Will the Indie Bestseller Please Stand Up

A fellow writer pointed me to an interesting article by Smashwords founder, Mark Coker, examining trends in indie/self-publishing.  The author looks at survey data from Smashwords sales.  For those not familiar with Smashwords, it’s the largest (or one of the largest) ebook distributors in the world, and the survey included books totally over $12 million in sales and 120,000 titles.  Data were aggregated across retailers including Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and to a more limited extent, Amazon.

In his article, Mr. Coker uses this survey data to characterize features of books that might promote sales.  Some of what he talks about is a bit silly and likely isn’t that important considering how little variability there is in the actual data (e.g., title length), but other points, such as book length and pricing, make compelling cases.  Mr. Coker ends his article with a perceptive assessment of traditional vs. indie publishing.  If anyone is interested in indie publishing, I think the article is worth your fifteen minutes.

So what does the indie “bestseller” look like?  According to the Smashwords data, it’s a book longer than 100,000 words, with a four to five word title, priced at US$3.99.

I don’t particularly buy into the book and title length conclusions because I think a good book with the right marketing engine behind it will sell well, and not seeing the actual data Mr. Coker is using makes it difficult to tell how variable this information is.  Average values can be misleading when they aren’t presented with some measure of variability (for example, these two sets of title lengths have the same average number of words [5 words]: 4, 4, 5, 5, 6, 6 and 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 9).  That said, I can understand how book length would affect sales, as many buyers may perceive a longer book as more value for the money.  I can recall shopping for books when I was younger and money was tight and selecting the longest book from a stack of three or four because I knew it would take me longer to read it and thus make my dollar “go farther.”  So that makes sense, all other things being equal, but if there was a new book by one of my favorite authors, length no longer came into the equation.

Where this length information may come in useful is when considering how to best market a longer work.  I’ve heard authors talk about cutting a 120,000-word book into two or three smaller books and selling them as a series because series tend to sell better than stand alone books.  According to the Smashwords data, that may not be the optimal plan.  I think this strategy has several competing factors–series selling better vs. shorter works to name two–at play that make it difficult to tell what is the best approach for a given story.  Hmmm…maybe the water isn’t much clearer yet.

The pricing information Mr. Coker discusses is more compelling, however.  The data show that US$3.99 is the optimal price for a book because it has the highest yield for the author.  Yield is the total money earned through sales and takes into account the number of sales and the price charged.  Cheaper books may sell more (and they do), but they earn less, so a US$0.99 book must sell four times many books as a US$3.99 book to earn the same yield (actually it would be more because a US$0.99 book usually has a lower royalty than a US$3.99, so even more cheap books need to be sold).  If the sales bump gained  by the lower price isn’t enough, the author is leaving money on the table.  According to the data, the sweet spot is US$3.99, which appears low enough to appeal to consumers, but high enough to maximize yield.

I know many indie authors who use this sale-yield dynamic to their advantage by pricing the first book in a series as either free or US$0.99 to promote “sales,” and then pricing the rest of the books higher to promote yield.  It’s a clever and apparently effective way to hook a reader and then make a living off them.

Mr. Coker closes out his article with a rational analysis of his findings and a warning not to read too much into them.  Ultimately, he says that “[d]ata-driven decision-making can give you an edge, but the edge is worthless if you don’t start with the foundation of a super-fabulous book.”  It’s not exactly the way I would have said it, but words to live by.

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About D. Thomas Minton

Writer of speculative fiction
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