Yesterday, I noticed my novella The Zombies of Hobbiton was #34 on iTunes in Science Fiction & Literature. #34! That sounded like big news. Especially considering my Amazon sales are way, way down after the most recent algorithm changes that are strangling Select in its crib. That prompted me to take a real look at the iTunes store for the first time. I love Amazon and all, but I don’t like the idea of having all my eggs in one basket.

Here’s the problem. iTunes is a lot harder to read than Amazon.

There are a whole lot of different factors for this. Some of them are personal. I just haven’t ever really spent any time browsing the store. I’ve looked at my own books a couple times, but I found the store clumsy and confusing, especially when it came to navigation. Guess who just discovered iTunes has a back button!

The second factor is a cultural one. Among indie authors, Amazon is king. It currently owns something like 60% of the ebook market, yet it probably commands closer to 90% of the discussion. People just don’t talk about B&N or iTunes or Kobo or Sony, except perhaps to point and laugh. Maybe I need to expand my horizons, but in the circles I run in, very little analysis is focused on the workings of the other stores. And this makes sense. Who cares about how Kobo works if it’s only pulling 3% of all book sales? (Note: I made that number up.) Just distribute there through Smashwords and forget about it. Now let’s talk about Amazon some more.

In that environment, you don’t get communities of authors coming together to swap information and compare notes. Like, I am aware some indie authors do really well on iTunes or B&N, but I have no clue what’s driving that success.

The third and possibly biggest factor in the unknowns of iTunes is the real killer: I don’t have access to real-time sales figures.

I distribute to iTunes through Smashwords. Smashwords is a great program, but it places a filter between me and what’s happening with my books. For instance, right now, May 13, SW only has updated figures for Apple through March 31. Sales are all tallied on a lump sum, too–like, if SW updates their iTunes on May 15, and I sold 10 books during that period (I didn’t), it will list all those sales as occurring on May 15. Oh, and if you’re giving away a book for free, iTunes doesn’t give out numbers for how many copies you’ve had downloaded.

To summarize: so I’m stumbling around the store, with no real awareness of what I’m looking at, and with sales figures that lag 6-10 weeks behind whatever I might be doing with my books today.

To summarize another way: damn it.

But we can watch the storefront itself. And here’s what I’ve seen so far. iTunes updates constantly–like, possibly more than once an hour. Yesterday, after I spotted my book at #34 on Science Fiction & Literature, it quickly dropped to #35, then #36. A few hours later, it was at #58; a half hour later, it rose to #56, before falling back to #58, #63, and #64 when I stopped paying attention.

This morning, I first saw it back up at #34 (and sandwiched between Iain M. Banks and Neal Stephenson, my two favorite SF authors!). That was about an hour ago. Checking again, it’s currently at #36. I also saw Hugh Howey’s Wool take a big leap yesterday–it vaulted from somewhere in the 60s to #5, propelled, no doubt, by news of Howey’s movie deal. The Wool Omnibus was already at #1. Right now, Wool has slipped to #18, with the Omnibus at #4.

So we’re seeing a lot of volatility. At least within this category. What this suggests to me is that the sample size of sales is pretty low. It may only take a handful to vault you to the top, and if you don’t continue to sell regularly, you’ll quickly be knocked off the list by those who are. Possibly, it took me just one sale to get The Zombies of Hobbiton to #34. After that, it slid throughout the day into the #60s until this morning, when it sold another copy, kicking it back up to that same #34 placement. That small rise yesterday afternoon from #58 to #56 suggests the possibility sales figures are higher, but I don’t know iTunes’ algorithms well enough to put any major faith in that. Possibly, books ahead of me were just falling faster than I was.

Sales on any given store are driven by two things: external visibility–you driving traffic to your books via word of mouth, ads, etc.–and internal visibility, where the store’s own lists, recommendations, emails, etc. put your book in front of new customers. What this tells me is that if you want to stay on iTunes’ volatile bestseller lists, and you don’t have the fanbase to keep that up on their own, you’re going to have to find a way to get yourself on some of iTunes’ other lists and other sources of internal visibility. And I know far too little about the store just yet to know how to do that.

For fun, I’m going to guess my book is currently selling 1 copy/day. This doesn’t contradict the data and it will keep my expectations nice and low. I sell through Smashwords at $1.99. I get 60% of each sale made on iTunes through SW. So my cut for each copy sold will be about $1.19. If I can keep this up for a month, I expect to see around $36 from this title over that period.

And you know what? I would take that. In a heartbeat. Soon, I’ll have a novel and another novella up at iTunes as well. If I can figure out how to produce similar sales for them, my income through Apple would be a nice supplement to what I’m doing on Amazon–and would go a long ways towards convincing me to take my other titles out of Select, too. We’ll see if that’s possible. iTunes remains much more difficult to examine than Amazon. It may be weeks or months before I’ve got any solid conclusions. Expect more posts in this series as I continue to gather new information.

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I am a Science Fiction and Fantasy author, based in LA. Read More.
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