Periscope Depth

no two days are alike, except the first and fifteenth pretty much

I fight the temptation to turn this into one of those writer blogs that’s about nothing but the numbers. But this is an interesting enough development that it bears recording.

So: on April 30th, I made Too Close to Miss available on Amazon for free. It had been moving fewer than a dozen copies per month over the last couple months (B&N, still killing it), so I wouldn’t be losing much money by giving up sales. The shift from $2.99 to $0.00 wouldn’t take effect for a few days*, since I was taking advantage of Amazon’s price-match guarantee rather than their KDP Select program. So I lowered the price, checked in a few days later to see if it had taken effect (it hadn’t), and promptly forgot about it.

On May 7th, I saw that Too Close to Miss was finally at $0.00 on Amazon – the price-matching algorithms had caught up. I also saw that, through no work on my part, it had moved ten thousand free copies.

Fast forward a week. As of last night, Too Close to Miss has moved 60,000 free copies. It’s the #1 free ebook in the “Women Sleuths” category and, as of Sunday, was the #2 free ebook on Amazon overall.

When you get 60,000 of anything, you need to address it somehow. So let’s talk about the meaning of “free.”

I’ve been blogging for over ten years and I’ve never written something that 60,000 people have read. Even the occasional Overthinking It article of mine that found its way to the IMDb front page (and was fraught with errors) couldn’t match those numbers. And that’s free content too! So it takes more than just a $0.00 price tag – it takes a presence in front of an interested audience.

If I showed up in Times Square with 60,000 paperbacks, I couldn’t give them away in a week. And even if I did, almost all of them would end up in the garbage. The 60K copies of TCTM that have been downloaded in the last week all went to people who wanted something to read. A significant portion of them may have deleted it after the first page. But I guarantee I had a better success rate at connecting to readers with Amazon than I would have via any other means.

This is with practically no publicity effort on my part. I let my friends and the Overthinking It twitter feed know. But I do not have 60,000 friends, and OTI does not have 60,000 regular readers.

Then how did 60,000 people know this book was free all of a sudden? Amazon has created an audience expectation that plenty of Kindle books will be available for free at any one time. Sites and subcultures, like Kindle Nation Daily and Pixel of Ink, have sprung up around this notion: automatically and frequently updating subscribers on which ebooks are available for free that day. So there are people who will scoop every free ebook onto their Kindle like the lightning round of Supermarket Sweep. Given that, I’m not opening any champagne bottles yet.

And yet, presuming 1% of those 60,000 read the book and like it enough that they want to read more, that’s 600 new fans. All at a cost of the $20 to $30 that I lost in Amazon sales for May.

Final note: I would have been happy to end the experiment at 25K free copies. But, since this is a roundabout process (change the price at Smashwords, wait for it to get pushed to retailers, wait for the retailers to notice, wait for Amazon to notice the other retailers), it’s not fully under my control. Thankfully I’m not relying on this for significant income. And it’s not costing me or anyone else anything, so I’m left with this odd, inexplicable embarrassment as free copies keep pouring out the door.

Of course, the real test will be how many copies it moves once I start charging money for it again – or how many copies the next book in the series sells. Which should be any day now …

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* Briefly: Amazon will not be undersold on an ebook if they can help it. If Amazon finds the same ebook at a lower price via another retailer, they will lower their price to match – all the way to zero if need be.

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