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]).
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.