Ebooks don’t sell on Saturdays: some tentative conclusions from my online adventures so far

I sold my 251st copy of Coffin Dodgers this morning, and I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve discovered so far.

The first and most obvious thing is how important price appears to be: after the initial momentum wears off, sales plummet if you’re pricing at £1.99 (there are other factors – Amazon did a big money-off thing on mainstream Kindle books, which killed sales; this time of year a lot of UK people are away – but I think price was the main thing).

It looks like 99p is the rate the market expects for an ebook by an unknown author, which is unfortunate: cutting your price to meet that means you drop down to a lower royalty rate (35% instead of 70%). Sell at 99p and your royalty is £0.30 per book; at £1.99 you get £1.19.

If you’re self-publishing, then, there’s an interesting bet you have to make. At 99p per book, I’d need to sell 3,333 books to make £1,000. At £1.99, I’d only need to sell 840. So do you bet on volume, or margin?

What happens if you price between the two points? If £1.99 is insanely, ridiculously expensive for an ebook, what about £1.49?

This is particularly important if, like me, you aren’t flogging a whole bunch of titles simultaneously: I can’t give away Coffin Dodgers in the hope it’ll sell extra copies of Coffin Dodgers 2, because I haven’t written that yet (and might not for a while. I’m working on something else). Pricing at £0.99 has worked in terms of numbers, but would I make slightly more cash from slightly fewer sales if I went for £1.49, which is the lowest price you can set and still get a 70% royalty (about 90p per book)? By pricing at 99p, am I falling into the trap of saying “buy it because it’s cheap” instead of “buy it because it’s good”?

I’ve no idea. I think I’ll try £1.49 and see what happens.

A few other observations: Saturday is the worst day for selling ebooks – it’s a real-world shopping day, not an online one – and reviews, recommendations and Facebook links make a huge difference.

Getting Amazon user reviews is a big help too: something appears to happen when you hit ten reviews, which I suspect is when your book starts appearing in the various “you might also be interested in…” cross-selling things Amazon offers. It’s very annoying that UK reviews don’t automatically appear in the US site – I suspect that’s partly why I’ve sold bugger-all books in the US, although it’s possible that the lack of localisation (using Z instead of S, Center instead of Centre etc) is a factor too.

As you probably guessed, Kindle is where it’s at. Smashwords is fine as a distributor but (IMO) useless as a retailer, and the sites it does publish to take an eternity to list your titles too. Of my various sales, only ten have come via Smashwords and the services it works with (eight via Smashwords itself and two via Apple’s iBooks). I don’t think I’ve quite scratched the surface of Kindle promotion either: the people who’ve done serious numbers tend to spend serious amounts of time hanging around Kindle boards and similar forums. I’d love to know how they find the time.

Anything I’ve not covered that you’d like to know? Ask away…

24 thoughts on “Ebooks don’t sell on Saturdays: some tentative conclusions from my online adventures so far

  1. Owen Duffy says:

    Interesting post, Gary.

    I’ve got a work-in-progress children’s book on the go at the moment. It’s been met with rave reviews by my test audience (the wee man), who’s on at me to hurry up and finish the thing.

    I’ve looked at putting it out as an ebook, but I’m wondering whether the market’s there for children’s fiction. I’m fairly certain kids aren’t taking Kindles to school (yet), so it’d be down to parents buying ebooks as bedtime stories.

    (Wow, that sounds presumptuous! Please note that I’m under no illusion that I’ll sell very many of these!)

  2. Gary says:

    I think the kids market is interesting, and – no pun intended – immature: a quick search doesn’t uncover many. That’ll change, I’m sure. At the moment, though, it’s a tale of two kindles: the kindle hardware, which doesn’t do colour, and the Kindle apps, which do.

    In my own house – my daughter’s nearly four – we have *tons* of books, but they’re almost all printed. We have a handful of iPad apps – The Heart and the Bottle, some Sesame Street and Dr Seuss, Toy Story read-a-longs – but print is definitely still where it’s at for us. I hadn’t considered Kindle at all, but then again the wee one isn’t reading yet.

  3. Audacious Author says:

    “I think I’ll try £1.49 and see what happens.”

    I think that’s the key, at least in part. You *can* try different pricing, and different marketing, and lots and lots of other stuff. The shelf-life of an eBook is forever.

    “I’d love to know how they find the time.”

    There’s the rub. Technically, self-publishing is trivial. Virtually no barriers left there. But overcoming obscurity remains a massive challenge, and that’s *very* time-consuming.

    But 251 sales is a very healthy start – congrats!

  4. Stephen says:

    Thanks for sharing this data, Gary, very useful. I agree that GBP 1.49 is a logical next data point to collect.

    Your point about having only the one book is quite important, I think. A lot of the self-pub success stories hinge on multiple books, either because the author is a prolific full-time writer, or has a significant backlog of out-of-print rights reversions to dump on Kindle. I think this helps both because you can then afford to sell one for nothing to get your name out, and also because readers can see at a glance that you have several books available, which operates both as a sort of social proof (Lots of books! Must be successful, and therefore good!) and also as a reassurance that if their gamble pays off and they like your writing, there is more to explore.

    But of course you can’t give up your day job to write the rest of the Coffin Dodgers tetralogy without some money to live off. In this area, the advance system of traditional publishing makes some sense.

    I can only advise you to win a small amount on the lottery, go back in time ten years or so and buy some Apple shares, or wait until Kickstarter launches in the UK: this guy seems to have basically pre-sold his next ebook before he has written it:

    Grim Tides

  5. Gary says:

    I think you’re right. On the one hand the barriers to entry have gone, but on the other as a self publisher you’re bringing a pea-shooter to a gunfight if you don’t already have a profile or the means to pay to get one. I have a few thoughts percolating away about this – will yell when they’re coherent enough for a post.

  6. Gary says:

    Maybe it’s confirmation bias, but what I’ve seen so far reinforces my belief that the big winner here is amazon. To do this properly you need to spend a reasonable amount of money and invest a very large amount of time for precious little reward. You’ve got to *really* want to write :)

  7. Gary says:

    True. The difficulty you have there is ego: the writer believes he or she will have Dan Brown levels of success, and will balk at cutting anyone in to that extent.

    Maybe the solution is to front some cash for editing, design, living expenses etc in exchange for a percentage of the… Er… :)

  8. grammarwitch says:

    “It’s very annoying that UK reviews don’t automatically appear in the US site”

    It’s not hard to copy it over manually though – so if you have taken the time to post a review, take the extra 30 seconds to copy & paste it to the US site :)

  9. Gary says:

    Yeah, but to be honest I think writers should be grateful enough that someone’s taken the time to do one review :) It’s an odd Amazon thing, though: the book has the same Amazon UID on .uk and .com, so it’s not as if there’s a problem with differing editions – and even if there was, Amazon’s usually okay at showing hardback reviews on paperback listings and vice versa. Weird.

  10. Gary says:

    Yeah, it’s not the cheeriest. I think he’s right about the devaluation of content, though: why should books be any different? I suspect we’ll see the same thing we’ve seen in music on the supply side and the punter side: organisations that provide umbrellas for artists to boost their chances, and what I call “shit filters” – sites and/or services that help you find stuff amid the crap. And sharks. Lots of sharks.

  11. Stephen says:

    He may also be overstating the case for the traditional market though. Most books do not earn out their advance, and advances are not really enough to live on. So traditional publishing thrives on the odd bestseller (which is really a viral hit, if you think about it) at the expense of the majority of authors. Under the new regime, it’s the same, but with Amazon doing the thriving. And at least Amazon gives everyone a go. Under the old system you needed to convince an editor and a marketing team that your book had a potential readership. And all the “string of rejections followed by surprise hit” stories show that, unsurprisingly, even the professionals are pretty bad at predicting what people actually like. And since Amazon does no editing, proofing, book-making, etc, they at least leave that bit of the market to freelance editors and so on. Maybe, as in previous gold rushes, the money will be made by the people selling the shovels.

  12. Gary says:

    I think it’s interesting that Amazon has offloaded all of the costs, and all of the risks. It’s a pure profit play for them whether everybody sells 1 copy or 1000000.

    > So traditional publishing thrives on the odd bestseller (which is really a viral hit, if you think about it) at the expense of the majority of authors.

    Yep, although the publisher takes most of the risk: they pay for editing, cover design, promo etc. Or at least used to.

    > Maybe, as in previous gold rushes, the money will be made by the people selling the shovels.

    Haha, yes :)

  13. Stephen says:

    Amazon may have offloaded all the traditional publishing costs, but they must have spent a mind-boggling amount to develop and market the Kindle, and of course before they could even do that, they spent an even more mind-boggling amount becoming the premier web retailer, especially for books. I think they must be the only dot-com that actually delivered on the theory of “spend loads to achieve market share, then profit”. Bezos, like Jobs, is one of the few CEOs who can genuinely plan and deliver over the longer term, and if Amazon weren’t already on an insane PE I’d be loading up on their shares.

  14. Squander Two says:

    One of my vague relatives made a fortune in the Australian gold rush. They were indeed running a general store for the miners. But then the store turned out to be on top of a major seam, so they won both ways. Our lot never saw any of the money, apparently. My grandmother was quite bitter about it. Mind you, she was bitter about everything. Nasty piece of work.

  15. gary says:

    > I think they must be the only dot-com that actually delivered on the theory of “spend loads to achieve market share, then profit”.

    Probably because it’s not really reproducible – that’s how we eneded up with the dotcom crash – although Groupon’s trying it. Amazon ran at a loss for four years, crushing incumbents who couldn’t rely on a never ending pile of magic money. Bezos is very smart, but there’s something of the wal-mart to amazon. Offloading all the work and risk to suppliers is a very amazon thing to do: it’s the firm’s fundamental business model.

  16. gary says:

    Incidentally I’m not ragging on amazon here. I’m just fascinated to see history repeat, to see an industry get hung up on piracy and drm concerns when the real danger was losing their entire business to a huge tech firm whose first initial is A. Amazon’s power is astonishing, not just in ebooks but in print too.

  17. Squander Two says:

    There are so many similarities that it’s reckoned by those in my family who know the story well that Jane Campion must have heard about it and written a screenplay. My ancestor headed back from Australia to London with the express purpose of marrying a nice Jewish girl to take back with him, spent a few weeks meeting women, married one, and dragged her back to Aus. She insisted on taking her grand piano with her. Once there, they added a stage to the general store, put the piano on it, and she entertained the miners.

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