How Data-Driven Decisions *Might* Help Indie Ebook Authors Reach More Readers


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This presentation was given at the RT Booklovers convention in Chicago April 11, 2012. It analyzes a nine-month chunk of Smashwords sales data, aggregated across multiple Smashwords retailers (Apple iBookstore, Sony, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Diesel,, to determine if there were potential data-driven metrics that might reveal new viral catalysts that authors can put to work to make their books more available, discoverable and enjoyable to readers. By utilizing the right mix of viral catalysts, authors can maximize reader reader word-of-mouth. Some of the findings are eye-opening, and some are simply just fun. Learn more about viral catalysts and ebook publishing best practices by reading Mark Coker's SECRETS TO EBOOK PUBLISHING SUCCESS, available at most major ebook retailers.

Published in: Education, Technology, Business
  • Great presentation, Mark. One of these days, I gotta get to the RT Con myself--just as soon as I have $$ to join RWA! haha

    The good news is you got numbers to validate my assertion that my prolific tendencies and pricing decisions have been spot on all along. I can't wait to get my first Romantic Suspense series started, though I'll have to trim it down to the 80-120k range to clip the edge of sweet spot. Such a good time to be a 'series writer' of 'long book'!!

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  • thanks, Mark
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How Data-Driven Decisions *Might* Help Indie Ebook Authors Reach More Readers

  1. 1. MONEY MONEY MONEY:How Data-Driven Decisions *Might*Help Authors Reach More Readers RT Booklovers Convention April 11, 2012 Mark Coker Founder, Smashwords Twitter: @markcoker
  2. 2. This presentation was first given at the Chicago RT Booklovers convention on April 11, 2012 On April 25, I modified it to include notes soSlideshare viewers have better context through which to understand the data Visit access a wide variety of other presentations from Mark Coker
  3. 3. My backstory
  4. 4. My wife Lesleyann is a former reporter for Soap Opera WeeklyMagazine. We wrote a novel, Boob Tube, that explores the wildand wacky world of daytime television
  5. 5. Despite Representation by Top Literary Agency, Every Publisher Rejected it• Previous soap opera-themed novels had not performed well in the marketplace• Publishers reluctant to take a chance on the book• The experience opened my eyes to Big Publishing
  6. 6. The Big Publisher Challenge• Books judged on perceived commercial potential• Publishers unable to take a risk on every author • Thousands of great writers denied opportunity to reach readers• Books forced out of print too soon
  7. 7. My Answer: Smashwords• Ebooks !! • Provide writers free tools to become their own ebook publishers • Open up the printing press to all • Open up distribution to major ebook stores • Ebooks are immortal• Smashwords is now the world’s largest distributor of self-published ebooks
  8. 8. Indie ebooks published at Smashwords100000 92,000 +800006000040000 28,80020000 6,000 140 0 2008 2009 2010 2011
  9. 9. How Smashwords Distribution Works• UPLOAD • Upload a Microsoft Word file, formatted to our Style Guide • Free conversion to 9 ebook formats • Ready for immediate sale online• DISTRIBUTE • Distribution to multiple major retailers• GET PAID • Author receives 85%+ of net = 60% list from major retailers
  11. 11. Smashwords Makes Ebook Publishing and Distribution Easy
  12. 12. WRITING A GREAT BOOK IS DIFFICULT(and nothing is more important than a great book)
  14. 14. Let’s Examine Data That Provides Clues to Possible Viral Catalysts
  15. 15. What’s a Viral Catalyst?• A viral catalyst is something that makes your book more available, accessible, desirable and enjoyable to readers• Read the Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success (it’s FREE!) to learn how viral catalysts spur word-of-mouth
  16. 16. Navigating Data-speak (the dangers of “average”)
  17. 17. ???Useful (and not-so-useful) discoveries start with simple questions
  18. 18. ??? So I asked questionsWe looked at about nine months of salesdata, aggregated across the Smashwords distribution networkSome findings are useful, some were just fun
  19. 19. Smashwords Distribution Network
  20. 20. Q:Do authors who change prices frequently sell more books?
  21. 21. Impact of Price Changes• Conclusions not clear cut • Small sample sizes of Top 10, Top 40 not statistically significant • Not a clear cause and effect of price changes to increased sales • Quite possible authors who change prices frequently are also promoting their books more actively
  22. 22. Impact of Price Changes
  23. 23. Q:If ebooks are immortal, how do sales develop over time?
  24. 24. How Sales Develop• This set of data looks at aggegrated “Classes” of all titles published in a certain month, are still published, and how their sales developed from month one to month two to (etc…)• Key findings: • Strong overall growth as ebook market develops and some titles achieve viral word of mouth • A lot of randomness: Different classes, even separated by one month, exhibit dramatically different growth patterns • Could speak to the outsize influence of a small number of breakout hits in each class
  25. 25. Smashwords Class of June 2009
  26. 26. Smashwords Class of July 2009
  27. 27. Smashwords Class of August 2009
  28. 28. Smashwords Class of January 2009
  29. 29. Q:How might an individual title develop at a retailer?
  30. 30. How Sales Develop: Single Retailer, Single Title• This set of data looks at individual titles at the Apple iBookstore• Key findings: • Different books develop differently over time • Sales rise and fall, then rise and fall again, based on various factors (randomness, luck, author promotions, new title releases, retailer promos) • If authors don’t maintain persistent presence across all retailers, they miss the spikes and miss opportunity to harvest the benefit • Unlike print books, which quickly go out of print, ebooks are immortal and can yield income for years
  31. 31. Slow boil, breakout, slow boil, breakout• This title was selling relatively well (5-10 copies a day) then benefited from major national press coverage (spike #1) then feature placement in Apple email promo (spike #2). After each spike, sales settled at higher level than previous.
  32. 32. Slow boil, slow build, breakout, slow boil• This title did nothing for a month, but then started growing organically through word of mouth. This book is likely to enjoy many many years of solid performance as new readers discover it.
  33. 33. Slow boil, breakout, slow boil, smaller breakouts• Another title that did nothing at first, but then spiked, dropped, and spiked again. Titles like this are likely to continue selling well, and will often break out into their genre bestseller lists many times.
  34. 34. Quick build, breakout, slow boil• Sold well right out of the gate, then built, then spiked before dropping back to slow boil. This title is also likely to experience future breakouts as the author releases new titles, does promos, and as new groups of readers discover the book.
  35. 35. Quick breakout to slow steady boil• Another title that will yield the author significant income over time. Books like this that sell copies every day usually earn solid reviews. Titles like this are primed for breakouts if author takes right steps.
  36. 36. Slow boil to breakout• This is the chart for Ruth Ann Nordin (the only author for which I obtained permission to reveal her identity) and her book, An Inconvenient Marriage. This book had already been a bestseller at Kobo 12 months before it suddenly broke out at Apple to become the #1 romance title in the store. The Apple spike was prompted by a new title release, price changes, and possibly also a free promotion for a separate title on her list. More discussion in my “Secrets” book.
  37. 37. Q:What’s the ideal word count for ebooks?
  38. 38. Do Readers Prefer Longer Books?• For the average book, yes. Clear pattern that longer books dominate our bestseller lists
  39. 39. Do Readers Prefer Longer Books?• This looks at bestseller bands. Trend is even more prominent. Ebook buyers prefer longer form.
  40. 40. 60% of Top 20 Bestsellers Longer than 100K Words
  41. 41. 53% of Top 40 Longer than 100K
  42. 42. Q:Do Romance Readers Prefer Different Lengths?
  43. 43. Yes. 90% of Top 10 RomanceBestsellers under 100,000 words
  44. 44. 78% of top 40 Run under 100K
  45. 45. Romance Readers Prefer ~80,000 Words
  46. 46. Q:Do erotica readers prefer longer or shorter?
  47. 47. Average Word Count for Bestselling Erotica
  48. 48. Q:What price moves the most units?
  49. 49. FREE• FREE moves more ebooks • ~100X more downloads on average • Powerful platform builder • Powerful sales catalyst for series or deep backlists
  50. 50. Q:What impact does price have on unit sales?
  51. 51. Impact of Price on Unit Sales• This set of data examines how price impacts unit sales• 1.0 = normalized reference point. For example, books priced in $2.00-$2.99 price band sell 6.2 times more units than books priced $10.00+• Key findings: • Low prices sell more units • $1.00-$1.99 price point underperforms
  52. 52. How Price Impacts Units Sold
  53. 53. Q:How are Smashwords authors pricing their books?
  54. 54. Prices are slowly trending downwardSource:
  55. 55. Q:What are the most common price points?
  56. 56. How Many Books are Priced at Each Price Point?
  57. 57. Q:What prices earn the author the greatest amount of money?
  58. 58. What Price Earns the Author the Greatest Yield?• We know low price yields more unit sales, but what price yields the greatest profit for the author?• Key findings: • $.99 to $1.99 underperforms, about 60% below average • $2.99 to $5.99 appears to be sweet spot for indie authors and small presses • Data indicates that some authors are probably underpricing their works, and might want to experiment with slightly higher prices
  59. 59. What Price Yields Highest Earnings?
  60. 60. Q:How many books sell well?
  61. 61. How Many Indie Ebooks Sell Well?• Sales distribution is a “power curve” not a “ bell curve”• Key findings: • Most books do not sell well (very important for authors to set realistic expectations, and take long term approach to platform building) • Sales distribution characterized by small minority of titles selling extremely well, thousands of moderate sellers, and then a long tail of poor sellers • Authors should implement best practices (read the Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success for ideas!) to drive their performance to the left of the curve • As books increase sales rank and move to the left of the curve, their actual sales increase quickly, especially in top 5,000
  62. 62. Sales Distribution Across Smashwords Network(Normalized to 1.0 = average)
  63. 63. Slice: Top 100-10,000
  64. 64. Slice: Top 100-20,000
  65. 65. Romance Sales Across Smashwords Network• Romance, on average, sells 2.2 times better than the average indie ebook at Smashwords (interesting!)
  66. 66. Erotica Relative Sales Performance
  67. 67. Q:What’s the optimal price per word?
  68. 68. ~ 3.5 cents per 1,000 words• The outlier is a 27,000 word ebook priced at $2.99. Indicates that some authors might have ability to price popular works higher
  69. 69. Final Thoughts• Data-driven publishing decisions are irrelevant without a great book• Numbers provide hints at reader preferences • Don’t write a longer (bloated) or shorter book unless that’s what the story demands • If your story demands 200,000 words, go for it!• Information, properly applied, can become a viral catalyst • Read the Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success for other viral catalysts
  70. 70. 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 publish an ebook)
  71. 71. Thank you for listening! Connect:Twitter: @markcokerFacebook: www.smashwords.comBlog: (offersemail subscription option)HuffPo: