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Amazon Now Taking Steps to Discourage Free Kindle eBook Sites

amazonassociates[1] Amazon has recently announced a change in the rules for their affiliate program. When those new rules take effect in March 2013 they’re going to make it harder for websites like eReaderIQ to cover their costs with affiliate commissions while still helping readers find free Kindle ebooks.

Ever since Amazon opened the Kindle Store they have been using free ebooks as loss-leaders. The free ebooks were used to draw in as many customers as possible in the hopes that they would stick around and buy more ebooks. And thanks to Amazon’s passion for encouraging affiliate marketing, a whole host of sites have sprung up to find and introduce you to those free ebooks.

Unfortunately that is probably going to change soon.

Starting on 1 March, Amazon is going to start checking to see if an affiliate is encouraging people to download "too many"  free ebooks, and if anyone who crosses over the threshold will lose the affiliate fees for that month.

The new threshold has 2 components. According to Amazon, they will block a payment to an affiliate for any month where:

  1. At least 80% of all Kindle eBooks ordered and downloaded during Sessions attributed to your Special Links are free Kindle eBooks
  2. 20,000 or more free Kindle eBooks are ordered and downloaded during Sessions attributed to your Special Links

Amazon says that fewer than a tenth of a percent of affiliates, and they could well be correct. But no matter how many sites are affected, what’s really going on here is that Amazon is closing a lucrative loophole in the affiliate program.

Loophole? What loophole?

Let me explain. There are a number of websites that direct you to free Kindle ebooks not because they want you to download the free ebook but because they hope that you’ll buy something else while on an Amazon website.

All of these sites are not using Amazon’s affiliate system for its intended purpose (advertising a product sold on Amazon), but to instead promote a free product in the hopes that they can pick up an affiliate fee or sales commission on a product they didn’t promote.

Amazon naturally thinks that the sites I describe above are gaming the system, and they’re not going to let the bigger sites get away with it anymore. Starting in March a website that promotes Kindle ebooks is going to have promote more paid Kindle ebooks or it won’t make any money in a given month.

Luckily this will only affect the larger sites, and possibly not even all of them.


Thanks, Jeremy!

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William Walsh February 22, 2013 um 12:08 pm

It will effect even small sites.

The threshold to qualify for the policy requires only a little more than 600 books per day to to be free.

This is really a huge change in policy, and I see this as a major blow to the KDP Select program. The authors depend on these sites to cheaply promote the free days they get in the program, promotion they couldn’t afford or they wouldn’t even need the KDP select program at all. Most of the benefit the authors see from Select is the free days, the prime fund is nice and all, but is really not enough of an incentive alone.

Without the promotion these sites brings, big and small, Select just became a much less attractive offer for authors.

This change in policy was very poorly thought out IMO.

I would rather see them change the affiliate cookie policy. Right now it is 24 hours from an affiliate link click that the affiliate gets credit for anything added to the shopping cart. They could easily set it up so that free kindle books set a different cookie type, use a session cookie (expires when the browser is shut down or restarted), or set a much lower expiration time (say 4 hours instead of 24).

Any site offering even a small number of "Free" book links will easily exceed the 80% threshold required for this policy to kick in (it kicks in if 80% of kindle books ordered from your account links are free versus paid). And 20k isn’t much, trust me. A single book on some of even the smaller sites will see 200 or more downloads, I know this from experience.

Mike Cane February 22, 2013 um 5:42 pm

>>>Without the promotion these sites brings, big and small, Select just became a much less attractive offer for authors.

And where will writers turn? Kobo? B&N? Puhleeze.

barbara trumpinski-roberts February 23, 2013 um 9:18 pm

Maybe authors won’t be able to go anywhere else, but damn…Amazon is not being cool at all. I probably download between 3 and 30 free books a day (far more than I will ever be able to read) but I also spend a sh*tload of money on ebooks and paper books.

If I know that downloading a free ebook will screw a provider of information about ebooks and hurt their income, I will do my best to get around the Amazon rules.

E.Hughes February 23, 2013 um 9:51 pm

Good article. But not all authors are interested in giving their books away. The problem I have with the free ebooks is that I feel it discourages readers from buying actual books. I am an author and while I enjoyed the "free books" promotion in the beginning I realized it was hurting our actual sales and that we were getting little out of the promotion. Authors offer their books because they are hoping the reader will leave a review, good or bad, but readers are downloading dozens of books a day that they will never read. I recall a free promotion for one of my books resulting in 7,000 downloads in one day that produced not a single review in the following weeks. We want to know what readers like or dislike about novels because it does impact what we do in our future work. I happen to write for a very popular genre, so I was able to avoid resorting to free promos in order to sell a book or two. The public likes "free stuff". They dont' care about the book whereas a person who paid 4.99 for a novel will not only take the time to read it, but review it as well and they will tell you whether or not it was worth buying. There should be limitations on what can be offered free. I would suggest, only short stories and novellas are eligible for free promotions since writers write them without the expectation of "selling" them, since most will publish in literary journals, or publish them free online anyway. Full lenth novels or material over 20,000 words should not be available for free. The alternative would be to limit the number of free novels per customers to 3 per month. This plethora of free books may help sell the Kindle hardware, but it hurts the industry as a whole.

E. Hughes
(Author: Business as Usual and Disappear, Love)

Brian February 24, 2013 um 12:52 am

"This plethora of free books may help sell the Kindle hardware, but it hurts the industry as a whole."

Proof? Some of what you say has merit, but the whole free books are horrible and destroying everything spiel is a bit much.

I’ve seen plenty of numbers where free books (such as first in a series) has increased an authors sales of other titles by many, many times what they’d sold in months past.

E.Hughes February 24, 2013 um 12:13 pm

Hi Brian,

I can attest to a spike in sales as a result of free ebooks however, it was very short lived. When I had the one day promotion that resulted in selling nearly 7,000 free promo books, it resulted in an a 120+ spike in book sales that month. Sales eventually steadied, returning to what they were. A 120 + sales spike isn’t much for having gave away almost 7000 books. I would say that most of us don’t give promotional copies away for money but for reviews. Reviews (good or bad) help sell the book. When we don’t hear back from readers, promotional freebies becomes a waste of time. We have no idea what they thought , if they liked it, hated it, or even read it at all. So I rarely if ever, offer freebies because I no longer see the benefit. I think if readers want the program to continue (many authors have become disillusioned and may drop the KDP program altogether), they should read the books and provide a review if time permits, as opposed to downloading dozens of books that they will never open 🙂

Richard Adin February 24, 2013 um 7:04 am

@E. Hughes — I rely on free ebooks to determine whether or not to read and buy an author’s books. If I like the free ebook, I then go out and buy whatever else the author has written. One extreme example for me is Richard Tuttle’s books. I had never heard of him and his books were selling, at the time, for $4.99 to $6.99. He gave away a title which was the first in the series, and I found I liked his writing — enough so that I bought the 28 additional ebooks he had written and I also sent him an e-mail asking him to notify me when his next books were available. Granted most authors are not so prolific, but I can name many authors whose free ebook introduced me to them and whose other books I have bought as a result.

E.Hughes February 24, 2013 um 12:23 pm

Hi Richard,

I too, have heard of authors who write serial novels benefitting from the freebie promos. However, authors who aren’t writing serials don’t benefit as much. I’m a reader as much as I am a writer, so I’m buying books out there with everyone else and can see it from both ends. I guess the disillusion and resentment authors are beginning to feel, stems from the fact that since the free promotion program entered our KDP contract in 2011 (?), sales are what they used to be. I don’t speak for everyone – and won' t try to, and I don’t have all the data. It would take some looking into.

Adam February 24, 2013 um 10:55 pm

Many authors have had much success by giving away book #1 in a series, but not all authors can afford to do that, which is why I agree with the free short story, or even a few free short stories, especially when done as a prequel and gives customers who read it a chance to like your characters, world, plots and/or writing style enough to decide to buy your book – and as long as its priced between $5 and $7, there is a good chance that will happen. Of course, not everyone who reads it will actually write a review, but regardless of whether reviews go up or not, sales generally do – whether or not that covers the cost of a free book #1 or not is also up to self promotion, quality of your work and luck.

Johannes February 22, 2013 um 1:33 pm

@William Afaik Amazon already uses session cookies, at least here in germany.


William Walsh February 22, 2013 um 1:51 pm

I believe all the Amazon Affiliate programs now use a 24 hour cookie, not a session cookie.

That is what is stated on the site and in the operating agreement, and in my chrome cookie manager, it is showing a 24 hour cookie.

Richard Adin February 22, 2013 um 1:55 pm

All will be well, after all, Amazon is your friend, and friends never screw friends. I have no doubt that Amazon will tout this as one of the benefits to the Select program — authors can now be assured that everyone is working diligently to steer readers to the authors' ebooks, as long as the ebooks aren’t free.

The real question is this: Is the change necessitated by Amazon needing to boost its margins? Has market share stagnated and so now Amazon needs to look at revenues rather than market share?

William Walsh February 22, 2013 um 2:14 pm

Fail to see how this benefits Select….I’m already seeing authors saying that this has made the decision not to renew Select an easier one for them. And one of those was an author with $800 in KDP Prime borrowing income for January. That free promotion days outweighs that for income, says that this will effect authors WAY more than most people think.

William Walsh February 22, 2013 um 2:25 pm

Amazon’s customer service confirmed that indirect orders of free kindle ebooks will count towards the program restrictions, so even listing the books without an affiliate tag puts the sites and their operators at risk of losing all their amazon income, from all sites they run, should they happen to run afoul of the 80%/20k rule, even indirectly.

Too risky for any serious site operator to consider.

pidgeon92 February 22, 2013 um 4:26 pm

I love ereaderiq. Not for free books, but for books that I have on my wishlist. As soon as one drops below $5.99, I generally pick it up. I have more ebooks than years left in my life.

Perhaps a better thing for Amazon to do is time-out the affiliate link immediately if the link is for a free e-book, so that any subsequent purchases don’t qualify.

Mike Cane February 22, 2013 um 5:40 pm

>>>if an affiliate is encouraging people to download “too many” free ebooks

Oh wow. They must have noticed my binge sessions at Zero Dollar Books.

Gary McLaren February 22, 2013 um 5:45 pm

Perhaps these web sites should add a section of recommended books with regular prices. It could be indie books or even the same books they have promoted for free the week before. It could still help promote indie authors. Why ONLY have a site listing free books? How about adding a section for the special offers and discounted books. There are ways for the web sites to work with this, and I can understand where Amazon is coming from too.

William Walsh February 22, 2013 um 8:29 pm

Gary. most of them do link to paid books also.

But that’s not the point. If they have ANY free books listed, which is the whole point of KDP Select for authors, the free books will be ordered at least 5:1 over the paid ones, and thus will trigger this clause.

Greg M. February 23, 2013 um 11:45 am

Are free books really all that important? I must have downloaded a fee dozen or more since 2008, but I have only read maybe three or four. There is a strange psychology at work in the mind when FREE comes into play and you want it because it is FREE. I basically don’t bother now.

Richard Adin February 24, 2013 um 7:10 am

Yes, free is very important for many readers. See my reply above to E. Hughes. I buy a lot of ebooks — in 2012 I bought (i.e., actually paid for, not freebies) more than 300 ebooks. I would not have bought any of them if the authors hadn’t first let me sample them with a free ebook.

I am aware of the "sample" portion that can be downloaded, but I dislike reading them — probably for no good reason, but I do dislike them — and never download a sample of a book. As for reading a sample online, I will occasionally look at a few pages, but that is all. I like to sit with a book in my time, which means that I will download a freebie and put it in my queue.

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E.Hughes February 23, 2013 um 10:00 pm

It sounds like Amazon was paying associates whenever someone downloaded a free ebook?

Brian February 24, 2013 um 12:46 am

No, they’re not paying them for free book purchases at least not directly. But if you go through an affiliate link to "buy" a free ebook and then buy anything else at Amazon within the next 24 hours the affiliate gets credit for those sales ( there are some if’s and but’s in there, but that’s the general idea).

carmen webster buxton February 24, 2013 um 10:52 am

I use ereaderiq almost entirely for alerting me when a book drops in price. I would worry more about Books on the Knob than ereaderiq, as I am much more likely to get free books than paid books from BotK.

I agree this makes KDP Select less attractive. It’s not that people will drop KDP– that would be cutting off their nose to spite their face– it’s that staying on Kindle as a Select book is much less attractive if there’s nowhere to promote your book being free except your own blog. Other retailers might provide only 1/4 to 1/2 as much income as Kindle, but why do without the extra if exclusivity offers such limited benefits?

Russell Blake February 24, 2013 um 3:42 pm

Reading the language, couldn’t the sites simply create non-affiliate links for their free books? It specifically cites Special Links. I take it to mean affiliate links. So lose the affiliate links for just the free books, and problem solved. Complying to the letter, if not with the spirit.

I should have been a politician or a Wall St attorney. Phooey.

Andrys February 24, 2013 um 6:14 pm

Russell, if a person clicks a link to look at a set of *shoes* but winds up seeing an Amazon ad for a free book and downloads it, then the free book will count against the siteowner’s total. It’s indirect influence and foot-in-door that’s operating.

Nevertheless, the first clause pertains to those who

Carmen, I agree re the KDP Select losing its attractiveness unless they come up with something else.

I updated my blog entry (that Nate linked to in the follow-up article – thanks for the feedback, Nate) to include an actual real cost (3G for 'avid readers who have only 3G to use on all those downloads) that may be a large factor in Amazon’s decision as well as the usual publisher and market-share pressures — and the fact that e-book sales in general are starting to slow.

B&N ended their e-Ink 3G book downloads pretty early, and Sony was not including this in the U.S. last I read.

Andrys February 24, 2013 um 6:16 pm

Oops – Sorry, I left out ' those who "we determine are promoting primarily free Kindle eBooks and meet both conditions below…"

juliana February 25, 2013 um 2:18 am

i rely on the free ebook sites and on amazon for my free books i admit i am a low income person and can not afford to buy books all the time in the 6 months since i have had my kindle fire i have only bought 5 books because of the free sites if i read and authors book and i like it i save up money and buy the next book in line other than that i do not bother to buy stuff on amazon. i am going to find other free ebooks and keep doing what i am doing if amazon dont like it tough cookies

Huw Thomas February 25, 2013 um 7:40 am

I seem to remember we had the same argument over cassette tapes and music in the 70s/80s. Anyone else remember the 'home-taping is killing music' campaign?
That was pretty much rubbish too. I copied dozens of my friends' records but generally for two reasons – one that I only had limited income to spend on music and two to decide if I liked the artist concerned. Despite having hundreds of tapes, I also bought lots of records – quite often another album by an artist that I’d taped previously.
As a 'bottom of the food chain' indie author, I don’t make enough from sales to have any sort of publicity budget so for me the KDP free promos are the best way of getting my name out there.
I’m happy to give away a few thousand free books if it then gets me some real sales. I figure that there are tens of millions (or more) potential readers out there and many of the people who download free books probably aren’t going to spend (much) money on books by any authors.
So what if 10,000 people read my book for free? There are still many, many paying readers out there.
For me the advantage of KDP free promos is that after being downloaded for free my books then come up in the 'customers who bought this also bought…' box on Amazon pages. Meaning my titles appear next to books by mainstream as well as other indie authors.

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