Wednesday, May 8, 2013

New Smashwords Survey Helps Authors Sell More eBooks

Last year at the 2012 RT Booklovers in Chicago, I released a first-of-its-kind study that analyzed indie ebook sales data.  Our goal was to identify potential factors that could help authors sell more ebooks.

Last week at the 2013 RT Booklovers convention in Kansas City, I shared new, updated data in a session titled, Money, Money, Money — Facts & Figures for Financial Payoff.  Now I'm sharing this data and my findings with you.

Some of the results were surprising, some were silly, and some I expect will inform smarter pricing and publishing decisions in the year ahead.

For the study this year, we analyzed over $12 million in sales for a collection of 120,000 Smashwords ebooks from May 1, 2012 through March 31, 2013.  We aggregated our sales data from across our retail distribution network, which includes the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and Amazon (only about 200 of our 200,000 titles are at Amazon).  As the world's largest indie ebook distributor, I think our study represents the most comprehensive analysis ever of how ebooks from self-published authors and small independent presses are behaving in the marketplace.

As I mention in my free ebook, The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success, its helpful to imagine dozens of levers and dials attached to your book that you can twist, turn and tweak.  When you get everything just right, your book's sales will increase through viral through word-of-mouth.  In my Secrets book, I refer to these tweakable things as Viral Catalysts.  A Viral Catalyst is anything that makes your book more available, accessible, discoverable, desirable or enjoyable to readers.

This survey attempts to identify Viral Catalysts by analyzing the common characteristics of bestselling (and poor-selling) Smashwords ebooks.

We posed a series of questions to our data - including several new ones - to reveal answers that might help authors reach more readers.

The questions included:
  • Do frequent price changes help authors sell more books?
  • Do longer or shorter book titles sell more books?
  • Do longer or shorter book descriptions sell more books?
  • How do sales develop over time at a retailer, and what factors might spark a breakout?
  • Do longer or shorter books sell better?
  • What's the average word count for the 60 bestselling Smashwords romance books?
  • What does the sales distribution curve look like, and how many books sell well?
  • How many words are the bestselling authors selling for a penny?
  • What are the most common price points for indie ebooks, and what changed since last year? 
  • How many more downloads do FREE ebooks get compared to priced ebooks?
  • How have Smashwords sales grown at the Apple iBookstore in three years?
  • How does price impact unit sales volume?
  • What price points yield the greatest overall earnings for authors and publishers?
  • What does the Yield Graph portend for the future of publishing?

View the original PowerPoint deck presented at RT Booklovers:

New:   September 2013 Update - Narrated Video:
I produced a narrated YouTube video on the 2013 survey with additional commentary.  View/listen here:


1.  Ebook Sales Conform to a Power Curve
Most books don't sell well, but those that do sell well sell really well.  This finding wasn't a surprise.  Just as in traditional publishing, very few books become bestsellers.

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However, the underlying dynamic of the power curve is extremely significant, especially when you consider it as a framework for evaluating the survey's findings.  As a title moves up in sales rank, its sales grow exponentially.  We see this in our sales results all the time.  On any given day, a #1 bestseller in an ebook store might be selling twice the number copies as the #5-ranked title on that day, and triple or quadruple the number of copies as the #10 bestseller.  In our data over this 11-month period, the #1 Smashwords bestseller, measured in dollars, sold 37 times more than the book ranked #500, and #500's sales would put a smile on most authors' faces.

The opportunity for every Smashwords author and publisher is to make decisions that cause their books to move up in sales rank.   This is power of my Viral Catalyst concept.  When you consider that there are potentially dozens if not hundreds of factors that can make your book more (or less) discoverable, desirable and enjoyable, then you realize that you - the author/publisher - have more control over your book's destiny than previously thought.  Your opportunity is to make dozens of correct decisions - big and small - while avoiding the poor decisions that will undermine your success.

The next finding, when viewed through the lens of the power curve, is especially significant.

2.  Viva Long Form Reading:  Longer Books Sell Better
For the second year running, we found definitive evidence that ebook readers - voting with their Dollars, Euros, Pounds, Krone, Krona and Koruna - overwhelmingly prefer longer books over shorter books.

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The top 100 bestselling Smashwords books averaged 115,000 words.  When we examined the word counts of books in other sales rank bands, we found the lower the word count, the lower the sales.

Now consider how authors can use this finding, combined with the knowledge of the power curve, to make smarter publishing decisions, and to avoid poor decisions.  Often, we'll see an authors with a single full-length novel break the novel into chunks to create a series of novellas, or worse - they'll try to serialize it as dozens of short pieces.  When you consider that readers overwhelmingly prefer longer works, and you consider that bestselling titles sell exponentially more copies, reach more readers and earn more money than the non-bestsellers, you can understand how some authors might be undermining their book's true potential.

Like every finding from this survey, you should use this information as one data point.  There will always be exceptions to any rule.   If your story deserves 50,000 words - nothing more and nothing less - because this is the length packs the biggest pleasure punch for readers, then by all means don't bloat your perfect story with extra words just because the data shows that longer books, on average, sell more.  Do what's right for your story because that's what's right for your reader.

3.  Shorter Book Titles Appear to Have Slight Sales Advantage

This year we asked our data if bestselling books had shorter or longer titles.  We looked at character count, which indicated slight advantage for shorter titles, and then we looked at word count, where the advantage appeared to be more pronounced.

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The top 100 bestselling Smashwords books averaged 4.2 words in their book title.

For titles ranked #1,000-#2,000, the average word count was 5.7, or about 36% more words than the top 100.

Books ranked #100,000-#101,000 (not a sales rank any author wants!), the book title word count was 6.0 words.

Why might shorter book titles have an advantage?  I can only speculate.  Maybe shorter titles catch the reader's eye and attention more effectively.  After all, reading requires mental energy, so maybe the additional mental energy to read and comprehend a longer title creates friction that causes some readers to click away?  Or maybe some retailers' inability to list super-long book titles on the merchandising page reduces effectiveness?

My advice:  Think less about word count and more about choosing a title that, like good writing, is concise, clear and intriguing.

4.  How Indie Authors are Pricing Their Books:  $2.99 is the Most Common Price Point

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At Smashwords, our authors and publishers set the prices.

The most popular price points are FREE through 2.99.

They chose $2.99 more frequently than any other price point. In last year's survey, $.99 was a more common price point than $2.99.  In this year's survey, $2.99 was about 60% more often.

$.99 remains a popular price point.

$5.00 and up has lost favor with indie authors and publishers compared to the same data a year ago.

5.   How Price Impacts Unit Sales Volume:  Lower Priced Books (usually) Sell More Copies

How does your choice of price impact the number of books you sell?  It's an important question, because as an author or publisher, you want your words to touch the eyes of readers.

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As you might expect, we found there's a definite relation between price and unit sales volume.  Lower prices generally sell more copies than higher prices.  But not always.

We normalized the data so we could understand how the average book priced at a given price would perfom compared to a book priced over $10.00+.  We set $10.00+ as equal to "x."

So, for example you'll see in the chart that $.99 is 3.9x.  This means that a $.99 book will on average sell 3.9 times as many books as a book priced over $10.00.  A $2.99 book sells about 4 times as many units.

Note how books priced between $1.00 and $1.99 significantly underperform books priced at $2.99 and $3.99.   $1.99 appears to be a black hole.

What price moves the most units?  The answer is FREE.  Although not shown in the chart, my presentation includes an analysis I performed of our sales at the Apple iBookstore over the last 12 months.  FREE books, on average, earned 92 times more downloads than books at any price. If you've written several books, consider pricing at least one of the books at free.  If you write series, consider pricing the series starter at FREE.  Nothing attracts reader interest like FREE.  But remember, it's one thing to get the reader to download your book.  It's an entirely different challenge to get them to read it, finish it and love it.

Smashwords can get your book priced at FREE at every retailer. 

6.  The Yield Graph:  Is $3.99 the New $2.99?

It goes without saying that a $.99 book will usually sell more units than a $10+ book.  But will the $.99 book make up in volume what the $10+ book earns in margin?

That's the question answered by the Yield Graph.  We computed book earnings for all the books in each price band, and then divided the results by the number of books in that band to determine the average yield of for a book priced in each band.

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We labeled each bar with a percentage so you know how the yields of each book in that band, on average, compare against against the overall average of all the bands.

So, for example, books priced at $3.99 will earn about 55% more than the average book at any price.  Books priced at $1.99 are likely to earn 67% less than the average.

One surprising finding is that, on average, $3.99 books sold more units than $2.99 books, and more units than any other price except FREE.  I didn't expect this.  Although the general pattern holds that lower priced books tend to sell more units than higher priced books, $3.99 was the rule-breaker.  According to our Yield Graph, $3.99 earned authors total income that was 55% above the average compared to all price points.

The finding runs counter to the meme that ebook prices will only drop lower.  I think it offers encouraging news for authors and publishers alike. It also tells me that some authors who are pricing between $.99 and $2.99 might actually be underpricing.

What might account for the magic of the $3.99 price point?  First, I think it means readers will pay for quality books.  You don't become a bestseller at any price - including FREE - if you haven't written a great, reader-pleasing book.  Next, it might indicate that some percent of the readers are shying away from the ultra-low price points.  Anecdotally, I've hear multiple reports from authors where they raised prices and unit sales increased.  While I do believe some of this is happening, I don't think all readers operate the same mindset.

As much as we all would like to discover that one magic secret for success, reader behavior is much more nuanced and diverse.  Diversity of behavior was certainly the primary high-level finding in my ebook discovery survey in September, 2011.  We found that different readers have different methods of discovering books.  Some readers will be attracted to low-priced books, and other readers will be repulsed.  Viva diversity!

Other highlights from the Yield Graph:  Books priced between $.99 and $1.99 continue to underperform when we look at the book's total earnings.  $1.99 performs especially poorly.  It's a black hole.  I'd avoid that price point if you can.  Price the book instead at $2.99 and you'll probably earn more, AND sell more units if your book performs near the average.

7.  A Closer Look at the Yield Graph Reveals Why Indie Ebook Authors Have a Competitive Advantage over Traditionally Published Authors

I think the most important findings of the entire study are found in these last two charts above about how price impacts unit sales, and in the Yield Graph, where I examine how price combined with unit sales impacts author earnings.

The Yield Graph reveals why indie authors are gaining significant advantage over traditionally published authors.

When an author sells a book, they receive two primary benefits.  1.  They earn the royalty from the sale. 2.  They earn a reader, and a reader is a potential fan, and fan is a potential super-fan who will rush to buy anything you publish, and who will evangelize your book to everyone they know.

I'd argue that readership - the key to building your author brand and fan base, is more important to your long term success than a dollar in your pocket today.

Indie ebook authors are earning royalty percentages that are 3-5 times higher than what traditionally published authors earn.  Publishers are overpricing their books relative to indie ebook alternatives.  This means that indie authors can reach more readers AND earn more money selling lower priced books at higher unit volumes all the while earning more per book sold than traditionally published authors at higher prices.  The significance of these economic dynamics cannot be overstated.

Allow me to break it down this way.  An indie ebook author earns about $2.00 from the sale of a $2.99 book.  That book, on average, will sell four times as many units as a book priced over $10.00.  In order for a traditionally published author to earn $2.00 on an ebook sale, the book must be priced at  $11.42 (if the publisher has agency terms, as Smashwords does) or $16.00 (if it's a wholesale publisher).  Remember, traditionally published authors earn only 25% of the net, whereas Smashwords authors earn 85% net.  If your book is traditionally published, and your publisher sells under the wholesale pricing model, you earn only about $1.25 for a book priced at $9.99, whereas an indie ebook author would earn $6.00-$8.00 at that price.

If a reader has the choice to purchase one of two books of equal quality, and one is priced at $2.99 and the other is priced at $12.99, which will they choose? 

If the publisher prices at $2.99 to be competitive, and they have agency terms with the retailer, their author earns only 52 cents (25% net of the 70% list received by the publisher), compared to the indie author's take of $2.00.

These economic dynamics will not play out well for large publishers or their authors.  If ebook sales continue to increase as a percentage of overall book sales, and if print continues to decline as a format, and especially if brick-and-mortar bookstore closers continue or accelerate, it'll become increasingly difficult for publishers to hold on to their best authors.

Publishers need to pray that print remains a strong-selling format, and that the physical bookstores stop closing.  For now, print distribution - a benefit available only to traditionally published authors - is a strong selling point in favor of publishers.

Even with the continued importance of print, I'm seeing signs that some bestselling indie authors are beginning to hold on to their ebook rights and do print-only deals with the publishers.  Recent examples include Bella Andre with her Sullivans series, Hugh Howey with Wool, and Colleen Hoover with Hopeless.

In a future world dominated by ebooks, publishers need to find a way to lower prices while increasing per-unit earnings for the author.  It'll be difficult because the cost structure of traditional publishing is so high.  Publishers aren't feeling the pain yet because the bulk of their sales are still coming from print.  However, look at any ebook bestseller list and you'll see indie ebook authors are taking sales from the bigger traditionally published authors.

I predict that within three years, over 50% of the New York Times bestselling ebooks will be self-published ebooks.  It's possible I'm being too conservative. 

Indie ebook authors can publish faster and less expensively, publish globally, enjoy greater creative freedom, earn higher royalties, and have greater flexibility and control.  It's not as difficult to successfully self-publish as some people think.  The bestselling traditionally published authors already know how to write a super-awesome book.  That's the most difficult task of publishing because the best books market themselves on reader word-of-mouth.

Already, many successful indies, borrowing from the playbook of publishers, are assembling freelance teams of editors, cover designers, formatters and distributors.  Tell me again, what can a publisher do for the ebook author that the author already do for themselves faster, cheaper and more profitability?

As an indie ebook author, your e-rights are valuable.  Don't give them up easily.  Your indie ebook is immortal.  It'll never go out of print.   Your e-rights are an asset - much like an annuity - which will earn income for years to come.  If you write fiction, great stories are timeless.  Your book could earn an annuity stream of income for you and your heirs for many decades to come.  In the presentation, I show charts of how books can sell over time.  For great books, the sales continue long after the pub date.

This doesn't mean that publishers will become relegated to the dustbin of history.  Many authors - including many bestsellers - will continue to want the support of a publisher partner so the author can focus on writing books rather than assuming all the responsibilities of a great publisher like the editing, proofing, packaging, sales, marketing, distribution, foreign rights and backoffice.

I think the percentage who go indie will continue to increase. What do you think?

How to Make Use of the Findings

Our study drew upon an enormous data set, and the findings are distilled down to averages.  We also included both fiction and non-fiction in the survey, and didn't differentiate between the two.  The vast majority of our titles and sales are fiction, so please consider that as you evaluate our findings.

Your book is unique and may not conform to averages.  Although some of our findings will help you make more informed publishing decisions, I urge you to use caution.

Think of some of the Viral Catalyst ideas that came out of this study as the opportunity to fine-tune your publishing. Consider each finding as a single data point.  Consider it as an option for possible experimentation.

Data-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.  If you want to reach a lot of readers, write a book your fans market for you through their word of mouth and positive reviews.

Don't let data-driven decision-making cause you to make stupid decisions.  If the data shows (and it does) that shorter book titles might give you a slight sales advantage, don't change your title to two words if the absolute best and necessary title is seven words.   If the data shows that books over 100,000 words sell the best (and it does), but you think your story works better at 70,000 words, don't bloat your story.  Use common sense and do what's right for you book, and do what's right for your reader, and what's right for your personal ambitions as an author.

Also consider that this survey, like last year's survey, will be read by thousands of other authors and publishers, and may influence their decision-making.  Last year's presentation on Slideshare has already been viewed over 75,000 times (wow, that blows me away!).  Today,  $3.99 price point appears to be an underutilized opportunity because there are fewer titles than $2.99 and readers respond favorably to $3.99.  However, if thousands of authors shift their pricing to $3.99 tomorrow, would the edge diminish?  I don't know the  answer to that.

Please Share This Survey with Your Friends

Thanks for reading.  If you found this information useful, please share it with your friends.  If you like the charts and what they represent, please post them to Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter and then link back to here so writers can benefit from the full survey.

Our mission at Smashwords is to empower all writers with the tools they need to become successful authors.  We provide the free ebook printing press, the distribution to major retailers and libraries, and the best-practices knowledge that helps self-published authors publish more professionally.  This survey fulfills one element of the best-practices piece.  I hope it helps all authors and publishers, even those who don't use Smashwords.

If you're not yet using Smashwords, I invite you click here to learn how to publish and distribute with us.


John H. Carroll said...

Thank you for this info, Mark. I'm going to reconsider my current price points. :)

Unknown said...

Such useful information, and so clearly presented - thank you Mark

Elena DeRosa said...

Interesting...perhaps it's time to rethink my strategy. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

The notion that $1.99 is a black hole is very valuable. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Might this number of books sold also include the number of titles sold as a % of total inventory? With metrics as stated, seems that the top 5% of the ebooks sold account for more than 80% of sales volume. That number must be in there somewhere Mark.

Unknown said...

Perhaps all will be reduced to one or two popular genres. The short story format will die because retailers called everything a "book" and didn't offer ways to market short fiction.

Unknown said...

Rarely in the cause of Indie writers has one man done so much for so many.

Anonymous said...

It'd be interesting to see a graph of profit-per-word. That is, short fiction might sell less, but it's also less work. Is a novella a better time investment by an author than a novel or a big honking novel? Than a short story?

Unknown said...

Hi Mark. My gut feeling is that a lower price (eg $2.99) is best for a short book or novella, and a higher price (like $3.99) better suits a full length book. Is there a way you can analyse the figures to prove or disprove this theory?


Anastacia Moore said...

Thank YOU Mark! That is great news! For some reason I decided to price my novel at $3.99 when I relaunched and actually lengthened my novel to make it more of a "novel" than a "novella", and so far I am very happy with the results. THANK YOU for doing so much for so many of us!

Unknown said...

I don't know...lengthening a book just soit will fit into a category? Sometimes they are, but a lot of times short stories aren't dashed off and ready to be published in one evening. But I also want to thank Mark and Smashwords for the work they do. If only other retailers provided the tools Smashwords provides.

Unknown said...

It's comforting to see how my novel is on the right track - $3.99 and 114,500 words - and you're so right about not forcing that word count. I was actually hoping for 70,000 and when it was done, well, now I'm glad I didn't split it up.

I got lured by the Amazon Prime promo, so I'm only on there for another 6 weeks...can hardly wait to try Smashwords.

Finally, thanks so much for putting together your guidelines for formatting. I spent a few hours going through it, and it helped tremendously - uploading was incredibly smooth - I see your guide being mentioned all over the web, so it seems to be becoming a standard of sorts.

Virginia Llorca said...

I get plenty of page views, a few sample downloads and very few smashwords sales. I know I have slacked off self-promo (it is so tedious) but can you suggest some optimal forms of self-promo? I mostly rely on twitter and my web site.
I have received no negative feed back re formatting or typos, and few negative reviews. Most say, "interesting" "fast paced" etc.

Unknown said...

I have recently published my first children's ebook. In reading this article, I now have a better understanding of why I have not sold as well as I had hoped. Though much of your advice is for the novelist, and mine is a simple picture book for toddlers, I see how the same concdpts translate.
Thank you. I'm considering revamping or completely rewriting my book.
I appreciate this information.

Rachelle Ayala said...

Thanks Mark for the data. I've seen you speak about the beginnings of Smashwords and am glad that you're sharing the data with everyone rather than keeping it to yourself. I've seen a backlash to authors serializing their works and putting a major cliffhanger at the end of each book. If you don't complete the story, you frustrate the reader and show yourself to be driven by monetary gain rather than reader satisfaction. In my opinion, a series book needs to have a resolution. It is fine if the new book starts another adventure, but to leave a big honking cliffhanger with the main characters is reading interruptus. Your data seems to bear this out in terms of word of mouth and long term sales. Thanks for being so sharing!

Elisabeth Lohninger said...

Thank you, Mark! This post comes at the perfect time for me, as I am teetering on the verge of my first publishing endeavor. I will keep your findings in mind.

Unknown said...

You said "I think the percentage who go indie will continue to increase. What do you think?" I think you are absolutely right Mark.

Karen Lynn Maher said...

Thank you so much for this valuable information.

Karen Lynn Maher said...

Thank you for the valuable and useful information.

Unknown said...

Thanks for crunching those numbers, I'm going to make some adjustments accordingly!

marlayna glynn brown said...

Thanks Mark! My five full-length books have sold best at $2.99 (oh, and free!) and sales drop hard at $4.99 so your report proves what I've already experienced. I may toy with $3.99 and see what happens...

Rebecca Rivera said...

Thanks for the insight, Mark, and for the great opportunities Smashwords affords. A friend referred me to Smashwords over a year ago and, fortunately, it was my first self-publishing ebook site I ever worked on. I won't be switching any time soon. Thank you.

Larry LaForge said...

If you have data on the downloads of FREE titles in the Apple iBookstore, why do you not report it to each author in their sales reports? I submitted an inquiry on this and was told by Smashwords support that Apple does not report free download data to Smashwords. Please clarify. Thanks for a great report.

Jeffrey Howe said...

JJ Toner--

Graphically, you'd need to plot the data out in three dimensions, with word count along the x, price point along the y, and sales up the z. And I agree, that would be a very useful next step.

Unknown said...

Great post full of interesting data.

Anonymous said...

Before you can say that readers prefer longer books, you need to analyze where a given author is in terms of releases. Best sellers are usually from more established authors. The first Harry Potter was 65,000 words. the last was 280,000. If she'd started with a larger book, she never would have been discovered. People don't invest that much time in an unknown.

Peace, Seeley

Michael said...

@Larry LaForge:
As someone who publishes directly on iTunes, I can tell you that Apple does indeed provide download data for free titles the same way as it does for paid sales. I can't speak for whether they've always done this, but they certainly do now.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the data.

Dovetail Public Relations said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. You've given me some ideas for next year's survey.

@JJ, I think the data pretty conclusively shows that $.99, $2.99 and $3.99 are the price points that get the most unit sales, and that higher word count (regardless of price) is prefered by readers, judging by their votes with their dollars. As you can see in the presentations chart that looks how many words you can buy for penny, you get a good sense of the wide variation. So to your question, $2.99 for novel and $3.99 for full lenght, the answer is, "it depends on multiple factors." The pennies chart does seem to indicate, though, that higher priced novellas are rare in the $2.99 price point.

@Virginia Keep in mind that the Smashwords store represents less than 10% of the sales we're getting our authors. Over 90% of the sales are coming from our retailers. I'm not a huge believer in marketing when compared to other priorities. The best marketing is a book that markets itself on word of mouth. Take a look at my recent blog post, Six Tips to Bring Your Book Back from the Doldrums. I think you'll find that helpful. It's all about eliminating the friction that's preventing readers from discovering or enjoying your book. Also take a look at my Secrets book (link is on the right margin here).

@Miss Crystal, most of this data here won't be terribly relevant to children's picture books, sorry.

@Rachalle, I'm not a big fan of serialization either. Our data shows so conclusively that longer works please readers more. I think serialization can work great for a work in progress (and great if done with our friends at WattPad), but the feedback I receive from readers is that they'd prefer to read a good book all at once. Each time you make it so the reader has to search for the next book in a serial, and find it, and purchase it, and then download it (all the steps to load an ebook), these steps create friction that can interrupt what would otherwise be a compete reading experience. I know there are examples of authors who've had great results with short serials (as opposed to full length series as you mention), but I wonder if that success was primarily due to them writing an irresistibly awesome story, and not because it was a serial. Very important to separate cause and effect. I would also guess that once combined into a single full-length book, the once-serialized book would be more popular. Who today would prefer to start reading Oliver Twist as a serialized ebook across 24 monthly installments(as it was originally published), as opposed to a single book now? I imagine there are a few people who'd prefer to read one installment per month for next 24 months, but it'll be a minority.

@Larry The monthly audited sales reports we ingest from Apple don't include free downloads. Our daily and weekly reports from Apple do, but we're not yet ingesting those. Once we do start ingesting them, we will report free downloads back to authors, just as we do for B&N and Sony. Sorry if our staffer didn't properly clarify that.

@Seeley, I doubt that's the case, but there are always exceptions to any rule. I'll bet JKR would have held the reader's attention at any length. Many of the bestsellers on this list are from indie authors who were unknown just a year or two ago. I think the argument can be made that great stories that are longer satisfy readers more than great stories that are shorter. I'm perfectly open to next year's data proving me wrong if some future JKR-quality writer publishes 50 bestsellers, serialized at 2,000 words each.

Joleene Naylor said...

great data!

I wonder if part of the reason that 3.99 is doing so well is because many authors with only one or two books are publishing for .99 or the 2.99, while many of the authors who have the "guts", so to speak, to sell for 3.99 are established authors with bigger back lists and established audiences who are therefore selling more books overall, regardless of the price?

Technoman 2 said...

Very good article, I will be reviewing what you said on my blog and pointing people to look at the full report here. Couldn't see your findings on the length of descriptions though, did I miss it or was there nothing to say particularly?

Ray Pace Writes said...

Hey Mark,
Thanks for a nice article. I haven't seen or heard from you since we had dinner with our spouses at Gene Parola's home in Honolulu. Hope you enjoyed my book, Hemingway, Memories of Les.
All the best,

Ray Pace

Bruce said...

The data on title length might reflect the fact that shorter titles are more easily readable on thumbnail images. A good title can't catch someone's eye when it can't be read.

I think this is also one reason why so many self-published books' covers go *clunk*; they turn into mere blobs of color in thumbnail size. Even a good cover can fail at a small image size.

Keep it clear, keep it bold,and Keep It Simple, Stupid. (The K.I.S.S. rule. Don't leave home without it.)

I'm starting to put together a collection of some of the short stories I've had published over the last thirty years. DEATH AND THE UGLY WOMAN AND OTHER STORIES is an awkward length for a title, but I've come up with a cover rough with pretty legible typography and a really vivid image that should work well even at thunbnail size. When it's ready to come out in a few months, I'd been thinking of a $2.99 price point, but the data here has pretty much swung me over to the $3.99 side of the Force. Thanks, Mark.

jambalian said...

You mention sales rankings, Mark, but I can't see any on Smashwords. Would it be possible to have rankings next to each book as other retailers do?

I for one like to see the results of a promotion so that I can determine if it was value for money. My last major promo was April 9th and 34 days later I'm still waiting to see the sales figures. I expect it will be another couple of weeks before I know if it was money well spent.

If you're getting daily sales figures from your retailers, could these be used to provide some kind of ranking system? Failing that, could you give individual rankings grouped by retailer?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mark, for keeping us abreast of the latest. Helpful, as always!

Lys Avra said...

this is really interesting! maybe I'll try out Smashwords next time round...

LK Watts said...

Wonderful blog, Mark. Thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

Great info and very interesting - thank you so much for sharing your findings. I am a new indie author and feel I need all the info/help I can get.

Naomi Stone said...

Thanks for the great info, Mark!

I've found that my short story collection, 'Three Wishes' sells better on the Kindle Select program than it's ever done on Smashwords.

Taking advantage of their free download promotions, and the many sites that help publicize these one-day events, thousands of people have downloaded the book for free, and following the events there have been spikes in actual sales.

When I tried doing the same thing on Smashwords - because I'm a Nook user and want to reach readers of every device - it was a complete flop. Hardly a dozen downloads on the free offer, no sales following.

I'm not sure what it would take to remedy the situation, but thought you should know.

Rachel Donnelly said...

Thank you for posting this great article.

Elizabeth Hanes said...

A key factor I don't see addressed is the ratio of fiction to non-fiction within the study sample. Of the total books analyzed, how many were fiction? It's a crucial distinction.

Elizabeth Hanes said...
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Diana Flegal said...

Excellent material- thank you very much.

Karen Lynn Maher said...

I agree that this information would be more helpful and useful if there were a distinction between fiction and nonfiction. As a person who works solely with nonfiction writers to help them plan their promotion strategy, I find the uses of this information limiting. I wish it were different and hope that future reports give data about how much of the data related to fiction and how much to nonfiction. Thanks, though, for the wealth of information provided as it was very enlightening in many ways.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Mark, for your scientific and professional approach to making dreams come true. Your efforts help support us all! (And thanks for the $1.99 findings. Guess I'm better off changing some prices...)

Diane Kelly said...

The $3.99 pricepoint was great info to know. Thanks for this article!

Ryan Petty said...


Brilliant. You are generous to share. And the world of stories and ideas will forever be grateful that you've managed to design and implement a business model that puts you at the center of the indie revolution. Thanks for your incredibile insights and your willingness to help others understand.

I support the idea of generating nonfiction vs fiction data in some future iteration of this. I am certain it is a thought that has not escaped you.

Carmen Webster Buxton said...

One thing I appreciate about Smashwords, as opposed to KDP and the B&N platform, is the ability to make a book free all the time. I have a 2-book series and Book 2 is my best seller (out of 7 books total) because Book 1 is free. It's free on Kindle, also, but only because Amazon price-matched the Smashwords retailer sites like iBooks and Nook.

I do wish you could get the retailer info faster, though! Selling on those sites is like steering blind-- you don't see the affect of price or other changes for weeks or months. Right now I can only see iBooks sales up to March 30. That's more than six weeks! B&N is only about one week better than that. That's the one thing that needs to improve, and I don't know if Smashwords can do it, or if the problems are all at the retailer end. It's not that I need the money faster; it the numbers I need. Not that I would MIND the money coming faster. -)

Unknown said...

Great article. Timely too for some of us.

Elisabeth Donati said...

It's so nice to come to your site and get information we can put into action immediately. I went right to my Kindle account and changed some prices! Thanks!

Prof. Brian M. Smith said...

I'm a high school substitute teacher in upstate New York for mostly honors students, and this month all of the kids were all over a downloadable eBook, titled "PRUSSIAN BLUE: The Secret of Nannawit".

As you might understand, I wanted to see what the students found so appealing about it, so one of my students offered to let me read a few chapters of the eNovel on her Kindle while she and the other seniors in the class took an essay exam. Because all I had to do while the class wrote their essays was to make sure that everyone had written their name at the top of each page when they turned-in their tests, I was able to read several chapters. I loved it! I downloaded my own copy when I went home at the end of the day. It's a long, full-length eNovel, and a little more expensive than the pricing sweet spot in the survey but, apparently, that didn't dissuade the kids from getting it.

So, I guess that the moral of my comment is that if you can get school kids with electronic readers to talk among themselves about a hot eBook, it is going to sell well - at least until the next hot book.

Unknown said...

This information was very useful. I have a few of questions though:

How does offering coupons and specials come into play when pricing your books? Would readers be happier to pay $2.99 for a $2.99 book? Or would they be more inclined to buy a book that costs $5.99 and is discounted to $2.99? Was the use of coupons used in this study?

I also wonder if Smashwords numbers ring true for Amazon as well. Or would their data suggest a different price point?

Unknown said...

This was extremely eye-opening. I feel really encouraged about publishing my stories. This will definitely help when I do publish and present the price-point.

Rosalie Marsh. Author said...

Thanks Mark for this analysis on price pitching. V. Interesting. I found very little information - in spite of web searches - when my first e-books came out. Also thank you to Smashwords for the seamless distribution of my e-books to major ePub retailers whom I would not have reached otherwise.
The main problem I find is with customers who have the *Free* or *not more that £1GBP* mentality which can devalue the product.

Evacomics said...

Downloaded your Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success too, very inspiring and informative. Thank you very much!

J.Q. Rose said...

This pm I opened Smashwords to increase my non-fiction book price to $3.99. I decided to procrastinate and clicked the blog button instead. Wow am I glad I did to get some support for increasing the price. Also am going to refer to my book as Girls Succeed! not using the entire title anymore in my blog posts, etc. Thanks for the info.

Unknown said...

I found your presentation interesting as always. Since my book is free and doing well (6235 downloads)I am glad you threw in info on free books. You are right about making the first book in a series free when you are an unknown author. Although I have not written a series,my first book has been free for a year and I actually have people asking for my next novel. It worked out better than I expected. Thanks Smashwords.

Gregory Desrosiers said...

No one has even brought a copy; more than one week ago, I ran into a conclusion that no one will ever buy my e-book, and so I have to rewrite it all over again...

I have been working on my rewriting for several days, but I can't believe how much work I have to do and yet not succeed in what I want to do. I don't understand why no one has ever brought my e-book.

Unknown said...

Gregory...It took me 7 years to write VAlley of Sorrows. I used at least 30 beta readers to get feedback. I was fortunate that a friend gave my manuscript to an employee at International Creative Management in NYC who read it and offered suggestions. Her best suggestion was for me to employ an editor which I did. I met Mark Coker in Wichita and he suggested I put my ebook up for free the first month. In that time, I started to receive some good reviews which lead to about 350 downloads. Then word of mouth kicked in. Although I chose to keep my book free, after one year I have over 6400 downloads. Let others read your work and get feedback. It does help.

Constance Hampton Jones said...

Things obviously change: in 2008 most people preferred books of about 180 pages (approx. 60.000 words.)
But then this was not about e-books.
Big tomes were thought unsellable, so that made me decide to cut my tome of more than 600 pages into smaller books. I may have to reconsider that...

Unknown said...

Great to see some very interesting and useful information on self publishing stats. The pricing information confirms the buyers notion that inexpensive books are less rewarding. I'll be back to see what you guys post next.

Lyn Austin said...

Wow, fascinating study. This should help all of us in the ebook field. Knowledge is power and you are giving us great power with your knowledge. Thanks, Lyn Austin

Raf said...

Mark Coker is a guru, an important figure in the industry. I published my two novels in Smashwords. I like its simplicity. More power to Mark and Smashwords!

Unknown said...

thanks dear,for data...

Shaun said...
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Shaun said...

First, I want to say it's awesome that you're providing this kind of data. So thanks for that.

Mark Coker said...
@JJ, I think the data pretty conclusively shows that $.99, $2.99 and $3.99 are the price points that get the most unit sales, and that higher word count (regardless of price) is prefered by readers, judging by their votes with their dollars.
[ ... ]
@Rachalle, I'm not a big fan of serialization either. Our data shows so conclusively that longer works please readers more.
[ ... ]
[B]ut I wonder if that success was primarily due to them writing an irresistibly awesome story, and not because it was a serial. Very important to separate cause and effect.

(note, I know you urge caution in the conclusion, but I didn't read that until now, after the below is written, and maybe other people are like me)

Isn't this what the blog post is doing? Conflating correlation with cause, by assuming that the reason that those books that sell more do so because they're priced at $3.99?

In other words, raising or lowering the price of a book to $3.99 will not necessarily increase sales, nor will deviating away from $3.99 necessarily decrease sales, just that, on average, books at $3.99 tend to sell better.

To see this, ask how the data shows that the price is the cause. Is it not also possible that the best authors price their books at $3.99?

For example, imagine a scenario where King, Rowling, Clancy, et al, all decide to price their ebooks at exactly $3.99. Suddenly, $3.99 is the hottest price point. But that doesn't imply that $3.99 is the reason those books are selling so well (and the fact that $3.99 stands out so strongly in the data could suggest that the anomaly is due to external factors--it will be interesting to see next year if this effect is increased).

The same thing can be applied with word count.

Instead of drawing the conclusion that readers prefer longer works, maybe it's just that books that are longer are simply better, or are written by better known authors--or, if the $3.99 correlation is in fact a causal factor, that longer works tend to be priced at $3.99.

That's not to say any of those are the reasons, just that they are other possible ones that, lacking more data, are equally as likely as reader preference. To determine reader preference, things like popularity would need to be controlled for; by the data's nature, it's not an unbiased sample with regards to user preference.

Again, thanks for the stats. But it's nice to remember that there are lies, damn lies, and then statistics. Lying by telling the truth is still lying, and that's what statistics tend to do--the average is not the specific.

Anonymous said...

The article begs the question: How does this perfect book get seen? You can't sell copies if your book isn't seen by readers.

You can't get near the top of Smashword's lists if you're not selling, but you can't sell if you're not near the top of the lists. Catch-22.

Dovetail Public Relations said...

Al, check out my older survey HERE which explored discovery. Also check out my free ebook, The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success. It has a lot more on discovery.

Pastor Tom said...

Hi Mark, I am a relative newbie to e-book publishing. A question about book length: is there any difference in the best book lengths between fiction and non-fiction?

Dovetail Public Relations said...

Hi Pastor Tom, welcome to the brave new world! We didn't break out the difference between fiction and non-fiction, and it's fair to say our data is heavily skewed in favor of fiction. Regardless of our findings, I think you should write to the length that your book requires to maximize reader happiness with your knowledge or story, no less no more.

Richard Crasta said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for the info. A few questions:
--Do readers like or NOT like the inclusion of excerpts from the author's other books at the end of a book?
--Is the Library Price meant to be set higher than the normal price? What difference does it make? It appears to be just one or two sales in any case.
--Does the price aversion to prices above $4.99 include books for a small readership (literary books, semi-scholarly works)?

Richard Crasta said...

I noticed that $8.99 does better than $7.99 and even $6.99 does better than $7.99. How do you explain this?

Could it also be that there are fewer books published at 1.99, or did you look at the total volume of books offered at 1.99 and still conclude that the price is a black hole?

I know an author, Mark David Ledbetter, who sells a ton of his "America's Forgotten History" series at $1.50.


Unknown said...

My self published book is going to be released in Oct but this is not why I am writing. My question is the following. My book has a word count of 222.000. A large book but big story, which I could have elongated even further. I have full rights over my book but do I have full rights as to its pricing, as I am published by a large self publishing company?

John Brown said...


Thanks for sharing this data!!!!

Question. What is the standard deviation on the book lengths for the top 1,000 or 2,000 books? Or the range?

Averages can be tricky, and it might be that the range of what's successful is huge.

I'd really like to see the distribution over the length range. Can you shed some light on that?

Anonymous said...

I've asked myself why people absolutely love my book and it has a cult following, but my sales aren't reflecting that. I think it may be due to the low pricing and the disrespect I get from readers because of the low price, with comments like "Great for a FREE book." Or "Pretty good for a $1.99 book." I priced it free to gain readership, and this worked, but not enough. I've now changed all my prices to $3.99 and we'll see how that goes. I do admit, I am every scared. It feels like I'm embarking on a new journey. But, it's all in the name of research. I can handle a drop in sales just to see if it really works. And who knows? Maybe it really will work!

Stephen said...

Great info, thanks for sharing it. It gives me a lot to think over before publishing my first book.

Rosie Dean Musings said...

Great article.

Most of my sales are currently in the UK.

Are these prices directly comparable in the UK or would a currency conversion of $3.99 to, say, £2.45 be the sweet spot in UK?

Bad Horse said...

This is very useful info. But please make your right sidebar stop having spasms so I can read your posts without feeling ill.

Nanette said...

Has this data changed significantly in the last few years?