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New Smashwords Survey Helps Authors Sell More eBooks


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The second annual Smashwords MONEY MONEY MONEY presentation, featuring unpredented insight into how self-published ebooks perform in the marketplace. Authors and publishers can use the findings in this presentation to maximize the discoverability, desireability and sales of their ebooks. The presentation was given at the RT Booklovers convention in Kansas City on May 2, 2013. It analyzes an 11-month chunk of Smashwords sales data covering over 120,000 books, and aggregated across multiple Smashwords retailers (Apple iBookstore, Sony, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Diesel,, to identify 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 combination of viral catalysts, authors can maximize reader reader word-of-mouth. Some of the findings are eye-opening, and some are simply just silly. 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. The first year's presentation from 2012 is also available here on Slideshare (fun to compare this year's results again the prior year).

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New Smashwords Survey Helps Authors Sell More eBooks

  1. 1. MONEY MONEY MONEY:Facts & Figures for Financial PayoffNew 2013 DataPresented May 2, 2013Updated May 8, 2013 for SlideshareMark CokerFounder, SmashwordsTwitter: @markcoker
  2. 2. The purpose of this study was to identify data-driven factors that mightimpact the sales of an ebook. We present this as a public service to thepublishing community of authors, publishers and retailers.This new presentation – utilizing all new data across an even broaderdata sample – was presented at the RT Booklovers convention inKansas City on May 2, 2013.The first installment of this presentation, based on data gatheredbetween 2011 and early 2012, was given at the Chicago RT Bookloversconvention on April 11, 2012. Click here for the original 2012 study.For this Slideshare edition, I have enhanced the presentation withadditional slides and text to capture some of the information that wasconveyed verbally. This will give Slideshare viewers better contextthrough which to evaluate the findings.Visit to access awide variety of other presentations from Mark Coker, including theoriginal 2012 presentation.Background on the SecondAnnual SMASHWORDS MONEYMONEY MONEY Presentation
  3. 3. Smashwords is the world’s largest independent distributor of ebooksfrom self-published authors and small independent presses. Ourcompany makes it fast, free and easy for any writer or publisher,anywhere in the world, to instantly publish an ebook. We distribute ourebooks to ebook retailers including the Apple iBookstore, Barnes &Noble, Sony, Kobo, the Diesel eBook Store, Amazon (only a small subsetof our titles go to Amazon), and public libraries. We also sell books inour own ebook store at In the last five years, we’vehelped over 60,000 authors and publishers around the world to createand distribute over 200,000 ebooks.For this study, we analyzed the sales behavior of approximately 120,000Smashwords books between May 1, 2012 and March 31 2013. The datadrew upon over $12 million of sales aggregated across all Smashwordsdistribution channels, making it perhaps the industry’s mostcomprehensive view of how indie ebooks behave in the marketplace. Itlumps fiction and non-fiction together. The vast majority ofSmashwords sales are fiction.Please note that we’re reporting data based on averages. Every book isunique, so you book may deviate from the average.About Smashwords and themethodology for this study
  4. 4. Please share this presentation with yourfellow authors and publishersA companion blog post with additionalanalysis of the findings can be found at we work together to help our fellowauthors and publishers succeed, the risingtide of best practices lifts all boats.
  5. 5. The Smashwords Backstory(first slide of the original presentation, provides backgroundcontext for Smashwords and our source of data)
  6. 6. My wife Lesleyann is a former entertainment reporter for SoapOpera Weekly Magazine, and is now an entertainment blogger and the Huffington Post. In 2005, we co-wroteBoob Tube, a novel that explores the wild and wacky world ofdaytime television.
  7. 7. Publishers Said “No”• Despite representation from one of country’sbest literary agencies, every major NYpublisher said NO (TWICE!)The stated reason: Previous soap-operathemed novels had performed poorly in themarketplace, so publishers were reluctant totake a chance on us.
  8. 8. I evaluated our options1. The rational option Accept that we were failed authors, giveup and cry [at the time, publisherscontrolled the printing press and theaccess to retail distribution. Without apublisher, we truly were failed authors].1. The irrational option Believe in ourselves Get mad Try to fix the problem
  9. 9. I contemplated the problem Publishers value books based on perceived commercialpotential• I considered this a myopic measure of a book’s worth. A book’svalue to humanity cannot be measured in dollars alone, let alone“perceived commercial merit.”• Publishers can only “guess” what will sell. They really don’t knowuntil the book reaches readers.• They reject thousands of talented writers each year. They viewthe vast majority of writers as not good enough• Publishers denying readers the rich diversity of talent locked inthe minds and fingertips of writers around the globe Publishers unable to take a risk on every author• Millions of rejected authors were going unpublished and unread,thereby denying current and future generations the richness anddiversity of writers’ talents.
  10. 10. I contemplated the solution I believe every writer has a right to publish. It’s amatter of free speech. Not everyone agrees with me. Just because every writer has right, doesn’t mean it’s thepublisher’s responsibility to satisfy that right. What theyviewed as a problem and a limitation, I viewed as anopportunity Could technology solve the problem? What if I could create an online publishing platformthat would allow me to take a risk on every author?• Give every writer the freedom to e-publish, withoutinterference of a publishing gatekeeper• Give the marketplace of readers the freedom to decidewhat’s worth reading• Make the solution free and easy so it’s accessible to allwriters
  11. 11. My Answer: Smashwords,launched in 2008• * FREE * eBook Publishing Platform• Free ebook printing press• Distribution to major ebook retailers andlibraries• Free learning materials help writersbecome professional publishers
  12. 12. 050,000100,000150,000200,000250,0002008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013Ebooks published at Smashwords1406,00028,80092,000191,000220,000April 2013
  13. 13. How Smashwords Works• UPLOAD• Upload a Microsoft Word file or .epub• Free conversion to 9 ebook formats (for Word .docfiles)• Ready for immediate global sale online atSmashwords store• DISTRIBUTE• Distribution to multiple major retailers such as theApple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony and Kobo• GET PAID• Author receives 85%+ of net = 60% list from majorretailers
  14. 14. Smashwords DistributionNetwork*limited
  16. 16. Welcome to the Second AnnualSmashwords RT Booklovers MONEYMONEY MONEY survey(first released May 2, 2013)
  17. 17. Last year’s study has beenviewed over 75,000 times• Access the prior study at Slideshare
  18. 18. We’re in Search of Viral Catalysts
  19. 19. What’s a Viral Catalyst?• A viral catalyst is anything that makes yourbook more available, accessible, desirableand enjoyable to readers• Read the Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success (it’s
  20. 20. We decided to pose some simplequestions to our data, in the hopethat the answers might reveal someviral catalysts? ? ?Useful (and not-so-useful) discoveriesstart with simple questions
  21. 21. ? ? ?We looked at 11 months of sales data forover 120,000 titles, aggregated across theSmashwords distribution network,representing over $12 million in globalsalesSome findings are useful, someinconclusive, and some were downrightsilly (but fun)
  22. 22. Q:Do authors who change pricesfrequently sell more books?
  23. 23. Impact of Price Changes• Indie ebook authors have the freedomto change prices frequently, and somedo so with ADHD fervor• Do frequent price changes sell more books?• Conclusions not clear cut• Price changes likely a proxy for author promotion• Our bestselling authors, on average, changed prices only oncein the 11 month period, possibly an indication that frequentchanges provide little benefit• Worst selling authors changed prices less, possibly a sign ofinattention to their books?
  24. 24. Impact of Price ChangesVertical axis: # of price changes over 11 mo. period. Horizontal:bestselling titles, both ranges and range bands. You don’t want tobe in the sales rank bands of 50,000+. They sell very little.
  25. 25. Q:Which sells more books? A longerbook title, or a shorter book title?(a new question in our survey this year)
  26. 26. Do shorter or longer book titlesimpact book sales?• We look at both character count and wordcount for the title• Conclusion: yes, there appears to be someindication that shorter titles work better• Possible reasons are unclear• Do readers prefer shorter titles?• Does a shorter title catch the eye more effectively?• Are shorter titles easier for the reader to grok?• Are some ebook retailing system unable to list full titleof long titles (answer: yes)
  27. 27. Do Shorter Book Titles SellBetter? Let’s look at charactercount
  28. 28. Let’s look at the number of wordsin the title, the advantage is alittle more clear cut
  29. 29. Q:Should my ebook description be shortor long?(New question for this year’s survey)
  30. 30. Do shorter or longer ebookdescriptions impact sales?• We look at word count of the book description• Most retailers support up to 4,000 characters, whichequals ~ 500-600 words.• Conclusion: inclusive• Bestselling ebooks have descriptions, on average, rangingfrom 150 to 180 words.• Indication that worst-selling titles (sales bands of #50,000-#51,000, and #100,000-#101,000) have lower word counts• My recommendation: Rather than focusing on word count,focus on making sure that the first sentence captivatesthe reader’s attention and makes an honest andcompelling case for why this book is worth reading foryour target reader. Then make every sentence thereafterdo the same. Know your target. We read to experienceemotion, and this is true for fiction and non-fiction.
  31. 31. What’s the right word count foran ebook product description?
  32. 32. Q:If ebooks are immortal, how do salesdevelop over time? Case studiesfrom Apple iBookstore
  33. 33. How Sales Develop: SingleRetailer, Single Title• This set of daily sales data looks at individual titles atthe Apple iBookstore, which reaches 51 countries• Key findings:• Books develop differently over time• Some books sell poorly at first, then breakout• Breakouts can happen in different countries and not others• Sales rise and fall, then rise and fall again, based on variousfactors (randomness, luck, author promotions, new title releases,retailer promos)• Note that authors have control over many of these factors!• Non-stop presence is important. Never unpublish, otherwise youmiss breakouts!• Unlike print books, which quickly go out of print, ebooks areimmortal and can yield income for years
  34. 34. The immortal indie ebook keepson giving• Axis at right shows daily unit sales at iBookstore. Thevertical black bar shows the sales for that particular day.This title had been out over a year (chart doesn’t showcomplete history). A new released by this author inNovember caused this title to surge anew, followed bysubsequent breakouts as new readers discover this greatauthor. As shown, still selling over 50 copies a day onaverage one year after publication.
  35. 35. The book that keeps giving• Became immediate bestseller upon publication. Monthslater, still selling about 100 copies a day. This book willrise again with new releases by this author as new readersdiscover her talent. For this author, the annuity of ongoingsales will far surpass her great sales in the first few weeksfollowing publication. This book, like all indie ebooks, islikely to yield income for the author and their heirs fordecades to come. Think long term.
  36. 36. Breakout, followed by breakout,followed by strong daily sales• Immediate wordwide bestseller. Then experiencedanother spike in sales with free promo of a differentbook and series by the same author. Not captured inthe data – experiencing another spike in May 2013 witha new release.
  37. 37. New release sparks newbreakout for older book• Full history prior to October not shown. This book hasbeen out nearly 18 months. Still performing well.Spiked in October 2012 concurrent with the release ofa different unrelated book by this author. Still sellingaround 50 copies a day.
  38. 38. Slow boil, breakout, slow boil,breakout• This title was selling relatively well (5-10 copies a day) thenbenefited from press cover in a single national dailynewspaper (spike #1) then spiked again after a featureplacement in an Apple email promo (spike #2). After eachspike, sales settled at a higher level. Data from 2011-2012. Iincluded this chart in last year’s presentation.
  39. 39. Slow boil to breakout• This is the chart for Ruth Ann Nordin (the only author for which I obtainedpermission to reveal her identity) and her book, An Inconvenient Marriage. Thisbook had already been a bestseller at a much smaller retailer, Kobo ,12 monthsbefore it suddenly broke out at Apple to become the #1 romance title in thestore. The Apple spike was prompted by a new title release, and price changesincluding possibly a free promotion for a separate title on her list. Morediscussion in my free Secrets ebook. I included this chart in last year’spresentation too.
  40. 40. Case study: How a CoverRedesign Sparked a Breakout andCaught Apple’s Attention• A book’s first impression is its cover• A great cover draws the reader in bymaking a promise• A poor cover chases readers away,creates unnecessary friction
  41. 41. Look what happened when this great authorupdated the cover for this romance novelfrom this to (next slide)…
  42. 42. … to this cover…
  43. 43. The cover sparked a breakout atApplePrior to the new cover, the book was selling 5-10 copies a day (not bad! above average forall books), and was earning rave “Wow” reviews from readers. In retrospect, the oldcover wasn’t making a compelling case for readers to try the book. The new cover madethe right promise to readers, and kept that promise. The cover upgrade helped propelR.L. Mathewson to the New York Times bestseller list a few weeks later.
  44. 44. Q:What’s the ideal word count forebooks?
  45. 45. Do Readers Prefer Shorter orLonger ebooks?• The findings were again very conclusive:Based on sales data, e-reading consumersprefer longer books• This finding runs counter to prevailing notion thatebook readers prefer shorter books• Long form reading is alive and well on e-readingdevices• Word of caution: Always write your book to thelength your book demands. Don’t bloat or cut yourbook to meet these average word count numbers.On the other hand, you can forget the notion that120,000 words is too long for a romance novel!
  46. 46. Do Readers Prefer Longer Books?• This looks at sales rank bands from #1 to#XXX.
  47. 47. Readers Prefer Longer Books• When we zero in on narrower sales rank bands, theimpact is clear.
  48. 48. Q:What’s the average word count forthe top 60 bestselling Smashwordsromance books?
  49. 49. A:112,195 words= average word count of top 60 Smashwords romance
  50. 50. Q:How many books sell well?
  51. 51. How Many Indie Ebooks SellWell?• Key findings:• Sales distribution is a “power curve”• Most books do not sell well (very important for authors to setrealistic expectations, and take long term view to platformbuilding)• Sales distribution characterized by small minority of titles sellingextremely well, thousands of moderate sellers, and then a longtail of poor sellers• Authors should implement best practices (read theSecrets to Ebook Publishing Success for ideas!) to drive theirperformance to the left of the curve• As books move to the left in sales rank, their actual salesincrease at an exponential rate, especially in top 1,000• Because ebooks are immortal, authors should continue to iteratetheir viral catalysts (cover, description, book content, etc.) untilthey get the formula just right so they spawn reader word-of-mouth can move up and to the left on the chart.
  52. 52. Sales Distribution AcrossSmashwords Network(½ of sales are to the right of #1,000)At first glance, it looks like most authors sell nothing. The scale is thrown offby a few amazing sellers. While it’s definitely a long tail market, many authorsenjoy satisfying sales. ½ of sales by revenue was to the right of #1,000. Thenext slide takes a closer look at the top 500, and how the curve is shaped.
  53. 53. The Sales Curve for the Top 500(normalized data)
  54. 54. Q:What do words cost readers?
  55. 55. What do words cost?• This question revealed some interestingresults• There’s a lot of variation• Similar to last year’s study, there’s evidence thatsome authors are probably underpricing their books• Note the two blips at the end of the chart, wheretwo books are charging around 1 cent for 100words, whereas most other bestsellers are sellingaround 300 words for penny. The authors areBella Andre (a 41k-word book for $3.99) and MiaDymond (a 35k-book for $2.99). This shows thereare exceptions to the rules. Just because the“average” bestseller includes more words doesn’tmean there’s not an opportunity for some greatbooks to be priced higher.
  56. 56. How many words can a readerbuy for a penny?
  57. 57. Q:What are the most common pricepoints?
  58. 58. What are the most common pricepoints for indie authors?• Key findings:• Indies leveraging their pricing flexibility tounderprice traditional publishers• Big competitive advantage for indies• Indies satisfying reader desire for high-quality books at lowerprices• $2.99 is most popular price point with indies• $.99 remains popular, but shows a big relative dropcompared to our 2012 study which showed more$.99 titles than $2.99.• Indies have virtually abandoned the $9.99 price pointcompared to our last study.
  59. 59. (Last year’s 2012 Study) HowMany Books are Priced at EachPrice Point?
  60. 60. (2013 study) Number of indietitles in each price band
  61. 61. Q:What price moves the most units?(With the following slides, we explore the most important
  62. 62. FREE• FREE moves ebooks!• 91X more downloads on average for FREE comparedto priced titles• We looked at 12 months of Smashwords download datafrom the Apple iBookstore• Powerful platform builder for authors• Gives indie authors tremendous fan-building advantage overtraditionally publishing published authors• Powerful sales catalyst for series or deep backlists• Smashwords authors have yielded over 35 million freedownloads at Apple last 12 months (rapid fan-building!)
  63. 63. Smashwords, an authorized global aggregator for Apple, makes it fastand simple to get your ebooks listed at the Apple iBookstore. Ourauthors are yielding tremendous growth as Apple expands globally.
  64. 64. Q:What impact does price have on unitsales?
  65. 65. Impact of Price on Unit Sales• This set of data examines how price impactsunit sales• 1.0 = normalized reference point. Forexample, books priced in $3.00-$3.99 priceband, on average sell 4.3 times more unitsthan books priced $10.00+• Key findings:• Low prices tend to sell more units (not a surprise)• $1.99 price point dramatically underperforms (surprise)• Is $3.99 the new $2.99? I see untapped opportunity there,where indies may be able to raise prices but not sufferunit volume decline.
  66. 66. How Price Impacts Units Sold
  67. 67. Q:What prices earn the author thegreatest amount of money?
  68. 68. What Price Earns the Author theGreatest Yield?• We know low price generally yields more unitsales, but what price yields the greatest profitfor the author?• Key findings:• $.99 to $1.99 underperforms. $1.99 a black hole.• $2.99 to $6.99 sweet spot for max earnings• $3.99 the new $2.99? Fewer titles to compete against at$3.99, and authors appear to pay no penalty in terms ofunit sales volume (see prev. slide, “How Price ImpactsUnits Sold.”)• Some authors are underpricing
  69. 69. What Price Yields the GreatestAuthor Earnings?
  70. 70. The Yield Graph explains whytraditional publishers are headedfor trouble• As ebooks account for an ever-greater percentage of booksales, it’s bad news for publishers, good news for indies• Publishers can’t compete at these low prices without loweringauthor payouts• If publishers try to hold prices high, they’ll squander their authors’fan-building potential• The Yield Graph explains why self-published ebook authors willout-perform traditionally published authors over the long term• Lower prices move more units faster• more unit sales = more readers = more fans = more super fans= more word-of-mouth = faster brand-building for indies• An indie author can price at $2.99 and earn about $2.00. Atraditionally published author would have to be priced over$10.00 to earn the same amount. Implication: If the economicallure of a publisher’s print distribution fades, it’ll become morechallenging for publishers to attract and retain the bestauthors
  71. 71. Final Thoughts• Data-driven publishing decisions are irrelevant without a great book• Our study examined averages. Your results will likely vary becauseyour book is unique!• Numbers provide hints at reader preferences• Dangerous to make decisions on a single metric alone• If your story demands 200,000 words, go for it!• Last year’s study influenced the pricing decisions of thousands ofauthors. If this study does the same, it may skew your results (i.e., ifeveryone moves to the $3.99 price point).• Your book is immortal• Experiment and iterate until you get your viral catalysts just right.Then iterate some more.• Read the Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success for other viralcatalysts
  72. 72. Free Ebook Publishing Resources• Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success (bestpractices of successful authors)• Smashwords Book Marketing Guide (how tomarket any book at no cost)• Smashwords Style Guide (how to create,
  73. 73. Help Spread the Word about thisSurvey and Indie Ebooks!• I hope you found this presentation useful• Please share it with your favorite friends on Facebook,Twitter, LinkedIn, message boards and with your writinggroup members! Link to my blog post, where you’ll findadditional analysis of the survey findings -• Blog about your favorite findings• Start an online discussion and share your thoughts.• Whether you’re a writer, a publisher or aliterary agent, we’d be honored to publish anddistribute your ebooks. Here’s how:• Click here to learn how to publish and distribute wiReach more readers today!
  74. 74. Thank you!Connect with Mark Coker:Twitter: @markcokerFacebook: www.smashwords.comBlog: (subscribe viaemail)Huffington Smashwords page: