2015 Smashwords Survey Key Findings

smashwordsMark Coker has released findings that may help you sell more books. Let’s jump straight to the highlights, but you can also read the entire Smashwords blog post. These are Mark’s words below.

Key Findings of the 2015 Smashwords Survey

1.  Wow, preorders.  For the first time we analyzed the percentage of books born as preorders (as opposed to simply uploaded the day of release) and compared the sales of preorder-birthed books to non-preorder books.  During the survey period, less than 10 percent of books were born as a preorder, even though this feature has been available to Smashwords authors since mid 2013.  Yet despite the low usage, two thirds of our top 200 bestselling titles were born as preorders.   That’s right folks.  That small tiny minority of preorder books accounted for the majority of our bestsellers.   On a median basis, ebook born as preorders earned the authors 3 1/2 times more income than books that were simply uploaded the day of release.  The average was even more stunning.  The survey contains a full page of caveats about these numbers and why I think they’re exaggerated so I hope you take the time to read that.  The bottom line, however, is that about 90% of indies are failing to take full advantage of this amazing tool.  If you don’t have your next 12 months of planned releases listed as preorders today, then you’re leaving readers and money on the table.  I’ll go a step further:  Preorders are such an essential best practice that it’s simply dumb not to take the time to learn how to use them to your advantage.  I make it easy to learn because I’ve written multiple article on preorder best practices.  Learn more about our new Assetless Preorder feature here,  access the Smashwords preorder page here (includes links to my blog posts on preorders) or check out my NEW article I wrote last month on ebook preorder strategy for Publishers Weekly.

2.  Series with free series starters earn more money.  For the first time we analyzed the difference in sales between series with free series and starters and series without free series starters.  We looked at our 200 bestselling series with a free series starter and our 200 bestselling series without free series starters.  Then we added up the numbers and compared them.  First we looked at the average.  The free series starter group earned 66% more.  Impressive.  And then, assuming that maybe a few big sellers were skewing the average, we looked at the median.  The median is the midpoint if you arrange the sales results from highest to lowest.  Often in big data sets, the median can give you a more typical result.  The result?  Exactly the same!  The median title in the free series starter group earned 66% more.  This is the strongest quantifiable evidence that I’m aware of to date that proves what many of our authors already know by personal experience over the last several years.  If you write series and you haven’t yet experimented with perma-free series starters, then give it a try!

Best Tips to Publish with Smashwords

3.  Free still works to build readership.  For each survey year, we’ve looked at how free ebook downloads compare to paid downloads using iBooks as our apples to apples comparison each year (bad pun, sorry!).  In the 2014 Survey, we found that free books got 39 times more downloads than priced books, down dramatically from 91x in 2013 and 100X in 2012.   I expected the power of free to fall further this year, given that this secret – which I’ve been advocating for nearly eight years – helps authors earn more money.  The result for 2014?  41x.  The effectiveness of free increased despite the glut of free books.  I think a couple things are going on here.  First, I think more and more readers are using free as their primary discovery path to try new, unknown-to-them authors, especially with free series starters.  Second, iBooks, more than any other retailer, provides amazing merchandising support for free books and free series starters.  Third, it’s a multi-step path to build a loyal readership of superfans who will buy everything you write.  Superfans are your evangelists.  They trust everything you write to be super-awesome.  You earn them one by one, word by word.  If you reverse engineer the trust building process, it starts with discovery which leads to a reader trying you for the first time, and then your book must earn the reader’s continued attention from word one forward.  A free book allows a reader to try you risk free, and if you’re offering them a great full length book, that’s a lot of hours the reader has spent with your words in which you’re earning and deserving their continued readership.  Free works!

4.  Longer books sell better than shorter books.  This finding is consistent with each of the prior year’s surveys, though as I mention in the presentation, this year’s finding comes with a lot more caveats.  In a nutshell, I suspect the rise of multi-author box sets, often at deep discount prices, is probably throwing off the data this year, and as I discuss in the presentation, some of the dynamics will cause it to understate impact of longer books and some will cause it to overstate it.

5.  $3.99 remains the sweet spot for full length indie fiction.  For the third year in a row, authors sold more units and earned more overall income with books priced at $3.99.  This is significant because it counters the concern of some authors that the glut of high-quality will lead to ever lower prices.  For great authors, readers are still willing to pay.  The pricing, earnings and unit sales data we share has been remarkably consistent now for four years, expecially when you consider how this translates to a competitive advantage for indie ebook authors compared to traditionally published ebook authors.  Indies still have the ability to price lower, net more per sale and reach more readers thanks to the lower pricing.  But traditional publishers are now making greater use of lower pricing, so this advantage will diminish in the years to come (more on that in my 2016 predictions to come).

6.  99 cents is still good for building readership, but not as good as $2.99 and $3.99.  And from an earnings perspective, 99 cents underperforms the average of all other prices by about 65%.

7.  Avoid $1.99.   For the fourth year in a row, $1.99 was a black hole in terms of overall earnings.  On a unit sales basis, although $1.99 books outperformed all books priced $5.00 and above, it dramatically underperformed on overall earnings, earning 73% less than the average of all other price points.  If you write full length fiction and you have books priced at $1.99, trying increasing the price to $2.99 or $3.99, and if your book performs as the aggregate does, you’ll probably sell more units.  Or if it’s short and $2.99+ is too high, try 99 cents instead because the data suggests you’ll earn more and reach about 65% more readers.  I’m not entirely certain why this is the case.  It’s not because our retailers pay lower levels for sub-$2.99 books.  They don’t.  Our retailers pay the same for $1.99 as they do for $9.99.  There’s something about the price point that readers don’t like.  Who knows, maybe readers see 99 cents as an enticing promotional price, $2.99 and up as a fair price, and $1.99 as the price for lesser quality books that couldn’t make the $2.99 grade.  Your theory is as good as mine.

8.  Bestselling authors and social media.  Bestselling authors are more likely to have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, and more likely to have a blog.  Not a huge surprise, though it’s worth noting there are plenty of successful authors who have minimal presence on social media.

9.  Top 10 Fiction categories during the one year period:  1.  Romance.  2.  Erotica.  3.  YA and teen fiction.  4.  Fantasy.  5.  Mystery & detective.   6.  Gay and lesbian fiction.  7.  Science fiction.  8.  Historical.  9.  Thriller & suspense.   10.  Adventure.

10.  Top 10 Non-fiction categories during the one year period:  1. Biography.  2.  Health, wellbeing and medicine.  3.  Business & economics.  4.  Self-improvement.  5. Religion & spirituality.  6.  Relationships and family.  7.  Sports and outdoor recreation.   8.  Education and study guides.  9.  New age.  10.  Computers & Internet.

Share any thoughts in the comments section.

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