So How’s It Going with the Ebooks, Anyway?

When I started my program of self-repubbed ebooks a few months ago, I promised I’d tell it like it is on the results of the experiment. It is an experiment, after all (one I’m doing along with some of my fellow scribblers at Backlist Ebooks and elsewhere). I was a little leery of going the self-republishing route, I guess because there was always a stigma attached to that—but it is, after all, working for some writers, including some famous and now wealthy writers. I wasn’t making much money directly from the free ebook distributions—though I was enlarging my readership, and some readers made voluntary donations. I finally decided it was time for a new approach, and in September I took the plunge.

First up were the first three Chaos books: Neptune Crossing, Strange Attractors, and The Infinite Sea at $2.99 each. Sales at first were, to put it mildly, sluggish. I followed in December with Eternity’s End at a price that wobbled around and eventually settled at $3.99, and The Chaos Chronicles 3-book omnibus at $6.99. For these last two, I got professional help with the covers, and they both look great.

In late December, sales started to pick up—meaning they went from 2-3 sales per day total to 7-10 per day. Christmas was coming, and a lot of people were getting shiny new Kindles and Nooks and Kobos and Sony Readers and iPads. Sales growth! Yes! The new level of sales continued through the first week of January. Then, whump. Holiday sales bump over. Back to a handful a day. A week went by. You could hear my fingers drumming on the table, day and night. And then…for no obvious reason, things started picking up again, even better than before. For the last ten days, sales have been in the range of 10-18 books per day. Is this a sustainable rate—or better yet, a rate upon which I can build? Time will tell. Some of my colleagues are reporting better results; some are reporting worse.

Also puzzling: Some writers find that the majority of their sales are at Kindle, with the Nook store and Smashwords hardly worth noting. Others, and I’m among them, are finding sales at Amazon sluggish, and the Barnes & Noble Nook store where the action is. Nobody can figure out why. For some of us, the sales are coming where we’re doing less promotion, rather than more.

So…am I making any money? Well, with most sales at 60-70% royalty, yes I am. Not a lot of money, but still. Why don’t I just cut the crap and show you some of the numbers? I generally don’t wave private numbers around publicly. But maybe it would be useful for people to get a glimpse of how much (or not so much) money a respectable but not-bestselling SF writer makes from one significant component of his career, ebooks. Here are some numbers for Kindle U.S. sales:

Sept-Oct (combined) — $84
November — $76
December — $244
January (through the 22nd, the last date for which I have dollar amounts) — $410

My January numbers for Nook are similar (slower start, but now pulling ahead).

Add in earnings (some reported, some estimated) from Kindle UK, Smashwords, Apple, Sony, and Kobo—and I’ve netted a little over a grand to date from my self-repubbed books, since late September. I should see the money in about 60 days. That time-frame of payment, while it feels slow, is practically tachyonic compared to the rate of payment from regular publishers.

Let’s compare these findings to my likely earnings through other publishers. Nine of my backlist books are with E-reads (a respected print-on-demand and ebook publisher specializing in backlist books). Past royalties there have been in the range of $300 – $900, per quarter, for all nine books. Those nine books are selling in many of the same stores, but at a typical retail price of $6-10. Indications are, they’re not selling as well. Is it the price? Unfortunately, I can’t directly compare recent sales of those books to my new ones, because I have to wait for the retailers to close out a reporting period and remit money to E-reads, and then I have to wait for E-reads to close out a reporting period and remit money to me. This means a lag between sales and reporting to me of as much as 6 – 9 months. But still, that’s better than the case with traditional publishing.

As for my three ebooks from the traditional print guys, who knows? They’re selling at $7-10, and are not all well distributed. Reporting is so slow and cryptic that by the time I see the numbers, I’ve forgotten what we were talking about. The royalty rates are lower. And in any case, ebook sales from those books are first applied to earning out the advance—fair enough—but because many books never do earn out, this can mean that ebook earnings serve only to reduce the unearned balance. The money to the author’s pocket may be zero…or little, and late. That might seem like a slam at the traditional publishing model, but it’s not. Remember, the publishers advanced the money that helped make it possible to write the books, provided the invaluable work of my editor, and through their marketing helped build an audience and recognition by way of paper books. You really can’t make a direct comparison of the two models.

In short, I’m not agreeing with the gurus who say, “Traditional publishing is dead! Long live self-publishing!” I don’t see it that way. Traditional publishing is still important. But for backlist sales, which publishers have largely abandoned as uneconomical, self-repubbing is clearly an exciting option.

Have I found the key to mega-sales, like J. A. Konrath and others? Clearly not. But while my self-repubbed books haven’t exactly caught fire, they are selling and at the moment they seem to be making more money for me, and paying faster, than all my other ebooks combined. It’s not exactly a living wage. But now the game is to see if I can build traction and grow my own audience along with the general burgeoning audience for ebooks. (And with luck, these sales will help to generate additional sales of the publisher-issued titles.)

Is it a sales bump, or a snowball? I guess I’ll find out.

Maybe in a future post I’ll talk about the challenges of self-promotion. In the meantime, here’s my quick guide to ebook samples, downloads, and purchases.
  
  

0 Responses

  1. Evelyn David
    | Reply

    Very interesting. At this point in time I'd love to have your numbers. My co-author and I make almost nothing at Smashwords, very little at Barnes & Noble. Kindle is where 90% of our ebook sales come from. We just uploaded a fourth book in a series of mysteries. We keep hoping for the big "Mo" to kick in. Nothing yet.

  2. Gerald M. Weinberg
    | Reply

    Jeff,
    Thanks for giving all of us this information, which so far has been difficult to obtain. I'd like to add a bit of information of mine, on similar subjects.

    Like you, I've been busily posting my backlist (and forelist) as eBooks. I have about 20 on B&N, Amazon, and Smashwords, and income has been growing steadily. Up until now, however, I'm known mostly as a nonfiction writer, but trying to establish my fiction reputation, with 8 of the eBooks being full-length novels. It's hard for me to separate earnings from fiction from nonfiction, but both are growing quite nicely.

    I've made a nice living from conventional paper books, and now predict my royalties will now increase by at least $10,000 in 2011. Maybe much more, if the growth keeps being non-linear.

    And, oh yes, somewhat different from you, Jeff, my e-novels sell for $4.99 and nonfiction e-books for $9.99. But it's always been my policy to give a free book to anyone who tells me they can't afford to pay, but wants to read one of my books.

  3. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Thanks, Evelyn and Jerry, for adding your perspective. I hope we'll see some others join in, too.

    The question of pricing is an interesting one, Jerry. It seems to me there are two competing issues: price as a barrier to impulse (or trial) purchase, and perceived value (which might argue for a higher price). I might play with the pricing in the future. Right now, I'm looking at higher sales for books that are priced lower (but then, they're also more recent novels), and thinking that may be the better way to reach a larger audience. But it's all guesswork, isn't it?

  4. Deb Baker
    | Reply

    Great post, Jeff. My re-issued backlist (5 titles) are picking up speed, too, mostly with Kindle. I had a big spike in December and no slowdown in January. Since this post is about transparency, I'll share numbers. This month, thru the 29th, I've sold 550 Kindle ebooks and 65 B&N. Even at the low price of 2.99, I'll make $1200.00+.

    I still write for Berkley Prime Crime as Hannah Reed, and I agree with many of the cons of working with a traditional publisher. For now I have my foot inside each door and I like it that way.

  5. Diane Chamberlain
    | Reply

    Hi Jeff,
    Thanks for sharing your experience. As one of your fellow BacklistEBook folks, I too have been enjoying this new world of repubbing my out of print titles. It's such a thrill to have readers again for my older books (and they are indeed OLD. RIght now, I'm editing the scan of one with a typewriter in the story!). An equal thrill is the passive income once the books are up. Because I don't want to compete with my ebooks being published by my print publisher, I've priced my own ebooks at the low end of what they charge which is $4.99. I know this goes against Konrath's "sweet spot", but I am comfortable with that decision. My first book went up in August and I was thrilled as sales hit 5 a day. Now with 4 books up, my combined total for January (Kindle and B and N, US and UK) will hit well over 2500 books. I am staggered by this. Will it last? Who knows, but I am enjoying the ride and I love my readers for giving those older books a try. Best wishes to you for continues success. (PS I do almost zero promotion on the ebooks.)

  6. Terry Odell
    | Reply

    I started with an e-publisher back in the day when the Kindle hadn't been invented, so I'm seeing the change. As I get rights to my books back, I'm going the indie route, although so far, sales aren't significant. I see more sales from the Kindle store than Smashwords, although I like the wider distribution Smashwords offers.

    At Smashwords, my free reads "sell" very well. I get about 10% of those number looking at my "pay to read" samples, and about 10% of those actually buy the story or book. (All priced between 99 cents and $2.99).

    Kindle doesn't share those kinds of figures. I also know that I will download a bunch of samples to my NOOKcolor but won't buy them until I reach the end of a sample and decide if I want to turn the page.

    I've also listed my books at All Romance eBooks, because my e-publishers have the books they "own" there as well.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  7. Lyn Cote
    | Reply

    Thanks for sharing, Jeffrey. You are definitely a pioneer in a whole new landscape. I'm about to take the plunge myself.

  8. Julianne MacLean
    | Reply

    Hi Jeffrey – I'm new to the self-publishing game too, and just published a short story to Amazon and Smashwords. It was first printed in an anthology, but they didn't have exclusive rights, so I thought I'd offer it for 99 cents. I have books coming out in March and April with St. Martins, and this story is a prequel, so I've been promoting it quite heavily along with the regular promotion I'm doing for my upcoming releases.

    Here are my numbers: the book was uploaded about 3 weeks ago, and on the Kindle it has sold 132 copies. At Smashwords it has sold 30 copies, but about 20 of those happened this week after I guest blogged in 3 places and offered a free coupon code at Smashwords. That did indeed drive some traffic there, but alas, I won't earn anything from that because I'm basically giving it away. But it did seem to help the Kindle numbers spike at the same time.

    This short story is only 99 cents, so I'm certainly not getting rich, but I've got a new original novel to start promoting soon, and I'll be charging 2,99 for that, so I hope it is worthwhile. It's been a lot of work to get it ready to publish, but so much fun, I can't possibly describe it! It'll be interesting to see how well that book does in money terms compared to the traditionlly published print books I will have coming out at the same time. I'll be watching the numbers for sure.

  9. Marsha Canham
    | Reply

    Jeffrey…I was a skeptic in the beginning like you and put up my first novel (China Rose) with mixed doubts/hopes, knowing it had been out of print and unavailable for 25 years. I wasn't surprised that the first half dozen sales were to friends who jumped in to support me…but then someone else bought one, and someone else, and someone else. The sales weren't earth-shattering that first month; I think I sold 20 copies altogether, but by the middle of the next month, I had my second book (Bound by the Heart) uploaded and sold 40 the first day. It was another OOP book, unavailable for over 2 decades…but…it was also a romance, which I have since learned are the biggest sellers in ebooks. With the third book,(Swept Away) I was thrilled when my numbers topped 250 (combined) for the month and I worked my butt off to get the fourth book (The Wind and the Sea)up and available in time for the Christmas bump. It bumped, alright…surprising me again by topping the 750 mark. I had priced TWATS a dollar higher simply because it was a much bigger book and had been the most in demand, with no supply available, over the years. I expected a post Christmas levelling off, or even a slide, but as you know from the BeB loop, I'm hoping to hit 1000 sales by the end of the month. As of this moment, I'm 12 short and expect to pass the mark some time today. This former skeptic has become a firm believer in the fact that self pubbing backlist offers the readers good books at a much lower price than even the ebook versions offered by print publishers. I have one book offered up by Dell, my former publisher (who also holds the rights to about 5 other books and will not relinquish them) at $12.95 for the Kindle version. Hello? $12.95? And the print version is listed at $21….this for a book that originally sold for $6.99. If they sell a thousand copies of it, I'd be thrilled of course, but I'll be lucky if it sells 2 at that price. Ebook royalties through print publishers run at 25%…better than the 10% for print copies, but still…the 70% is much more appealing, as is the monthly paycheque. I've never understood, especially in this day and age of computer technology, where a publisher can track the sale of a book to within a minute of it leaving the shelf of any store anywhere…why they hold fast to the archaic system of only paying the author twice a year. I've often wondered how the president of a publishing house would like the idea of getting paid twice a year only, and then not even knowing how much he was going to get and how much his employer was going to hold back for some vaguely described clause "reserves against returns". Yes, I'm rambling again. Don't get me started on publishing houses and payment systems LOL

    Actually, it's nice to vent on someone else's blog other than my own.

  10. Backlist Ebooks
    | Reply

    Jeff, it's interesting that your ebook sales have mysteriously surged in January, because mine have, too, and I wish I knew why so that I can reproduce the results. Self-publishing my backlist has been very, very good for me, I think because I've got lots of titles out there, including a 6-book mystery series, and at $2.99, people snap them all up if they like the sample. Konrath says the volcity model that defines traditional print publishing–big initial sales followed by a sharp fall-off–doesn't apply to e-publishing. Here's hoping he's right! 🙂

  11. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Thanks, all of you, for adding your experiences. It's boggling to see how varied it's been for all of us. There are definitely some numbers to aspire to here!

  12. Phoebe Matthews
    | Reply

    Excellent explanation, Jeff. My only addition is that the difference between re-releasing backlist and publishing new works is this – backlist are books that were edited by a publisher and meet the standards of that publisher.
    My own sales are going through the same curve, started very slowly but are gathering speed. Thanks for the information.

  13. Maryann Miller
    | Reply

    Jeff, thanks for sharing your experience. Alas, my e-book sales have not had that kind of dramatic increases. Still slow and steady with no significant jumps even when I advertise or promote them heavily. And they really are good books, honest. LOL

  14. Phoebe Conn
    | Reply

    Thanks for your numbers, Jeff, they're inspiring! I'm also with Backlistebooks.com and hope to see a similar rise in my sales. I'm pushing my current Samhain release, DEFY THE WORLD TOMATOES, and hope fans of it will seek out my backlist too.

  15. Patricia Rice
    | Reply

    At this point, my backlist ebooks are too spread out and my accounting too disorganized to give real numbers, although I might be selling one a day over all venues. No earth shaking dollar amounts but enough to cover the costs of scanning and covers, which is my intent for now. I have a huge backlist, so I'm experimenting in what works and what doesn't for now. I had some really nice sales through Regency Reads/Belgrave House that gave me start-up money, but I've had to pull six of those books because I've re-sold them to a print publisher. But I've added more titles to Amazon and B&N in hopes of eventually covering the gap. At this point, ebook sales are simply nice gravy, akin to foreign sales.
    In April, I hope to put up an original ebook. That will make an entertaining comparison to my print sales, but even then, not a fair one, since my print books are romance and the ebook is uncategorizable.
    So the real benefit of epubbing to me is being able to write an off the wall book and maybe find an audience outside of NYC.

  16. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    One data point I completely forgot to mention is that those books that are selling now are the very same books I gave away for two years, to the tune of tens of thousands of free downloads of each book. What we need now is a parallel universe in which we could see what happens if I didn't give away the books, or gave them away for a different length of time. Anyone have universe-portal I can borrow?

  17. Brenda Hiatt
    | Reply

    Jeff, first I want to applaud your use of the word "tachyonic." I'm another fellow Backlist Ebook author weighing in, though to date I only have one republished backlist book out there. (More to follow as soon as I get rights back!) I've seen something similar to your experience, though in a much shorter time frame: I'm doing MUCH better at B&N than at the Kindle store, and I have no clue why. Since putting my book up in late December, I've seen a total of 9 sales via Kindle but over 160 for the Nook. None so far at Smashwords, though I'm up to almost 20 sample downloads there. As of today, I've made over $300 on Nook sales alone, though, which will more than cover my costs so far (cover and Smashwords ISBN #). I'd call that a successful experiment, and it makes me all the more eager to get more of my books out there!

  18. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Brenda, the disparity between stores is truly puzzling. Is it the way books are chosen to pop up when people are searching for something else? Do Kindle and B&N appeal to distinctly different audiences? I'd really like to know.

    And I'm glad you liked "tachyonic" — my wife liked it, too. 🙂

  19. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    I don't know if it was folks reading this discussion and being inspired to try my books or what, but yesterday (when this post appeared) was my bestselling day yet:

    B&N – 17
    Amazon – 6
    SW – 1

    Cheers!

  20. Roger Pettibone
    | Reply

    Jeff, I can only give my personal reasons, but ebook format would be the biggest factor for one store or another. With B&N, it's possible to get an epub without dealing with ADE. With Amazon, you can get a mobi. depending on what device and or firmware you use, either might be a good reason. Assuming that one store or the other hasn't had a sale on one or your non-agency books…

    Or maybe B&N did something to highlight your book(s) as a "read in store"?

  21. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Roger, I'm not aware of any specials that would influence sales. But you just might have put your finger on something with the formats. It's true someone who wants a book in epub format would prefer B&N over Amazon–though I haven't been able to find any way for a potential customer to tell that the book is DRM-free. (In the Kindle store, you can tell, if you look carefully.)

    Really, Smashwords would seem like the place for the savvy reader to go, since you can download multiple formats there, and you know it won't have DRM. But I get fairly few sales there.

  22. Kristine Kathryn Rusch
    | Reply

    Jeff, your numbers match my early numbers. What I've seen is that the numbers have grown exponentially the more books/stories I put up electronically. I suspect Konrath's numbers started the same way.

    The reporting I'm getting from friends/colleagues is that romance sells best, followed by series books. I'm finding that in my experience, but then it bleeds into the genre. (I write mystery, sf, & romance.) All of my science fiction, from short stories to novels, is selling well, but it's because of the Retrieval Artist stories.

    I've also noticed that each venue is different, and each country is different. My nonfiction is selling really well in Australia, and not at all in England. My fantasy novels and mystery short stories are doing gangbuster sales in England, but not as much in the U.S. on Kindle. On Barnes & Noble, the mysteries are doing very well.

    I watched the numbers for a while, then realized they made me crazy, so I stopped. I am writing more now, because I want to, and I've revived some long-dead series. I'm having fun.

    What I like best is this: I can finally tell new readers to a series or to my work where to find old books. The books are no longer out of print!

  23. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Yes, that part is wonderful, Kris. I have one YA, Alien Speedway, that was out of print for about 30 years. It was finally reissued by a publisher (I didn't own the rights), and while I probably won't see much money from it even now, it's great to have it where readers can buy it.

  24. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    P.S. Anyone who's read this far will want to check out Kris's excellent blog series at
    http://kriswrites.com/2011/01/26/the-business-rusch-bad-decisions-and-the-midlist-writer-changing-times-part-15/ .

    (That's not the beginning, but you can find a good entry point from there.)

Post your comment before you lose your train of thought. (Mine already left the station.)