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Breaking Free – What Happened when I left KDP Select

by Nick Stephenson in Books and Writing

“KDP Select is evil”. “Free promotions are pointless”. “Nick, you’re an idiot”. These are things I hear on a daily basis, the latter usually being something I say to myself when I’m looking in the mirror. As for the first two, I talk to a lot of authors who have a strong opinion on the relative merits of signing up for 90 days of exclusivity with Amazon, and the words “shackled” and “dungeon” come up a lot. It’s the same for free days – half of authors think they’re a God-send, the other half would rather cut off their own limbs with a rusty spatula than offer their work gratis. And that’s cool, I don’t have anything against people having wildly different opinions – and there are plenty of authors making a decent income without touching free promotions, and there are plenty who swear by them. But I like to look at the cold, hard numbers before coming to a conclusion, as everybody’s mileage seems to vary.

The two main strategies for free books I see most often are:

  1. A variety of titles signed up to KDP Select, with rotating free promotions on each book. This is pretty easy to do with the 5 free days you get to play with under the KDP Select contract.
  2. Titles NOT in KDP select, and up on other vendors, with the first book in the series permanently free. This is also pretty easy to do.

There are pros and cons for both approaches, but last month was the first time I’d tried option number (2). I’ve had a bunch of emails and comments asking for me to report back on the results, so here’s the skinny:

Income Report: All Books in KDP Select

kdp select

The graph above shows sales for April 2014. The large spike in the middle of the month was income generated from a Bookbub free promotion (30,000 free downloads). The resulting sales spike was pretty awesome, but sales dropped back down to normal pretty fast. This is normal for me, and it’s happened most times I’ve run a free promotion.

Income Report: Titles on Other Vendors + Permafree

non KDP

The graph above shows sales for May 2014. You can see a pretty dramatic difference here. Again, for the sake of comparing apples with apples, this was another month where I had a free promotion with Bookbub. You can see clearly that, while immediate results were lower than before, the residual effect is lasting much longer (and has carried over so far into June). Overall, the total income from the promotion is about the same, but the sales increase is far more consistent. And this is a good thing – I’d rather have a bunch of sales spread across a month, rather than just a couple of days. It helps with boosting visibility with Amazon’s algorithms (which largely discount anomalous spikes in favour of consistent performance) and helps keep things going when I’m not actively promoting or advertising.

Next month’s figures will be more illuminating – I’ll be able to see just how long the sales boost lasts. I’m expecting things to drop off pretty quick, but, so far, things are looking good. More importantly, this strategy has really opened up the UK market for me, as well as Nook and iTunes (Kobo is a bit of a graveyard). I’m looking forward to my other 3 titles dropping out of Select, so I can get them up on the other sites too. The non-Amazon-US avenues are now accounting for roughly 50% of revenue, which is cool, as I’m less vulnerable to sales fluctuations in one market – I’ve got others to back me up.

So, my advice? I’m still a fan of free, but I’ve found that having books out of Select is (so far) having a positive effect. With KDP Select free days, I can drum up $1,500+ of extra cash in a 48 hour period, but that’s relying almost entirely on Bookbub, and things go back to normal almost immediately. And I can’t guarantee that the ‘Bub is going to feature me every month. With books up on other vendors and a permafree title to keep readers coming in, I’m seeing much more consistent results – and I can use the smaller advertisers to keep the permafree’s performance “topped up” when it starts to drop, removing my reliance on Bookbub to a certain degree.

Another ancillary benefit of permafree is email signups. With a link to my New Releases newsletter in the front and back of my book, I’m getting a lot of clicks – and a lot of signups. An extra 70 or 80 per day at the moment, which adds up pretty fast. It’s getting to the point where I can sell 50 – 100 books at full price from each email (once or twice per month), which also helps keep things going.

Whatever strategy you decide to adopt, it’s definitely a slow build. Nothing happens overnight, and the long term view is important. And don’t be afraid to switch things up if something’s not working. Now, I’ve spent far too much time playing around with excel sheets and graphs, so I’m going to actually write something. If you found any of this useful, please send me a sack of money (or diamonds). Or, better yet, drop a comment below if you’ve had any strategies work particularly well for you – I’d love to hear about them.

Actually, both would be nice.

If you want a step-by-step guide to getting started on your email list, go download “Reader Magnets”. This free ebook will show you how to put this process in place and start building your email list – click below to grab your copy:



  1. Matt Iden says:

    Nick –

    First, love the Queen reference!

    Second, your perma-free results are exactly what I’m finding with my own books. I can only add a few things.

    – Indie writers who don’t believe in “free” need to reconsider. It’s the current promotional keystone to a writing career in this market, IMHO. Subject to change and YMMV, of course.
    – Ancillary effects: if you have audiobooks out, I believe perma-free will eventually lead more interested parties into trying your audio offerings. I can’t measure that (yet) and it will be difficult to prove over the long term, but more eyes on you + more products = more revenue at some point.
    – I’ve found perma-free really nice for one unexpected reason: I can pour most of my promotional effort into the “gateway” book (i.e., the p-f one) instead of trying to keep 3 or 4 balls in the air. I can see doing a $.99 sale on books later in my series here and there, but for the most part, I’ll be plugging away at Book #1 and looking for lateral effects on my other books.

    Thanks for the great post, Nick.

    1. Nick_Stephenson says:

      nice points, all! Yeah, it’s all about the Freddie this Friday. I’ve got an audiobook in the works, but they’re not quick to put together. Hopefully I’ll get the series done within a year or so, we’ll see. Honestly, I can realistically see more income from the $50 bonus if your audiobook is the first one a new Audible member downloads. With a big enough platform, that can be some serious $$$ right there (compared to, what, $3 – $5 royalties on the product itself?) Paperback sales still suck though.

      I can definitely see the appeal of limiting promotional efforts to the “funnel” book. Keeping several titles going long term is a real pain in the a**. Now, if only I could get regular spots with Bookbub at 99c, I’d be set!

  2. David Gaughran says:

    Hey Nick. Are you tracking those sign-ups at the front and back? (i.e. with a distinct or whatever). It would be really interesting to see the split.

    1. Nick_Stephenson says:

      Hi David! I haven’t – and I probably should. It would be an interesting learning point (assuming anyone actually reads to the end of my screeds, that is…)

      1. David Gaughran says:

        Aha, it would be HILARIOUS if you found at that 98% of sign-ups were from the start.

        Seriously though, cool idea. I’ve heard of people putting a short blurb up top, esp. before a permafree which might be hoarded for a while, and this is a great tweak to that idea.

        1. Nick_Stephenson says:

          Yes, hilarious in a sort of soul-crushing way… the interesting thing is that the ones that sign up in exchange for a freebie perform the same as organic signups who just want to know about the next release. I had expected much worse click rates, but I’m not complaining 🙂

          1. David Gaughran says:

            That’s really interesting. I got some sign-up spikes from unusual sources – e.g. I did an interview with the WordPress news blog that I was trying to set up way in advance for a new release, but the book wasn’t out in time, so I just put a mailing list sign-up, hoping to get maybe 20-30 people. I got something like 400 sign-ups and was really nervous with the next send, sure I’d get lots of unsubscribes and maybe some spam reports. It turned out the open/click rates were even higher with those guys than the rest of my list!

          2. Nick_Stephenson says:

            Yeah, I’ve seen that too. I think it’s a case of striking while the iron’s hot in some instances. I’ve set it up with mailchimp so everyone who signs up or who is imported gets an email after 24 hours reminding them who I am and what to expect. Then I try to send different emails to different segments (eg, those who didn’t open the last two mails, those who opened but didn’t click, etc) to try and see what works best. I end up sending something out once per week, but try to make it so nobody hears from me more than once or twice per month, at the most. I don’t want to clog people’s inboxes, but don’t’ want them forgetting about me either. So, in some cases, I’m sending out recommendations about other authors I’ve enjoyed who have a sale on, so I have some value to add to subscribers.

            And, seeing as I’m paying for email hosting, it makes sense to at least break even when I’m not promoting a new release. So far, I’ve seen the open rates and click rates stay steady – even when I’m emailing people who didn’t open the last 2 messages. It’s weird.

          3. David Gaughran says:

            But I’m being extra careful with the NoiseTrade emails. A big note up top making it SUPER obvious how to unsubscribe (and why they are getting the email), and keeping that sub-list apart from the mail list for a couple of months so I can keep a close eye on click rates/unsubs etc.

  3. AFN Clarke says:

    That’s really interesting info, will be watching with bated breath to see how your next month goes … do you do a free book promotion each month? Or just sometimes? I’m also wondering about the greater number of sales on in your last graph – moving out of KDP Select should have nothing to do with that, yet clearly something’s shifted, why do you think that is?

    As you know, I am also considering moving out of KDP Select and need to wait a few months for the latest 90 day periods to end – so this is all fascinating stuff for me and more incentive to spread my wings to other platforms. Again, thanks for being willing to share so much great information.

    1. Nick_Stephenson says:

      thanks Anthony – I try to do something every month, either free or some kind of price reduction. TBH I’d prefer to do a 99c Bookbub, but it’s difficult to get in – so I often wind up doing a freebie with them instead, which still beats the pants off pretty much anything else out there. With titles up on other vendors though, that might be challenging (I won’t have KDP select free days to play with) – but I might end up rotating my permafree instead. I haven’t decided yet. Hopefully I’ll get a 99c spot, we’ll see!

      As for UK sales – no, the shift out of KDP select won’t have made any difference to AMZ sales (and it hasn’t in the US either – it’s just opened up iTunes and Nook) but having a permafree has made a MASSIVE difference. I’ve gone from selling 2 or 3 copies a day to 45 copies a day in the UK. I think it’s mainly luck – there’s nowhere to advertise over here in Blighty (yet) so when my permafree crawled into the top 10 overall, I was a little shocked.

      I think because the UK has seen organic growth, rather than spikes from advertising, it’s holding on much stronger. I’ve been hanging out in the top 4k across all my books for the last three weeks and there’s not been much movement. I think it’s probably because the UK audience haven’t become desensitized to freebies yet – the market is basically the same as the US was about 2 years ago. We’re a bit behind….

  4. Hmm. I have a Bookbub promo next week, so I think I’ll put a link to my newsletter at the beginning of my book to see if that does anything interesting. The problem is some ereaders will open the book on the first chapter, so many readers will never see the link at the start, but still, worth trying.

    1. hypocycloid8 says:

      Even on my ereader, I go back to front of the book to see what interesting info is on the cover, copyright pages, etc. Maybe suggest to people in your newsletter that they may miss out on some future content if they just jump right in? Create a teaser that gets them to open BEFORE that first chapter? I put an e-book out for just family members of a collection of stories about our grandparents. I told them that if their ereader opened at the first chapter, they would miss my dedication and an original poem our grandmother wrote that was never given to anyone but me. It worked. And that was just a free book for relatives. Could work for readers you want to sell too as well.

      1. Nick_Stephenson says:

        that’s a great idea – will have to give it a try

    2. Nick_Stephenson says:

      mention it in the product description also – I get a decent amount of people clicking through from the “look inside”, which doesn’t always jump forward to chapter 1. Though I saw the biggest improvement in signups when I offered a freebie short story / novella as an incentive. And, oddly, doing that didn’t make the blindest bit of difference to that title’s sales – the book I was offering free on my site was still selling the same.

  5. hypocycloid8 says:

    I found this little tidbit all too helpful. Guilty as charged for wanting to see what your new book was like, but finding other writers who entertain helps keep us struggling, practically starving slaves to our imaginations seeing things from the eyes of each other. I was discouraged enough by other writers’ experiences with KDP Select to keep myself steering into other directions and appreciate your additional take. I too would find it interesting to see just how much interest is generated from a link in the front of the book and have a friend who decided to put his in the front right beneath the copyright and the ever necessary information that everything is fictional to keep people from running out to act out scenes or Google the characters. Yes, some readers of books are that ridiculous. He has seen a pretty big uptick in readers signing up to hear new release news and follow his writing journey using that method and it has me considering similar action. Why not let the reader know upfront that you want them to not only like what you write, but invite them to take the journey with you? Love reading your twists and turns and helpful tidbits. Keep spitting out that literary genius and giving us all things to consider. I think the age of Indy writers is just beginning to really set off a revolution in how people access great content that isn’t being “held hostage”… And those who are too afraid to give out at least a bit of their talent for free are going to see just how fickle readers have become. In the era of free-flowing ideas and content, people want to find something with the potential to engage them before they commit. I guess it is part of a newer thought process or at least one that is rapidly growing. Instead of worrying about who may see my work for free, I worry more about those who wouldn’t see at least a bit of it if they had to pay. We all have to eat, but cake is overrated.

    1. Nick_Stephenson says:

      thanks for the comment! I like your “held hostage” take – I like to think people can get hold of what they want, when they want, where they want – so it makes sense to diversify, so long as the numbers support it.

      I would think twice about putting a link on the copyright page, only because many readers skip it. But who knows! Whatever works 🙂

      Some authors do well without using free, and hats off to them. But so long as we’re trying new things and sticking with what works, it’s all good…

  6. Phronk says:

    Thanks for this! It’s refreshing to see actual data and reason rather than opinions being blindly tossed around. 🙂

    I’m at the point where I’m releasing my first novel and deciding if I should go with KDP Select. Right now, I don’t have other work to cross-promote or promotions to rotate through. I’m thinking of trying it for 90 days just to get people reading it and build an audience via promotions and ads (e.g. Bookbub). When I have other books out, a more vendor-neutral approach seems like the better option. Any other thoughts for first-time author/publishers?

    1. Nick_Stephenson says:

      Congratulations on getting the novel nearly done! I would say, free promotions are the simplest way to grow an audience. Your choices are permanently free (so don’t go in KDP select, put your books up elsewhere for free and get Amazon to price match) or use short-term free promotions (you need to be in KDP Select for this).

      If you’ve only got one book, if it was me, I would probably go with KDP Select and use my 5 free days spread out across 90 days. Then, you’ll (hopefully) get paid sales inbetween freebie days. You obviously can’t do that if it’s permanently free!

      Your idea seems like a sensible one – just remember, you’ll need to advertise that free book during its free days or nothing much will happen! I’ve written a few posts in here that cover my tactics, feel free to look around 🙂

  7. Renee Pawlish says:

    Interesting post. I have a mystery series (5 available now) and at the first of the year, I made the first permafree. It took a couple of months, but with some promotion (not BB), I saw it get into the top 10 in the “private investigator” category on Amazon. That really helped, and then I did a BB ad a couple of weeks ago. I saw a nice spike. It’s tailed off, but I think it helped. What I think permafree does is get you readers who aren’t just hoarding. In my case, they’re looking for a private eye series. I’ve also seen a spike in reviews that say “will be looking for more in this series”. I agree as well to push the free one more than the others, although I’m trying to get at least one later book on BB, but it’s hard without lots of reviews (and the later ones don’t have that yet).
    Thanks again for the post.

    1. Nick_Stephenson says:

      thanks for sharing 🙂 agree on the difficulties of Bookbub – I’ve submitted a title with 100+ reviews and still didn’t get through. I hear the same from USA Today bestselling authors too, so I try not to get discouraged. It is possible to use a bunch of the smaller advertisers on the same day / week to get traction, though it’s still not quite the same. Better than nothing though!

  8. Sandra Hutchison says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this. I only have one book out so far (another on the way), but while KDP Select has been very good for me as a debut author, if I don’t advance to the next round in ABNA I want to try going out to the wider world with it. It’s good to see that it’s not automatic doom!

    1. Nick_Stephenson says:

      Agreed – I’ve found Select to be great for getting started – but I just keep an eye on what works, and something that worked a few months ago might not have the same effect. Everything changes so fast! And good luck with ABNA!

  9. Rowena says:

    I’m about to release my first book in August so am trying to work out the best route to take. I’ve been thinking of taking a soft launch approach, but still don’t know whether to go KDP select or not. Your article is very interesting as I have a trilogy that I will be publishing soon afterwards and I think Number 2 would be a good approach to try.

    1. CCEkeke says:

      As someone who just used KDP, I’d definitely recommend using it when you have more than one book out.

    2. Nick_Stephenson says:

      KDP Select is a great way to build a following, but if you have three books already, permafree might work even better – as you’ll get some traction on other platforms too.

  10. Jamie Lake says:

    I won’t do a free promotion again unless I’m planning on doing perma-free on the first book in a series. The reason is because your sales ranks PLUMMET to the bowels of the earth after it switches back to paid.

    1. Nick_Stephenson says:

      Hey Jamie. It all depends how you plan it – I’ve hit the top 200 in the Kindle store after a free promotion, so it can still work well if you get a decent number of downloads. The sales ranking does plummet initially, as your free downloads aren’t counted as sales, but it catches up quickly enough – it’s the boost in the popularity charts that makes free promotions worthwhile, but you need to give away a whole ton to make any difference (10,000 or more, as a rule of thumb).

  11. Nick, found your article via The Digital Reader – some nice stats & info, thanks!

    I recently decided I had enough titles across several interests that I could place a handful on permafree. It’s only been a couple of weeks, and the increased exposure has been really surprisingly nice.

    You mention the newsletter blurb. I’m on WordPress, the free option, and haven’t seen how to place a newsletter on my site. Anything you can recommend?

    Also, which titles do you have permafree, wouldn’t mind taking a look at one of your thrillers, thanks 🙂

    1. Nick_Stephenson says:

      Thanks Felipe – “Wanted” is currently free, hope you like it!

      To integrate an email signup with WordPress free, you can use their plugin to let people know when you release a new post (not recommended, as you don’t then “own” the emails) or use Mailchimp to create a link that will take people to your signup form.

      Mailchimp isn’t the only provider, but they’re my favourite – and free until you get to 2,000 subscribers.

      1. Got it, thanks Nick. Looks like it’s set in Paris, my fav city 🙂

        I’ll check out mailchimp, have heard of it quite a bit, but just havent’ done the newsletter thing yet but need to, thanks again!

  12. Michelle Muckley says:

    Interesting stuff. I am sitting on the fence thinking select or not to select with my new series. Conclusion? Depends on the day. But this post does give me some thoughts about limiting my older books to select and keeping book one in the series perma free and having the series installments elsewhere. Time to do some more formatting I think……

    1. Nick_Stephenson says:

      I like to keep a couple of titles in KDP Select, mainly so I can run free promos on them. But having a presence on other retailers is definitely a plus if you can grow there.

  13. proboscis says:

    Very good. It’s very rare indeed to find a blog with usefull info instead of just generic talk.

  14. Marcus says:

    Do you know how to schedule free promotions with a large quantity of books say 100+

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