Best Practices for Selling eBooks

Smashwords, an ebook self-publishing and distribution platform, analyzes their aggregate ebook sales across their distribution network each year. This analysis of over 450,000 ebooks by 130,000 authors and publishers provides information for best practices for selling ebooks.

The vast majority (87.5%) of Smashword’s sales are fiction titles—well in line with digital book sales trends.

In his 2017 Smashwords Survey, Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, provides insights to help authors make their books more accessible, desirable, and enjoyable to readers. Here are three questions the most recent Smashwords survey answers.

1. Should I offer a free promotion of my ebook?

Smashwords survey found that free still draws readership, but that best results come from offering a first in series book free to hook readers on the series.

  • The number of downloads from free ebook offers has declined over the past three years. In 2016, offering an ebook for free produced 33 times more downloads on average compared to priced titles in the past 12 months. However, in 2015, the number was 35 times more and in 2014, that number was 41 time more.
  • Free is still a powerful sales catalyst for series or backlists. Series that offer the first book free earn 55% more on average than series that don’t offer the first book free.

2. What is the best price for an ebook?

On average, nonfiction ebooks sell at a higher price point than fiction titles. The Smashword’s survey found that the most common price point for indie authors fiction ebooks is not the price point that maximizes earnings.

  • The most common price point for indie author selling fiction books is $2.99.
  • The top four price points for maximizing unit sales (other than free) are $3.99, $4.99, $0.99, and $2.99.

3. Do shorter ebooks sell better than longer ones?

On interesting takeaway from the Smashword’s analysis is that the average length of books that are selling the most copies has decreased over the past few years.

  • In 2012, the average wordcount for the top 60 best-selling romance titles was 112,195.
  • In 2016, the average wordcount for the top 70 best-selling titles romance was 92,725.

I would love to see more statistics about Christian ebook sales. Sadly, Smashword’s does not break out statistics by categories. However, they do provide ranking for sales of books by category for overall sales. Smashword’s survey found that Christian fiction ebook sales ranked 14 out of 17 categories. For nonfiction books, the Religion & Spirituality category ranked fourth out of 16 categories.

I think the two most noteworthy takeaways from this study are that the best price points for maximizing earnings for a fiction ebook is $3.99 or $4.99 and that free can still drive discoverability for an author.

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Sales Data Worth Mining

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Photo courtesy of Dylan Siebel

Sales Data Worth Mining

Smashwords, the largest ebook self-publishing and distribution platform for independent authors, has access to a large chunk of sales data for ebooks that the company shares each year. The company examines real sales data each year to extract potential insights about best practices to indie authors and publishers improve their practices to reach more readers and increase sales.

data-miningIf you are an independently published author or small publisher producing and selling ebooks, you can use the information in Smashwords’ yearly report to improve your strategies. After reading the report, I found four nuggets that I think are worth sharing.

1. The Power of Free has Fallen
In the four years that Smashwords has conducted an annual study of sales figures, free downloads decreased dramatically. In 2012, Smashwords found that free books were downloaded 100 times more than paid books. In 2013, free books were only downloaded 91 times more than paid books. In 2013 that number was down to 39 times, and in 2015, the result was up to 41 times. Blame the glut of free ebooks. However, free is still an option when trying to reach new readers for your books, especially if you have a series.

2. Best Price
Smashwords reports that $3.99 is the sweet spot for fiction ebooks. For the third year in a row, authors sold more units and earned more overall income with books priced at $3.99. However, if you are going to price your ebook below $5.00, then avoid the $1.99 price. Pricing at $2.99 or $.99 is better. You will reach more readers and sell more books.

3. Building Sales
Smashwords found two powerful tools for building sales: preorders and offering the first book in a series free. While not many Smashwords’ authors offered preorders, those that did earned the about three and one-half times more income than those authors who simply put a book up for sale the day of its release. Preorders with an aggressive marketing campaign are a powerful tool for building sales. Smashwords also found that those authors offering the first book in a series free to readers earned 66% more than those who did not. So, if you have a series of books, offer the first one free to hook readers.

4. Building Readership
All the best-selling authors on Smashwords are active on Facebook and Twitter and have a blog. Enough said.

As we move into 2016. Consider how you can begin incorporating free offers, pricing, preorders, and more social media presence into your overall marketing strategies for your ebooks.

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eBook Sales Data

Smashwords is a self-serve ebook platform. It began in 2008 and has grown from publishing 140 ebooks that year to publishing 276,000 in 2013.

Smashwords has conducted an annual survey of the data from book sales from their service for the past few years. Each survey that Smashwords has shared has revealed interesting information that is helpful for authors seeking to sell more ebooks. This year is no exception.

Some of the interesting findings from this year’s survey include:

  1. A few ebook titles sell fabulously well, but most sell poorly.
  2. Readers prefer longer ebooks. As word count drops, sales also drop. Most best-selling ebooks have at least 100,000 words.
  3. eBook prices of $2.99 and $3.99 are still the sweet spots for fiction ebook prices. Books at these prices yielded the most author earnings.
  4. Nonfiction ebooks tend to earn more at higher prices. The Smashwords survey revealed that many authors are underpricing their nonfiction ebooks.
  5. Free still works, but it is losing its punch. Free remains one of the most powerful book marketing tools because it makes it easier for readers to take a risk on an author brand that is unknown or untrusted. Yet, the effectiveness of free is down when compared to the past two annual surveys conducted by Smashwords—largely because so many authors are offering free ebooks.

Every book is unique. These survey results simply show averages. Consider this information as data to help you make more informed decisions about the ebooks you publish.

Want to know more? The slideshow featuring the overall data from the survey is embedded below for you to pursue.

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Smashwords Reinvented

Charisma, a Christian publishing company, recently made the announcement that they are now offering a new self-publishing service for authors. This new service, called Excel, is completely free.

Excel

You heard that right: Free.

Excel reports that they offer authors free high-speed typesetting, custom cover design, and preparation for electronic publication in formats for the Kindle, Nook, iBook, and Kobo. The company states that they have developed a high-speed digital typesetting program based on the open source LaTeX program. They report that this production is fully automated. Excel plans to make its money from book sales.

Sounds a lot like Smashwords doesn’t it?

Basically, Excel is the Christian version of Smashwords—an automated typesetter and ebook seller, just like Smashwords. One difference is that Excel will offer print-on-demand for print titles also.

Another difference is that authors will have less control, both creative and economic, with Excel. The company states on their website that they will choose the retail price of the books they publish. From this, they will pay the author a $1.50 royalty for each copy sold. Authors can also purchase copies of their books for an estimated price of between $.03 and $.04 per page.

So, if you are looking to get a book published and willing to market a cookie-cutter looking book—remember, production is automated and lacks the human touch—Excel might be the service for you.

I expect to see more of these types of self-publishing services appear over the next few years. Self-publishing has been growing by leaps and bounds and it will continue to do so as more and more authors choose to publish their manuscripts this way.

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