Thursday, March 7, 2013

Something for nothing? (Part 1 of 2)

If a complete stranger tries to give you something free of charge, what thoughts would normally go through your head?

  • There's a catch
  • Something is wrong with it
  • The thing's been stolen
  • It's got no value
Don't believe all you see.
Yet, despite this instinctively suspicious reception, authors are forever being encouraged to give away their books in return for enhanced rankings and thus more sales in the long term. It's a nice idea but, like communism, it's largely doomed to failure because of the inherent self-seeking nature of the human race.

If there's an easy way of making money, someone will give it a try. That's a simple fact of life.
So, what do I have against the freebies?

For those who don't know, the principal (although not sole) source of free books is that made available by authors who've signed up for Amazon's KDP program. This 'allows' them 5 promotion days (when they can give their books away for free) in a 90-day period. It's carefully controlled and 5 days is the maximum for everyone. The author decides which days and then does all the pre-promotion awareness-raising. In return, Amazon's algorithm gives a partial credit (how much is a carefully guarded secret) for every book that's given away. The result is that, after the promotion has terminated, the book is left floating at a higher level than before its free promotion.
There is one other salient fact to be taken into account. During the promotion, the book's normal ranking is suspended and it is given a temporary 'freebie' one instead. At the end of the promotion, the book's 'permanent' ranking is recalculated and that determines the mid-term visibility of the book.

But what does all this mean in terms of sales?
The answer is a mixed bag as it depends on the permanent ranking before and after. Given that there are millions of books available now with thousands more being uploaded every day, it's obvious nonsense to think that every promoted book is going to get into that magical top ten thousand with its more or less guaranteed sales. However, if you believe everything you read in the writers' groups, you could be forgiven for thinking that there must be a hundred thousand books in the top ten thousand.

If you see such things (like I do all the time), restrict any comment to “Uh-huh. Really? Well done”, and hang on to your cynical and suspicious instincts for all that is holy to you. Everyone has an agenda and, if you’d just discovered the magical elixir or the formula for the alchemists’ touchstone, would you go blabbing the formula to all and sundry? Exactly.
You want to gamble?
I could be even less charitable by saying that if I do something foolish, I’ll feel a lot less of a fool if I’m surrounded by fellow fools who’ve made the same mistake. Read Aesop’s Fable of the fox without a tail.

Returning to the mathematics of it all, if your book started off by ranking well then the promotion day is undoubtedly going to give it a boost. You've presumably got a readership already and a good promotional day will only serve to consolidate your position.
Going into the freebie day with a low-ranking book is another matter. Unless you've somehow managed to get loads of publicity, all you're going to do is to give free copies to people who don't mind taking a chance on an unknown author if the book doesn't cost them anything. There won't be enough of those to make a difference and your hard work will almost certainly go unrewarded and unnoticed.

Continued next week …

Clive West has written a novel, a collection of short stories and two non-fiction books. He now runs a publishing company called Any Subject Books along with his wife, also an author.

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