Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Long and Short of Ebook Sales

Is using free as a tool to drive sales a sustainable model? I don't believe so. I also don't believe that makes a difference as to whether I choose to use it now or not. I've pretty much heard all the arguments for and against "free," and you know by now where I stand in the debate. Still, there's one argument that keeps coming up that I simply can't get my head around: That because "free" is not a long-term strategy it doesn't make sense to use it in the short term. That, somehow, sales ranks that are earned through any channel other than "free" will be stickier and that organic growth is better.

Sure, "free" could stop being effective tomorrow. The 99 cent price point lost a lot of its effectiveness last year. However, that in no way negates the effectiveness of "free" today. And while books may well pulse up and down the charts, why would anyone deny themselves short-term gain? Yes, I'm familiar with the dollar-costing strategy for financial portfolios and I recognize the gamble one takes in chasing the stock market either monthly or via day trading, but book sales respond differently and to different triggers.

"I won't do 'free;' I'm after long-term sales," is a statement I hear a lot. First of all, I have to ask what "long term" means. Sales over years, months, weeks? What's the ultimate goal? 5000 sales? 50,000? If I can make inroads into that number faster by using "free," how is that not a good thing for business?

"Pulsing up and down the chart is no way to establish yourself for long-term sales." Perhaps this would be a valid concern if books actually swung between extremes. Some probably do. So I took a look at my books' rankings over the last 6 months (well, 4 months for Vet Tech Tales since it only released in December) to see how they've fared. (Note this is anecdotal evidence at best, and my 3 books do not a trend make. Charts screen-captured on April 5.)

The first chart is for SECTOR C. I put it into Select on January 4 and set it free January 6. Despite it being priced 99 cents through January 5, you can see that it was taking wild swings in its pre-Select days and was maybe starting to gain some traction in December due to some advertising in early December and again in late December. Since being in Select, it's rarely dropped below a #20,000 rank and, as you can see, each time it does, I've pulsed it free to keep its sales fairly even. Price since January 9 is $3.99.

My Vet Tech Tales hasn't gotten quite the same push from free, even though you can see it did climb to #68 on the free charts in March. Its fluctuations are a little more erratic but realize that the further you drop away from around the 5000 rank the more fluctuation a single sale can produce. Plus, less data -- 4 months vs 6 -- in the chart means each change looks bigger. Pulsing is keeping it fairly consistent in the #15,000 - 18,000 range. 

And then there's Spoil of War, which is not in Select. It was price-matched to free in November; hence, that long straight line. Before December, this tool did not track free ranks as it does now. On the US Amazon site, it sold close to 300 copies in December post-free before sales tailed off and started some large fluctuations.

I couldn't (or rather, wouldn't) pulse the book free again this past quarter because 1) sales at Apple were building nicely and 2) that long free run from early Nov to early Dec was only supposed to be 3 or 4 days at the most. I couldn't get it unfree, and that was frustrating.

Now, Spoil seems to be the poster child for the folk who point to post-free sales as being nothing more than a flash-in-the-pan surge. True. But the stickiness for Spoil seems to be around the #40,000-80,000 rank on its own at Amazon. Organic growth on this book is slow. If I can triple or quadruple its sales artificially for a short time and then still return to the level where the book was before going "free," what's inherently wrong with that? And how is that different from actively promoting the book through advertising, reviews or social media?

Why do some folk not see that non-"free," organic promotions can build on the successes of "free"? Why do some folk believe the two are so very mutually exclusive? And why would anyone say that just because moving 300 or 1000 or 2000 copies of a title in one month isn't sustainable into the next months that they'd overall rather NOT sell those extra copies?

I'm not being snarky when I ask. If there's truly a solid business reason for not chasing short-term sales gains through pulsing free promotions, I really do want to know the reason and the logic behind it.



I'll be at the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention from April 10-16 but I've got the March Sales Voyeur post scheduled to run on Wednesday. We're also running a Spring Fling at Steel Magnolia Press on Monday, April 9, where we'll be giving away 7 of our titles, including 3 of mine. Do you know how much that timing hurts? I'm not sure I can survive just twice-daily checking of the post-free stats :o).


Ed Robertson said...

Ads, blog posts, a new review at a big site--don't they all result in an initial spike that may or may not be followed by a higher floor of ongoing sales? What's the difference between that and the results shown on your graphs? (Also: sweet graphs.) Are all those methods "inorganic" and useless for long-term sales, too?

Up until a couple months ago, my sales graphs showed a floor like an ocean bed. After some free promos, those floors are much, much higher. One book used to sell 2-4 copies per month. Now, it does that on a daily basis, and has done so weeks removed from a free promo. I can't guarantee it'll still be doing that six months or six years from now, but right now, making my book free appears to have resulted in long-term gains in sales.

Are free promotions considered "cheating"? Are they seen as eliminating big chunks of readers who might someday have bought the book through natural, organic sales, thus hurting an author's long-term earnings? Because readers aren't a nonrenewable resource. New ones are being made every day.

David Alastair Hayden said...

I agree 100%, Phoenix!

Why can't short term plans be part of long term plans? That's how most successful businesses are run. You build with both strategies. There are a few writers out there who are down on the idea of short term gains, and I really don't understand. I understand cautioning writers from thinking only of the short term. Sure. We all need to think long term. But to not use something that can provide a substantial gain in readership because it limits you to one retailer temporarily ... I don't get it. Sounds more like idealism than pragmatic business to me.

I'm using KDP Select to build a core audience on the biggest ebook retailer before expanding back out to the places I didn't sell well in before. (90+% of my sales were Amazon.) In the lifetime of a book, a 3 month committment or two isn't a big deal. I'll have a position of strength.

My experience is identical to Ed's. I essentially went from nowhere, two good books with no eyes on them, to somewhere. I had excellent cover art and good blurbs. I can write competently. I just couldn't get any attention for the books. I'm not much of a blogger, so free promotions are my advertising. The best there is out there, apparently.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

You, gentlemen, are the choir. I guess we should be thankful that there are so many who aren't jumping on the short-term success gravy train or the competition for an audience would be even fiercer.

Good luck on future sales! May the Amazon algorithms be always in your favor.

John Chapman said...

Congratulations on being back at the #1 spot with Sector C today and thanks for the great information in this post.

As the current #2 authors (A vested Interest), we are chasing you hard, having joined the Kindle Select program 3 days ago. Our positions are reversed in the UK

We released book 1 of the series as a free book today in the hope that it may encourage sales of the rest of the series.

The only concern I have about the Select program is that there is some concern that the program might have a finite lifetime (See Jeff Bennington's post

Odd that we've both chosen 'Donna' as the heroine's name in our books.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Hi John! Nice to meet the competition ;o). Interesting about the rank reversal in the UK. I do think UK authors are weighted more heavily in the algos there. Then again, SECTOR C doesn't play well over there on the paid side at all. Never have gained traction.

Thanks for the link to Jeff's post. I agree them model is not sustainable and I think there's some A/B testing going on now, perhaps for rank incentives later. We'll see soon enough, I'm sure.

Good luck with A Vested Interest. See ya on the other (paid) side!

John Chapman said...

Seems our fears were true since Amazon changed the system mid April.

Giving away a book for free now seems to work best if you offer a number of books or offer the first book in a series free. Our giveaway at the beginning of April made a huge difference to the sales of our other books. After the change it's effect wasn't quite so dramatic but still well worth it.

Since our book is part of a series we decided to make the first book free altogether. Unfortunately you can't do that at Amazon. We've made it free at Smashwords in the hope that Amazon will eventually make it free by price matching. That may take a while - one of my author friends, Niki Savage, who wrote the brilliant Crossfire trilogy, made her first book free on Smashwords months ago and Amazon still hasn't price matched.