What's the role of free books in selling Kindles?

Now that the Kindle 3 is available direct from Amazon UK it has started putting a ton of effort into promoting it.

Three of the more obvious ways are – really cheap ebook prices for bestsellers, lots of free books, and a banner in the center/middle of the Amazon.co.uk homepage.

It brings up an interesting question – What role do public domain free books and free book offers play in getting readers to buy the Kindle 3?

Impact of Free books and Cheap Books on Kindle 3 Sales

Imagine you’re a reader in the UK waltzing along Regent Street in your Burberry Coat and oxfords and you see someone with a Kindle. The purity of reading is being violated but you’re far too polite to scream for the Police. You also have to admit you’re a bit curious.  

Definitely not buying that – how common and shallow. Wonder what it’s like.

Then you’re on the Tube because you know how traffic is at rush hour and you see 2 people reading on Kindles (that’s more than you see in a month normally). Now you’re really curious.

What’s going on here? In front of everyone? Are we forgetting the sanctity of the physical book.  

By this point you’ve decided you have to find out more. So at home, at a time when your significant other is asleep or absent so your sacrilegious behavior stays a secret, you log on to Amazon UK and read up on the Kindle and see if the books you like are available (not that you’d ever buy it – just to check).

One of the first things that you will probably notice is that the books are really cheap. 

Cheap Books make the Kindle 3 very attractive

You are bound to notice that Amazon has priced Kindle books at absolutely ridiculous prices.

If I were American I’d say that’s cheaper than a cup of coffee. Unfortunately, we already have coffee more expensive than hardcovers here.

It’s cheaper than the cost of a Tube ride from Notting Hill Gate to Angel (if you don’t have an Oyster card, that is).

Suddenly all those people carrying around Kindles seem like they’re on to something. You make a quick calculation – If you bought kindle versions of books instead of physical books then you’d probably save more than what the Kindle 3 costs in 12 months.  

The temptations the devil puts in our way.

Surely, that price is turning good men to evil. You are sorely tempted but thankfully you are reminded of the smell of books.

The Smell of Books Tax

You think back to the smell of books and all the time spent in libraries. The times you sat down by the fireplace and read some of the most wonderful books in the world. It’s a lifetime of memories wrapped up in that smell.  

I’d save a lot of money. Could I give up the smell of books? Would it be impropriety? Perhaps it’s just a little sin – easily compensated by giving a busker some loose change.

So you’re in the midst of this struggle between the pain of giving up physical books on one hand and the pleasure of cheap Kindle book prices on the other.

You decide you might as well see what books are available and what people are reading. On the Bestsellers list page you run into another Kindle advantage.

Kindle 3 has Free Books

It dawns on you that this is not such a bad thing – this concept of free books.

You mean to say there are all these free books – If I had a Kindle 3 I’d get them for free. Really? There are even 2 that seem mildly interesting.

So now you are tempted by the thought of free books.

To make things more interesting there aren’t just a few free books – There are 1.8 million free public domain books and 20-30 new free book offers every month.

That’s almost as many free books as there are Black Cabs in London. Maybe Amazon are on to something here.

At this point the Kindle 3 is beginning to win out.  

Free books may very well be the Decider

Fundamentally, there are two roadblocks to people getting a Kindle 3 –

  1. The attachment people have to physical books.
  2. The initial investment of buying a Kindle 3.  

Let’s assume the cheaper book prices and advantages like portability and convenience balance out the attachment people have to physical books. It’s not a totally wild assumption – no matter how much people like physical books they’ll admit the prices are getting out of hand and it isn’t very convenient to carry them around or to have to make trips to a bookstore to buy them (that is, if the bookstore is still around and hasn’t gone into receivership).

The Kindle 3’s convenience and the cheaper book prices will win some people over and leave others almost ready to switch.

That’s where free books come in. Free Books (along with Cheap Books) help readers feel their initial investment in the Kindle 3 is justified as they’ll save more than that in the long run.

Free Books on the Kindle 3 = Kindle 3 Purchase Decision

‘Free’ is an amazing word – More people search for ‘free’ and free things than almost anything else. You even have people buying things they don’t really need because they want the free bonus that comes with it.

Plus free is something books have never, ever had. You can take even public domain books and used books and there were still prices attached. The Kindle 3 represents the first time we have free books that you can read just like you would a paper book.

So when you get readers already torn between the cheaper prices and advantages of the Kindle 3 and physical books and add in ‘free books’ you get a lot of them to go with the Kindle.

There’s an upfront cost of buying the Kindle 3. However, there are two ways readers can rationalize it in their heads –

  1. Keep saving $2 to $5 on books and after a few dozen books the Kindle 3 has paid for itself.
  2. Combine free public domain books with the free book offers (there’ll be at least a few a reader likes every month) and in 6-12 months the Kindle 3 has paid for itself.

We also have lots of independent authors offering free books outside the Kindle Store in PDF format.

Amazon’s strategy to sell the Kindle 3 in the UK is perfect – offer ebooks at really low prices and offer lots of free books. It’d be nice if they remembered that there are a lot of Kindle 3 owners in the US and offered some of those free books to us too.

The sustainability problem – eBooks and Free

We are seeing three trends that are making free an important threat to the future of books –

  1. The availability of literally millions of free public domain books.
  2. Independent Authors giving away free books to get recognition and build credibility and sell books down the line.
  3. Publishers offering free books to create sales of other books by the author – usually later books in a series of which the free book is the first.

There are lots of ways to justify all of these – it’s marketing, public domain books should be free, it gets more people to read, and so forth.

Unfortunately we have to deal with reality and not what people think will happen.

Free is just a means to an End and it’s not working as planned

Free Books are just marketing –

  1. eReader companies want to offer a million free books to get sales. 
  2. Authors want to offer a book free to hook readers and get them to buy more.

However, it’s changing user perception of the value of books.

Free is overwhelming Paid Books and training users to expect Free

Except for the Kindle Store, every single eBook Store has way more free books than paid books. Plus you have indie authors all over the Internet offering free books.

  1. If only 20% of books are paid people begin to wonder. 
  2. If Oliver Twist is free how do you justify charging $10 for a new book?
  3. Users are getting trained to expect free books – it’s going to be ridiculously difficult to change their behavior and get them to start paying for books.  
  4. Authors might be offering just one or two of their books for free – However, every author is doing it.

While free eBooks are doing a great job of devaluing books, and teaching people to expect free books, they are not guaranteed to work the way they were intended.

Free Books are not guaranteed to lead to Paid Book Sales

The Internet is this great medium that takes greedy people and destroys them.

Everyone is rushing to give away free books and lock in a huge future revenue stream. Well, they’re just killing that future revenue stream.  

The Freemium model doesn’t really work. Especially not online where customers have a lot of leverage. 

It sounds picture perfect –

  1. Offer part of your product offering for free.
  2. Get millions of people to try it.
  3. All of them start buying your other products.

However, all it does is train millions of people to get stuff for free. They then turn around and use some other company’s free offering.

Freemium would work if there wasn’t infinite competition online or if every company was intelligent. That’s not the case.

Giving away Free Content/Product is not a business

It’s not just me – the pointlessness of serving people who don’t pay you for the hope of Future profits is obvious to anyone who thinks about it for 5 minutes.

  1. Broadstuff points out that ‘if you aren’t paying, you aren’t a customer’.
  2. Philip Wainwright at ZDNet weighs in. 
  3. Here’s a full PDF study on how Freemium isn’t working for Software as a Service companies.

This is exactly what newspapers did – they were serving people who weren’t their customers. This is what Authors and Publishers and eBook Retailers are beginning to do.

Free eBooks are a means to THE END

What free eBooks are actually doing is leading to the end of books. We are at the beginning of the end of books.

  1. To market books authors and publishers and eReader companies are giving away books.
  2. To make money middle-men are busy finding ways to convince authors and publishers to embrace free based models.
  3. Public domain books are already available. Orphan Works might be available soon.
  4. Users are beginning to figure out that they might be able to get away without paying for books.

You see this in various forms – users asking for $2 ebooks, people removing DRM and sharing, users who want to share eBooks like they share paper books, and other signs.

The Bleak Future for Books

You get two basepoints –

  1. 0 cents for a book over the Internet. 
  2. 10 cents for a book delivered wirelessly to your eReader.

You also get a lot of ethereal things people will be told to be happy with –

  1. Authors with recognition and getting readers. 
  2. Publishers with being gatekeepers. 
  3. eReader companies with selling eReaders. 
  4. Advertisers (if any) with running advertisements.

Why are we moving towards this future?

Out of Competition and Due to Greed companies and authors are setting unrealistic expectations for readers

Company A and Company B are competing for eReader sales.

  1. Company A has the lead and the arguably better eReader.
  2. Company B counters by offering a million free books.
  3. What it really does is decrease the possibility that either company can create a viable eBook revenue stream down the line.

Author A and Author B are competing for readers.

  1. Author A takes a viewpoint that users will really like.
  2. He says readers should get books without DRM and for free and authors should be happy to just be read.
  3. This leads to a lot of recognition and users buy his book out of reciprocation.
  4. However, he is devaluing books. Not as many people buy books and they pick him not because his work is the best.

It’s easy to assume it’s all altruistic – However, there are elements of competition and greed underlying the whole ‘I want to sacrifice myself for you’ angle.

Users, though, believe what they hear and add on things from their own wish-list  –

  1. Information wants to be free. 
  2. eBooks should be half the price and still shareable. 
  3. There should be no DRM of any sort.
  4. Authors should be happy to get donations.
  5. We should be able to read books and then decide what to pay for them.

And lots of other ridiculous things they would never agree to for their own line of work.

The Internet is a great place to try and fool everyone at the same time. It’s an even better place to get fooled by everyone.

Would you pay Amazon to offer a Free Kindle Book?

Are the benefits of giving away the first book in a series on the Kindle so high that it’s worth paying Amazon to do it?

It’s not a trick question.

What does a Free Kindle Book offer do?

Free Book Offers get you a lot of publicity and a lot of readers

A free book generally makes it to the top 10 of the Kindle Store, usually the #1 spot.

Of the most recent 10 free offers i.e.

  • The Templar Legacy by Steve Berry. NEW! Oct 2nd.
  • The Demon Awakens by R. A. Salvatore. NEW! Oct 1st.
  • Starfist: First to Fight by David Sherman and Dan Cragg. NEW! Oct 1st.
  • Etc.
  • Every one of them hit the Top 5 and over 70% hit 1st or 2nd place.

    1. That’s probably tens or hundreds of thousands of people.
    2. A lot of bloggers link to the book – most of those links stay forever.  
    3. Even after your book is no longer free it stays in the charts for weeks and lots of people end up buying it (rightly or wrongly). For example,

      Weapons of Choice hasn’t been free for weeks and it’s still #14 in the Science Fiction charts.

    A lot of people who read your book and like it buy another one of your books – which brings us to the area where free book offers work best.

    First Book Free Offers greatly increase Sales of the other books in the series  

    Scott Shannon, publisher of the Del Rey imprint at Random House has talked about the impact of giving away the first book in a series – 

    Shannon said Del Rey has had especially good luck with Naomi Novik’s “Temeraire” fantasy series after offering the first book for free. He said sales for the other Temeraire novels increased by more than 1,000 percent. “It’s been stunning,” he said.

    However, the actual sales rankings from the Kindle Store are more telling.

    Robin Hobb and Naomi Novik took over the Kindle Store Fantasy Rankings due to their free book offers.

    This is what we saw with the Robin Hobb and Naomi Novik giveaways in March (my original impact of free post on March 24th) –

    In the Fantasy Section of the Kindle Store:
    1) Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb (free).
    3) His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik (free).
    8. Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb (#2 in the assassin series – not free).
    10) Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik (#2 in the Temeraire series – not free).
    11) Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb (not free, Assassin series).
    17) Black Powder War by Naomi Novik (not free, Temeraire series).
    34) Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik (not free, Temeraire series).
    44) Fool’s Errand (another Robin Hobb book, continuation of FarSeer series i.e. the Assassin books).
    46) Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik (not free, Temeraire series).

    This is what we see today, even though it’s been a few weeks since the Robin Hobb and Naomi Novik books were removed from free offers –

    Fantasy Section of the Kindle Store:
    24) Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb.
    25) Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb.
    34) Fool’s Errand by Robin Hobb.
    45) Golden Fool by Robin Hobb.
    48) Fool’s Fate by Robin Hobb.
    57) Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik.
    58) Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik.
    63) Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb.
    65) His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik.
    77) Ship of Destiny by Robin Hobb (somewhat related to the Assassin and Fool Series – set in the same world).
    78) Black Powder War by Naomi Novik.
    83) Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik.
    85) Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb.
    91) Mad Ship by Robin Hobb.

    This is what the free book offers did for Robin Hobb and Naomi Novik –

    1. Their books (in March) had 4 of the Top 10 and 9 of the Top 50 sales ranks. Only 2 of those were free books.
    2. From end March through early October i.e. for over 6 months they have had good sales rankings.
    3. Even now, when the free offers are gone, their books have 5 of the Top 50 and 14 of the Top 100 spots.
    4. These are good, good rankings – For example, Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Universe is at #72 in the Fantasy section of the Kindle Store. 9 of the Naomi Novik and Robin Hobb books are selling more.

    Robin Hobb and Naomi Novik are not the only example. 

    Take the free giveaway of Full Moon Rising by Keri Arthur. It’s Book 1 of the Riley Jensen, Guardian Series.

    Here are the rankings in the Fantasy section of the Kindle Store today –  

    Fantasy Section of the Kindle Store
    2) Full Moon Rising.
    6) Kissing Sin by Keri Arthur. Book 2 of the Riley Jensen, Guardian series.
    13) Tempting Evil by Keri Arthur. Book 3 of the RJG series.
    17) Dangerous Games by Keri Arthur. Book 4 of the RJG series.
    22) The Darkest Kiss by Keri Arthur. Book 6 of the Riley Jensen, Guardian Series.
    23) Deadly Desire by Keri Arthur. Seems to not be part of the Series.

    Giving away 1 book free got Keri Arthur –

    1. The #2 spot for that book and a lot of publicity and new readers.
    2. That translated into getting the 6th, 13th, 17th, 22nd, and 23rd spots in the Fantasy section of the Kindle Store.
    3. That’s 5 of the Top 25 spots for her paid books.

    It’s working in a lot of Niches in the Kindle Store, and for a lot of authors

    Take Giving Chase by Lauren Dane, which is #2 in the Kindle Store because it’s free.

    Not only do tens (or perhaps hundreds) of thousands of readers download it, you also get, in just a few days, these results –

    1. Taking Chase by Lauren Dane at #18 in the Romance Charts.  
    2. Chased by Lauren Dane at #27 in the Romance Charts. 

    Another good example is Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning which was free a few weeks ago. That has led to the following rankings in the romance section of the Kindle Store for Karen Marie Moning’s books –

    1. Dreamfever by Karen Marie Moning at #14 in the Romance section of the Kindle Store. 
    2. Bloodfever at #32.  
    3. Faefever at #37.
    4. Darkfever at #64.

    Combine these with other authors who had free books earlier i.e. Lara Adrian, etc. and you can see that free book offer authors are gradually taking over the charts, and not just with the free books.

    Closing Thought – I’d pay to give away a book in the Kindle Store

    You obviously have to have a very good book to get results such as

    1. Robin Hobb and Naomi Novik who stayed in the Fantasy charts for 6+ months. 
    2. Keri Arthur who has taken over the Romance Charts.

    However, a free book offer gets you in front of a lot of people – it gives you a shot in a Kindle Store overflowing with 350K books.

    Am waiting for the next Rick Yancey book based off of a free book and have $60+ in purchases of Robin Hobb and Naomi Novik books. The same thing is happening with a lot of other kindle owners.  

    If you have a series, find a way to get the first book out for free. 6 months in the genre bestseller lists might be calling out your name.