Free excerpts on the Kindle Store: you’re doing it wrong!

by Chris Walters of BooksprungI’m going to go out on a limb and assume that one of the things an author or publisher likes to see least on an Amazon product page is a low star rating. When it comes to Kindle books, however, a lot of publishers are creating their own star-related headaches, because they’re not taking the time to market the things accurately.

“Many free Kindle books are awesome. Not this one… You don’t get 10 stories, you get mediocre previews of 10 books.”Working Mom
“Maybe I missed it in the description but this only had one section. I didn’t enjoy it much.”Ve
“…The biggest fiction was the pricing that implied that the Kindle download would be the whole book rather than an extract.” – F. A.

I’m all for excerpts, Kindle format or not. Back in 1993, I bought Scott Smith’s “A Simple Plan” because a local bookstore gave me the first chapter for free. He was a new author I’d never heard of, but the plot intrigued me, especially since I’d just read Donna Tartt’s “A Secret History” and was hungry for more stories about average people making morally questionable reprehensible choices. Since the book wasn’t out yet I couldn’t thumb through it at the store, but I was able to take home the little freebie mini-book and read that, and I liked it well enough to buy the real thing when it came out.

Amazon clearly knows this strategy works, or else every title in the Kindle Store wouldn’t already come with a free preview of the first 10% of the file.

But publishers who are eager for more exposure on the Kindle Store have been pushing their own versions of the free sample, with what I’d consider mixed results. If your promotional strategy consistently creates at least a few angry readers each time–who end up leaving bad reviews about their customer experience instead of about the book–then maybe it’s not being implemented in the best possible manner.

I probably spend more time trawling the Kindle Store than the average reader, so I imagine I see this problem more frequently than most. But here are two examples from just the past week:

The first one has been out a week and only has one review: mine. I gave it two stars and wrote one sentence explaining what the publisher had not explained–and as of today my negative review has received 31 out of 32 helpful votes, and these two follow-up comments:

“I’m getting very irritated with the number of ‘free books’ that are actually samples. Amazon needs to make it mandatory for publishers to list when a selection is a sample of a book, and not a complete book.” – Nora

“Amazon needs to start marking these as SAMPLES or TEASERS. It’s very misleading, and it reflects badly on the publisher.” – M. J.

If Hachette had made it clear what it was offering in the first place, I almost certainly wouldn’t have left the review, which quite possibly persuaded 30 other customers (maybe more) to skip this title.

The second title appeared on the Kindle Store in the past day or two, and it came front-loaded with great reviews from the print edition. It’s possible any negative Kindle customer reviews won’t have much of an impact on the final score. Still, why would you want to risk bungling any Kindle sales by angering readers?

Sometimes I see reviewers argue with each other over these “I was misled!” rants. This is because sometimes the angry reader made a mistake and didn’t notice that the book was an excerpt, but frequently it’s because the publisher (or Amazon?) has gone back and updated the product page after the damage is already done, leaving future readers confused about the claims in the review stack–and the original reviewers defensive.

All of this–the finger pointing between reviewers, the angry readers, the low ratings–seem completely avoidable with just a little more work on the publisher’s part. Here are some ideas for how to make the customer experience better, by which I mean more transparent.

Use accurate descriptions in the product title.

Macmillan has started doing this in a way that makes complete sense. For example, it’s offering an excerpt of Louise Penny’s “Bury Your Dead” under the following product title:

“Bury Your Dead CHAPTER 1 Free Preview: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel [Kindle Edition]“

Other Macmillan books excerpts are listed the same way, with “chapter 1? and “free preview” incorporated into the title.

Hachette is almost there, with books like Cornelia Funke’s “Reckless” listed as:

“Reckless (Free Preview)”

However, as one reader points out in the comments, “preview” isn’t always the same as “excerpt,” which is why it’s nice that Macmillan is being so precise in its descriptions.

Use some consistent graphic or badge to identify samples.

Fixing the product listing titles is a huge step in the right direction, but publishers should also be using some sort of graphic on the book covers in order to visually communicate that the book is only an excerpt.

Oh wait, Macmillan is doing this as well! See these examples:

Macmillan went with “preview” instead of “excerpt,” which as I noted isn’t the best possible word. But at least you can spot a Macmillan excerpt with one glance at the cover image.

Ultimately I think it would be better if Amazon introduced a standardized graphic, so that it wouldn’t be left to publishers to worry about. But other publishers could also copy Macmillan’s lead and adopt the yellow corner banner approach.

List approximate word count for all titles.

Kilobytes are a crummy way for regular readers to guesstimate the length of a work, and “locations” differ for every reader. Why not instead take advantage of a print tradition that still has relevance in the digital world–word count? It wouldn’t take long for even the newest readers to figure out the experiential difference between 8,000 words, 40,000 words, and 105,000 words.

For this to work, however, the product information would have to be accurate, and often it isn’t. Excerpts are frequently listed with the full book’s product info, including novel-sized kilobyte counts and the full length of the print edition for comparison. This data really needs to be accurate if a publisher wants readers to know what they’re getting.

Introduce a special offer in the sample

I suspect that at least some angry customers would feel better if the free sample they downloaded had a link back to the Kindle Store that provided a unique pre-order discount.

This might be an impossibility for publishers who have embraced agency pricing, since they’re not allowed to discount a title at one online store without discounting it elsewhere. Amazon might refuse to cooperate as well, and I think you’d have to have Amazon’s help to keep people from gaming the system by sharing the link. On the other hand, I imagine most publishers would love to have a coupon link passed around if it meant bringing in more sales.

I understand why a publisher would want to take advantage of the Kindle Store’s Top 100 Free lists to market upcoming titles, but actually I think the excerpt strategy is best suited for publisher and author websites; that way you can actually engage with your customers and run a real campaign, and you can avoid any DRM trappings to ensure the excerpts are widely distributed.

But that doesn’t mean excerpts on the Kindle Store have to be a bad experience for consumers, or should be treated as an afterthought. At least some publishers are now taking steps to standardize how they present such offers, and I hope the rest of the industry will catch up soon. There will always be one star reviews, but why not let your author’s book earn them the old-fashioned way?

(Photo: [cipher])

1 Comment on Free excerpts on the Kindle Store: you’re doing it wrong!

  1. I’m LMAO over here. The two you cited prominently are ones I DLed too. And I expected that Job one to be an entire book! When I peeked into the Monsters one, I was pissed to find it a collection of — what? I didn’t bother to even read. I felt defrauded. They’re not doing themselves any favors trying to grab attention like this!

    Want a bitter laugh? Try an online Preview at Kobo! I did yesterday and all I got was the front matter and a fraction of the first chapter’s first sentence!

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