Is Free A Price We Can Pay?

This article, by Chuck Wendig, originally appeared on his terribleminds site on 2/13/12.

It seems that every book these days — or, at least, every self-published book — is popping up free for a short period of time, an act driven by inclusion in the exclusive Amazon KDP Select program.

I did it with SHOTGUN GRAVY, as you may have seen. To report back on the experiment, the novella has once more gone back to its two or three sales a day mark. The sales basically went like this: after going free for just over a day, the novella moved around 5200 copies. Then, after the promo ended, I sold (daily): 70, 4, 89, 48, 36, 13, then it we’re back to the two or three sales per day. During the time SG spiked, my other e-books mysteriously dipped for a couple days but then raged back strong thereafter. During that stretch, it netted be about 20 new reviews. So, I’m willing to call it a success.


And I’m not yet sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

The results were a good thing. But it’s the ramifications of those results that has me feeling wibbly-wobbly.

Here’s where I’m a bit troubled.

First, the fact we’re now seeing a new type of authorial self-promotion (my book is free! hurry up and not pay for it!) is troubling if only because I fear we’re just contributing to the overall noise — and it’s noise that spreads an intrinsic notion about the value of our work, which is to say, it maybe ain’t worth that much. This noise also helps to set up expectation: “If I wait around long enough, this book might just show up free for a couple days.” So, where before readers were becoming trained to wait for a sale — “Oh, now the book is $2.99 instead of $4.99, or now just a buck” — they’re instead waiting for it to cost them absolutely zero.

Second, the boost in sales that comes out of this process is effectively a cheat. It’s an exploit like you’d find in a multiplayer game. It’s not based on human word-of-mouth, it’s based on a programmatic exploitation of Amazon’s recommendation system — a system that is inscrutable and unpredictable. Amazon may intend for it to work that way so, in this sense it’s not strictly an exploit — but my point is that it’s based on an algorithm of recommendations rather than actual recommendations. Moreover, if that algorithm becomes dominated by this mode of juggling books to the top, then those books that are not participating may have a harder time finding a place in that already-unknowable and potentially-overcrowded recommendation system. Right? So, not only is this “free product exploit to boost sales” trick creating a potential ecosystem of lowered expectations in a story’s value (because a buck wasn’t cheap enough!), it’s also enforcing a programmatic ecosystem where if your book does not participate, it doesn’t get to play in the Reindeer Games with all the other once-free books.


Read the rest of the article on Chuck Wendig‘s terribleminds – and if you’ve benefitted from any of Mr. Wendig’s sage advice and opinion over the past year, consider picking up his new compilation ebook.