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.
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?