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Analyzing Why We Aren’t Selling as Much (As We’d Like)

16 December 2016

From author and TPV regular John Ellsworth:

Maybe Amazon changed the game this Fall and maybe it didn’t. Opinions are rampant. But this much I know, something has changed for me. At first I was frightened then angry and finally accepting. Now I’m on the other end, where I’m looking for steps I can take to reclaim what I had going before Amazon tweaked. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

Maybe there’s a common denominator among us. Maybe there’s a key reason or two we’re not selling as much as we’d like. I’m not talking about getting picked up by APub or suddenly scoring a 7 figure trad deal. I’m talking about growing organic sales (word of mouth, “also bys” in back of books, mailing lists, etc) in the tried and proven way. The question I have is this: are those tried and proven ways still working for you? Some things I might do better to increase my sales:

1. Build my mailing list.
Action: I’m using Instafreebie right now and getting 10 or 15 signups a day. Not nearly as many as I’d like. How can I increase this?

2. Advertising.
Facebook: Not sure this even works anymore. It seems like I can spend $150 per day and sell 50 books or spend $0 per day and sell 50 books.
AMS: Almost useless for me. I don’t seem to have the grasp of it I need and I’m not finding good information on how to make it work.
Bookbub PPC: I have no way of telling whether I’m getting ROI that justifies. There is no data coming back.
Bookbub Deals: My last freebie giveaway on Tgiving day was a bust of sorts. Gave away maybe 25K books. The one before, in August, I gave away 57K. Still, that series is selling better than before the BB.
Action: as soon as BB denies my latest offering, I turn right around and try another deal. I change covers if a book keeps getting turned down over and over and I tell them so in the comments (optional) section of the deal application. This has worked for me.
Adwords: Does anyone really buy books from Adwords? I’m trying it but need to check figures and Express has no CPC like regular Adwords (tell me if this is wrong).

. . . .

4. Elevate to the niche above me. Right now my niche is thrillers > legal. What if I elevate my genre to just “thrillers”? Does this increase my market size? All it would take is to write not from the lawyer/courtroom angle and, presto, I’m writing “thrillers.” I believe I’ll be trying this in 2017 and see if my mailing list supports it. If not, I might need a new mailing list….

Link to the rest at John Ellsworth

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Advertising-Promotion-Marketing, Self-Publishing

51 Comments to “Analyzing Why We Aren’t Selling as Much (As We’d Like)”

  1. Barbara Morgenroth

    I know people do well with mailing lists but when I check the stats only about 30% even bother opening the email. Probably 10% click thru to Amazon.

    Then to get unsubs stating “Too many notices!” I do one every time I publish a book, not every week or even every month.

    • I average a 69% open rate with my MailChimp list. Granted, I only have 89 subscribers to it.

      I have 475 subscribers to my D2D notification email list. No clue what the open rate is for that one, since they don’t tell you. I’m not even certain an email’s sent from it most of the time I have a new release, and I’m signed up to see those notification emails!

    • A few years back I was disappointed with my 30%ish open rate so I stopped trying to build my list. Imagine my surprise when I found out that 30% open rate is HUGE (in my field).

      I had an assumption and acting on that assumption slowed down the growth of my mailing list for years.

      Now, I give a free ebook via a popup to visitors to my site. That has my mailing list growth back on track.

      Unsubscribes are normal. I don’t even pay attention to them anymore. People come, people go, the overall number goes up.

      • You’re correct. I used to manage the e-newsletters for our newspaper; and I wouldn’t sneeze at 30% at all.

        I think I posted this before, but here it is again.

        MailChimp’s open newsletter stats by industry.

        Don’t get discouraged, everyone.

        I know I personally will ignore newsletters I subscribe to. Their purpose to me is to remind me to “check back,” which means going to the related website to find out what the news is. I only really open the newsletter if: 1) it’s for nonfiction and it has information, or 2) if the words “contest” or something is in the subject line. That signals I have to do something other than read the email or buy the book that I would presumably buy anyway.

  2. With all due embarassment for commenting on my own comments, let me add this comment, which I left on JAK’s blog, as a point of reference for why I (at least I) need to be thinking in terms organic growth to retain sales:
    You say you want data? We’ve got data, everyone.


    As we can see from Author Earnings most recent report, …most of the lost indie market share seems to have instead gone to Amazon Imprints, who have gained a whopping 4% in market share.

    From May thru October 2015 APub grew from < 9% to almost 15%. This is huge by anyone's interpretation. Which begs the observation: if overall ebook sales shrank (which they did, according to AE) then APub's sales came from other than a growing reader base. Now maybe we non-APub publishers can have a clearer idea on why our sales and reads are evaporating.

    Here's AE's concern. But for us, it’s the drop in indie author earnings that triggers the most questions. In May 2016, verified self-published indie authors were taking home nearly 50% of all US Kindle author earnings. Now, as of early October 2016, the indie share has fallen below 40%. What happened?

    So, have you lost your share of the 10% that has disappeared? Some say no, some say yes and even more than 10%.

    The light begins to dawn. APub is crushing it and there's no reason to think market share won't continue to grow over there. Does this mean market share for indies will go down? Well, how good are your plans for making organic growth happen over the next 24 months? I believe this will be the key. We all need to be looking as we once did at how we can increase sales, from the new perspective of, How can we keep from losing our market share, our piece of the pie.

    A very smart guy once said, it's not a zero sum game. Well, maybe now it is.

    • Hi, John,

      Sorry if the October AE report left folks with an incorrect impression. I should have been clearer in my explanation. 🙁

      In absolute terms, Amazon’s overall US ebook sales are not down at all.

      Our most recent data actually shows Amazon selling slightly more ebooks per day than they were at the same time last year. Only the relative *mix* seems to have shifted: i.e. how those ebook sales now get divided up between books by different categories of publisher.


    • Market share is a zero sum game.

  3. Joe Konrath always says the beauty of ebooks is they are on the virtual shelf forever. But every day, week and year, more books are added to the huge number of existing books for ours to compete with. Falling sales could be just because of this…

    What’s worked for me is my last two books being published by Kindle Press via Kindle Scout. There’s nothing quite like having Amazon promote your books.

    • I’ve read a few books from their Waterfall (Christian) imprint in the last few months, and I’ve been impressed by the quality of storytelling, the quality of editing, the covers … and the $3.99 pricing, which makes them which is competitive with indie titles.

  4. Indies wrote themselves right out of a job. There’s simply a lot more competition now.

  5. John, speaking just for myself, I think it’s wise to keep “legal” in your listings. My favorite part of your books is the legal angle. The courtroom scenes are great. And you can’t blame slower sales on me because I recently bought the first book in your most recent series (liked it a lot and will read all the way thru the series).

    My sales and pages-read numbers are always pathetic. I do zero promotion and it shows. But I do have sales and pages-read every month — always at about the same rate (again, pathetic). This month, however, I’ve had ZERO pages read. That’s a first for me.

  6. Based on John’s very insightful comment regarding Amazon imprints taking the marketshare from a contracting market, what I’m about to say might appear to be a riddle.

    It’s not. I mean it exactly how it sounds and the results will speak for themselves if you consider it.

    Sh*t rolls downhill.

    And that is what the next 12-24 months will look like.

  7. A ranking of #6,435 on his lead book, which just so happens to have 702 reviews.

    Wish I was having the same problem as this author when it comes to “not selling as much as we’d like.”

    • I just checked my numbers for the past 90 days. My book averages 2 sales per day and 2000 pages read per day– and it has been ranked in the top 2,000 overall on Kindle during that entire time.

      So, Greg, a book with at #6,435 might only be selling, say, 1 copy a day plus 1500 pages read. That’s how much numbers are down this year.

      • Take it out of KU.

        But that’s not really the issue, in my opinion. It’s that we’re never satisfied.

        If we get to the #1 spot on Amazon, will that make us happy…and if so, for how long?

        What happens when you slip to #2, or God forbid, lower?

        What do you do with those feelings of inadequacy, not to mention the drop in income?

        I don’t think it’s really about sales at all. Sell a ton, we’re not happy. Sell hardly any, we’re not happy…or I guess satisfied might be a better word.

        Call it ‘King of the Hill Syndrome.’ You’re at the top but always looking over your shoulder for who could knock you off.

        Kind of a dreary existence, if you ask me.

        For everyone complaining about their ranking and their sales, there are tons of people that would kill to have those numbers.

      • B as in B, S as in S.

        My brother Kevin’s book has been selling well over 70 copies a day, and he just barely got into Amazon’s top 3000-4000 over the last month, with new book status. So I fail to believe that 2 books a day puts anyone in Amazon’s top 2000.

        • “B as in B, S as in S.”
          You said it better and earlier than I would have. I will spend the next few hours trying to find a French equivalent of this. (That’s what loving a job of translator is!)

        • I wonder if Charlie’s book is part of the new Amazon prime promotion. That would boost its ranking significantly without actually requiring a lot of sales. My wife’s book that is in the program has sold 16 copies so far this month (across all countries) and has had 3000 page views all month in KU is currently ranked at about 3100 in the Amazon store. So comparing a book that is offered for free to Amazon Prime subscribers in the program called Prime Reading with another book that is just in KU would be like comparing apples to oranges.

        • Not BS– I’d post my sales chart if it was possible to post a picture here– but my numbers are just weird and have been for a long time. Ghost borrows is the best explanation I’ve heard. I am in Select/KU which enables Prime subscribers to get a free book a month, but my book isn’t featured on the “Prime Reading” page (I just looked that up).

  8. It strikes me that this is the exact sort of contingency that publishing wide was meant to address. It’s the old don’t put all your eggs in the same shuttlecraft argument (or is it officers in the same basket?).

    The root of the word “indie” is “independent.” That doesn’t just mean being independent of a publisher; it means being independent of any single publishing platform. Amazon has done some really fantastic things for writers, but at the end of the day, they are another middleman. Partner with them, but don’t become too dependant. The only people that we indies should depend on are the readers.

    • The only people that we indies should depend on are the readers.

      There are very few readers without distributors. Readers and writers both depend on distributors. And distribitors depend on readers and writers.

      Each is necessary for the system, but none is sufficient.

  9. A high sales rank doesn’t mean as much as it used to. I have a book in the top 2,000 that only sells 2 or 3 copies a day, plus a couple thousand KU/pages read. A couple years ago, it took about 50 sales a day to rank in the top 2,000.

    • I’m not in KU so this might seem like a weird question, but are there really that many people borrowing books every day and just not reading them?

      • I’m obviously not Charlie, but I do this as a KU subscriber. There’s so much junk in KU now I’m simply not finding anything I want to read. I borrow a few books in hope they’re decent but find myself bailing after a few pages. I’m probably going to be dropping it shortly, I simply no longer feel I’m getting value for my money.

        • It just seems crazy to me that ghost borrows are that huge. I mean, needing 50 sales a day for a rank that’s generating only a few thousand page reads and 2 or 3 sales for KU members?

          That’s a huge disconnect between rank and earnings.

          • Smart Debut Author

            Ghost borrows aren’t a significant factor in our rankings.
            Not for most of us, anyway.

            All you need to do to confirm that is to compare Amazon’s total monthly page reads with what AE calculates they should be, based on the rankings of KU books. The average “ghost borrow” rate is less than 20%.

            So if Charlie’s own numbers are truly that wacky, perhaps there’s some specific reason people stop reading his or her books after a couple pages.

    • Is your book in the Prime Reading program? That could be significantly boosting you ranking without boosting your sales.

  10. So from all I’ve seen, the only promo tactic that works is BookBub, and they seem extraordinarily picky. Plus, I’d rather not give away books in order to get sales if I can find some other strategy or combination that actually works.

  11. I have trouble knowing what to think about analyses like this because (apparently unlike many) 2016 has been my best year by far. I’m not in KU though.

  12. I’ve seen a steady decline in sales for over a year now, which is contrary to what you’d expect as time passes, you get better at writing, publishing more books, and becoming known. Even the permafree for my Vlad V series I tried for seven months produced less sales than the same period the year before. Nowadays I sell only when I advertise. So what’s the problem? More books, eBooks are deflating, the bubble burst, Amazon is not pushing/advertising our eBooks, the Big Pubs have scared the market from buying eBooks with their high prices, or I’m stale? I don’t know, but the decline began after Amazon and Big Pubs settled for agency pricing. Was somehow Amazon influenced by the Big Pubs? One wonders. Time will tell.

  13. This whole conversation reminds me of that Coleen Hoover post a couple of months back.
    Interestingly enough, A number of people Who disagreed with that post, seem to be agreeing with this one, which makes me wonder what happened in the last couple of months To change everyone’s minds.

  14. There is fundamental economic downward pressure on average earnings. Nothing can stop it.

    Available supply continues to increase at a faster rate than demand. That means average earnings will fall. There is nowhere else for them to go.

    In the past, books became unavailable after they had been on the shelves a certain amount of time. Now they stay on the shelf forever. So each new book, or backlist book added to the eBook supply, is an incremental addition to available supply. No longer are there any incremental reductions in supply.

    Without the incremental reductions in supply forced by publishers and limited bookstore shelf space, supply continues to increase. These reductions kept supply at a level where prevailing prices could be maintained. That dynamic is gone.

    • Excellent observation. Without creative destruction, markets are overwhelmed with stale products and eventually stagnate.

      Perhaps Amazon would do indies a service by automatically removing ebooks that do not sell above a certain number within a certain period, like 10 sales within a sliding 12 month period, or whatever is reasonable. Something similar for KU. Properly formulated, perhaps more elaborately than I propose, such a rule would institute an even-handed creative destruction process that the ebook economy now lacks.

      With the unproductive underbrush removed, new projects will get more attention.

      • Remove, or just not have on the front shelf, sort of like the ranking system does now?

        ‘Removing’ them could turn Amazon into just another B&N, where you might find an interesting looking book three, but books one and two are nowhere to be found.

        • Creative destruction is often harsh. Borders fell to it, B&N looks like it is on its way. I regret the passing of Studebaker and I am out for blood with Ford because they dropped the Ranger. When I think about it, I regret the passing of a lot of things. Still, I want to move forward, not back.

          I am not exactly a “red in tooth and claw” advocate, but I do think creative destruction is necessary. Until today, I had not thought about it as a problem for the indie ebook market, but now it stands out clearly to me. Thank you, Mr. OBrien

          At this point, I see market congestion from a lack of creative destruction as Amazon’s greatest vulnerability as an ebook distributor. The problem, as Allen F correctly points out, is that creative destruction is a sort of curation and the absence of curation is one the vaunted virtues of Amazon ebook distribution. I can see several resolutions to this contradiction. I wonder how it will break. So much to ponder, so little scotch.

          • Is it actually a problem for Amazon? Their sales of ebooks are still increasing according to Data Guy above in this thread. It can be a problem for individual authors, but just as there is a ever-increasing supply of ebooks, there also seems to always be more people who want to write a book.

            I don’t think Amazon is going to institute a drastic solution to something that is not their problem.

            • They won’t. This is just another verse to the song ‘Amazon’s too big and has too many other choices (than my stuff)’.

              If Amazon was into ‘drastic solutions’ they would have stopped selling any of the qig5 e/books the moment each of their contracts expired. (How long do you think Hachette would have played their little game if Amazon had returned all their unsold books and ‘Hachette’ came up as ‘not found’ when searching the Amazon website the day after the contract died?)

              Amazon is their for the buyers/readers, not the sellers/writers so they don’t care if the seller is making more or less, just that the buyer finds something they like. To help them find what they ‘might’ like there’s the ‘buyers of this also looked at/bought this’ suggestion bit.

              And now that everybody and their dog is trying to sell something on Amazon, we are hearing that some writers are getting more/better sales on sites other than Amazon. I see this as just more proof that things are always in change, the next Amazon/facebook/twitter is just around the corner, the trick is to know when to catch the wave and when to get off it for the next one.

    • Exactly. Ebooks have proven to be a niche market – the books of choice for prolific readers – and most of those readers seem to have discovered and adopted them by now. Since prolific readers read books faster than even prolific writers can write them, they now have had enough time to greatly enlarged their stable of favorite authors. Unless their time to read has grown as well, they’ve reached a point where they can’t read all the books of all their favorite authors, and may well make choices based on price alone.

      As you point out, this isn’t going to end well. It will only get worse. The only effective measure to change this dynamics would be to reduce the supply of ebooks, and that’s not in the interest of the ebook retailers, who use vast numbers as a marketing plus. Indie publishers are like farmers in the 1920’s – they have no leverage with the retailers and there’s too many of them to act cohesively to reduce the over-supply issue on their own. I don’t foresee an Indie Publisher Support Bill coming out of congress any time soon to save indie publishers from mass extinction.

      • “Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for the love of it, then you do it for a few friends, and finally you do it for the money.” Moliere “`


        Those doing it for the first two reasons will continue to do it whether they make it big or not. Those that are only in it for what they see as a fast buck will get frustrated and have to find another route to riches.

        Of course trad-pub would love it if each writer and every book had to go through them, but then again those hookers always hated it when the housewives were giving it away for a bargain/free …

      • The publishers’ gatekeepers were much maligned, but that’s how the market maintained balance in the past. One gatekeeper controlled entry to the market. The other controlled exit from the market.

  15. My pages read practically disappeared in October, almost from one day to the next. They were down in September, but in October they flatlined. After participating for a while in a long discussion thread on Kboards, I wrote Amazon a few times, finally stating that I considered the “page-flip” problem as a breach of contract, meaning I no longer had to be exclusive to Amazon. After that, they officially released the rest of my books that were still in KU. I realize that page-flip isn’t the only problem with pages no longer being counted on borrows — authors on Kboards have tested several things, with very depressing results. I’m just glad I no longer have to worry about all that. The challenge now is to learn how to sell through other venues and hopefully someday compensate for the loss in income.

    • The challenge now is to learn how to sell through other venues and hopefully someday compensate for the loss in income.

      Agreed. I spent a good part of the day getting stuff up on D2D. I’ve let almost everything come out of KU, and will be going wide with it except some niche shorts (and then they may only get one run through).

      It may be a failure in strategy, but at this point I really have nothing to lose. It’s one thing to lose a few hundred or thousands of dollars, when it’s just a small portion of earnings, and quite another to lose almost everything, and get no reason for it.

  16. Much as I might be criticised for this view, I do believe the answer to this problem is controlled piracy, by which I mean uploading your books to The various pirate sites With a page for donations or something similar.
    Perhaps Amazon could institute a system where by Books that aren’t selling as much would automatically become three, allowing visitors who would never have picked those books up in the first place to find them, and supporting the authors through donations and so on.

  17. Without the incremental reductions in supply forced by publishers and limited bookstore shelf space, supply continues to increase. These reductions kept supply at a level where prevailing prices could be maintained. That dynamic is gone.

    But is this the case?

    I don’t think customers ever see the vast and growing supply. They only see a tiny, fixed sliver. Just like they did in Barnes & Noble, except I think they might see less.

    They see what’s in the also-boughts and what’s on the lists, and that’s it. Do they really see anything else?

    Books go onto the lists and also-boughts, and they come off. The lists don’t change in size. Neither do the also-boughts.

    Am I missing something?

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