Exploring Amazon Kindle's Marketing Tools

09/01/2016 01:04 pm ET Updated Sep 02, 2017

In my last column, I talked about dipping my toe into the frothy waters of self-publishing after years of relying on traditional publishing houses. At the beginning of that process, I decided to sell exclusively though Amazon, as opposed to multiple channels.

My reasoning was straightforward: when analyzing the royalty statements for my traditionally published books, I saw that Kindle constituted the great majority of my e-book sales. In addition, when it comes to shilling e-books, Amazon offers a handful of promotional tools for those who decide to publish solely through its Kindle platform.

But how well do these tools actually work? One month after publishing "Somebody's Trying to Kill Me," a book of crime-fiction short stories, I can tell you that the results have been mixed, at least in the short term. Here's the breakdown:

Giving Away Free Copies

Through Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing), Amazon offers authors the ability to give away books for free for a pre-set number of days (known as 'Free Book Promotion').

I don't know about you, but I'm not a huge fan of giving my work away for free. So instead of going down this route, I asked my friend John Wheeler about his experiences with Free Book Promotion. John isn't a professional author; a couple years back, for fun, he wrote a short book with the incredible, for-the-ages title of "Cowboy Werewolf Massacre" and published it via Kindle. He also had no compunctions about giving it away, since his primary goal was to expose the world to his particular brand of weirdness.

There's an entire online ecosystem of Websites devoted to promoting Kindle authors' book giveaways--often for a fee. Working off a list posted on Author Marketing Club, John figured out which of those sites would promote his free books for free.

The result of all that self-promotion: he ended up giving away 1,400 copies of his book, the majority of them on the first day of the campaign. Within a few weeks, he ended up selling (for actual cash) an additional ten copies, along with a couple thousand pages "streamed" via Kindle Unlimited (more on that service later). Total revenues: about forty bucks.

The second month after his book's release, with no additional promotional efforts, his book's revenue dropped to seven bucks. He also earned eleven Amazon reviews, decidedly mixed.

When you move that many free copies of a book, you may rocket to the top of your particular Kindle subject category. However, getting to the top of the "free" category doesn't affect your paid ranking once the book starts costing money again.

If John had promoted his giveaway more aggressively, would it have translated into bigger sales? Good question. In exchange for hundreds of dollars, some Websites and newsletters promise to carpet-bomb tens of thousands of people with listings for your free book. While that seems like an easy way to leave a lot of potential revenue on the table, such tactics might end up working out for authors who A.) already have a significant following, and B.) are selling a series of some sort. For the authors who fall into those categories, the first (free) hit gets readers hooked, and the revenue follows accordingly as they purchase the rest of the author's works.

But for authors with little to no name recognition (like John) and a negligible portfolio, it's more difficult to see how using free days once a quarter (KDP's limit) can significantly increase your sales.

Kindle Countdown Deals

Kindle allows you to cut the price of your book down to 99 cents. As with free books, this feature is largely useless in isolation if you're an author without significant name recognition; there's no point in slicing the price of your work to just under a buck if only a few (if any) eyeballs will ever note it.

There are a number of Websites online that will promote your countdown deal--for a fee, if you want a guaranteed spot complete with imagery, a short description, and so on. There are authors who swear by these Websites, but anyone who decides to engage must seed the ground beforehand: make sure your book has a number of verified reviews, has an online presence outside of Amazon, and so on.

While I didn't resort to any of those promotional Websites, I did take the time before launching my Kindle Countdown Deal to line up blogger interviews, reviews, and other elements that I knew would establish more of a trust in my book. When someone buys your tome, they're making a significant bet that you're not going to waste your time; a book released and promoted in isolation doesn't assuage them, even if it costs less than a soda.

Kindle Giveaways

Amazon has a new feature that allows Kindle authors to raffle away a set number of copies of their book. Not everyone who takes part in these giveaways (not to be confused with KDP's 'free books' promotion) gets a copy of your book, and you can require participants to engage in certain tasks, such as complete a poll or follow your Amazon author page.

If you're trying to build up a significant Twitter or Amazon following, Giveaways can prove a useful feature. But it's also an expensive one, since you pay for any copies given away. Although linking a giveaway with a Kindle Countdown deal can limit what you pay out-of-pocket, and you earn royalties from the books your participants "win" (since you pay for them), you're shelling out nonetheless.

In addition to gaining more followers, giveaways can also spike the number of reviews coming in, although you may have to wait several weeks for the first ones to appear. Even though lots of people participate in these giveaways, relatively few will actually leave a review. Sure, that's annoying, but nothing should compel a reader to do something they don't want to do.
Nor do Giveaways seem to translate into massive rank-jumping, so discard that idea: you're not going to buy your way to the top of the bestseller list.

Kindle Unlimited

Kindle Unlimited positions itself as the Netflix (or the Amazon Streaming, if you prefer) of e-books: rather than pay for individual copies of books, those who've signed up for the program can read all they want. Authors receive a set amount of royalties per page read, which amounts to less than half a cent per page.

While that might not sound like a fantastic deal for an author, Kindle Unlimited pages really add up. For a two-day period in mid-August, for example, I sold no copies of my book on Kindle, but my author dashboard recorded more than 500 pages read. I still made money. The big (and perhaps unanswerable) question is whether those participating in Kindle Unlimited would have actually bought the book if this streaming program didn't exist. In the end, I'll take readers however I can get them.

Conclusion

Kindle Direct Publishing gives you a lot of promotional tools, none of which will build you a huge audience overnight. When used in conjunction with your other promotional efforts--such as blogger outreach and reviews--they can perhaps move the needle on sales, but none will make your book a blockbuster. For that, you need a lot of luck, combined with a good deal of work.

In my next column, I'll cover what happened when I began experimenting with Amazon's ad system. I'm still running an analysis, but I'll give you an unsurprising insight: Amazon's suggested CPC is probably way too high. In the interim, if you're interested in some crime fiction as end-of-summer reading, check out "Somebody's Trying to Kill Me."