Yesterday, Amazon touched off something of a firestorm by emailing hordes of readers and KDP authors for help, requesting authors email Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch to explain why lower prices are better for readers and the publishing industry.
Today, Pietsch has been responding to everyone who’s emailed him. I find his response reasonable enough — for the most part, he claims, Hachette’s ebooks fall beneath Amazon’s preferred $9.99 cap — but there’s one part that stuck out to me.
“The invention of mass-market paperbacks was great for all because it was not intended to replace hardbacks but to create a new format available later, at a lower price.”
This is false.
Well, technically, it isn’t false — it’s true that mass market paperbacks weren’t invented to replace hardbacks. But they weren’t published in the modern fashion, with a publisher releasing them months after the more expensive hardback. Rather, paperback rights were purchased by competing publishers who were able to sell their paperbacks for 10% of the price of the original hardcovers.
In other words, they were invented to disrupt the hardcover industry.
In 1939, the average hardcover cost $2.50-3.00 — the modern equivalent of $40-50. The new paperbacks cost $0.25 — a little over $4.00. Presumably, the first paperbacks were reprints in order to ensure the audience for those titles was already in place and minimize the paperback house’s risk of printing a dud. However, paperbacks blew up the market so well that by 1950, publishing houses were publishing paperback originals. It was feared these paperback originals would “undermine the whole structure of publishing.”
And they might have.
For more than twenty years, paperback prices held steady. They even declined; in 1961, some paperbacks cost as little as $0.35, just $2.79 in modern dollars. Then a funny thing happened. Starting around 1966, costs climbed to an adjusted $4-5. By 1975, they hit $6-7. And by the mid-1980s, mass market paperbacks cost the equivalent of $7-9.50. They’ve hung around $7.99-9.99 ever since.
After 25 years of steady prices, what happened to cause paperback prices to triple over the next twenty years?
When I first did this research two years ago, I stumbled onto the fact that this timeline coincided precisely with the conglomeration of the publishing industry. Beginning around 1958 and accelerating in the ’60s, small and medium publishers were gobbled up by the majors, culminating in today’s environment of the Big 5 (formerly 6). I assumed that the decrease in competition allowed the major houses to increase prices.
However, I think that’s only part of the puzzle. I am now entering the realm of speculation, so take the following with grains of salt. But I believe two more factors are at play.
First, most of the independent paperback publishing houses were bought up by larger houses. In other words, not only was competition decreased, but in many cases, it was gone. Meanwhile, tenfold disparity between the price of hardcovers and the price of paperbacks may have felt like far too much. Undermining the value of literature, if you will.
Second — and this is pure intuition; more research is required here — I expect that major publishers quit selling off their paperback rights. Likely, they used their newly acquired paperback imprints to handle publication of that format. No longer did you have two different publishers competing on price for the exact same title. Rather, you had a single company whose interest, obviously, was that these two separate editions wouldn’t compete at all.
That, I expect, is when Pietsch’s model finally came into play: a company releases a new book in hardcover, selling to all those who prefer the format or can’t wait to read it. Sometime down the road, months or even a year later, a paperback format is released, picking up a second market of readers.
Whatever Hachette would like us to believe, this is a radical change in intent from the paperback’s original role.
As a result, rather than selling a hardcover for $50 and a paperback for $4, they’re selling the hardcovers for $25-36 – often discounted by Amazon to $15-20 – and the paperbacks for $8-10.
Meanwhile, ebooks are lodged messily in the middle. It’s 2014. You can’t delay the ebook release the way you can delay the paperback release. You’d lose out on all those readers who now primarily or solely read ebooks. But so long as it is less than the hardcover, it’s still a bargain. Sort of. $8-15 is less than $15-20, right? Just make sure to drop it to $6-10 when that $8-10 paperback is finally made available.
It’s no wonder traditional publishers and Amazon are at loggerheads. Like Penguin and Pocket Books in the 1930s, Amazon essentially invented a new format of book. One that, with no per-unit production costs and negligible returns, could be the cheapest format yet. A format capable of opening up a new market of readers.
Or, more accurately, of resurrecting it.
Hello! Here is the part where I pretend this post doesn’t have a headline and say: I’ve just published CAPTIVES, the latest book in my post-apocalyptic Breakers series.
For readers of the series, you can pick it up at every major online bookstore using any of the links below. For not-readers of the series, you can find the first book for free. Once you have finished whipping yourself, anyway.
Remember, all purchases go to the Fund to Convince Ed to Resume Blogging About Publishing Numbers (And Also Some Beer). Thanks as always for your support.
What are you looking down here for? Wasn’t the cover enough to make you go buy it? Oh, fine. I will tell you about it, too:
In the fast-paced BREAKERS series, humanity faces not one apocalypse, but two: first a lethal pandemic, then a war against those who made the virus.
ONCE, Walt Lawson saved the world. Lately, he’s lived in peaceful anonymity with his girlfriend Carrie. This morning, she’s been kidnapped.
Walt has a single lead: the van that took her. Its trail points him up the coast to San Jose, where survivors have banded together against the gangs who’ve overrun the north. With the aid of a local guide, Walt homes in on the kidnappers, who are days from shipping Carrie far away.
But Walt’s past is about to crash down on his rescue plans. For six years, Thom James has been on the hunt, blaming Walt for the death of his brother Raymond. Now that Walt’s come up for air, Thom finally has a lead—and he won’t stop until he’s put Walt six feet underground.
Two months ago, I took a look at how many of the bestselling Kindle genre titles were self-published. I had two purposes in mind: first, to see whether there were any differences in the success of self-publishing between the big four genres (Romance, Mystery/Thrillers/Suspense, Sci-Fi, and Fantasy).
The second purpose was to provide some more data for the initial Author Earnings report. The report indicated that self-publishers were doing incredibly well within genre ebooks, but one of the more widespread criticisms was that the report was just a snapshot that might not represent anything more than that moment in time.
I thought that was a valid critique, but I also suspected it would prove false — Amazon is amazingly consistent from day to day and month to month, and the AE report looked at a substantial chunk of data. I was betting that later studies would show similar results.
Among the report’s conclusions was that genre fiction accounted for about 70% of all Kindle ebook sales, and that self-published titles accounted for roughly half of that. I used a different methodology, and a worse sample size, but when I checked in February, self-publishing’s share of the bestselling Kindle titles was as follows:
- Romance: 49%
- Mysteries/Thrillers/Suspense: 11%
- Science Fiction: 56%
- Fantasy: 49%
Three of the four genres were roughly 50% self-published, with the glaring exception of the thriller market. Meanwhile, here was each genre’s overall share of the Kindle market (methodology explained in the original post):
- Romance: 40%
- Mysteries/Thrillers/Suspense: 20%
- Science Fiction: 5%
- Fantasy: 6.33%
This added up to 71.33% of all Kindle ebook sales. I pulled my numbers a few weeks after the first Author Earnings report collected its data, yet my conclusions mirrored theirs: about 70% of all Kindle sales were in these four genres, and of those sales, close to half were of self-published titles.
It’s been two months since then. How do things look today? First, here are the four genres broken down by method of publication — self-published; through a small or medium press; Amazon publishing imprints; and by the Big 5, which includes major genre houses like Harlequin and Baen, where appropriate.
- Self-published – 59%
- Small/medium – 3%
- Amazon – 12%
- Big 5 – 26%
- Self-published – 26%
- Small/medium – 1%
- Amazon – 15%
- Big 5 – 58%
- Self-published – 53%
- Small/medium – 7%
- Amazon – 12%
- Big 5 – 29%
- Self-published – 45%
- Small/medium – 6%
- Amazon – 8%
- Big 5 – 41%
There are a few differences between the first grab and this one. The percentage of bestselling self-published romance titles is up by a good percentage. Thrillers are way up, more than double the initial look. Meanwhile, self-published sci-fi and fantasy titles are slightly fewer. Amazon’s publishing imprints are up, representing just under 12% of the total, compared to a little over 9% the first time.
I wouldn’t draw too much from any of these changes, though. You can hardly conjure a pattern out of two whole samples drawn from a methodology that’s prone to variance. What’s most interesting to me here is how little is different: in three of the four major genres, self-published titles still represent about 50% of the bestsellers. Thrillers continues to lag behind, but this month’s look suggests it’s not quite as tough for self-published titles to compete as the original breakdown suggested.
Okay, so what about the genres’ overall market share? Here’s how it breaks down this time:
- Romance – 35.2%
- Thrillers – 26%
- Science Fiction – 5.4%
- Fantasy – 6.4%
This adds up to 73% of overall Kindle ebook sales. Crazy.
Compared to February, sci-fi and fantasy are essentially the same. Romance is somewhat smaller, but thrillers are up by a decent percentage. As before, however, I wouldn’t try to read patterns in the differences — I’m not at all sure that romance sales are actually down. The sample sizes involved make this part of the data prone to a fair amount of variance.
Again, what’s most interesting to me isn’t the differences. It’s how similar these numbers are a full two months later — these four genres continue to comprise ~70% of Amazon’s ebook sales, and roughly half of those sales are of self-published books.
From the department of “It’s About Damn Time,” I’m happy to announce I’ve set a new Breakers book helpless into the world. Go catch it! Quick, before it escapes!
I’m happy to have added Google Play to my list of distributors. For those of you here for the publishing-related stuff, I’ll try to get up a post about them before too long.
Until then, buy early and buy often!
Yesterday, Dear Author blogger Sunita raised the idea that self-published genre fiction is creating a market for lemons–an environment where readers have no easy way to identify good books from bad books. If true, the author argues, this would be a very bad thing: if readers have no way to tell good from bad, many will simply quit reading altogether, turning to other media instead.
The argument goes like this: on Amazon, the chief ways to determine whether a book might be good are a) price and b) reviews. Yet both are highly flawed. In other markets, higher prices are usually an indicator of better quality. But with ebooks, you’ll often find a New York-published bestseller priced the exact same as a completely unknown self-published title. Thus price tells us nothing about whether a book is likely to be any good.
Reviews are no better. As evidence of this, Sunita points out that bestselling genre fiction typically has higher ratings than literary classics like The Great Gatsby. Self-published bestsellers have even higher ratings than the classics within their genres. Hugh Howey’s Wool, for instance, is shown to have better ratings than works like Ender’s Game, Cryptonomicon, or Neuromancer. Since the author can’t believe Wool might actually be better, Amazon’s reviews clearly aren’t useful for helping readers find good books, either.
It seems to me the discrepancy in ratings is evidence of a much simpler possibility: there is no problem at all. The system is working perfectly.
If the reviews are better on popular, bestselling genre fiction than on the classics, maybe what that means is.. genre fans enjoy genre fiction more than the general populace enjoys the classics. Classics which, incidentally, are largely recommended through word of mouth and trusted sources like reviewers and critics–who Sunita states are the best ways to discover new writers. Yet reviews are better on self-published bestsellers, whose initial popularity is generated almost entirely through Amazon’s recommendation system. Wouldn’t that mean that Amazon’s recommendation system is better than word of mouth or “trusted sources”?
Well, no. Not for her, anyway. Because she’s making two big mistakes. The first is assuming that her consumer habits are commonplace. I.e., the way she uses reviews doesn’t work well for her, therefore they must not be working for any customers. Yet the amount of people participating in the review system indicates that’s far from universal.
The second mistake is one she actually approaches in the article–and then immediately dismisses: “It’s entirely possible that readers of the Ward and Howey books were more satisfied with their reading experience than readers of the Tartt, Gibson, etc. … I have more trouble with the idea that the Ward and Howey books are better books.”
What is the difference between a “better” book and a book that readers are more satisfied with?
I think that, to many if not most readers, that’s two ways of saying the same thing. For Sunita, however, there is clearly a distinction. That’s because she only seems to recognize one area of quality: a book’s artistic or literary quality. What she’s leaving out is a book’s commercial or entertainment quality. These aren’t exclusionary. I like both. My personal favorite books are the ones that combine literary flair with strong and active plots (including many of the SF titles Sunita listed).
But I think it is beyond clear that most readers care far more about being entertained than being arted at.
Since more people are reading for entertainment than literature, Amazon’s reviews reflect those interests. Since Sunita values the opposite, it’s no wonder the system doesn’t work for her.
You know who it does seem to be working for? The readers. Who choose genre fiction 70% of the time they enter the Kindle store. And who, within those genres, choose self-published fiction as much as 50% of the time. And who leave higher ratings for both genre fiction and self-published titles.
If we’re lobbing lemons into the market, they must taste pretty god damn good.
ETA: Some cool stuff in the comments, particularly from Courtney Milan, who says smart things about the Amazon review system and the way indies interact with it. (At this point, I feel like using “smart” in conjunction with Courtney is getting redundant.) Some interesting replies from Sunita, too.
I’ll say this: it’s weird and somewhat counterintuitive that indie books average higher ratings than trad-published titles. (The main reason for this, as Courtney mentions, is probably that we push more actively for them.) Obviously, that could have implications on reader purchasing behavior–but even so, that would only matter if the books weren’t actually all that good, right? Which ought to result in more negative reviews, which would then balance things out. I’m still confused by the thrust of this post, and think its conclusions are overstated.
Inspired by the Author Earnings report, I’ve taken a quick whack at looking at what percentage of Kindle ebook sales self-publishers represent by genre. To get there, I simply look at the top 100 bestsellers in each genre—romance, mystery/thriller/suspense, science fiction, and fantasy—and split them up by method of publication. Note that, unlike the Author Earnings study, this is merely a breakdown of the raw number of self-published titles on the bestseller lists, not the number of total book sales within each genre.
Also, instead of five categories of publisher, I use four: self-published, small/medium press, Amazon Publishing, and Big 5 (including, where appropriate, major genre publishers like Harlequin and Baen). For books where the publishing method was unclear, I did a search of the house. If the house published only a single author’s works, I listed it as self-published. If the house published multiple authors, even if it was obviously an author collective, I listed it as small/medium.
Okay! Without further ado, the numbers:
Big 5/Harlequin: 30%
Big 5: 68%
Big 5 (plus Baen): 30%
Big 5: 37%
One of these things is not like the other! At an immediate glance, one thing is clear: if you’re publishing in romance or SF/F, self-publishing is an extremely viable method. Roughly half of all the bestselling books in each of these genre is self-published. That’s pretty remarkable.
For mysteries and thrillers, however, it’s a different story. Of course you don’t have to be a bestseller to make a living as an independent author, but it’s equally remarkable that just 11% of the top 100 mysteries and thrillers are self-published. That suggests two things. If you’re a thriller author, you may want to keep querying agents. Or that there’s a market inefficiency in thrillers, where there aren’t enough good indie titles to meet demand. It’s also possible that both of those things are true! I couldn’t say.
Also, it should be said that this is just a look at the top 100 in each genre out of hundreds of thousands of total books. It’s quite possible, perhaps even likely, that a broader look at the data would present different trends. However, it does match up well with the Author Earnings study of these genres combined, so I’m not sure a bigger sample would be that much different.
Of course, there’s one more big factor here: each genre’s total share of the Kindle market. Fortunately, that’s really easy to ballpark. By looking at the #100th-ranked book in each genre and dividing that by its overall Kindle rank, we get an estimate of what percentage of the entire Kindle market each genre represents. For instance, if the #100 book in Romance were #1000 in the Kindle store, we could figure that 1 in 10 sales, or 10%, are of romance books.
Here’s how it shakes out:
You’ll note that adds up to 71.33%. Hugh Howey’s much bigger and better sample suggested these four genres comprise 69% of total Kindle sales (though it didn’t break it down by genre). To me, this means the above numbers should be pretty accurate, despite the crude methodology used to determine them.
Obviously, romance is the runaway winner. There is a huge market for it and self-publishers do very well there. Fantasy and science fiction are about neck and neck: fantasy is a little bigger, market-wise, but self-publishers have more share of the science fiction market. Mysteries and thrillers have a very big overall market—half as much as romance, and a fifth of all Kindle sales—but taking advantage of the size of that market appears to be a challenge for self-publishers.
Also, if the Author Earnings report didn’t already make this perfectly clear—holy shit self-publishers sell a lot of books. I knew we’d taken over a big part of the market. I didn’t know that, within three of the four most popular genres, we’d taken half of it.
Quick edit: I should make it perfectly clear that these percentages are very preliminary. Where the Author Earnings report samples nearly 7000 books, including about 2600 of the top 7000 titles in the Kindle store, I’m only sampling the top 100 in each genre. In a sample that modest, even a small variance from the norm might throw things out of balance. For instance, if just five of the books in fantasy were switched from self-published to Big 5, the numbers of each would be nearly equal. I will try to remember to run this again in another month or so and then again later in the year to see whether the results hold.
That said—there are several signposts the data’s pretty accurate. For one thing, among three genres, the percentages are pretty similar across the board. For another, although I divide things up differently, and am only measuring number of titles instead of number of sales, my results are pretty close to those of the Author Earnings survey—which was taken, to my knowledge, 2-3 weeks ago. The lists I looked at today were certainly comprised of many different titles, yet the number of self-published titles on both studies is pretty close. This makes it less likely that either study is an anomaly.
Ultimately, though, time will tell.
Why have I been so quiet lately? Well, there’s two possibilities on that front. Either the publishing industry has gone back to normal, becoming too static and boring to write about. Or.. I’ve been spending every spare second writing this 215,000-word monster:
|Not pictured: the 215,000 words inside|
The Black Star is the third and final entry in the Cycle of Arawn, my epic fantasy series. Right now, the first book (The White Tree) is free, the second book (The Great Rift) is cut to $0.99, and The Black Star is $2.99, meaning you can buy ~1600 pages of fantasy for less than it would cost you to purchase $4.00 of alternate goods and services. You can get The Black Star at all reputable online bookstores:
This is the first series I’ve ever finished, and it feels pretty good. Not just because these books are wayyy long and I was stressed for months about how long it would take me to finish this one. But also because, when I wrote the first book in the series, I couldn’t get an agent for it. So.. that was it. There never would be a series.
I wrote that book in 2007, spent the rest of the year revising it (and multiple times afterwards, too), and spent 2008 trying to find representation for it. In those bygone days of yore, there was no Kindle, no self-publishing as we know it today; self-publishing was still that thing you only did if you couldn’t sell anything to New York and you wanted to use your garage for storing 5000 copies of your book instead of one copy of your car. (Note: I’m being facetious. I think it’s safe to say that was the perception of self-publishers, but after spending the last two years glimpsing what they went through, I’ve got a lot of retroactive respect for the old schoolers.)
Anyway, point is, I always knew how the rest of the series would play out. But due to the realities of the industry, I was never going to get a chance to write it. Not unless—and this is how delusional I was—I became a big name with different books, then forced(?!) my publisher to publish this other, older series no one wanted in the first place.
Uh.. not going to happen, haha. Which stunk. Because I really liked The White Tree. It was the third book I’d written to that point, but it felt like the first one that might be any good.
Don’t get me wrong, it has flaws. Plenty. The structure of its suspense, for one, is less than perfect. In fact, if for some reason you’re possessed to read my books in the order they were written, you can see that structure evolve from The White Tree (third book written) to Titans (fourth) to Breakers (fifth). I think a similar evolution is evident in the sentences, too. For the record, I don’t think my recent books are unassailable works of genius, nor that The White Tree is garbage; I wouldn’t have it available unto the world if I didn’t believe in it. I do. And sometimes, the rawness of a book is part of its appeal.
But in hindsight, I can see why it attracted neither an agent nor a publisher. Even if it’s a fine book, it’s rough in many ways, and getting a foot in the door of traditional publishing is so competitive that you need a book to be as close to perfect as possible. I used to keep track of agent acceptance rates—see, I was a numbers guy even before going all self-pubby—and for all the manuscripts submitted to them in a given year, the typical agent would accept somewhere between 1 in 1000 and 1 in 10,000.
The numbers aren’t quite as dire as that sounds, because of course there is more than one literary agent out there. Even so, it seemed like (very roughly) 1 in 100 novels from unpublished authors wound up being represented and published.
Here is one of the major truths self-publishing has exposed: you don’t need to be in that 1% to connect with readers. A book doesn’t have to be PERFECT. It just has to be.. well, I don’t know. Very good? Good? Good enough? Competent? I have no idea where the Line of Acceptability is drawn. If you had 100 prospective novels in front of you, I don’t know whether the cutoff is generous (whether 33 or 50 or 67 of those 100 “makes it” as readable) or miserly (3 or 5 or 10). I do know that number is more than 1. Possibly by a lot.
Anyway, to return to my long-lost point, The White Tree wasn’t that 1 in 100, and that made me sad. Over the course of writing it, I really fell for the two main characters, Dante and Blays. And Dante’s discovery of magic, and his pursuit of it as a calling, was inspired by all the things I felt about writing. The sense of purpose it gave me. The dedication I’ve found for it. How fun it is. It may have been about swords and gods crazy shadow-weapons, but at its core, it was a very personal book to write.
Without self-publishing, it would have been lost forever.
The second and third books—which I feel much more confident about; to date, I think The Great Rift is my best book, for what that’s worth—would never have been written. The story would never have been told. Now, it’s finished.
Probably, the world would have found a way to exist without the complete Cycle of Arawn. For me, though? It’s a pretty big deal. Without question, the biggest advantage of self-publishing is the financial side; due to the ebook boom, thousands of writers new and old are now making a living off their fiction.
But it isn’t all about the money. The creative side of it is pretty dang rewarding, too. Thanks for reading.
Early this year, after getting excited by what the Self-Publishing Podcast crew was up to, and after seeing a friend have great success with it, I decided to try my hand at a serialized novel. Serials were clearly working for a lot of people and it looked like fun on both the writing side (new format!) and the publishing side (a new release every week!).
So I set to work, and by April, I was ready to fling mine out into the world. How did it go?
Well, for the TL:DR version, and my all-time favorite post on the matter of selling serials vs. novels, see Susan Kaye Quinn. The slightly longer version is this: there are advantages to writing serials, but they don’t sell themselves any more than novels do. So if your new release strategies are based on, say, advertising novel-length works, releasing story/novella-length episodes might present you with a challenge.
Anyway, back to my results. I wrote a time travel thriller called The Cutting Room. I decided to write 6 episodes, each one running between 12,000-16,000 words and 84,000 in total, with a TV-style arc. I found a pre-made cover from James at the excellent Go On Write and, for a few bucks more, got him to set me up with six distinct looks as well as a full-length version (a 3D box set version, and a 2D version for Apple, which won’t take 3D covers). Individual episodes looked like this:
Not an ideal nailing of the genre, but suggestive of it, and perfect for the mood. In any event, enjoy the pictures now, because a wall of text is about to follow.
OUT INTO THE WORLD!
The first episode went live April 22, 2013. I alerted my Facebook page, then sent to my mailing list the next day. Neither was huge at that time—my FB page was probably around 100 Likes, as I recall, and my mailing list around 300—but that and some advertising had done quite well for the third book in my Breakers series two months earlier.
Excitement! The first day, I sold.. 4 copies. By the end of the first week, I was sitting pretty at 31. (Amazon.com numbers only—Amazon UK and B&N probably put that around 40, but I didn’t keep records for them.)
Don’t get me wrong, that’s not bad, given the modest size of my lists and the fact I was offering them a new series in a different format. But by comparison, Breakers #3, augmented by some serious ads, had moved 767 copies on .com in its first week. By contrast, this was looking like a bust.
But the advantage of serialization is you don’t get one release, you get a bunch. Six, in my case. With so many books hanging out as new releases, they should pull each other up the charts. Ideally.
Mine didn’t. To cut to the chase, each episode performed about the same. 25-30 copies sold its first week, about twice that in its first month. In an attempt to kick things up a notch, I made the first episode permafree about three weeks in. That helped a little, but with no way to advertise it on the freebie sites (too short), there was no significant bump.
Here is a chart of my first few weeks. It is mostly made of sad.
This is how each episode fared over its first ten days. Again, Amazon US only. Sales are cumulative; i.e., by day 3, episode #1 had sold 23 copies. Each episode was released exactly a week after the first. So in this chart, Day 1 for episode #2 happened on Day 8 after #1 was released. According to my records, #1 went free the day #4 went live. Also, you’ll note these numbers don’t perfectly match up to the ones I quoted above. That’s because I didn’t start pushing the episodes until the day after they went live, so that’s where I started counting for the chart.
Anyway, not a lot to see here. Every week was about the same as the one before it. At least the few people who got into it stuck with it!
Mostly, the lackluster results were because none of my launches was ever significant enough to start getting the books recommended to other readers. I think that if my first couple days of sales had been 30-60 rather than 10-15, I would have seen growth from episode to episode. Without hitting high enough to garner an internal push from Amazon, I was selling to the same group of saps each week (my readers). (That’s a joke, my readers are the best because they read my books, QED.)
So was it a bust? Well, I’d sold a few hundred copies of the episodes, which was better than a sharp stick in the anything. But my serial didn’t really expand my audience—my primary commercial reason for this experiment—so it certainly felt like a failure at the time. So much so that, before the final episode went live, I altered its ending to be a little more self-contained, so the book could better function as a standalone. (I had ideas for at least one more book if it took off.) Rewriting to audience response (or lack of it) was a fun experience, one you could never pull off in a novel. So, there was that. Overall, however, I was disappointed.
But. I had yet to release the full book. Emboldened by my critical failure as a serialist, and with no momentum on the individual episodes, I decided to go all-out with the complete novel, releasing at $0.99 backed by whatever ads I could scrape together. Here was my cover:
I was in no hurry, and it took about a month to schedule everything, leap through Apple’s hoops, etc. Once it went live into the world, I discovered something funny: a lot of my readers hadn’t been interested in the serialized version, but they were plenty happy to pick up the full novel. With the individual episodes, my readers on FB and my mailing list were good for about 10 Amazon US sales in the first two days. With the full book, over an equal period, they were good for 54, and crossed 100 the day after that.
Then the ads kicked in. Which I could run, because this was a full-length novel, not a 15,000-word short. (Serializing gave me one advantage there, however: since some of my readers had already read the full thing, they were ready to review it right away. It was sort of like ARCs. That I made them pay for. Hahaha.)
With the initial push from my readers, the book became embedded in Amazon’s recommendation algorithms, which the ads helped amplify. Within a week, it had sold 575 copies there. I switched it to $2.99 a couple days after that. By the end of its first month, its Amazon US sales were about 1150, with another 150-200 on the other sites as well. Compare that to 50-60 sales of each episode over a similar timeframe.
Hooray for me! Wait, that’s not what this post is about; this post is about cold-blooded dissection. Where did I leave my scalpel?
The first, and the biggest, is that serials aren’t a magic bullet. I guess that should be obvious. Nothing is! Earlier this year, however, it sort of felt like they were; at the very least, it seemed like serialization was a sure-fire way to expand your audience through the boost given to each new release.
For me, it didn’t (except maybe a little bit at Kobo). It could be the book or some part of its presentation hampered it, but whatever the cause, my episodes never gained enough momentum for the algos to take them off to the races.
Know what though, we can break this down. Here’s the main cause of my failure to launch: a) I was starting a new series my readers weren’t familiar with b) in a format they weren’t used to buying (serial rather than novel) c) with a limited fanbase to begin with (~400-500 potential readers on my lists) and d) with no outside sources to augment that potential readership; the episodes were too short to advertise in the venues I was familiar with, and I wasn’t creative enough to find alternate ways to reach people.
So basically, the only people buying the episodes were my core, core readers. The people who would buy and read the Kleenex I just sneezed into. If you’re looking at serializing purely for the benefit of multiple new releases, take a long hard look at your audience and understand that most of them aren’t going to follow your experiment right away.
Genre is part of this equation, too. Serials work better in some genres because those readers are actively searching for new content. Romance, definitely. Erotica/erom, for sure. Zombies, I think so. Time travel special ops? I.. no. No, there’s no rabid readership waiting for the next one of those to drop.
ON THE UPSIDE…
I’m talkin’ all mercenary here, but this experience was a ton of fun. Publishing a new episode every week was a blast. I would love to do that again.
Now, back to mercenary sales talk! Additionally, the format of serials provides you with many opportunities you don’t have publishing full-length novels. After the tepid response to the initial episodes, I was able to adjust my promotional tactics on the fly, permafreeing the first episode before the last was out. Not only that, but I was able to change the last episode itself based on this (lack of) response—since it looked like the season was a failure, sales-wise, I revised the ending to let the book function as more of a standalone story that would, hopefully, be more satisfying and self-contained. ‘Cause I sure as hell wasn’t gonna write a sequel to something nobody appeared to want!
There are obvious dangers with making changes like that, but being able to adjust and adapt to reader response is an incredible option to have in your back pocket.
Also, now that the full book is out there, I still have episode one free pointing to the whole thing. It doesn’t give away copies in the volume that a full book does, but it’s a nice little long-term funnel.
HOW TO DO IT BETTER
First: stick with it. My first season didn’t see any growth from episode to episode, but quite a few people wound up picking up the full novel. I think that, if I were to do more seasons, I would do a lot better. Mostly because my lists are much bigger these days. But also because I’ll have created a readership for The Cutting Room and that readership will be more used to serialization, meaning more of them would pick it up right off the bat.
Along similar lines, it would help lots to serialize something in a series/world where you’ve already got readers. Those people are already waiting for the next installment, whatever it is. That’s going to reduce a lot of their resistance to purchase a different format.
Note that I’m not saying everyone should serialize the next novel in their popular series. Just that, if you are interested in trying a serial, it’s going to help if your readers are already into the world. You could do a spinoff, say; pick up a secondary character or storyline and branch out into that in a serialized format. Now I’d better quit exploring this idea before I convince myself to do it.
Another area to explore with serials is pricing. When I released mine, I screwed up royally. Since $0.99 is the lowest you can charge for an ebook, those faithful readers who picked up The Cutting Room episode by episode paid $5.94. Then when I released the full book, I kicked it out the door at $0.99. That was due to circumstances forcing my hand, but.. that is not how you want to treat your most loyal readers, haha.
So, here’s my wonkiest idea of all: use inverted pricing. Price your episodes so buying them all will cost less than the full book. If you have 4 episodes, buying them will cost a minimum of $3.96; thus, sell your episodes at $0.99, and let your readers know that if they wait to buy the full book, well, it’s gonna cost $4.99. If you’ve got 6 eps, buying them one by one will run them $5.94, but the collection is going to be set at $7.99.
Yes. Madness. A higher price will make the full-length book less appealing to readers who stumble onto it later. But that price doesn’t have to be permanent; when you get to season two, you could cut a couple bucks off the price of the complete season one. Either way, season one will still have a permafree entry point going for it. You might even package the first two episodes into a double-length pilot, the way a lot of TV shows do, and set that free to help people choose whether to plunk down for the full book. Size matters, gentlemen. If that double-length pilot is up around the 40K word range, you might have an easier time advertising it.
In any event, the point of inverted pricing isn’t to make money here and now on the full-length novels. It’s to take advantage of the perks of multiple new releases, reaching new readers episode by episode, expanding your reach each time. It’s a short-term hit for a long-term gain, Amazon-style.
GOOD LORD THIS IS AS LONG AS A KKR BLOG!
This post has largely banged on about sales, but serializing a novel was a really, really fun experience. I don’t want that to get lost in all the numbers-talk. Serializing challenged me to think about story structure in a new way, and publishing a new episode every single week was tremendously enjoyable. Despite the difficulties, I’d love to try it again some time.
It also taught me a lot about why books sell. Much of what I learned is very basic—people are more likely to buy what they already know and like, be that novel-length fiction or a world they’re already familiar with—but the fact it’s simple means it’s all that more valuable to understand.
The other very simple thing it taught me: episodes aren’t novels. Trying to sell serialized fiction is a much different world than trying to sell full-length books, complete with different advantages and different challenges. If you’re going to try a serial, I would examine those challenges ahead of time and do your best to nullify them.
Maybe that’s just a matter of sticking with it.