Thursday, May 06, 2010

Kindle Freebies--Can You Take the Heat?

Since the beginning of this year I've been watching the phenomenon of authors allowing their Kindle editions to be downloaded for free for a set amount of time. I myself allowed this for two of my books--Exposure and Dark Pursuit. And in fact two more of my books--Brink of Death (first in Hidden Faces series) and Violet Dawn (first in Kanner Lake series) will be free for a set time in June. The marketing tactic for Exposure and Dark Pursuit was a successful one. The books went to #1 and #2 on the Kindle bestseller list and stayed there for 9 days. Altogether they were on the bestseller list for weeks. And their position there fueled sales of the print editions and my other books.

The free downloads also fueled some negative comments from readers who didn't like the Christian content.

Since then I've watched the same thing happen to other authors whose books were downloadable for free. "Why," critical readers ask, "can't they label these books as Christian?" They feel duped for getting a free novel--and finding out it's Christian. I've wondered about that. Do these folks not read the back cover copy first? Most of the novels mention God or faith in some way. And should they be so critical--when the book was free? It's as if the very presence of the manuscript in their Kindle will somehow taint it. On the other hand, I've thought-well, should we somehow label our novels as Christian--just for such readers?  

Recently the same thing happened to Rita-Award-winner Irene Hannon. She wrote a post for Forensics and Faith on the topic. Here are Irene's thoughts:

A few weeks ago, in conjunction with the release of the third book (In Harm’s Way) in my Heroes of Quantico romantic suspense series, my publisher released the first book in the series, Against All Odds, as a free Kindle download on Amazon for about two weeks. It seemed like a good promotion, since this book made both the ECPA and CBA bestseller lists and had just won the Reviewers’ Choice award from RT BOOKreviews for best inspirational novel of 2009.

So I was unprepared for the backlash.

Numerous readers wrote reviews vociferously complaining about the Christian content. Their hostility was palpable.

I’m not super sensitive to bad reviews. In fact, I’ve learned from constructive criticism. I’ve even written thank-you notes to reviewers who have provided helpful insights. But many of the Kindle-generated reviews were simply anti-Christian. Here are a few examples from some of the one- and two-star reviews:

- “The story is just window dressing for the usual Christian propaganda.”

- “This book was proselytizing at its worst.”

- “I’m with Samuel Goldwyn about messages—if you want to deliver one, send a telegram.”

- “I did read it from beginning to end but felt quite angry that I had done so!”
These same reviewers went on to call the book sophomoric, trite, shallow, predictable, clich├ęd and preachy.

In light of all this negativity, here’s what I wish I could say to these readers:

1. People who order free books should do their homework. Read the product description, third party reviews or the section marked “Most Helpful Customer Reviews” on the book’s Amazon page. If there is Christian content, that should be apparent.

2. If you order a book without doing the above and discover there is Christian content (or any other content you find objectionable), STOP READING! How hard is that?

3. You got the book free. If you don’t like it, fine. But don’t broadcast your anti-Christian bias to the world. Just write it off as not your kind of book.

My novel isn’t the only one that’s been slammed by readers who find Christian content offensive. Debut author James Rubart’s book “Rooms,” which had a free Kindle promotion around the same time as mine, received comments even more vitriolic.

Many negative reviewers complained that there was no warning the book was Christian fiction. My comeback: There aren’t warnings on smutty fiction, either, and there’s no outcry about that. But I guess graphic sex, profanity and gratuitous violence are PC and Christian content isn’t.

How sad.

Both my publisher and agent have reassured me they don’t believe such comments will hurt future sales. I hope not. In the meantime, I intend to pray for those whose outrage to the mild Christian content in my books was so strong that they felt they had to give virulent voice to it.

Though I’m sure they would find that gesture offensive, too.

What do you think? Should CBA free Kindle editions somehow be labeled as Christian fiction? And if so--how? (There's no normal place to add the label. Secular fiction isn't labeled secular.) Authors--would you allow your novel to be free on the Kindle, knowing you'll receive some of these kinds of responses?


Deborah said...

thank you SO much for bringing up this topic as it is one i have noticed for MONTHS. even though i love being able to get a free version of the book for my kindle on PC (alas no ereader in my budget for a while), i honestly feel as it if it is a death sentence for a Christian book to be free on amazon. the attacks are horrendous. it amazes me how many people there are that just can't read. although to be fair, i honestly think some of these commentors are spam, as it appears that the only book they review is that one free Christian book that they are writing nasty things on. and no i don't think that amazon needs to label the book to something like "Christian fiction - if you don't like God stay away!" just because something is free does NOT mean you have to get it and besides it was FREE, you did NOT have to pay, so why should it matter? it's your own fault for not reading the summary or doing your research. half the time the summary DOES say something about God, religion, anything Christian. the other thing is to do your research and look up the book for other reviews, the author, the publisher.

anywho, sorry for the semi long post. it just makes me sad when i see all these Christian authors get so excited that they have a free book but all it ends up leading to are attacks from the haters, that they are probably unprepared for. if it makes anyone feel better, any review that bashes the book simply because they didn't realize it was a Christian book when they got the free download (and that's THE only reason why), i do mark the review unhelpful

Richard Mabry said...

Brandilyn and Irene,
When free Kindle downloads were first offered, I wondered if that would help or hurt future sales of the book. I think that question has been answered. But this Christian-bashing backlash caught me by surprise.
Irene, you make a great point. Our books aren't labeled as "warning: contains Christian content," just as others don't carry the notation, "warning: full of profanity, gratuitous sex, violence, and 'gritty realism.'" Many authors complain that our work is relegated to the Christian fiction section in the bookstores, because we'd like to reach a broader audience. If we are to do so, I suppose we can expect more of the "hate mail" comments.
Thanks for bringing this into the open.

Timothy Fish said...

I don’t set out to offend people, but isn’t the measure of our success in how many people are offended by what we have to say? If we write or speak and there aren’t people who disagree with us, then we aren’t saying something that will change people.

My pastor likes to talk about how that after Jesus had fed the five thousand there were many who followed him, perhaps thinking that he would feed them again. Jesus began talking about coming from heaven, being the Bread of Life, eating his flesh and drinking his blood. This offended many of his disciples and they left. He didn’t say, “I’m sorry, please come back.” Instead, he turned to the twelve and essentially said, “You want to leave too?”

Free stuff will always attract people. The question we have to ask is whether we’re aiming to attract people or to teach the truth.

Timothy Fish said...

Not to disagree with my previous comment, but I would like to point out something about argument #3, “You got the book free. If you don’t like it, fine. But don’t broadcast your anti-Christian bias to the world. Just write it off as not your kind of book.”

For the reader, the cost of the book is rarely seen in terms of how much they paid for the book. Readers are looking for a bargain, certainly, or they wouldn’t be downloading free books, but the cost is in how much time they have invested in the book. If we look at the comments for Jim Rubart’s Rooms, what we see are comments from people talking about how far into the book they were before they realized it was Christian. Erika Gonyon says she was 40% into it. Let’s say it would take her eight hours to read the book. That means she has invested 3.2 hours into this thing before she decided she couldn’t bear to read more. That’s 3.2 hours that she won’t get back.

I haven’t read his book, but the comments also mention elementary sentence structure, inane plot development and the overuse of scripture. I’m a Christian and I have sometimes felt the same way about some of the books that Christian publishers are putting out there. (Yes, I know I’m likely to get crucified for saying that.) Greg Pitman has a good point when he says, “A good book is a good book. It really doesn't matter to me whether or not the subtext speaks to a Christian moral code or not.”

So, I guess what I’m saying is that we want people to be offended because of what we say, rather than being offended because we wasted their time with poor writing.

Linda said...

As far as I'm concerned, it's a spiritual attack on Christianity. They can look up the book like any other. Keep putting them out there.

Unknown said...

I agree with a lot of what's been said above. Honestly, I think people are just using it as an excuse to attack Christianity because it's "safe" to do so. No other minority group is allowed to be attacked the way Christians are. If someone wrote such a vicious attack against graphic sex that person would be labeled close minded or a prude.

Bottom line, as much as it hurts us to see those kinds of attacks (and I feel my hackles rise when I see attacks against Christian content), I don't think it hurts book sales. People who want to read Christian books will see those reviews for what they are. And there will be some people who will want to read the book to see what all the fuss was about.

Mindy said...

Isn't offense the twin of conviction? I think that people start reading and are expecting the lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh and the pride of life, and instead they hear the Words of Truth. They lash out against the Christians, deeply offended, because they are deeply convicted, and refuse to take an honest look at their own hearts.

Honestly, if they aren't smart enough to know how to read the book blurp and know which publishers are Christian, then I don't think their criticism holds a lot of weight.

Keep writing and keep releasing through Kindle as the Lord leads.

Michael K. Reynolds said...

I believe we need to embrace the criticism with grace and understanding...not anger. That's where our Christianity should shine.

I'm more bothered by Christians who want to write exclusively to the "Christian Country Club." This isn't a popularity contest, this is a very time sensitive message of salvation. If it's will be abrasive.

That being said, I don't believe we should engage in "bait and switch" techniques. But our message of hope should be reaching the hopeless...and don't be surprised, and in fact, be encouraged, by the outrage.

Thank you for your courage and creativity in getting the message out. We're short on time. Keep writing with a purpose.

Janet Macor said...

Honestly, I think Christian writers are just experiencing what other Christians have been experiencing for years in other professions, particularly the teaching profession.

But I notice the hostility is intensifying, but then it is everywhere. Rita's comments to the reviewers were right on, and that is exactly what we should do - Stand up, Stand up for Jesus! [Jude 3]

I think response to those comments [ie. about how secular books and movies have an underlying message/religion too] could even present itself as an opportunity to educate ~ there is nothing like a well-worded reply to unthinking comments.

James L. Rubart said...

I would have no problem with a warning label on ROOMS, as long as books like The Golden Compass have a warning about its promotion of atheism.

Yes, I'm being facetious.

The whole idea of labeling is ridiculous. Most atheists I've met are intelligent. But these Christian haters don't seem to be able to read synopses or author endorsements which make it abundantly clear it's a book with God in it.

I did stop reading the slams on ROOMS, but only because I don't feel it's healthy to fill my mind with those reviews.

But it doesn't bother me. Aren't we supposed to rejoice when we're vilified for His name?

My prayer is that the Holy Spirit will work on those who have read ROOMS and hated it.

And from a marketing standpoint, all the hate is a good thing. I'm not kidding. I have a ton of five star reviews and a ton of one star. Not too many in the middle.

As I always tell my marketing clients, love me, hate me, just don't ignore me.


Deborah Vogts said...

Hi Brandilyn,

Thanks for bringing this subject up. It's not something I anticipated when I learned my book would be offered as a FREE kindle download (going on now). So far, I haven't received any 1 or 2 stars, but that doesn't mean they aren't on their way.

I will say this to add to the discussion. Yesterday I received a lovely note from a man in the military serving in Baghdad. He'd downloaded my FREE book and loved it. He said that though he wasn't "by any means the most religious person my warm and endearing references to the world our Lord provides us helped me feel closer to home and my dear family."

That made me cry. So, know that these free downloads are also getting into the hands of people who need them--whether they end of bashing them or not.

Thanks again for sharing!

Deborah Vogts said...

Ha! I take it back. I just received a 2. :) Now I feel like I've been initiated! Yay!

Julia M. Reffner said...

Almost all books offered on amazon have a book description and it is usually possible to tell the book is Christian by the book description.

Free or not, I always read the book description before downloading. My reason is mainly the opposite. I only read Christian and a few clean secular authors. Even if something is free I don't want to put up with material I find offensive. Those who are offended by religious content should do the same. I always figure if its a book I wouldn't take out from the library I don't download it.

On the other hand for all the negative reviews, as Deborah said who knows if maybe you are planting a seed even if the person pans the book.

Angella said...

Hey, Mr Fisher, I actually agree with a lot of what you said. No slamming from me here.

I'm curious, though - has anyone noticed that free Kindle books tend to be either a) Christian books or b) hardcore "romance" books (with a few exceptions, of course)? I popped in yesterday to download Linda Clare's book "The Fence My Father Built" , and encountered 10 secular romance novels on the first few pages - at least two of which had reviews that said things like: "If I wanted erotica, I'd 'buy' erotica" and "all sex, 10 pages of plot."

What better opportunity to be a light in the darkness?

Unknown said...

My two cents=

The ones who post the hate reviews are not our target audience. Our audience is people who do not want to read smutty books.

So I doubt if the hate reviews influence our target audience.

I don't think they hurt sales, but they do hurt.

Angela said...

Maybe the answer is to charge everyone a quarter. :-)

I've bought (and downloaded) many a book that I later set aside because it simply didn't engage me . . . and I've ready many novels about Orthodox Jews, Muslims, atheists, etc. Other religions don't offend me, but boredom does.

I think that Christian novels written to a Christian audience will always be misunderstood by a secular world. And Internet reviews being what they are, the bricks are sure to fly.

I say grin and bear 'em.


Barbara said...

I am a Christian who loves to read Christian Fiction. I too have downloaded free ebooks but I spend time researching a book (checking author's website, reading reviews, etc.) because I don't want to read what I consider trash. I do wish they were labeled as "Christian Fiction" to make it easier for those of us who want to read this genre. Even if the story didn't appeal to me after I began reading it, I would know there wasn't going to be offensive material in it.

I worked at a public library for years and one day a patron came in furious because the VHS movie he checked out for free was broken. The clerk listened to him rant and then calmly asked him "Would you like your money back"? The patron had nothing to say to that and just walked away.

I think I have read all of your books and have loved every one of them. Please don't let bad reviews discourage you. Keep writing!

Daniel Smith said...

I don't think it should be labeled. If someone doesn't like it they should simply put the book down. It is after all free and they chose to download and begin reading it.

You can't please everyone all the time...

On a more positive note, all publicity is *good* publicity.

Holly Magnuson said...

Thanks Brandilyn for sharing this. I am one of those "letchy" readers that look for the free books. However, I do my homework and figure out if the author is writing from a Christian perspective. I don't want to read books that are full of swear words and smut.

Regardless, I want a book that engages me and draws me into the story.

The Kindle free program has introduced me to some more great authors that I might not have found had it not been for the free download. I think from that aspect it's a good thing.

And as a reminder for everyone who complains there's at least 2 or 3 that enjoyed the experience that didn't share.


Daniel Smith said...

I like what HollyMag said, but I wonder what the correct percentage is. I've heard that for every complaint there are likely as many as 10 satisfied customers.

Brandilyn, if/when you have access to your download data could you share and give us a count of the naysayers too so we can make a comparison?

It would be interesting to see what Irene's stats are too. I think it might help put this issue to rest if there are very few complainers by comparison. Please post it later. Thanks for offering some of your books free too!

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Daniel, you can look on the various amazon pages for some of the free books to see. Irene's book Against All Odds is hyperlinked to its amazon page. So is my book Exposure. Jim Rubart's Rooms really got slammed. He's got 59 five-star reviews and 50 1-stars. Check out his amazon page here:

Unknown said...

I've decided to name this "haters" piranhas, because they swim Amazon, looking for books to shred. So far, I have one 2 star and a one star that read like a standardized form (Contrived, don't waste your money, etc). While the freebie this past week for The Fence My Father Built set records at my publisher and my title garnered a mention along with several others in the LA Times, the arrival of aforementioned piranhas was interesting. I wanted to know what kind of books got 5 star ratings and in at least one case, mine seems to be the only book ever reviewed by the reader. During my promo I contacted as many of the other freebie Christian authors as I could and offered to swap publicity on networking sites, to encourage solidarity. I'm also praying for piranhas. You never know how God will use things--even a razzberry review. Thanks Brandilynn--I feel properly initiated now. Read my blog post today about "Piranhas" at

Unknown said...

Sorry to run on, but so far my reviews are 14+ and 2-. Somebody with math skills figure it out. I also wanted to add that several wrote to me saying they grabbed Deb Vogt's book along with mine. I'm a huge fan of the old "I'll scratch your back" idea. Not to minimize prayer, but we can do more than pray for each other. It was a no-brainer to team up and help each other spread the word.

Daniel Smith said...

Love the "piranhas" moniker, Linda!

D. Gudger said...

Where's the "tolerance" that so many liberals scream and tantrum about? Isn't it profiling and discrimination to hone in on only one type of offensive aspect for warning labels (in this case Christian?). People who take time to flame and defame need to get a life. And, as so many have written, check out the blurbs before buying.

It's sad great books and authors have to be vilified like this, but again, it's Christ they hate as the Bible says.

Daniel Smith said...

Re: D. Gudger

Can't calling them all "liberals" and lumping them all together under that umbrella be considered intolerant too?

Frankly, I hear more "conservatives" scream and tantrum about "intolerance" than the other way around. But maybe those are simply the circles I inhabit.

I agree with you that, "people who take time to flame and defame need to get a life" but I think tact should be part of our strategy. We're the salt and light of the world. Not the other way around. We must set the better example first.