a huge threat–but we should all “hold the line” and refuse to give away our art for free.

    Readers will pay for a book they like, they will read it and they are more likely to post a positive review.

    My thoughts, Jen

  • http://wahoocorner.blogspot.com David

    Hi Libby,

    Really interesting post. It raised some issues I had not considered. But like you, I am hooked — My book, which had totally tanked in the last few months, had 25,000 downloads this past Wed. and Thurs.

    It switched back to Paid early Friday, and now it’s #79 in the store. I figure we have to take advantage of whatever opportunities are presented to us. Whatever happens, no one can take away the success my book has now had, and that can only be a good thing, right?

    • http://www.libbyhellmann.com/ LibbyFischerHellmann

      Agreed. And I debated whether to post this at the risk of sounding like a sore winner. But, like everything else in this industry these days, it probably won’t last, and soon we’ll be chasing the next bright shiny thing.

  • http://ljsellers.com ljsellers

    I’ve had similar experience and similar fears. I’ve done my last giveaway for a while, and I’m waiting to see if the wider readership develops and sustains me. Good luck to all of us.

  • JD

    My experience as a “success” story with Amazon KDP is yes, there are benefits, all mentioned here, but there’s also an ugly side that has to do with the psychology of the bargain hunters, particularly this one group of “regulars” on the Amazon Kindle forums who hate — and I mean hate — indie authors. They scope out the freebies looking for anything they can glom onto. Too many positive reviews? They must be fake or all from friends and family. A response you made in the comments section of a review? Who does this author think she is talking back to readers? An extra paragraph space, the mention of a blog? The author is lazy and what’s with all these bloggers thinking that they’re real writers?

    They glommed onto me. Prior to their involvement in my book — which none of them had read — my ratings were good and my reviews and comments were constructive. Afterward, my comments section filled with vitriol about me, the person, and had nothing to do with my book — which they promised never to buy and to warn all their friends against. All of the sudden, I started getting 1 and 2 star reviews and all my 4 and 5 star reviews began getting voted down. And some of these Amazon forum readers are Vine reviewers. I suspect some have more than one account.

    And my book, professionally edited and received well prior to being made a target of the Amazon Kindle board groupies (in the Romance section nonetheless, and my book wasn’t a romance) suffered. Yes, I sold more. I also noticed a very sharp increase in returns after one of the truly fake 1-star reviewers (it’s fake, I think, when you download a book with the intention of slamming it) suggested others should get a refund.

    This group of about 10 delights in destruction and they have created all sorts of “rules” they believe authors should follow and woe to those who refuse to dwell in the lowly space they’ve assigned to indie authors.

  • http://Www.indietainment.org Kerri

    I don’t see the difference between a person who only downloads (borrows) free ebooks and one who only ever goes to the library. I often get more books than I will ever read from the library. So what?

    I don’t think many book lovers are going to ONLY download free ebooks, and if they do, well maybe they’re just broke.

    I think people want what they want when it comes to reading. Not just whatever they can get for nothing. I usually check the library, then three used book store, then the new book store. Whatever I love from the library gets bought for friends and family at Christmas time.

  • http://www.antellus.com Theresa M. Moore

    When I looked over the details I said immediately “this is not for me.” Most of you have to understand that when I was younger I gave away a lot of my writing for free, and wrote for fan newsletters for free. When I got older I decided that I would no longer give stuff away for free. So I enrolled in KDP (when it was DTP) and began to sell ebooks. The price for ebooks on Amazon has been driven down so low that it doesn’t matter if the ebook is free anymore; remember that an ebook sold on Amazon is meant to be a loss leader for the Kindle. The price is actually a license fee for the ebook download and it can be yanked anytime Amazon feels like it. This is different from actually selling the ebook. It’s true that Amazon’s selling program has brainwashed its members to expect free ebooks. But since I’m not in the business of giving them away I’ve seen my sales ranking drop. Let’s face it: using Amazon as a model for selling ebooks is a disaster waiting to happen. When authors realize that the lending program will not earn them any more cache’ they will stop using it, and the customers will have to look elsewhere for free books.

  • http://www.maryannwrites.com Maryann Miller

    Very interesting points on both sides of this issue. Thanks, Libby, for starting the discussion.

    I agree with JD that I am more concerned about some of the people in the forums, etc, who seem to take it upon themselves to badmouth a writer because of some perceived infraction. I think they are representative of a lot of readers who are also in the “I’ll wait until it’s free” camp. They are assuming more power within the buying end of this business and I find it a little scary. They are sometimes unreasonable in their demands and seem to have no respect for authors. Without respect, they will take advantage whenever they can.

  • http://shevi.blogspot.com Shevi

    I was wary of the KDP select program from the start, although for a slightly different reason.

    When ebooks are free, people have very little reason not to take them. That means the numbers can be played by terrible writers who are willing to reward people for downloading (borrowing, whatever) the e-book for free.

    The way this work is quite simple. Let’s say writer Mary Mumble has written a truly unreadable novelette. It’s 80 pages of absolute drivel.

    Now let’s say Mary Mumble goes on Twitter and says she will give away a $50 gift certificate when her book is a #1 Amazon download. All you have to do to enter her contest is RT this tweet. Pretty soon Mary Mumbles’ piece of garbage in #1, she’s made over a thousand dollars, and all it cost her was one $50 gift card.

    Don’t think this isn’t happening, because it is. You see it all the time on Twitter, writers advertising free downloads with contests and without any indication of what the book is about or even what its genre is. Because it doesn’t matter, not to the writer and not to the people who will be purchasing the book–or rather the chance to win the $50 gift card–for free.

    So those who are willing play the numbers will sell more books and make more money than those who just want to write and sell good books.

    One indication that someone has done this is when the early reviews are all five stars and the most recent reviews are all one starts. The five star reviews either came from family and friends or people who could somehow be persuaded to write a five star review. The other reviews are from people who feel like they’ve been had. But this is more likely to happen when the book isn’t free, because people are less likely to feel cheated if they didn’t pay for something.

    Thank you for giving me another very good reason not to join the KDP Select program. You’re right. If you want your book to be read, you don’t really need freebie junkies downloading your book for free and thinking nothing of it, and I really want my books to be read.

  • http://tonidwiggins.com Toni Dwiggins

    I just came off a two-day freebie promo, with Book Two in a series. Had 10K downloads. Also had an unexpected boost for Book One in the series (not free). During the promo I got over 200 sales of that book (as opposed to 3-4 sales per day pre-promo).

    That said, I take the concerns voiced here seriously. I’ll be watching (and ducking) for those one-star reviews.

  • http://boomersandbooks.wordpress.com/ Lee Sinclair

    I have a completely different perspective about what’s going on. My impression is that Amazon is using the carrot approach to convince Indie writers to act in a way that benefits both sides. The KDP Select program is Amazon’s response to the thousands and thousands of ebooks that were already being offered for free elsewhere, which essentially forced Amazon to match this price. It was Indie authors who were creating the problem of too many free books, not Amazon. Price-matching free ebooks costs Amazon money without providing very much benefit for them. The KDP Select program limits the number of days the book can be offered for free, which I’m sure Amazon hopes will result in more actual sales which earn them actual money. Plus of course the free loan program can be used as one of the benefits for their Prime Customers.

    In the short run, this may result in more free books because there were some people like myself who did not use other outlets to force Amazon to price match. Now I can offer my book for free for a short period of time, if I want. But in the long run, this may reduce the number of free books available if enough Indie authors take advantage of the program and use the free days as marketing tools rather than simply have their books free all the time.

    Amazon has used this carrot approach in the past with Indie authors when they added the new royalty plan as an option. They wanted to encourage everyone to price their books at $2.99 or more rather than $.99. The new plan did increase the amount Amazon made per book by a small amount, but the majority of the increase went to the author.

    I’m not trying to suggest they’re doing these things out of the kindness of their heart or anything. Like all businesses, their goal is to make money and expand their market share. But they have also offered some really great opportunities to Indie authors that simply didn’t exist before, at least not with the same reach that Amazon can provide.

  • http://BlytheAyne.com/blog Blythe Ayne

    A couple of random thoughts–Not only are book give-aways/book sales continuing to (predictably) recede after Christmas, but, well, February is a shorter month. So if the pot is $600K, that’s still a fair piece of change more than December’s $500K.

    Second thought–Publishers both large and small give away cases of books where book buyers congregate–book seller conventions, genre cons, and the like. The cost of those books come from somewhere (the author’s bottom line). Giving away a few virtual cases of ebooks to book buyers seems essentially the same business tactic, (although a very different type of population).

    If we are both the artist (author) and business manager (publisher) then we develop both talents and skills, and, hopefully, devise a business model that works best for our product, giving away just as many books as appears to improve business. Or none at all, if it seems more appropriate. We now have the power to make that choice. No one else is making it for us.

  • http://www.rosentrevithick.co.uk Rosen Trevithick

    I’m slightly alarmed by the sheer strength of the advantage of joining KDP Select.

    My success as a writer – my livelihood in fact, depends on my Amazon rank.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the great results that I’d had, but it feels very volatile.

    The programme can’t keep giving. Eventually there will be thousands of new select members each week, and we can’t all end up in the top 100 every time.

  • http://westcritic.blogspot.com/ Nick West

    As someone who likes to paid for my work, I understand your argument.

    However, perhaps these are the same people that would just go to the library in ages past?

    As long as I’ve been alive, books have been available for free if I wanted them. This doesn’t seem like a new phenomenon. Just a new way of achieving the same goal.

    • http://www.libbyhellmann.com/ LibbyFischerHellmann

      Good point, except that libraries do buy the books that are then borrowed. So there’s some money changing hands.

  • http://www.hauntedcomputer.com Scott Nicholson

    Good assessment. But I think we are all quite clear on where this is headed. But it is going to happen with or without us.

    Scott Nicholson

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