Sunday, April 17, 2016

2016 Smashwords Survey Reveals Insight into the Habits of Bestselling Authors

Welcome to the fifth annual 2016 Smashwords Survey!

This is hot off the presses.  Last Thursday I revealed the Survey results at the RT Booklovers Convention in Las Vegas.

My goal with the Survey is to help Smashwords authors and publishers identify opportunities to reach more readers.

The Smashwords Survey takes a data-driven approach to identify potential best practices that can give you an incremental advantage.

The Survey also helps us identify habits of the most successful authors.

As smart indies understand, there's no single magic bullet to bestsellerdom.  The secret to selling more books is to adopt dozens of best practices while avoiding fatal mistakes that can undermine your success.

We can't use data to determine the quality of a book's writing or the brilliance of a cover image.  However, the quantitative metrics we examine do provide indirect indications of such quality, as well as myriad other indirect clues that help authors view publishing in a completely new light.

Each year I add a few new goodies while maintaining most of the prior categories of analysis.  This year, thanks to new enhanced metadata capabilities we introduced in recent years, we take a closer than ever look at preorders, box sets and series. 

The full presentation is embedded below. 

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Key findings are summarized below the presentation.


Key Findings for 2016 Survey

We looked at actual retail sales over the 12 month period between March 2015 through February 2016.  Here are the key findings:

  1. Fiction dominates - 89.5% of our sales were fiction titles.  Despite fiction's dominance, a number of non-fiction titles were among our top performers of the year. 
  2. Bestsellers have a greater social media presence - It's not a huge surprise, but better-selling authors are much more likely to have a social media presence in the form of author web sites, blogs and Facebook and Twitter presence.
  3. Romance dominates - Romance continues to dominate sales for Smashwords authors and publishers.  Romance accounted for 50% of our sales during the survey period.  Writers in other genres and categories can gain much inspiration from romance writers.  Romance writers are typically ahead of the curve when it comes to adopting new best practices, and certainly this is underscored by their early adoption of series writing, free series starters and preorder usage.
  4. New adult romance had the highest average earnings per romance title, but that's only part of the story - For the first time ever we looked at the relative performance of different subcategories of romance.  While New Adult, YA and contemporary had the highest average earnings per title within romance, when we examined median performance we found that subcategories of Sci-fi romance, fantasy and erotic romance earned the highest median yields per title.  If folks find this analysis useful, maybe I'll do similar analyses of other popular genres.
  5. Box set benefits - We found that although most box sets under-perform the sales of other titles, they appear to provide authors other worthwhile indirect benefits.  In fact, measuring box set success by sales performance alone is probably the wrong metric of success.  Only four of our top 100 bestselling titles at Smashwords were box sets, but a closer look at the top performers should give authors insight into potential opportunity.  The top performing box set during the Survey period was from multi-New York Times bestseller Kristen Ashley, whose box set, The 'Burg Series, performed well.  It was priced at $17.95 and sports 1.2 million words.  The other top-100 performer was R.L. Mathewson's Honeymoon from Hell Box Set priced at $4.99 which bundled six short novellas with a combined word count of 140,000.  The other two top-performing box sets were limited-time charity box sets organized by Brenda Novak and her annual diabetes fundraising drive.  

    There are typically three reasons authors do box sets:  1.  Single-author value-priced bundles, such as bundle of a full series.  The goal here is to drive sales while giving readers an incentive to commit to a full series or collection of books as opposed to buying books one at a time.  2.  Multi-author box sets.  Here, multiple authors collaborate to cross-promote other authors to their respective fan bases.  The best-performing multi-author bundles are usually FREE or priced at $.99, and the objective is to build author awareness among new readers and drive readers into their new favorite authors' books as opposed to earning direct profits from the box set.  3.  Charity box sets - These are often value-priced.
  6. Free remains a powerful catalyst to drive discovery - Each year, we analyze the effectiveness of free ebooks at generating readership.  To keep the numbers apples to apples, we gather the data each year from the same retailer - Apple iBooks, and then compare average downloads per title for free books against the average purchases per title of paid books.  This year, the multiplier was 41X, the same result we found in last year's Survey.  This means that on average, free books get about 41 times more downloads than books at any price.  To learn how to make free work for you, read my recent article at Publishers Weekly, The Power of Free: How to Sell More Books.
  7. Pricing sweet spots - For the last few years, $3.99 was the sweet spot for most indie fiction ebooks.  It was the price that maximized both unit downloads and earnings.  For the 2016 Survey, $2.99 barely edged out $3.99 for the greatest average unit downloads.  However, we observed some shifting on the earnings front.  $3.99 retained the mantle for the average price that generates the highest earnings, and $4.99 came in as the second best price, beating out $2.99.  I think this speaks to a growing number of professional indie authors finding success migrating to slightly higher prices.  In general, most indie authors of full length fiction are probably best served at $3.99 to maximize earnings and unit sales.  You'll also see that some strong performing non-fiction titles skewed the earnings data for the higher price ranges.
  8. Box set pricing - For the first time ever, we took a look at how box sets perform at different price points for both unit sales and earnings.  The data was a surprise!  For unit sales, $.99 blew away the other price points.  But for the price point that earned authors the most earnings, $9.99 won out.  Please remember this data is based on averages and your book may not conform to the average.
  9. Longer books still sell better - For the fifth year in a row, we found strong evidence that on average, readers prefer longer books.  Our top 100 bestsellers averaged 112,000 words, and our top 1,000 bestselling books averaged over 103,000 words.  Note that four of the top 100 bestsellers were box sets, and three of those four had high word counts.
  10. Preorder adoption increases - 13.5% of new books released at Smashwords during the Survey period were born as preorders, up from 9.8% in the prior one-year survey period.  This means over 85% of authors are still simply uploading their books the day of release. It also means that as an author or publisher looking for an advantage, I'm handing you preorders on a silver platter.  Five years from now when everyone is doing preorders, you won't enjoy the same advantage you do now.  Based on our data, the authors and publishers that are forgoing preorders are squandering sales opportunities.  Why the low adoption?  I'll hazard two guesses:  1.  I think most authors still don't understand how to leverage preorders to maximum benefit.  2. Contributing to the confusion, many authors who've tried preorders at Amazon have found them counter-productive because a preorder at Amazon will cannibalize the book's first-day sales rank.  I spoke with two authors this week who let their Amazon preorder experience sour their view toward preorders at other retailers.  This is a mistake.  A preorder at iBooks and Kobo (two of the three largest retailers served by Smashwords) allows accumulated orders to credit toward the first sales sales rank.  iBooks is the king of preorders.  See the next item...
  11. Books born as preorders earn more money - Median earnings for books born as preorders were 2.8 times higher than books simply uploaded the day of release, while average earnings were an even greater multiple.  This speaks not just to the power of preorders, but it also speaks to the smarts of our bestselling authors, many of whom have now been doing preorders with Smashwords for up to three years. Every preorder gains you incremental benefit in terms of expanded readership, and over the course of years this incremental benefit compounds upon itself like a great investment.  This is because the more readers you gain, the easier it becomes to gain even more readers because fans breed more fans through word of mouth.

    Seven of our top 10 bestselling titles were born as a preorder, as were 55 of our top 100 bestsellers.  The strong presence of books-born-as-preorders in our bestseller lists is especially significant considering that only a small minority of books (13.5%) originated as preorders.  If you're not releasing preorders with Smashwords, you're missing out!  Last June we announced assetless (metadata-only) preorders, which allow you to list your preorder up to 12 months in advance, even before the book is finished and before you have a cover.  As I've been advising now for almost three years, the longer your preorder runway, the more opportunity you have to benefit from preorders.  Check out my preorder strategy article I wrote for Publishers Weekly to learn tips on how to integrate preorders into your next book releases.  Or visit the Ebook Preorder Information page at Smashwords.
  12. Series books outsell standalones - We dug deeper than ever this year to examine how series books perform.  Among the top 100 bestselling series with and without free series starters, the series with free series starters continue to earn more sales than series without free series starters.  We also found that in general, series books significantly outsell standalones.  When we compared the average sales of the top 1,000 bestselling series books against the sales of the top 1,000 standalones, the series books had 195% higher earnings and their median earnings increase was an impressive 127%.  As a caveat, keep in mind that our series data is heavily skewed by the popularity of series romance.  However, I think the same factors that drive romance readers to love series apply to the readers of genre fiction readers in other categories.  Even non-fiction authors can take some inspiration here.  Readers love series!  There's more in the Survey.  And if you're already a series authors at Smashwords, make sure all your series books are linked up in your Dashboard's Series Manager screen.  Series Manager increases the discoverability of your series books at our retailers.

Additional background on the Survey

As I caution each year, please remember your book is unique.  Your book and your readers may not conform to the aggregated norm. 

It's simply impossible to use any form of quantitative or qualitative analysis to get inside the minds of readers to understand the multivariate factors that influence their decision to ignore one book but devour another.  Readers are probably not even fully conscious of what motivates them.  But this impossibility shouldn't stop you - and it won't stop us - from searching for the bread crumbs that lead to useful insights.

If you've followed the Survey in prior years, you know the Survey is based upon verified sales data, aggregated from across the Smashwords Distribution Network.  This means we included sales data from Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, the Smashwords Store, Scribd, Oyster (now closed), OverDrive and others.

Since we distribute only about 300 books to Amazon, it also includes a small amount of data from Amazon.  I'd encourage you to consider our data more representative of the book-buying behavior at retailers other than Amazon.

For followers of the Smashwords Survey who wish to dig deeper, it's fun to view the results of 2016 within the larger context of our prior surveys.  View our prior surveys here: Smashwords Survey 2015 | Smashwords Survey 2014 | Smashwords Survey 2013 | Smashwords Survey 2012). 

Support Future Surveys!

If you distribute with Smashwords, thank you!  You are directly contributing not only to our data, but also to our ability to continue bringing you this data. If you don't use Smashwords for distribution, please consider consolidating your distribution with us.  We want your sales data, and we want to help you sell more books.

Thank you Smashwords authors and publishers!  Until next year...


  1. This is awesome, Mark. Pleasant surprise to hear that fiction is selling so well. Reading a novel can feel like a luxury that many readers don't have time for, but it sounds like the numbers don't back up that assumption. I know that writing them is a heck of a lot more time-consuming than writing non-fiction!

  2. Thanks for the information Mark. Can you tell us what amount of sales for a title indicates a top seller?

  3. @Jason, yeah, I think ebooks were tailor made for fiction and narrative non-fiction.
    @Dawn, it depends. If you're talking a bestselling title or author on an annual basis, the top ones are in healthy six figures. But in any given month, like with the bestseller list we supply to Publishers Weekly each month, the bar is much lower in the five figures. So a strong release, like one you're certainly capable of based on your track record, could make our monthly bestseller lists. :)

  4. romance?

    (sigh) sf romantic comedy. maybe? we deserve a cat, too.

    3.99, eh? And generate as much chatter as you can.


    kevin williams (teddyhunter series)

  5. Any thoughts on why nonfiction performs so poorly? Do you think it's a market not well served by indie authors, or one that's waiting to be tapped? There seems to be no scarcity of cheap Wikipedia ripoff articles and blog posts masquerading as nonfiction titles, so perhaps readers are more wary of investing in information products. Or perhaps it's just that they can do the internet research for themselves so easily these days. Any data on the breakdown for fiction vs nonfiction titles published via Smashwords to put the sales percentages into perspective?

  6. While a lot of people download free books, I've seen no proof that leads to increases in profits or even increases in sales. I know people who download everything that is free, and who have so much free stuff, that they will never read it all.

    I have also not seen any positive results to free giveaways myself in the last three years. Nor have I seen anyone else who has kept records see a worthwhile increase (one or two percent is not worthwhile). In order for a free giveaway of an entire book to be worthwhile, you need to see an increase in sales, over what you're already selling, to cover the cost of the book you're now giving away. Otherwise you are just losing money.

    I have done 99 cent sales and seen a good response, in that sales of later books in the series increased as well. Whether or not a permanent change to 99 cents for the first book in a series will lead to an increase in income, I don't know, and won't for a few more months (as I am experimenting now on a book that has already sold over 10K copies at 2.99).

    Yes, I know a lot of people like to point at free and say 'look at all the downloads', but a million items given away for free still net you zero cents. It's the follow up sales that count. At 99 cents, at least you're still making something, and as I've always said: People do not value that which they get for free.

  7. Mark, I would love to see more elaboration on: "The secret to selling more books is to adopt dozens of best practices while avoiding fatal mistakes that can undermine your success." I'd love to see more information about what the fatal mistakes are. On another topic, I'm glad to see that having a strong social media presence is important. I've always believed that and it's great to see your research back that up. Thanks, Mark, for your stellar information on pricing, boxed sets, and the characteristics of a bestselling author. Like Jason, I'm glad to see that fiction is gaining ground. Although I write nonfiction, I love to read novels.

  8. R. Scott, I wouldn't conclude that this is a sign that NF sells poorly. We do have quite a few NF titles that sell quite well and regularly hit our bestseller lists. A few factors here: 1. The overall trade book market (books typically bought by consumers in bookstores) has always been dominated by fiction. 2. Fiction dominates our catalog by title count. Roughly 25% of our catalog by title count is NF, whereas fiction is about 75%. 3. Reflowable narrative sells best in ebooks, which means some percentage of the NF titles are disadvantaged. 4. Genre fiction writers have been ahead of the curve adopting a lot of best practices like preorders, series and free series starters. 5. I think a lot of quality NF authors are underpricing their works to mirror the sweet spot prices for fiction. This is a mistake. Readers of quality NF actually respond better to higher price points based on our past surveys (see 2014 survey more more there). Bottom line, we love NF at Smashwords and would love to see a lot more! And on the plus side, there's an opportunity for a lot of NF authors do create more sophisticated navigation in their books, especially for books that have a lot of end notes or chapters.

    J Van Stry, one of the great benefits of our data is that we're able to look at the collective aggregated experience of over 100,000 authors and publishers. Our data shows quite conclusively that free does help drive improved earnings, especially for series authors. And beyond our conclusive evidence, I've personally observed a number of times (hundreds?) that I've personally met and encouraged a skeptical author friend to make his or her series starter free, and then that author goes on to sell more books and or hit the bestseller lists. But as I caution in the presentation deck and in the post above, every author's book is unique and their book and their readers may not respond in the same fashion. In the Publishers Weekly column above, I've got some tips to make it work. Beyond that, for best results, authors should experiment with perma-free series starters. That freebie needs to hook the reader from the beginning and then hold their attention to the end. That's easier said than done because a lot of free downloaders will click the delete button if the writing doesn't grab them immediately, and doesn't hold them. At the end of the freebie, the backmatter should list all your other books. Also remember that the goal of free is make it easier for a reader to take a chance on you, and once they take a chance your writing needs to earn their trust and admiration. It's not easy because readers are overwhelmed with so much great choice.

  9. Hi Francis, if you haven't read my free ebook, The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success, it might give you some ideas. One way to look at best practices (like much in life!) is to remember that an author's implementation of a best practices falls somewhere along a spectrum from super awesome on one end to super-awful on the other. One doesn't need to look hard to find books where the author thinks their cover is great but it isn't. Or they think their book is great but readers are disagreeing by giving it a lot of two and three star reviews. Maybe I should do a blog post on the top 10 most fatal mistakes I see. Here are a few: 1. Poor covers. A great cover image makes an aspirational and emotional promise to the reader. Holds true for fiction as well as nonfiction. Homemade covers often look amateur. Great indie covers look professional. 2. Poor editing. Editing makes awesome writing more awesome. 3. Short shortsightedness. A lot of authors look for shortcuts rather than viewing their publishing as a long term business. I see authors who fail to sell well out of the gate and then give up. 4. Only writing one book. The more books you write, the better the writer you become. The smarter businessperson you become. The more likely you are to sell well. 5. Related to #2 and #4, not honoring the craft. Always work to become a better writer! Quality writing trumps everything else. A great book is your best marketing. The goal is turn that first reader into more readers through word of mouth and honest reviews. 6. Cycling in and out of KDP Select. A lot of writers think there's no harm to put a small portion of their list into KDP-S, only to discover that sales of their fully distributed books decline. This is because those few missing books create unnecessary friction for new fans at the other retailers. Amazon is expert at offering its customers friction-free experiences, but they're also genius in understanding that KDP-S creates toxic friction for their competitors. 7. Irrational fear of piracy. Piracy sucks, but some authors allow piracy or fear of piracy to reach irrational levels to the point that it paralyzes their publishing. I think authors who trust that the vast majority of their readers are trustworthy and honest will do better over the long haul. 8. Focusing on the negative. Authorship is tough. It's really easy to allow that one negative trollish reader to overpower the love of 1,000 other readers. I don't know that I know a single author who hasn't struggled with this from time time time. Grow a thick skin.

  10. Mark,

    What are the demographics on the stories that saw an increase due to a free first book? What genre were they selling in, and what sex/age were the target audience?
    Because from my own personal experience, I'm just not seeing it.

    I have used your information in the past, on quite a few other things and have had success with it, so I'd love to see the raw data on this particular tactic and get a better understanding of where and how it applies.

    Last year I sold 26K copies (as in got paid for, I don't do freebies anymore), this year I want to sell more. I've used 2.99 as my 'loss leader' and am experimenting with .99 right now. And so far my data is telling me that 2.99 is the better price.

    So, I'm suspecting that the genre and customer demographic probably play a huge role in this sales tactic.

  11. Thanks for the reply and clarification Mark. All good points. And knowing the 75/25 split helps to correlate the relative value of 90/10 returns. Fiction just had a particularly good year for SW authors it seems.

    Regarding #3 I presume you are referring to fixed layout NF titles being disadvantaged. But that also applies to fiction fixed format titles as well, meaning all comics and graphic novels, and the vast majority of children's books. In addition to which, the majority of NF titles I've bought have been reflowable. So your comment here doesn't hold up overall, although your point is taken.

    I do agree that NF authors don't tend to take advantage of pre-orders or free series starters in the same way as fiction authors do. For the latter the obvious reason is that it is much less often an option. In fact, the free "series" NF I've come across tend to be content mill products with little or no continuity between titles, and not worth buying.

    I also agree that good NF is often under-priced, probably due to false downward pressure from the previously-mentioned content mill garbage. Good NF is worth its weight in gold in most cases, as it generally solves an immediate problem or provides information that would otherwise cost much time and effort to acquire.

    Thanks again for all your good work, and sharing all this useful data.

  12. Thank you for this, Mark! I couldn't make it to your RT presentation because I was programmed at the same time (argh). I would've liked to pick your brain in real time but this is an excellent recap for those of us who couldn't be in the room! *goes off to set up another pre-order immediately*

  13. thanks, Mark,
    these surveys are very interesting--I also have seen romance generate interest, although, as a guy, I'm a bit lost on whether women read love stories written by men, or if men read romance at all. I am hesitant to list a rom com book as romance, since I am unsure of the results. I don't even know if it is a good idea to list any fiction book as humor, since that genre doesn't seem to succeed. I agree that there is some new interest in S.F. romance.
    I'll add this note from my desert like sales experience at amazon--very few fiction titles sold, while non-fiction generates interest. What's up with that?
    I am struggling to write another mystery. How is this genre doing?
    thanks again,

  14. Thanks for this Mark! Definitely find the sub genre data on romance helpful and wouldn't mind seeing similar breakdowns for others--since you asked. Thanks for all you do to help authors succeed.

  15. always enjoyed your blog posts Mark.

    this is a late reply but i have a question?

    for non fiction writers, which priced EARNED the most?
    i recall in your previous posts, it was $5.99 or $9.99 for NON FCTION books.


  16. BJ, we didn't look at that specifically, but it was probably closer to $9.99. Keep in mind that results will vary from book to book and author to author. Today, our bestselling NFs are closer to $9.99, but that's as much a factor of what bestselling NF authors/publishers are pricing at as well as what readers will pay. I think the key takeaway is that for NF books that providing knowledge and solutions to problems/challenges, readers will pay more than what they expect to pay for pure entertainment.