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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Amazon Won't Let Me Give My Books Away For FREE

Getting into the top 100 books at Amazon is a dream that everyone aspires to. Getting into the top 10 is an even loftier one. But getting there is very difficult and made more so by one interesting policy that Amazon has. Did you know that as a self-published (Indie) author you cannot set your book price to free at Amazon? No, the minimum price you can set is $0.99. Why is this important? Just take a look at the top 100 ebooks at Amazon and you will see the list littered with free books. Yes, there are several that are $0.99 or $1.99, but did you also know that a lot of these books were once originally free too?

Amazon has an arrangement with publishers whereby it can agree to give a book away for free in order to generate cross-sales. Are you an established traditionally published author with a back-catalog? Chances are that Amazon will give away one of your first books for free in order to generate sales of the other books. But you and me? Sorry, ain’t going to happen. We have to stick with the $0.99 model and hope we can generate sales that way. Some authors have tried to beat the system by giving their book away on Smashwords in an effort to force Amazon to lower their price too. Doesn’t work. You can even try it on Apple’s iBooks. Still doesn’t work for Amazon. Interesting.

So the question is, does giving your book away really help to generate sales? I guess the short answer is yes, it does. If it didn’t then people wouldn’t do it. But, and here’s the rub, how many of those free downloaders will never read your book? I know personally that books that are free are generally bottom of my reading pile. If I pay $0.99 for a book then I have a vested interest in reading it. But let’s say 10,000 people download your free book and just %5 read it, that’s still 500 first-time potential purchasers of your other books – not a bad marketing campaign.

Of course, if you have only written one self-published book to date then giving it away for free is not very attractive for you anyway. Why write it in the first place? The system only works when you have several books to sell. Another nail in the coffin of first-time authors. Well, no one said it was easy becoming an established first-time author, did they?

Us Indie authors will continue to try to beat the system and get our books out there in every way we can. I am trying hard to build a catalog of books so that people understand I’m not a single book author; I’m in it for the long haul. Becoming established takes time, so stick at it, break as many rules as you can and just keep doing what you do best – writing. One day Amazon may give one of our books away for free too. In the meantime, please buy one of my books on sale at $0.99 and spread the word!

UPDATE: Please read my later post HERE


  1. Do you know by any chance how Amazon calculates top 100 rankings? My partner Mina Samuels was on the Today Show earlier this week and her book jumped up to 35. Two days later it's still hanging in there in the mid 160's (as of now). I wonder what the math is. It seems like sales in the preceding 48 hours or something? Curious.

  2. David - Amazon calculate their rankings hourly, based on a number of different factors, obviously including sales. A lot of quick sales will boost a book up the charts and then it generally just slithers back down again within 2-3 days. The formula uses current sales, average sales and total sales... I'm not from Amazon so I can't tell you exactly how it works. All I've been able to do is observe the process. Hope that helps a little. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. If there was a way to give your book away for free on amazon, but they wouldn't count the downloads against your ranking and you couldn't tell how many book were downloaded. Would that option interest you?

  4. Tim - I think the purpose of a free download is still to count downloads and ranking. It's the actual ranking that encourages a lot of people searching on Amazon gto download a book. If you're in the top 100 then there's a much greater chance of you being downloaded by a complete stranger.

  5. Hmm...just to play devils advocate here. I think that if amazon let indie authors post their books for free there would be so such a flood that it would still be nearly impossible to get your book into the top 100 ranking. I remember when amazon first launched the kindle store they had only the one top 100 ranking, and that was filled with free books. As a result they separated free from paid ranking.

    It would be nice if Amazon continued with the thought process and introduced an indie author ranking and ideally gave indie author a free book rank of there own. At least then your competing against people with similar resources, as apposed to large publishing corporations with well oiled marketing machines to back them up. Also, then you would be more likely to attract readers that are willing to give an indie author a chance.

  6. Excellent points, Tim (BTW I hope it's okay to call you Tim!). I agree there needs to be some kind of safety net in place to stop the system being abused. My point is that at present it's just a little unfair.

    Perhaps there should be a three book minimum qualification (i.e. you have to have three books already published on Amazon) before you can set one of your book prices to zero?

    I also think it would be a great idea to have separate Indie rankings. This would really encourage Indie authors and enable them to see how they were doing comparing like for like. For example if you are ranked #23,000 on ebooks in total, maybe you would be #2,500 as an Indie Author. That number alone would mean so much to an Indie Author that has to do everything themselves.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  7. Hi Paul,

    I just thought I would explain my Twitter comment in more detail.

    There is a way of getting Amazon to drop your price to "free", and it's fairly simple (and I know several people who have done it).

    Amazon won't let indies set a "free" price, but they also won't allow themselves to be undercut by a competitor. So, what you need to do is get one of the big competitors (Sony, B&N etc) to drop the price for free, and then Amazon will price match.

    How do you do that?

    Easy. Smashwords allow you to list for free. Simply drop the price on Smashwords to zero. In a week or two (sometimes less), that price will be pushed out to all the Premium Catalogue distributors that you have selected (Sony, Kobo etc.).

    Once that is done and you are free on one of those sites, it usually takes Amazon's bots a day or two to discover the price and match it on Amazon. You can speed the process up by getting someone else (it can't be you) to click on the link on the book page informing Amazon of the "lower" price elsewhere. They usually respond to that in a day or so.

    This will not work if you are not in the Smashwords Premium Catalogue. Amazon will not price match if you are just free on Smashwords, it must be a bigger competitor like B&N or Sony.

    You will get zero royalties at the free price, and you will also lose your rankings and any place you have in any bestseller lists. You will be moved to the free download listings and you will be elegible for the "free" bestseller lists.

    I know several people who have done this. It works.


    1. In my experience, over a period of several months, I found that for every 25 free downloads of my short story prequel I have 1 sale of my novel. Also, be aware that if Amazon decides to price-match your book and make it free, at their discretion the book may remain free indefinitely. So think about that before you push to have one of your books be price-matched as free. It's not like you can switch your book back and forth between paid and free whenever you want. Amazon decides if/when they want a book to be price-matched as free. I hope this info helps in decision making.

  8. Saw the link to this post on Twitter, and had to come here and commiserate. :-)

    I, too, have battled Amazon to make one of my books free -- the first in a series of four (so far). I wrote to them over and over, they turned me down every time. A friend of mine managed to get one of his series books free on Amazon for a few days, so I asked him how he convinced them.

    He said he didn't. His (very small) publisher set the book's price as free on as many sites as they could, and Amazon picked it up, as Dave mentioned above.

    So I went that route -- made the book free in the Smashwords premium catalog. Eventually it went up free on BN, Sony and the Apple store.

    At which point Amazon decided to make it free... in the UK.

    My sales rank on Amazon UK shot up to #1 in the book's category and #7 overall, and stayed there. And then the other books in the series started climbing the ranks. So I wrote to and pointed this out, thinking logically that if this increased overall sales on one Amazon site, it would do so on the others (and also wondering why Amazon would make it free in the UK, but not in the US).

    They replied with that old chestnut, "Setting a book's price is at Amazon's discretion. We do not take requests to make Kindle books free from authors or publishers."


    I kept writing to them. Eventually they solved the problem by restoring the book's original price (99 cents, which is 70 pence there) on Amazon UK. They never did set it to free for the US Amazon.

    So now my series is still hanging out in the upper ranks on Amazon UK, but pretty much going nowhere in the US. Sometimes I really despise Amazon...

    If I ever figure out how to get the whole free thing to work, I'll let you know. :)

    1. Amazon price matched one of my books and made it free... on the US site (plus German, French, Italian and Spanish) but will not make it free on the UK site, despite me requesting it and pointing out that they made the book free on every other Amazon site.

      They gave me the same guff reply that you received. :-/

      As a result, I just point out to UK readers that they can get the book free on Smashwords, instead.

  9. Partly it's because of the constant dumping of PLR content into the system at Amazon. Labels were giving a "book" (in the loosest sense of the word) away for free, and then asking people to buy a whole pack and repeat the process endlessly on Amazon and other sales sites.

    Sadly the price tag minimum hasn't prevented this on Amazon as despite their huge and powerful search tools, they just don't seem to care very much. So watch out because a lot of *ahem* "premium" content is now recycled (and often rubbish) PLR with a different cover.

    As a buyer of books (as well as a content writer) I wish Amazon would put free content in one chart, sub $5 in another and then everything else in another one still. It's really annoying how hard it is to find established favourite authors in the Top 100 listings now that everybody can sell their product on Amazon.

    Anyway - sorry for the rambling, good luck with your thing.

  10. This is interesting. I have a few short stories and academic writing guides listed on Amazon, all 99 cents. I have one novel on Amazon - 2.99. I have the same novel, same price on Smashwords, and a free short story on Smashwords. The 99 cents price point sells several, but I have had triple the downloads for the free short story. I don't know how to track - if it is even possible - the number of people who have bought my other works because of that free download. Please continue to update this discussion!

  11. This is a really great discussion. I don't have any insight/feedback on the Amazon scenario since obviously my FREE stuff isn't on there, but I do give away a lot of stories for FREE elsewhere on Smashwords and Scribd. Many authors question why I do so and sometimes I question it myself! Does FREE stuff make people pay for your other books? I hope so; I think so. In my scenario, though, I'm not offering something for free and then raising the price later, as I see happen with free mp3 songs, say at Christmas or Halloween, or free Kindle books on Amazon that, a few months later, are $1.99 or whatever. Basically my free stuff is complimentary to full-length YA novels that have been traditionally published, so it's really more in the vein of "Try a free sample" and I hope you like it. It does get a lot of downloads and I know as many people wouldn't pay for those items from an unknown indy author, but I work hard on the stories and try to generate goodwill and think that giving away a few stories, poems, whatever, in conjunction with other marketing and PR, makes sense for me. Maybe not everybody, but it's definitely a part of my marketing strategy and seems to be working okay so far. Sorry for the rant; this post touched a nerve and I'll be curious to hear more on this topic... thansk for letting me ramble!

  12. my free book on smashwords has been downloaded 602 times my 99 cent one has been sold 14 times. 10 of them with a free coupon. ha ha ha

    I so need to find something i am good at.

    @antonioangelo21 on twitter.

  13. The last comment supports something I was thinking about: can't you give coupons for the full price of the book you want to give away for free?
    I know that Smashwords allows you to give away coupons. I used it to allow a reviewer who couldn't part with $1.99 to read my first e-book.
    Does Amazon allow coupons? That would be a way around this dilemma. And, you could use them to track sales or downloads!

  14. This is a very interesting discussion and I agree that Amazon should allow an author to offer their book for free if that is what they so desire to do.

    On the other hand, playing devil's advocate, Amazon is out to make a profit and if you give your book away, there is no profit for them and yet they are providing a service and a medium to get your book out to the masses.

    Perhaps the best of both worlds would be what was suggested in an earlier post -- that Amazon update their policy to allow for this as long as the author has other publications listed on the site with a cost. They are the "King" of the upsale...right?


  15. Once upon a time, I agreed with you that it wasn't fair that indie authors couldn't give their books away free. But having spent the past several months seeing the way that all the various publishing resources available to indie authors are inundated with what are essentially hare-brained people trying to get rich quick, I think it's better for all of us that their free books are kept out. I don't think the bestseller list should be full of free or 99 cent books. Why? Because it's misleading. When I look at that list, I want it to be full of books that people bought because they came recommended. Not because they were cheap. Absent physical bookstores, it's already too difficult to find good things to read. Your, or my, ability to get our books into the top ranking should be based not on whether we can give them away on Amazon, but on whether they're more entertaining or better written than or in some qualitative way superior to the other 35,000,000 (that's how many you'll get if you search for books on Amazon with a blank search box) books available. I'm not envious. I'm willing to be a better writer to get sales. That's the thing that should count.

  16. Hi Everyone! Okay, Don't quote me on this, but I was reading a blog yesterday and it said that Amazon has this program and a budget for it, that you list your book with them for free, but they get the rights to your book for 90 days, And every time someone downloads your free book, you get a percentage of the money budgeted from this program. They were saying that the projected amount for 2012 per book the writer would make apprx. $7,000... Even if you opt out before the 90 days, they still hold the rights on it. Maybe that's why we are seeing some books being given away for free. I'll have to see if I can find the blog post and share it with you.

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