Monday, May 14, 2012


A funny thing happened in the middle of last week. My novel, Natural Causes, which was doing slow business at $2.99 on 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.

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Blogger Evan Owen - Snowdonia said...

How do I get a copy of The Book of Souls for my wife who has thoroughly enjoyed Natural Causes???

May 15, 2012 3:30 pm  
Blogger terlee said...

Yikes. It seems that 800 vs 10K would make the decision easy, but I agree with you about giving Amazon manipulation rights, and losing control of what you want to do with your own material.

It is a dilemma. Maybe let it ride for a bit while you finish the next book? The answer might come theory...maybe...

May 15, 2012 4:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm halfway through Natural Causes, having downloaded it for free on Amazon, and I would definitely pay for the next in the series. There's an awful lot of free rubbish out there but your book is great. Original, great characters and the dialogue really flows. I look forward to the next installment...

May 16, 2012 8:49 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous - Natural Causes is well written and attention grabbing. I look forward to the Book of Souls - hope it's on Kindle soon, AND I'd pay for it. Thanks - keep writing.

May 17, 2012 4:51 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Loved this book and can't wait for the next one - please hurry up. Would pay for it too. As for tying yourself to amazon, well, i know being tied doesn't sit well with a creative but this is how things are nowadays....

May 18, 2012 2:53 pm  
Blogger Fiona said...

Hmm. I read Natural Causes and looked for more. I'd have paid for the sequel, but Dreamwalker being free was *not* to be ignored (given that I love fantasy). It was perhaps even more to my personal taste than Natural Causes and I was very happy to pay for The Rose Cord. I'm impatient to read the sequels in either series.

You're a great writer, James. Your audience will find you no matter what outlets you choose to use.

May 19, 2012 5:14 pm  
Blogger Fiona said...

* they're not professionally edited? I'm astounded. They read as if they were edited by someone with years of experience.

May 19, 2012 5:18 pm  
Blogger JamesO said...

Thanks for all the kind words, everyone. It's been an astonishing week. Last time I looked, the book had been downloaded over 18500 times from alone. The Book of Souls, when it comes out, will probably be Amazon exclusive at least for the first 90 days. We'll see how it goes after that. Just waiting on a cover now.

Fiona - I've years of experience editing people, just not professionally. I'd love the sort of feedback some (not all) pro authors get from their editors and agents. It could only help to make things better. Editing your own work is always a compromise.

May 19, 2012 9:40 pm  
Anonymous victurn said...

I am reading natural causes at the momemt and can barely put it own, i was prowling on here looking for the next in the series. I love it and cant wait for not only the next one but several hopefully

May 22, 2012 12:28 am  
Blogger Haywain said...

Just finished Natural Causes and couldn't put it down at the end. A thoroughly good read. Very much looking forward to The Book of Souls!

I like fantasy as much as crime, so have just started on Dreamwalker.

May 23, 2012 4:38 pm  
Blogger anem72 said...

Finished Natural Causes today and I'm gutted their isn't another book in the series to buy immediately! Very impressed by it and astounded that you haven't been pounced on by publishers! Easily as good as Billingham's Thorne and Peter James's Grace, both of which I love. Being set in Edinburgh also gives it an edge and the minor characters are interesting in their own right.

I went through the book in two days, and I have chronic fatigue. Really looking forward to The Book of Souls now and hoped it's released soon. I would happily pay for it too. I know a lot of people who download free books on Kindle so they can find new authors - which is what I do too. That way we don't pay for kindle books that might be rubbish. Having exhausted the well-known crime authors it's hard to find a good author otherwise. So glad I downloaded this and the Amazon rating reflects the quality of your writing and story.

May 24, 2012 2:12 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bought the Benfro books on the back of how good Natural Causes was. I do think the difficulty with the multitude of easily published books on Kindle is distinguishing the good from the dross particularly when the authors friends all dip on to give 5 stars.

Think the answer is to encourage everybody who has come to this site on the back of reading James work, to make sure they review it on Kindle. Folk won't ignore books with stacks of positive reviews -- I hope.

May 26, 2012 7:54 pm  

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