To #Free or not to #free - the question with varying answers

I have been asked this question so many times during the last two years that I’ve lost count (math is not my forte). The variable that dictated my response was when the question was posed to me. Confused? I know, so please let me explain...

When Amazon first started the KDP (Kindle Direct Select) program in December of 2011, I was still a fresh faced recruit in the publishing world. My first novel, Accountable to None, hit the virtual shelves April 22, 2011. Since I was a newcomer with no audience yet, sales were slow.

Imagine a turtle crossing the frozen tundra in Alaska during a blizzard–that slow.

(Okay, so I know that's a turtle in the sand, but I couldn't find an actual turtle in the snow--use your imagination).

By the time the announcement of this new option from Amazon arrived in my inbox in early December, I believe the tally of total book sales was less than four hundred. I had joined a few author/reader groups on Facebook, started accounts on Twitter, Goodreads and LinkedIn, etc., and generally just stumbled my way around while I watched and tried to learn from more seasoned authors.

So, the day the offer to sign up for the KDP program arrived, I read through the email to learn more about the program. You sign up for 90 days with your book, agree to allow Amazon to be the exclusive online retailer and in exchange, allow your books to be “borrowed” by Amazon subscribers of the Prime program. For each “borrow” you are in the pot for (at the time) a share of $750,000. Plus, you get the chance to list your book for FREE for up to 5 days during each 90-day period of enrollment. Sounded like a great program to me! Unknown authors such as myself would be afforded the opportunity to get their books in front of potentially millions of Kindle users when their book went from “paid” to “free.”

What did I have to lose other than royalties from non-existent book sales, right? After a day or so of waffling back and forth, I de-listed Accountable to None from Barnes&Noble for Nook users and gave the KDP program a shot. That was sometime around the week of December 15, 2011. I decided to run my book for free for three days during the Christmas holiday with the hopes that those who were on vacation or received a new Kindle for Christmas would take a chance on me and grab a copy of my book.

And grab they did. By the time my freebie days expired, Accountable to None had been downloaded over 25,000 times in the U.S. alone. It hit #1 overall in the free store, then stayed in the Top 100 in PAID for over a week after the book was either sold or borrowed. Thousands of sales and borrows. By January 2012, sales were still hopping.

Had you posed the “to free or not to free” question to me after the above, my answer would have been YES! Look how many people were reading my book. I was ecstatic! Not only did I achieve my dream of becoming an international bestselling author but thousands of people were reading my work. Around the world. I remember sitting on the couch on Christmas morning in stunned silence. At that point, I knew my life had changed.

I was a believer in the KDP program. So, the above process was repeated when I released the sequels Zero Balance and Adjusting Journal Entries with close to the same results. Every time I logged into my Kindle account to check stats, the numbers would change by the hundreds in mere minutes. It was crazy! Then, after the hoopla of the freebie wore off, within a week or two, sales would slow once more.

On a whim, I decided to try again in December of 2012 with Accountable to None to see if I could gain the same results to help kick up sales and obtain more name recognition. This time, my hope was that even though it was free, readers would enjoy it and want to read the remaining two books in the trilogy. Sure enough, Accountable to None zoomed up the charts after being downloaded over 25,000 times (again–still am in shock over that!) to become the #1 book in the free store and sales of the other two books took off. But—and this is a huge but (no pun intended) the post-freebie sales and borrows were WAY off from the 2011 numbers. By the end of December 2012 and early January 2013, the numbers were in the hundreds, not thousands.

The pattern shifted. The staggering percentage drop of sales/borrows from 2011 to 2012 left me stunned. That was when I made the decision to pull out of the KDP program with my trilogy and offer the electronic version of the book on other sites. Sales on Barnes&Noble were slow at first but thankfully, they have picked up.

But I was not quite ready to give up on the KDP program just yet. After all, not only was my name out there because of it but reviews were popping up everywhere (even though some of them made me want to cry–not all were great) and my hope was that when I released my fiction/suspense novella, Number Seventy-Five in April of 2013, people who had read my other novels would pick it up.

That was not the case. All I heard was the drone of crickets in the background after I virtually yelled “Ta-Da–here it is!” all over every social media outlet I could think of when I released Number Seventy-Five. The dead silence left me scratching my head in confusion. What happened? I was fortunate enough to have 3 NY Times bestselling authors read and provide cover blurbs for the book, so why did the stupid crickets chirp?

I decided to try the KDP program one last time in June of 2013 with Number Seventy-Five. I even paid for advertisement on a few sites that promote KDP free days. Sure enough, it hit #1 overall in the free store after a staggering 46,000+ downloads (again, U.S. alone). Yahoo! I was so happy as I watched the numbers spin by, eagerly awaiting the inevitable deluge of “post-freebie” sales of not only Number Seventy-Five but all of my books.

The crickets chirped again....

Less than 300 sales and 250 borrows. Reviews were the ONLY plus this time. When the freebie started, I had around 20. Within three weeks, I had over 90. Then, in July, I found out that Number Seventy-Five was a finalist in the 2013 Readers’ Favorite International Book Awards for fiction/suspense. I danced for joy around the house at the news. I was ready for sales to skyrocket. 

Damn crickets started chirping again...

I could not understand what happened. I knew that sales would slow once the freebie was over but never expected the sudden halt. Who slammed the brakes? I contacted other authors who were either in the program or had been at one time to discuss (okay, so I really whined) what the problem(s) could be. Had we sold our souls to the devil by limiting our audience to only those who owned a Kindle? Was the decline in sales some sort of secret backlash for only listing our books on Amazon? Was a revolt afoot by other ereader owners? Why the staggering drop in sales? The reviews were, for the most part, fantastic, and the majority written by readers who had never read any of my other books. 

After much whining discussion, we came to the following conclusion: We had trained our fans to wait until our books went up for free.

It’s a catch-22 situation. As an unknown, you need your name to stand out (even briefly) above the competition. You need an edge to get your work noticed. The KDP program provides that in spades to self-published authors. Unfortunately, sometimes a backlash follows. If those people who snagged a copy of your book when it was free enjoyed it, they will wait until it (or others) are listed free again. And why shouldn't they? In these difficult economic times, everyone enjoys getting something for free, including yours truly.

If you ask me today whether any of my novels are in the KDP program, the answer is no. All of my books are now available on Barnes&Noble, Kobo and Sony. While it may take me a while to reach these new audiences and sales may slow down, it’s a risk I’m willing to take. A piece of my heart and soul is inside the pages of each book I have written and I've worked too hard to continue just giving them away for free. I've invested not only my time but money as well in the design, marketing and editing of my works. The lure of gaining a fan base grabbed me in the beginning, but at what cost? The simple truth is that the royalties on 100 book sales are better than no royalties at all.

To free or not to free--that is the question. And my answer---


  1. Great post, Ashley. I agree with you about not going free for a while, but I'm always open to try new things. I'm on the fence about distributing to the other sites. My borrows through Select are really good and since I know I get roughly $2 per borrow while the customer pays nothing I don't know if I'll make that same income from sales at the other sites. I might try it when my Select term is up in October. We'll see. If you find any ways to reach the other sites that are as powerful as Select with Amazon, please let me know. On another note, when you mentioned your sales for the new release didn't skyrocket after you'd found all those happy readers...I have a few questions. Do you send out a newsletter? Do you have the link to your newsletter in the back of your books so its easy for readers to sign up? Do you run giveaways from time to time to entice your readers to sign up for your newsletter? I know it's hard to believe, but people can miss things on social media, and I am beginning to learn that many of my readers are NOT on social media. They go online every few months to find out when my next book is coming out and that's all they care about. Anyway, it sounds like you've had some great runs when your book IS discovered, so you might be able to put a few other pieces in place to work a little better for you... Good luck and thanks for sharing! :)

  2. Wow! Ashley, you've been peeking into my mind...and I can relate to every word and stat you laid out. After this August 'freebie' thing...I'm going to take the path you have...
    I thank you for giving me the final vote to move...keep smilin'...see ya at Sony and B&N and Kobo.

  3. Sophie---great idea about the newsletter. I will give some serious consideration for doing something along those lines.

    In terms of the borrows and KDP, I found that now that my sales are picking up on B&N, I am making MORE $ than I would have from the borrows on Amazon. To be quite honest, I haven't sold a book on Sony or Kobo, but I also don't market those links as much as I do the "Big 2." Even though Amazon has the lion's share of the ereader business, B&N can be just as financially rewarding once your books are on there.

    Lee--glad that I helped you get off that bloomin' fence and make a decision! :) Best of luck to you on the other sites! Still smilin'...

  4. Awesome post, Ashley! I was told, ten years ago, that people put the value on something that you put on it. The man who advised this spoke in reference to a self-defense class I gave to the community. He advised me to charge $10 and donate that, instead of giving the class away for free, because people will see a free class as worthless.

    I read about other authors who give their books away with abandon. And I wonder... how much do they value their work? How much do others value their work? Wouldn't you want your work to be seen as valuable, and worth spending the money on?

    Really, when I see an eBook listed for $6.99, I always have to wonder what it is about the book that makes it so valuable. I don't consider the author greedy. I'm intrigued about the value. So I remind myself of this when I see others giving books away, when they're not trying to promote the release of other books. How valuable is their work?

  5. Great post Ashley, I'll be relaunching my book soon, and need all the advice I can get...every little helps!


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