Of Apple and Amazon and e-book sales

Sitting here this morning, wondering why I dreamed about having to bug-out because of an invasion of man-eating spiders (which, btw, are a lot worse than zombies because spiders can hide in much smaller places), I scanned the publishing news for the last few days and found myself wondering if we’ve stepped back in time. No, a quick glance at the calendar confirmed we haven’t. So I guess it is just more of the same-old-same-old while everyone waits to see what happens with the public hearing on copyright (and, yes, I will get to that but it will be next week. There’s a lot of material to wade through and I’m just now starting to feel well enough to do that sort of heavy reading)

The first example of how there are some in publishing that just don’t want to give up even in the face of overwhelming odds, is Apple. Even after losing the price fixing suit filed by the Department of Justice — and this after being abandoned by most of its named co-defendants when they settled the case instead of going to trial — Apple continues to fight. It now is trying to get the class action law suit against it dismissed. Now, most of the time, I wouldn’t think twice about this sort of thing. This isn’t one of those times. Apple is basically using the same arguments it used in the price fixing case to get this suit dismissed — arguments that obviously didn’t work. If you’ve already been told by a judge that your actions were not “pro-competitive and beneficial to consumers,” why are you still arguing it?

The only explanation I can come up with is that Apple simply isn’t used to losing. A company with very deep pockets, it rarely comes out on the short end of the stick. I have a feeling Apple will soon find itself on the short end again. Judge Cotes has already ruled once on this assertion and I don’t see her accepting it now. But Apple being Apple, they will keep trying and we will keep watching. More than that, considering how slowly cases proceed through the courts, the supervision period set out by Judge Cotes will probably have run its course before Apple exhausts all its appeals and then everything will be moot anyway.

Then there’s this article in Publisher’s Weekly about how the slowing e-book sales are a “mixed blessing”. When I saw the blurb for the article, I almost didn’t click over to the full piece. Part of me expected it to be another post extolling the fact that e-books really are nothing more than a flash in the pan and now that the “ooooh shiny” has worn off, folks will get back to buying print books. Fortunately for the continued existence of my laptop, it wasn’t all about that. The article does point out that you can’t keep up with triple digit sales increases over a long period of time. It also notes, as several of us here at MGC have, that the initial leap in sales had a lot to do with people buying e-book readers and tablets and getting books to go on them. That’s the sort of thing you see with any new tech. Just watch the increase in sales of video games over the next few months as the PS4 and XBox One — and the associated new gen games — hit the market.

However, this article — like so many others — is hampered by the fact that it is using figures that are no more accurate than BookScan sales numbers. That means whole markets are being left out as are a huge amount of indie and small press titles. Does this mean e-books sales haven’t slowed? Probably not. What I would bet on, however, is that they haven’t slowed as much as the study alleges and that means the gap between print sales and digital sales probably isn’t narrowing as much as is being assumed.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying e-book sales are continuing to rising at triple digit levels. Nor am I saying the print section of the industry is doomed. My issue is that articles like this, based on data provided by third parties hired by interested parties in the debate, never give the full story. We don’t know what sources were used to determine sales. We don’t know if they used only sales from major publishers or from only members of AAP. We all know that studies like this can be manipulated and being the suspicious person that I am, I need to know the background information before accepting such a study at face value.

Then I came across this article from Dear Author and I thought that, for cone, I was going to have to disagree with them. But I can’t because I agree. The basic set up is this: a new e-book comes out and you buy it right away because you like the description or you’ve read other things by the author, etc. Being an e-book and (probably) written by an indie, you don’t mind dropping $4.99 or so for it. After all, you know the author’s work or you checked out the preview and it is less than that half-caf venti mocha you planned on for the afternoon.

So you click the pretty gold button on the product page and wait for the e-book to be downloaded to your e-reader or tablet and go off happily to read your new book.

Only to discover a few days later that the author has put the book on sale for 99 cents.

Now, $4.oo isn’t going to break me but, I guarantee you, I’m not happy to discover that I have just been penalized for being an early purchaser of the book. We’re not talking about a book that’s been out for months or even years. We’re talking about a book that has been out just a week or so. As Dear Author says, “Those on the pricing side can use price promotions to drive sales, but to do so at the cost of alienating loyal fans for not much long term gain seems counterintuitive.”

And that brings up the whole question of just when and how to promote your work which, in turns, brings up the question of do you go exclusively with one retailer or not. Amazon offers some great promotional programs for indies and small presses — if you go exclusively with Amazon for at least three months. If you ask three authors what they think about “limiting” yourself this way and you will get three different answers. One author will tell you that to go exclusive is to cut out sales venues and that means fewer sales. The next author will tell you that you should consider it but only after you’ve had your work out for at least six months or a year on all outlets to see where your best sales are. The third will tell you to definitely do it because Amazon is the gorilla in the marketplace and you can choose to not have DRM which means your buyers can convert their e-books into whatever format they want.

The correct answer is there is no correct answer. You have to decide for yourself what works best and, to do that, you need to know where your sales come from. You also have to consider how quickly you get paid. Then there is how quickly sales channels are updated so you can see what your sales trends are. But to simply discount an option because it comes from “evil Amazon” is to potentially cut off a viable promotional tool that can increase your sales.

Now, if the other outlets want to compete, they need to offer similar tools for authors. Frankly, I don’t want to write my book online using a retailers interface. I don’t want to wait weeks and months for a book to get through the review process (which I’ve been doing on a couple of titles and have finally pulled them and am resubbing them with some strategic changes in tagging and descriptions). I don’t want to risk having my books pulled from sales because someone thinks they are erotica based on a tag someone besides me put on them.

In other words, it is still up to us to keep on top of what is happening in the business. We have to educate ourselves about trends and programs and apps and all other things that can make our job easier and bring us into closer contact with our readers.


  1. I’m very new to this so don’t know what I’m talking about, but I’ve been figuring on leaving novels at a set price. After I get my second book up this winter, I hope to put up short stories. Those I will give away or price low. The novels will just sit there at their first price. This is embarrassing, but when I first published in May, I set the price at 5.99. Friends and family bought it at that price. I kept looking and realized that was just not right given my unknown status, and dropped it to 3.99. I felt guilty about my friends and family, but I had priced it wrong. If I write sequels, I’ll think about lowering the prices of the first ones. But that will be a while from now. Quite a while.

    1. I start with a week at a lower price, for the folks who have me on their “buy-this-author” list, then raise the price.

        1. You can change the price on your own, on all platforms, iirc. The problem is that you have to time it so there isn’t one with a lower price than any of the others for very long. If they catch a lower price somewhere, they can — and sometimes will — lower the price on their own and it becomes a battle of wills to get them to put it back to where you want it. However, if you are part of the KDP Prime program, you can set up the pricing program where you can have it at varying price levels for a certain period of time. They will note on your product page what the regular price is, what the sales price is and how long that price is good for before it goes up.

          1. I didn’t do Prime for the first one, but that seems like a good idea for the next one, just so I can show that the initial is a lower price than normal. It will whip the readers into a frenzy. Or something. 🙂

            I was determined to get it up on all platforms, but it still took me (me, not Smashwords) a couple of months to get it up to Smashwords, so I might as well take advantage of that lag.

            1. Laura, see what your sales are like across the board. If Amazon is not your main market by far, then you may not want to remove sales channels. However, if you are like me and that is where most of your sales come from, putting your work into Prime for a limited period wouldn’t hurt. Just remember, it auto-renews unless you go in and manually take it out of the program.

              1. It’s ten to one for me, Amazon to everything else combined. 90 days of lag will be fine, especially because 60 days of it will be me doing the smashwords conversion. Oh, please, let it go faster this time!

                1. I, personally, hate Smashwords and only use them for a couple of outlets they can get us into. If I had a choice, I’d do away with them completely.

                    1. Just about everything, starting with the limitations of having to use their meatgrinder since uploading an epub seriously limits where your work can go all the way to the delayed reporting. Between the fact they only report out quarterly and that means some payments may be six months or so after the sale and their lousy spreadsheet, it is almost impossible to run any sort of sales tracker on them and compare it to other outlets. Then there are the formatting issues that arise from their meatgrinder, the sometimes very lengthy delays in getting anything published, etc., and I try my best to avoid them.

                    2. The guidebook for the meatgrinder was less than ideal. I wound up supplementing with Amazon’s guidebook for converting to Kindle. And crossing my fingers and holding my breath.

      1. Another question: do you signify somehow that there will be a price increase? Or, do you just quietly do it, and those in the know are the ones who know?

        1. Laura, it’s a list of people I know (or know of through blogs, e-mail, and so on) who have said they keep an eye out for my next release. When I announce the release, I also announce the price will be X for a week or ten days, then it will be Y. When the time expires, up the price goes.

        2. Laura, it’s a good idea if you are cutting the price after publication to note that this is a sales price and is good for only X number of days. If, on the other hand, you have it lower for a certain period of time after publication, you can note it but you don’t have to.

    2. Laura, there’s nothing wrong with adjusting the price. Where I have a problem as a reader is when an author almost instantly puts it on sale after I just paid full price for it on release date. That really is punishing your early purchasers, especially those who may have pre-ordered your book at full price. Now, several months later, there’s nothing wrong, imo, with putting it on sale for a few days to boost sales, especially if you are about to bring out the next title in the series.

  2. Re. print vs. e-books and the slowing growth curve. I’d be surprised if sales of genre e-books as compared to print books doesn’t continue to climb, although more slowly than it has in the past. There’s so much more variety in genre e-books than genre print books that unless the “gatekeepers” realize that the finger writing on the wall is not giving them the number of the new shawarma place around the corner, the e-books are going to squeak past print.

    Apple reminds me of the Mad Hatter trying to repair the watch with butter. When Alice says it won’t work, he protests, “But it’s the best butter!” Apple says: Honest your honor, this is a great argument! You just have to give it another chance.

    1. I think you’re right about genre books. We’re seeing it already in science fiction and some other genres. The ability to self-published or go through small presses that don’t tell you what PC idea of the day you have to conform to has opened up a lot of avenues for writers and readers — thankfully.

      As for Apple, I’m reminded of the kid on the playground who wants everyone else’s toys and gets mad when he can’t have them.

      1. I think I understand what Apple is doing, and I’m afraid it makes sense. You see, the the folks there don’t actually give a damn about selling books: iBooks is a pinprick on a wart on a hair on an appendage of their main business.

        Their main business is selling iPhones and iPads (and iWhateverWeComeUpWithNext), and to sell those, they’ve got to sell apps (and music and films). But apps, music, and films are all sold on the same agency deal that the DoJ forbade them to use on books. So if they can’t get the decision overturned, the entire business model of the iTunes Store will go poof as soon as some judge waves his wand and utters the magic words, ‘Stare decisis!’

        That would matter to Apple. The film and record companies (which are mostly the same gigantic firms) wouldn’t sell through Apple at all unless they were offered the same kind of absolute price control that Apple has just been punished for offering to publishers. They made the same deal, ladies and gentlemen, and if one case is illegal, then the others are illegal too, and the whole ‘Apple ecosystem’ is one court order away from a mass extinction.

        I’d fight against that if I were in Apple’s shoes. Wouldn’t you?

  3. So, if I put out some short teasers for 99 cents to garner some good reviews, then start the first book in the series at a low price. If it takes off, then bring the rest in at a standard, according to the market for that genre, price, it would probably work out best. Not necessarily to make a fortune; but, to avoid fluctuations in the future. That’s doable.

    1. I don’t know. I have no problem bringing out short stories for 99 cents, especially if they are promoting a later, longer work. But the first book should be priced within the range of what other e-books in that niche are going for. Of course, you have to take into account if this is your first book or your tenth out there as well as if you are self-publishing or going through a small press, even if it is your own. The reason I say this is because there are folks who won’t buy self-published books or, if they do, won’t pay more than 1.99 or so for them. So it really becomes a balancing act of factors to consider.

  4. Annoyingly, it seems that it is possible to return eBooks if you do it within a week. A friend of mine has had this happen. He was surprised to see the return, but then quickly it turned into each and every book in his catalog being bought, read, and returned, apparently by someone in Europe, where some say this practice is actually encouraged. Amazon will do nothing to stop this abuse.

    1. Actually, Amazon does do something when it sees there is someone abusing the system. There have been cases where accounts have been frozen for a period of time or even deleted because of serial returns.

      But I will admit it is a problem. We have one title where for the first few months the ratio of returns to sales ran something like 1 in 8. Now, considering there were no bad reviews being left and no one contacted Amazon to tell them it was because of anything in particular, all we could do was assume these were folks buying, reading and returning. Then we talked to other authors in that particular genre and found out it is something that happens on a regular basis.

      Frustrating? Oh yeah. But as one who has accidentally purchased an e-book, I like being able to return it. However, I have never read a book and then returned it. That’s what libraries are for.

    2. Amazon will do nothing to stop this abuse.

      I believe that’s because in the European Union, retailers are required to tolerate it. Liberal return policies aren’t just a cookie to attract customers; in Europe, they’re the law.

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