A funny thing happened in the middle of last week. My novel, Natural Causes, which was doing slow business at $2.99 on Amazon.com dropped in price to free. This in itself wasn't surprising - I'd been waiting for the Smashwords system to get the book into the ibooks store and others for nowt so that I could then inform amazon it was available free elsewhere. If you don't want to sign up to Amazon's exclusive deal, then this is the only way of (hopefully) forcing them to drop the price to nothing. Otherwise it's no less than 99 cents and thank you. Fair enough, I guess. They're not a charity after all.
But I digress. The book went free in the US on May 8 and in two days it had been downloaded almost 1300 times. A couple of days later Dreamwalker, the first in the Ballad of Sir Benfro series went free too. It hasn't taken off quite so spectacularly, but it's still shifted almost a thousand copies where before it was selling maybe one or two a week.
On Saturday, Natural Causes went free on kindle in the UK and immediately shot up the UK Kindle Free chart. Earlier this afternoon it hit number one, and has been downloaded over 5000 times, comfortably overtaking the US. And all this with frankly pathetic marketing on my part - not much more than a few tweets and asking some of my friends if they'd like to post reviews.
Now, giving both of these books away for free was always the plan.* It only took a while because of the slightly strange way you have to go about things with amazon. Free downloads of both titles on Smashwords have been steady, if not spectacular. Over two months or so, Natural Causes has shifted 800 odd copies, Dreamwalker 650 or so. (The Rose Cord, which you have to pay for, has racked up 11 sales - earth-shattering.) The idea is to hook people in, and once they've sampled the quality of my writing, then they'll be happy to pay a reasonable price for the next in the series.
But I've a nasty feeling it's not going to work that way. The power of free to shift copy is undoubted, but of the fast-approaching 10,000 people who have downloaded Natural Causes, how many will read it? And of them, how many will enjoy it enough to look out more of my work? In short, how many of them only ever download free books?
Perhaps more importantly, how long can I leave it before launching the next book in the series? The risk must surely be that by the time The Book of Souls comes out, my fifteen minutes will be up and it everyone will have moved on to the next thing.
If you sign up for Amazon's Kindle Select program, you can vary the price pretty much at will, and reduce it to zero for up to five days in any one ninety day period. The downside of this is that you cannot offer the book for sale anywhere else. When I first published Natural Causes, I shied away from signing up to this, even though I fully intended giving the book away at least for a while. For starters I wasn't sure that five days in ninety was often enough, and I also don't much like the whole Amazon manoeuvring itself into an unassailable monopoly position thing either. But the statistics are quite compelling: Smashwords, 2 months 800 free books; Amazon, one week, 9000 and counting free books.
So I am left with a dilemma. Should I abandon Smashwords, iBooks, Sony et al. and the 800 potential readers I've built up there for the ability to vary the price of the next book, including flogging it for nowt every now and then? Or should I stick to my principles and let everyone, en-Kindled or not, have a shot at reading the thing?
Or should I stop worrying and just get on with finishing the damned thing?
*yes, I know, they're worth more than that. And yes, I'd far rather they'd been professionally edited etc., etc. But that's a discussion for another post.