Mark Coker, the CEO and founder of Smashwords recently published the sixth annual Smashwords survey. In the survey he analyses the data gathered by his aggregation network which distributes books primarily to retailers other than Amazon, something that indie authors need to bear in mind if they’re enrolled in KDP Select. Despite the absence of the world’s largest e-book retailer from the data, it still represents over 250,000 titles and much that it has to say would be, I believe, relevant across all retailers.
The survey is based on 12 months of sales data from March 2016 to February 2017 with the vast majority of the book sales it tracks taking place in the US – with Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia as the other major markets. Almost 90% of Smashwords book sales are fiction with romance representing around half of that – the next most popular categories being erotica, fantasy, YA and Science Fiction. I must admit to having been surprised to find Thriller and Suspense, as a category, ranking further down the list. Also, as a writer of comic fantasy, to find comedy ranked at number 17 out of 17 was a little depressing.
Non-fiction represents only around 12% of smashwords sales and it’ll come as no surprise that self-improvement, health, business are the top categories.
Of the top 200 bestselling Smashwords titles, Romance accounts for around 150, fantasy 20, YA 10 and sci-fi 6. Excluding box sets, average word count of these bestsellers was just over 90K. Again, I found that surprising, as the trend over the past year seems to have been for a lower word count – though this may be an example of where writing for Smashwords distribution will be different to where you’re aiming for KU.
It only occupies a single slide in the entire presentation, but Mark Coker has also looked at the correlation between an author’s success and what platform they have supporting them. 75% of the top 1000 bestselling authors have a website, and there is a direct statistical correlation between the likelihood of an author having a website and their bestseller status. This pattern is also true with both Facebook and Twitter, with the most successful authors being more likely to use these platforms.
I believe that having your own website is as important as having your own mailing list and ownership of your back catalogue. While it’s certainly possible to launch an author career without a website, having a home on the Internet, that you own and control, is clearly a very important marketing tool. End of sermon.
Perhaps surprisingly, 90% of the box sets on smashwords are single author with around two thirds of the bestselling 100 authors participating in a box set, whether that’s their own or with other authors.
Free books get on average 33 times more downloads than any priced title, so they remain a very powerful platform builder. The most common price point for indie authors is $2.99, but the most effective price, when it comes to maximising unit sales, is $3.99. For the best overall earnings, however, according to Smashwords, indie authors should set their price at $4.99. This will of course depend on your genre, how warmed up your readership is and how many books there are in your series.
Again , it’s important to stress that Smashwords does not include Amazon data to any significant extent. However, unlike with word length, I see no reason why their conclusions regarding pre-orders shouldn’t be duplicated on Amazon. Although rising, only a minority of books are made available for pre-order – in this survey period the figure was around 12 and a half percent. However, nearly 2/3 of the top 1000 highest earning authors released at least one book as a pre-order, so the authors making the most money clearly think it works. Three fifths of the top 100 bestsellers were launched as a pr-eorder. Looking at romance, for example, although only 25% of titles were pre-ordered, those titles represented nearly 3/4 of sales in that category.
The importance of writing books in series has been a fundamental part of the indie author dogma for some time, and it’s nice to see this confirmed in Smashwords data. 75% of the bestselling 100 books were part of a series. The most common price for the first book in a series is, not surprisingly, free, with $2.99 being the second most popular. Across all series, looking at the total amount of money an author makes from their series, setting the first book to free is around four times more effective than setting it to $.99, although, perhaps surprisingly, $4.99 and $3.99 also outperform $.99.
The absolute worst performer, however, is $1.99 so that’s a price point to avoid for your series starter.
The effect of permafree on the earnings of the series as a whole is even greater when we look at just the top 100 series where a series with a free book one, on average, makes 3 to 5 times as much money overall than a series where the opening book is priced at between $2.99 and $4.99. A $.99 series opener performs even worse and, again, the absolute worst price point for a series opener is $1.99. And if that wasn’t enough to persuade you that permafree is still a good choice, of the top 100 bestselling series, two thirds opened with a free book.
Finally, the Smashwords data indicates that on average titles in series outperform stand-alone titles by factor of four.
According to smashwords , these are the four key things to consider as an indie author
- always use preorders for launching
- write in series, and set the first book in the series to permafree
- consider $4.99, as well as $2.99 and $3.99 as the sweet spots for full-length indie fiction
- use single author box sets to grow readership, though they do not generate huge profits.