I’ve been selling my short story collection Tides From The New Worlds for a year now, and I’m going to share that data with you. I’m going to hang it all out there and show you my stuff.
I’m a lover of data and charts to help solidify somewhat complex discussions. I’m in favor of keeping data and experimenting in order to try and learn my landscape. I hate discussions that are basically ‘do this… profit’ where ‘…’ involves assertions. I’m a businessman, once I’m done with the part where I make my art.
Due to being involved in making eBooks and because I’ve talked to a number of people who are selling them, and because I lurk in self publisher forums and track data wherever I can find it, I have in my head a rough model of what kinds of sales people are seeing off eBooks. And its not just Amanda Hocking’s millions or JA Konrath’s hundreds of thousands. Those are outliers, I’m curious about what people in my genre are making, for example. I’m curious as to what people who don’t spent every spare moment flooding places online with a constant rattle of self promotion and ‘please Dear God buy my book’ tweets and begs for retweets make up the bulk of their public persona. I’m tired of people who talk about ‘revolutions’ (being a survivor of a real world one, with consequences and all) and act like priests, or inflexible new guides.
One reason why people focus on the big successes is people who make middling or small sales are embarrassed to talk about it. There are also a lot of people who tell me all about their plans to become rich on the Kindle edition of their first book evar, and then never, oddly enough, follow up with raw data three months later after spending so much time arguing with my assertion that you’re probably not going to make a lot of money off online sales. My bet is that if you can clear $50 a month as a genre writer (remember, we have a smaller potential niche market) on a Kindle edition with your first book, you’re doing really well.
A very common assertion is that if you just drop the price to 99 cents, people will flock to the deal and ‘volume will make up for the lost margin.’ It’s a mantra that’s very strongly believed. To be honest, I think that works somewhat, because it boosts discoverability (it’s cheap to try a new author), and I think having something as a 99 cent ‘lead in’ discovery book/title is a good idea, but I don’t think its a strategy to depend on.
So a year ago, I made the eBook version of Tides From The New Worlds, and I’ve been experimenting with covers and price to test how it effects sales.
First of all, I’m a strong midlist author, with a reasonably well known name but not exactly a super-famous dude. I have a well known blog, but due to my British upbringing and midwest location, I abhor continuous self promotion. I just like to have fun. I do lots of interviews because they’re fun. I certainly, however, really do try my best to not push push push. I wanted to see how Tides would sell in that sort of environment. So I made notices about prices changes, but other than that, I was really pretty quiet.
My expectation was that, at $2.99 and with the 70% royalties, that I would probably make about $40/month off a short story collection. A number of writers with the same number of books I had out talked about making $100-$200/month in royalties off of novels, and since novels sell better than collections, I figured $40 was a reasonable expectation. Collections are hard to sell in print, and I know from some discussions that many collections sell for $500 – $1,000 advances to medium or small presses, if you can sell them at all.
In April we launched Tides. I offered, via my website, copies to anyone who wished to review it. There was no big push other than that.
The price was $2.99: as low as I could price it and still get that 70% royalty.
Out of the gate, I was pretty happy with the results. Copies sold were 25 in the first month and 27 the second month:
Even better, the second month the copies sold jumped a bit. I was wondering if, like some intimated, it only got better from there on. It was the opposite of my experience with print books, where the sales always tapered after a while, but hey, who knew?
I waited for the results to come in for the third month, and then… there it was: the tapering off.
Sales halved in that third month, and I made less. Now, this is the point where people would have been out there shouting ‘buy my book,’ but I was really trying to see how the natural, no-effort, digitally-easier method would work.
The trend continued into the next month:
Over the summer and following months, this pattern of 7-9 copies a month and the corresponding royalties settled in:
At this point, I had a few conversations with people I would classify as ‘digital advocates’ who had all manner of advice. But I decided to do something different. I wanted to see whether the 7-9 people who purchased Tides a month were buying it because it was something they wanted, or whether all they cared about was price.
I did the unthinkable, I raised the price to $4.99.
I was told I would alienate readers and lose sales.
Here is what happened: I made more money.
I was making just shy of $30.
But here’s what didn’t happen, the number of copies sold didn’t change in any way:
My guess that people were interested in the book, but not nearly as price skittish as the peanut gallery claimed, was borne out.
Here is how that continued to play out:
Copies seemed to actually remain slightly higher. And the royalty profit settled into a $40/month area.
So how about volume and a 99 cent price? This was my next experiment, started on the first of last month. Tides dropped in price, and copies sold jumped accordingly:
Holy crap, from 11 copies to 117 copies! Woo, break out the champagne I’m… well, not rich… I made just slightly more than 11 copies sold:
Furthermore, the bulk of those 99 cent copies sold in the first week, well, the first three days, of the sale. Since then, they’ve dropped. The last three weeks the rate has returned to… 2-3 copies a week.
Even at 99 cents.
So take from that what you will, but my take was that I have returned the price to $4.99. Someone asked me why I wouldn’t want to keep reaching more people with the 99 cents, but there’s no guarantee it will do that based on the latter week sales. I’m pretty comfortable betting that $4.99 is the ‘sweet’ spot that’ll keep trucking in $40-$50 a month reliably.
Here’s all the data again:
date copies sold profit price of book
May-10 25 52.325 2.99
Jun-10 27 56.511 2.99
Jul-10 13 27.209 2.99
Aug-10 8 16.744 2.99
Sep-10 7 14.651 2.99
Oct-10 8 16.744 2.99
Nov-10 8 27.944 2.99
Dec-10 11 38.423 4.99
Jan-11 9 31.437 4.99
Feb-11 11 39.92 4.99
Mar-11 117 47.228 0.99
And here is a cleaned up chart:
What do I take away from all of this?
Well, for one, I’m looking forward to a point where I would be able to take a backlist novel to try this with, as short story collections don’t sell as well. I’m betting I’d sell more like $100-$200 a month.
I’d also like to test selling novellas/novelettes directly, as I’m seeing some evidence they sell at these levels.
Eventually, I do think having a 99 cent item for sale, as an entry point into your backlist, a good idea. If I do another short story collection, I’ll price one at 99 cents and another at $4.99.
Obviously getting more titles into the pipeline will help, it would be steady money. And I’ve been encouraging authors to get their backlist up, with smart looking covers, for sale, so that they can benefit. 3-5 extra titles you own the rights to, making $50 each a month, is a car payment. Or more if any of the titles take off.
As to why some titles sell better than others, that’s as much a mystery as it is in print. Some authors explode. Saying that you should focus only on digital books because JA Konrath is doing it is like saying you should focus on writing books about kids with magic power so that you can be a billionaire. In SF/F, with our smaller market share of titles sold, it also means you can expect smaller sales.
But as for putting front list titles up there? Right now my agent is shopping my second short story collection ‘Mitigated Futures.’ If it doesn’t sell I’ll turn it into an eBook, sure, but Tides has made ~$380/year. So obviously a print sale for it looks more attractive to me than jumping straight to digital right now.
Will this always be true? I don’t know.
Will this be true for every author? I don’t know.
To understand whether to go digital only, or print, or some combination there of, means being a business minded person and evaluating the data as best we can.
I know some people will point to me and consider me a lagging failure. I’m not shouting that I’m on my way to making millions off the Kindle and joining the hype. I’m not down on it either, I think its an exciting time, and a great way to leverage your backlist. A short story collection normally wouldn’t be making me anything as a midlist writer in one of the smaller genres out here. There’s opportunity here, when thoughtfully applied and approached. And I fully intend to, and have been, leveraging it (my recent collection/how to write book Nascence came out as a digital only release to experiment with figures, and to target a larger audience, which so far has meant a very different launch and sales patterns that hint at more sales than Tides has seen). But print is still a bigger money maker for me. It puts me in front of more buyers, lets me stand on the shoulders of giants, and to leverage exposure to a larger audience.
I think I will continue playing all the fields I have access to. Audiobooks are exploding, and I love working with Audible. eBooks are growing, so I am involved in that. Print is still selling, so I’m involved in that.
Smart businesses diversify. And I intend to keep diversifying.