As in prior surveys (view the 2013 Smashwords Survey here and 2012 Smashwords Survey here), we examined aggregated retail and library sales data of Smashwords books and then crunched the numbers based on various quantifiable characteristics of the book.
For this year's survey, we examined over $25 million in customer purchases aggregated across Smashwords retailers including Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, the Smashwords.com store, Sony (now closed), Diesel (closed), Oyster, Scribd, Kobo, public libraries and others.
This year, we break new ground with more data, including survey questions that explore preorders and series, two categories of inquiry that weren't possible in prior years. These latter two categories were enabled by Smashwords' introduction of ebook preorder distribution in July, 2013 and our new Smashwords Series Manager feature which allows us to capture, analyze and share the performance of series books.
The goal of the survey is to identify Viral Catalysts. I first introduced the concept of Viral Catalyst in 2012 with the publication of my free ebook best practices book, The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success. A Viral Catalyst is anything that makes a book more discoverable and more enjoyable to readers.
The underlying premise of my Viral Catalyst concept is that Viral Catalysts help drive reader word of mouth because they increase reader satisfaction. Although every author would love to learn the single secret fast track magic bullet to bestsellerdom, there is no such single secret. Ebook bestsellers become bestsellers based on multiple Viral Catalyst factors starting with book quality but also influenced by cover design, breath of distribution, pricing, marketing, luck and myriad other factors. In the Smashwords Survey, we seek to identify potential Viral Catalysts that are quantifiable and therefore measurable.
The initial survey results were first revealed at the RT Booklovers convention in New Orleans on May 14, 2014. The updated Slideshare edition of this presentation includes more data, charts and analysis than was presented in New Orleans.
Key findings in this year's survey:
The ebook sales power curve is extremely steep - This isn't a surprise, but for the first time we share some numbers along the curve (see the slides in the Series section). A few titles sell fabulously well and most sell poorly. An incremental increase is sales rank is usually matched by an exponential increase is sales. Despite the steep sales curve, a lot of Smashwords authors are earning good income from their books. Your opportunity as a Smashwords author or publisher is to do those things that give you an incremental advantage so you can climb in sales rank.
Readers prefer longer ebooks - We observed this in the prior surveys. Longer books sell better, and when you view the data through the prism of the power curve, it becomes clear why longer books give authors such a huge sales advantage.
Pricing - The highest earning indie authors are utilizing lower average prices than the authors who earn less, but this doesn't mean that ultra-low prices such as $.99 are the path to riches. $2.99 and $3.99 are the sweet spots for most of the bestsellers.
FREE still works great, but it's losing some mojo - Free remains one of the most powerful book marketing tools because it makes it easier for readers to take a risk on an author brand that is unknown or untrusted. Free ebooks, according to our data derived from iBooks downloads, generated 39 times more downloads on average during our survey period than books at any price. Yet the effectiveness of free is down dramatically compared to our 2013 (91X) and 2012 (100X) survey results. While there is still much untapped greenfield opportunity for indies to leverage free, I expect the effectiveness of free will continue to decline as more authors learn to take advantage of it. If you've never utilized free, now's the time to do so before your window of maximum opportunity closes further.
Preorders yield sales advantage - When we launched preorders in 2013, we knew anecdotally from our early alpha tests that preorders gave authors a sales advantage. The 2014 Survey is the first time we're able to share aggregated results, and the results are strongly suggestive that ebooks borne as preorders sell more copies and earn the author more money than books that don't utilized preorders. I think preorders today are where free was five years ago. The first authors to effectively utilize preorders will gain the most advantage, just as the first authors to enter new distribution channels gain the most advantage. Five years from now once all indies recognize that preorders are a no-brainer essential best practice, the effectiveness of preorders will decline. Also revealed in the data is the fact that most Smashwords authors (and therefore, most indies) ARE NOT utilizing preorders yet despite our aggressive promotion of this exciting new tool. The authors who heeded our advice, however, are reaping the rewards.
Series yield sales advantage - For the first time, we examine the performance of series books. This new analysis is enabled by the fact that in September we launched Smashwords Series Manager which allows us to capture enhanced metadata on series. The results are interesting! Series books outsell standalone books. We also look at the characteristics of series. I'll want to do more with series in our 2015 survey.
Best-performing series have longer books - Not a surprise, but the implications are significant. If you imagine the power curve overlaid on the series data we share, you see why authors who write full-length books in their series have an advantage over authors who break books into smaller chunks. Also interesting, we found series books under 50,000 words are especially disadvantaged. This is not to say that you can't become a bestseller writing shorter novellas. Multiple Smashwords authors have had success here. But what the data does tell me is that successful novella writers might achieve even greater success if they write full-length. The data appears to suggest that series books under 50,000 words might create friction that makes readers incrementally less willing to buy.
FREE series starters pack a punch - This is a big deal. I suspected this for a long time based on numerous authors' results going back to Brian S. Pratt who was one of the first Smashwords authors to prove the effectiveness of free series starters, but the aggregated numbers now confirm it. We found strong evidence that series that have free series starters earn more money for authors than series that do not have free series starters. For the many Smashwords authors who are reluctant to experiment with free for fear it'll devalue your books, now you've got the kick in the butt you need to give it a try. All Smashwords retailers support free without restriction.
New (added July 7) Non-fiction earns more at higher prices - For the first time we added new data for non-fiction pricing. We looked at the most common price points for indie non-fiction, the price points that earn the most downloads, and the price points that earn the non-fiction author the most money. The results are fascinating. It's not a surprise that non-fiction readers respond differently to price. The surprise is how differently. Non-fiction buyers are less price-sensitive. After crunching the numbers it appears as if most non-fiction authors are under-pricing their works, and they should experiment with higher prices.
How to Interpret the Findings
For many of the slides, I added analysis to help you interpret the findings. This analysis is my own interpretation. You may view the findings differently, or see things I don't see. Or you may strongly disagree with my interpretation. That's okay.
Be cautious. Most of the survey results are based on averages. Your book is not average. It's unique. Therefore, your results will vary. The findings aggregate the results of many dissimilar books, which means the findings are prone to misinterpretation and error. The findings are also potentially skewed by factors such as genre (romance dominates, which means our data will more closely describe potential outcomes for romance or genre fiction than it will for non-fiction how-to manuals), or by the fact book sales at retailers are heavily skewed to fiction.
As I caution on Slide 25, cause and effect is not always provable. The forces that determine a book's sales performance are often multi-dimensional, synergistic, opaque, delayed or simply not apparent. Correlation does not always mean causation. For example, although we show that the highest-earning books were priced at $3.99, the price alone is not the reason those books were bestsellers, and you should not necessarily jump to change all your prices to $3.99. Although the bestselling books tend to be over 100,000 words, readers don't purchase by length alone, so don't write longer if the story doesn't demand it.
Consider our findings as possible inputs that influence the outcome. Do not make publishing decisions solely based on the findings in this survey. Instead, use these findings as an additional datapoint - as potential clues - that will help you make more informed decisions. Also note the findings will raise additional questions. As I was digging through the data for preorders, for example, I found myself wanting to dive deeper to explore such questions as, do sales decay over time, how do new releases impact the sales of existing series books, and how is the sales behavior across different genres different? Although this survey shares more data than ever before, I found that the more questions I asked, the more I wanted to ask. There simply wasn't time to build all the queries I wanted, or time to crunch and analyze all the numbers.
I look forward to sharing more in 2015 if not earlier.
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