Home » Pricing, Self-Publishing » Science Fiction eBook Market Under the Microscope – Indies Dominate

Science Fiction eBook Market Under the Microscope – Indies Dominate

28 February 2012

From scifi author Kevin O. McLaughlin:

So there’s two big questions on everyone’s minds about ebooks these days, right?

1) How much of the market do indies (self publishers) really have?

2) What price is working for folks?

. . . .

What follows is raw data mined from Amazon (which represents ~70% of the US ebook market, and is therefore a better tool for ebook numbers than Bookscan is for print).

. . . .

I picked science fiction for the genre to mine. A couple of reasons: SF was consistently a genre where indies had a lower presence in the top 25 bestselling list, for my December/January checks; and I write SF, and have read SF for over three decades, so I know the publisher names very well.

Analysis and data are from the top 200 bestselling science fiction ebooks on Amazon, February 26th 2012.

. . . .

Top 25 Bestselling breakdown was 72% indie, 28% traditional, with a 18/7 split.

Overall for the top 200 books, there were 154 indie books and 46 traditionally published books, or 77% indie and 23% traditional publisher.

Of interest: out of those 46 trad pub books, only 25 were recent books (which I define as originally published in the last ten years). The remaining 21 were older books, by authors like Burroughs, Heinlein, Asimov, Orwell, Anthony, and Adams. These older books represent most of the prices under $10 for traditionally published ebooks.

. . . .

The idea that “only a few” self publishers are doing well is false. This is 154 books all selling well in excess of a thousand copies per month, in one (rather smallish) genre.

. . . .

What’s next? Difficult to say. I feel that the 99 cent and $2.99 points will remain dominant for as long as Amazon continues to use their current pricing structure. The 99 cent point is the lowest price allowed; the $2.99 point is the lowest books can get a 70% royalty from Amazon. That makes these prices standard starting points for newer writers trying to “earn their chops”.

I believe we’re seeing a trend which will continue of self published authors starting at those points, then gradually moving prices up as they acquire more readership and audience. More books, more years of work in learning the craft, and more readers will enable writers to boost prices and therefore profit more from each sale.

On the trad pub side, I believe we’ll see less books published at prices over MMP price. Their ebook prices will trend down – *must* trend down, to compete with indie pricing – so we’ll see a settling into $5-8 for most traditionally published ebooks, with higher prices for books they believe will sell well at a higher price.

Link to the rest, including an interesting pricing graph, at Digital Delta and thanks to Anthea for the tip

Pricing, Self-Publishing

36 Comments to “Science Fiction eBook Market Under the Microscope – Indies Dominate”

  1. P.G.

    Can anyone explain to me why Sci-Fi gets lumped in with weird, whacko, wargs, vampire, zombies, paranormal and fantasy?

    I think it does huge damage to the genre, it really ought to be on it’s own. I hate wading through a mixed genre of nutbag paranormal sex fiend listings, pleading for a bit of interplanetary or robot fiction.

    Vampires and Zombies are just junk, time for the nonsense to be OVER, already. (See how I’m learning Amerikan?)


    • From what I understand the SF genre is a very small reading niche. Dean Wesley Smith has said so a couple of times, and he should know.

      • Depends on the flavor of science fiction. It can be very narrowly defined or very broadly defined, based on the reader.

        Speaking of Dean Wesley Smith, this article is fairly interesting when compared to his recent post on ebook pricing. He thinks that it’s trending UPWARD rather than down: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=6391

        • Both articles said essentially the same thing–that indie prices were trending up and that publishers must trend down or get left behind.

        • While I find his pricing suggestion quite high, I tend to agree regarding the upward trend. On the forums I read, I’ve seen an increasing nulber of authors increasing (or considering) the prices.

          • I have a series of 10k word novellettes (in various stages of progress) I was agonizing about over pricing. My original instinct was to price them at $1.99 because I considered them more akin to comic books or television episodes. But then I was afraid deviating from $0.99 would kill them. But at $0.99 I was worried about the viability of the project. So I was contemplating $1.49. Factoring into all of this was Amazon’s royalty rate structure too, which had me thinking about trying to get them into the Singles program.

            The pricing constraints had me making compromises on the project, though, because I wanted to include additional illustrations (which add further out of pockets expense).

            Dean’s post reaffirms my previous thoughts on the project and I intend to price them accordingly, which makes me happy because I can make the project the way I originally envisioned it.

    • Sci-fi does not sell very well these days, and things like fantasy and vampire romance sell like crazy. Just be grateful you can find any robots, aliens, and spaceships at all….

    • Agreed, Brendan.

      I’m waiting for Amazon to become much more granular with its categories as another improvement in discoverability.

      • This is something that’s been an issue for years. One of the problems with SF and fantasy can be summed up with Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

        Fantasy and SF are really part of a continuum that wraps back around on itself and people are constantly complaining about someone mixing getting fantasy in their SF or vice versa. The problem is that they often have similar underlying tropes in the end you wind up with a lot of overlap. So it’s hard to separate them on a category level.

        And of course then the other problem is that marketing doesn’t actually care about any of the analytical stuff anyway, they just care about slapping a label on a book that might get it purchased.

        Granular categories would be nice, but I honestly think the best way would be for amazon to make a whole bunch of tag categories and then let you list books in a tagged category. Then a book doesn’t only have to live in one place in the category tree, because very few do.

    • Just because you don’t care for vampire or zombie novels doesn’t mean that it’s not a viable genre or that it’s all junk.

      Though I agree that vampire and zombie books (and epic fantasy) have nothing to do on the SF shelves, because while they are a viable subgenre and very good at times, the overwhelming majority of them is not SF.

  2. I’m happy to say that my own book, PERIGEE, was in that list. It’s done very well priced at $.99 after floundering at $2.99.

    Personally I think it’s worth more, but let’s face it: we’re competing for readers based on either name recognition or price point. So if your name brand is nonexistent, that leaves you with price. And the bottom line is it’s making more money at .99 because the sales volume is at least 10X over what moved at 2.99. Hopefully it’ll hook enough readers to enable the next book to go for a higher price. It’s all about brand-building at this stage.

    If it stays in the Top 20 lists, a higher price may be justified and I may kick it up a buck at a time over a couple of months.

    I’ve found myself reluctant to pay more than 2.99 for an unknown author’s e-book and gravitate toward the .99 to 1.99 range. For established authors, I have to *really* want an e-version of their work to pay what their publishers are asking. So far I can count them on one hand, and it’s been limited to really big books that are more comfortable reading on a Kindle.

    • Yes, I definitely would prefer more “low priced” first ebooks.

      Followups being set at higher prices is quite all-right with me, as if I liked the first one, I’ll gladly take the plunge and pay more…

    • I had some of my SF novels priced at $2.99 and raised them to $3.99 after reading some of Smith’s posts. My sales actually picked up at that price point. I think that is one of the great things about being ‘indie’. You can experiment and watch trends. You can move about 100 times as fast as the big publishers when you do see some trends. You have to pay attention to the readers and decide who you want to reach.

    • Congratulations on your sales, Pat.

      • Thanks! But maybe I should try it at 3.99…

        • I had sales stall flat when I went to $3.99. And a danger there, if you have few works out, is that once stalled, it gets increasingly difficult to restart sales again. The lower you sink in ranking, the less likely you’ll be noticed and bought.

          I suspect I will retain my 99 cent short/$2.99 novel setup until such time as I have more works, and more fans. 😉

  3. “2.99 for an unknown author’s e-book and gravitate toward the .99 to 1.99 range. ”


    I’m going to be very strongly biased toward the first seller of books who gets rid of the stupid .99.

    Who really thinks anyone regards something priced at $2.99 is not $3.00?

    It’s a lousy penny, and it doesn’t fool anyone.

    Stop doing it, the LOT of you!


    • Granted it doesn’t fool you, Brendan. But it fools most everyone else.

      • It’s been proven repeatedly that lousy penny makes the difference between a sale and a walk, time and time again.

        I’d just as soon sell it for an even number as well but apparently the overwhelming majority of people’s brains don’t work that way.

        If we’re smart, at the end of the day we don’t set our prices. The market does.

    • I’m constantly fooled by that trick, Brendan. 🙂

    • Hehe

    • Even if I wanted to lose the .99 in general… I couldn’t continue to sell via Apple if I did. The .99 is mandated for the iBookstore.

      (However, if you want to see the first seller of books who gets rid of the .99? Baen. http://www.baen.com/author_list.asp — click on the author name (not their website link, if they have one) and see that all the ebooks are round numbers.)

  4. As someone who writes science fiction and went through the whole merry-go-round of trying to get it traditionally published, I am not at all shocked that self-published works dominate AND that a good hunk of the tradpub works are classics. Tradpub is so limited in what they will publish in this genre, it’s ridiculous–if your book doesn’t follow a very specific formula, forget it. It’s that short-term profit-chasing destroying long-term value thing again: They’re never going to discover the next Bradbury or Dick, because they just aren’t willing to take any chances at all.

    • I agree with you, though I haven’t really tried to get my science fiction traditionally published. Even then, my scifi isn’t really “hard” or “traditional” scifi. It’s more of a mix between fantasy and scifi, you know? And you can believe that will never sell to traditional publishers. Too hard to market.

      • I had that exact problem with my YA urban fantasy — way too genre-bending (especially in the current publishing climate), despite serious agent interest.

      • My problem wasn’t that the book was off-genre. My problem was that 1. the hero wasn’t an alpha male, and 2. the story had rising action rather than having someone die in the first 10 pages.

        And you or me or any other fan of the genre can point to a million successful sci-fi books with these very “problems”–I even had an agent tell me that 10 years ago (this was about five years back) he could have sold it. But thanks to this focus on short-term sales, now only one kind of science fiction is considered by the commercial houses. And it’s not the kind I’m interested in.

        The upside is that now I can market my book as “retro” sci-fi….

    • I totally agree. I used to love science fiction, but the overwhelming majority of what the trad pubs put out these days is dreadful. SF used to be such a broad and innovative genre, but nowadays it had ossified and turned into something that’s barely readable.

  5. “On the trad pub side, I believe we’ll see less books published at prices over MMP price. Their ebook prices will trend down – *must* trend down, to compete with indie pricing – so we’ll see a settling into $5-8 for most traditionally published ebooks, with higher prices for books they believe will sell well at a higher price.”

    This is one of the most sensible things I’ve heard anyone say.

  6. Well, this just made my day. *I* have a blog article mentioned on Passive Voice?? 😉

    One caveat I wanted to mention. After discussing this is detail with a number of folks who have studied the Amazon algorithms, it’s come up that I used the Popularity numbers for this study – which is what you usually see if you click “Kindle Books”, then click a genre. You get the books sorted by popularity as a default.

    The problem is, the popularity algorithm is not – quite – a bestseller algorithm. It’s VERY volatile. It changes rapidly. And it’s also heavily impacted by books coming off free using the Select program. So there’s some slant toward indie books on that list.

    I’m in the process of using another source for top 100 bestselling data from Amazon. Same genre. Different data. It’s similar, but preliminary results look like a little more trad pub in there, with somewhere around 62% indie over the top 100 SF ebooks. That’s for Amazon’s “best selling” numbers, which are less volatile, change much less often, and are more based around true sales numbers and less around specific marketing platforms like Select.

    I’ll have the full numbers for the new data set soon. I think the “popularity index” numbers are still exceptionally useful as a snapshot of what readers are being presented with when they go browsing for books – but it’s not a perfect representation of what they’re buying, so running the bestseller list will give us that angle as well.

    • Thanks for your excellent first analysis and for the additional information, Kevin.

      As far as the fame of being mentioned here, I can only warn you – Sic transit gloria mundi. 🙂

    • I’ve wondered about that very thing. If I go to the “technothriller” or “hard SF” listings, my novel shows up ranked higher than in the “best seller” stats for the same categories.
      Sounds like the former is a snapshot in time, and the latter results from a better amalgamation of sales figures.

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