Lessons Learned from a Book Launch

My latest novel, ‘Stand against the Storm’ (SatS), was published in February 2015. I tracked its performance very closely for two reasons:

1. It was the first book I’ve published since Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU) subscription library was launched, so I monitored sales and ‘borrows’ very closely to see how the latter would affect the former.
2. I hadn’t published a book for nine months, so my sales had fallen off dramatically, proving the truth of the adage that for independent author/publishers, frequent and regular output is extremely important to maintain visibility in the market. I wanted to compare sales figures after such a hiatus with those before it, to see how much traction I’d lost.

The results have been very interesting from a number of perspectives. Here’s how the sales and lending graph looked for SatS during the first three weeks after publication in the US market alone. The red line is sales, the blue line is ‘borrows’ (almost all through KU, although some are through the Kindle Owners Lending Library [KOLL]).

Stand Against The Storm - US market - 3 weeks after launch

Analyzing the figures on a week-by-week basis is very interesting. During the first week, ‘borrows’ amounted to no more than 21.6% of sales (i.e. approximately 4½ sales for every ‘borrow’). During the second week they soared to 54.6% of sales (i.e. less than two sales for every ‘borrow’), and in the third week they jumped to 69.5% of ‘sales (i.e. less than 1½ sales for every ‘borrow’). Averaging the numbers over the entire three-week period, I sold approximately two copies of the book for every ‘borrow’.

It seems clear that if this pattern continues, in forthcoming weeks ‘borrows’ will overtake sales. This has serious implications for author earnings. At my book’s price point, compared to KU’s current author reimbursement level, I earn approximately twice as much for every sale as I do for a ‘borrow’. Therefore, on the surface, it would seem that KU is costing me a great deal of money… but is that really true? Let’s look more closely.

My previous best-ranked book in the Kindle Store was the third volume of the Maxwell Saga, ‘Adapt and Overcome’ (AaO). It achieved a ranking in the 830’s soon after publication, before falling back as sales declined. SatS rose much higher in the rankings, peaking at 503 in the second week after publication. Given that there are reportedly over a million paid titles in the Kindle Store and well over two million (paid and free) overall, to reach 503 makes me very happy! (SatS achieved, at its peak, second place on the ‘Hot New Releases’ list for Space Opera and #4 for Military Science Fiction. At the time of writing it’s still quite high on both lists, and also on the ‘Best Seller’ lists for Space Opera [#11] and Mil-Sci-Fi [#13], which is very pleasing.)

That sales rank, and those numbers on the ‘Hot New Releases’ and ‘Best Sellers’ lists, were buoyed in part by KU numbers. Every KU ‘borrow’ counts as a sale for ranking purposes. The question is, did my higher sales rank and higher list ranks make my book more visible to potential readers, thereby generating additional sales that I would not have achieved without the boost provided by KU ‘borrows’? I’m pretty sure both factors did, but I don’t have enough data to be able to say so with certainty. That’s very frustrating.

One way to analyze sales is to compare them to those of the previous book in the series. During its first three weeks on the market, AaO sold about 10% more copies than SatS did during the same period. However, AaO was the fourth book I’d published in a ten-month period, so at that point I’d built up a certain sales momentum that had been lost by the time SatS came out. Also, KU did not exist at that time, so there were no KU ‘borrows’ to add to the sales numbers.

KU unquestionably turned the situation around for my new book. Despite its lower sales total, if I combine sales and KU ‘borrows’ for SatS, the new book moved almost 44% more copies than its predecessor in its first three weeks on the market. Even at the lower earnings point of a ‘borrow’ versus a sale, I’ve still made significantly more money (so far) from the latest book than from the earlier one. I would not have done so if it weren’t for KU. Will the same be true in the longer term? I don’t know. I’ll watch the situation closely and report back in a few months.

There’s another perspective to all this – that of the reader. I don’t think Amazon launched KU on a whim. I think it saw the direction the entertainment industry as a whole was moving. Music streaming services such as Pandora or Spotify, and media streaming services such as Hulu or Netflix, had already demonstrated strong customer support for the subscription model. Amazon had followed suit with its Amazon Music and Amazon Instant Video services. Companies such as Oyster and Scribd were beginning to offer the same subscription model to book readers. I think Amazon saw the writing on the wall, and decided to launch Kindle Unlimited rather than be left behind.

If that’s what readers want (and, let’s face it, in these difficult economic times it’s all some readers can afford), then we as authors may have to accept a lower average income per transaction in order to maximize the total number of transactions (i.e. sales plus ‘borrows’). That may be the only way for us to remain competitive in the marketplace. It’s all very well to try to maximize income per transaction by operating on a sale-only basis. In my primary genres of space opera and military science fiction, some authors have gone that route. However, for most of us I suggest that in order to drive up our sales rank, which in turn makes our books more visible to prospective buyers, we probably need the boost provided by subscription readers – even if that earns us less money on average per transaction.

(For that matter, we need to put our readers first, just as Amazon places great emphasis on putting its customers first [do please read Jeff Bezos’ letter at that link]. If readers like our work, but can’t afford it, aren’t we going to add to their frustrations if we refuse to make it more affordable? Isn’t long-term reader loyalty – which is, after all, the foundation of the ‘1,000 True Fans’ marketing theory that I follow – just as important as short-term sales income, if not more so? After all, our readers/fans are the ones who’ll introduce our books to new readers by word of mouth, online reviews, etc.)

There’s also the aspect of ‘impulse buying’ to consider. If a reader likes one of our books and is considering buying the others in the series, he may not be able to afford them if money is tight. However, if he has a KU subscription he can simply borrow the other books in the series, one after another. They don’t cost him anything over and above his monthly subscription. He’s able to read more while putting at least some money in the author’s pocket – money that might not have been earned if the book was available only for purchase. Such readers may not support a ‘meat-and-three’ author earnings model, but they’ll help us buy bread and butter, and perhaps some cheese as well. There’s something to be said for that, particularly when times are hard.

There’s the possibility of raising the price of one’s books, in order to make more per sale to offset the lower income from each ‘borrow’. However, one has to price in line with the market. In my genres, a range of $2.99 to $4.99 seems the norm for most indie authors, with $3.99 as a popular mid-point. If one prices at a higher level, will one’s sales suffer? I suspect they will, but again, I don’t know for sure. The question can only be answered by experiment… but who’s going to bell the cat? In the absence of hard data, I’m reluctant to volunteer.

Finally, there’s the question of whether it’s wise to ‘put all our eggs in one basket’ – namely, Amazon.com. To be part of KU, our books also have to be part of the KDP Select program, which means they can’t be offered for sale anywhere other than Amazon. In my case, with minimal sales through other outlets, that decision seemed like a no-brainer… but will it always be like that? Might it not make sense to accept a lower short-term income from Amazon while building up other sales outlets, so that eventually the combined sales across all outlets will outstrip those that I might have made through Amazon alone? That’s a very valid question. At present I don’t have sufficient data to answer it; but the more income I derive from KU, the more my financial dependency on Amazon will grow, and the more difficult it will become to voluntarily reduce my income from that vendor in future in order to try other outlets. Is that healthy? Am I shooting myself in the metaphorical foot? I don’t know.

My wife Dorothy has been crunching the numbers on my latest book launch (marketing is her specialty, and she’s very good at it – I couldn’t have achieved this success without her). She’ll be writing a guest post for MGC this coming Sunday addressing a book promotion we did as part of the launch. She’ll show how it moved more copies of the first book in the Maxwell Saga, thereby increasing market ‘visibility’ for all the books in the series. You should read that article in conjunction with this one for more information.

I have three more book launches scheduled for 2015, if all goes well. I may use one of them as a ‘sale only’ experiment, to see whether sales without ‘borrows’ can match or exceed the income from a launch with both. If they can, it might make it easier to offer my books in more outlets than just Amazon.com. On the other hand, I’m mindful of readers who may not be able to afford my new book, even at its relatively low indie price, and may resent not being able to read it through KU. What to do? Any suggestions from my fellow Mad Genius Club authors and readers? Let’s hear from you in Comments, please.

24 Comments

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24 responses to “Lessons Learned from a Book Launch

  1. Draven

    I’m still grinding on my novella, seeing how i’ll be able to track sales gives me food for thought

  2. Laura M

    I feel silly making marketing suggestions to you, Peter, but if one of those three for this year is the first in a series, where there is less momentum, that might be the one to experiment with, and you can then compare it to your first Maxwell. It still won’t be apples to apples exactly, but people *need* the sequels.

    I’m about to publish my third book in May I hope. It’s going to beta readers now. My numbers are not those of Peter’s. The second book did a lot better than the first one right out of the box, but I don’t have series. The one place where I get the most sales besides Amazon is Smashwords, but only at the beginning. So, I’m thinking of putting Sleeping Duty on Smashwords and Kindle for the first 30 days, then taking it off Smashwords and going into Select. I wouldn’t even bother with the Premium catalog on Smashwords.

  3. John in Philly

    Peter,

    A readers thoughts on E-book pricing.

    The first part will go fast. E-book pricing of $ 1.99 to $ 5.99 is on a scale from, “I will try this book almost without a second thought,” to the higher end of, “I will think about it a little, then try this book.” If we move past that range to a much higher price, $ 9.99 or sometimes much higher, the result is, “I will not try this, because this is more than I am going to pay for electrons.” As an example, I read a novel in the horror genre bought on Kindle daily deals, $ 1.99, not much thought, push buy. I enjoyed it, recommended it to my wife and looked for the second novel in the series. The price was $ 9.99. So no second novel, and a lost sale. (When the E-book pricing is close to buying a paperback, then the answer will be no to the E-book and no to the paperback.)

    I have Amazon Prime, and I am reluctant to more than double the cost of Prime on a yearly basis to add book reading. And yet, it is a rare month when I fail to buy the Baen Book bundle, at a yearly cost substantially more than Kindle Unlimited. I tend to read hard scifi, as well as military scifi, and the bundle usually includes what I want to read as well as novels that I probably would not have read if I had to buy them individually. But once I have bought the bundle, I am exposed to a number of authors whose works do not fall into the genres I usually read and I have had great reading experience with some of those authors and have continued to buy their works outside of the bundles. So for my reading tastes, the Baen model works, and perhaps if all the Baen titles were on Kindle Unlimited, I might change my mind. And yet, I suspect that the enjoyment in reading genres outside of my normal interest would be lost in the much bigger scope of Kindle Unlimited.

    For now when the price of an E-book seems right, I will buy and read. When the price is high, (my opinion) I can park the book on my Amazon wish list and wait for a price drop.

    John in Philly

    Perhaps the food analogy would work.

  4. So, the question seems to be: are KU sales ‘cannibal’ sales, or are they additional sales? Common sense tells us you are getting some of both; some folks would buy the book, if it weren’t KU (cannibal), and some folks wouldn’t buy the book except as a KU.
    I think MGC authors need to share sales figures among themselves and see if they can pool enough data to make some good conclusions.
    Now, you say you make twice as much off a purchased book (P) as you do off a borrowed book (B), and that over the three week period, you averaged two purchases for every borrow. That means that your average income for those three weeks can be expressed as 5B. How does the income from your other books stack up, in terms of purchases and borrows? Does the ratio for EVERYBODY look about the same? How is it impacted by frequency of new releases?
    I don’t think you’ve got enough data to make a sound decision, but perhaps Amazon does. And even if Amazon doesn’t, if y’all share data, you might make an earth shaking discovery, or maybe not, but more data is better.
    Of course, personally, I vote for making it all KU. It’s how I read.

  5. And on the review thing, I thing my punished innards have recovered from the NSAIDS assault. I read and reviewed Pam Uphoff’s delightful “Mall Santa” and now I’ve just gotten her “Explorers (Wine of the Gods 4).”
    But I’m still taking requests.

  6. Hi Peter, no suggestions but I’ll be doing a soft launch of the next Colplatschki book next week, so we can compare experiences. I’m still hesitating about KSelect or not. I had a launch in mid-January that was far slower than before (as in, less than 10% of previous series book sales), and sales have dried up since Feb 15 or so, so I’m curious to see what happens with this next book.

    • I’m curious why the sales would be ‘less than 10% of previous series book sales’. What circumstances differed in January compared to earlier launches? What circumstances were the same? If you could do a sort of chart, figuring out similarities and differences, you might be able to pinpoint something. Talk to Dorothy – I’m sure she’ll be able to help. (I rely on her absolutely when it comes to marketing. She’s my guru as well as my wife, lover and best friend!)

      • I suspect one problem was the launch – too close to the arrival of people’s post-holiday bills. Initial pricing (high for the length) and lack of push probably also didn’t help. And the book is much, much quieter than the previous titles. (Next two have lots of fighting, battles, and other busy stuff.) But yes, I’m not working next week (Spring Break) and I intend to sit down and chart the different sales patterns, and a few other things I need to be doing.

  7. Experiments are really tough, when you’ve got the background of seasonal sales fluctuations as well as the multiyear economic situation affecting sales as well. And, of course, Amazon.com making large changes, without regard to your scientific experiment.

    I decided anything less than a year wasn’t a long term useful sample. So last year I followed DWS’s advise to “price like a professional” and bumped all my novels up to $5.99. Doubled my income over 2013, when my highest was $4.99.

    Of course, KU started in the fall, and sales tanked . . . except they started tanking well before that. And continued into January. I switched all my prices back to $4.99 or less, but if anything, sales have continued to sag. But then I haven’t had any new releases for 4 months now, which always affects total sales.

    I’m working on the next experiment.

  8. sabrinachase

    I believe Hugh Howey, Joe Konrath, and (if memory serves) Lindsay Buroker did pricing experiments. General trend is you get more income (but fewer sales) with higher price points. There is some “value signaling” that goes with a (slightly) higher price. It depends on what is more important at this particular time in your career–income, or number of readers? Personally, I am focused on increasing my readership while not appearing “cheap.” The first book in Sequoyah is priced as a loss leader to tempt, but not free. My own personal price limit is about $6, so I try not to go over that with my own books.

    I looked into Kindle Unlimited a few months after it started. First off, I looked at the competition in the Fantasy/SF category, and I have to say I was underwhelmed. There wasn’t much I’d be willing to pay $10 a month for. However, I did put my latest book, Jinxers, in Select. Why? Because it is my first Young Adult novel. My existing readership might not have any interest in it, so I need to find my new audience. At least for three months, it is worth harnessing the mighty Amazon marketing engine to see if it helps get the word out and maybe some reviews.

    Subscription services are a thing right now, but I’m not convinced they will last. I’m not poor, and I read a LOT, but I don’t have any–not music, not movies, not books. The items on offer are just not worth it to me. But, perhaps I am an outlier. Time will tell…

  9. masgramondou

    As a reader I have made a note that I will not subscribe to KU unless I’m really hurting for money so that I can give more to the authors who entertain me.

  10. Jim (Psyphyr)

    My rule of thumb for unknown authors (before KU) was that I would pay no more than a penny a page. With KU I have options on many unknowns and have been pleasantly surprised. I am not easily deterred by misspellings and homonyms, so this helps. I got the latest from Peter on KU, but decided to purchase it to add to my permanent collection after reading it.
    Because I have KU, my spending on unknowns has dropped significantly. At the very least having the first book in a series on (in?) KU can set the hook and has induced me to buy later books — the authors are no longer unknowns.
    Also, I notice that some authors have compiled several books together and offer them on KU. I would recommend selling them separately to maximize profit and leave the omnibus for purchase.

    • Dorothy Grant

      Unfortunately, Amazon’s TOS requires exclusivity. Thus, any story in KDP Select (And therefore KU) must be in select both in standalone and anthology (bundle) formats.

  11. Ahhh, the pricing question. I’m a newb who hates marketing, so I decided on a simple strategy: publish wide, price my new releases at 4.99, and wait to do serious promotion until I have at least 10 books published. Once I decided that, I became much more relaxed 😉

  12. I remember a scene in a comic book (Omaha the Cat Dancer if you must know) where they go to the ritziest restaurant in town. Omaha remarks on how empty the place is, and Chuck replies that they’re probably waiting for the one customer who will pay all the bills for the month.

    So I’m guessing it means that you have to know your audience. Does your book appeal to a very small, but fervent audience that simply MUST have it? Price it high. Does it instead appeal to a mass market whose standards aren’t as strict, in competition with a flood of others? Then price is one of the areas where you need to complete in order to get Volume. And marketing may be required to rise above the noise and be noticed.

    And for a series, the first volume is a loss leader, make sure it’s available cheap and easily. As the drug dealers say, “The first hit is free.”

  13. You talk about becoming dependent upon Amazon. Do you think that is also one of their strategies? If you are invested in them, you are more likely to do things that support them.

    • Honestly, no. Amazon’s pretty transparent in their aims and goals, and the main one is relentless drive for customer satisfaction. That means their energy is focused on making things better / faster / less expensive for the customer, on innovating and experimenting and projects. Supplier dependency and control looking the other way, on focusing on how to lock vendors in and squeeze out competition. They’re mutually incompatible mindsets.

      Think the classic Walmart move: giving a vendor an juicy exclusive contract, so big it requires an expansion, then killing the contract right after they over-expanded and are in debt to their eyeballs, so the company is on the brink of bankruptcy, then renegotiating the contract for barely survivable profit and cost saving. Now compare that to Amazon’s creating a kindle market with most of the perks on only a 3-month exclusivity contract instead of lifetime of copyright, monthly payments instead of the industry standard of quarterly, no need for an expensive ISBN, and 70% royalties if you price where they want you to. And pre-orders. And all the changes you want. The constant innovation and experimentation can drive a body lightly nuts, trying to keep up, but you can’t complain that they’re trying to lock out your other options and keep you on thinnest survivable profit margins.

      • I wasn’t thinking about them squeezing you, but making everything so good that you’d only want them. There is a way to eliminate other options by the high road rather than the low ….

        • Amazon makes so much money selling everything else, especially hard to find stuff, that they can easily afford to give you the beast return on things that are basically intangible like eBooks. It’s almost exactly like printing money.

          They seem to be the only “publisher” to realize this.

  14. Peter, thanks for the shout-out on your blog today! It’s been interesting the last day, tracking the sale trajectory and seeing how different this one is from the last time I did this, back in Dec. I will take a page from your book and blog about it here next week – not enough data to talk about it tomorrow.

  15. Okay, I just posted my review of Pam Uphoff’s “Explorers (Wine of the Gods #4) on Amazon and my blog.
    Yes, I expect her sales to soar immediately to heights previously unknown, or I will take names.
    You have been warned.

  16. Pingback: Lessons Learned from a Book Launch, Part II | madgeniusclub