Friday, March 02, 2012


Anyone can be an Amazon Kindle bestseller by playing the numbers, and I'll tell you how in a moment.  

First I want to explain why I would never do it.

I want people to buy my book because they want to read it. And I want people to be happy that they bought my book after they've read it because something in it moved, inspired, or entertained them. I want readers to love my books. If I didn't, I wouldn't spend a year or more carefully writing and polishing each one. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have spent over a decade honing my craft.

In Toren the Teller'sTale, there's a wizard who says he will not accept payment until he knows the customer is fully satisfied. That's how I feel about my books. I don't want to trick readers into buying something they don't want or need. I want them to feel that their money was well spent, that my book was worth every penny and more.

So far the reviews I’m getting are telling me that I am succeeding by my own definition of success, even if I’m not selling millions of copies or making bestseller lists. I am doing what I set out to do: I’m getting my books into the hands of people who enjoy reading them.

A lot of people would say that I'm naïve, and they may be right.

They would say that even the major publishers play the numbers to get on bestseller lists, and have been doing so for years. They would say that major publishers have huge advertising budgets, and little indie publishers have to play the numbers in order to compete. I don't know if that's true. I hope it's not. In any case, I'm not going to stoop to that level. Of course I want to win the game, but only because I’ve earned it.

Okay, now let me tell you how someone can turn almost any book into an Amazon bestseller. It has something to do with Amazon’s new program: Kindle Direct Publishing Select (KDP Select).

To understand KDP Select, you must first know what KDP is.

KDP is the Amazon program authors can use to get their e-books into Amazon's Kindle store. The regular KDP program lets publishers keep 70% of the retail price of their e-books (provided they’re priced between $2.99 and $9.99).

KDP Select, on the other hand, lets publishers make money based on the number of times Amazon Prime customers “borrow” a book for free.

Amazon Prime customers can borrow any book in the KDP Select program. To help authors encourage customers to choose their books, each author is allowed to give away his or her books for free for up to five days while that author is in the 90-day KDP Select program. The amount of money authors can make in the KDP Select program fluctuates and is based on the size of the pot every KDP Select author earns a portion of, and on the relative number of free borrows each author’s books have seen in relation to the number of free borrows other KDP Select books have seen. In other words, if 500 copies of your books are borrowed for free and everyone else in the program averages 1,000 free borrows, you’ll earn much less than everyone else. Contrary-wise, if you book is borrowed 1,000 times for free and everyone else's books are borrowed 500 times for frees, you’ll make a lot more.

The main way to draw attention to your book so people will consider borrowing it is by giving your book away for free for five days. Amazon will promote your free book at that time, and you can promote it too. You can't sell your book through, the Apple iBookstore, or any other online retailer when you're in the KDP Select program. It becomes your only way to make money. There is, therefore, a huge incentive to sell a lot of free books while you’re in the KDP Select program.

Every day, Amazon customers have the option of choosing from over 100 free books. So why would a Kindle owner choose your free book above another? What’s in it for them?

Now it’s entirely possible that what’s in it for them is a great book, but that’s not why Amazon customers trawl the freebie bestseller lists. People are willing to pay for great books--but they’re also willing to take a chance on something that may or may not be good if they don’t have to pay for it.

So what incentive are you going to give Amazon’s customers to get them to choose your book over someone else’s?  


STEP ONE: write a book.

You don’t need to know how to write, and it doesn’t have to be a great book. Don’t even think of it as a book. Think of it as a product. Based on their reviews, many of the writers on the Amazon Kindle freebie bestseller list don’t really know how to write, and many of those who do are giving away a single short story or essay, not an entire novel or nonfiction book. You don’t have to write a masterpiece, just something you can slap a title and cover on and call an e-book.

STEP TWO: give it an enticing title and a nice cover.

You don’t really have to know anything about book design. There are places you can buy premade covers for $50 or less. Here’s one that has a clearance section with lovely book covers for just $18:

STEP THREE: ask friends and relatives to post 5-star reviews for you.

I recently got into an argument with a writer on Amazon because I said her suggestion to write reviews for your own book is unethical.  She argued that it is common practice. As a former consumer columnist, I consider any attempt to mislead consumers unethical, and I think putting your words into someone else’s review is misleading consumers. However, there are apparently people who have no problem with it, and that’s the competition those who join the KDP Select program are up against. Remember, you're all getting a portion of the same pot, so if someone has better sales, it's at your expense. 

STEP FOUR: get a Twitter account.

The longer you’ve been on Twitter and the bigger following you have there the better.

STEP FIVE: sign up for KDP Select.

Mark the five days you’ll be giving your book away for free on your calendar.

STEP SIX: buy some Amazon gift cards.

You can start with just one $10 card and then build up from there. If things pan out, you might give away up to six $25 gift cards, which is one for every two weeks you’ll be in the KDP Select program.

STEP SEVEN: go on Twitter to announce you’ll be giving away a free Amazon gift card, and repeat this step over and over.

 Make the giveaway conditional. For example, you’ll give away a gift card to someone who re-tweets about the contest when you reach 1,000 borrows or 5,000 free downloads. You can even give away some of the cards when you get a certain number of Twitter or blog followers, 5-star Amazon reviews, or Facebook fans. Use the correct hashtags so that people looking for Kindle freebies or contests can find your tweet easily. Your tweet would look something like “#Win a $25 #Amazon gift card when my #Kindle #ebook reaches 2,000 #free downloads! Buy here (link) and RT to enter #giveaway”.

Notice how that tweet says nothing about the book itself? That’s because with this method, you’re not selling a book—you’re selling an opportunity to win a free Amazon gift card. You’re essentially selling free raffle tickets to get people to do what you want!

If you don’t think people are doing this, go to Twitter and see just how fast the #free or #giveaway hashtag flies there. It’s dizzying.

There are thousands of people on Twitter who are looking for free stuff, and they’ll be more than willing to download your free e-book to get it.

So writers are posting tweets like the one I wrote above, and those tweets are getting people to download their books in droves. They might download your book and never read it, but what difference does it make? Your book will be a bestseller. It’ll appear on the Amazon bestseller list along with all the other bestsellers. You can even put “Amazon bestseller” on your book jacket. And that will help you get a bigger share of the KDP Select pot, because all that attention and the bestseller status will help you get your book borrowed more times than the next guy’s book.

I’m not saying there isn’t a time and a place for giveaways. They can be great if you’re trying to get Twitter or blog followers or Facebook fans. They can also be great for rewarding the fans you already have. What I am saying, though, is that if you’re using giveaways to sell books, you aren’t really selling books.


NUMBER ONE: I know how to play the numbers game—and I don’t want to play it.
I want people to buy or borrow my books because they want to read my books, not because they want to win some sort of giveaway.

NUMBER TWO: I don’t want to compete with writers who are willing to play the numbers game.
I’m a writer, not a salesperson, and in the KDP Select program, salespeople have a distinct advantage over writers. That would make my book look bad, because it would be lower down in the bestseller list, and other books—many of them poorly written—would be above it. How would that look if my free book didn’t sell as well as someone else’s book an Amazon customer tried and hated?

NUMBER THREE: giving your book away for free once devalues all of your work forever.

They do say, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”

Someone once did a psychological study to see if people enjoyed a piece of cake more if it was served on a fancy dish. It turns out they do. They also discovered that a $100 bottle of wine actually tastes better if you know it costs $100. In fact, a $9 bottle of wine tastes better if you think it costs $150.

So what happens when you give your book away for free?

Those who are in the KDP Select program find they sell the most copies when their book is free and within the few days after those free days, which is when your book is riding the bestseller list high from all those free downloads. The sales and free borrows for that particular book often stay high for a while and then gradually drop off. 

However, the increased sales rarely carry over to the author’s other books—and a few writers have noted that some readers who picked up that one book for free have expressed that they expect to get the writer’s other books for free too. Instead of enticing readers with a free book, these writers are actually losing potential sales on their other books.


In the end, the Amazon sales rankings and bestseller lists, which both writers and readers tend to focus on, say virtually nothing--when it comes to free books, or books that were free at one time--about the quality of a book and everything about the writer’s ability and willingness to do anything to sell that book.

This isn’t to say that all the writers that sell a lot of free books play the numbers or manipulate reviews. Many of them don’t. But beware the company you keep, because many other writers on the free bestseller Amazon Kindle list do. 

And as a reader, do your best to read between the lines when it comes to the bestseller rankings and the reviews on those books. Maybe you’ll luck out and find a diamond in the rough, but don’t be surprised if it turns out to be rock salt in disguise.

So as you can see, the numbers can be played. The only question left for writers to ask themselves is if they want to play them. I don’t, so I fold. Now that I know the rules, I am sitting this game out.


Kelly Byrne said...

Hi Shevi - your frustration with the whole Kindle Select is palpable. And so is mine. In fact, I AM one of those silly writers who actually participated in the program - for the last 2 days I gave Chasing Kate away for free. I had 9,343 downloads in 2 days.

It's a bit heady really, thinking that many people are going to read it and give feedback, which of course is a pipe dream. I did not, however stoop to writing my own reviews or doing giveaways or anything of the like. Didn't even think of doing things like that. Just shared the excitement of actually being #1 & #2 on a couple lists for a couple days.

That was pretty exciting, I'm not going to lie. But now that midnight has passed and like Cinderella, I'm back to my rags, the reality of the situation is setting in. My total actual sales for today are more than previous days, but still abysmal compared with the free downloads of the last two days.

I respect your desire to hold out for the readers who want to read your books and I hope you find them, but my experience has been that whatever I can do (free giveaway) to increase the exposure of my book is a good thing. As long as I'm not going against moral codes, which I don't believe I have in simply participating in this program.

My intention in this whole thing was to get the book out into the world and that was accomplished. More than I imagined it would be. Will it help actual sales? Don't know. So far, not so great. But it's still early and maybe a buzz will grow after people (those few who decide to actually read it) read it and either like it or don't and decide to share or don't.

I think there are dangerous things a'brewin' in the whole KDP select program (monopoly anyone?) and it may breed a serious lack of respect for the writer and our craft - but it's also a helluva way to reach a wider audience (please see the video I posted of Neil Gaiman at the bottom, it might make you feel better about things) when you really have nothing else. I have a blog that no one reads, I'm trying to build my author platform, but to be honest, it's a painstaking process and moves along at a snail's pace.

I don't know what the answer is, honestly. But please don't assume that everyone who participates in the program has stooped to unethical procedures just to get their book out there. It's good to be aware that exists, but I think for the most part, people just want the exposure for their books.

Honestly, this whole new publishing paradigm scares the crap out of me. Ball game has changed and everything is up to the writer now. Even in traditionally published circles. Unless you're a mega star (Stephen King et. al) you will always have to do the marketing for your books. It's just the way it is. And it's exhausting. So when there's a way to get the book out to the world a little easier, yep, some of us will take that chance just to see if it works.

Also, the KDP Select program gives you 5 days in a three month period to give your book away, just so you're aware.

Here's a great short video from Neil Gaiman about piracy and giving books away. Makes some great points. I think it's worth a look.

I don't know what the answer is to all these questions, but I think it's good we keep talking about them.

Thanks for your post. I'll be posting soon on my blog about my experience with the giveaway. :)

Sheryl Gwyther said...

Excellent article, Shevi. Thank you for bringing this stuff to our attention and for explaining it so well. :)

Charmaine Clancy said...

This is a great article and Kelly's comments were also very informative. I think most people would agree fake reviews are dodgy, and I think authors should not be able to leave reviews on their own books or even comment on reviews. It is however, very hard to stop people you know from reviewing your book - they mean well. I've had to explain to my 13 yr old why it's wrong for her to review my book even if she really does mean, she thought it might be ok if she explains she doesn't like some of my books. sigh. I am running a big give-away, but mostly because I've always loved running them, it's fun.
Anyway great info here.

Unknown said...

Great post, Shevi!

I plan on epubbing my book on Amazon and was wondering about the differences between the regular and the select program. Thank you so much for clearing it up!

I agree with you. I do take pride in my work so I want my writing to stand on its own two feet. "Bribing" people to make me a "Best Seller" is not how I roll either. Besides, I will not improve as a writer if I con myself into thinking I'm a better writer (sales wise) than I really am.

Keep reaching for the stars in your writing and thanks again for writing this.

All the best...Doug

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kelly Byrne said...

Thanks, Charmaine. :)

I forgot to ask in my previous post - where did you see that authors get any kind of remuneration for free downloads? My understanding is that in KDP Select we only get a % of the total "pot" based on how many borrows we have accrued (which in my case is a whopping 2!) It's nothing to do with how many free downloads we've had in any promo period.

Can you explain a little more about that, Shevi, and where you got that info? Thanks!

Shevi said...

Kelly, I don't think there's anything unethical about playing the game (except when it comes to writing reviews for others to post under their names). Kudos for doing so well! But you do bring up other serious concerns, particularly the exclusivity of the KDP Select program.

I'm aware of Neil Gaiman's video on piracy, and I agree with him completely. However, piracy is a different issue. What devalues your work is when you give it away for free--not when someone else does it.

And I completely understand the desire for exposure, but are you really getting the exposure you want when people download your book just because it's free--and not because they really want to read it?

I look forward to reading about your experience with KDP Select once you've left the program.

Hope it works out well for you in the long run!

Kelly Byrne said...

Hmmm, I was actually talking about the bit where he mentions them giving his books away for free. Maybe you missed that section - I think it's the second half of it. I wasn't really addressing the piracy issue since it isn't pertinent to this discussion. :)

Joanna has some valid points on her blog, as I said before, you can never be sure who's actually reading the book, (I'm not sure that all the people who have bought it so far are ever going to read it, but they did buy it, so that's nice at least) but I do know for me, not having a large platform or a ton of fans and followers like she has, it's done wonders so far. Reached so many people I would not have been able to otherwise because I don't have that pull yet like she does. She has built up a following and a fan base already so I can see where she might have reached those people anyway.

As she mentions in her post, this was her experience. So far, mine has been a little different, to a certain degree I think, because I'm just starting out so the reach is going to be a lot father for me with this program. And the issue of exclusivity was a no brainer for me since I'd only sold 4 copies on Smashwords. Now, if you were selling a lot through other vendors, then yes, this would be a major issue. But again, the whole monopoly thing aside, I'm (hopefully) finding some readers I wouldn't have been able to otherwise. I'd like to also use POI and other promotional sites as well, but money is an issue for me right now so...

Can I ask, how do you promote your work? Have you found something that really reaches out and finds your core demographic? I'm still very new to this whole marketing thing and would love to hear some suggestions.

Kelly Byrne said...

Oh yeah, and writing reviews for yourself is never, ever acceptable. Ever. That's just poor form all round. :)

Shevi said...

Thanks for explaining all that, Kelly. I hope the KDP program does work out for you.

So how am I promoting my books? That's a rather long list, really. Facebook, Twitter, blogging, giving out reviewer copies to reviewers, blog hopping: you know, all the usual stuff.

Mostly I've been trying to follow Konrath's rules:
"Write good books, with good descriptions, good formatting, and good cover art, sell them cheap, and keep at it until you get lucky."

The more good books you have out there in the most formats, the better your chance of getting lucky will be. So far I have two books out in a variety of formats, and I plan to put out three more (at least) this year.

Kelly Byrne said...

Wow! That's awesome, Shevi. Three more? You're so prolific! I'm so envious! And you're right - the writing is what matters most - having the material. I NEED to get working on that more.

I also need to get control of the whole blogging thing (my own and hopefully guest blogging as well) and finding bloggers to review and such. It's kind of overwhelming at times all the things we need to do to participate in social media and platform building and promoting... oy. I'm exhausted just writing about it. ;)

Anyway - thanks again for opening this discussion. It's good to talk about it all.

Unknown said...

I wouldn't automatically say giving away your work for free immediately devalues it. What about free stories for charity? What about free samples on Sunday at the grocery store? What about Buy 1 Get 1 Free? There are many different flavors of FREE out there.

I don't think we truly get just how big the reading public IS out there. I'm consistently seeing that when an author goes free, the ONE DAY maximum downloads are 8,000-15,000. One day I went free I made it to #12 in overall free fiction with 8,500 free downloads. The next week, I sold 200+ paid copies. In the 4 months that the book was out before using KDP Select (and I was a late adopter to see what the downsides were, and there ARE some) I had humped and peddled, basically selling the book one reader at a time to 132 people. I was NOT priced at $.99, but $2.99-$3.99.

Unless you have an overall strategy to keep writing good books, you won't stay on the Bestseller lists. There's just too much competition... And that's why now that I've seen the top of the mountain, I'm writing more and more so the next time I scale it, I have more climbing equipment to hang out for a little while. :)

As for the 8,500 free copies? I'm getting 1-2 positive reviews every week from people I have no connection with. That is absolutely awesome.

Shevi said...

Elizabeth, sounds like you're doing a great job. I'm glad to hear KDP Select has worked out for you and I hope it does work out in the long run too.

But I still believe that giving your books away devalues your work.

I checked out your book, Cancelled, and I noticed the most recent reviewer gave it one-star. That reviewer expected a different kind of book, and she was disappointed. You received two similar reviews in the last month.

One of the problems with giveaways is that people will take a product just because it's free, and not because they're the intended audience for that product. So someone took your book and was disappointed it wasn't what she thought it was. If she had paid for it, she probably would have been more careful before buying it. She probably would have found out your book wasn't for her in advance, and you would have been spared one negative review that lowers your book's entire rating.

Giving away samples in a supermarket, by the way, is more like Amazon's "read first chapter free." I'm entirely in favor of that. In a bookstore, you can pick up a book and read the first few pages. It's one of the ways you can tell if you want to buy a book or not. But why would you pay for that book if you could get it for free?

Epertase said...

Great article. I don't agree 100% but I think your opinion has merit. First, manipulating reviews is unethical. But besides it being unethical, it isn't going to work ultimately. While it may get the author a few extra reads, if the author is poor at the craft, poor reviews will follow.

The part I disagree with is that giving away a book for free devalues a author forever. If the writing is good then the true readers (not just the readers who want anything just because it is free) might sample the author's other work. The reason- they are reading because they like good stories. As a nobody author such as myself, no one is going to see my work simply because it is good (or not good). There needs to be a way to get the work in front of them. Amazon is currently giving us a way by offering their promotional tools in exchange for an author willing to have a sale (free) on their book. I would be curious to see if anyone has used the KSP free giveaway and gained a lot of fans as a result, but even if no one has, it doesn't mean the method is inherently bad. It is probably very rare if it has happened at all. But here's the thing. The readers who are grabbing every book they can aren't going to remember your name when your next book comes out and think, "I'll wait until it is free." Whereas, if they really enjoyed your book, they may go look at your other work. You dont have to worry about those readers thinking your work isnt good because they have read it already.And liked it. It is those people who you are trying to reach. If my short story collection (that I am self-publishing as a way to expose people to my published work) was downloaded, let's say, 1000 times. If only 10 percent of those people read and enjoy my stories enough to look at my traditionally published novels then I have successfully marketed my book because that equals new readers looking at my work. If someone thinks my other work is less valuable because I gave them something for free, so be it. That is no different than a 1-star review that the author can do nothing about. Just my two cents. Again, thanks for the article.

Unknown said...

That was sweet of you to look at my book, Shevi.

I'm probably not the best example... I just lowered my price to $1.99 from $3.25 for a month long sale. And, my book straddles genres. It's NOT a 100% typical romance. For every 3 or 4 reviews I get that says "a refreshing twist on the same old, same old" I get a "I want a textbook Happily-ever-after." So, I'm that box of crackers that's a cracker on one side, and a pretzel on the other, but it's on the cracker aisle, and some people love it, others are grumbling, "It's not a TRUE cracker." And the pretzel people are like "That is NOT remotely a pretzel, don't put it on the chips aisle." But even a 1 or 2 star review still sells a book. I read them all the time in deciding to buy a book or not (I rarely download the sample, too lazy LOL).

I've done a KDP run, but I don't plan to put anymore of my books in KDP Select. Why? Because I think like all of the indie promos, it will fizzle out in a few months. We're all like a herd in some respects when it comes to marketing. Last year, it was all about buying those expensive ads on reader blogs. Everyone did it. Everyone's ranking went to the moon! Now, they're paying hundreds of dollars and struggling to compete with the free books next door.... No, I have a TON of international direct distribution that just opened up through my publishing partner Mark Williams international, that's really going to be a big deal this summer. I've milked the KDP Select cow for all it's worth, and my next goal is to get my writing into the hands of as many English speakers as possible, without a $2 surcharge. :) Success in ebooks sales is a forever moving target.. :)

Shevi said...

Doug Brown, there are so many ways to get your work in front of readers that don't involve KDP Select. There's blogging, Goodreads, LibraryThing, Twitter, Facebook, Smashwords, giveaways, coupons, author visits, guest blogging, and so much more. And you're more likely to convert purchasers, followers, and contest winners into fans than you are people who took your book just because it was free. However you decide to promote your book, I wish you luck in finding your readers.

I think you're right, Elizabeth. KDP Select probably will lose its shine before the year is out. And I love your attitude regarding one-star reviews. Good for you!

Anthony J. Langford said...

Very informative - thank you.. with you on most fronts. I'm a writer too, not a self-publicist etc. Reviews have already gone to the point where if I see them on Amazon, I automatically assume they're from family etc. So they are not reliable.
And if it's free, then yes, there's often a good reason why. That's been my experience. An ocean of mediocrity.

Shevi said...

Thanks, Anthony.

Stina said...

Great post! I know a number of writers in my local RWA chapter who are playing the numbers game with KDP select. Their constant updates are driving me nuts. To me, you aren't a best seller if your book is free. And sure you might have a lot of people downloading your book, but are they reading it? I have a few free books I've downloaded and I haven't read any of them.

I know one person who has been successful. She made over $10 K+ in the first few days her book came off the free status. Was the because of the free books? Maybe partially. But it was also because she and a charity were heavily promoting it once it was no longer free. The charity was getting a portion of the proceeds.

Shevi said...

Thanks, Stina. I know what you mean. I've also been bombarded with Facebook and Twitter messages from friends who want me to download their free books, and like you, I never read those books once I've downloaded them.

I'm glad to hear one of your friend was successful, although you might be onto something. Perhaps those people were more interested in simply donating to that charity, and the book gave them an opportunity to do that. At least it worked out for the author and the charity.

Unknown said...

Hi. Thank you for all this information.

After writing my novel of 18 years, I have finally got round to polishing it up and having it printed. 18 years so writing and bringing up 2 boys and earning a living. Of course I would write a little and put the book away for a few years and so on

I would never consider putting my book on any site for free. If anyone really wants to read my work, they will not mind paying.

To me, success is having my novel in my hand. Any sales which follow is a bonus. I am a success without reaching best seller on amazon. And any self publisher who has a finished novel, cover, content and bound, is a success. Well done people for finishing your work.

I also don't belive that any author can become a best seller over night specially when one has to email their audience, asking them to buy the book at certain time, that to me sounds so desperate. Let people discover you and appreciate your style of writing and separate you from the mass of books fighting for over night success.

I am so proud of completing my work and even prouder when the sales come through, genuinely.

Yes I love freebies but I hardly ever read free books, it does devalue them considerably.

I built my own website, designed my own cover, with the invaluable help of my brother, I wrote my own novel and I have put a price to it. Buy it because you want it. Read it because you like the sample chapters. Review it because you want to. Tell the world because you think its worth talking about.
Georgia Melaris
Thank you

Unknown said...

Hi Shevi
I enjoyed reading your article. You help me take a big sigh of relief. I am not a salesperson either. I was currently reading a book (free) by Sidney Frost titled Seven Simple Steps to Write More Books. He had a link to your article in his book.

I find a lot of free books on writing and marketing...and I've been reading them. Many of them are the same in that they promote the numbers game and click funnels and trying to grab my email. I tire of it and I kept saying to myself this wasn't me. I have to constantly filter the books I read about writing and marketing to fit my lifestyle and personality.

I have some books enrolled in KDP Select, but try not to make it a major focus. I hate to ride that emotional roller coaster.

Thanks for writing my kind of reality.

Shevi said...

You're welcome, Mary Beth. It helps to know you're not alone.

Shevi said...

Well done,Georgia! I agree, you are a success. So many people dream of writing a book, but you've done it, and you should be proud of that.