2016 Smashwords Survey Reveals Insight into the Habits of Bestselling Authors

Key Findings for 2016 Survey

We looked at actual retail sales over the 12 month period between March 2015 through February 2016.  Here are the key findings:

  1. Fiction dominates – 89.5% of our sales were fiction titles.  Despite fiction’s dominance, a number of non-fiction titles were among our top performers of the year.
  2. Bestsellers have a greater social media presence – It’s not a huge surprise, but better-selling authors are much more likely to have a social media presence in the form of author web sites, blogs and Facebook and Twitter presence.
  3. Romance dominates – Romance continues to dominate sales for Smashwords authors and publishers.  Romance accounted for 50% of our sales during the survey period.  Writers in other genres and categories can gain much inspiration from romance writers.  Romance writers are typically ahead of the curve when it comes to adopting new best practices, and certainly this is underscored by their early adoption of series writing, free series starters and preorder usage.
  4. New adult romance had the highest average earnings per romance title, but that’s only part of the story – For the first time ever we looked at the relative performance of different subcategories of romance.  While New Adult, YA and contemporary had the highest average earnings per title within romance, when we examined median performance we found that subcategories of Sci-fi romance, fantasy and erotic romance earned the highest median yields per title.  If folks find this analysis useful, maybe I’ll do similar analyses of other popular genres.
  5. Box set benefits – We found that although most box sets under-perform the sales of other titles, they appear to provide authors other worthwhile indirect benefits.  In fact, measuring box set success by sales performance alone is probably the wrong metric of success.  Only four of our top 100 bestselling titles at Smashwords were box sets, but a closer look at the top performers should give authors insight into potential opportunity.  The top performing box set during the Survey period was from multi-New York Times bestseller Kristen Ashley, whose box set, The ‘Burg Series, performed well.  It was priced at $17.95 and sports 1.2 million words.  The other top-100 performer was R.L. Mathewson’s Honeymoon from Hell Box Set priced at $4.99 which bundled six short novellas with a combined word count of 140,000.  The other two top-performing box sets were limited-time charity box sets organized by Brenda Novak and her annual diabetes fundraising drive.There are typically three reasons authors do box sets:  1.  Single-author value-priced bundles, such as bundle of a full series.  The goal here is to drive sales while giving readers an incentive to commit to a full series or collection of books as opposed to buying books one at a time.  2.  Multi-author box sets.  Here, multiple authors collaborate to cross-promote other authors to their respective fan bases.  The best-performing multi-author bundles are usually FREE or priced at $.99, and the objective is to build author awareness among new readers and drive readers into their new favorite authors’ books as opposed to earning direct profits from the box set.  3.  Charity box sets – These are often value-priced.
  6. Free remains a powerful catalyst to drive discovery – Each year, we analyze the effectiveness of free ebooks at generating readership.  To keep the numbers apples to apples, we gather the data each year from the same retailer – Apple iBooks, and then compare average downloads per title for free books against the average purchases per title of paid books.  This year, the multiplier was 41X, the same result we found in last year’s Survey.  This means that on average, free books get about 41 times more downloads than books at any price.  To learn how to make free work for you, read my recent article at Publishers Weekly, The Power of Free: How to Sell More Books.
  7. Pricing sweet spots – For the last few years, $3.99 was the sweet spot for most indie fiction ebooks.  It was the price that maximized both unit downloads and earnings.  For the 2016 Survey, $2.99 barely edged out $3.99 for the greatest average unit downloads.  However, we observed some shifting on the earnings front.  $3.99 retained the mantle for the average price that generates the highest earnings, and $4.99 came in as the second best price, beating out $2.99.  I think this speaks to a growing number of professional indie authors finding success migrating to slightly higher prices.  In general, most indie authors of full length fiction are probably best served at $3.99 to maximize earnings and unit sales.  You’ll also see that some strong performing non-fiction titles skewed the earnings data for the higher price ranges.
  8. Box set pricing – For the first time ever, we took a look at how box sets perform at different price points for both unit sales and earnings.  The data was a surprise!  For unit sales, $.99 blew away the other price points.  But for the price point that earned authors the most earnings, $9.99 won out.  Please remember this data is based on averages and your book may not conform to the average.
  9. Longer books still sell better – For the fifth year in a row, we found strong evidence that on average, readers prefer longer books.  Our top 100 bestsellers averaged 112,000 words, and our top 1,000 bestselling books averaged over 103,000 words.  Note that four of the top 100 bestsellers were box sets, and three of those four had high word counts.
  10. Preorder adoption increases – 13.5% of new books released at Smashwords during the Survey period were born as preorders, up from 9.8% in the prior one-year survey period.  This means over 85% of authors are still simply uploading their books the day of release. It also means that as an author or publisher looking for an advantage, I’m handing you preorders on a silver platter.  Five years from now when everyone is doing preorders, you won’t enjoy the same advantage you do now.  Based on our data, the authors and publishers that are forgoing preorders are squandering sales opportunities.  Why the low adoption?  I’ll hazard two guesses:  1.  I think most authors still don’t understand how to leverage preorders to maximum benefit.  2. Contributing to the confusion, many authors who’ve tried preorders at Amazon have found them counter-productive because a preorder at Amazon will cannibalize the book’s first-day sales rank.  I spoke with two authors this week who let their Amazon preorder experience sour their view toward preorders at other retailers.  This is a mistake.  A preorder at iBooks and Kobo (two of the three largest retailers served by Smashwords) allows accumulated orders to credit toward the first sales sales rank.  iBooks is the king of preorders.  See the next item…
  11. Books born as preorders earn more money – Median earnings for books born as preorders were 2.8 times higher than books simply uploaded the day of release, while average earnings were an even greater multiple.  This speaks not just to the power of preorders, but it also speaks to the smarts of our bestselling authors, many of whom have now been doing preorders with Smashwords for up to three years. Every preorder gains you incremental benefit in terms of expanded readership, and over the course of years this incremental benefit compounds upon itself like a great investment.  This is because the more readers you gain, the easier it becomes to gain even more readers because fans breed more fans through word of mouth.Seven of our top 10 bestselling titles were born as a preorder, as were 55 of our top 100 bestsellers.  The strong presence of books-born-as-preorders in our bestseller lists is especially significant considering that only a small minority of books (13.5%) originated as preorders.  If you’re not releasing preorders with Smashwords, you’re missing out!  Last June we announced assetless (metadata-only) preorders, which allow you to list your preorder up to 12 months in advance, even before the book is finished and before you have a cover.  As I’ve been advising now for almost three years, the longer your preorder runway, the more opportunity you have to benefit from preorders.  Check out my preorder strategy article I wrote for Publishers Weekly to learn tips on how to integrate preorders into your next book releases.  Or visit the Ebook Preorder Information page at Smashwords.
  12. Series books outsell standalones – We dug deeper than ever this year to examine how series books perform.  Among the top 100 bestselling series with and without free series starters, the series with free series starters continue to earn more sales than series without free series starters.  We also found that in general, series books significantly outsell standalones.  When we compared the average sales of the top 1,000 bestselling series books against the sales of the top 1,000 standalones, the series books had 195% higher earnings and their median earnings increase was an impressive 127%.  As a caveat, keep in mind that our series data is heavily skewed by the popularity of series romance.  However, I think the same factors that drive romance readers to love series apply to the readers of genre fiction readers in other categories.  Even non-fiction authors can take some inspiration here.  Readers love series!  There’s more in the Survey.  And if you’re already a series authors at Smashwords, make sure all your series books are linked up in your Dashboard’s Series Manager screen.  Series Manager increases the discoverability of your series books at our retailers.

Additional background on the Survey

As I caution each year, please remember your book is unique.  Your book and your readers may not conform to the aggregated norm.

It’s simply impossible to use any form of quantitative or qualitative analysis to get inside the minds of readers to understand the multivariate factors that influence their decision to ignore one book but devour another.  Readers are probably not even fully conscious of what motivates them.  But this impossibility shouldn’t stop you – and it won’t stop us – from searching for the bread crumbs that lead to useful insights.

If you’ve followed the Survey in prior years, you know the Survey is based upon verified sales data, aggregated from across the Smashwords Distribution Network.  This means we included sales data from Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, the Smashwords Store, Scribd, Oyster (now closed), OverDrive and others.

Since we distribute only about 300 books to Amazon, it also includes a small amount of data from Amazon.  I’d encourage you to consider our data more representative of the book-buying behavior at retailers other than Amazon.

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Published by

David Alexian

David Alexian has always had a passion for writing. From an early age, he has loved keeping journals; sometimes in note books but other times on little scraps of paper he could find when his diary was not close by. Over the years, he has explored writing psychological thrillers, suspense and fantasy stories. His mind and heart is fed by his love for creating excitement for his readers. He loves to play with the perceptions of human realities; the challenges and triumph of the human spirit. David is the first son to two Caribbean parents, with the influence of European and African heritage. He is married to a supportive and caring wife. At present, David holds a Masters of Arts degree in Psychology and works with children who have experienced trauma, abuse or mental disturbances. As he writes, he experiences the freedom that comes with knowing his readers are excited, happy and satisfied.

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