What Makes An Ebook Sell?

19 May

What makes books sell? This is a question which interests all associated with writing and publishing them, but it’s something that you can rarely get a good handle on. This is because many publishers and distributors keep this sort of information a tightly-guarded secret. However, this isn’t true of all of them and a couple of weeks ago, Smashwords (on of the largest distributors of ebooks) published some very interesting results from a survey based on sales of ebooks they publish or distribute.

In total, they analysed data from 120,000 books sold between the 1st of May 2012 and the 31st of March 2013 (representing more than $12 million in sales). This included books sold through a range of outlets including Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and Amazon, and represent both self-published books and books from small independent presses. The results provide some really useful insights into the ebook market and how to get the most from it, and they are a must read for anyone thinking of self-publishing an ebook (even if they’re not going to use Smashwords).

The first thing they found was the book sales follow a power law. This means that while most books only sell a few copies, some will become absolute superstars and sell loads. This differences can be quite dramatic. For example, the number one best seller on any given day may sell four times as many as the 10th best seller, and 37 times more than the 500th best seller. This is probably not too surprising, but it does show that sales of ebook follow a very similar pattern to traditional paper books.

What’s a bit more surprising is that longer books tend to sell more copies. For example, the average length for the 100 best sellers is a substantial 115,274 words. In contrast, the books that were 250 – 500 on the best seller list only averaged 77,467. By the time you get to the 100,000th to 105,000 best seller this is all the way down at 32,533. The message here is clear; readers like longer books. This is presumably because people are looking for value for money but is has an interesting implication for would-be authors: don’t break a full length book up into a series of several shorter parts as this will potentially damage your sales. Similarly, your time would be better spent on writing one full length novel than several shorter novellas because people like longer ebooks better.

Another surprise was that readers like shorter book titles. The average length of title for the 100 best sellers was 4.2 words, but for the 1000th to 2000th best sellers it was 5.7, and 6.0 for the 100,000th to 101,000th best seller. I’m not too sure why this would be. It could be that shorter titles are more memorable (and so easier to spread by word of mouth), or maybe it’s because it’s easier to make a short title stand out on the cover design, or it could even be that would-be readers think that short titles mean snappier writing in general. Whatever the reason, it’s an interesting observation and suggests that when you have a choice a shorter title is better than a long one.

When it comes to pricing, most ebooks are priced between free to $2.99, and fewer people are pricing ebooks greater than $5.00 than they used to. This is probably not too surprising, readers are likely to prefer ebooks which are substantially cheaper than paper books. However, when you look at the sales at different prices things get more interesting. The price that generates the most sales is between $3.00 and $3.99, followed by those priced between $2.00 and $2.99, and then books priced at $0.99. Oddly, though, books priced between $1.00 and $1.99 only sold about half as many as ones at these higher and lower prices. Again, it’s unclear why this would be. Maybe readers think that $0.99 is worth a gamble to try a book from an unknown author, while the sales of books at the higher prices are ones they’ve been recommended or read reviews for and so are willing to pay more (because it’s less of a gamble).

If this is true, it suggests there’s two quite different and distinct markets out there for ebooks and that books selling at these two price bands represent purchases by different buying audiences. The readers buying books at $0.99 may be ‘early-adopters’ out to discover the next big thing before anyone else (but without gambling too much money on each purchase). In contrast, those buying at $2.00 to $3.99 are readers who won’t take a risk on a complete unknown entity, but are willing to spend more when they follow recommendations from others (such as the early-adopters) to make a purchase. If this is the case, this is a really useful insight into the mentality of the book-buying public and it’s one that can help authors target these different audiences.

There’s one last point which I’m sure most writers will find interesting. This is that when it comes to making money, while $2.99 is the most common list price (which is set by the seller), $3.99 is the price which provided the greatest yield. This is because while they may make fewer sales, the generate a higher total income.

Smashwords is providing a great service by making this information available and it provides a great insight into how readers are buying ebooks. However, authors also need to be careful how they use this information. Remember, a lot of these numbers are averages, and we don’t know the shape of the curve around these averages (for that we’d need information on standard deviations as well as averages). This means you shouldn’t go away and cram an extra 20,000 unneeded words in just to bump up your word count to the average for the best-selling books; this will just destroy your narrative rather than bump up your sales. You also don’t need to go ditching your title just because it’s a bit on the long side. Rather, try to pull on the generalities: on average, people like longer books and shorter titles so bear that in mind when your deciding how to present your work for sale.

Similarly, when thinking of a price, $0.99 may sell more books, but $3.99 will potentially make you more money. This means you might have to adapt your price depending on whether you’re aiming to make an income you can live on (where you’d want to go higher) or generate a fan-base through sales by capturing those early-adopters who are willing to take a risk, but only if the price is right (in which case, you’d want to go lower). However, it seems that it’s better to follow one strategy or other, and that a compromise between the two will cause your book to fall into the in the ‘valley’ that lies between these two points (it’s too costly for early-adopters on whose recommendations those buying higher priced ebooks depend when making a purchasing decision).

If you want to read the full survey (along with some pretty graphs), you can find it on the Smashwords blog at http://blog.smashwords.com/2013/05/new-smashwords-survey-helps-authors.html?spref=tw


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

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4 Responses to “What Makes An Ebook Sell?”

  1. Jennifer Writings of a Mrs 19/05/2013 at 18:24 #

    Thank you. This was very helpful. I’ve been thinking of publishing a book of my poetry. And I have been working on a book so this is very valuable information.
    Thanks again,
    Jennifer

    • cmdrysdale 19/05/2013 at 18:55 #

      Glad to be able to help out. Poetry might follow slightly different rules to prose (which is my own area), but I think a lot of the same principles should apply. Good luck with your book project, and with your poetry in general.

  2. Jack Flacco 21/05/2013 at 15:15 #

    Great read, Colin. I’ve always wondered about the statistics with pricing. Never was really sure why an author would choose .99 or 2.99 for that matter. Now I understand perfectly. The whole idea of quantity vs. profit is something that fascinates me. Go for the sales or go for the profit? In every advertising junket I’ve read, sales, sales and more sales is the mantra for anyone wanting to be a success. Even if its a loss leader. I’d rather subscribe to quality rather than quantity, but who am I to give such an opinion?

    • cmdrysdale 21/05/2013 at 15:30 #

      Glad you found this article useful. I found the survey results really interesting. It would be really facinating to be able to see similar figures from Amazon/Kindle Direct Publishing, but I doubt they’d make them freely available.

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