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?


Lexi said...

I'd like to post a small comment as a new reader. Hope you don't mind.

I am a Kindle owner. I don't buy paper books anymore.

I first started reading your work because of the low price of "Afraid" and then moved on to the Jack Daniels books. I'm willing to pay the, I think, $7.99 price for other books in the series because I truly enjoy them.

I also did buy the $1.19 versions of your stories even knowing that the PDFs were free on your site. Why? Well, I want you to keep writing, and nobody should work for free. I also prefer not to need to convert and transfer books to the Kindle manually.

Glad you were able to get Leela. :)

Boyd Morrison said...

Thanks for mentioning me, Joe!

I agree wholeheartedly with Joe's points. The Kindle is an amazing way for new authors to find readers. There has been a lot of debate on about how to price books, but I'm of the same mind as Joe, that readers are more likely to take a chance on an unknown author if the books are priced inexpensively.

I can see why Amazon does not let authors post free books on their own. The Kindle store would be flooded with free books from self-published authors, and then it would be even harder to separate the good from the bad. With a $0.99 price point forced on authors, it makes Kindle readers spend at least something, requiring them to make a value decision they might otherwise wouldn't. Plus, it allows Amazon to work with publishers like Joe's to give special notice to the books they do offer for free.

I can attest that, by making my books available on the Kindle, I have found many readers who would not have discovered my books on my web site. And readers like Lexi seem to realize that spending a little money on the Kindle version, even if the book is free somewhere else, helps keep authors on a career path that lets them write more books in the future and also lets readers show some appreciation for the enjoyment they got from the book.

Mary Stella said...

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.Yep, that sums up the process by which I became a Konrath/Kilborn reader. The fact that your books rock made me a fan and repeat buyer.

Jim said...

Dang, dude, and I thought I was doing good with Night Laws at # 10 in the legal thriller category. You're leading the whole freaking store! Way to go!

Stacey Cochran said...

I put CLAWS on Kindle for $1.59 last week.Now this is a self-published novel, but I have cracked the top 10,000 ranking four times that I've noticed. Presumably this comes soon after a purchase.

I started to put a previous self-pubbed book The Colorado Sequence earlier today, and I tried to do it for free. However, I wasn't allowed by Amazon DTX to set my price point below $0.99.

I have a whole catalogue of novels I'd put on for free, if I could do so.

One thing I noticed though. If you don't format your files specifically for Kindle's requirements, your text gets kind of bunched together. There are no indentations, and no italics fonts.

So two questions, how do you list your books for free? And are you bothering to format your Kindle files for easily readability?

Brian H said...

Dude...not just number 1 because it's free...though I agree that is partly to's just a hell of a good story too...

Anonymous said...

eBooks wont probably change the quantity or the quality of "average reader" personal library. However, it is a huge step
for the writers. They can now bypass publishers and get a decent return on their work. Scribd gives 80% return. And our
ebook online shop ( 90%.

Blake Crouch said...

Stacey - Joe's publisher, Grand Central, was instrumental in getting Kindle onto Amazon for free, and that was the big goal for our campaign for this novella. Joe and I could not have done that ourselves. There are major hoops to jump through and politics involved. Maybe Joe has more details, but I think it takes a major publisher with an established relationship with Amazon to get a freebie into the Kindle store.

Heather Wardell said...

I was excited by this, but unfortunately Amazon's DTP program isn't available outside the United States. Bummer!

Heather (who'll have to keep giving her novel away for free instead :)

Aimlesswriter said...

Something must be working because when I got my Barnes and Nobel email ad this week Cherry Bomb was the lead book.

Go Joe!

Stacey Cochran said...

Thanks, Blake. Yeah, it seems that the lowest price possible for setting your own price through Amazon DTP is 99 cents.

I did The Colorado Sequence overnight and it showed up this morning at 99 cents.

You definitely have an advantage listing for free. And Joe, like you're saying, if you can get 10,000 downloads of a free Kindle book and then throw out 4-5 others at 99 cents or 1.59, a percentage of the folks who download the free version will buy the paid-for versions of your other books.

Blake and Joe, you guys are doing this brilliantly.

I definitely have a couple of older horror novels that I've written that we could put up jointly (i.e., I could list you as co-authors) if you're interested in tag-teaming...

John Rector said...

Joe, you're absolutely right about this.

I posted my first novel, The Grove, yesterday at noon for $.99.

After 24 hours, I've sold 130 copies. The book is #2 in the Hard-boiled mystery category, #6 in Horror, #18 in suspense, and #173 all around.

I don't think that's too bad for the first 24 hours, especially for an unknown hack like me... Of course it could stop selling at any time, too.

Here's the link if you're interested:

The Grove

Stacey Cochran said...

Wow. So I posted about CLAWS and The Colorado Sequence being practically free on the Kindle Forums.... and I sold like ten books within thirty minutes.

This is nuts.

Aaron Trance said...

"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."

I'd venture to guess that authors are more constrained than stupid.

We are now in a age where publishers will retain (or at least seek to retain) rights forever. Digital will allow sales potentially forever. We have also crossed the economic line where POD books can be used ECONOMCILLY, meaning at a profit, after print runs are sold out--again, forever. Thus publishers will have no incentive to relinquish rights.

Smart authors will negotiate accordingly. There's lots of money to be made in digital books. Lots of books will have "legs" that couldn't even have been imagined a few years ago.

Stacey Cochran said...

Woke up this morning to find CLAWS #24 overall in the Kindle Action-Adventure category, just a couple spots behind Dan Brown, Vince Flynn, Clive Cussler, and Janet Evanovich. lol

I've never experienced anything like this in all my years of writing.

It's kind of fun; I think I could get to liking this.

Karen from Mentor said...

Hey Joe,
Been missing you. Great manifesto I mean rant I mean post...whew...
I now own all of your books except for afraid which I'm going to buy just to complete the set and keep in the freezer.
Hugs to you. And don't say "midlister" like it's a bad thing. You rock.
Karen :)

Stacey Cochran said...

More grist for the Kindle discussion and follow-up on my own little experiment. First though, thanks Joe for lighting a fire under our butts on this topic.

So CLAWS and The Colorado Sequence have been on Kindle (and promoted by me) for about 36 hours. So far I've sold 61 copies of CLAWS and 60 copies of The Colorado Sequence for a total royalty in a day and half of $63.70Yesterday, CLAWS reached as high as #603 overall for all Kindle books and was ranked #13 overall for in the horror category, and #16 in the Action & Adventure category. I also broke into the more competetive suspense category hitting around #53.

Perhaps worth noting is that the price point for The Colorado Sequence is currently 80 cents, while CLAWS is $1.59

Despite the nearly double price, the books are selling more or less evenly on Kindle. Draw from this what conclusion you will, but it indicates (at least in a short-term study) that a price point at 80 cents doesn't have that much advantage over a 1.59 price point in the average Amazon Kindle consumer's mind.

My hunch is, though, a price point above 2 dollars would make readers more reluctant to buy. And there's a sentiment among Kindle buyers on the forums that seems to indicate some resentment toward major publishers pricing Kindle books too high (9.99, for example, or 14.99).

And so it seems the Kindle fans are responding by supporting well-written, lower-cost books (by unknown writers) who put their price point low. You'll see a number of "boycott high priced book" threads on the forums.

At any rate, I have no idea if my sales numbers will continue for more than a few days. It'll be a fun experiment for the next couple of weeks to see how the books will continue to do.

JoAnn Ross said...

This is really fascinating!! I was planning to give away an updated out of print book on my website this fall to fill a gap between new titles. But now you've got me wondering if I should just upload to kindle and charge a small amt.

I'm already a huge kindle user, so I'd be selling to people who think a lot like me. Fortunately, enough people think like me to have kept my books selling for 26 years. :)

Thanks for sharing your experience!

EC Sheedy said...

Talk about food for thought! Way too many brain calories to process in one day.

Thanks for the info, JA.

(By the way, I ordered AFRAID from Amazon--looking forward to reading it)

EC who's scouring the house for OOP books.

Amazon Kindle said...

Hi All
This blog is very informatics.
Your comment is very helpful. i like it.

Stacey Cochran said...

So exactly 24 hours after my last post when my sales numbers were 61 of CLAWS and 60 of The Colorado Sequence, here are my numbers today:

CLAWS - 84

The Colorado Sequence - 104

So, it seems that lowering the price point to 80 cents for TCS maybe did increase sales this past 24 hours.

I hope this is helpful info, Joe.

By the way, what are some other ideas for marketing Kindle books? Like where is the best place to find Kindle readers in order to let them know about your book?

Noelani said...

As usual you are passing along some beyond helpful and solid advice.

While reading this I asked the same question you did? Could it be the constant snobbery in the publishing world toward ebooks?

I think that may make authors less inclined to go this route.

YvettesGoneFishing said...

Call me stupid, but I'm unsure how to check on kindle sales for middle grade books. Mine is a middle grade (good for ages 8-12) fantasy/mystery. I don't know how many kids that age have a kindle or ready access to one. I anticipate that will affect interest/sales/downloads. Does anyone have a link?

YvettesGoneFishing said...

"Could it be the constant snobbery in the publishing world toward ebooks?

I think that may make authors less inclined to go this route."

To Noelani,

I think it's less snobbery and more self-interest. Nathan Bransford had a blog post not long ago wherein he provided the breakdown--it was a breakdown that basically reflected an author making less than $1 on a book priced to sell just over $20. Who's taking fully $18-19 of that price? The publisher and the retail outlet. That's egregious.

No, publishers don't want anyone downloading to kindle or any ebook site.

I imagine it was funny when it was just bad writers doing it, but they've stopped laughing and I suspect it's because they realize the potential of ebooks to negatively impact their industry.

Writers are tired of feeling raped by that breakdown. It amounts to the paper being worth more than the words printed on the pages.

Agents also won't be encouraging writers to download to kindle--you don't need an agent to sell your books on kindle.

They're all just mourning the loss of potential income.

I hated the idea of kindle. I hated the idea of losing paper books. There's something special about holding them in your hands. Maybe I'm from a different era, but I was fervently anti-ebook. I've flipped to the other side of the fence.

It comes down to this: authors want and deserve FAIR compensation for good, talented writing. If the writing's at a professional level, the compensation should reflect that. Repeat after me everyone:

Without the writer, there is no book.
Without the writer, there is no book.
Without the writer, there is no book.

Kindle also eliminates that element of the industry wherein publishers, editors, and agents fight to have authors all writing the same way and about the same things--whatever they think sells. They have no right, imo, to dictate what people will like. On kindle, I can write MY story.

I'm sold.

amberargyle said...

I asked my agent about this. He said after you have made it available on Kindle, it will be unsalable to a publisher.

Now, if you don't want a publisher, don't worry about it. But if you have dreams of ever holding your book in your hands and smelling the fresh paper, I'd hold off until you've exhausted every other avenue.

Rabid Fox said...

Great post. This definitely seems to be a strong facet of the future of books. No denying it anymore. Your strategy must be paying off too, beause your titles are on my radar now.

Jan Schroder said...

Wow - so glad I found your blog. I am trying to learn about ebooks for my small publishing company - (Schroder Media) and now it looks like I'll have to get over my prejudice about reading books online, and learn how to sell them!

Head Honcho said...

Looking forward to reading some of your work and who doesn't like a serial killer novel, and it's free to boot.

I'd always felt what you are talking about in this post. If you do good work and you make it accessible, people will remember you when you have something you would like to sell. Show a love of craft and your audience.

I still think paper books are better but at the right price point, digital starts to make sense. It's also a great advertising tool.

Needless to say, some books are prices WAY to high for something you can't lend or sell.

Great article Joe.

Angela said...

Hello all. Thank you so much for this wonderful blog. I have learned a lot. I do have some questions...I have never bought/downloaded/sold etc a digital book. But as I am very interested in doing that I am searching info.

These books that you put here for free or almost free: are they full novels? Are we talking about 300+ page books or are we talking about 25 page short stories, or what?

I have a 300+ page manuscript ready and am having a huge problem getting an agent. Publishers won't take them without an agent. Agents want you to be already published (or they aren't taking any new authors at all.) If you self-publish the big houses don't consider you published at all..etc.

So, Is this a good option for me? Or is my book to large to sell online for this kind of price?

And is it true as the previous blogger wrote that you can't sell to a publisher after offering online?

HELP! Thank you and bless you for your help! Angela

JA Konrath said...

@ Angela - You can't put ebooks on Kindle for $0--only publishers can do that. I've found that $1.99 is a good price for a 300 page novel.

I can't decide if this is the route you should try. It's tough to get an agent, but that's still the only way you'll make any real money in this business.

Some print publishers won't take a novel that's been publishing online, so think long and hard before you put it on Kindle.

If you've tried fifty agents and they've all rejected you, join a writers group and get peers to critique your manuscript. Maybe it could be improved.

Much success to you. My blog talks about this a lot, so read past and present posts to find out more...

Angela said...

Joe, Thank you so much for responding to me. My manuscript has not been read by any agents. They just send me back notices that they aren't taking any new clients on. Or else they are looking for work that is very narrowed in scope because they say "that is all that's selling."

The only ones who have contacted me about wanting to read my manuscript are vanity publishers, self-publishers...

And as my book contains adult material it seems to be pretty non-existent the agents who are interested in that.

I feel dizzy. Going in circles...(smile)

Angela said...

I have tried to research Kindle in the possible attempt to download by book, but the Amazon link to their submission rules is broken, and both of the email addresses they give for contact are denied as not being valid by my email site. Does anyone want to spend a few moments to give me some details about how to set it all up, download, monitor it, etc.?

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Damn, this is good. Thanks so much for sharing your genius. ;o)

Steven Lucas said...

I found this article which may prove interesting if you want to publish an ebook for free on Amazon:

So, you've published a book on Amazon Kindle and you want to set the price to zero. There are many reasons for this - offering the first book in a series for free, offering short stories free, etc, etc. Unfortunately, when you publish an ebook for the Kindle (on KDP) the minimum price is 99c ... and you can't go any lower. (In this article I'm using Amazon US pricing.)

So how do you make it free?

Here's a brief rundown of the steps involved:

After you've published your ebook on Amazon KDP, head over to Smashwords and publish the same file there. Ensure the title is the same, but this time set the price to $0.00 (Smashwords allows free ebooks.)

After you've successfully published your ebook on Smashwords, apply for a free ISBN. You'll need this to enable premium distribution. (If you want, you can buy an ISBN in your own name, which allows you to specify the name of the publisher. Otherwise it'll be 'Smashwords'.)

At this point your Smashwords ebook will be marked as 'requires submission' or 'pending approval'. You can't enable premium distribution unless with your ebook file is absolutely perfect - and Smashwords can be very picky. Keep fiddling and uploading until your file passes all the tests. If you can't make it work I do offer an ebook creation service.

Your title will be 'pending approval' for a while. In a couple of weeks - or longer - your book will appear on B&N and Apple iTunes with a zero price. Now for the good part ... click 'report lower price' on the Amazon listing for your ebook, and paste in the precise URL for the B&N listing, a price of zero, and the current date. Then repeat with the iTunes link.

You can try reporting the lower price on Smashwords before your title is available on sites like B&N and iTunes, but I'm not sure whether this will work.

The next part is up to Amazon. Sometimes they'll price match and set your book to zero, and sometimes they won't. I can't tell you how long it will take, or whether they'll ever reduce the price to zero.

One final comment: After your ebook is priced at zero on Amazon, if you change the nominal price of your ebook on Amazon (e.g. from 99c to $1.99) it doesn't cancel the zero price.

Reverting the price
What happens when you want to cancel the zero price? What you need to do is raise the price on Smashwords, then wait for Apple and Barnes & Noble to pick up the new retail price. Once they do, Amazon should follow suit.

I hope that sorts out some of the confusion, and best of luck with your publication!

Steven Lucas - ebook and paperback author 0n Amazon.