Hit and Miss with KDP Select

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May is How To Sell Self-Published Books Month here on Catherine, Caffeinated, and we can’t talk about selling self-published books without mentioning KDP Select, the Amazon program that encourages you to include your book in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library and lets you promote your book as a free download for up to 5 days as an incentive. 

Ah, KDP Select. Quite the contentious issue, it seems. I’ve blogged about it before in, ahem, Why I Won’t Be Blogging About KDP Select (ha!) and So… [Innocent Whistling] About That KDP Select.

Personally I like KDP Select. I think it’s a great way to promote your book and a surefire way to find new readers. But it really only benefits you if (i) you have more than one title for sale and (ii) you sell almost all your books through Amazon, so taking them off other channels—Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, etc.—isn’t going to lose you any significant number of sales. And as for Amazon being the Dark Lord of Greedy Capitalism, crushing independent bookshops with their feet while robbing money from authors’ pockets with their hands, I’ll say again: none of this is mandatory. You don’t have to enroll in KDP Select. You don’t have to self-publish with Amazon. You don’t even have to self-publish. So stop throwing your toys out of the playpen and channel your energies into something worthwhile.

And remember: the KDP Select exclusivity period is just three months. Your book has to be exclusive to Amazon, yes, but only for the length of time you’re enrolled in the program, and you can enroll for just three months if you like. After that you can do what you like. I’ve been playing with KDP Select for a while now and I plan to play with it a bit more over the summer, but from September I’m going to change my tactics and go for full distribution. That is, I’m going to sell my books through as many channels as possible, which will of course exclude me from using KDP Select.

The first time I did it, I was just dipping an uncommitted toe into its dark and potentially murky waters. I enrolled a Kindle-only combination title of my two travel memoirs called Mousetrapped and Backpacked Too. This was not a title that ever sold well, mainly because it was only a buy two, save a dollar special offer kind of thing; in three months I’d sold just 26 copies. But I thought that maybe KDP Selecting it would increase sales of my other books, or at least lead to more customer reviews. After promoting it as free for three days, 193 copies were downloaded from Amazon.com and 209 copies were downloaded from Amazon.co.uk. When I used my remaining two free days a few weeks later, a further 217 copies were downloaded from Amazon.com and 117 copies were downloaded from Amazon.co.uk.

In other words, hardly anything to write home about.

But Mousetrapped and Backpacked Too was a bad guinea pig. Results Not Typical, my novel that wasn’t selling anywhere near what I’d hoped, was a much better one. This time I did all five free days together, and between Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, there was about 3,600 downloads. Paid sales picked up and stayed strong for three or four weeks afterwards, but there wasn’t any long-term benefit, it seemed, from KDP Selecting the book.

I was frustrated. Everywhere I turned online, there was a KDP Select success story for me to read. Self-pubbed author on the verge of giving up enrolls their book and sets it to free; author wakes up the next morning to discover there’s been 20,000 downloads over night; between subsequent paid sales and borrows, author can afford to buy a brand new car—with cash. So why wasn’t it working for me?

I’d tried KDP Select with a book that wasn’t really a book in itself but a combination title. Then I’d tried it with a book that wasn’t selling at all, but would only appeal to a certain sector of readers. What would happen if I tried it with a book that was already selling, that had been selling consistently since its release (although without setting the world on fire)? I would never consider trying it with Mousetrapped or Self-Printed, because those two books do sell on other channels like Smashwords. So that left just one book: my second travel memoir (and my personal fave out of my books), Backpacked: A Reluctant Trip Across Central America.

It seemed that one thing played a huge part in whether or not your free promotion days translated into success: luck. Just like self-publishing as a whole, you’d need at least some luck to succeed. My advice to self-publishers had always been to do everything you can to maximize the factors that are within your control, so that when/if luck arrives, you’re primed to take full advantage of it. In other words, make luck your only variable. But I hadn’t made luck my only variable. I hadn’t done anything at all, in fact. I’d just set the book to free and mentioned it a couple of times on Twitter. What would happen if I did everything I could to make my KDP Select free promotion days a success? What if I got a bit strategic?

I’d already decided that I was going to take the “selling” themed blog posts I’d stacked up and publish them all in May, making it “How To Sell Self-Published Books Month”. I’d got the blogging blahs in April and had been really lackadaisical with my posts; I wanted to make up for it and thought having a series would be good motivation. I suspected that some of the posts would have a high share value, and would get tweeted, reblogged and shared a lot—and that many of the people who would see these posts would never have heard of any of my books before and might quite like the opportunity to download one for free. So instead of randomly picking my free five days, I’d make them coincide with these blog posts. I also tweeted about it and told my newsletter subscribers and Facebook fans about the offers.

Since I last did KDP Select, Amazon has added separate columns to its “month to date unit sales” that show free promotion downloads (from KDP Select) and free price-match downloads (for when Amazon sell your book for free because you’re selling it for free somewhere else), which makes the numbers a whole hell of a lot easier to keep track of. And this time around, I had some nice numbers.

From Amazon.co.uk, anyway. Over the five days, Backpacked was downloaded for free 6,958 times. It reached #4 on the overall free Kindle charts and was #1 overall on the Kindle non-fiction charts. Once it went back to paid, the good news kept coming. In April, I sold a paltry 44 Kindle copies of Backpacked on Amazon.co.uk. But so far in May, I’ve sold 431 of them—and two weeks after I ended the free promotion, sales are still going strong.

Amazon.com wasn’t anywhere near successful, with only 738 free downloads. And here’s a cautionary tale: KDP Selecting Backpacked left me much worse off on Amazon.com than I’d been before. On the Sunday after it went back to paid, it was #67,587 in the Kindle store and #52 in Books -> Latin America. Before it went free, it had consistently been in the #3-5,000s and was occasionally #1 in the same category. Today—just over 3 weeks later—it’s around #36,000 and #6. I’ve still sold more copies of Backpacked than I did the month before though, which is not something I quite understand. (How can I be selling more copies but have a lower ranking…?) But from what I do understand, KDP Selecting Backpacked on Amazon.com, at least, was a bad move.

Last week I set my novel, Results Not Typical, to free. Results is the worst performer of all my books, despite having been the subject of the greatest promotional efforts at time of release. It just seems that people don’t get it, or get it and aren’t interested in it. As I said above, the last time I set it to free, it was download just over three and half thousand times, mostly from Amazon.com. This time it was downloaded 15,972 times from Amazon.com and 4,568 times from Amazon.co.uk—obviously a lot better than the last time it went free. BUT, there’s been no subsequent increase in paid sales on Amazon.com, although there has been a moderate bump on Amazon.co.uk. From what I’ve seen with this book before though, this won’t last.

Here’s an interesting nugget though: sales of my other two books, Mousetrapped and Self-Printed, have increased across both Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, more so on Amazon.co.uk. Overall, sales are up across the board. But remember that as well as two different KDP promotions, I also got Freshly Pressed, which brought loads of new people to this little pink blog. In April, there were 17,000 hits on my blog. So far this month, there’s been over 50,000. So maybe that’s what has contributed to a rise in sales, not KDP Select. It’s hard to tell.

So what does all this mean?

My conclusion is: sod all. It means nothing. It doesn’t point to KDP Select being a good thing, but it doesn’t point to it being a bad thing either. It all comes down to luck, and that luck might just as easily swing out of your favor as it may into it. I think the only certainty is uncertainty: KDP Select can’t be relied upon to boost your sales, especially since the whole algorithm change back in March, which Amazon started weighing free downloads at approximately one tenth the value of paid sales. (That’s what I understand of it, anyway.) But based on anecdotal evidence (read: people telling me), reading and enjoying a free book does tend to lead to the purchase of other books, if they’re available.

If you asked me do you recommend KDP Select?, I’d say, yes, but only if you have more than one book, or you do it to launch a book, and only if you do it strategically, i.e. make it coincide with something that will ensure that a lot of people find out your book is free. I don’t think I’d recommend pulling your book off other channels to take advantage of it anymore and I have my doubts about who actually reads these free books. My guess is only a minority of the downloads actually get read. Maybe we should also start to think outside the box to come up with new ways to use it—next week I’m releasing an e-book of blog posts, and I’m going to use KDP Select to give it away so everyone who reads this blog already can get it for free.

Have you used KDP Select? How did you get on? Have you used it since the algorithm change?

29 thoughts on “Hit and Miss with KDP Select

  1. E. A. Hughes says:

    Very interesting. Just enrolled one book on KDP Select, and had a sale on Saturday. I reached about 200 downloads and was jumping up and down, so that shows where my bar was set! I made it more of an event for my regular readers, and encouraged some competition between .com and co.uk. Not sure how much it worked, but I see it as a good way to reach people who would not otherwise have looked at your book, and there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

    I managed to get to around #800 free in store, and #17 in my category (.co.uk – .com was a lot worse). Now I’m #67,000 paid .co.uk (#929,000 paid .com).

    I’ll try it again a couple more times and see what happens. Thanks for your (as always) helpful and thoughtful post.

  2. Tahir says:

    I read in at least a couple of blogs that Amazon changed it’s algorithm in March for how KDP free runs appear on “most popular” lists which is what gives them the momentum after going back to paid. Apparently the KDP free downloads get a weighting factor of 10% compared to what it was before March. So you basically now have to give away 10 times as many to get the same momentum after going free. This would explain why a lot of people have seen a big difference in post-campaign sales.

  3. Michelle Isenhoff says:

    Last fall, two of my books went free on Amazon because of a price match. I *sold* ten thousand copies in two days both times and sales jumped through the roof until after Christmas. This April, I tried KDP select for the first time with two similar books (same genre, length, etc.). The first two days, one had three hundred downloads. The other (only a one day promotion) had 12. Afterward, sales barely bumped for either. Time of year was a definite variable, but I think there are now so many free books available that each slice of the pie may have gotten a little thinner. If you’re going to try KDP select, it seems lumping all your free days together may be a better choice than going in smaller spurts.

  4. stevenwwatkins says:

    Great point on the Freshly Pressed windfall. That should tell us all a lot. Hopefully, WP will make some other modifications that have reduced the exposure for some bloggers (in my opinion.)

  5. Haythem Bastawy says:

    Thank you very much Catherine for the valuable information you are sharing with us, and for your book Sel-printed which I’m about to read. Do you think having a printed version of a book would help the kindle sales or vice versa? I also wanted to ask you do you recommend a certain editor and cover designer? Thank you!

  6. char says:

    Wow! It all seems so complicated, and like you said, LUCK is a big factor. I would hope most downloads get read…but just not in a timely manner. I jump on and download free titles when I see them, but with so many in my Kindle, it takes me a while to read all of them. I’m glad I didn’t go for the Select option though since I only have the one title right now. Thanks for sharing all your lessons learned.

  7. Ken Preston says:

    I did my first KDP Select free promotion over two days on the weekend of 19th May. Got over 200 free downloads off Amazon.com, and about 50 on UK site. A week later, on 26th May (my youngest’s 6th birthday, coincidentally) I sold 58 copies on US and 39 on UK. So how did that work? Why the sudden flurry of buys on the one day?
    Well, I’m doing a 3 day promotion this weekend. I’ll update you next week about any further sales!!

  8. barbarabrooke says:

    My first free promo was held over Mother’s Day weekend (Sun & Mon). I promoted through a few online sources before and during the promotion. I lucked out, because in those two days, Glimmers had almost 19,000 downloads. I was completely blown away! My sales afterward were pretty good, but didn’t compare with the number of free downloads (around 300 paid downloads since). It did help my ranking and brought in a few reviews.
    I’m trying it again this weekend (Fri & Sat). I’ve started lining up a few more online sites to help market the book. It’s a lot easier this time, because I have over 10 reviews (which many sites require). We’ll see how it goes this time.

  9. Tahlia Newland says:

    I have three short stories on KDP select and I’m timing their free days with the intensive promotion time for my new book. I’ve had good results with it, in that the short stories keep selling afterwards. It’s not huge, but I didn’t have anything free this month and my sales were the worst month I’ve ever had. The short stories never sold anywhere other than on Amazon, so I didn’t loose out by taking them out of circulation elsewhere. The collection of stories in one book is still for sale elsewhere, but strangely enough the single shorts sell better. It’s like all of these things, you play around with them and see what works.

  10. Martin Lake says:

    I admire the honest way you share your figures, Catherine. Gulp, I might even do the same. I’ve put only my latest novel ‘Artful’ on Kindle Select, mainly because I couldn’t be bothered to take down my other titles from Smashwords. Oh, and also Artful wasn’t selling at all well, four a month.
    It didn’t sell when it was on Select either but on the two free days there were 493 downloads, spit between the US and UK and also three in Germany. (I was more excited about these first three bites than all the rest as I’ve never sold in Germany.) An hour after ending the freebie someone bought a copy. ‘We’re off,’ I thought. ‘Here come the sales.’
    Then, nothing. I didn’t sell a thing for a week.
    Oh no, I thought, I’ve obviously only got a maximum of 493 readers in the world and I’ve just given the whole lot of them one of my books for free! Then one Artful sold, then another. And the other books picked up as well.
    Yeah, I agee. I think it’s all luck.
    I downloaded ‘Results Not Typical’ and love it. It’s one of the few books which has made me laugh out loud. Thanks.

  11. Owen Banner says:

    Haven’t used KDP Select yet, but I plan to use it this summer when I release my first novel, a thriller named Hindsight. Everywhere I have read, people say to use cross promotions the day it comes off of free and try to get as many readers to review it as possible. I’ll be going for that strategy and hoping that it turns out to add a little push to the luck you’ve mentioned.

  12. Adam Carter says:

    Thanks for the info. I just published my first book, Unfinished Poetry, through KDP Select. I have absolutely no idea what to expect!

  13. ljclayton says:

    This e-publishing is all new to me and I don’t mean to throw my toys out of the pram, but asking an author to give books away seems to me all wrong. It’s emotional blackmail. I can see the day coming when no one will dare ask for a penny for a first book. But I’ve a lot to learn and I hope i’m wrong.

  14. The Hook says:

    My book will be free Sept. 10/11 on KDP Select, but I’m a newbie to the self-publishing biz, so i hope things go well and I reach a large number of readers. Wish me luck!
    If you have ANY suggestions, please let me know…

    • shawnst says:

      brief update–Clotho’s Loom has experienced a surge in folks putting it on their GoodReads shelves, since the KDP promo–I have to think many of these (40+ as of this writing) are free copies.

  15. Shelley James says:

    Really interesting reading and thanks for your take on KDP.
    I suspect my quandry is slightly different as the ebook I am about to publish isn’t a novel and will be priced a bit higher than some of the novels on Amazon. It is a specialised book which is relative to the UK and not the US so downloads in the US doesn’t interest me. The ebook will, however, complement an existing paperback book which sells well on Amazon and usually in the top 10 in its category. Because of this other book, I have already secured a few reviews in magazines (so I hope they are good!!!)

    Would be grateful for any thoughts you have on whether KDP is suitable….

    Thanks and good luck to all…

  16. LJBooker says:

    No one seems to be mentioning the fact that the bestselling books that are in Amazon’s select program are not exclusive, like, for example, the Harry Potter books. Those are for sale at Barnes and Nobles Nook store. It seems that there are two sets of rules. Only the indie authors have to give up their rights to sell elsewhere. This way Amazon gets to brag ‘exclusive’ books, while undercutting the other stores with free popular books. And those free bestsellers are getting all the funds in the pot. This whole promotion is about putting everyone else out of business. Has no one else noticed this?

  17. cloudfoot says:

    I love this post. Thanks so much for recording your experiences and efforts. I’m trying to decide if I should begin to opt out of KDP Select. I’ve had readers ask for my books in other formats and it totally sucks to not be able to take advantage of other channels JUST so I can have five free days and a piece of the KDP Select fund. You can just make a book free on Smashwords and then Amazon will price-match it, right? And then you’re not strapped into an agreement for three months.

    Anyway, I appreciate your post and I love LOVE the pink format of your blog.

  18. lcbarlow says:

    I had a fair amount of success coupling KDP Select and advertising on Facebook (which resulted in about 1180 free downloads of my book Pivot in all 5 days). Here are the things that I noticed:

    1.) People who download the book for free don’t necessarily read it, and they usually don’t review the book on Amazon.
    2.) GoodRead’s Giveaway program brings much more attention to the book, even if it doesn’t immediately increase sales, and it seems the people on GoodReads are more serious about reading it. I have six ratings on GoodReads versus the two on Amazon.
    3.) Advertising on Facebook worked best on the weekends, and I got the most free downloads on Kindle KDP on the weekends.
    4.) In the future, I will probably offer the book for free on GoodReads and open up other avenues for sales. I don’t think KDP is worth it.

  19. C. Ray Cook says:

    Ah, if I were 50 years younger, had a portion of my navigational skills left, then I could navigate the Cape Horn winds and waves of KDP. Perhaps then, I could find out where my 4 remaining free days of offering for my book The de Vere Deception have floated away to. Why do the young find it necessary to torment us old timers with screens of 25 options when only 7 or 8 is enough to make our baby blues glaze over?
    I wish I had a wedge of chocolate fudge cake with a scoop of . . .
    Where was I? Oh, yes, can someone please let me know where my free dates are? And also my left sock . . .

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