If Amazon accidentally gave 6,000 copies of your e-book away for free—without compensating you for the downloads—you’d be a little ticked off, right? That happened to self-publishing author James Crawford, whose zombie novel Blood Soaked & Contagious was inadvertently given away by Amazon, due to a glitch in the web-crawling robot that makes sure Amazon’s prices are always equivalent to the lowest price the book is offered for elsewhere.
As originally reported by GalleyCat (and in a rather more balanced article on PaidContent), on September 30th Amazon’s bot mistook a free sample of the first few chapters of the book on Barnes & Noble for the whole thing, and thus marked Crawford’s $5.99 novel down to zero. By the time Crawford could get it straightened out, three weeks later, the book had been downloaded 6,111 times. And Amazon, shielded by the terms of its contract, said that it was sorry, but it was under no obligation to compensate Crawford for any “lost” royalties, which would theoretically have totaled just over $10,000 for that many real sales.
As novelist and publishing-industry commentator Kristine Kathryn Rusch points out, there’s no way to know how much Crawford actually “lost”, or indeed if he truly “lost” anything at all. It is doubtful any of those six thousand people would ever have known about his book if it hadn’t been given away for free, and thus featured on Amazon’s free e-book lists. For authors who have other books available for sale and are in a position to take advantage of the publicity (which Crawford apparently did not), giving a book away for free can boost sales of other titles (or, indeed, of the title itself after the giveaway stops, as the word of mouth from people who downloaded and liked it boosts its popularity among people who would be willing to pay for it).
Even though Amazon is at least somewhat apologetic about the affair, it is shielded by its contract from any financial obligation. Crawford notes in his blog that Amazon’s premier position in the e-self-publishing industry means that trying to take Amazon to court over it—or even complaining too loudly about it on the Internet—would be shooting himself in the foot. Under the terms of the contract with Kindle Desktop Publishing, Amazon can choose not to do business with him again for any reason (or no reason at all), thus locking him out of an estimated 80% of the e-book market.
(It doesn’t seem to have happened yet, however, but neither has Crawford gotten anything more than “a pat on the head for being helpful”.)
It’s a little ironic that this happened to Crawford, as he seems to be the finicky sort who prefers tighter control over what happens to his books—he even went with a 35% royalty rate rather than Amazon’s usual 70% because that would allow him to exempt the book from Amazon’s Kindle Lending program. Still, he is trying to be philosophical about it:
This experience has, as many people have pointed out, given me a level of exposure I wouldn’t have achieved otherwise. I am grateful for it, more than a little taken aback by it, and am determined to make the best of it. That being said, if you’d like a different take on the Zombie genre, buy the book from Smashwords. Tell your friends if you’ve read it and liked it.
And he’s gotten quite a bit of exposure indeed, in two important ways. First, those six thousand plus readers, at least some of whom actually read the book. Just looking at the book’s page on Amazon, Blood Soaked & Contagious has currently received 18 reviews, averaging four-and-a-fraction stars, and all but one of them date to after the giveaway happened.
And second, the story struck just the right chord to get a lot of blogs to carry it: evil e-publishing overlord Amazon stiffs hard-working self-published writer. Lots of people will be happy to spread that story, even if the accuracy of the version they spread (as Rusch points out) is somewhat questionable. And that in turn leads to more people checking out the books, and buying them if they like the premises.
From another point of view, another interesting aspect of the story is that, as far as I knew, Amazon doesn’t allow self-published authors to give their works available for free normally. As I noted in this story, one author who wanted to do that had to settle for pricing it at 99 cents instead. Does this represent a way to make an end-run around that policy, for writers who want to do it? Give it away for free elsewhere, then point that fact out to Amazon?
Regardless, Crawford is getting a good deal of exposure from the matter (including here). Hopefully he will find it improves his sales down the road. And I must admit, I already find myself intrigued by the premise of his other novel, Super Love! Kaiju, which involves a superhero dating service that must find a date for a Japanese giant monster. I might very well end up buying it if the price is low enough. And I never would have heard of the book if not for the fuss surrounding this inadvertent giveaway.