A couple of recent posts about Amazon sales, Watching the Numbers and KDP Select – Worth the Exclusivity?, generated lots of comments, some of them a bit heated. In PG’s experience watching the world of indie authors, this is typical.
The reason is that nobody knows anything.
Of course, every indie author knows about his/her own sales. Authors check sales numbers every 15 minutes except when they make a firm resolution to check only once a week. (Then check sales every hour.)
It’s like the old story of five blind men describing an elephant. Each author sees numbers from Amazon and Pubit and Kobo, etc., etc. For them, 78.23% of the indie publishing elephant is definitively comprised of ebook sales from Amazon.
The sales detail for each author’s own books is concrete and certain. They can see the numbers on the screen. One of the few certain things in indieworld is that if Pubit says you’ve sold 17 copies of “Doilies for the Uninitiated,” this month, those sales are real. Nobody can tell you anything different.
Intellectually, indie authors understand that others’ mileage may vary, but they can’t really believe that other authors’ elephants look that much different than their own.
The certitude of small sample sizes leads authors to question or discount others who report much different sales experiences. If someone comments that 78.23% of their ebook sales happen on Nook, that person must be an outlier. Because, of course, I’m not an outlier. What happens to me must be what is happening to most authors.
And if I’m the outlier, I must be doing something wrong and I don’t like to think about that.
The simple fact is that the online market for indie authors is too new to have reliable market rules. And it’s changing very quickly so last year’s rules are so outdated, they’re barely worth talking about.
One of the reasons it’s changing is because new readers are coming into the market all the time. The early adopters came in a long time ago and they behaved in certain ways that gave rise to “rules” for success in selling books to them. Some of the early adopters entered the market because it was new and have exited the ebook market to spend their time with different shiny objects. Other early adopters stayed and became regular ebook purchasers.
We’re somewhere in the middle adopters stage right now. There are many more middle adopters than early adopters and they behave differently from the early adopters. Someone who waits in line to buy the iPhone 5 the first day it’s released is different than someone who is perfectly happy with an iPhone 3. For one thing, the line-waiter has at least 50 apps and buys more every week and the iPhone 3 person has five free apps and only uses one.
Speaking of iPhones, PG thinks the device a reader uses probably also has an effect on what they buy. He suspects that ebooks read on iPhones are generally different than those read on iPads are different than those read on Kindles. Owner demographics explain some differences, but there is media-is-the-message stuff going on as well. Does anyone doubt that the latest and greatest Kindles and Nooks are better for readers than Gen 1 and Gen 2 ereaders were? Is it reasonable to assume that owners of better ereaders buy more ebooks because of the improved reading experience? Jeff Bezos certainly hopes so.
The signals the market sends are also complicated by the strong seasonal pattern of ereader purchases. If there is a general rule for indie author sales, it’s that a lot of ebooks are “sold” (free or otherwise) in the few weeks after Christmas. However, as certainly as the sun rises in the East, there are indie authors who don’t see a bump after the holidays and are sure they’re not outliers.
Another problem – Once we leave our own sales numbers on the KDP screen, there is not much reliable and useful data about ebook sales. Amazon has gobs of data, but it’s not talking. Neither is Pubit. Smashwords talks a little, but not enough to create useful guidelines for what works and what doesn’t with ebook sales.
Yes, we get big picture information like ebook sales are rising and that publisher X now generates 30% of its revenue from ebooks, but that doesn’t help an indie author decide how to best market the seven books she’s written.
PG has no doubt that tried and true rules of consumer marketing also apply to marketing of ebooks, but even those may not provide reliable guidance for an indie author who is working with limited time and financial resources. Coca-Cola can do incredible things with its Twitter campaigns, but it’s in a different universe. The indie author is the CEO and janitor for a one-person business.
Absent real data, the indie author ends up with a collection of self-reported elephant stories from various successful authors. Author X did A and made $300,000 in a single month. Author Y did B and spent 20 weeks atop the Kindle regency-transgender-vampire romance list.
Authors who are searching for recipes want to be able to assiduously copy what Authors X or Y did and achieve the same results. In fact, at least for that magical period when Authors X and Y were the kings/queens of the world, they were outliers, not typical of the vast majority of authors.
There are a couple of basic certainties underlying these success stories:
- Every day, every week, every month there will be a single bestselling author overall and in every book category, and
- It probably won’t be you.
One caveat about any single success story based on “I did A and lots of sales happened.” The cause of all those sales might have been something other than A. In fact, if A was the real and only cause, everybody could replicate A and achieve lots of sales.
A second caveat is that, even if A was the cause of the sales, the market is constantly changing and A probably won’t work any more, particularly if a zillion authors are all doing A at the same time.
So, where is all this PG bloviation going?
Nobody knows everything about successfully creating, promoting, pricing, etc., indie books. The rules for success in the traditional book marketplace may provide some help, but online ebook sales are a different marketplace.
Every indie author knows something – the sales of their own books. That information may be useful for future marketing strategies for “Doilies for the Uninitiated” and “Doilies for the Uninitiated – 2,” but you’re a blind author describing an elephant. Before you hit the Comment button to blast someone else for preaching falsehoods, remember they’re another blind author describing their elephant.
As much as you would like to believe there really, really is a secret recipe for success that doesn’t center primarily on working very hard to write very good books, there isn’t one. Author X’s pixie dust success was an outlier. Outliers win the lottery and that’s great for them, but you don’t want to hang your writing career on winning the lottery. Most success for most people happens because they work hard and work smart to achieve it.
Pay attention to what people who seem smart about the indie book business are saying and determine if their experiences are useful for you. They may not have the same elephant you have, but theirs may be similar. You won’t find a complete recipe for success, but you might pick up an ingredient here and there.
Realize that indieworld has been changing rapidly and will continue to do so for at least several more years. Rules will change. What worked last year might not work this year. Don’t stop watching the market.
In some businesses, you have to fit in, but in indieworld, you don’t have to stay with the herd to find success. You can become your own kind of outlier, not the lottery winner, but someone who discovers your own rules to reach your own readers. And you don’t need ten million readers to be a successful author.
Despite all the digital regalia, the writer’s business still comes down to the fact that people will always like good stories. Whether presented on a stone tablet or an electronic screen, stories never happen without a story teller.
And finally a fact that didn’t fit anywhere else: According to Leonid Taycher, a Google software engineer who works on the Google Books project there were 129,864,880 different book titles in the world in 2010. There are more now.