Smashwords CEO, Mark Coker, decided to start Smashwords up a few years ago when he hit the brick wall many writers hit after writing something they think is readable and saleable. I had a similar idea a few years back after putting out tentative feelers to get an agent - getting a book deal was so far down the list I never seriously got that far. Mark, unlike me and I guess other authors, didn't take no for an answer and started Smashwords. It's now a bona fide business employing a small number of dedicated staff, putting food on their tables and providing indie authors with a channel for their written work.
Reading Mark's latest blog - click here to access it - rounds up the results of some stats he's collated over recent months about which books sell and at what price point. There's a Powerpoint-ish presentation on his blog that's relatively self explanatory, if a little difficult to read. But for your benefit, here's the bits that I've taken from his research.
First off, most of us ain't going to get rich selling eBooks. I kind of worked that bit out a while back, and I guess most of my author contemporaries will have realised it too, but it's kind of helpful to know that it's not just me and that it isn't personal. Of course there are going to be some who make a living out of their writing and good luck to them all - I'd love to join their ranks, but I'm going to keep my feet on the ground in the meantime. Of course, this does beg the question about the migration of sales from the traditional arena to the eBook area - if traditional booksellers are losing sales, who is picking them up? Well, we all are, I guess. The sales I've made to date have been at the expense of someone else's traditional sales. There's just a lot of us picking up odd sales here and there.
The next bit is also sort of predictable, but not entirely. The cost of a book appears to have a deep correlation to its sales potential. First the flaming obvious - free books seem to do well. We all love a bargain and something for nothing is a good price by any measure. Add to the mix that eBook readers seem less bothered by cost than time - in other words, we as a group may not be too concerned about price, but for God's sake, don't inflict bad plotlines, lack-lustre endings, poor grammar and illiterate spellings on us.
But if the book is free, well, eBook readers are prepared to sacrifice some of their time if the fiscal impact is zero, apparently. Now giving a book away for free may result in lots of sales, generating zilch royalties, but it seems they act as a catalyst for encouraging readers to try the paid for options, so that's fair enough. I've taken this piece on board and have set The Last Simple at $0.00 on Smashwords today. It may take a few days to filter through to Apple, Kobo etc, but it will soon. it's $0.99 on Amazon because I don't see a way to list it for free, however their price matching principle may kick in when they realise Smashwords, Apple, Kobo etc are giving it away. If they know it's there, that is.
However, that's hardly an over generous loss leader, given that the book is available on this blog for free anyway, just a little harder to read and, of course, not as convenient for your eReading device. I may place one of the other books on free for short periods of time, to see if that generates any interest in the other books - more out of curiosity, based on the next revelation from Mark's research.
Apart from giving books away, setting them at certain price points generates more sales than other price points. $0.99 is one of the most popular price points, but then again so is anything over $2. For some inexplicable reason the $1.00 - $1.99 price range doesn't sell well at all, but go to the $2.00 - $2.99 price range and books sell better than the $0.99 price range. Higher prices return proportionately smaller returns, however you have to get above $6.00 before you find yourself in the$1.00 - $1.99 performance range.
Well, I have to say, my experience is in agreement with this. I launched my books at $0.99 and had some reasonable sales. Then, a few months ago, when I was looking at publishing on Createspace, I decided to try a different price point. My rationale was simple - apart from making a decision on how little profit to take from any paperbacks I may or may not sell, most of the costs are predetermined due to the cost of manufacture and Amazon's cut. I knew that my cheapest book would be The Last Simple due to it being a novella and that was coming in at $6.00 retail while Skin, my longest book, was looking like $10.00 retail. To be selling the eBook versions at $0.99 seemed a little odd, even for a campaigner for lower eBook prices. So I pitched the whole range at - I guess you're ahead of me here - $1.99. And although I know from my Smashwords data there's been a lot of interest in these eBooks in the last couple of months, sales have been pretty flat.
So I've decided to reprice again - I've done the $0.99 price and know how that sells, so I've decided to see if the Smashwords theory holds water. Mark's analysis shows that books priced at 3.5 cents per thousand words tends to sell the best, so that was my starting point. Given that I've set The Last Simple as free (or $0.99 if you're looking on Amazon Kindle store), I applied the 3.5 cent theory to the remaining four books. Adjusting to keep to normal sales techniques this translates Skin to $3.99, The Journeymen and Parallel Lives to $2.99 and Digital Life Form to $2.49. However, having gone to the effort of raising the prices to these ludicrous levels I realised that for three of the books I was now in the 70% royalty area with Amazon - anything under $2.99 attracts just 35%. The way I look at it, I may as well be not getting 70% royalties rather than not getting 35%! Being within striking distance of the 70% option for Digital Life Form convinced me that DLF should be pitched at that price, so I upped that as well for now.
The above may seem a little hypocritical, given all I've written about eBook pricing but look, it's the prices that the buying public seem to be buying their eBooks at. Don't worry, if I can persuade the market to pay less for their eBooks I'll be a happy man, but for now it seems an uphill struggle.
The other stats Mark generated was about optimuim word counts, and it seems that 100,000 words or more is the more popular book length. Now, a book is as long as it is. Sure, anyone can pad a story out, but my view is that the author's writing style coupled with the actual yarn will determine the length of the book and readers will be wary of books artificially bloated. For those who like completeness in these things, and for the record, The Last Simple is 33 thousand words long, DLF is a tad over 70K, Parallel Lives 82K, the Journeymen 89K and Skin is 111 thousand words long, so I'm not hitting the magic number with four out of five, however they are all cracking reads if I may say so myself.
There are exceptions to the 100,000 word rule, of course. In the Romance and Erotica genres it is normal for the books to be shorter, with the shortest genre being erotica - I could pop in a tasteless gag here, but I'll leave it for another blog. The long and short of it all is that ebook readers generally like a long read, not a short story. Interestingly, Amazon doesn't give a clear indication of the word count of a book - just the file size - so Kindle readers may be less sensitive to word count. Or may be more susceptible to buying shorter stories inadvertently. My advice, even if you will always buy direct from Amazon to take advantage of the superlative Whispersync facility, check out smashwords first - if the book's listed there you'll know how long it is.
So,please take a look at Mark's blog - there's other data in there that I've glossed over. Whether you're a reader or a writer, the data should prove interesting.
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Digital Life Form is available on Amazon.com in paperback for $8 (or for £5 plus P&P in the UK for UK readers - contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org for details)
The Journeymen is available for $9
Skin is available for $10
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