This month marks the one- year anniversary of my Great E-book Publishing Experiment. With 11titles now live on Kindle and 5 live on all other platforms via Smashwords, I am here to report the results. Here’s a hint: they are somewhat less than spectacular.
Background: around this time last year I became intrigued by the success of authors such as Joe Konrath who had begun making their backlist and original titles available on Amazon.com’s Kindle platform, and whose staggering monetary rewards far outshone any print deal offered them (or me!) by traditional publishers. One of my own print publishers had offered one of my titles for free on Kindle over the 3 day Christmas holiday and over 60,000 copies were downloaded (more importantly, my spring royalty check was 5 times higher than it had ever been before) Even more surprising to me was the fact that many of the most successful Kindle authors were completely self-published, with no previous New York publisher to give them a platform, and none of them claimed to do any extraordinary marketing. I have a huge backlist, with most of my titles in two of Kindle’s most popular categories: romance, and suspense. Moreover, I have four titles from a major New York publisher currently in print, which you would think might give me something of a platform. With the rights to ten of my most popular contemporary romances and two mysteries in hand, I wanted to see whether or not I could approach the kinds of numbers I was hearing from other writers. My goal: $2000 per month in sales—which was modest according to some of the figures I was hearing.
I fell a little short.
For those who want the short version, here are the numbers tracing the Kindle sales of my highest selling book, Smoky Mountain Tracks, and my lowest selling book, Matchmaker, Matchmaker, through the year. (I had no sales in March of last year and March of this year has not yet been reported):
SMOKY MOUNTAIN TRACKS:
April: 19 May: 20 June:61 July: 64 Aug: 75 Sept.: 56 Oct.:63 Nov. 66 Dec. 60 Jan. 94 Feb.: 113
TOTAL: 691 for the year
April: 2 May: 12 June: 8 July: 7 Aug: :9 Sept.: 7 Oct.:2 Nov.: 3 Dec.: 6 Jan.: 15 Feb. 16
TOTAL:87 for the year
Here’s my analysis. Anyone who has a better theory, PUL-EEZE share it, because there is a reason I went into writing and not economics.
Most people agree that there are four major factors driving e-book sales.
1) Content (a good story, professionally written, edited and presented)
2) Product description page
Because all of the books I uploaded were previously published, professionally edited best sellers and award winners in their category, I modestly submit I think I had the “quality product” part covered. Since my print publishers actually use the copy that I write for their product descriptions, I feel pretty good about the product pages as well. I even added editorial reviews and quotes from major trade publications, which is an advantage most self-published e-books don’t have. That left two big variables:
The first book I uploaded was Smoky Mountain Tracks , the first book in the Raine Stockton Dog Mystery Series. I was such a clutz at this, I accidentally uploaded a grayscale copy of the cover , which I didn’t notice for three days. Embarrassing, but what difference could it make, since no one even knew the book was published. But when I went back to upload the color cover a week later – holy cow! Eight people had already bought my book! In one week, with a grayscale cover, no publicity, and the product page on Amazon.com not even completely built yet. Clearly, this internet thing was out of control. My expectations soared.
But here’s the interesting thing: the color cover made no difference. The book continued to sell at about 8 copies a week. Throughout May, with three more books uploaded ( all of them cross-referencing the other e-books), and a complete product detail page built, still 5-8 copies a week. I sent out a notice to my reader list, featured the books on my blog and web site, made an announcement on Facebook and Kindleboards. No change. 8-10 copies a week on the dog mysteries. I upgraded the cover (this cover is still pretty bad, but you should have seen the original!) No difference.
In June, something happened and sales doubled. My only theory is that by this time I had nine books live and the cross-promotion between books was beginning to take effect. Or maybe people who downloaded samples in April had just gotten around to reading them in June. Who knows?
to see if it would make any difference. In August and September (old cover) A Man Around the House sold 12 copies each month. In November (new, sexy cover) it sold 9! By December and January it was selling 12 copies a month again, just as it was with the old cover.
In June I sold 61 copies of Smoky Mountain Tracks at 1.99 and 47 copies of Rapid Fire, its sequel. I raised the price to 2.99 to comply with Kindle’s new 70% royalty option at the end of June. In July I sold 64 copies of Smoky Mountain Tracks and 42 of Rapid Fire , but by August Rapid Fire was up to 55 and Smoky Mountain Tracks to 75 (more copies of both books than were sold at 1.99!). The romances, which were selling 10 or less copies per month, dropped in July to 7-10 copies a month, but were back up to 15 by August, and by the end of the year were selling more copies at 2.99 than they were at 1.99. Go figure.
What I did notice is that my two best sellers are the dog mysteries (the ones with the least impressive covers, IMHO). This could be because of the genre, the dogs (a suspicion supported by the fact that my next best seller, For Keeps also has a golden retriever on the cover) or—and this is what I think—the fact that these books still have an active product page from the print publisher, with links to the original print books and dozens of customer reviews. I know that many independent authors seed their product pages with reviews from family and friends (hey,if I had enough family or friends to write reviews on 11 different titles, I would too!) but I actually have not been able to do that. Most of my romance product pages look pretty barren, and none have links to print books.
The other thing one can’t help noticing is that in January, when everyone was downloading goodies for their brand new Christmas Kindles, all my sales doubled or tripled across the board. They’re still not giving my print publisher anything to lose sleep over, nor are they even beginning to approach what I had hoped for. But if they stay at this level or grow, I can live with that.
From April-December 2010, with nine e-books available on Kindle for most of that time, I made $1685. For the year. Even if you added a zero, that would still be far less than the worst year I’ve ever had with a print publisher, so will I be relying on e-books to pay my mortgage any time soon? Probably not. In terms of the sense of control over sales I hoped for when I started this project, it would appear that actual sales are linked more to the things I can’t control-—the number of customers who write book reviews and the number of people who buy Kindles —than to the more obvious things like cover and pricing.
On the other hand, I acknowledge that there is still a lot of room for experimentation in this Great E-Book Experiment. For example:
*While the difference between $1.99 and 2.99 might not make all that much difference in sales, the difference between 2.99 and 99 cents might. I just published a non-fiction book, Ten Things Your Puppy Needs to Know to Be a Great Dog (hey, who says I don’t know anything about self-promotion?) that’s selling less than 1 copy a week. Today I lowered the e-book price to 99 cents on all platforms. We’ll see if it makes its way to the head of the pack now.
*Kindle doesn’t allow authors to give away their books for free, but with Smashwords coupons you can run a “free e-book” promotion, and that’s exactly what I’m doing during Read an E-Book Week March 6-12, 2011. (Here's the info on how to get your free books. ) Because I have selected only a few of the lowest selling romances to feature in this promotion, it should be very easy to see whether this makes a difference in sales when the price goes back to normal.
*After A Man Around the House *(from worst cover ever to sexy naked man)I remain unconvinced that the cover alone has a substantial impact on e-sales, although it certainly may contribute if there are enough other negative factors. Eventually I may redesign the dog mysteries for print, at which time I’ll invest in a professional cover. It will be interesting to see what happens.
*Finally, I would love to know whether filling the product pages on my romance novels with customer reviews would make a difference in those sales. So anyone who’d like to write a review for any of my e-books can contact me for the coupon code for a free e-book, a shameless offer made with absolutely no apology (Although I'll probably limit the offer to the first 10 on each book).
When I started the project a year ago I speculated that the formula for success in e-book sales had more to do with chaos theory than algorithms, and nothing has happened in my experience since then to change that opinion. Does that mean I consider this experiment a failure? Absolutely not. Am I giving up on the search for that elusive golden goose of e-book megamillions? Hell, no. In fact, I’m more enthusiastic than ever. Why?
Chaos theory. If lightning is going to strike, it might as well strike me.
And because, as I’ve said many times before, if I were smart I wouldn’t be trying to make a living in this business in the first place. The experiment isn’t over. It’s barely begun. Stay tuned.