Friday, June 23, 2017

2017 Smashwords Survey Helps Authors Sell More eBooks

Welcome to the sixth annual Smashwords Survey!

Each year for the Smashwords Survey, I analyze ebook sales aggregated across the Smashwords distribution network.

We're looking to identify potential data driven insights that can help authors and publishers make their books more accessible, more desirable and more enjoyable to readers. 

The results are often just as much a surprise to me as they are to you.  When I drill down and analyze difference aspects of the data, I don’t know if I’ll find a lump of coal at end of the trail or a pot-of-gold.  This year I discovered a lot of gold.

As you review the findings, please maintain a healthy dose of skepticism. The data represents the aggregate experience of thousands of authors and millions of dollars in book sales, but your results may vary.  Your book is unique.

The factors that cause a reader to discover, sample, purchase or enjoy a book cannot be fully explained by data.  Nor can data yet determine why one story or writing style is preferable to another.  

For example, if you were to ask a reader why they purchased a given book, you might receive an answer like, “it looked interesting to me.”  But why did it look interesting?  In all likelihood, not even the reader fully understands the conscious and unconscious factors that caused them to click on one book instead of another.  Was it the color combination on the cover image, the price, the author name, the position of the sun, the day of the week, what they ate or was it a convoluted mysterious witch's brew of thousands of simultaneous factors?  I suspect the latter.

It’s also quite possible you glean insights from the data that I and others will miss completely.  If so, that's great.  My goal here, as it is with everything we do at Smashwords, is to create tools and share data that give you competitive advantage in the marketplace.  It up to you to put the tools and knowledge to work.

I first presented the Survey results last month at the RT Booklovers Convention in Atlanta, GA.  Below I have embedded an enhanced Slideshare Edition of the presentation which contains additional information that was conveyed verbally in the live presentation.

Each year I mix things up by examining new aspects of the data.  This year, in an industry-first, I share data on ebook preorder adoption rates among authors across different genres and categories.

And then I go a step further by exploring the percentage of that genre's sales for the Survey period that were accountable to the books released as preorders in that genre or category.  My mind was blown.  It was as if bright light suddenly illuminated a dark corner of the universe.

On the pricing front, I found signs that many indies who are selling well at $2.99 should probably experiment with higher prices.  In previous Surveys, $2.99 and $3.99 were the sweets spots.  It looks like it's time to add $4.99 to that mix.

There's much more I want to share with you.

Inside the 2017 Smashwords Survey

Here are some of the questions we seek to answer:
  • What are the top fiction and non-fiction categories?
  • What romance categories perform the best? 
  • How do box sets perform, and which types of box set perform the best?
  • Do authors who release ebooks as preorders sell more books overall?
  • How do preorder adoption rates differ across genres (New!!) 
  • What percentage of overall sales in each genre for new titles go to books released as preorders (New!)
  • What are the pricing sweet spots for full-length fiction to maximize both readership and author earnings?
  • Do longer books still sell better?
  • Does FREE still work, and what about free series starters?
  • Do series books sell better than standalone books, and if so, by how much?
And here you go, the Smashwords Survey!

Sharing is caring!  Above in the presentation pane you see this share link.  If you find the Smashwords Survey useful, please click it to share it with your friends on Facebook and Twitter, or embed the full presentation on your blog using Slideshare's neat embed feature.  

Additionally, please also this blog post on social media, the address of which is:

The sales data is aggregated from across the Smashwords distribution network of major retailer and library ebook providers for the period between March 2016 and February 2017, the same period as the 2016 Survey.  Smashwords distributes to multiple retailers and libraries.  The largest Smashwords retailer is iBooks, followed by Barnes & Noble, Kobo, the Smashwords Store, Scribd, Amazon and several smaller outlets including public library aggregators such as OverDrive.  Since we only distribute a small fraction of our titles to Amazon, the results may not fully reflect how books behave at Amazon.  Use your own judgement. 

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 ebook distribution, please consider consolidating your distribution with us.  We want your sales data, and we want to help you sell more books!  Click to learn how to publish with Smashwords and join over 130,000 authors and small publishers around the world who collectively publish over 450,000 titles with us.


Marie Seltenrych said...

Thanks so much, Mark. You have done a great job here. We need you as President! (Of Australia) ha ha. (or President of Authors)
I do notice that kid's literature is not a winner here. However, it gives a great overall snapshot of what is going on beyond our dashboards.
Romance and Box Sets seem to be the most loved out there.
Back to the drawing board!

We can never have too much data, so thanks for the great work you are doing and never seem to stop!

Marie :0

Sr2665 said...

Excellent job, Mark. Very interesting to see the analysis. This is useful to understand the status of affairs related to Indipublishing in the great service you provide us. Thanks for publishing it.- Shelton

Anonymous said...

Great job with the survey! Is there a download link? The Slideshare version is cutting off the bottom part of the slides.

Kevin Williams said...

and promotion is the key.
getting word-of-mouth started on your efforts is the best (and probably only)
way to make things happen.

any DMR insights?


Maddy said...

Thanks, Mark. Great start to my day.

Floyd, KK3Q said...

Only seeing gibberish in the box, used two different browsers (Firefox & Opera).

Kathleen Rowland said...

Thank you, Smashwords and Mark Coker, for your insightful data. Your hard work is much appreciated.

J Van Stry said...

I would love to see these numbers normalized for non-romance titles, so those of us who don't write romance can perhaps learn something from them. Several of the things pointed to here, I know from personal experience do not work in scifi or urban fantasy.
Romance is a very different field, because the readership is very different.
So would it be possible to see the results without romance (the admittedly big dog in publishing) skewing the results?

Because for non-romance writers like myself, this really isn't very useful.


Lisabet Sarai said...

Thanks for an excellent, in-detail analysis, Mark.

Obviously I need to write a series LOL.

Karen Sarte said...

Mark, why do the number of titles distributed by Smashwords (slide 16) not match the data published by Bowker?

For example, according to slide 16, in 2015 Smashwords added 51.6k new titles (388k - 336.4k = 51.6k). Bowker's table on page 6 says Smashwords added 97.2k new titles in 2015. At the bottom of page 6, they write "2014 and 2015 figures provided by Smashwords on 2/27/2016".

Roughly how many copies would a book have to sell to be in the top 200 books on Smashwords?

Thank you for your annual survey!

p.d.r. lindsay the author said...

I am hopeless at being efficient and gathering data so I thank you, Mark for doing this. It helps!

Dovetail Public Relations said...

Thanks, everyone. Glad you're enjoying this.

@Marie, thanks for those kind sentiments. Will you come be president of the US? We need help, desperately.

@ Rebecca, I’m hoping for the day children’s books can hit our bestsellers. These books face a few challenges, some practical and some technical, that make it a little more difficult. But not impossible. Most ebook sales are adult fiction, since adults buy most books and fiction is almost 100% narrative so it works well as reflowable books. Romance readers have higher book consumption since they’re prolific readers, so that gives them some advantage along with the other advantages mentioned in the Survey. I meet a lot of children’s authors who struggle to realize the vision of their print book as a digital version, especially when it’s a children’s book that’s image-heavy, large format dependent and has text embedded within the images (some books do best as print!). But that said, with some creative reimagining, most children’s books I see could be realized as reflowable ebooks with a small amount of work. And then I could see series and free series starters working really well for parents who’d want to read to their children, or who’d want to let their children try a new author for the children who are ready to read. But all these “ifs” conspire to create friction that ultimately disadvantages many children’s book author. If only all kids had credit cards!

@kayleighpatel – YES! If you click the little “in” icon in the lower right of the embedded frame of the slides above, that will take you to Slideshare where you’ll see a button you can click to download the presentation. It’ll try to get you to “clip” it but you’ll see an option to download it anyway.

@ Pat - sorry, maybe I’m being dense and don’t understand your question. What’s DMR?

@Floyd, if the slides look like gibberish… hmm… Maybe your best option is to download the full presentation (instuctions in my answer to Kayleigh above). Sorry about that.

@Karen, Re: bowker, that’s probably based on how they do their survey. For that 2015 Bowker study, I think they looked at the number of titles we released that year, regardless of whether those titles are still active. In our chart, we report at the net number of titles released which = (new titles added – titles removed + previously removed titles that returned). That number is also displayed real time 24X7 on our home page. We can thank KDP Select for a lot of that churn. Re: sales of #200, sorry, that’s one bit of data we don’t share. We share more data than anyone but not that.

Kevin Williams said...

digital rights management. any comment?

Personally, I'm hoping schools go ebooks. That get the tech in their hands; asking a teenager not to entertain themselves with it too will be the worst possible kind of wishful thinking.

there's a story on hacking around school-guidance, snooping, evesdropping, censorship
and hacked texts here. Betcha.

not really SF tho, is it?

kevin willliams

Dovetail Public Relations said...

@Pat/Kevin, we didn't look at DRM in the Survey. All our books are DRM-free.

Scott Wittenburg said...

Thanks for all of the useful info here! I've already learned a couple of things I could do to improve my sales and I am so thankful for all of the hard work you put into helping us get a read on what's happening in the industry. I am one very happy Smashwords author!

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for the eye-opening survey. It really gives a guideline that I can use in my work. Absolutely priceless!!!

Alan said...

any information on Non fiction? Or did I miss something in the survey other than non fiction is a small market?

Dovetail Public Relations said...

@Alan, I didn't dig deep into Nonfiction this year other than the top categories you see mentioned and the general percentages. A couple years ago we looked at price points for nonfiction (highest downloads, highest earning) and the big takeaway is that NF authors should not be pricing like fiction. The higher price points work better. Maybe I'll do more with NF next year. The challenge is that even with ~100 slides, there are still so many more questions I could have asked but not enough weeks in the year. I tried to focus on questions that would yield useful data for the greatest number of Smashwords authors and publishers, thus the fiction focus. Thanks for checking it out!

Alan said...

Mark...thanks for the reply. Any chance you could post the non fiction study again...or could you e mail it to me?
alan snedeker

Unknown said...

Thank you, Smashwords and Mark Coker, for your insightful data.

Anonymous said...

I was going to ask the same question as J Van Stry, but since someone else beat me to it, let me just say that many people would appreciate this info. Slide 32 indicates that Fantasy has 1/3 of the non-Romance sales, and adding in SF, which is often lumped in with Fantasy any way, brings SF/F up to more than 44%. It would be nice to show these categories some love in next year's survey! Please include Time Travel, which one of your slides lists as a separate category for some reason (It's Fantasy if the time travel doesn't have a plausible scientific explanation, and SF if it does.).

Unknown said...

Great work mr Mark i really enjoyed going through the survey. I got a lot of insights and challenges.I belong to the Christian category which is not reflecting very positively and I just feel I need to pull up my socks or should I say we have a long way to go as Christian writers to gain readership on these platforms. And if you allow me I have a pertinent preoccupation to present. as an African writer I see that the journey to international success is a very imposing one.firstly it is almost difficult to have an account on many of these platforms and secondly the payment system is a frustrating hustle. We are obliged to sell our books for free though i really appreciate your efforts at smashwords. If you could help sir.

Transcribe Interview said...

Great survey. Your hard work is much appreciated. Thanks for this report.

Kiwi said...

I read through this whole blog post. I am in the second volume of my series now. I'll make it around the recommended 110,000 words. I don't understand why romance is so popular though.

Robert Nagle said...

Responding to the podcast about 1.99 being the danger zone, I think the lack of 1.99 success is a remnant of the 70% threshhold for the 2.99 price on Amazon.

For the record, I have purchased 4 separate ebooks at the 1.99 price point on Amazon over the past two weeks!

On SW you can do 2.99 and use coupon codes too for buying direct from SW.

About pre-orders, I'm skeptical for unknown authors. Pre-orders are things which established authors do -- banking on a known brand or subgenre.

The ability to do pre-orders means that you have an established author or series and that you have a sensible marketing schedule. I doubt pre-orders are what is responsible. Maybe on Amazon it matters more because it increases the likelihood it will be in the bestselling list for that genre.

Unknown said...

I love your survey and I do base many marketing and writing choices on it. I am still trying to convince myself that free for the first in my series is better than 99 cents. I switched to 99 cents from 3.99 for the first in my series, and I'm seeing an improvement in sales. I did this because of last year's survey. I wasn't quite ready to go free.
You have data indicating that free gives more profits overall than not free. I won't argue that. However, I think for next year, it would be very interesting to compare free vs 99 cents for the first in a series. I am guessing the improvement by switching to free from 99 cents will be less dramatic than going from 3.99 to free, if indeed there is improvement, because by lumping all paid into the analysis, you might obliterate the possible fact that 99 cents is actually better than free, by burying it in with all pricing.
How about gathering that data next year? Thanks.
Maggie Percy

Dovetail Public Relations said...

Hi Robert. Since we're only distributing about 1/1000th of our titles to Amazon, Amazon's 35% royalty rate wouldn't be a factor for the poor performance of $1.99. All our retailers pay full agency for $1.99. Preorders can work for new authors too, if for no other reason that it means more months of shelf space and more effective advance marketing. And if the new author has other titles, they can leverage price promotions on the other titles (like limited time free) to drive readers to the preorder. Lots of fun stuff authors can do with preorders.

Hi Maggie. On Slide 87 there's a graph that compares earnings for series with different series starter prices. It indicates that on average, a series with a free SS will earn about 3X more than a series with SS price of $.99. But averages are dangerous so your results may vary. In the meantime, there's no harm in you trying a free series starter for a week or two or three to see if it makes a difference for you. If it works for you, great, and if not, no harm. Thanks.

PJSkinner said...

Hi Mark, This is great! I want to thank you for publishing this and helping us understand the market. I wonder if you have any data on the second in a series. Whilst I understand from your date that the best thing to do is to publish the first in a series for free, I would be very interested to know what price point works best for the second book in a series. What price will people who got a free book be willing to pay for the second? FYI I published on Smashwords a couple of years ago but took my books down when I realised it would make a series and have almost finished rewriting. When I get my new covers I will be back on again. Thanks for your hard work

Robert Nagle said...

Sorry to post on an earlier thread, but I wanted to respond to your response -- because it is so crucial!

When you sign up for Amazon's KDP, I'm pretty sure that Amazon requires that you guarantee that the price of your ebook on Amazon will be the lowest possible price on the market. If you're going to take advantage of the 70% royalties, you need your Amazon price to be 2.99 (and your SW price, etc), so it's only natural that Smashwords would mirror Amazon's pricing floor. Amazon isn't particularly good at verifying this (it depends on visitors reporting it), so I imagine authors could get away with pricing SW titles lower than they do on Amazon. Also, as you know, SW's coupon codes are a great way to circumvent this requirement.

Here's something which might interest you (and is related to my question on your reddit AMA from last month). I'm currently working on an ebook review site which reviews Smashwords titles in the hope of cultivating direct sales from in order to take advantage of SW's generous affiliate program. (It can also turn out to be a good promotional tool for SW authors). I'll let your company know when the site reaches late beta and when I'm ready to make SW authors aware of it..... (PS my email is idiotprogrammer AT gmail if you want to hear some more)

Robert Nagle said...

(Sorry, one more comment. I realize that your company is not focused on direct sales, but the SW website is terrific for letting you filter/sort/discover titles -- 100 times better than Amazon. I recently spent several hours trying to understand's kindle store portions of their website and conclude that it is dreadful about helping people to find interesting titles. (I'm mainly referring to their Bestseller lists and their Browse by subject, etc....) It sounds counter intuitive, but aside from user reviews, author central and "Also Boughts" on Amazon, it is almost always easier to discover interesting indie titles on SW than Amazon, not so easy on Amazon.

Dovetail Public Relations said...

@PJSkinner, we didn't analyze the most effective price points for the second book in the series, though based on the other findings related to pricing, I'd guess something between $2.99 and $4.99. But the most important factor here would be book one's ability to draw the reader in and earn the reader's trust, admiration and interest. We should assume that most readers who are downloading the free series starters don't yet known you, and therefore don't trust you. Your opportunity with book one is to earn and deserve their trust. Once you earn the reader's trust - once they view you as a superawesome author - then the price of the follow-on books are less relevant.

@Robert - Yes, I think Amazon's royalty treatment of $1.99 ebooks (35% list vs. 70% list for $2.99+ prices) reduces the number of people using $1.99. Though in our analysis, we normalized the data to understand the average unit sales and earnings at each price point. I suppose one take away is that if $1.99 decimates the average downloads and earnings for Smashwords authors who earn 60% list with $1.99 (vs. Amazon authors earning 35% list), then the negative impact for authors at Amazon is probably even more pronounced. One possible variable that I can't account for, however, is the possibility that Amazon might give $1.99 titles more visibility that other retailers. I don't know if they do or they don't, though since Amazon's takes 65% list on a $1.99 title as their commission vs. 30% list for other retailers, it's possible Amazon might have more economic incentive to make $1.99 titles more visible. But I really don't know. Great to hear you appreciate the discoverability and filtering tools in the Smashwords Store! One other difference between our small store and Amazon's massive store is that we don't give artificial visibility to certain Smashwords titles over others, whereas Amazon gives preference to Amazon-imprint titles and KDP exclusive titles. Good luck with your review site!