Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Sept Sales Recap And The Reality Of Forever

First of all, thank you to everyone who has purchased one of my books! I provide these sales figures publicly because bookselling is, after all, a business and there is no formal association (yet) for self-published authors to aggregate figures and analyze trends. Every sale matters and is very much appreciated. No sale is simply a ka-ching for me; I get a little tingle in my gut each time I see a sale because I know someone is going to be reading my work.

Still, I love charts and figures and trying to analyze the unanalyzable (which, surprisingly, the spell-checker tells me is actually a word).

In the forums and throughout the blogosphere, it’s clear September was a very divisive month. Observationally, it seems about half of the authors are reporting sales that are about half of normal. The other half are doing quite well. Quite anecdotally, it appears that books normally selling under 500 copies a month or so trended down while those normally selling over 500 per month trended up.

Amazon’s algorithms for determining what books to display to customers and in their lists remain a mystery. What can be determined through anecdotal evidence is that Amazon periodically adjusts these algorithms to favor different factors. The last adjustment apparently favors higher-sales books.

I’m not surprised. I do predict that the gap between low-sales and high-sales books will become wider and harder to breach. I also predict that whoever can put the most money behind their books will see more sales. I don’t believe for one minute that ebook sales at Amazon will (or even are right now) democratized and that every book has an equal chance of breaking out.

There will, of course, be outliers. There always are and always have been. But 99.9% of the folk who hook their strategy to that hope will be sorely disappointed. Even now, for all the bright new talent uploading their offerings there are a great number of disillusioned authors packing up their bags and calling it quits. For every utterance of “Ebook sales are forever,” there’s the raw fact that selling one book a month into forever won’t make anyone rich. Except Amazon, of course, who holds onto those royalties until they accrue enough to finally be paid out.

Let’s take a look at that model for a moment. If we assume Amazon has just 1 million ebooks in its store (it has more), we can pretty well determine through the rank/sales ratio that ¾ million+ of those books sell 0-5 copies per month. (Hmm. There’s an adage called the 80/20 rule that says 80% of business is driven by 20% of the business’ customers. Maybe it works for suppliers too.) To make things simple, let’s just say that the average royalty revenue for those ¾ million books is a rock-bottom $1/month. That’s $750,000 a month or $9 million a year that Amazon is safekeeping and making interest on. Sure, some of that money will eventually be paid out in royalties, but a lot of books will never earn enough for that to happen. Most of those books will be abandoned with Amazon. The only forever money those books will be earning will be for Amazon.

I’m not trying to be a naysayer or a pessimist here. All I’m trying to do is offer a counter-balance to the hype being generated around self-publishing right now. Look at the facts: Over ¾ of the books on Amazon right now sell fewer than 5 books a month. And I’m being generous. It’s probably a greater percentage selling even fewer than 5 per month. That’s the “forever” reality.

Can you do as well self-publishing as through traditional publishers? Of course. And you can fall just as flat too. One YA book I’ve been following published in March by Delacorte (Random House) has sold, on Amazon, a total of 53 ebooks. There were 3 ebook sales in July, 4 in Aug, and 1 in Sept. It’s sold 140 hardcovers (8 in July, 10 in Aug and 2 in Sept). It has 22 reviews with a 4.5-star average.

An MG book published in May by Dial (15 reviews, 4.8 stars) and whose author has 10,000+ Twitter followers, 5800 blog followers and 4700 FB fans has sold 213 hardback copies (35 in July, 22 in Aug, and 13 in Sept). It’s sold 45 ebooks (16 in July, 3 in Aug, and 4 in Sept). Presumably the paper versions are being bought in bookstores and ordered for libraries.

Still, there are self-pubbed authors selling over 1000 copies of a single ebook per month. Even selling over 10,000 or 20,000 copies per month. But just as you can’t predict for certain whether a traditionally published book will be a breakout bestseller, you can’t predict what indie book will be either. Could it be yours? Absolutely, if you have a decently edited book in a popular genre. Will it be yours? Odds are against you, even if you have a decently edited book in a popular genre. There are midlist indies just as there are midlisters in the traditional world.

That said, my Sept stats for Spoil of War:

29 - Amazon US
5 - Amazon UK
0 - B&N
1 - Smashwords

35 - Total

It now has 7 4- and 5-star reviews compared to 6 1-stars on Amazon. (One 4-star review this past month came from a reader responding to the low-raters and discounting some of the claims they were making. I appreciated that because, while I’m not going to argue with those reviews or the reviewers there, much of what they’re saying about the content simply isn’t what’s in the book.) Do I think the reviews are hurting sales? That was my first thought, and I lowered the price to 99c on Oct 1 to see if more people would pick it up. But then I saw the trends of other authors who saw their sales halved as well, so I can’t be sure. I’ll leave Spoil at 99c through the month and re-evaluate on Nov 1.

SECTOR C launched on Sept 1. It did better the first half of the month, then faltered toward the end of the month despite having a sponsored post on the Red Adept review site, a FB ad targeted to folk who “liked” the Contagion movie page, and a mention of the Cheap E-reads FB page. It does now have some lovely reviews on and off the Amazon page, with at least a couple more reviewers having put it in their queue. I’m confident this book will gain traction. I think it was just caught up in the same algorithms as other books in September.

This month I should have an advertising spot on Red Adept reviews for a week, and I’m giving away a number of free copies on LibraryThing in exchange for reviews. My understanding is that about 10% of the recipients follow through. I’ll keep you posted so those interested can make a considered judgment about whether to offer there as well.

Depending on how you measure success – number of copies sold or amount of money made – SECTOR C either did better or worse in its launch month than Spoil did. Spoil sold 68 copies in its launch month for a total of $23.80. SECTOR C sold a total of 37 copies with about $67.30 in royalties. Personally I would prefer more readers over more money.

24 - Amazon US
2- Amazon UK
10 - B&N
1 - Smashwords

37 - Total

I’ve been busy mowing pastures and bagging hay (mainly weeds and only good for bedding at this point because of the summer drought), so I haven’t put together the aggregated totals of books sold from the Kindle Boards forum yet as I’ve done the past couple of months. I’ll post those figures out in the next day or two.

In the meantime, go forth and query! Or self-pub! Just don’t do nothing. That’s the surest way to disappointment.


Red Tash said...

It'll be interesting to see how Amazon tweaks things in the future to meet the needs of its kdp authors, most definitely.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Always interesting to read your stats and your thoughts on the process. Still holding self-pubbing as an option on my back burner. Trouble is I'm mostly writing middle grade and I don't think that's as represented digital-only as adult books.

Jo-Ann said...

Hi Phoenix
Thanks for sharing the sales figures, and well done on the sales of both your e-books.

I think I know about the MG book you're referring to. I was taken aback when I first read the sales figures you quoted. It seems to be a contradiction that an author with such a fabulous on-line profile would be selling as slowly as he appears to be. Thinking it through, I guess it's because he developed his profile through his work as an agent, and his blog is one of the go-to sources for children's pubbing info for us wannbe kids' writers.

However, these followers are not his intended audience. I really don't know what he's been doing to get kids excited about his series. To be honest, I dont think that kids (around here at least) will really "get" the humor of the character's name (sounding both like 90's brand of women's underwear and a wonderful German word). I haven't ordered a copy of the book for my kidlets, and it seems that few of his followers have either.

Which goes to show that the transition from agent to writer may not be a smooth one. But, as you say, it's better than not doing anythign.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

@Red: Very true! Amazon is, IMO, far from done with its tweaking.

@Sarah: Back-burnering MG is good right now, but maybe be ready to move fast when things change. A lot of anecdotal evidence is telling us kids are asking for their own ereaders or to borrow their parents'. I'm thinking as soon as Amazon has a kids' store that parents can program in access to for kids to browse and sample on the Kindle Fire, MG titles will take off. Is that a year out? 3 years? 5?

Phoenix Sullivan said...

@Jo-Ann: Yes, NB was doing most of his promoting to his adult base. Speculation only, but it seems he and his publisher hoped to capitalize on folk buying the book to pay him back for the info he's shared on his blog and hoping, too, his adult fan base with kids would buy. From comments here and there, a few people did just that. BUT no more, it seems, than would have done it had he been handselling off his own site. I'd LOVE to know actual counts and success rate...

One of his big publicity events was signing at a SF/F con, which again isn't his audience. It seems to be a lesson learned, which wouldn't have been learned if it hadn't been tried. Maybe they'll do things differently with the second book in the series.

Still, you would think that even if he's promoting in kids' forums and schools, parents still hold the buying power and that folk would be purchasing more hardbacks (since it IS heavily illustrated as I understand) from Amazon online.

Jo-Ann said...

So where did you get the figures you quoted in your post (relating to that MG novel?)

Phoenix Sullivan said...

@Jo: I got the Amazon figures from novelrank.com, which tracks sales rankings using direct feeds from Amazon. It only tracks books that are added manually to its database, but once a book is added ANYONE can see its rank by the hour/day/week/month/year.

It takes changes in ranks and makes guesses to translate those rank changes into number of copies sold. Its algorithms do start to fall apart once about 35 copies have been sold in one month, but the number of copies sold it guestimates is still accurate to within about 10% up until about 80 copies are sold in a month.

There's further explanation and some screen captures of its charts at:

It's a great tool especially for following short-term promotions of other books to see how well promo spots are working.

It's also quite addictive if you're nosy ;o)