Amazon is cracking down on a policy that allows blogs and websites to earn money when users download free ebooks through their affiliate links. That means big changes in the ways that some self-published ebooks are promoted online.

Amazon is changing a policy on affiliate links to free Kindle books, and the changes are likely to have a big effect on the way some self-published authors achieve success online.

In the last few years, entire websites aimed at promoting free Kindle books have sprung up. Their business model is primarily referral fees: When a visitor to one of these sites clicks on a link to Amazon to download a free ebook, but then buys other products on Amazon within 24 hours, the original site gets a percentage of those unrelated paid sales.

Amazon is now cracking down on this. The company notes on its website that as of March 1:

“Associates who we determine are promoting primarily free Kindle eBooks and meet both conditions below for a given month will not be eligible for any advertising fees for that month within the Amazon Associates Program. This change will not affect advertising fees earned prior to March 1, 2013.

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.”

The new policy will primarily affect the largest free Kindle book sites — Ereader News Today, BookBub, eReaderIQ, Pixel of Ink and Free Kindle Books and Tips. Some self-published authors fear it will also affect downloads of their titles. Self-published authors who make their books available to the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library are also allowed to run special promotions where they can give their books away for free for a day, to drive sales. And many self-published authors use the free Kindle bestseller lists to gain publicity for their books.

“This is definitely going to make life for Indies [self-published authors] much much tougher,” one author writes on the Kindle Boards. “After all, we depend on these free runs for the ranking and therefore sales boosts. Without the free book sites, how will we reach those people who want to download free books?”

Is Amazon starting to emphasize paid Kindle books?

The self-published author David Gaughran sees a trend in Amazon’s attitude toward free Kindle books. He wrote to me in an email:

In mid-March last year, Amazon began trialling new versions of the algorithms which decide the ranking on Popularity Lists before settling on one iteration in May which no longer counted a free download as a paid sale, but as one tenth of a paid sale. This had the instant effect of greatly reducing the “post-free bounce” which many self-publishers had been witnessing after a KDP Select free run.

On top of that, towards the end of last year, Amazon began experimenting with hiding the Top 100 free behind a tab (they are usually listed beside the Top 100 paid books which gives tremendous visibility). They haven’t decided to make that change permanent yet, but the very fact they are experimenting with it is a possible sign of things to come.

But Gaughran isn’t too worried: The existing free Kindle sites “will need something to feature, and we could see the 99-cent price point become hot again as self-publishers move from free-pulsing to price-pulsing.”

Big free book sites plan to change their policies

Michael Gallagher, who runs the site Free Kindle Books and Tips, writes in a blog post that he expects a lot of free Kindle book sites will have to shut down. While he notes that Amazon’s new 20,000 free Kindle book-per-month threshold sounds like a lot, he estimates that clicks on his site’s affiliate links result in about 50,000 or so free ebook downloads a day.

Gallagher’s not shutting down his own site: He’s changing its name to Kindle Books and Tips and will focus more on tips and bargains on “quality” content and less on free content. He’s also going to start accepting advertising from self-published authors. “I am lucky in the fact I didn’t quit my day job, but there are many other individuals and companies out there who have built a business around the promotion of free Kindle book offerings,” he writes, and “this move by Amazon will put many of these people out of work starting next week.”

Greg Doublet, who runs the site Ereader News Today, told me in an email that he thinks Amazon’s changes will be good in the long run: “it will get people not to rely on ‘free’ to get their books. It was a matter of time before something like this was bound to happen.” He says he’s been making changes to Ereader News Today in order to comply with Amazon’s new rules, and like Gallagher is emphasizing more bargain books and fewer free books. “Maybe 99-cent books will become the new free,” he said, “and authors will start to earn more money for their efforts.”

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  1. No surprise here. Amazon can’t protect the name Kindle from other commercial uses beyond the actual device, and their associates programs have been alive for many years, not just for freebies. We operated a retail non-book site that used to generate a useful amount of fees sending our own customers to Amazon’s associated items. It resulted in a sale on Amazon, so of course, we felt we deserved a piece of the action. However, the freebie thing is different. I think Amazon isn’t out of line wanting third party sites that are associates, to also generate some paying business for them. Eighty percent seems pretty generous to me. That means that Amazon wants to see at least 20% of the referrals actually buy something. Considering it’s their products, and their retail site, I don; think that is out of line. Mr. Gallagher might want to consider also referring customers who pay for books, not just the Freebie Crowd. At some point, the authors are going to want to have more to show for their work than just loads and loads of giveaways. More than just being the talk of the moment because you don’t charge for your books.

  2. These services are welcome to use Smashwords instead. We have all file formats, the world’s most popular indie authors, unlimited free downloads without restriction, and a generous affiliate program.

  3. LighthousePublishing Wednesday, February 27, 2013

    We use many of the sites listed above to announce our book’s Free Kindle days. Right now we post on more than 15 sites. Those sites work well for fiction but not as well for nonfiction. I suspect customers are grazing for free novels and that’s fine. Like any other business the key component is quality. If authors write a great book readers will find it – free or not.

  4. Hi Laura, I’m an Indie published mystery author, and I promote mystery and suspense authors (only) with All Mystery e-newsletter. I’ve resisted the temptation to build my business model based on FREE e-books because in the back of my mind I knew the day would come when Amazon would close this window. No, it hasn’t yet, but it’s so easy for Amazon to change their way of doing business–and they can close down the free days for indie authors in a day. Authors and businesses need to be creative in their thinking in how to promote books. And thank God, with the internet, it’s easier than ever!

  5. As an author, I’ve not minded giving away tens of thousands of books to my readers as part of my “advertising campaign.” Nor will I mind getting a few pennies per copy if 99 cents becomes the new free.

    Amazon always has a larger plan at work, and, logically, intends to make money for itself as well as its suppliers (read: authors). It may be rough waters for authors for awhile – we’ve been here before! – but I continue to have faith in the concept that, as Joe Konrath (A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing) frequently writes, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

  6. There went the Kindle device sales.

  7. I can understand their reasoning

  8. Mary Howerton Friday, March 1, 2013

    I don’t think it will last. Too many of us readers bought our Kindles for the free indie titles we could access. Once they realize they have angered a large chunk of their consumers, they are bound to reconsider.

    1. Exactly why I said, “there went the Kindle sales”. This is the best opportunity for Barnes & Noble to fill in the void. I don’t think they are smart enough to take advantage of this situation but if they did, they may actually get somewhere.

      One of the reasons Kindle sales took off was because folks knew they could get FREE books. Even if people hesitate on actually buying books, (the economy has hurt everyone), many of these people will still lock onto other Amazon services because they have a Kindle device.

      We will just have to se how this plays out. But I feel that once word gets out and free book sources start to dwindle, then the attraction to the Kindle Fire and readers will be tarnished.

  9. Tony H Bennett Friday, March 1, 2013

    I have recently published my first book on Amazon. Now feeling disappointed as I feel that no one would read it due to the large mass of books that are now free. So, I feel to get anywhere I would have to write my books for free. Free books and free work from authors allows Amazon to make nice profits for themselves.

    1. Nope, Amazon loses money on free books–lots of infrastructure and delivery costs when you are shifting millions of free books each day.

      I just amazed that some people thought you could build a sustainable economy on ‘free.”

      1. at last the sound of reason.

  10. People who read mostly or exclusively free books are looters. It equates books to newspapers without advertising. It trains people to view author’s work as being worth as much as dirt. Worse for the author, you are cultivating the wrong kind of reader, one who will likely not pay you for your works when they are not free. I think Amazon has rightly started to realize the difference between a bargain read and a free read. Whole different reader mentality.

    1. There is nothing wrong with free samples but customers shouldn’t demand whole free books. You can walk into fast food Chinese and ask for a free taste of a dish and they will give you one. But if you ask to eat a free meal so that you can determine if you like the place, they will laugh at you. Where I live, many paperback books are the same price as that meal, sometimes less. It took the cook 10 minutes to prepare a dish going into a buffet. It takes an author 6 months to 1.5 years to write a well edited book. Why should the author be paid less than the cook? That’s why I say, free books value the author’s work the same as dirt. Reading a sample of the book is different.

      1. But the cook can sell the meal only once and the author can sell thousands or millions of copies of their book.

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