Sunday, May 24, 2009

Ebooks and Free Books and Amazon Kindle, Oh My


Now that I've satisfied the search engines with keywords, lets get down to business.

As I write this, SERIAL, a horror novella I co-authored with Blake Crouch, is the #1 Amazon Kindle download.

Why are two midlist thriller authors getting more downloads than huge bestsellers like James Patterson, David Baldacci, John Sandford, Lee Child, and Stephanie Meyer?

Because SERIAL is free.

Those familiar with my website know that I've been giving away free ebooks for years. You can go to and download the nine ebook novels and collections I'm currently giving away.

I've had 20,636 ebook downloads since I began using to track them (I didn't use a download tracker the first year they were up.)

Rob Siders, has also been offering my ebooks for free, and so far 4401 people have downloaded them from his blog.

That's over 25,000 free ebooks I've given away, and it doesn't count other sites who host the books (which I encourage), or people copying the books for their friends (which I encourage.)

Why do I give ebooks away?

1. Writing is the Best Advertising. You can only become a fan of a writer if you read the writer. That's why I love selling short stories--I can reach new readers and expose them to my words. It's like the guy standing in front of the mall Chinese buffet, giving away samples of Kung Pow chicken. Some people try it, like it, then go inside to eat.

2. Books Are Expensive. Many people don't want to spend $24.99 or even $6.99 to take a chance on an unknown. And even fewer want to spend $14.99 on an ebook download. But people love a bargain, and free is the best bargain of all.

3. Free is Viral. If you Google Kilborn+Crouch+Serial, you currently get 6550 hits. Part of that is because of an orchestrated campaign done by Blake and I, in conjunction with my publisher, Grand Central. But part of it is because people are talking about it, picking up on it, repeating it, linking to it, etc. Publicity and promotion is free and easier to come by (if you're a midlister) when you're giving something away.

The goal, of course, is to find readers. Some of those readers will become fans. Some of those fans will become book buyers.

Is it working for me? Well, I get regular emails from fans who have enjoyed my free ebooks who then say they're going to buy my print books. My "regular" I mean a few a week. I'm even getting requests to write sequels to some of my freebies.

AFRAID by Jack Kilborn (my pen name) and my Jack Daniels series are selling well, both in print and as ebooks. Though I have decent distribution with these books (bookstores regularly stock them) I have to think that many folks sought them out rather than accidentally ran into them, and if they heard about them prior to buying them it might very well be because I work my butt off getting my name and words out there, for people to discover.

Now here is where the story gets interesting.

On February 18 of this year, I tried an experiment. My GPS, named Sheila, was murdered by my wife, and to buy a new one I put an ebook download on my website, asking folks for a 99 cent donation. The promotion was called Tequila for Sheila.

Repairing my GPS cost $80. PayPal took 35 cents out of every donation. So in order to repair Sheila, I needed 123 people to donate.

I was not optimistic. While my blog and website are popular, I didn't think folks would want to pay for a pdf download for many reasons. First, because digital media wants to be free. Second, because pdfs are not the preferred method of reading books. Third, because the only people who knew about this promotion were those who visited me already, which is a very limited distribution.

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in the print world is distribution. The number of print books I sell is limited by the number of books printed, and the places they are for sale. If no one is aware of my books, no one will buy them. I strive to make people aware I exist, so readers seek me out rather than accidentally run into me, but I can only reach so many people.

So Tequila would only be known by people who already know me, which is extremely limiting.

And yet, to date, 226 people have donated to the Tequila fund, and the donations are still trickling in. So Shelia now has a hotter, younger sister named Leela.

It gets more interesting.

When AFRAID debuted on Kindle and the Sony Reader, my very savvy publisher released it for $1.99. This helped catapult it up the Kindle and Sony bestseller charts, and in the first month it sold over 7000 downloads, even though Kilborn is an unknown name.

So I got to thinking. High name recognition and limited distribution and a low price point, as with Tequila, resulted in 226 downloads in three and a half months. Low name recognition with major distribution and a low price point resulted in over 7000 downloads in a month.

What if I tried high name recognition, high distribution, and a low price point?

Which brings us to

Amazon actually allows authors to upload their own ebooks on Kindle, set a price, and earn 35% royalties.

This is either a closely guarded secret, or authors are just plain stupid, but as far as I know I'm the only published author taking advantage of this.

On April 8, I uploaded eight ebooks to Amazon, and sold them for $1.19 each.

These are the ebooks I've been giving away on my website for free, and are still available for free. But Amazon gets more visitors than, which means it is a much better distributor. That gives me the opportunity to reach people who don't know about me beforehand.

As I've stated before, digital content wants to be free. People don't like paying for downloads, whether they be pdfs or mp3s, because they are overpriced and there isn't a perceived value in binary code, which is all digital content really is. This is why 13 of the top visited sites on the Internet are file-sharing sites--it's often faster, easier, and much cheaper to steal digital content than it is to buy it.

Unfortunately, authors cannot release ebooks for free on Amazon (unless you go through your publisher, like I did with SERIAL.) You have to set the price at a minimum of 99 cents.

After adjusting my price several times, I settled on $1.99 per ebook, which Amazon discounts to $1.59, and nets me 70 cents in royalties each download--more than I make when I sell a $7.99 print paperback.

So how much have I earned in royalties in the 46 days my books have been available on Kindle?

As of this morning, I've had 1906 downloads on Kindle, and I've made $1370.12 in royalties.

That averages out to $30 a day, or almost $11,000 a year, for books that I give away for free.

Actually, I think that is a low prediction, as my Kindle sales have steadily increased, and only recently did I begin charging $1.59 (up from $1.19.) In the past week I've averaged $37 a day.

So why the hell isn't every author with a shelf novel or an out of print book doing this?!?!

It gets even more bizarre, when you start looking at bestseller lists.

Currently, my ebook The List is the #1 Kindle bestseller in the Police Procedurals category.

Who are #2 through #14? Multiple titles by Jeffery Deaver, James Patterson, James Lee Burke, JD Robb, and Michael Connelly.

Who is #15? Whiskey Sour by JA Konrath, which my publisher smartly priced at $3.96.

My ebook Origin is #3 on the Occult bestseller list, being beaten by two Charlaine Harris titles. But I'm outselling Stephen King, which is the only time that will ever happen.

Now, eleven grand a year isn't a huge amount of money, but I consider it pretty much a gift, and it really helps supplement my writer income. I'm not doing it for the money, though. I'm doing it for the same reason I continue to give away ebooks: to spread brand awareness and name recognition and find new readers and fans.

This is the future. But no one else seems to see it.

Well, that's not entirely true. Boyd Morrison is outselling me on Kindle, doing the same thing I'm doing: good product, low price point. Even though Boyd has been blurbed by some major bestsellers, he hasn't gotten a print contract yet. I stress "yet" because eventually NY Publishing is going to see Boyd's success on Kindle and want a piece of it.

Stephen Windwalker knows more about the Kindle than anyone on the planet, and publishes the excellent blog Kindle Nation. Stephen has been a huge supporter of my ebooks, and I owe him a lot of beer for his efforts in promoting Afraid, SERIAL, and my Kindle titles.

If you find this topic interesting, you need to check out the Kindle Boards, a forum dedicated to all things Kindle. Lots of smart people there who understand how to effectively use the Kindle.

Not so incidentally, the Sony Reader will soon institute a program allowing authors to upload books.

Let's recap:

1. Ebooks are good, because they help get your name and words out there.

2. More people are reading ebooks. Walmart now sells the Sony Reader. The Amazon DX will be out this summer, and Kindle has an iPhone app. And everyone with a new ereader wants content for that ereader.

3. The cheaper you are, the more you'll sell. You can even outsell major bestselling authors.

4. Free is better than cheap. Many more people will download free than cheap, so you'll reach many more people.

5. Distribution still matters. If you want big numbers, you get more downloads on Amazon than you will on your homepage.

6. There is money to be made. Like the POD industry, Kindle is getting diluted with overpriced self-pubbed crap. Don't be overpriced self-pubbed crap, because that doesn't sell. But if you're a good writer, a smart marketer, and can live with selling your book for $1.59, you can make some cash.

7. This is the future. Don't get left behind.

Any questions?