Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Observations from the e-front

Some early thoughts on selling ebooks:

1: it's an impulse-driven market, particularly in the UK
2: price is paramount (see above: $2.99 works in the US but not in the UK)
3: readers don't care one iota about an author's sales track
4: Amazon doesn't care one iota about an author's sales track
5: to sell ebooks, it helps to go where readers of ebooks hang out
6: an Amazon customer review is priceless
7: Amazon know how to sell books
8: the more you sell, the more you sell
9: promotion is much more efficient and enjoyable when you have access to your sales figures
10: the US and the UK are completely different markets and it's extremely rare to do well in both

Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments.


  1. Good list, Allan. One caveat regarding #6: I've seen some books do very well despite fairly average reviews. These books tend to have great covers, blurbs, and titles. Unfortunately, the sizzle works as well as the steak if it's really good sizzle.

  2. #2 and #6 are the most critical. If you can get 50 customer reviews, your eBook will become self-sustaining. This is so important I've decided to create free POD versions of my 2011 releases to give away in exchange for customer reviews. My goal is to give away free paperback POD copies for my new releases until I reach 50 customer reviews. It doesn't hurt that the funding for this POD campaign is coming from Google Adsense revenue, which feels like found money. And it ain't bad money either. At least not of late. Should be an interesting experiment with the POD ARC campaign.

  3. It's got to have a cover that's designed to a professional standard and if you want to build on your success it has to be properly edited and formatted to the same level as you'd expect from a mainstream publisher. One will get you noticed and the other two (plus your genius, naturally) will get people coming back for more.

  4. @Eric Good point about reviews. What I was thinking there was that a number of promotional opportunities might open up from a good review, whereas a bad review doesn't give you much to play with. But certainly one bad review wouldn't stop a book from selling. Although if it was the only review it might cause a few stutters.

    @Stacey Intrigued on two points: 1 -- how did you arrive at #50 as the magic number? And 2 -- self-sustaining at what level?

    @Doug Yes, all of those above anything else.

  5. All this talk about Kindle makes me sad that the gift I received was a Nook. Any plans for your books on that platform, Alan?

  6. The books are available right now, Chris. I only talk about Amazon/Kindle because I've no way of knowing what works for the Nook since UK authors don't have direct access to it (see #9 above!).

  7. Good questions. The 50 is based on observation. I.e., I bet you'd have a hard time finding a self-pubbed Kindle book with 50+ reviews that is not selling well.

    In 2010, I experimented with CLAWS 2 by purposefully not soliciting any reviews from fans (in contrast to CLAWS, which I did ask folks to review). Sales of CLAWS 2 were hot for one month, and then dropped way back. Largely, I feel, as a result of a trickle of negative reviews.

    With CLAWS, on the other hand, I released a POD version to my core readership a month before launching the eBook version. And so when the eBook finally launched, there were about a dozen mostly favorable customer reviews. That then led to more reviews and after the book hit like 25 or 30 customer reviews, the book became self-sustaining.

    And by "self-sustaining" I mean I did not have to actively promote the book for it to continue selling.

    My hunch is that 50 is the golden number. If someone sees 50 customer reviews for a book priced at 2.99 or less, they will act on impulse to buy.

    Of course, getting to 100 customer reviews is even better.

    I bet you could even chart this stuff statistically if you wanted. That is, I'd posit there is statistically-significant correlation between # of customer reviews and # of units sold.

  8. Allan, I was curious about your comment in point 2. Are you saying that in the UK the $2.99 price is too high, or that they can bear a higher price because of their shopping habits?

    Great blog!


  9. Stacey, I'm not sure I'd agree about the reviews. My novel, Remix, has over a hundred, but I didn't solicit them; they arrived on their own as I got more sales once the book reached the Kindle UK top 100 chart.

    Amanda Hocking's Switched is currently at #12 with nine reviews. Kill&Cure is at #13 with thirty.

  10. @Stacey Interesting stuff. I think I might be with Lexi, in that my experience suggests that reviews come with sales rather than the other way round. My own Killing Mum has sold 100+ copies per day for 5 successive days, and only has 4 reviews. I suspect that the quality of the reviews -- and of course if they're 4 or 5 stars -- make substantially more difference than quantity. Although quantity will create the impression of a widely read book if the ranking doesn't already do that. Again, I wouldn't be surprised if this is a UK/US difference. As the market matures in the UK, we might find the same applying here.

    @Neal Thanks! Re point 2. Yes, $2.99 is too high. Stephen Leather has a thing or two to say about that at his blog.

  11. I'm sure y'all are probably right.

    That said, Amanda Hocking's U.S. version of Switched has 214 (!) customer reviews.

    Torn has 95.

    Ascend has 146.

    Kill & Cure has 45 reviews in the U.S. store.

    So, these examples actually seem to support the hypothesis that a lot of customer reviews do, in fact, impact sales. At least in the U.S. Kindle store market.

    I appreciate the wisdom of other perspectives, though. Makes me critically analyze my own assumptions. (In a good way.)

    Thanks, guys.

  12. Allan -- next time I'll check before asking about Nook books! Just ordered them both. Thanks!

  13. @Stacey -- You could equally argue that those figures support the hypothesis that having a lot of sales will generate a lot of reviews. I'm sceptical about quantity of reviews generating sales simply because I have a print novel that received over 40 pre-pub reviews through the Amazon Vine programme. It's currently outranked by a similarly priced novel that only has 8 reviews. We're talking about incredibly insignificant sale figures with those, mind you!

    @Chris -- thanks, hope you enjoy!

  14. Al, what about length? I notice most of yours are novellas or short novels, is that a factor?

  15. John, I'm not aware of it being a factor, although I've had a few reviews that say, "I normally only buy novels, but..."

    I suspect that if the price suits, then readers will take a chance, regardless of their normal reading habits.

  16. I wonder if, "normal reading habits," will change, the way the music business went from singles to albums in the 70's and now it seems with iTunes back to singles.

    What I really wonder is if it's better for writers to put out three novellas in a year rather than one novel - if they sell for the same price, wouldn't it be better to have three "new releases" instead of one?

  17. Hey John! If by "better" you mean "better develop a readership" and/or "make more money" then I'd say yes.

    In fact you've given me an idea. There's a screenplay I've been toying with, and I think now I'm going to turn it into a novella first!

  18. As a writer, I think McFet's suggestion is intriguing. As a fan or writers, I would freakin' love it. I want both, though. I want novels, with other short stuff in between.

  19. Yeah, Eric, I was thinking about developing a readership. I put up a few short stories on Smashwords (so that also gets them to Barnes&Noble) but didn't think about charging for them, I saw them as free samples, advertising for my books. But now I'm thinking for future stories, or story collections, ninety-nine cents doesn't seem like too much.

    And yes, Chris, now I think that especially for authors of series books some short stories in between could be very good.

  20. Someone pointed out to me that you can read a novella without having to recharge your iPhone! That aside, I've a sneaking suspicion that novels will always outsell novellas, if only because I've yet to meet someone who only buys novellas, whereas I know several readers who only buy novels. But there's no question that novellas can (and do) sell well.

  21. A word or two about #5, and ethos.

    This is one I've wrestled with and debated with other authors a lot, and I've come to the conclusion that it is better to create the virtual space where writers hang out, to own it, if you will... rather than hanging out on virtual spaces that others create.

    This is not to say that you can't hang out on others' space, I just think it's stronger to create your own virtual space (like this blog, for example).

    We've seen this over the years with virtual spaces like Chris Baty's NaNoWriMo, JA Konrath's Guide to Publishing Blog, Murderati, etc.

    If you own the space that others are visiting online, they will treat you with much more respect and goodwill than if you're an audience member on someone else's site.

    The key is creating a virtual space where book-buying people want to hang out.

  22. Not sure if that's a slip there, Stacey, but #5 in my list has nothing to do with hanging out with writers. The virtual spaces you cite are predominantly writer-led as well. While it's true that most writers are readers, it's cerainly not the case that most readers are writers. I see what you're saying, however. I'm not sure I'd agree that one is better than the other, though. They're different, that's for sure, but I'm happy to view them as complementary rather than in competition.

  23. I was riffing on "5: to sell ebooks, it helps to go where readers of ebooks hang out"

    I'm doing a bookstore event on this topic (Book Marketing) tonight, so I was trying to compose my thoughts on developing a readership using an online presence.

    My experience has been that hanging out online where readers hang out can backfire, because people resort to bullying tactics. I've seen this happen on Konrath's blog, the Kindle discussion board, and on And on the NaNoWriMo site, come to think of it.

    Unless that virtual space is your own... then people will push you around. Sometimes the result of this is people writing negative reviews simply to spite a person they don't like in one of these types of forums.

    Does that make sense?

  24. Understood, Stacey. I think we just disagree about the fact that Konrath's blog and NaNoWriMo are readers' sites. Very much writers' sites, in my opinion (and in your first reply, that's precisely what you called them). Bottom line, that's not what I meant by #5. The boards, certainly, and I hear what you're saying there. Just a matter of finding one that works for you. Not always easy, I know.

  25. This is really interesting Allan and I can see has prompted debate. I agree wholeheartedly with your UK v US points. I too am averaging 80-100 sales per day on Amazon UK and the US figures have picked up, but are nowhere close. I am finding it hard to break into that Market.
    With only one book written and released and it only having been out there properly since January, I have no idea whether the sales will continue at this pace, I hope so!
    The novella concept is very interesting too.
    As for reviews, I am unsure. There are books above Sugar & Spice with less stars and less reviews, but mostly with more than one book out... Go figure!
    I agree that in the UK, chart position will probably sustain sales rather than reviews.
    Either way, I think Amazon is the place to be at the minute. Let me compare A vs B&N sales:
    Amazon for Feb: 2,250 so far (Inc. US)
    B&N total: 1!
    Saffina Desforges

  26. Hi Saffina, thanks for dropping by!

    Nice figures! There are so many variables, it's hard to give concrete answers. But I think that's largely why publishing ebooks at the moment is so exciting. We're all learning as we go, and it's fascinating and fun doing so. It's a great time to be a writer.

  27. Allan

    Interesting discussion!

    I think the comments with Stacey open up a very important area. Writers spend a lot of time talking to other writers in all the various forums/ blogs/ FB sites and the writer friendly Kindleboards threads. Those are the spaces that we control and we don't get called out there for promoting ourselves. But there aren't enough readers there.

    Then there are the reader's spaces, like Goodreads and many of the Kindleboards threads. Writers can find it very difficult to be heard there; those spaces are often jealously guarded by moderators who see writer's self promotion as something close to spam.

    Seems to me that we need to identify those spaces where the two meet and share that information. Does that lead to blogs and other sites that publish reviews? What's the experience of those and the effect on sales?

  28. Hi Allan,

    Yes, I agree.

    Love the blog too, great stuff!


  29. @Seb I think your comments are the trigger for a separate blog post. Maybe once I've figured out the answers, I'll do just that!

    @Saffina Thank you!