Amazon Select: We are All Junkies Now

It’s been over a month since the Amazon KDP Select started, and we’re beginning to see the ramifications of the program. And although I’m making good money, I’m scared.

For those of you who don’t know, Amazon created the KDP Select program to increase their base of Prime Customers (those who pay no shipping costs in return for an $80 annual fee — kind of an online Costco). The program allows customers to “borrow” one e-book per month free. Authors whose books are borrowed get a pretty nice royalty ($1.70 per borrow) if they enroll their books and give Amazon exclusive access to those books for 90 days.

But the real hook  for authors is the ability make their books free for 5 of those 90 days.  Free, you might ask? I thought you were supposed to pay for a book. True, but it’s widely believed that giving away a book for a limited time results in instant exposure. Theoretically, hundreds, if not thousands of people, will download your book, read it, fall in love with your writing, then buy all your other books.  Presto – you’re a best-seller (whatever that means in today’s environment).

It sounded intriguing, so I decided to test the waters and enrolled a novella that wasn’t selling well at all. It went free on Christmas day, perhaps the biggest day  for Amazon downloads in the company’s history, and there were 8,000 downloads. Two days later, when it back to paid status, the sales and “borrows” rolled in, and this lovely little novella ended up making me a small fortune.

A week later I entered my best-selling book and made it free for two days. There were over 16,000 downloads on the first day alone. I panicked and pulled it off free the next day (which I now understand was a taboo and for which I apologize.). Again, sales and borrows after it went back to paid were fantastic.

I was hooked. And continue to be. The program has treated me well and has boosted sales of all my books, even those that aren’t enrolled. December was terrific, and it looks like January will be stellar.

So, of course, I drank more Kool-Aid, entered 3 additional books, and made them free. The novel did well, with over 13,000 downloads, but my short story collection didn’t. For the first time, downloads were just okay, and I did not see any kind of bounce afterwards. I figured it was because short stories aren’t as popular and dismissed it.

But then something happened.

Around the same time, I did a promotion for one of my NON-Select books with ENT. While we did drop the price, it did not go free, and because my publisher controls it, it never will. The results were great. However, someone on the ENT site commented that while the book looked interesting, they were “going to wait till the book goes free. Then I’ll get it.” Yesterday, I saw a similar comment about another book on ENT’s Facebook page: “But I wanted to get it for free…”

A warning bell clanged. Readers are becoming junkies, too. They’re starting to expect, even demand, free books all the time. And with the mounting number of authors offering free books on Amazon coupled with the churn of books going free daily, it’s entirely possible that some readers will never have to buy another e-book. Ever.

This is not what an author wants to hear.

So… authors are hooked, readers are hooked, and Amazon is our pusher. They control it all. But what happens if and when they reduce the scope of the program? What happens to authors when the reimbursement for “borrows” drops from $1.70 a book, as it undoubtedly will,  over time? What happens when, like my short story collection, “going free” doesn’t always mean significant sales once it goes back to paid?

Not a pretty picture.

It gets worse. In fact, I wonder if Amazon has even thought this one through.  By making a glut of material available free,  they’ve created a new class of reader –  the Freebie bargain hunter. What happens to them when and if the program is cut back? Will they buy books again? If they don’t, will it matter? They will have already filled their e-readers.

And that triggers another warning bell. The logic behind offering free books presupposes that readers actually read those books. But they’re not. We don’t have data yet, but anecdotally, we hear that readers are still filling their Kindles and Fires with “content,” but they’re not reading them.  At least not so much.

That is not good for authors either.

Finally, we all know KDP Select will reach the point of diminishing returns. It can’t sustain itself indefinitely.* What happens when the money and the borrows of our books dwindle? Where will we be? We’ll have had a couple of good weeks, maybe months, but then? Do we take the books out of Select and compete against a fresh surge of free books? Or do we try to hang on and hope that maybe – just maybe – if we go free just one more time– we’ll get back to our former glory days?

See what I mean? We’re junkies.

They say the first step, is to become aware of it. Well, okay. I admit I’m powerless over Amazon Select.  What about you?

* No sooner did I post this when Amazon announced the February “pot” for borrows will be reduced.