First, some numbers:




Now, some context. That first number is the number of books I sold on Amazon this January. The second number is the number of books I sold on Amazon this February. The third number is my Amazon sales this March. Those represent paid sales–not free giveaways–about 95% of which came from two novels priced at $2.99. To put it another way, in January, I made enough to buy a cheeseburger meal at In-N-Out. In February, I made enough to cover groceries and rent. In March, I made enough to cover rent, groceries, utilities, and expenses on my car.

What changed? I mean, besides my pathetic living conditions?* (Rhetorical trick! I won’t see these checks for months, so nothing’s changed yet. The holes in my kitchen walls are still as big as the ones in my teeth.)

In February, three things changed. First, I released my third novel, Breakers. Second, I finally got a professional cover for The White Tree (and revamped its blurb, too). Third, I wound up enrolling each novel in Amazon’s Select program, a deal where you make your ebook exclusive to Amazon for 90 days (i.e. you can’t sell electronic copies anywhere else). In exchange, your books can be borrowed by Prime members (which you’re paid for), and you can make your book free for up to 5 days during that 90-day period.

The Select program is controversial. One of the major complaints is a philosophical/ethical one: authors don’t want to limit their readers to purchases through Amazon. Some see it as a predatory practice, where Amazon is attempting to further dominate ebook sales by dominating ebook content, too. Those complaints are fair enough. Definitely worth thinking about.

Other authors criticize Select for being a short-term strategy that neglects or harms your long-term sales plans. Earlier this week, Dean Wesley Smith made that very charge in an interesting post about all the ways to build your publishing/indie author business. In the post itself, Smith doesn’t address the specifics of why giving your book away/participating in Select is a narrow, short-term strategy, but elsewhere, I’ve seen it boil down to two major criticisms: a) a giveaway may result in a short-term burst of sales next week, but that won’t help you sell any copies next month or next year, and b) making your work exclusive to Amazon denies you sales and growth on every other ebook market on the planet.

I can’t argue with b). It is literally and undeniably true that if you make your books available exclusively on Amazon, you will not be able to sell them through Barnes & Noble, the Apple store, Sony, Kobo, etc. That’s a perfectly valid point.

But what about a)? Are free giveaways nothing more than a short-term boost to sales that will fade away within days, leaving you with a couple hundred extra bucks, maybe, but nothing in the way of additional readers, fans, and ongoing sales presence?

Phoenix Sullivan looks at that question here. It’s a post well worth reading. In it, she questions the definition of “long-term” in “long-term sales.” Instead, she looks at specific goals. Say you want to sell 50,000 copies of a book, she says. In her words, “If I can make inroads into that number faster by using ‘free’ [giveaways], how is that not a good thing for business?”

It’s not a rhetorical question. It’s a very pointed one. She’s got other questions, too, as well as some nifty graphs indicating free book giveaways may have actually helped her achieve and sustain steady sales over the course of months.

To return to my numbers–12, 425, 668–it would be stupid for me to claim these are all the result of signing up with Select and flinging my books at anyone who cares to click a download. Breakers was selling a few copies before I ever made it free. The White Tree saw an uptick as soon as I upgraded its appearance. My February numbers would have been larger than 12 if I never made any of my books free.

But I did make them free. Weeks after I’ve last done so, they continue to sell more in a day than they had been in a week. If you give away thousands of books, some fraction of those will be read by real people. Some fraction of those real people will turn into real fans. Even with my modest numbers, I’m seeing this already. I can hardly give away The Roar of the Spheres–seriously–but it sold more copies in March than it did in the 8 or 9 months prior to that. Combined. One of its top results for “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” is Breakers. Making one book free caused people to buy one of my other books.

Meanwhile, the money I’m about to start seeing in my bank account is going to allow me to cut back on the freelance work I do. The less time I spend freelancing, the more time I spend writing more novels. (Like the sequel to The White Tree, which I think I have a title for: The Great Rift.)

So I have more readers. I have more fans. Long after I made a book free, more people are buying it than they were before. I have more resources to devote to writing new projects. Oh yeah–and I finally have some proof and confidence this might be a viable career for me.

Select’s still a new program, and it’s not without its faults. I don’t imagine I can continue to give away a few thousand books in exchange for a few hundred sales whenever I please forever and ever. Even if it continues to work like gangbusters for me, I think I will eventually want to start making some or all of my books available in other markets. Diversifying your revenue streams just makes too much sense to rule out for eternity.

But I’m not sure what makes Select or free giveaways a short-term, illusory strategy. Right now, it’s the driving force behind this phase of my long-term plans. A force that is beginning to build my career in a very real way. If Amazon cancels the program tomorrow, that won’t cancel the money I’ve made–or the readers who came with it.

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I am a Science Fiction and Fantasy author, based in LA. Read More.
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