Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Free Kindle Book Ride May Be Over

Many authors have been taking advantage of the Amazon KDP Free Book promo option ever since KDP Select was rolled out, and many a bookish website and blog has sprung up specifically around promotion of free Kindle books.

All of that may be about to change, thanks to an Amazon Associates agreement revision that's set to take effect March 1 of this year:

March 1, 2013 version
The following is added at the end of the sub-section:

“In addition, notwithstanding the advertising fee rates described on this page or anything to the contrary contained in this Operating Agreement, if we determine you are primarily promoting free Kindle eBooks (i.e., eBooks for which the customer purchase price is $0.00), YOU WILL NOT BE ELIGIBLE TO EARN ANY ADVERTISING FEES DURING ANY MONTH IN WHICH YOU MEET THE FOLLOWING CONDITIONS:
(a) 20,000 or more free Kindle eBooks are ordered and downloaded during Sessions attributed to your Special Links; and
(b) At least 80% of all Kindle eBooks ordered and downloaded during Sessions attributed to your Special Links are free Kindle eBooks.”

A Little Background On Amazon's Associates Program

Amazon Associates program participants can provide a link to virtually any page or product on Amazon (including links to free Kindle books) with their Associate ID attached to it, and that ID piggybacks on most purchases the customer makes on the Amazon site during the same shopping session. So Associates have historically had an incentive to share ANY Amazon link, including links to free Kindle books.

If anything, links to free Kindle books have been very desirable for Associates program participants to use because shoppers' resistance to clicking through on such links is low: the product in question is free, after all. But very often, once on the Amazon site, the customer will start browsing or will think of some other item they've been meaning to buy, and commissions for those purchases are paid to the Associate whose ID first brought the customer to Amazon.

Possible Chilling Effects of the Associates Policy Change

There are two factors to consider when trying to forecast possible outcomes of this change:

1. This new policy puts ALL of a given Associate account holder's commissions at risk in any month where "sales" of free Kindle books from that Associate's links are high.

2. With this new policy, authors and Associate link / promo providers who used to have the common goal of maximizing click-throughs on free Kindle books are set in opposition to one another. The author still wants to maximize downloads during the free promo period, but the more free downloads are generated, the greater the risk that the Associate link provider will lose all of his commissions for the month.

In my opinion, this will be a pretty effective discouragement for many Associates to promote free Kindle books. Even if the bar for commission loss is set pretty high (both of the above-quoted conditions must be met for a given month's commissions to be forfeited), the mere possibility of commission loss may steer many Associates away from continuing to promote free Kindle books.

What's Amazon Up To?

This policy revision speaks to some business changes on Amazon's end.

Amazon is surely aware that the free Kindle promo option has been a major driver in getting authors to sign up for their KDP Select program, but recent changes to Amazon's book sales rank algorithm have drastically reduced the formerly positive effects of large numbers of free downloads. While a given book's sales rank isn't exactly penalized for free downloads, free downloads are no longer driving the kinds of sales rank leaps and bounds that drew authors to take advantage of free book promo periods in the first place.

Now add the disincentive for Associates to promote free books, and it definitely starts looking like Amazon is moving to discourage publishers and authors from offering their Kindle books for free.

Has Amazon Finally Turned On Indies, As So Many Predicted Would Happen?

Since the great majority of authors and publishers who have been willing to offer their Kindle books for free are indies, some may conclude this is some kind of long-planned attack from Amazon on indies in general, but I doubt it.

Sales rank algorithm changes levelled the sales rank playing field again to a great extent, but maybe sales rank integrity wasn't all that was troubling Amazon. Maybe Amazon never anticipated how popular and widespread free book promotions would become, and how large a percentage of their monthly Kindle book "sales" in any given month would eventually come to consist of free downloads. Every free Kindle download represents a loss to Amazon, since Amazon is absorbing overhead costs to host and sell the book but isn't earning any profit on it.

Given that Amazon only earns money on downloads of Kindle books people are actually paying for, I think the most obvious and simple answer is the correct one:

Amazon is tired of losing money on free book downloads.

But once the genie was out of the bottle and indies everywhere had made free downloads an entrenched part of best practices for any new Kindle book launch or promotion, nobody outside of Amazon or mainstream publishing was motivated to stop the runaway freight train of free Kindle books.

Even indie authors and publishers who don't want to offer free promo periods have felt pressured to do so, since others who did offer their books for free have sometimes seen such great results.

You May Have To Start Making Money On Every Kindle Book Download, Whether You Like It Or Not

I can only speculate about the long-term impacts of this most recent policy change, but after thinking it over I've concluded that in the end, it's probably a good thing. The change gives indies a good, solid business reason to move away from offering their Kindle books for free; what's that old expression, about how a rising tide lifts all boats?

When the majority of us are selling our books at a price instead of giving them away, the majority of us will be making money on every download.

When free Kindle books become the exception instead of the rule, book buyers will stop 'waiting till it's free' or even having an expectation that a given book should be free. I was never one of those who backed the 'devaluation of books and literature' argument, I've always thought that within reason, ethics and the law, any promotional tack that gets an indie author more exposure and sales is worth trying. Even so, I think the prevalence of free Kindle books has shaped---some might say distorted, or even dominated---the ebook market in ways that few predicted, and it has ultimately hurt indies overall more than it has helped most of us.

The former, nearly guaranteed sales rank boost one could expect from a free promo period is all but gone, thanks to algorithm changes. Yet many have continued to cling to the free promo gambit like a drowning man to a piece of driftwood, because it has worked for so many authors in the past.

In the face of the very daunting book launch and promo task, a free book promo was at least something an indie could do pretty easily to get his or her book in front of as many eyeballs as possible, and an easy "in" to book blogs and sites. Like I said before, a free product is an easy "sell". And if most customers who were taking advantage of those free promo downloads were actually just book hoarders, collecting but never actually reading hundreds of free titles, well, most of us preferred not to think about it.

Amazon may be trying to force authors, publishers and book bloggers alike to stop offering and promoting free Kindle books, but in so doing they're forcing us in the direction of more profit for everyone. It's hard for me to see that as anything but a positive development.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Let Your Writing Lead You Where It May

Many of those who are reading this are facing the harsh reality that author royalties may never be enough to support yourself and your household, or at least the only slightly less harsh reality that while you're waiting for lightning to strike, you've got bills to pay.

I am living proof that writing can be a great career skill and a surprising stepping stone; you can make a living with your writing, but not necessarily in the way you imagined, and not necessarily by doing nothing but writing. Still, writing in a professional context is no less legitimate than writing in an artistic context, and it can be very fulfilling while also providing you with some financial security, as I've learned firsthand.

I am one of those rare, incredibly fortunate individuals who has a dream job, and I have writing to thank for it. I get paid to consume all kinds of digital entertainment content (e.g., ebooks, audiobooks, apps, movies, TV shows, music) on various devices and write about it. I write reviews, tips and tricks, how-tos, and editorial commentary. I work from home, and have the flexibility of setting my own schedule. I am acutely aware of how lucky I am in this, and just as certain that I never could've arrived at this point in my career without having accumulated the skills and experiences gained through all the career paths I've traveled in the past. It's been a long and circuitous route, but the one constant through everything has been writing.

I started out as an English major, but only because it was a favorite and easy subject for me, someone who's always been a prolific writer and voracious, compulsive reader. There was just one problem: I never aspired to career in education, academics or journalism. Of course I dreamt of becoming a published author someday, but it seemed more like a pipe dream than a practical career choice. When I decided I needed to change to something more paying-the-bills -friendly, I switched to an Animal Science/Veterinary major because I've always loved animals and science.

While doing a mandatory research project I realized I enjoyed analyzing data, working on my research paper, and using technology to facilitate better, faster and more accurate results more than I enjoyed providing healthcare to animals. From there it was a hop, skip and a jump to a career in software development, where my unique combo plate of communication and tech skills always kept me in demand. I may never have been the most brilliant software engineer or database admin in any of the companies I worked for over the years, but it was my writing and communication abilities that always tipped the scales in my favor. A particular strength I had was the ability to translate highly technical content and concepts into plain English. I did a great deal of technical writing and software documentation during that time, and wrote numerous project plans and proposals as well. This kept my writing skills sharp and it kept me happy, because I never had to give up completely on my first love: writing.

Little did I suspect those tech and writing skills would form an ideal platform for me to circle back around into my long-dormant dream of authorship, but that's exactly what happened. Back in '07, when Amazon launched its first Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, 'self-publishing' was still a dirty word. Among most aspiring authors and publishing wonks, the bias against self-publishers was no less passionate nor baffling than the completely unjustified reverence heaped on mainstream publishing. I came into that milieu as an outsider with a tech/business perspective, and all I could see was that self-publishing simply made more sense for many would-be authors and existing authors, and that this was the direct result of two recent, disruptive technologies: ebooks and Print On Demand. It was really my innate drive to make sense of the nonsensical and disprove fallacies that drove me to champion indie authorship, and eventually, to found Publetariat.

In 2010, I had divorce and unemployment foisted upon me simultaneously. After I'd been floundering on my own a while, one of my online colleagues in indie authorship and ebooks reached out to me, and once again it was on account of my unique skillset. From my work advancing the cause of indie authorship, I'd learned all about the publishing business and self-publishing in particular. My work in software engineering had provided me with web development and site administration skills. My work in founding and maintaining Publetariat had schooled me in content development, SEO and social media. I'd also published books of my own, both mainstream and indie, both in print and e formats, so I could relate to the author's perspective. On top of this my sincere passion for tech and digital media had never flagged. So my colleague, who was looking to expand his simple, Kindle-focused blog into a full-fledged site, offered me a unique opportunity to put all my skills and interests to good use in helping him take his business to the next level.

As his business grew and sprouted new sites, I transitioned into being administrator and Editor in Chief for his Kindle Fire site. This has been a great fit for me, since I still get to use bits and pieces of all my various skills and can finally put my lifelong love of entertainment content of all kinds (books, movies, TV shows, web, music, games) to work: the Kindle Fire is essentially a delivery system for all those things, so it's part of my job to stay involved with them and write about them.

And this brings me to my latest career morph. I still run Publetariat, and I'm still Site Admin and Editor in Chief for Kindle Fire on Kindle Nation Daily. But a few days ago I launched a new site that drills down even further from what I'm doing on those other sites to focus on digital media and tech in a way that's not limited to the Kindle Fire. The new site is Digital Media Mom, and its mission in life is to help non-geeks navigate the sometimes complex and confusing world of digital media. It's about educating consumers so they can feel confident their digital device and media purchases are solving problems and saving money for them, and it's also about having fun and talking some trash about entertainment media and content. It's a lot of fun for me, and I hope it will be helpful and entertaining for consumers.

So while there's no easy or guaranteed path to a dream job like mine, I hope my experiences demonstrate three things. First, that writing can be a valuable career skill in virtually ANY field. Second, that being a fulltime author is not the only dream job available to people who can write. Finally, that very often, the only way to get a dream job is to create it yourself. If you're passionate about something many other people are passionate about, and you can communicate about it in a way that appeals to those other people, you can fill a niche. If you have skills or knowledge that can help others solve their problems or reach their goals, and again, you can communicate well, you can fill a niche. And many of the job skills you're accumulating now, while working at jobs you may not particularly enjoy, may prove to be instrumental when the opportunity to write your own ticket comes along.