I’m not the first person to talk about the end of free, and I’m sure I won’t be the last. The writing’s been on the wall for at least six months now, after Amazon started making changes to how free promotions were reflected in the post-promotion algorithms, and to how visible free books are to readers. At one time, both on the Kindle ereader and the Amazon Kindle home page, there was a very clear ‘free ebooks’ tab. Now, you have to know where you are looking to even find free books, or physically type it into the search function.

So it’s clear that Amazon are trying to move people away from free. They’ve also brought out the new Kindle Countdown Deals promotion, which is exclusive to authors publishing via KDP Select. You can check out the benefits via the link, and I haven’t used it myself yet, but it looks as though 99p/99c is still the lowest you are allowed to drop to, which still can’t compete with the traditionally published books which are ‘allowed’ to be priced as low as 20p.

Why would you want to price your book at 20p? I hear you ask. The answer is the same as the answer to why go free: visibility. Often the Amazon charts are topped by books priced so low they may as well be free, but the key difference here is, they aren’t free! Therefore they appear in the main bestseller or popularity charts, they are seen by lots of people, the resulting downloads improve chart position and, you guessed it, visibility, and then when the book has maxed out at that price and starts to drop down the charts the publisher hikes the price back up and benefits from the full-price sales. But indie authors are excluded from this promotional activity, able only to price their books at a minimum of 99p/99c. Which, as anyone with half a brain can see, in the crowded marketplace of Amazon Kindle books is not so very special at all!

Some Interesting Results

I ran my last ever free promotion of Can’t Live Without the weekend before last, and the results were quite odd. It had over 7,000 downloads in the US (with zero uplift on sales post-promo because of Amazon’s new algorithm for post-free books), and only 600 in the UK. You read that right – only 600! Now, there may be lots of reasons for this. One, there just aren’t the same lists for the UK market like there are for the US, and I got on all the US lists which probably accounts for the success there. Also, many people within my personal reach have read Can’t Live Without already. Lots of people who are looking for freebies will already have CLW on their Kindles. But still – only 600? I’ve since discovered this is becoming the norm, with certain genres achieving on average 300 downloads over 5 days of being free. And I think there are two main reasons for this: the changes in Amazon’s storefront, and that people just aren’t that interested in free anymore.

Novelty versus Quality

I’m sensing a zeitgeist where readers are starting to think the free books are all crap, or that maybe there is the odd gem in there but you have to search through so much crap to get to it. Like, I hate shopping at sale time. Yes I might find a bargain but life is too short to sift through rails and rails of ridiculous jumpers and shirts and tops to find one nice item that might save you a couple of quid. Remember, free is opposed to an average price of £1.99 – it’s not exactly a life-changing sum! Also there are a lot of perma-free books on the lists, so it’s probably only worth looking every month or so, and even then there’s rarely anything new. In the US, there are big email lists which will alert you, by genre, which books are free for a limited period. In the UK there is nothing that works on a large scale in this way.

Christmas – and Free

So what about all the Christmas free promotions indie authors are planning as I write? What does this mean for them? The logic has been, for the last couple of years, loads of Kindles bought as Christmas presents means loads of new eyes on the lists, searching for a freebie. Well, maybe. My mother-in-law made an excellent point this weekend, one that (stupidly) hadn’t even occurred to me before: a vast majority of Kindles this Christmas will be bought as upgrades. That means the ‘new’ Kindle owners are not new to the market. They may not be searching for freebies at all, but just carrying on their quest for the next great read.

The Future

I can see myself doing two more free promotions: one around Christmas, and possibly one for Valentine’s Day to promote The Family Trap. But that’s it. I think the bottom has well and truly fallen out of free as a promotional tool (notice how I no longer feel the need to capitalise it?), and we’ll just have to square our shoulders and think of something else.

And finally (the bit about bad reviews) …

Why am I waiting for bad reviews? Well, because I had so many downloads of Can’t Live Without in the US, of course. My debut novel has a fatal flaw for the US market – the difference in the age of consent. Now, age of consent does not of course mean age of approval – when Lipsy, who is 16-nearly-17, has sex with her older boyfriend (and falls pregnant), none of the characters cheer her on! It’s a disaster, it’s entirely dysfunctional, and it forms part of a theme of the novel which is examining families under extreme stress. But in the UK, where the book is set, the age of consent is 16, so no one is actually committing a crime here. It’s sad – it happens! – but it’s not fundamentally ‘wrong’. When I read the first batch of disgusted reviews I couldn’t help but assume the age of consent in the US must be 18 and I’d committed some terrible faux pas – no wonder they were horrified! But wait … 18 is only the age of consent in 11 states. In 9 it’s 17, and in 30 states – the vast majority – it’s also 16.

But there you have it. I wanted to write about a teenager at a certain point in her life making a terrible mistake. If I’d made her 18 it would not have worked in any way because 18 year olds – in the UK at least – are, in the main, at a different point in their development. Lispy had to be 16 for it to be such a dreadful calamity. Tell that to outraged ‘Ginnifer‘, who thinks CLW is a horrible book 🙂 Astonishingly, 28 out of 32 people voted Ginnifer’s review as helpful. Thank goodness we don’t live in a world where the mistakes people make can’t be examined in fiction – if Ginnifer had her way we’d all be reading about perfectly happy families who do everything right and are sweet and kind the whole entire time, and we’d learn so much from that about the human condition, wouldn’t we?

Rant over. But (oh, not over yet!) what I don’t understand is how crime writers get away with it. Or vampire fiction. Or science fiction, or fantasy. So, it’s okay to murder someone, or suck out all their blood, or zap an alien, but if you are writing contemporary fiction it’s not okay to have a teenage pregnancy or a mother who forgets to buy house insurance? Really? Get real, is what I say. Age of consent aside, shit happens, writers write about it. It’s called material. If you don’t like life, don’t read books. Especially, don’t read mine!