Why I’m not doing KDP Select free giveaways for Kindle anymore

OK, so I have a new book out.  And one of the things I’ve done for the last few books is have a free giveaway of the book on the Kindle. I’m not doing that for this book, and I won’t be doing it in the future for other books.  Let me back up and explain why authors do these giveaways, and then explain why I’m not doing it anymore.

First, an explanation of KDP Select.  KDP is Kindle Direct Publishing, the service you use to self-publish books to the Kindle.  Select is a program where you can sign up your books, and get three benefits.  One is that if your book costs $2.99 or more, your revenue rate changes to 70%.  The other is that Amazon Prime members can borrow your book for free, and you get a small kickback every time that happens.  (So borrow my books!)  And third is that for five days every month, you can have a free giveaway, where the cost of your book becomes $0.00, and people can purchase (and keep) the book for nothing.

The downside of KDP Select is that you have to promise that your book is not available electronically anywhere else, and that includes posting it for free on a web site.  It’s Amazon’s golden handcuffs to limit your product to their ecosystem, and keep you from publishing it on Kobo or Apple or Nook or Sony or anywhere else.  It essentially creates a bunch of Amazon-exclusive content.  It’s just like how if you loved all of those Mario games, you were screwed if you bought a PlayStation instead of a Nintendo.  It locks people into their platform.  I’m not 100% fine with that, but I am into the idea of the 70% royalty.  So my plan is to have books available through KDP Select initially, and then later move them out of the program and make the books available on other devices.  The Prime borrowing thing would be great if more people borrowed my books, but none of you do, so I don’t care about that.  (Honestly, since you can only borrow a book a month with a Prime membership, I understand why people save their borrow for an overpriced mainstream book.)

One of the reasons to make a book free is to build your brand.  It’s like when Pepsi comes out with a new drink and sends you a coupon in the mail for a free two-liter.  You get it from the store, try it, become addicted, and buy more of their product.  With books, you probably aren’t buying repeat copies of the same book (although please don’t let me stop you, at least with my books) but if you read one book and like it, you’ll either buy other books by the author or press, or tell your friends to buy it.  Another related reason is the hope that people will review your book, either on Amazon or at other sites like Goodreads. (Goodreads is now owned by Amazon, but for the time being, the reviews are separate entities.)

The other, less obvious reason why authors do Select giveaways is to game numbers.  Writers, especially genre writers, rely heavily on Amazon’s search and recommendation system to get sales.  The game is to get your book more heavily weighted so that when someone types “murder mystery” into a search box, or looks at the books related to whatever Davinci Shades of Hunger Games title that’s blowing up right now, their book floats to the top.   If you read any “you can make a million dollars self-publishing” web sites, there’s a lot of advice given that involves somehow manipulating the system to ensure your book gets seen by more eyes.  It’s why there’s an AAAA locksmith in every city, and it’s why people do giveaways.  All of those $0.00 sales count as sales in the system (or did – read on…) and sales ranking is one of the variables in the formula that determines how search results are shown in Amazon.  Giving away a thousand books over a weekend can cause a huge surge of sales right after that, until the algorithm catches up with you and your sales rank drops back down again.  (There’s also a chance that if your book is advertised as free over a weekend, and someone blindly clicks the link on Monday morning and downloads it after the sale, they’ll accidentally drop three bucks on it.  You’ll be told you’re being charged, but nobody reads that shit.)

One of the big reasons I don’t like giveaways is that it’s not fair to the people who pay for my book.  I have a small handful of loyalists who will buy my book the day or week it comes out, and gladly pay full price for it.  I love these people, and I don’t even care about the money part – if we bump into each other, I’ll gladly buy you drinks until we’re even.  I appreciate when people buy my stuff, not because it’s making me rich (it isn’t) but because it shows that they want to read my writing.  And I always feel bad when I say, a week later, that the book is now free for five days.  While a small percentage of people downloading a free book are people who want to read my writing, or maybe are people who have heard of me but are on the fence about trying out my work, the majority of the people who download free books are digital hoarders that download every free book they can find simply because they are free, and almost never read the book, let alone buy more or tell their friends or write a review.  I hate the idea of screwing my loyal fans in order to give away a thousand books to 999 people who don’t give a shit and maybe one that might actually read the book.

As far as brand building, there are plenty of my stories available online for free.  If you’re not familiar with my writing, you can always go to that page and click on most of the stories there and read them.  You can also get previews on Amazon and start reading a book, and if you like it, you can buy it.  And like I mentioned, Prime members can borrow my book.  My work is out there for you to check out before you buy it – I don’t think that’s an issue.

Also, the KDP Select salad days are over.  Amazon tweaked their algorithm so that giveaway sales are not the same as purchase sales.  They also split up their paid and free best-of lists.  That means that giveaways have much less impact than they used to.  Also, there are way more authors self-publishing, so there are far more giveaways going on at any given time.  And more and more of the free places you can advertise a giveaway are either not listing as many giveaways, because there are so many happening, or have switched to a paid advertising model to reap the benefits, and make it more cost-prohibitive to get the word out.

There’s this larger argument about why the hell people spend time building platforms and marketing brands and using all of the same tactics as aluminum siding and timeshare salespeople to sell their books.  And we could go down a huge rabbit hole about the value of work versus the value of items offered for free that would eventually end up in some convoluted meta-argument about capitalism.  The more time I spend writing about it — and I’ve probably written five drafts of this and deleted them all because it always goes too Lars Ulrich in the end — is the more time I don’t write about what really matters to me, which is aliens shitting on escalators and satanists killing babies and nailing their corpses to a huge Wheel of Fortune wheel for a new game show called Fetus of Misfortune.  I won’t get into any more if it, because it’s all inconsequential bullshit. I hope you read my stuff, and I wish there was a better way to get the word out on my stuff, but I’ll look into it later.

I hope this doesn’t piss off anyone who wanted the book for free.  I’m always open to trades and looking for reviewers, so if you want a copy of the book and don’t have the three bucks, you can always drop a line and make an offer.  But I’m hoping you do check it out, and understand why I came to this decision.


I do not give a god damn about the book industry

I often get dragged into discussions about the book industry, mostly because people are too stupid to know the difference between Jon and Joe and blindly throw a @jkonrath into a tweet about how publishing is dying or some dumb company is fleecing even dumber authors who did the equivalent of paying $10,000 cash for head shots.

(Side note: It’s somewhat ironic that the term for this kind of shit is “joe job” given the name of the other person involved here.)

This is annoying on many levels, mostly because it distracts me from what I’m really trying to do.  But more than that, all of this talking head parroting sometimes makes me wonder why I don’t keep up with what’s going on in the publishing world.  I don’t read trades or spend time on publishing news sites, throwing down my opinion on whatever catastrophe is currently making the rounds.  I don’t take sides on publishers versus “indies” or who signed with who or who decided to leave their publisher and self-pub or what the guy who wrote Wool ate for lunch or any of that.  I don’t care.

I do not give a fuck about the book industry.  I mean, I like to read books, and I publish the final output of my work so you can see if you want to read it.  But I am a writer.  I’m not a shameless self-promoter, and I’m not an industry insider.  And I don’t want to be.  I don’t write books for maximum profits.  I write books because they’re trapped in my soul and need to be excised like the pus from a wound.  I know it sounds pretentious to pull the “I’m an artist” card, but I’m definitely not a businessman, and I do not care about any of it.

I recently read a book called Post-Digital Print, which was one of the most inspiring books I’ve read in a long time.  It outlines every “publishing is dying” screed that has happened since 1894, and I guarantee you that about a dozen of them are things you’ve never heard about.  Almost every one was invented by a company that wanted you to buy their shit instead.  Did you know that people thought radio would replace printed books?  At the turn of the century (or a couple of decades later, I guess) part of the population thought books were turning everyone blind.  It probably had some causal relationship to the rise in optometry technology at the time, and everyone was getting glasses, whereas before that only rich people got monocles, and everyone else squinted.  Anyway, some industry geniuses said that radio would replace “the burden of reading” and save everyone’s eyesight.  And we know how that turned out.

I’m not saying print isn’t suffering.  But it’s not going away, either.  There’s going to be a whole generation of artisanal printing, letterpress chapbooks and boxed sets of limited edition prints with high-end art book covers and over-designed interiors in esoteric fonts that makes Helvetica look like Comic Sans.  Look at what happened with vinyl records.  The 8-track was supposed to kill them, then the cassette, then the CD.  There are now vinyl-only stores, limited-edition LPs with extra tracks and slick printed gatefold sleeves encasing art books and 45-remastered dual discs on 200-gram virgin vinyl.  Yes, the airport reader is going to gobble down murder mysteries on their kindle, but book collectors aren’t going to be forced to shred everything and go to e-format.

What I am saying is that these talking head industry-mongers are not authors – they are inflating their own egos for their own industry, which is fear-mongering and hand-wringing. It doesn’t help your writing.  They’re the people selling the ten dollar loaves of bread to the people who showed up late to the gold rush.  It’s all bullshit.  It’s all inconsequential.

Speaking of, gotta get writing – trying to finish the next book.  I’ll end with a quote from my buddy George Carlin that pretty much sums it all up.

I figured out years ago that the human species is totally fucked and has been for a long time. I also know that the sick, media-consumer culture in America continues to make this so-called problem worse. But the trick, folks, is not to give a fuck. Like me. I really don’t care. I stopped worrying about all this temporal bullshit a long time ago. It’s meaningless.

-George Carlin


Mandelbrot and Genre Writing

I’ve been in the post-book-release period of my writing cycle where I don’t know what I’m doing next, and I don’t know what I should be reading, so I start poring over non-fiction, usually some junk science book.  Specifically, it’s that James Gleick book Chaos, which is about chaos theory and the butterfly effect.  I mostly read stuff like this to pour random facts into my head with hopes that I’ll go off on a tangent in some wikipedia-reading frenzy and end up finding the pieces of my next short story.

Part of the book talks about Benoit Mandelbrot, who once said this:

Science would be ruined if (like sports) it were to put competition above everything else, and if it were to clarify the rules of competition by withdrawing entirely into narrowly defined specialties. The rare scholars who are nomads-by-choice are essential to the intellectual welfare of the settled disciplines.

That got me thinking about genres, and writing.  I’ve been knocking against this invisible wall with regard to genres, because I don’t really fit into any one category.  And every self-publishing make-money-fast scheme online talks about how you need to market yourself by finding your niche and building your platform to sell to that slice of the reading public.  Every person out their schlepping their own advice on publishing will tell you about the importance of hitting up the forums relevant to your category.

When I’m depressed about not having stellar book numbers, this feeds into a horrible cycle of negativity.  I don’t sell books because I don’t market.  I don’t market because I can’t find the people to market to.  I can’t find the people to market to, because I don’t know how to categorize my work.  And I don’t know how to categorize my work because I don’t really like any of the categories.

That’s a big part of the problem.  I don’t read a lot of straight genre fiction, because it bores me.  While I like picking at the edges of the science fiction genre, I find the die-hard stuff to be so goddamn serious.  I can’t stand fantasy.  And romance and thriller aren’t even on my radar.  The books I like are combinations of different things, or aren’t representations of the category as a whole.  Vonnegut wasn’t a science fiction writer per se; he sometimes fell into that category, but his stories had a humor you aren’t going to find in the typical outer space robot book.  Burroughs had the same distinction.  Was Hunter S. Thompson a journalist or a humorist or an essayist or what?  And Mark Leyner wasn’t literary fiction, but he wasn’t general fiction, either.

The big issue is that when you define success as straight-up numbers, nothing but copies sold and dollars taken in, you’re competing more than you’re creating.  You’re not going to push boundaries or do what you truly want; you’re going to stick to that same narrowly-defined plot structure that everyone uses to maximize the number of readers you can satisfy.  You’re going to think of how to market a book and then write it, instead of creating what you truly need to create as an artist.  It’s like the difference between a painter like Jackson Pollock laying his soul and his inner demons onto the canvas, versus someone being handed an RFP by a hotel chain for a thousand identical paintings that meet certain requirements.  When you write for the market, you may sell, but you probably won’t innovate.

I don’t want to dole out yet another hero’s journey monomyth novel because I can plug it by saying “it’s like <current hit> but with <other thing people like>”.  I feel like I need to continue down the path I’ve followed with the last few books, but I also feel like it’s okay if I suddenly want to write some non-fiction, or a book of essays, or whatever else.  I’d hate to wake up someday and be told I can only write dystopian literary occult police procedural fantasy fiction, or that I couldn’t do what I want because it won’t sell.  Life’s too short to back yourself in a corner like that.