What fiction author wouldn’t like to have a bestseller? In the traditional paper publishing world, the size of the initial print run expresses the publisher’s faith in the book and often contributes to the willingness of stores to stock it on shelves. After all, if the publisher is that confident, who are mere bookstore owners to argue? Besides, a big print run means a big marketing budget to protect the investment.
But in Amazon’s Kindle ecosystem, there’s no such thing as a print run. A lowly first-time self-publisher gets the same number of copies stocked in the Amazon cloud as the biggest trade name. Whether you call that number ‘zero’ or ‘infinity’, the result is the same. So how do authors without the support of marketing budgets or social networks suddenly come out of nowhere to create bestsellers on Amazon?
In the pre-Select era, before self-publishers could promote a book for five free days every three months in addition to it being available for borrowing by Prime members, the best strategy was perma-free. Through price-matching with another major eBook retailer which allows a $0.00 price, self-publishers could get their titles set to free on Amazon. Because this meant zero royalties, the perma-free method was primarily employed by series authors, who could offer a free Book One or even just a fifty page teaser, and count on some number of readers buying the later works. And it worked! And it still works, sort-of, but…
A few years ago, Amazon changed the weighting of free “purchases” in their algorithm such that it now takes one hundred free “purchases” to equal a single paid purchase. In terms of search returns, Also Boughts, and other Amazon catalog suggestions, you need to give away 10,000 copies to achieve the visibility of a book with just 100 sales. And Amazon keeps on shortening the half-life of their weighting factors, so you need to keep making those numbers week after week and month after month to sustain visibility.
It’s a long-shot for a free book to remain popular month after month in the face of competition from new titles, both perma-free and paid books on temporary free promotions, some of which will be long-awaited sequels from successful authors or heavily promoted. The contenders include not only trade and self published titles but those from Amazon’s own imprint.
Given the hundred-to-one weighting of paid versus free, does it even make sense to use price matching for a perma-free Book One anymore? For the main part, I would say ‘No’. The penultimate nail in the coffin of perma-free is the Kindle Unlimited program, which in essence, makes all Kindle Select titles perma-free for an audience of voracious subscribers who are economically motivated to sample qualifying titles. And each time a Kindle Unlimited subscriber tries a new title and reads past the ten percent mark, that download counts as a sale, with one hundred times the visibility weighting of a “purchased” free book.
These days, most perma-free titles can only be found through searches that specify free eBooks. They rarely show up in Also Bought lists at all, even on the pages of the sequels they helped launch. I’ve been closely watching titles in the genre categories where I compete for the last year, and there are only a handful of perma-free books that can hang around for months in the top 20 “sellers” of free titles for each category. While it’s difficult to say why these books and not others (with more and better reviews and subjectively better covers) hold onto their spots, my best guess is that the later paid books in the series have some catalog presence which ends up supporting the visibility of the free book.
And I’ve noticed something else about newly self-published books that come seemingly out of nowhere, backed by no obvious promotion and launched without any pre-publication review copies. Even though they are included in the Kindle Select program, they don’t always start by using their free promotion days, and may never do so. Sometimes, being new books well-matched to their genre with the right title and cover AND BEING AVAILABLE FREE TO KINDLE UNLIMITED SUBSCRIBERS can be enough to build momentum within just a few days that gives them a nice long stay in the top 1000 paid books on Kindle.
Speaking of Kindle Unlimited, the December payment to publishers for KU and Prime borrows was $1.43. My guess is that Amazon will soon announce that it took a major topping-up payment to get there.
What remains to be seen is whether Amazon is now targeting $1.50 as the “standard” Select Royalty, or whether they will ease it back up towards $2.00 after the usual December/January draught.