Experiments in a Changing World

Sometimes you can’t even give things away. Well, I guess some folks can. I’ve been having trouble with that lately.

The truth is, I’ve been experimenting — testing out what people who have been at this publishing racket longer than I say is true. The results are mixed, but I have come to a conclusion. I’ve looked at some of these issues before and probably will revisit them, but I thought I would share my current experience and results as well as my conclusions.

Recently I made a story available for free on Amazon. You may have read about it here. The theory goes that giving away stories for free gets readers to know your writing and that a certain percentage will enjoy what you write and buy other stories. Sounds reasonable. It worked for soap powder in the 50s and the people giving away samples at ball games and the like seem to think it still works.

My experience casts a bit of doubt on that strategy. At least for ebooks. At least for MY ebooks. First, there are so many free stories available that it is a lot of work to even attract attention to yet another giveaway. Some writers never charge for stories. Others always have something available for free. Several months ago, giving away a story resulted in many downloads. Thousands.  I didn’t bother to add the worldwide numbers together this time, but if there were 100 downloads worldwide I would be surprised. It is probably closer to 50.

Of course that offer was limited to Kindle owners and the story was only free for two days so some readers might have blinked and missed it, but that is essentially the grand project that has been used successfully by many authors in the past. And, yes, I promoted it through several of the free ebook sites and twitter.

The second question I have about that approach is that with everyone (including me of course) giving stories away, do we reduce the incentive to buy anything? Do we cut our own throats? I have read studies that claim that people who get free downloads don’t read them. I have heard that they do read them but still buy books. I have read that the earth is flat and that many governmental leaders are aliens. Maybe. I don’t know.

In terms of my own books, I am learning (slowly) that the Amazon free days are not worth the effort. Not only are the results nothing to write a column about (although, as you see a lack of results is something I consider worth writing about) but Amazon requires that the book be exclusive to them for 90 days. Hmm.

A lot of wonderful authors, including Lawrence Block  have written that they get more sales from Amazon than all the other retail outlets combined. My experience is the opposite. I’ve sold more books through Kobo alone (via Smashwords) in a single month than I have sold through Amazon in total. And Sony and Barnes & Nobel work for me too. More telling is that some of my books that have been on Amazon for months are just getting through the various distribution chains (yes it can take time, but they are working on it) . So fewer books available are selling more copies.  My thought is that when they all get out there, I will do even better. Just my way of looking at things. Especially numbers. My numbers are all small now, but there are enough to see a trend, and that trend doesn’t make me want to rely on free books.

The fascinating thing is that I haven’t a clue why any of this is. I don’t know why wide distribution works for me and not for others any more than I know why Amazon works so well for other people and not for me. What has become clear is that I am better off ensuring my books have the widest possible distribution and that Mark Cocker at Smashwords is my best friend. Smashwords has worked hard (and is still working) to develop the distribution channels, as in this announcement:


Ultimately I suppose I don’t care why things are the way they are (I am just a curious sort) but if better distribution works better for me than free books, then that is where I will put my effort, especially since Smashwords is doing such a nice job that really all I have to do is write better books and monitor my books in the retail outlets. When something isn’t right I need to become a squeaky wheel for a short time and their customer service people sort it out.



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