Today begins the final free promotion ever of my time travel novel The Prodigal Hour. This week, you can get it free from Amazon for its Kindle platform (which you can read on anything–iPhone, iPad, Android phone, Android tablet, Barnes and Noble’s Nook et al.), and with no DRM, which means you can convert the Kindle file you download to an ePub or html file or whatever you’d like, really. As always, you can find it right here.

And if you’d prefer the print version, you can purchase the paperback at that same link, and you’ll get a copy of the ebook free with Amazon’s brilliant new Matchbook program. Same goes for Meets Girl.

This is the last time you’ll be able to get The Prodigal Hour free, because at the end of October, it–along with all other Exciting Press titles–will move away from Amazon’s KDP Select program, at least for the foreseeable future. If you’re wondering why, head past the break to read some more publishing/Amazon/free discussion. If you just want the books, follow those links and have at them, and please enjoy.

In November 2011, I enrolled a Choose Your Own Investigation short story (then-titled Jamais Plus and now titled Raven Noir into the then-brand-new Kindle Direct Publishing Select program. In exchange for 90 days worth of exclusivity to Amazon, I’d get the ability to offer the book free for five of those days, and give readers a chance to borrow the book.

It was a no-brainer then. At the time, I was using Nook and Amazon, and had used Smashwords to some degree to distribute elsehwere–including the iBookstore and Kobo. Thing was, I was seeing sales from Amazon but basically from nowhere else whatsoever. Even when my collection was available–again, through Smashwords everywhere and then for Kindle–and available for free, I saw very few sales from those other channels.

(That’s not to say other writers don’t. That was my experience of them. Other writers are using Smashwords to great effect right now.)

So when Amazon announced KDP Select, I wanted to try it. The exclusivity made me a bit wary, so I figured I’d use a title that already was Amazon exclusive (and may always be). Because it’s a Choose Your Own Investigation story, the html file of Raven Noir was complicated, and I created it specifically for Kindle. I don’t know if it will work as well as an ePub, mostly because I’ll be honest I’m not nearly as proficient at coding ePub as I am at coding html/using MobiPocket. So I enrolled Raven Noir, and almost immediately used a free promotion, and watched it rise up its charts while reaching hundreds of new readers.

Which was pretty awesome.

Not long after, I decided I was going to do the same with all my books, and toward the middle of 2012 managed to convince the authors I was working with through Exciting Press to enroll their books as well. After getting that go-ahead, I pulled all Exciting books from Nook and enrolled everything into KDP Select, and immediately started an official Exciting calendar and free promotions. Through simple math, once you get 18 books into KDP Select you can manage to offer at least one free every day, indefinitely, and once Nick Earls embraced the idea, we easily had that.

Now, free isn’t a business model, but it can be a marketing strategy when used deliberately, which I very much tried to do. We alerted free-book listing sites when a title was coming up, and in general we saw very good results. Some titles and promotions were more successful than others, and some managed to maintain steady movement even after the promotions had ended such that they resulted in sales and made some cash. That was always nice. In fact, a large percentage of Exciting Press’ starting capital came from a free promotion of The Prodigal Hour in early 2012.

And in my experience, free was a good marketing strategy for a long time, but has become less so.

I think this is generally because more authors are using the strategy than ever before, or at least were for several months; I think more are moving away from it, because they’re looking at the KDP Select results and realizing it’s not as effective as it once was. Books that used to get several hundred downloads last year are getting half that this year–and in my experience that’s been true pretty much across the board.

More authors began to independently publish their books, and more began to use Select and offer those books for free. I think more submitted those books to sites that highlighted them.

I don’t think it’s a matter of market saturation. By this I mean, I don’t think that a book’s exhausted its potential market after a few free promotions because several thousand people have download it. Mainly because I think the general potential reading audience is nearly always underestimated, and rarely fully tapped.

Beginning this year, I noticed that those downloads had decreased. Even for new titles which had never been free before. And I’ll be honest: that whole borrowing option was never really a factor for either me or Exciting Press. I saw a few borrows over time, but compared to sales and downloads they were negligible.

By then, I’d already begun to talk to our authors about iBooks. By the end of October last year, Apple had dropped its requirement that books in the iBookstore needed ISBNs, which was good, and Apple allows authors to list a book completely free, which was awesome (Amazon doesn’t. Through Kindle Direct Publishing, authors have to set a minimum price of at least 99c). When I found this out, I started talking to Nick about making his work available there. Nick’s always been great about being open to new strategies and possibilities, and he was happy to do it. So we enrolled two free stories (Welcome to Normal and All Those Ways of Leaving), and then got his novel Perfect Skin there. We’re also now in the Kobo store with Darren Groth’s Kindling (and more on the way). So now there’s an even better way to approach free; rather than 5 days out of 90, one can choose a single title, one great reading hook, and offer it free always.

I think these are good developments, and I think it’s wonderful to be reading at a time when the developments are happening so quickly. Amazon still provides the best experience overall for readers, but Apple is now doing a great job competing with them more effectively. I think beginning tomorrow and through the end of the year we’re going to hear a lot more discussion about iBooks and the iBookstore, and I think there are going to be even more options for both readers and authors. That can’t be a bad thing.