Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Smashwords' Data on What Makes eBooks Sell

I have to thank Jeff Hargett for posting this link in his weekly Sunday Surfing over on his blog Strands of Pattern.  He always has some great links in his Sunday Surfing posts, definitely worth checking out if you aren’t already a reader of his awesome blog.

I think it has already been established that I am a huge nerd.  I love data, real data with charts and graphs that I can mull over, so I can decide for myself and not have to rely on other people’s interpretations. 

The whole publishing world is a little frustrating to learn about because there is so little hard data out there.  We have to rely so much on hearsay and experts feeding us their interpretations without showing us the data that lead to those conclusions.   So I’m over-joyed that Mark Coker from Smashwords shared their actual data with us, along with his very insightful interpretation.  Link here for all the details.

Here are a few things that I found interesting. 

1.  The self-publishing model is really like the traditional model where there are a few superstars but most don’t really sell that well.  I wish this wasn’t true.  I like the dream of all writers being able to find their audiences.  Where once you get rid of the gatekeepers, everyone can find success, but that annoying logical side of me never could believe the dream.   So here is the evidence.

From Smashwords blog
So this graph plots sales rank for individual titles (x-axis) versus the dollars sold (y-axis), but only shows the top 500 ranked books.  I really wish that he had shown all the books not just the top 500, and then just blown up this portion.  I would really like to know how many books are out there on Smashwords (I’m guessing hundreds of thousands to a million-ish range, but that is just a guess), and if the sell ranks continue a slow decline or if there are other big jumps (steep slopes), but this information is helpful (ETA: thanks to Pyre Dynasty at Hatrack here is the data I wanted, and yeah, it's not very encouraging).   Mark says that the 500 ranked books are still selling very well.

But we still see a huge exponential increase for those top sellers.  The #1 books is selling 37X more than #500, and that is pretty huge.  I like Mark’s interpretation of these results so I’ll quote him.  :)

Most books don't sell well, but those that do sell well sell really well.  This finding wasn't a surprise.  Just as in traditional publishing, very few books become bestsellers.”

So self-publishing seems to follow the trends of traditional publishing.  A few make it really big, while the rest struggle like mid-list writers or worse.  I know this isn’t what we writers want to see.  We want a self-publishing utopia where everyone gets to win, but I don’t think that ever happens anywhere in life.  Here’s hoping we will be one of those superstars.  Fingers crossed. 

2.  Longer books seem to sell better.  So much for the traditional publishing industry and there seemingly arbitrary word-count limits.  Readers don’t shy away from those long books, in fact they seem to prefer them.

From Smashwords blog
I think this Mark guy is pretty smart because I like what he says here as well, so I’ll give you another quote.

There will always be exceptions to any rule.   If your story deserves 50,000 words - nothing more and nothing less - because this is the length packs the biggest pleasure punch for readers, then by all means don't bloat your perfect story with extra words just because the data shows that longer books, on average, sell more.  Do what's right for your story because that's what's right for your reader."

In other words, your story is a special snowflake (I’m not being sarcastic at all; I truly believe it is), and don’t try to force it to be something it is not to fit in with the popular ebooks.  Also remember the only unbreakable rule in writing is “don’t be boring.”  But if your story is a tad on the long end, don’t stress it either because readers don’t seem to mind.

3.  $3.99 seems to be the sweet spot for pricing, at least right now since by measuring this number means that we might change this number (Yes, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle may also apply to ebook sells).

From Smashwords blog
I thought the big drop in sells of books priced at $1.00 to $1.99 was fascinating.  There must be some psychological reason there.  Anyway, it might be a good idea to play around with pricing to find your own sweet spot.

Those were the parts that I found the most interesting, but there is more data on the post, so once again, here is the link.  Check it out.  It’s definitely worth the time.



  1. Wow, lots of book data here. My debut will be out this year and my head is spinning with all the info I'm trying to learn. Thanks for this post.

    1. Yeah, it is a lot of information. I'm glad it was useful. Good luck with your debut!!

  2. This is great MaryAnn. Thanks for sharing it. Personally, when a book that I want to read even a little bit goes on sell for .99, I buy it. But I have to really want a book to spend more than that, and those books are usually more expensive. I'm not sure I've ever bought a book for 3.99. I have bought several for 2.99, but I know I've never bought one for 1.99. Weird. I wonder why.

    1. I'm with you Melanie. I usually wait for the price to drop. I guess we're bargain hunters. The article said that every consumer is different. Some will buy high and some will buy low. So it is hard to know where to price your book. Maybe it is something to play around with.

      I honestly don't understand why $1.99 doesn't sell better. I'd buy a book for $1.99, but I haven't seen much priced at $1.00-1.99 price range, so maybe that has something to do with it.

  3. Great information--thanks for sharing, even if it all drives me crazy trying to figure out how best to price/market my books. :)

  4. That's pretty fascinating, and great information for anyone heading into the world of self publishing.

    Personally I guess I understand the mentality behind not wanting to buy a book that is too inexpensive. I don't think I'd shy away from $1.99, but I do find myself resisting a free book. (Unless it's one that is only free for a weekend, or something like that. I like the idea of getting in on a good deal.) I just worry that if it's priced too low, it's not professional. And if it's too high, it's a gamble that I might regret putting out the money for something I won't like. $3.99 is on the high end of practical to me. I know I wouldn't spend more than that unless I was very familiar with the author and loved their work. (Then I'd consider paying up to paperback prices.)

    I've read about several authors that have had success pricing their books higher ($3.99 or above) and then dropping the price to $1.99 for a specific time period, marketing it as a "special" or a "sale." They tend to see spikes in their sales, though I can't pull figures or graphs for you. I might look for the article I read about that and link to it if I can dig it out later.

    Great post, MaryAnn!


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