Money for nothin’ and your books for free

Is it a sale if you don’t pay anything for the product?

That’s a more important question than you might think.

Having a book on as an Amazon bestseller can make a difference in the sales.  For one thing, people are more likely to see it when they go that category.  For another, it lends some credibility to the title.

Some independent publishers have complained that they can’t mark their books as free, and therefore, they can’t get the highs as easily on the bestseller list.  Articles in mainstream media and the blogosphere have also mentioned this issue.

Is it a sale if the person doesn’t pay for it?  There are many books I’ve gotten basically because they were free.  Hey, if I don’t want to read it, my Significant Other might.

The first definition of “sell” in my Kindle dictionary would suggest that it isn’t.  It says “give or hand over (something) in exchange for money.”

Of course, that doesn’t say anything about using credit, either.  😉

With Amazon enticing people to list price books through the Digital Text Platform between $2.99 and $9.99 (to get the higher 70% royalty rate, I thought I’d take a look at the impact different price points have on the best seller list.

First, let’s take a look at the percentage of books at different price ranges in the Kindle store:

Price Count Percentage
free 19793 5%
.01-.99 34866 8%
1-2.98 48501 12%
2.99 6,567 2%
3-4.99 82388 20%
5-7.99 49612 12%
8-9.98 19097 5%
9.99 53890 13%
10+ 100016 24%
Total 414730  


Price Distribution in the Kindle Store

Price Distribution in the Kindle Store

Note that these are not evenly distributed categories.  I’m noting $2.99 separately and $9.99 separately, for example.  You can tell that $9.99 is a popular price point, though.

The next thing I did was look at the price distribution of the top 100 “sellers” for Kindle books:

Point Count
free 58
.01-.99 4
1-2.98 1
2.99 0
3-4.99 3
5-7.99 9
8-9.98 6
9.99 18
10+ 1

Let’s look at these two figures (percent of titles in the store and percent of bestsellers) side by side:

Point Bsellers Price Store Pct Diff
free 58 free 5% 53
.01-.99 4 .01-.99 8% -4
1-2.98 1 1-2.98 12% -11
2.99 0 2.99 2% -2
3-4.99 3 3-4.99 20% -17
5-7.99 9 5-7.99 12% -3
8-9.98 6 8-9.98 5% 1
9.99 18 9.99 13% 5
10+ 1 10+ 24% -23

The free books are obviously way over-represented in the bestsellers.  They are only 5 percent of the books in the store, but fifty-eight percent of the top one hundred bestsellers.  That’s a difference of 53%!  They are more than ten times as popular as they are represented in title count.

Books at ten dollars and over are under-represented, but that makes sense.  The more expensive books (like textbooks) just aren’t going to sell as well.  In fact, honestly, I was shocked to see even one book.  It has the text-to-speech blocked, so I’m not going to mention it, but it is a novel from a major house.  It was just released…it may go down to $9.99 soon.

So, free books dominate the bestseller list at Amazon.  Granted.  Maybe they should call it a “most downloaded” list?  But, perhaps Amazon doesn’t want people to think of Kindle books as downloads.  They could simply call it “Most Popular”, I suppose.

Is this an unfair situation?  After all, these are the books that people are getting the most.

The thing that calls it into question for me is that not everybody can list their books for free.

Independents who publish through Amazon’s Digital Text Platform for the Kindle can’t do that.  Traditional publishers (tradpubs) can.

Amazon does carry expenses for DTP books.  One of them is Customer Service, which can be expensive.  Those DTP books aren’t always that well formatted, and they may result in more phone calls and e-mails to Kindle Customer Service, both asking for refunds and just complaining. 

Amazon now reviews those books when they are submitted, and may pull them out of the store if the formatting is bad enough.

That’s a cost.  It wouldn’t make sense for them to do that on a book that is going to generate zero income for them, usually.

The Digital Text Platform is how Amazon is going to transform publishing, though.  They are making independent publishing more attractive than traditional publishing for many authors, at least after the 70 percent option goes into effect. 

Amazon may want to re-think the free ban.  How about this?  They charge them for selling the books.  They charge them, oh, twenty-five cents a free book (plus fifteen cents a megabyte for delivery). 

They could take that out of future royalties, if any.  They already wait quite awhile before paying royalties.

That would let the indies make a book for free for a couple of weeks, then raise it to a money-making level.

Many of those indies are only available in the Kindle store.  That would give Amazon a big plus on freebies.  Barnes and Noble is actually beating Amazon on non-public domain freebies right now, although if you look at the selection at both of them, you might not be all that impressed.

Amazon has fifty-four non-public domain freebies right now:

Amazon NPD freebie search 

Barnes and Noble has about 104:

B&N NPD freebies 

Making this move would be a simple way for Amazon to blow that number away, I think.   A lot of them would also be full novels…many freebies are just chapters or short stories.

That still would presumably give the advantage to tradpubs, but it would help.

Amazon could also simply do a daily free download of a DTP book.  Yes, they’d take a loss, but that would be great publicity.  They could allow people to opt into it: if they pick your book, you get no royalties for the sales that day.  That would make the loss much lower, and again, promote the exclusive titles that B&N has.  They could do this with the DTP…that’s a very different arrangement than B&N or Sony trying to do it with tradpubs.

I think that would work very well, actually.  It would drive daily traffic to Amazon (I would not do it by subscription, but make people go and click).  It could be on a page with other titles that Amazon wants to promote, and they would get some impulse buys on those as well.  For example, they could do a pre-order page, and include the free book on that page.  “Can’t wait?  Enjoy this book today!”

As an author, I’d definitely go for that.  My book would be in the company of the future bestsellers, and it would garner a lot of publicity.  People would discover authors that they otherwise wouldn’t find, perhaps recommend them to other people…who would be too late to get the freebie, quite often.  🙂  It would also generate reviews, which makes a difference on indie sales, I believe.

“That’s the way you do it…money for nothin’ and your books for free.”


This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog

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