Thursday, May 17, 2012

Is Freeloading Via Amazon Select On The Wane?

Every now and then I see someone make mention that hand-in-hand with the decline in post-free sales, free books are not being downloaded in the same numbers as they were earlier in the year.

Is it true? Or does it just feel that way? It's a statistical claim, so what data is the observation based on?

Authors who aren't getting as many downloads per book as they once were might be tempted to extrapolate that data point across the entire freebook model. But just because we're tempted to do something, doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.

I am, however, going to fall into that same temptation. The only differences are that 1) I have a LOT of free runs to compare, 2) many of those free runs resulted in comparable ranks so I'm comparing like to like, and 3) I understand how to look at the captured data in a way that (hopefully) returns meaningful results.

For instance, on its first free run in January, SECTOR C hit #25 and ended up with 13,000 downloads in the US. That's how most authors would report their free run result, right? Did that mean it took 13,000 downloads to hit #25? Not at all. It took about 10,000 to hit that rank. In fact, 8 hours later it went off free at a rank of #35 with those 13,000 downloads -- and it took about 7000 downloads to hit #35 the first time. But the way indies often report results complicates and skews those results -- which makes it difficult to work with other people's data.

So, working with the pool of data I do have -- 10 books in Select through Steel Magnolia Press, which is admittedly quite a small pool but is perhaps better than what many indies are armed with -- I charted how many downloads it took to reach a given range of Top 200 ranks during each month in 2012.

Here are the caveats:

  • Within a given month, the free runs logged may have taken place on different dates.
  • There is always server lag in reporting downloads vs rank. I've used actual rank figures and backed up an hour to two hours to get the download numbers associated.
  • In the Top 50, it's very competitive. While I've segmented the ranks by 10s, the difference between a rank in the low end of the segment and one at the high end can easily be 1000 downloads.
  • Each month we had more books in Select, so data for January and February is not as robust as that available for March, April and May.

Still, there are some trends we can plausibly infer from the charted results below.

  • January appears to be the high point for freeloads across the store, followed by February. 
  • April saw a bit of a depression of about 20% across the board.
  • May freeloads appear to be at about the same level as February.
  • Readers still appear to be enthusiastic about freeloads.

And here's the kicker to what this data appears to indicate (and please note the frequency of the word "appears" throughout this post!):

There are now 153,000 books that are Prime Eligible compared to about 65,000 in January. Not all of those are in the KDP Select program, but for simplicity sake let's say the number of books eligible for a Select free run has doubled since the first of the year and posit that there are now twice as many books being offered free as there were then. If all the books being made free on a given day were being downloaded equally, then it should take roughly half the number of downloads now than it did in January to reach a given rank. But that's not what we're seeing. We're seeing it take the same number of downloads to hit a given rank even though there are almost twice as many books available.

That means either the overall number of free books being downloaded has increased exponentially because there are more customers downloading them or the same number are downloading more books, or else the overall percentage of books rising to the top has gotten considerably smaller, meaning there are a LOT more books not getting many downloads at all.

It is, of course, likely to be some complicated version of all three scenarios.

What this means is that using free as a tool for discoverability is still a great option assuming your book gets into the Top 200 or so, but it rapidly loses its effectiveness otherwise. Note I said "for discoverability" and not "for gaining post-free sales." With the new algorithms and their accompanying new price bias, books likely need to get into the Top 150 Free to have any noticeable post-free sales bounce, and into the Top 80 to see an appreciable bounce.

More and more, you have to be in this game to win it.

The bar keeps being raised. Are YOU up for the challenge?


Anonymous said...

I've pretty much given up on marketing my books, though I do find the numbers interesting. I'm trying to put all my efforts into improving my skills (I'm learning to do illustrations now) and writing more books.

I do, however, find the data interesting!

David Alastair Hayden said...

I have done five free promotions from February through May. All three books made it into the Top 100 the first time around. However, the two books that I've done more than one promo with have failed to get into the Top 1000 on the second go round.

Don't know why this is but it looks like select will be a one shot and I'm done affair for me. Not that I'm bitter. I'm very grateful. I wasn't selling any and this jump started my sales.

Ed Robertson said...

Nope. I'm setting sail for iTunes!

I don't know what's next for me, actually. Got a strong free run going on right now. Where I go next will depend on what happens when it's back to paid.

It's encouraging, however, that readers are clearly still very interested in free books. But right, there are more free titles than ever competing for limited visibility. Meanwhile, thanks to the latest changes, a smaller percentage of those increasingly numerous titles will see any significant boost from going free. By definition, there can only be 100 titles in the Top 100 Free list at any one time, and even that's no guarantee of success anymore.

That's too bad, in a way. Like David, I benefited tremendously from jumping into Select. Much harder for an unknown to get his or her foot in the door now.

As always, thanks for breaking down the numbers.

Calee said...

I love this data. We have ~80 titles and all are in select. We don't come close to using all our free days, (though now I wonder what would happen if we put all our books for free at the same time). I'm in the process of potentially pulling 2 books out of Select, though I will probably leave the rest in. None of our books are fantastic sellers (we've yet to break the top 1,000) but they are children's books and I'm in this for the long haul.

The number one reason I remain in select is for the borrows. Those dollars easily outpass what the books were doing in other stores before I made them exclusive to Amazon, AND I don't lose valuable production time creating multiple formats for multiple sites.

We've found the key is having lots of titles and are increasing the numbers every week. As more people buy children's ebooks through Amazon, we will already be there to supply that demand.

Russell Blake said...

Interesting. I have around 10 titles I play with in Select, and have cut off free promos after three lackluster May runs on titles that did very well in prior months. Now, I see 12K downloads in two days, and maybe a 10% bump in sales. That's assuming I crack the top 50. If not, there's no appreciable effect. I've written a number of blogs on the waning glow of free, from an author's perspective.

Yes, there are still plenty of free downloads. And yes, perhaps those will convert into sales, at some point - you know, when they have read the other 300 books they downloaded for free this week. My experience has been that if I see 5% readership, I'm lucky. That's purely gut feel, and I may be high.

I have two titles that are permanently free, and I generally see about a 2% conversion rate (100 free downloads, 2 sales of the next in the series) on a steady basis. That hasn't changed since I started doing that in Sept.

I suppose each author must make his own choices, but my personal sense is that free has lost its luster, at least for me, as if the post-sales bump doesn't happen, then you're really just hoping for a longer term effect - and hope has proved a poor strategy for the operation of most businesses.

Having said that, I'm still in Select, because now that the borrow fee is high enough, it is worth it to me. Borrows are a significant piece of my numbers now, equating to 10% of my net revenue. In that regard, Select is still worth it.

Great blog. I've linked you to my latest (on the price algorithm change) as well as on a guest blog I just submitted to a major UK blog. Keep up the good work!

Phoenix Sullivan said...

@Dalya: Now that your newest release has gotten some free love, I'm interested to know if its post-sales figures will be changing your mind. I'll be watching :o)

@David: Everyone's journey in this will be different. Best of luck on the next leg of your journey!

@Ed: I'll be watching your post-free sales carefully too! You and Dalya both rocked the free charts on Thursday!

@Calee: What I admire about your strategy is that not only does it take the long view, you're positioning yourself on the cusp of the next inevitable phase in the evolution of the ebook and its spillover into the children's market. It wouldn't surprise me if next Christmas Amazon introduces a children's Fire-like version with a high-impact screen, bright colors, big buttons, easy menus and adult filters. You'll be sitting pretty on Day 1 when that happens :o).

Phoenix Sullivan said...

So sorry, Russell, your comment got caught in my email spam filter.

Thank you for the linkouts!

I agree that the number of freeloads needed to make an impact on sales has increased considerably. I'm seeing it take about 3000 freebies to deliver a small post-free bump. For a decent bump it seems you need at least 5000 downloads now.

I concur about the borrows. And nice that the rate is creeping up to $3 per borrow. That should attract some higher-priced books into the program.

All-in-all, I think Select can be of most help to series books from the results I've seen where authors have been particularly smart about how they pair their free runs to Books 1, 2 and 3. We just don't have any series books to play with right now.