When Amazon first started the KDP (Kindle Direct Select) program in December of 2011, I was still a fresh faced recruit in the publishing world. My first novel, Accountable to None, hit the virtual shelves April 22, 2011. Since I was a newcomer with no audience yet, sales were slow.
Imagine a turtle crossing the frozen tundra in Alaska during a blizzard–that slow.
(Okay, so I know that's a turtle in the sand, but I couldn't find an actual turtle in the snow--use your imagination).
By the time the announcement of this new option from Amazon arrived in my inbox in early December, I believe the tally of total book sales was less than four hundred. I had joined a few author/reader groups on Facebook, started accounts on Twitter, Goodreads and LinkedIn, etc., and generally just stumbled my way around while I watched and tried to learn from more seasoned authors.
So, the day the offer to sign up for the KDP program arrived, I read through the email to learn more about the program. You sign up for 90 days with your book, agree to allow Amazon to be the exclusive online retailer and in exchange, allow your books to be “borrowed” by Amazon subscribers of the Prime program. For each “borrow” you are in the pot for (at the time) a share of $750,000. Plus, you get the chance to list your book for FREE for up to 5 days during each 90-day period of enrollment. Sounded like a great program to me! Unknown authors such as myself would be afforded the opportunity to get their books in front of potentially millions of Kindle users when their book went from “paid” to “free.”
What did I have to lose other than royalties from non-existent book sales, right? After a day or so of waffling back and forth, I de-listed Accountable to None from Barnes&Noble for Nook users and gave the KDP program a shot. That was sometime around the week of December 15, 2011. I decided to run my book for free for three days during the Christmas holiday with the hopes that those who were on vacation or received a new Kindle for Christmas would take a chance on me and grab a copy of my book.
And grab they did. By the time my freebie days expired, Accountable to None had been downloaded over 25,000 times in the U.S. alone. It hit #1 overall in the free store, then stayed in the Top 100 in PAID for over a week after the book was either sold or borrowed. Thousands of sales and borrows. By January 2012, sales were still hopping.
Had you posed the “to free or not to free” question to me after the above, my answer would have been YES! Look how many people were reading my book. I was ecstatic! Not only did I achieve my dream of becoming an international bestselling author but thousands of people were reading my work. Around the world. I remember sitting on the couch on Christmas morning in stunned silence. At that point, I knew my life had changed.
I was a believer in the KDP program. So, the above process was repeated when I released the sequels Zero Balance and Adjusting Journal Entries with close to the same results. Every time I logged into my Kindle account to check stats, the numbers would change by the hundreds in mere minutes. It was crazy! Then, after the hoopla of the freebie wore off, within a week or two, sales would slow once more.
On a whim, I decided to try again in December of 2012 with Accountable to None to see if I could gain the same results to help kick up sales and obtain more name recognition. This time, my hope was that even though it was free, readers would enjoy it and want to read the remaining two books in the trilogy. Sure enough, Accountable to None zoomed up the charts after being downloaded over 25,000 times (again–still am in shock over that!) to become the #1 book in the free store and sales of the other two books took off. But—and this is a huge but (no pun intended) the post-freebie sales and borrows were WAY off from the 2011 numbers. By the end of December 2012 and early January 2013, the numbers were in the hundreds, not thousands.
The pattern shifted. The staggering percentage drop of sales/borrows from 2011 to 2012 left me stunned. That was when I made the decision to pull out of the KDP program with my trilogy and offer the electronic version of the book on other sites. Sales on Barnes&Noble were slow at first but thankfully, they have picked up.
But I was not quite ready to give up on the KDP program just yet. After all, not only was my name out there because of it but reviews were popping up everywhere (even though some of them made me want to cry–not all were great) and my hope was that when I released my fiction/suspense novella, Number Seventy-Five in April of 2013, people who had read my other novels would pick it up.
That was not the case. All I heard was the drone of crickets in the background after I virtually yelled “Ta-Da–here it is!” all over every social media outlet I could think of when I released Number Seventy-Five. The dead silence left me scratching my head in confusion. What happened? I was fortunate enough to have 3 NY Times bestselling authors read and provide cover blurbs for the book, so why did the stupid crickets chirp?
I decided to try the KDP program one last time in June of 2013 with Number Seventy-Five. I even paid for advertisement on a few sites that promote KDP free days. Sure enough, it hit #1 overall in the free store after a staggering 46,000+ downloads (again, U.S. alone). Yahoo! I was so happy as I watched the numbers spin by, eagerly awaiting the inevitable deluge of “post-freebie” sales of not only Number Seventy-Five but all of my books.
The crickets chirped again....
Less than 300 sales and 250 borrows. Reviews were the ONLY plus this time. When the freebie started, I had around 20. Within three weeks, I had over 90. Then, in July, I found out that Number Seventy-Five was a finalist in the 2013 Readers’ Favorite International Book Awards for fiction/suspense. I danced for joy around the house at the news. I was ready for sales to skyrocket.
Damn crickets started chirping again...
I could not understand what happened. I knew that sales would slow once the freebie was over but never expected the sudden halt. Who slammed the brakes? I contacted other authors who were either in the program or had been at one time to discuss (okay, so I really whined) what the problem(s) could be. Had we sold our souls to the devil by limiting our audience to only those who owned a Kindle? Was the decline in sales some sort of secret backlash for only listing our books on Amazon? Was a revolt afoot by other ereader owners? Why the staggering drop in sales? The reviews were, for the most part, fantastic, and the majority written by readers who had never read any of my other books.
It’s a catch-22 situation. As an unknown, you need your name to stand out (even briefly) above the competition. You need an edge to get your work noticed. The KDP program provides that in spades to self-published authors. Unfortunately, sometimes a backlash follows. If those people who snagged a copy of your book when it was free enjoyed it, they will wait until it (or others) are listed free again. And why shouldn't they? In these difficult economic times, everyone enjoys getting something for free, including yours truly.
If you ask me today whether any of my novels are in the KDP program, the answer is no. All of my books are now available on Barnes&Noble, Kobo and Sony. While it may take me a while to reach these new audiences and sales may slow down, it’s a risk I’m willing to take. A piece of my heart and soul is inside the pages of each book I have written and I've worked too hard to continue just giving them away for free. I've invested not only my time but money as well in the design, marketing and editing of my works. The lure of gaining a fan base grabbed me in the beginning, but at what cost? The simple truth is that the royalties on 100 book sales are better than no royalties at all.
To free or not to free--that is the question. And my answer---