Authors face change as Amazon tightens affiliate policy on free Kindle books

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.”