Giveaway Report

Two weeks ago, I wrote about why I was giving away my latest novel as part of Amazon’s KDP Select program. Now that the offer is complete and I’ve had a week to see some results, I thought I’d share how it went and whether I think it was worthwhile.

To recap the advantages of Select, once you give ninety days of exclusivity to Amazon, your Kindle ebook can be borrowed by members of Amazon Prime as part of the Kindle Online Lending Library. Amazon has paid around $2.25 per borrow in the past, but they recently announced that, for the months of December to February, they have added a $1.5 million bonus to the normal pool of money allocated for borrows. Depending on how many additional authors enroll in KDP Select, it means the amount per borrow could go up substantially during this period (Amazon won’t report the figure for December until 2013; they always tell authors after the month is over).

The other advantage of Select is the ability to give away your book for free for up to five of those ninety days. The days don’t have to be sequential, and you can opt to use only a portion of them or none at all. For my book, The Roswell Conspiracy, I originally chose three days, December 5-7.

To promote the giveaway, I let all my fans know on Facebook and Twitter and asked them to share the information with their friends and followers. I also filled out forms on two dozen blogs that promote free books. Five of those sites ended up promoting the book during some part of the giveaway. Blogs that I didn’t solicit also picked my book to promote.

Thanks to those mentions, the free downloads did so well that I decided to extend the giveaway for the full five days in a row. The Roswell Conspiracy had risen into the free top 100 on the Kindle store, so I wanted to continue the momentum. The giveaway ended on December 9 at a number nine free overall ranking in the Kindle store, with 25,343 downloads.

I think that’s a pretty sizeable number of downloads, although it’s impossible to tell how many of those downloaders will end up actually reading the book. When I set out on this experiment, I expected the benefit to be primarily in the long term, with reviews trickling in during the coming months. I also hoped that those who read The Roswell Conspiracy would like it enough to buy my other books.

What I didn’t expect was the short-term boost. As I anticipated, the sales ranking dropped substantially from what it was before the free giveaway since I had sold zero copies on the days it was free. Despite the drop in ranking, I started to see noticeably stronger borrows and sales immediately. My theory is that Amazon’s algorithms had linked my book with all the other books that people had downloaded during that time, so that it appeared in a large number of “Customers who bought this item also bought” scrollbars. The Roswell Conspiracy was therefore seen on many more pages within the Amazon bookstore. Even though the book was no longer free, the important thing was that people could see it existed.

Because of these sales and borrows, the book’s ranking started to go up quickly (borrows seem to be accounted for in the Amazon ranking, though no one knows the secret formula). Before the giveaway, my sales ranking was hovering around 12,000. Within three days, The Roswell Conspiracy got up to the 600 range. It’s now been a week since the giveaway ended, and as I write this the ranking is 1105.

My conclusion already is that the giveaway was worth it. I’ve had enough borrows to completely make up for the income I expected to lose on Nook, iBooks, and Kobo over the next three months combined (remember Select’s exclusivity requirement). And the sales alone have already equaled my earnings from Kindle in the entire month of November. In addition, the number of reviews has increased by 50% in the last week over what the book had received in the previous four months, and they’ve been overwhelmingly positive.

I don’t know if this boon will continue. One downside of using up all my free days at once is that I can’t use that as a tool to juice sales during the rest of the exclusive period. If you’re thinking about enrolling in Select, remember that one anecdote doesn’t equal data. I can’t say how well this program will work for others, but I’d love to hear in the comments about positive or negative experiences from people who’ve done it before. I can tell you that I’m happy I tried it.

Does Free=$$$ ?

To anyone considering self-publishing, you have to realize that you are becoming an entrepreneur. Almost any business startup requires someone to risk money upfront, and in this case it’s the author going it alone. If you go the traditional route, the publisher takes the financial risk by paying you an advance against future royalties that may never cover the expense. In addition, they print up books that may never sell and sink costs into editors, copyeditors, cover designers, and a myriad other employees whose talents might in the long run have been put to better use on other projects. So giving you a chance means taking a chance on their part. Sometimes it works out to the tune of 50 Shades of Gray, and sometimes it means taking a bath on the entire deal.
When you go the self-publishing direction—whether it’s by choice or because it’s the only option left as it was for me—you are now the one taking the financial risk. You can certainly edit your own book, proof it yourself for typos, design your own cover, format it, and post it online, but for most people that results in a substandard product, not to mention the non-trivial time you’ve spent not writing the next book that could earn you money. An alternative is to pay fees to a freelance editor, a copyeditor, a graphic artist for the cover, and someone more technically adept than you are to format the book so that it’s readable as an ebook.
So one way or another you have a quality product that you believe people will enjoy. Great! How does the book find potential readers? A traditional publisher may reach out for publicity in major newspapers, radio stations, magazines, and TV stations, as well as spend money on advertising. If you’re lucky, the publisher will put bucks into placing your book at the front of stores with a juicy “20% off” sticker slapped on the cover. Or maybe the publisher will feature your book on the splash page of Amazon or B&N’s website (yes, that online real estate is for sale).
As a self-published author, I looked into all of these options. Without going into specifics, I can tell you these kinds of promotional efforts can easily balloon into the tens of thousands of dollars. Even free publicity will cost you because you usually need to pay an experienced publicist with great connections to get featured in anything worthwhile.
Social media and blogging have been godsends to self-published authors because they are cheap ways to reach many readers. And the response can be instantaneous. If you post a popular blog or a Tweet that gets Retweeted by Justin Bieber, your book sales can spike within minutes because nothing’s easier than cruising over to the Kindle or Nook web page, particularly if there’s a link to your book.
However, those kinds of windfalls rarely happen. So that leaves what options for getting the word out about your self-published book?
Like it or not (and there have been billions of pixels spilled on this topic), last year Amazon introduced KDP Select. Kindle Digital Publishing gives you the option of enrolling in the program in exchange for ninety days of exclusivity on the Kindle platform. You get two exclusive items in return: the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library and the option to offer your book for free for five of those ninety days.
Books in the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library are available only to members of Amazon Prime, their free-shipping program. Every time your book is loaned out, you get a percentage of the pot Amazon has set aside for these authors (it has averaged around two dollars per loan in the past, but may increase for the next few months as Amazon has doubled the pot available) (note to Washington and Colorado readers: I don’t mean that kind of pot). So every loan means money for you even if the reader doesn’t buy your book.
The five free offer days are even more interesting and somewhat disconcerting for the author who has spent a year or more crafting a novel. Why should you give away the book you’ve sweat and cried and labored to produce? To build readership. I know several authors who’ve done very well with this tactic and ended up selling thousands of books after the giveaway ended. It doesn’t always work out that way, but I think it’s worth a shot. That’s why I’ve decided to offer The Roswell Conspiracy for free starting Wednesday morning (12/5/12) and ending on Friday night (12/7/12). Anyone with a Kindle can download my book for absolutely nothing, and I want as many people as possible to do so.
One reason for trying to maximize the free downloads is the whole obscurity issue. Although I’ve built up a loyal following of readers, I think the market for the type of book I write is exponentially bigger than I’m reaching. My Tyler Locke series of archaeological thrillers with a techno edge is in the same vein as some authors who sell a million copies or more in the US. I think those readers would also enjoy my books, but many of them simply don’t know I exist. Readers are more likely to try a free book from an author they’ve never heard of or read before.
The second reason is word of mouth. According to Smashwords, a third of book buyers make their decision based on the recommendation of another reader. You want to find those readers who will tout your book online or to friends and family. If, say, ten thousand people download The Roswell Conspiracy this week for free, perhaps two thousand of those people will end up reading it (you’ll find that many readers download hundreds of free ebooks, many of which wind up getting deleted before they’re ever read). Of those two thousand, if I’m very lucky half will love the book. Of those thousand people, maybe ten percent will be so ecstatic about the experience, they’ll become evangelists for the book. Give or take on my assumptions, that’s about hundred people out of ten thousand spreading the word, which is why I want as many new readers as possible.
The third reason is that readers who love one book are likely to try more books by the same author. I have four other books for readers to try, so giving away one may lead to sales of the others.
To reiterate, though, however good all the benefits sound, I am taking a calculated risk. To take advantage of the free offer, I have to give up sales through other channels (Nook, iBooks, and Kobo) as well as potential sales to readers who might have otherwise have paid for my book. In addition, The Roswell Conspiracy’s paid ranking in the store will drop during the three days it’s not on sale. Once the giveaway ends, my ranking may well have plummeted, which means I will need to build up my sales from scratch.
But that’s what it means to be an entrepreneur. I’m betting that in the long run I will find many more readers than would otherwise have heard about me. And if the risk doesn’t pay off? That’s why I’m writing the next book.

Same Book, Different Title

When my book The Tsunami Countdown came out in the UK last week, some of my Facebook fans were initially confused. They had already read a book of mine about tsunamis called Rogue Wave, so they asked me if The Tsunami Countdown was a sequel or a new book. In reality, Rogue Wave and The Tsunami Countdown are the exact same novel. The only differences are the title and cover.
Readers who have encountered this phenomenon before wonder whether it is a cheap trick to get people to buy the same book twice. They’re frustrated because they’ve already purchased Rogue Wave on Amazon UK and now Amazon is selling The Tsunami Countdownunder a totally different listing. Or perhaps they bought Rogue Wave on a trip to the US and now they’ve picked up The Tsunami Countdown thinking it was a new book, only to be disappointed to find out they’ve read it already.
So how does this happen? The problem stems from the fact that Rogue Wave is published by Simon and Schuster for the American market and The Tsunami Countdown is published by Little, Brown UK for the British and Australian markets. According to the contracts, Simon and Schuster has exclusive rights to the North American market, and Little, Brown UK has exclusive English-language rights to the rest of the world.
These two completely separate companies have their own ideas about what titles and covers work best for their markets. Technically, residents in each market should never see the other version. However, because of the Internet and jet travel, readers can encounter both versions of the book quite easily. Although the ebook version of Rogue Wave is not for sale in the UK, Amazon stocks used copies of the print version. And because Rogue Wave came out in 2010, some of my UK readers decided not to wait and hunted down a copy, even though contractually it shouldn’t be for sale in the UK.
Little, Brown UK certainly doesn’t want to dupe readers into buying my book. That’s not a good way to build long-term readership. They simply felt that The Tsunami Countdownwas a stronger title than Rogue Wavefor their market.
Readers then ask why I went along with this plan. Why didn’t I settle on one title or the other and do away with the confusion? One reason is that I, like most authors who aren’t named Stephen King or John Grisham, don’t have the final say on the title. Many readers don’t realize that publishing contracts typically give title decisions to the publisher. I will certainly object if I feel that a title is bad, but the final decision is out of my hands. In this case, I liked both titles, and I trusted the publishers to know their markets better than I do. I’ve had readers say they like one title over the other, but it hasn’t been a landslide in either direction.
For my book The Roswell Conspiracy, which I’m self-publishing in North America but which is published by Little, Brown UK everywhere else, I decided to stick with the same title and cover they chose to minimize confusion. It was a tough decision because I loved the title Silent Armageddon for that book. I think it’s evocative and captures the high stakes in the novel, but it would have meant developing a completely new cover and responding to repeated questions about why the titles were different. In the end, I decided my favored title wasn’t worth it, though I still miss it.
The irony in all this title confusion is that I originally self-published Rogue Wave/The Tsunami Countdown under a completely different title: The Palmyra Impact. If my original title had stood, none of this would be an issue, but neither of my publishers liked The Palmyra Impact because it was deemed to be too esoteric.
I understand the readers’ frustration. I try to make it clear on my website that my books with multiple titles are actually the same book. It helps, but it doesn’t solve the confusion for people who only see the book in the store. Unfortunately, it’s an idiosyncrasy of the publishing world. Just ask JK Rowling. When her first book came from the UK to the US, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stonewas re-titled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Even if my situation isn’t optimal, at least I’m in good company.