Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What Happened to Free?: Change or Die Pt 2

In this, the second of my Change or Die posts for authors, I will address the subject of free ebooks.

In the mid 90s the cutest tiny plush toy began getting a foothold in the hearts of Americans.  You could find these little devils in office cubicles, on coffee tables, and even on car dashboards.  Beanie Babies came on the scene very quickly.  Suddenly everyone had one.  People lusted after the newest characters when they were released.  The tiny plush toys were only sold in small card and gift shops.  It wasn't uncommon back then to see little cardboard signs in gift shop windows touting "Beanie Babies In Stock."  That's because Beanie Babies seemed to be always out of stock.  And when a store got their hands on a tiny shipment, they were sold out within hours.  People waited in lines; people offered bribes to shop owners to let them know when a knew shipment was about to arrive.  America had simply gone crazy over Beanie Babies.

Enterprising companies began making knock-offs of the characters.  Not so much counterfeits (although there were many) but similar products that could be sold in larger department stores.  At first these knew knock-offs surged in popularity.  Beanie Baby-like plush toys were in abundance in my city of LA.  Yet after a few months, the knock-offs fell out of favor.  During this surge in knock-off popularity the Beanie Baby company (Ty) never veered from their business model: only make a few, only sell them in small stores.  They did not succumb to the urge to make more babies.  This strategy propelled Ty to become a tiny empire worth more than $ 6 billion.  Ty realized larger companies could have better designs, cheaper labor, better pricing, and easy availability.  Ty couldn't compete on that level, so they stuck with the only thing had going for them--scarcity.

Early in 2011 many authors began touting their success with Amazon's KDP program.  This program allowed them to give a book a away for free on Amazon for a few days.  The end result was always a wave of sales.  Free is a great marketing tool, and these early adaptors used it to rack up big sales.  By March there were over 3000 free ebooks on Amazon on any given day, as authors who'd heard about the free bonanza flocked to Amazon's KDP in hopes of big sales.

I heard about the program in April.  I begged my publisher to try it with one of my books for the summer.  In June we enrolled Boyfriend From Hell in the KDP program, and in our first giveaway we gave away over 10,000 free ebook copies... and sure enough, when we put the book back up for sale, my sales climbed.  I didn't achieve the amazing results I'd heard about, but it was good.  In a month, however, my sales had dropped back to their normal level.  We gave the book away again in August with less than stellar results.  In September my new publisher (Imajin) gave away my then new book, The Zombie Always Knocks Twice to disastrous results.  I'm sure the book and our marketing plan was part of the problem, but the real problem was clutter.  By June there were over 5000 free ebooks available on Amazon on any given day.  As of this past Monday there were 5587 free ebooks on Amazon.  647 new books were added since the day before.  Almost 700 new people were screaming "download my free book" on Monday. And guess what?  Most of them had disastrous results.  The 32 books that had 18 or more 4.0 + reviews made it onto a list.  The others didn't and probably won't.  Welcome to the world of the cluttered marketplace.

Are the days of free over? No, not by a long shot.  Free is a great marketing tool. But with at least 6 websites posting their free ebooks of the day each morning, it's hard to get seen through the clutter.  It's hard, but not impossible.  In my next post I'll tell you how to take a tip from the Beanie Baby company to distinguish your next free giveaway and make it more valuable. 


The statistics come from my publisher, White Whisker Books, who got them from Anthony Wessel at Digital Book Today.


  1. Looking forward to the next post!

  2. Love the post! Being a book blogger I would have to agree that the marketplace is overly saturated with free books these days. It makes it harder to determine which ones to grab, so I try to rely more on the publishers and my gut feeling of the author to make my choices.

    I am curious though, did your "study" also take into account the related purchases after a free book offering? For instance, I was one of those lucky people that grabbed a free copy of your book Boyfriend from Hell. :-) Once I read it, I immediatly went one and purchased the rest of the series. It seems like offering a free copy of a first book in a series would tend to generate greater sales for the rest of the series, and in the end would create a "win" situation.

    I look forward to your next post as well!

    1. I agree. But we must find new ways of attracting readers to the first book in a series. I was one of the lucky ones who gave away more than 10,000 free downloads of Boyfriend From Hell with my first KDP giveaway. Today, a fairly new author will have a hard time reaching that number... unless he/she can help readers find a way around the clutter in the marketplace.

  3. This is so interesting to me. As an author who hasn't had a book up for free as of yet, I haven't been able to experiment with this for myself.
    Thanks for sharing your experience with us and continuing to share your knowledge.

  4. This is funny because I'm more likely (even as a book blogger) to buy a book for 99 cents with an amazing (zingy) summary than to seek out similar books for free.
    I think the free-ness somewhat cheapens the book for me- I often pick up free books to find the author went cheap on the formatting for Kindle (randomized double space syndrome and/or horrific spelling errors), or the book has a slow start and never grabbed me when I browsed the first few pages after downloading. Or I download and forget I even have it, because I have books that I've purchased that I feel I should get to first.