My new little book, Left by the Side of the Road: Characters without a Novel, appeared as a free offer on Kindle for three days last week. I put it there deliberately to test some of the theories that are currently floating around the internet. Here's what I found out:
Q: Is it true that publishing a "book-a-year" is no longer enough? Are our readers demanding extra books, even if they are nothing more than long short stories?
A: The importance of this practice may have been exaggerated. From what I could tell, the people who downloaded my free book of short stories were those who had already read Beyond All Price. For them, perhaps the small offering between the publication of major books was welcome. But I do not see that it attracted many new readers. Readers who did not already know me and my work yawned and went elsewhere. Would I do it again? Probably not, unless, as this time, I already had a body of work that needed a chance at publication. I would not write something new just to fill up a couple of months between publications.
Q: Does offering free copies of e-books for a few days really spark sales and boost the book's rankings?
A: No and Yes. Unlike the viral fever that hit Beyond All Price a year ago and kept copies selling for a month after the free offer expired, this offer ended and so did sales. And while the rankings went up during the course of the free offer, they too plummeted when the freebies ended.
Suspiciously so. During the second day, downloads drove the book up the rankings until it reach #16 in Historical Fiction. When the sale ended, it was no longer even on the chart. As for the overall ranking number, it was something like 1,187 during the sale and around 265,000 within three hours of the end of the sale. That would suggest that during the wee hours of the night, 265,000 other books sold more than the several hundred downloads that Left by the Side of the Road had accumulated. That's pretty unlikely.
So what was going on? I see this as strong confirmation of a rumor that has been circulating--Amazon used to count free downloads the same as sales. Now they do so only during the sale period. Then they discount downloads at a high ratio. I've heard 1 to 10 and 1 to 100.
If the sale had any effect at all, it was not on the ranking of the new book, but rather on increased sales of my older books. Those numbers doubled and tripled for a few days.
Q: What about the relatively new Kindle Select program? Will people really "borrow" books that they could buy for a couple of bucks?
A: Not that I can see. This is my second test of that theory, both times using small book titles that I regarded as extras. None of them got a single borrow. And why should they? Amazon Prime customers can borrow only one book a month for free. If I were in their position I'd save that borrowing privilege for the most expensive books on their list, not one I could buy for a few dollars. And if I ever decided to offer another book as a Kindle Select, I'd make sure that it's original price was high enough to make borrowing financially beneficial.
Q: And finally, what are the consequences of giving Amazon exclusive sales rights over a new book?
A: Coincidentally, just yesterday, I received my quarterly royalty payment from Smashwords. It includes purchases made on all the other platforms -- Apple, Nook, Kobo, Sony, etc. I was shocked to see how many e-books had sold over on Barnes and Nobles Nook -- many more than I sold in the same period on Amazon.
If you list a book on Kindle Select, you can not sell it anywhere else for 90 days, and in my case, ninety days of sales on Nook could amount to several hundred dollars lost. Is it worth it? Not that I can see. I'm committed, I'm afraid, to leave Left by the Side of the Road on Kindle Select for another two months, but after than, I will not be using it again.
These are not definitive statements, and my testing method was pretty unscientific. However it confirmed something I've been suspicious of for some time. It may no longer be possible to "game" Amazon into making your book an instant best-seller. Nothing succeeds better than good old-fashioned time and effort.