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2015 Smashwords Survey - How to Sell More Ebooks


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Mark Coker's fourth annual 2015 Smashwords Survey. Examines quantifiable characteristics of ebooks that help authors reach more readers. The 2015 survey attempts to answer such questions as: Do readers prefer longer or shorter ebooks?; Do ebooks that start out as preorders sell better?; How should I price my ebook?; Do series books sell better than standalone books?; do series with FREE series starters earn more money than other series; and many more. For historical context, check out the prior three years of Smashwords Surveys, all here at Slideshare.

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2015 Smashwords Survey - How to Sell More Ebooks

  1. 1. Annual Smashwords Survey 2015 MONEY MONEY MONEY: Facts & Figures for Financial Payoff Slideshare Edition December 2015 Originally presented in Dallas May 13, 2015 Mark Coker Founder, Smashwords
  2. 2. Introduction to Smashwords Survey 2015 For each of the last four years, Smashwords released the annual Smashwords Survey at the RT Booklovers convention. This survey is based on over $25 million of actual verified retail ebook sales data aggregated across the Smashwords Distribution network, and covers a 12 month time period between April 2014 and March 2015. This is the Slideshare edition of the data presented May 13, 2015 in Dallas. This Slideshare edition, uploaded December 3, 2015, adds minor supplemental textual analysis and updates to capture some of the information conveyed verbally during the live presentation. To maintain historical integrity, this includes all the original data as it was presented May 15. An appendix of indie author resources is added at the end
  3. 3. Welcome • What you’ll learn • Today we debut the annual Smashwords Survey results • New metrics to enable more informed writing, publishing and promotion. • Who this presentation is for • All authors, publishers and book marketers • No technical experience required!
  4. 4. The Smashwords Backstory
  5. 5. The Smashwords Backstory • It was a fortuitous accident • My background is tech marketing, and founder of a couple Internet startups (UC Berkeley Haas business school) • About 12 years ago, along with my wife I co- wrote Boob Tube, a novel about daytime soap operas (my wife is a former reporter for Soap Opera Weekly Magazine).  Repped by top NY lit agency • Book rejected by all NY publishers (twice) • Previous soap opera-themed novels had performed poorly, so pubs were reluctant to take a chance
  6. 6. My Epiphany • Publishers unable, unwilling and disinterested to take a risk on every author • Publishers… • Judge books based on perceived commercial merit • Guess what readers want to buy • Throw spaghetti against the wall
  7. 7. The Three Essential Legs of the Professional Publishing Stool - 1 - Printing Press - 3 - Retail Distribution - 2 - Best practices knowledge
  8. 8. My solution: I founded Smashwords to help all writers • Launched 2008 • FREE eBook Publishing Platform  Free ebook printing press (creation, publication)  Free best practices knowledge - to help writers publish like professionals  Distribution to major ebook retailers and libraries
  9. 9. How Smashwords Works 1. UPLOAD • Upload a Microsoft Word file, formatted to our Smashwords Style Guide • Ready for immediate sale online 1. DISTRIBUTE • Distribution to major retailers 1. GET PAID • Author receives 85% of net (60% list at major retailers, up to 80% list at Smashwords Store)
  10. 10. Smashwords Distribution Network Upload once, reach multiple outlets * Limited distribution to AMAZON, see for instructions
  11. 11. Ebooks published at Smashwords
  13. 13. Welcome to the Fourth Annual Smashwords Survey 2015! An RT Booklovers Exclusive MONEY MONEY MONEY
  14. 14. Last year’s study has been viewed over 45,000 times • Access the prior study at Slideshare smashwords-survey-how-to-sell-more-ebooks
  15. 15. GOAL: Identify data-driven factors that can give indie authors an incremental advantage in the marketplace
  16. 16. Data was Aggregated and Analyzed Across from …
  17. 17. ? ? ? We asked questions of the data We looked at 12 months of sales data (April 2014 – March 2015) for over 250,000 titles, aggregated across the Smashwords distribution network, representing over $25 million in global retail sales Some findings are useful, some not. Some of the data provides hints to the most
  18. 18. The Secret to Reaching Readers: Best Practices!
  19. 19. The Power Curve and Best Practices The Power Curve describes a common phenomena where most sales of any product are concentrated among a small subset of bestsellers (the left side of the curve on the next page). For each incremental increase in sales rank, you can get a significant increase in sales. Your opportunity is to leverage multiple best practices for multiple small incremental advantages that can shift you to the left of the power curve. This Survey seeks to identify some of these best practices.
  20. 20. The Power Curve – Sales at Each Sales Rank Best practices yield incremental advantage in sales rank, exponential advantage in sales Sales rank Sales
  21. 21. In Search of Best Practices
  22. 22. What’s a Best Practice? • A best practice is anything that makes your book more accessible, discoverable, desirable and enjoyable to readers. A best practice acts as a viral catalyst to drive word of mouth. • Read the free Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success to learn how viral catalysts spur word-of-mouth
  23. 23. Numbers are Dangerous
  24. 24. Data can inform but it can also muddle • Averages are only averages • Big variances in a small sample can skew results • Median = midpoint of numbers in a range when arranged from lowest to highest. Often a more “typical” result. • Your book is unique. Data alone cannot fully explain what separates bestsellers from poor sellers • Your results may vary from the norm
  25. 25. The Sales Rank Power Curve (a few massive bestsellers can skew data)
  26. 26. The Long Tail of Authordom
  27. 27. About the Smashwords Catalog (source of these survey results)
  28. 28. Smashwords authors and publishers come from 198 countries
  29. 29. Smashwords Catalog is Fiction- Heavy • 89% of sales are fiction • Romance (incl YA romance) is ~50% of sales (45% excluding) • Erotica is 11% of sales • Non-fiction ~11% of sales
  30. 30. Fiction Dominates Top Fiction Categories 1. Romance 2. Erotica 3. Young adult or teen 4. Fantasy 5. Mystery & detective 6. Gay & lesbian fiction   7. Science fiction 8. Historical 9. Thriller & suspense 10. Adventure 11. Horror 12. Literary
  31. 31. Top Non-Fiction Categories 1. Biography 2. Health, wellbeing, & medicine 3. Business & Economics 4. Self-improvement 5. Religion and Spirituality 6. Relationships and Family 7. Sports & outdoor recreation 8. Education and Study Guides   9. New Age 10. Computers and Internet 11. Cooking, Food, Wine, Spirits 12. Entertainment 13. History 14. Home and Garden 15. Sex and Relationships  
  32. 32. Let’s dig in to the survey
  33. 33. How different categories perform
  34. 34. Categories of Top 100 Bestselling Smashwords Books
  35. 35. Top Smashwords Categories
  36. 36. Romance Dominates across Smashwords network • Romance accounts for • 70% of top 10 bestsellers • 87% of top 100 (up from 70% 2014) • Smartest authors in the business • Most organized • Most professional • Most sophisticated • Most experimental
  37. 37. Let’s look at the top romance categories
  38. 38. Top Romance Subcategories for Top 100 Bestselling Romance (2015)
  39. 39. Social Media Impact on Sales?
  40. 40. Bestselling Authors More Likely to Have a Website The bottom axis here and in other slides often groups authors or books into sales rank bands, such as the top 1000 highest earning authors you see above.
  41. 41. Bestselling Authors More Likely to be on Twitter
  42. 42. Bestselling Authors More Likely to be on Facebook
  43. 43. Metadata machinations
  44. 44. Book description word counts, top 1,000 bestsellers Is the word count of your book’s description a factor in sales? Probably not, though it’s interesting that our top 50 bestsellers had shorter word counts.
  45. 45. Book description word counts, top 10,000 bestsellers From a high level, no visible correlation.
  46. 46. Do Shorter book titles sell better? (top 1,000 bestsellers) Indicates a slight advantage to having a shorter title. Makes sense. A shorter title requires less cognitive effort to read and process.
  47. 47. Do shorter book titles sell better? (top 10,000 bestsellers) Indicates shorter titles may be a contributing factor. But bottom line, choose a title that works for your unique book. Don’t shorten your title based on this data alone.
  48. 48. Do Prices Changes Impact Sales? Here, we’re wondering if frequent price changes (which may be a proxy for more active or more frequent proactive promotions) are a factor in sales. This data sample looking at our top 1,000 bestsellers is inconclusive
  49. 49. Do Prices Changes Impact Sales? But looking at a broader data set, we do see some correlation. However, correlation does not mean causation. My guess is that for many better-selling authors, price changes are often part of special proactive promotions or ad buys.
  50. 50. Pricing
  51. 51. Q: What price moves the most units?
  53. 53. FREE • FREE moves ebooks • 41X more downloads on average compared to priced titles (last 12 months) • Was 39X in 2014 Smashwords Survey, but 100+ in years past • Data surprised me. I expected the impact of free to decline, consistent with prior surveys. Instead, we found that despite widespread adoption of free, it’s still an incredibly powerful sales driver (at least at iBooks). • Powerful platform builder • Powerful sales catalyst for series or deep backlists
  54. 54. Which Price Points Get the Most Downloads Compared to prior SW Surveys, data is remarkably consistent with prior surveys
  55. 55. Which Price Points Get the Most Downloads (2014)
  56. 56. Common Price Points (2015) Fun to see where indies and small presses are pricing
  57. 57. Which Price Points Yield Highest Earnings
  58. 58. Which Price Points Yield Highest Earnings (2014)
  59. 59. Traditionally Published Ebook Authors are Disadvantaged When we consider both the unit sales advantage and earnings advantage of lower prices, we understand why indie ebook authors have such a strong competitive advantage over traditionally published ebook authors. At $3.99, indies earn about the same as they would earn at $9.99+ prices, yet get 3-4 times the readership which means they have platform-building incentive to price lower yet still earn more or the same. Combine this with the fact that indies earn royalties of 60-80% list on ebook sales while traditionally published authors earn only 12-17% list and you understand the economic and fan-building advantage of indie ebook authorship. Traditionally published ebook authors are suffering from high prices and low royalties. As reading transitions to digital, the pull of indie authorship will increase.
  60. 60. Average Word Count for Books in Each Price Band
  61. 61. Does Length Still Matter?
  62. 62. Analysis: Do longer books sell better? In prior Smashwords Surveys, we found strong evidence that longer books sell better than shorter books. In the 2015 Survey, we found the same thing, but this year there are some important caveats to consider. Unlike prior years, during the survey period which spanned April 2014-March 2015, we observed a dramatic increase in the number of multi-author box sets. Many of these box sets were often 500,000 to one million words, yet the books were promotionally priced. I expect this skewed the data in multiple directions. For example, we can expect that a popular box set would skew the earnings per word downward, while skewing the unit sales upwards. But not all box sets are popular, and many box sets are only made available for limited periods of time which means their impact could be underestimated in the data. So it’s safe to assume box sets muddied the data. Following the release of this data, Smashwords announced enhanced categorization options for box sets, giving authors the ability to tag box sets as box sets. In next year’s 2016 Survey, this will allow us to get a better handle on some of the unique characteristics of box sets and pricing, while also allowing us to exclude some box set data from the main data set.
  63. 63. (2014 Survey) Longer Books Sold Better
  64. 64. (2015) Word Count for Top 100 Bestsellers
  65. 65. (2015) Word Count for Top 1,000 Bestsellers
  66. 66. (2015) Word Count for Top 10,000
  67. 67. Q: What’s the average word count for the top 70 bestselling Smashwords romance books?
  68. 68. 2015 Survey A: 94,150 words = average word count of top 70 Smashwords romance for
  69. 69. 2014 Survey A: 96,197 words = average word count of top 70 Smashwords romance for
  70. 70. 2012 Survey A: 112,195 words = average word count of top 60 Smashwords romance
  71. 71. Preorders
  72. 72. Smashwords Launched Preorder Distribution July 2013  Ebook Preorder distribution to iBooks, Barnes & Noble and Kobo  We promised a sales advantage  NEW: Google “How to Reach Readers with Ebook Preorders” for a primer on preorder strategy
  73. 73. Fun Facts: Preorders  7 of top 10 bestsellers born as preorders (6 of 7 preorders were romance)  Only 9.8% of books published during period were born as preorders (HUGE implications here)  December 2015 update: We did an update on the 12 month data through October 2015 and found the number has increased to 13% of titles born as a preorder. Still a minority, but still accounting for majority of bestsellers  On average, preorder books earned authors 10.6X what non- preorder books earned (median earnings for preorder 3.5X non-preorder books). See next page for important supplemental caveats.  Of top 200 bestsellers, 67% (134) were born as preorders  Of top 200 preorders, 82% supplied by romance authors
  74. 74. As you see on the preceding slide, for our survey period we found that a very small minority of titles accounted for a great majority of our bestsellers. We also found that ebooks born as preorders earned over 10X more than books simply uploaded the day of release. Looking at the median, which is less likely to be skewed by a few large bestsellers, we found books born as preorders earned 3.5 times more. Although I can say without equivocation that books born as preorders sell more than books uploaded the day of release, I believe the numbers above OVERSTATE the impact. Here’s why: 1. Bestselling authors typically implement a broader range of best practices, among which are preorder releases and free series starters and other practices recommended in my free ebook, The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success. We especially see these factors with Romance authors, who are typically early adopters and pioneers of new best practices. 2. Bestselling authors are more likely to receive special merchandising support by Smashwords and Smashwords retailers. 3. Although all Smashwords authors received regular invites and encouragement to utilize our preorder feature since 2013, our bestsellers received additional invites. 4. Throughout the Survey period, I personally managed an invitation-only beta test for our new Assetless Preorder feature, which allowed longer preorder runways and more merchandising support. Our bestsellers were most likely to receive these invitations. This feature is now open to all authors. Yet still, prior bestsellers (which are typically more progressive on the best practices front) are the primary users. Do eBooks Born as Preorders Really Sell 3-10 Times More?
  75. 75. Bestselling Authors Utilizing Preorders at Much Higher Rate
  76. 76. Bestselling Authors Utilizing Preorders at Much Higher Rate than Poor Sellers
  77. 77. Series!!!
  78. 78. Smashwords Series Manager Tool Gives New Insight about Series Performance  Launched September, 2013  Enhanced discovery at retailers gives Smashwords authors advantage  Nearly 15,000 series at Smashwords  We can now track series performance!
  79. 79. Do series writers gain an advantage writing more than one series?
  80. 80. Do series writers gain an advantage writing more than one series? The highest earning series authors are more likely to write more than one series. Not a surprise.
  81. 81. Series with Free Series Starters Earn More If you write series and haven’t tried a perma-free series starter, you’re probably missing out on a lot of sales and readers.
  82. 82. Series with Free Series Starters Earn More
  83. 83. FREE Series Starters Lead to 66% Boost in Series Sales
  84. 84. Summary • Data-driven publishing decisions are irrelevant without a great book • Numbers provide hints at opportunities to engage with more readers • Dangerous to make decisions on a single metric alone • Your book is immortal • Experiment and iterate until you get viral catalysts just right. Then iterate some more. • Read the Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success for other viral catalysts
  85. 85. Free Ebook Publishing Resources • NEW! Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success (best practices of successful authors) • Smashwords Book Marketing Guide (how to market any book at no cost) • Smashwords Style Guide (how to format and
  86. 86. Thank you for your time! Connect: Twitter: @markcoker Facebook: Web: Blog: (offers free email subscription option) HuffPo:
  87. 87. Appendix: Free resources about ebook publishing in the slides that follow …
  88. 88. Don’t Keep Knowledge a Secret! For the last eight years I’ve shared the best practices knowledge that helps writers publish with greater pride, professionalism and success. I learn from our authors – I learn from you – and I share it for everyone’s benefit. The secrets I teach are universal. The knowledge – like Smashwords - is free and available to everyone. One need not publish with Smashwords to benefit from this information. I share this information because I believe a rising tide lifts all boats. I want to help writers everywhere achieve their dreams because dreams are important, and books are important! Help your fellow writers learn to think and act like professional publishers. As you peruse my free resources, please do your fellow writers a favor and share what you learn. Blog it, Facebook it, Tweet it and share hyperlinks to it across social media.
  89. 89. Learn to Publish Like a Pro with These FREE Best Practice Guides • Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success (best practices of successful authors) • Smashwords Book Marketing Guide (how to market any book at no cost) • Smashwords Style Guide (how to format and publish an ebook)
  90. 90. How to Publish Ebooks • Earlier this year, I presented a four-module ebook publishing course at the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference. • View all the slides at or ebook.html • Modules include: 1. Introduction to Ebook Publishing. 2. Ebook Publishing Best Practices. 3. Ebook Preorder Strategies. 4. iBooks Merchandising Secrets.
  91. 91. Checklist for Publishing and Distributing with Smashwords 1. Sign up for a free account at The confirmation email will walk you through the next steps 2. Prepare your manuscript and cover image. The Smashwords Style Guide will teach you how to professionally format your book - 3. If you want to hire a low-cost expert to format your book or design your cover, check out Mark’s List at 4. Upload your manuscript and cover to Smashwords for distribution to major retailers. 5. Bonus points: Read the Smashwords FAQ to learn how to get the most out of the Smashwords platform -
  92. 92. Smashwords YouTube Tutorials • View nearly 10 hours of Smashwords video workshops at • Smashwords video series: • #1: Introduction to ebook publishing - v=khM4czIJUVM • #2: Ebook publishing best practices: v=Jnd7jYcjqm8 • #3: 2013 Smashwords Survey: v=2rrl4NExo3Y • #4: 10 Trends Driving the Future of Authorship: • #5: How to reach readers at iBooks, the #2 global ebook seller: • #6: How to add navigation to Smashwords ebooks: • Check back for new videos in the future!
  93. 93. What does it mean to be an “indie author”? • Indie means self-published • You are your own publisher • Indie authorship is a worldwide cultural movement • In April, 2014, I published the Indie Author Manifesto at manifesto.html which is my attempt to describe and distill the ethos behind the indie author movement. • The manifesto explores the mindset, attitudes and aspirations of indie authors • Contrary to some reactions, the manifesto is not “Anti-publisher” • Instead, it provides a roadmap by which indie authors and publishers can work toward mutually aligned interests • Infographic on next slide…
  94. 94. The Indie Author Manifesto • Read the story behind the manifesto (and download a high-res poster) at manifesto.html or Google “indie author manifesto”
  95. 95. 10 Reasons Indie Ebook Authors will Capture 50% of the Ebook Market by 2020 • In March 2014, I predicted indie ebook authors would capture 50% of the US ebook market by 2020 • Some have said my forecast is too conservative (they’re probably right) • Read the post at market-10.html or Google “ebook market by 2020” • Includes a downloadable spreadsheet so you can create and publish your own forecast
  96. 96. View other Smashwords Presentations on Slideshare • View more Smashwords presentations on Slideshare at • Here are some notable presentations • How to Publish Ebooks (a collection a four-module training course mentioned on prior slide): publishing.html • Ebook Publishing in the Classroom (Includes a primer of ebook self-publishing and also best practices): classroom • How public libraries can launch community publishing initiatives: publishing-initiatives-with-selfpublished-ebooks-33409020 • 2014 Smashwords Survey - survey-how-to-sell-more-ebooks? • 2013 Smashwords Survey - survey-helps-authors-sell-more-ebooks • 2012 Smashwords Survey - decisionhow-datadriven-decisions-might-help-authors-reach-more-readers
  97. 97. Connect with Mark Coker Twitter: @markcoker Blog: (subscribe via email and never miss another post) LinkedIn: Facebook: Web: HuffPost: