Our debut novel, Dead on Demand has now been off free for a little over four days. In that time we've had a few reviews, and we've gone up in the charts quite a bit.
The big question therefore is "What is driving these sales?"
I'd usually advocate the biggest way to sell books is word of mouth, and that advertising has limited effect. I still believe that.
The problem with holding that out as always being a true statement is that there hasn't been the time lag for Dead on Demand to benefit from word of mouth advertising. Word of mouth takes time. The initial readers have to read it and like it then tell their friends.
This is a slow process because not everyone will like it, nor everyone will tell people about it even if they do like it, and not everyone told about it will then go on to buy.
Let's look at how quickly this spirals.
For something to go viral it has to spread more quickly than word of mouth dies out. If, on average, a book sells one copy to a word of mouth contact for every person that reads it then the ratio of readers: viral sales would be 1:1. Anything less than this means the pool of readers gets smaller, and thus can't be considered to have gone viral.
Let's look at how small increments in a ratio can mean big gains over time...
Ratio of 1:1 - A tells B then C then D etc.... Over 10 rounds this reaches 10 people.
Ratio of 1:1.1 This time the word of mouth spreads 10% quicker (not much of a change). First round: 1 reached, Second round 1.1 reached... tenth round 2.59 people reached.
Ratio of 1: 1.2 reaches 6.19 after ten rounds
1:1.3 reaches 13.78 people per ten rounds.
A little extra effort per person, particularly early on, snowballs very rapidly.
This isn't what's happening here as, at best, we're one round of word of mouth in. So something else has to be driving this spurt of sales. We're at #27 in Thrillers on Amazon UK right now, a big list by any estimate, and our promotional activity isn't doing it. We haven't advertised since Saturday. We had lots of promotion last week for free, but that is unlikely to be driving these sales as those blog posts have long since been buried under several days of new freebies.
I think it's all down to Amazon. We don't know exactly how they work (though Dan had a good crack at guessing what factors they use in an earlier post over on our blog). We know there are multiple lists for how books are displayed using a combination of numbers sold, pounds grossed, numbers downloaded, numbers views, conversion rate, ranking etc. Popular consensus among authors is that there are at least two lists:
1. Sales (+ paid borrows)
2. Popularity (which is sales + freeloads at a reduced weight).
I'm not convinced it's quite this simple, but given the absence of any contradictory data I'm not going to make up spurious claims.
We know Sales is one list, but Dead on Demand was free for five days; so in those five days we racked up zero sales. This therefore isn't the driving force.
That leaves popularity. I think the UK and USA algorithms may be different here. Our UK downloads were half our US downloads but we're outselling the USA by a significant margin (and a x10 factor rank). Part of this is probably an appearance at #1 on the UK movers and shakers list.
That means that all these sales are at the grace of Amazon. They choose how to display books, and this choice reflects what they think will sell best (and thus garner the most cash).
I'm both thankful and fearful of such a situation. I obviously appreciate the huge exposure we've had in the last week with 55,578 readers grabbing our novel free of charge. That is money-can't-buy exposure, and has already boosted our rank. With a bit of income from this we can reinvest in the next book more easily to help with costs such as editing, proofreading, art and advertising.
The problem is that this exposure can change in an instant. As soon as Amazon think you aren't a huge profit centre they'll bump you for someone more likely to make them a profit. They have vested interests as well; they now have several very successful imprints of their own, and that means a need to prevent discount pricing from cutting into their margins (free actually helps inhibit discounting under a classic free market model).
So, why have we carried on climbing in the last few days?
Simple, Amazon use historical sales data. On Sunday our previous five days looked like this: 0 0 0 0 0 (because we were free thus couldn't sell anything).
That makes us a bad bet to push. Two days later and it's 0 0 0 # #.
Amazon heavily weight recent sales but they don't ignore historical data especially very recent history. This means more visibility now some have sold which enables further sales. It's a "you must have experience to get a job" situation where some initial spark is needed. For us this was free - because the three hours we spent post free on the free list (at #1 UK and #6) got us sales (as well as a shed load of returns because people didn't realise Dead on Demand wasn't still free). This snowballed into Movers and Shakers, which drove visibility thus sales, and this punted us up the actual sales list giving us visibility on both listings.
In all I think we can conclude that free runs CAN be a success, but it comes down to 'Go big or go home'. Even with 55.5k downloaded, we will get a fraction of a percentage of that back in paid sales unless we somehow snowball onto both the UK and USA top 100. These lists requires huge number of sales - at the top of the US list a book can sell three or four thousand copies a day. To go from 0/day last week to anywhere near this would require a very high viral ratio.
It does bring some negative aspects. That many eyeballs on any text means every error is glaringly obvious (we're actually doing yet another round of proofing now to try and eliminate these lingering typos). It also means reaching readers outside the target audience so negative reviews are going to happen. While we didn't sell a huge number early on, we did target our advertising to a crime niche and that keeps readers happy as they're predisposed to like it.
For some readers expectation drives perception - seeing the 90 days moniker leads to a preconceived notion that it will be worse than if we say it's done in a year or two. Similarly we've had one review today that called us out on being co-authored (while others have commented they've never spotted the seams in how it was split).
Would we do it again?
Absolutely. For a guide to how much we spent on advertising it was something like this:
· Facebook: £45.79 ($68)
· Kindle-Author.com: £13.01 ($20)
· KindleBookReview.net: £6.51 ($10)
· Kindle Nation Daily: £19.60 ($29.99)
· Flurries of Words: £3.93 ($6)
· Freebies/ giveaways etc: £58.30 ($88)
TOTAL: £148.14 ($225)
So not an insignificant spend but I think it paid off in the download numbers. We also got featured at another sixty or so websites for free (including all the big sites - POI on day 1 and ENT on day 5).
We hit #1 in free in the UK, and #6 in the USA. Perhaps a shorter run would have helped condense all that advertising into one day and given us the double #1 spot, we'll never know.
Dead on Demand is leaving Select now - we think we've given enough free copies out.
We may enroll the sequel into KDP Select to do a free run with that, but for the immediate future the benefit of being on all sales channels (such as Kobo, B&N, iTunes etc) outweighs the benefits of being Amazon exclusive.
Thanks again to Julia for letting us come over and ramble - and good luck to everyone considering a freebie run.
Dan and Sean