Don’t Panic: KDP Select Still Works, You Just Might Have To Work It A Little Differently

I haven’t posted for awhile on any topic, including on indie publishing, but that is because I have been working steadily on writing Bloody Lessons, the third book of my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series (if you want an update on my progress go check out my Facebook page.) I also felt I had pretty much exhausted what I had to say on the ins and outs and pros and cons of using KDP Select.

However, with the change in Amazon’s rules for Associates, a whole discussion has erupted about what this means for indie authors. See this balanced review of some aspects of the discussion. See, in addition, this good overview of the issues around free as a selling strategy and Amazon. One result of this change and subsequent posts about it is I have had a number of requests to comment on whether or not this means that free promotions and KDP Select won’t work as well any more.

The short answer is, how in heaven’s name do I know? But that isn’t very helpful so what I am going to do is remind people what I have written on this subject already, do a brief recap of how my last free promotion went, and try to predict some of the ways in which the most recent changes might require tweaking of my own (and other’s) strategies for using KDP Select. I also decided it was time to publish a list of Promotional Links, which I will try to keep up-to-date.

Posts I have already done:

If you want to know everything I have written on this subject––put “KDP Select” in the search bar at the top of my website. Otherwise, go ahead and click on these posts I have done on selling on Amazon, the importance of Categories, and an update on this post, how to have a successful KDP Select promotion, and factors you should consider when deciding whether or not to enroll in KDP Select.

Update on my most recent KDP Select Promotion:

I put the first book in my series, Maids of Misfortune up for free through KDP Select for three days, February 23-25. This was two months since the last promotion, which was December 29-30 (where I put both of my books up for free). This time I didn’t put Uneasy Spirits up for free, although I did pay for a Digital Book Today 7-day promotion for this book for the week after the Maids of Misfortune promotion was over.

I signed up with eleven sites that promote free books (only two cost anything, Book Goodies and BookBub.) I have been trying to rotate through the free promotion sites with each promotion so as not to saturate their specific markets. Maids hit the magic top 100 Free List by noon the first day at #73. By the end of the first day I had reached #26 in the Free List and had over 8,000 downloads. On the second day, by 3:15 pm, when the BookBub email went out, the book was at #11 In the Free List and already had 22,000 downloads. By the end of day two it was #3 and had 28,000 free downloads. It stayed at #4 throughout the third day, and the total number of free downloads for the promotion was 37,086.

As you can see by the data below––the promotion was successful––in boosting my sales and borrows, even of the book that wasn’t promoted.

Maids of Misfortune / Before / After

Average sales per day (over two weeks) / 7.9 / 77.4

Overall Rank / 20,000s / 2,000s (18 days after)

Uneasy Spirits / Before / After

Average sales per day (over two weeks) / 6.1 / 22.3

Overall Rank / 26,000s / 6,000s (18 days after)

Average Borrows per day (over two weeks)

Both Books combined / 16 / 59.9

The Future of KDP Select:

While I am not clairvoyant, I often pretend I am (something I share with my protagonist in my Victorian San Francisco mysteries), and I will say with some authority that KDP Select will not go away anytime soon, and Amazon will continue to work with and encourage self-published authors. While Amazon may have turned to indie authors (first with KDP, then with KDP Select) because they realized that depending on public domain books and traditional publishers wasn’t working, it was the indie authors themselves who proved to Amazon that they were both an outstanding source of the product Amazon needed and nimble innovators in the rapidly changing world of publishing.

Indie authors not only began to produce books at an amazing rate (as backlists were republished, manuscripts like my own were taken out of drawers, and genre writers began to pump out 2-4 books a year), but we also proved leaders in the changes that were going on in publishing, proving the viability of new short forms of fiction (novellas, short stories, serialized novels) and experimenting with new marketing techniques (using discounts, free promotions, blog tours, giveaways, twitter, facebook author pages, etc). Our books and our innovation helped fuel the heady growth of ebooks in a short period of time.

For example, from the beginning, Amazon’s royalty structure, which gave the 70% royalty rate only to books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, was challenged by indie authors like Amanda Hocking, who proved that the volume of sales you could make at 99 cents could make up for the lower 35% royalty rate. Amazon made money (and kept a bigger chunk of the money), and Hocking got her traditional contract (and paved the way for the idea that traditional publishers––including the new Amazon imprints––might find their next bestselling authors from among the ranks of the self-published.)

Then came KDP Select. If you will all remember, when Amazon introduced its first Kindle Fire, one of the selling points was that if you were a member of Amazon Prime you could download one free book a month. Initially Amazon had targeted traditional publishers (who––as with the whole ebook thing––ran away, screaming bloody murder), so once again they had to turn to indie authors to provide the product they needed to make the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL) effective. However, while this is pure speculation on my part, by the end of 2011 (when KDP Select was set up) they were beginning to be concerned by the way that other booksellers (Barnes and Noble, Kobo, etc) were tapping into the ebook market so they came up with the exclusivity clause. If a book is in KDP Select it can not be sold anywhere else.

They needed a way to induce indie authors to go exclusive, and, besides creating the pool of money to be shared by KDP Select authors whose books were borrowed, they threw in the 5 free promotion days, having learned from indies that free promotions could sell books. In fact, a growing number of authors who had now published their back lists (or were very prolific in self-publishing lots of books a year) had discovered that if they made their books free on Smashwords, Amazon would price match. They had also proven that a free book that was the first in a series, or a free short story, could drive up sales for their other books. No doubt, seeing this trend, Amazon thought that the chance to put up your book for free, for a limited time for promotional reasons, would be a good inducement to get indies to sign up. Which we did, to great success in the first months of KDP Select’s existence.

But there was an unintended consequence. New kindle owners loved free and were gobbling these free books up at an amazing rate. And, since initially a free downloaded copy counted as a sale, the books that had been free dominated the best-seller categories, pushing the traditionally published books into invisibility. I am sure the traditional publishers complained, and I suspect that since indie books are by-in-large cheaper than traditionally published books this was not seen as a good thing in terms of profits for Amazon. The truth of the matter is that KDP Select and free promotions pushed the ebook environment from a level playing field for indies to giving them an unfair advantage within the Kindle store. Hence the changes to the algorithm counting downloads as sales and other tweaks to the formula that determined where a book is ranked on the popularity lists.

This was not the first time that some indie authors rent their garments and claimed that Amazon had turned its back on indies, and it certainly discouraged some authors from using KDP Select. However, while it became more difficult to translate your free promotions into high enough visibility to sustain sales afterwards, indies and those who supported indies again innovated, and a whole bunch of facebook pages, book bloggers, and websites popped up to advertise free promotions. The data above, from my last promotion, shows that KDP Select promotions remained a viable way of improving visibility and sales.

Again, however, unintended consequences caused Amazon to make the changes to their Amazon Associates because they were shelling out substantial amounts of money to websites that were primarily promoting free books. Again, the goal wasn’t to discourage indie authors, or even free books, but to direct the Associates program back to its original goal, encouraging people to go to Amazon to buy things.

So what does this mean for the future? First of all, a few of these promotion sites will go away, a larger percentage will start to charge for promotions––like does (to make up the revenue loss if they stop using Associates links), and others will begin to promote primarily cheap and discounted books rather than free.

If you look at the Promotional Links I have listed, you will see that there are still a significant number available, even after the Amazon change. And, one of my friends just put her book, A Provencal Mystery, up for free in KDP Select (breaking through into the top 100 by noon the first day and getting over 24,000 free downloads in two days) so I think we can safely say these promotional sites are still doing their job.

However, I do think that as indie authors we need to continue to innovate. Here is what I plan to do––I would love to hear from the rest of you what your strategies are.

Have free promotions less frequently. I had already noticed a growing tension between my reliance on free promotions to keep my books visible (agonizing when 30 days from the last promotion had passed and my books began to drop in the rankings and then lose sales) and the law of diminishing returns (if I offered the book free too frequently, the promotions were less successful.)

Then the success of (as the promotion site that has been delivering the highest number of downloads) forced me to make a change since they won’t feature a book more than every 90 days or an author more than every 30 days. Because of these limitations, my most recent promotion of Maids of Misfortune came two months after my last promotion (and three months after my last BookBub promotion.) I don’t think it is a coincidence I had more downloads than ever, with the strongest post sale bump since last March (and the infamous Amazon algorithm change.)

Longer promotions are safer. I used to suggest that authors not put their books up for free for longer than two days at a time (based on the idea of doing several promotions in the three-month contractual period under KDP Select.) But now that you need to get more downloads to achieve a post sales bump (see the amusing post by Elle Lothlorien), you need to consider how long it is going to take your particular book, in its specific genre, to reach enough downloads. I would do at least a two-day promotion if you have been able to get accepted by BookBub, three days if you don’t but have your book in categories that do well in free promotions and have a strong number of reviews, and maybe the full five days if your book is new, doesn’t have a lot of reviews, or is in a tiny niche market.

Schedule promotions near the end of a month. I started to notice that my borrows are always the strongest the first few days of every month so it is helpful to have my books as high as possible in bestseller lists at the beginning of the month. March 1-3 (three days after my last promotion ended) 394 of my books were borrowed. This helps maintain visibility as well since the borrows appear to be counted as sales.

Do more 99 cent promotions. For awhile, 99 cents was considered ‘dead’ as free books began to dominate as the main method of promotion, but just last week, for the first time, a self-published book hit #1 on NYT Bestseller list (with a 99 cent book). What I plan to do is experiment more with combining a 99 cent sale with a free promotion, or doing a 99 cent promotion to help maintain visibility during those longer times between free promotions.

Experiment more with promotions that are not tied to free or discounting my books. I don’t know for certain whether or not having a week-long promotion of Uneasy Spirits on the heels of the Maids free promotion has helped keep its sales up, but as more of the sites on the list I have compiled switch to non-free promotions, there will be certainly some of them that will turn out to be successful. BookBub can charge high rates they have demonstrated that they consistently deliver enough post promotion sales to more than make up for their cost. I expect that new marketing strategies will emerge in the next few months that are not dependent on free promotions.

Write more books and short stories. I know, I know, this is not a new strategy. But I know that the time I was taking to do free promotions every month was taking away from my writing time. The launch of a new book or short story (like a free promotion), if done correctly, can bump up sales and visibility of your other books, and it can take the sting away from those months between free promotions when your sales drop.

In short, I predict that as long as free promotional days in KDP Select deliver increased post promotion sales and borrows, Amazon has no reason to get rid of them, particularly if this is the main way to get authors to sign an exclusivity contract. And, as long as indie authors continue to produce books and stories that sell and provide new innovative ways to promote those books, the partnership between KDP Select and indie authors will continue.

What do you think?


This is a cross-posting from M. Louisa Locke‘s site.