Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

How Free Affects New Publishing

At the time of this writing, The Prodigal Hour is free on Kindle and has, in a day and a half, been downloaded more than 2000 times, and it currently ranks alongside George R.R. Martin’s latest novel atop Kindle’s list of top science fiction.

And me? I’m stunned.

I’m sure, in the next few hours, it’s going to pass 2500 downloads, and will probably reach three thousand by the time this post publishes. Two thousand people with my novel, something I wrote, downloaded to their Kindles or iPhones or iPads or Fires or PCs or Macs or whatever they’re choosing to read on.

This is only the second day of the free promotion. If I just leave it go, how many downloads might there be? Five thousand? Ten?

These numbers, and the fact that we’re very much talking about downloads here—and not sales—are causing much fretting among independent authors taking advantage of the free promotion enrolling in Kindle Select allows.

Me? A little less so, and there are several reasons for that. Mostly, they come down to numbers.

One major reservation—and one I indirectly addressed yesterday—is the most important caveat that downloads are unequal to sales. If this were math, we’d have one of those slashed-through equal signs. Downloads are free. With The Prodigal Hour priced at $4.99, I make $3.49 from every sale, and for you non-math-majors out there (like me), that’d be just shy of $7000.

But it’s not really lost income. That’s a hypothetical ideal, and that’s not what my sales levels have been like. They’ve been steady, but I haven’t been so interested in blockbuster numbers; this is a long game. So I didn’t make $7000 from 2000 downloads of my novel.

But I did get a lot of exposure. See:

It’s got people talking. I’ve seen The Prodigal Hour crop up in various forums. A few mentions here and there. It all adds up.

The people who seem to follow free e-book offers on Kindle are folks actively engaged in reading, and who visit forums and who read and write and tweet and blog and talk about books they’ve liked.

Talk about that ever-elusive word-of-mouth . . .

I wouldn’t call downloads lost sales, or fret much about how many there are. Amazon’s noted it sold more than a million Kindle Fires every week during those leading up to Christmas, so that’s at least 5 million Kindle Fires, and that’s on top of all the other Kindles out there in the world, and that’s on top of 23 million iPads, and however many millions of iPhones and iPod Touches and Android phones and . . .

There’s no shortage here. So even if ten thousand people download The Prodigal Hour, that’s, what, 1% of 1% of potential readers? Millions of people downloaded and read Larsson and Meyer and Locke and Hocking.

Given a good book in a seemingly inexhaustible market, I’ve been wondering if it might be worthwhile to think of free Kindle downloads as the new independent version of publishers’ advanced reading copies. For years, publishers have produced advanced copies of upcoming novels to distribute to various media; I think that the size of the campaign—in terms of books printed and media contacted—depends on the book in question and the marketing push a publisher wants to put behind it.

It made sense when people bought all their books in chain bookstores. And when people didn’t have access to information except in the local or national newspaper or on television.

That era is pretty much over.

Independent authors don’t have access to that system. Most major media publications, and many besides who aren’t “major,” refuse books they call “self-published.” Many book bloggers do, too, which always tends to surprise me; one would think that independent book reviewers would be more accepting of independent authors, but that’s a digression.

Even if major media publications were open to such submissions, the space they have for reviews is limited, and even books from other major media corporations don’t get reviewed.

Further, many book sellers use a business model that excludes independent authors (and sometimes those from small presses, as well). So even if major media publications accepted and reviewed books from independent authors, most booksellers wouldn’t stock them to sell them (this has mainly to do with their ability to return books to publishers, and I’m not even going to go into how dumb I think returns are).

But as that era of bookselling ends—as reading and writing and stories become more open—new models are emerging. Now that the internet and social media platforms are making it so that we can all connect far more easily, books on shelves may be less valuable than books shared by friends. We know who we trust, and by and large we trust those we know—for varying definitions of the word—moreso than people we’ve never met.

So maybe a really good way to think of a free promotion is as the independent version of printing 1000 advanced reading copies to give not to booksellers or major media publications but rather to readers. Real readers who actively sought it out to read and who looked at it and thought it might interest them, and who might read it and in turn write about it, and tell their friends . . .

I think that’s pretty cool.

As I’ve written this post, I’ve had to go back to adjust numbers; I started writing it when only 1800 people had downloaded it, and by the time I completed it, another 600 found it (I wrote it over the course of several hours while at work writing other things). I’ve considered ending the promotion early, but like I said, given an inexhaustible market, even if 100,000 people downloaded my novel, that still leaves room for 900,000 more before I’d join the Kindle million club, after all, so why not go for broke?


  1. Exposure is right! For as long as you and I have preached to fellow independent authors about investing in review copies to pass out, those days are over too. And all it costs us was time – the time writers like you and me spent watching the number of downloads increase and our books climbing the charts! I don’t regret doing a 5 day free promo at all. The exposure was totally worth it and I’ve already seen an increase in sales which I can definitely say I owe to running the free promo. Congrats again, Wil!

  2. Thanks, Shannon. Now a few days later, I’ve seen an increase in sales, too, but then again, it would have been difficult for sales to have not increased. Let’s just hope they stay there. I’d rather consistently sell pretty well than have a few great days here and there, I think. A career is built on the former, arguably. And congrats on your success, too!

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