Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

The Free Dilemma: Kindle Select, No-Price Sales, & New Readers

Hey, right now, my pre-/post-9/11 time-travel novel, The Prodigal Hour is free for Kindle.

I have to be honest with you: I have absolutely no idea how to feel about that.

A lot of authors are doing free promotions right now. They enroll in the newly popular Kindle Select publishing program, wherein their work becomes digitally exclusive to the Kindle platform. I take no umbrage with that; from an experiential perspective, Amazon and Jeff Bezos seem to get this digital thing in a way that Barnes & Noble and Riggio and Lynch do not, and I anticipate the latter had a great run in the print publishing industry but will ultimately become digital also-rans.

Free promotions can have sensational results. The Kindle platform is wonderfully open to the point of chaotic. The problem inherent in any system literally everyone has access to is that literally everyone has access to it, and while the signal-to-noise ratio is not quite as skewed toward the latter on Amazon as it is on Twitter and the rest of the internet, well, it could be well on its way already. In any such system, standing out can become difficult, and one way to do so is to ascend the rankings system, which seems to be based almost entirely on real-time sales in a way no bestseller list in the history of the world has ever been. People browse those rankings like they used to browse book shelves, because that’s what people do. They know what they like and look for similar things, just a little different.

And when people see new books among those rankings and download them, that becomes part of an algorithm Amazon seems to use as part of its recommendation engine. You know the one I mean: “People who bought The Da Vinci Code also bought The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” That sort of thing. Sometimes Amazon is a little more manipulative in their word choice: “Customers who enjoyed Neil Gaiman books also enjoyed Terry Pratchett” is a very different sort of recommendation, based on what people liked moreso than what they bought. As such, maybe how customers ranked books comes into play.

I’m not sure, and Amazon doesn’t want to say. They provide mostly realtime tracking when it comes to sales, and Lord knows they pay both well and on time, but when it comes to their own sales they remain deliberately and sometimes frustratingly coy. They’re notorious for never talking about how many Kindles or Kindle Fires they’ve sold, using vague numbers like “Millions of people have Kindles,” or “Customers bought over 1 million Kindle Fires every week during the weeks leading up to Christmas,” but they’re never as precise as Apple’s 20 Million iPads shipped.

Now I don’t know if 20 million people have Kindles. I don’t even know if 20 million people read books anymore, not when both print runs and paperback sales seem to be declining year over year. I’d like to think that the explosion of e-books and digital reading has made up for it, and it might actually do so in the next few years. I will continue to hope it does, at least, if only because I am a storyteller and that makes a good story: a period of troubling times before a hopeful and satisfying resolution.

At least I hope I know what makes a good story. Several years ago I packed my car and drove to one of the top schools in the country to study stories and their mechanics, to understand better what goes on both on the page and before it. I studied structure and plotting, pacing and character, POV and dialog. I attended classes taught by titans of the writing community as part of a lineage that one could trace back to Faulkner and Brackett, Chandler and Selby and Yates, and to fulfill the requirements of that program I had to demonstrate the craft I had learned by producing a work worthy of it.

The Prodigal Hour was that work.

Which is why I have mixed feelings about offering it for free. I put a lot of hard work over several years into the novel, and that’s something I’ve seen a lot of arguments regarding either free or low-priced novels consider: people wonder if 99 cents is too low as a price for a novel. Several authors have made a considerable amount of money from doing so, but those original people are quick to point out authors could make more. A dollar or two more for every sale!

(Truthfully, no price is too low for a bad novel. And a good novel? What’s the value of changing someone’s life?)

But then again, I wonder, did I put all that work in, over several years, to get paid?

Truth be told, I didn’t. I always said I wanted to sell a go-jillion copies of my books, but I always said that because books sold is–or maybe was–just a concrete demonstration and measurement that something one has created has connected with readers. Compensation for work is important, but I come back to a question of motivation and why I wrote The Prodigal Hour, and why I write in general.

And I don’t write what I love to get paid. I do write to get paid, and I get paid decently well, but it’s not the writing I love. I enjoy my day job, but the writing I love is the stories and essays and novels I write for a completely different effect. And when I write what I love, I really don’t necessarily want to sell a go-jillion copies as much as I want to reach–and move–a go-jillion readers.

Because I think I can.

And that’s pretty cool.

I don’t think The Prodigal Hour will be free for very long. I used to say that about special 99-cent sales, but this is different, as I’m very much restricted by Amazon to five days out of every 90 and I’m not even sure I’ll use all those, either. Letting people download The Prodigal Hour for free has already attracted more readers in a single morning than over the new year so far. That’s pretty awesome.

If you’re one of those new readers, thank you. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I do. If you’re a reader who’s been around a while, thank you, too.


  1. Good article, Will. I wish you the best of the luck with this experiment. I think some people get freaked out because they get the notion that whatever you do today is what you’ll ALWAYS do and it somehow ends up on your permanent record. Take a deep breath, people. If your book gets noticed, then you can call your experiment a success, right?

    Anyhow, you brought up one point that not enough people pay attention to. Everyone knows print sales were/are in sharp decline. The hard data is there. No arguments. The question is, are people reading less? That’s the question the big publishers and bookstores aren’t asking themselves, and I wonder if they aren’t because the answer might tell them what they don’t want to hear. Namely, sales are in decline because book prices are too high. I don’t know about anyone else, but in the county where I live (pop: about 500k) the over a dozen library branches do booming business every day. We have several used book stores, including one that is a quasi-chain, and they are thriving. Every one of my friends who has purchased an ereader in the past year reports reading more and BUYING more. When we natter on facebook, we’re as likely to chat about books as we are about tv or movies. With the ereaders, it’s, “You have to read this. It’s only $4. (or it’s on sale)” Okay, brb, okay, bought it. Another thing not being taken into account, the population is growing older. We older folks don’t want THINGS cluttering up the house, needing regular dusting, giving the kids an excuse to nag us about our hoards. A few years ago, I purged thousands of books. My new rule was, one book into the house, one book has to go out. That significantly cut down on my book buying. With an ereader, there are no space constraints.

    So, way I see it about indies experimenting with price points and free offers. If you have the nerve for it, go for it. Every book read has a ripple effect. You aren’t giving away one book. You’re giving away a book to somebody who has friends or blog readers or family members. Every book read ups your chance of landing on someone’s must-buy list.

    Good luck.

  2. I think that’s a great point about sales and readers, Jaye. I’m a voracious reader, but with extraordinarily rare exception I just can’t bring myself to spend more than $7 or so on an e-book. I think ten bucks is egregious.

    I also think a lot more people are reading even more than ever before. I know I am.

    And thanks! Here’s hoping! Currently, The Prodigal Hour has cracked the top 100 Kindle Fiction books. Hanging tight there at the bottom, but hey, it’s on the list, and that’s pretty huge. It’s #1 on the science fiction list alongside George R. R. Martin. Which I think rocks the house.

  3. I did the free promotion via the Kindle Select program and I’m very happy with it. I scheduled my promotion to start after Christmas (hoping to take advantage of all the new Kindles unwrapped that day) and had thousands of downloads for each book. Of course, I’d prefer to make money on them, but it was a chance to get the books in new hands. During the promotion, the blog book hit #1. When the promotion ended, my downloads didn’t stop, and it lists now anywhere between 20 and 50 in its category. I’ve been selling steadily (daily, each book) every day. I’ve also seen an increase in borrows from the Kindle Lending Library. I have more projects in the works and I think the free promotion helped elevate my fan base, readership, etc. (I got more 5-star reviews and “likes” on Amazon and more fans on both books’ Facebook pages and my author profile) and I think that will help the sales of future books, which is really the ultimate goal.

    Great piece, Will. Being alongside George R.R. Martin is huge. 🙂

  4. I downloaded The Prodigal Hour, but was already reading Meets Girl (97% done as train pulled into station this morning–holy cow, what a book!), so I haven’t started it yet. I’m just getting ready to put up a free short story, and looking forward to seeing how that goes. I agree that a free download is almost never a sale lost, and with multiple titles might even lead to more sales. Whether or not, I’m having illegal amounts of fun, and I’m bound to learn something.

  5. Thanks Nina. And yes, totally agreed on the ultimate goal. I’m interested in seeing how this continues. Feels like this is the start of finding out. Like, it’s great for downloads, but how will impact things down the line. That’s what I’m wondering now.

    And awesome, Bridget. Sounds like you enjoyed Meets Girl. If you have the time to leave a review for either when you’re finished, well, they only help! I’ll definitely look out for your story.

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