My Thoughts on the Smashwords 2015 Survey

In case anyone doesn’t know, once a year, Mark Coker does a survey to track sales across their distribution channels to see what common things the bestselling self-published books have in common.

Here’s the link if you want to view the slideshow

I wanted to import the slideshow into this post, but my tech know-how isn’t all that wonderful.  So I opted to link to it for reference.

I thought some of the findings were worth discussing on this blog.  If anyone wants to add their thoughts in the comments below, please do.  There might be something I missed.

Observation #1: Authors who sell more books tend to be active online.

social media pic for writing post
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This isn’t 100% true for all commercially successful authors, but overall, being involved online helps to sell your books.  When I say being active, I don’t mean these authors are going around posting tweets and Facebook updates with “Here’s my book and where you can buy it” all the time.  Those authors usually don’t sell well.

Having an online presence means you’re making it easy for people to find you and your books.  A website and/or blog is a great way to showcase your work.  I like to think of them as “home”.  It’s where you can put your books up and talk about them.  Now, what you choose to blog about can vary, but I do suggest having your books featured on pages within your blog, if you have one.

As for places like Twitter, Facebook, and Google +, the big thing is to be social.  Hang out.  Engage with others.  Be conversational.  You can have a link to your website/blog on your profile.  If someone takes an interest in something you say, they’re probably going to check your profile.  So make sure you build up those profile pages.  My advice is to let the profile pages do your marketing for you.  But when you’re engaging with people on these sites, don’t be there to sell your books.  (Now, I do recommend letting people know when the book is first put up on pre-order, if you have a cover reveal, or when it’s released, but keep the marketing to a minimum.  At least 80% should be social engagement that has nothing to do with your books.)

Observation #2: For fiction, price points $2.99, and $3.99 seem to be the best, with $3.99 having a slight more advantage.

pricing strategy
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The $0.99 price point moves books, and I think it can be used for promotions and even as a loss leader to introduce people to your work.  But I do think if you are looking for profit, your best price points are in the $2.99-$3.99 range.

I suspect the sweet spot for pricing also varies with the genre you’re writing in fiction.  I mainly write romance.  I’ve heard romance readers watch their spending because they can go through a book or two a day.  I’ve also heard other genres (such as thrillers and science fiction) have readers who are more likely to pay a higher price for books than romance readers are.  These were not discussed in this Smashwords survey.  These are things I gathered from talking with other authors over the years.  So for me, I keep my books priced low ($0.99 or $2.99), though some romance authors do better at higher prices.

What seems to be clear from this survey and the one from 2014 is $1.99 is a horrible price for a book.  I would stay clear from that price point based on the findings.

Nonfiction can sell higher than fiction.  What the ideal price point for that is, I don’t know.

Observation #3: Pre-orders can help you sell more books.

preorder plan for writing post
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In the survey, it seems a book that starts out as a pre-order will do 3.5 times better than a book that wasn’t.  Do authors who have a larger platform with a larger readership have a bigger advantage over those that don’t?  Of course.  But that is going to be normal even if there was no pre-order.

I love pre-orders, but I don’t see massive pre-orders on my books flooding in.  I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that.  You can increase your chances of hitting a bestselling list in your category at iBooks or Kobo the longer you have your book available as a pre-order.  iBooks and Kobo will accumulate the pre-orders, so when your book is released, you get credited for all those pre-orders as if you sold that many copies on that day.  I love that feature.  Amazon doesn’t do that, and I don’t think Barnes & Noble does either.

My thinking is, if you can give yourself an advantage, even if it’s a small one, why not take it?  Pre-orders are easy to do, and they help save time on release date since the book is already uploaded.  I wrote a post on ideas on promoting a pre-order.  (As always, if you can think of anything else to add, please do.  One person in the comments suggested a special promotional price during the pre-order period, which I thought was a good idea.  I might have to use that one in the future.)

Observation #4: Series where the first book is free sell 66% better than series where the first book has a price tag on it.

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This one surprised me the most.  The 66% trend was higher than I expected.  I have heard authors say putting the first book at free has helped sell the rest of the books in their series.  But I also know authors who have had their first book at free and didn’t see an increase in sales for the other books in the series.  I have priced the first book of every series I have at free.  Some series do better than others.  Overall, I have noticed the series does do better if the first book is free, even if it’s not a huge jump in sales.

I just listened to a podcast at The Creative Penn, and Dan Wood from Draft2Digital recommends using this strategy, too.  He found authors who do this sell 3 times as much as authors who don’t.  (As a side note, he recommends assetless pre-orders, too, which I just talked about above.)

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Those are the takeaways I got from the Smashwords 2015 survey.  Does anyone have any other ones or have anything to add?  There might have been something I missed.

16 Comments

  1. I saw that on Smashwords. One disadvantage I have when it comes to the first in the series free book is that I mostly write stand alones. Also, I can’t get Amazon to make my books free. The Beast in the Mirror is free everywhere but Amazon, and I’ve had people click the thing where it says you found it at a lower price, but they’ve never lowered it to free.

    1. I agree. For people who don’t write series, this is a disadvantage. I don’t know how to work around that. I don’t think every author should do a series, just like I don’t think all authors should write full-length novels. It all depends on your interest and your strengths.

      That’s a tough one at Amazon. I’m one of the people who reported that book free. I don’t know why they won’t price match it. 😦

  2. Ron Fritsch says:

    Thank you for your observations on the Smashwords survey, Ruth. I’m glad to see you said a “website and/or blog” is great for an online presence. I love creating websites for my books, but I know a blog would consume far too much of the time this perfectionist has available for writing. Some authors appear to believe they can’t claim to be authors without a blog. I’m also put off by authors I hear from only when they’re promoting their books. I fear my readers would be just as disenchanted with me if I did that to them. My social engagement rule is more like 99% than 80%.

    1. I don’t think a blog is for everyone. I love blogging, but I haven’t seen a correlation between that and book sales. I see blogging more of a way to interact and get to know people. Most of the time, my posts help me stay organized and focused on what I’m doing. 🙂

      I think the 99% thing is way better. I just know some authors need to feel they’re doing some promoting so settled for 80%, but really, if you’re contributing to what others are saying and are the kind of person someone wants to hang out with, I see no reason why people wouldn’t click on your profile to see what you’ve written.

  3. I’m not a fan of pre-orders, though I agree with everything else.

    I find that, even as an author, I’m so annoyed by constant Buy My Book messages, I tend to not buy the books that are constantly shoved in my face. I’ve seen some pretty amateurish attempts to generate sales–everything from Facebook posts almost begging for sales to authors who play the pity card–asking for sales to pay hospital bills, etc.

    1. Pre-orders aren’t for everyone. It’s like the survey showed long books (such as 90K for romance) sells better. I rarely write 90K books. It’s not me. I think we should do the things that best match our personalities and writing styles. That’s why I’m not a big proponent of the “one-size-fits-all” approach. 🙂

      Ewe on the begging for sales and using the hospital thing to get sales. That leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’ve seen those, too, and it turns me off. I also hate the “Buy my Book” posts. I don’t know why these people don’t understand what they’re doing is defeating the purpose of being on social media. Who wants someone to come up to them and try to sell them something? I can think of a couple authors off the top of my head on my “Do Not Buy List” because of their posts for this reason.

  4. Excellent advice! I just joined Smashwords, and had a number of these questions on my mind.

    1. Thank you! If you have any questions about Smashwords, feel free to ask. I’ve been using them since 2009. 🙂

  5. M T McGuire says:

    I am just doing my first ‘proper’ well … my first less shonky than the other ones book launch. I’ve set that book up for pre-order so I’ll have to see how it does and let you know.

    Wtih you on free that does seem to work still. I’ve a sci-fi/fantasy/adventure/action/clean romance series out and having the first book definitely helps me get more sales there – I also bribe them to sign up for my mailing list with a free download of the second book. I’m not sure how long I will keep it free for because Amazon is making it harder and harder to get a free book visible outside Select. I’m leaving it that way for now to try and get some traction on other sites.

    I think the stats on preorders may be slightly skewed by the simple fact that the more organised authors with bigger followings might be the ones who use them most. However, I also think that the kinds of authors who have sorted their books out for preorder are probably a lot more organised, anyway… and therefore more productive, and better generally, at marketing… so it may be indicative of which authors have ‘got it together’ better rather than down to any actual advantage… oh dear, not got my articulate hat on today but does that make sense?

    Cheers

    MTM

    1. It makes perfect sense to me. You brought up some excellent points I hadn’t considered.

      I do agree Amazon is making it harder for authors who aren’t in Select to get their free books noticed. It makes sense when you look at KU, and books in KU being “free” to the subscribers. I suspect they’re going to make it increasingly harder to get noticed if we’re not in Select. I’m really hoping things like having an email list can help buffer this, but I know it can’t completely make up for it.

      I was looking at preorder from one angle, figuring preorders cause better sales. But, what if it’s the personality traits of commercially successful authors that make preorders effective? That’s a very intriguing observation.

      1. M T McGuire says:

        Yeh, I think the killer is being really proactive and writing loads of books but I do think with a good email list that a tortoise like myself has a lot better chance of earning a living. So far a few people have unsubscribed over the launch and I suspect more will but most of them are family or friends who were on the original list.

        I think both angles on preorders have merit! But yeh, I just noticed in myself really that this is the first time I’ve come close to getting my shit together for a launch and the first time I’ve used preorders. 😉

        1. Sorry I’m getting to this so late. I did read your comment earlier, but with Christmas coming and the kids getting all excited, I put my inbox on hold. Today, I’m cleaning it up. 🙂

          I get people unsubscribing to my email list with every one I send out, and I only send them out when I have a new release. So I guess this is pretty common. I didn’t expect it to happen, but it’s nice to know I’m not the only one.

          I keep hearing email lists are golden. I only have 379 subscribers, so I don’t have the numbers others do. I didn’t start it until a year ago. I was late in getting on the ball with it.

          I’ve been late on a lot of things, including getting my butt in gear on pre-orders. I had done a couple, but I wasn’t promoting them like I should have. So I hear you on getting your stuff together to make things happen. 🙂 It’s too easy to let things slide, and I would always rather be writing.

          1. M T McGuire says:

            Too right! And I’m glad I’m not the only one whose writerly stuff grinds to a halt over Christmas. 😉

  6. Hi Ruth! Thank you for the info / summary of the SW article, much apppreciated! I’ll probably take on board some of things you mentioned, such as making the first in the I AM I series ‘free’ … along with as long a period i can for a pre-order. The AscensionForYou books are all non-fiction without crime, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll … so the market range / percentage of audience is minimal to start with, and hence ned every positive angle i can get! Thanks for all the SPAL mambers for all the advice and support you give to eveyone, God bless and happy Holidays to all! Peace – Dave / AFY

    1. Thanks, Dave! There are small niches that make it harder to get noticed. I’m fortunate in that I happen to write for a popular market. Mark Coker said the pre-order thing worked to help all authors across the board, which is why I got excited about talking about them on this blog. I hope this tool will help you. I also hope setting your first book at free in conjunction with the pre-order will give it a boost.

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