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Lessons learned from a trilogy: an interim report, and Kindle Unlimited observations

A few months ago, I wrote about an experimental trilogy, with which I hoped to improve my marketing dynamics and revitalize my writing career after some health-related doldrums.  The trilogy is “Cochrane’s Company“, and its third and final book, “The Pride of the Damned“, was published on Monday this week.  So far, it (and the trilogy as a whole) are selling nicely, thank you.

The Pride of the Damned - blog size 350 pixel

Dorothy and I have learned a great deal in the process of writing and publishing this trilogy.  Many of those lessons are works in progress, and I’ll elaborate on them in another article a month or two down the road.  However, some are immediately apparent, and I thought you might like an advance look at what we’ve either found out, or had reinforced by the market.  Some of the lessons are new to us.  Others are old news, but reinforced by current market trends.

An important take-away for me was that a book’s sales rank in Amazon’s Kindle Store is no longer a reliable guide to its actual volume of sales.  It used to be the case that a given rank, or range of ranks, in the Kindle Store could be equated to an approximate number of sales per day.  That was true when I started self-publishing in 2013, and continued to be the general rule for the next couple of years.  However, this trilogy has taught us that it’s no longer universally true.  For example, with the second book of the trilogy, “An Airless Storm“, its sales rank fluctuated up, down and back again by over 8,000 (i.e. between the mid-2,000’s and the mid-10,000’s) over the course of about ten days.  During those days, the number of copies sold, and the number of Kindle Unlimited pages read, per day were almost identical.  Clearly, the fluctuation in the book’s sales rank was not due to it selling more or fewer copies, but because other books, across all genres, were selling better (or worse) than it.  This observation has been repeated on several occasions for individual books in the series, and for the trilogy as a whole.

Cochrane's Company Books 1, 2 and 3 - 350 pixel

The reason is obvious.  When I started self-publishing, there were about 2½ million books in the Kindle Store, paid and free.  Today there are well over 7 million, and the total will probably exceed 8 million by the end of this year.  The market has broadened and flattened.  One is now competing against a much bigger basket of other books for a potential reader’s attention;  and the sheer size of the Kindle Store means that sales rank is a less useful indicator than it was.

For example, when there were 2½ million books in the Kindle Store, to be in the top 1% meant one’s book was among the best-selling 25,000 titles.  Today, with about three times that many books in the Kindle Store, the same percentage ranking means one’s book is in the best-selling 75,000-odd titles.  That’s a big change, allowing for a lot more fluctuation in sales performance within a given percentage ranking.  To use the old analogy, it’s like going from being a big fish in a small pond, to being just another fish in a much bigger pond, where larger fish are more frequently encountered.

By such a measure, all three books in my new trilogy are, as I write these words, ranked (by sales) in the top one-tenth of 1% of books in the Kindle Store:  but so are about 7,500 other books!  That’s not so special as it sounds, is it?  (I’m not complaining, you understand – I’m very pleased by that performance.  I’m just trying to put things into perspective.)  It drives home the reality that, with some notable exceptions, most authors making good money in the Kindle Store are doing so by having many books available, none of which need necessarily be highly ranked, but each of which regularly earns a moderate amount of money.  It’s usually the cumulative total that produces their overall income, rather than one standout title.  In a future, more detailed “lessons learned” article, I’ll mention a few authors by name and describe how they’ve achieved success, reinforcing that lesson.

Another major impact on sales rank has been provided by Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription library program, launched in 2014.  It’s grown enormously.  Amazon doesn’t reveal how many subscribers there are, but if we apply the methodology previously used by Written Word Media to May 2018’s KDP Select Global Fund amount (which Amazon has announced was $22.5 million), KU probably has anywhere from five to ten million current subscribers.  A significant proportion appear to be voracious readers, consuming five to ten books every month, and sometimes more.  Amazon equates a single “borrow” of a book by a KU reader with a unit sale for ranking purposes.  Thus, a large number of KU readers can “bump up” a book’s sales rank very significantly without actually selling a single copy of the book.  More on that later.

One’s choice of genre has implications for how many books one can expect to sell, irrespective of their quality.  For example, a fiction genre like romance has a much larger sales volume than many others, as shown in Author Earnings’ January 2018 report, from which the graphic below is drawn.

Author Earnings January 2018 report 1

The competition between authors within that genre is consequently… well, I was going to say cutthroat, but that’s not very romantic, is it?  It’s harder for an author to stand out and be noticed in so large a genre, and become a best-seller.  On the other hand, sales are so large in that genre that almost any competent romance author with basic marketing skills can be moderately successful, even if their books aren’t of the highest quality and/or don’t become bestsellers.

Many of us here at Mad Genius Club publish science fiction and/or fantasy novels.  Those two genres are good examples of how the number of readers affects authors.  In its May 2018 presentation to SFWA, Author Earnings provided these two slides.  Note the unit sales in each graph.

Author Earnings SF ebook sales May 2017 to April 2018

Author Earnings Fantasy ebook sales May 2017 to April 2018

It’s clear that the fantasy genre sells three to four times more books than science fiction.  That has implications for those writing for the smaller science fiction market, or in smaller, less popular sub-genres within SF or fantasy.  To stand out, they’ve got to write better, more interesting books than other authors, because there aren’t as many readers in the genre/sub-genre to easily sell slipshod work or poor writing.  That may be less true for fantasy authors, because the number of potential readers for their books is considerably larger, allowing them to achieve a greater volume of sales merely by being in the market, thereby appealing to casual buyers who haven’t noticed them before, and are willing to take a chance on one or two of their books.  Authors in that larger genre don’t have to stand out to the same extent as in SF, unless they want to attain “star” status (which all of us do, right?)

This is a very important consideration if we want to actually earn a living from our writing.  We’re less likely to succeed in that if we write in a genre with a smaller number of readers, because we’ll sell fewer books.  If money is an important motivation, we need to consider writing in genres offering more readers – and thus more money.  Food for thought, and something I’m considering as I plan future books and series.  I enjoy the SF genre, and will continue to write in it, but I’m going to give careful attention to writing more fantasy as well, because I need to “follow the money” to earn my daily bread.  I don’t think I would be very successful in some fantasy sub-genres (e.g. paranormal & urban, romantic, LGBT, etc.), because I don’t have their sort of mindset, but I can perform well in others – as evidenced by the relative success of my first sword-and-sorcery fantasy novel, “King’s Champion“, last year.  (Thanks, Cedar Sanderson, for a great cover!)

Kings champion - blog size

I must see what I can do to build on that debut in the genre.

There’s also the factor of how readers are getting access to our books.  Subscription and streaming services have come to dominate many entertainment markets, and books are no exception.  Kindle Unlimited has now become a dominant force in the Kindle Store, affecting sales performance and rank to a very great extent.  It pays less per completed read than a unit sale, but it has many more subscribers who are potential readers, offering the potential to make up in quantity what’s lacking in the “quality” of a full sale price.  A large number of successful indie authors on Amazon, including several who discussed the issue with us at LibertyCon a couple of weeks ago, now estimate that KU “borrows” account for half to three-quarters of their income, dominating “straight” sales by a healthy margin.  Since a “borrow” equates to a sale for Amazon’s ranking purposes, that makes their books look much healthier in the Kindle Store rankings, attracting more readers due to its/their “success”.  Effectively, a book not entered in the KU program may have to outsell a KU-boosted competitor by three to four times in order to achieve a comparable sales rank in the Kindle Store.  That’s a daunting challenge.

That also comes back to the issue of sales rank I mentioned earlier in this article.  Readers in really big genres such as romance are often very heavy consumers of KU books.  It’s far cheaper for them to read dozens of novels a month via KU than to buy them.  Therefore, sales ranks in the romance genre are often propelled much higher by KU “borrows” than by actual sales, which in turn puts downward pressure on the sales ranks in the Kindle Store of books in other genres.  That explains the fluctuations I observed in the ranking of my books.  They were performing just fine, and very stably.  It wasn’t their sales and “borrows” that were affecting their sales rank, but the sales and “borrows” of other books.

I note, too, that for my 90,000-100,000 word novels, published at $4.99 each, one Kindle Unlimited “borrow” (if read cover-to-cover, or whatever the electronic equivalent of that is) pays me a little under half the royalty that I’d earn from a sale.  Effectively, it’s as if I were receiving a 30-35% royalty rate instead of the 70% I earn under the Kindle Select program.  I can’t help but wonder whether this might not be deliberate on Amazon’s part.  If authors become accustomed to earning at that level through Kindle Unlimited, and if KU “borrows” increasingly outnumber sales, might Amazon not in future consider dropping its 70% KDP Select royalty rate for e-book sales, and paying us 35% across the board (its “standard” royalty rate), on the grounds that most of us are earning at that level anyway?  (That’s what it’s said to pay to authors it publishes under Amazon Publishing imprints such as 49 North, Montlake, Grand Harbor, etc.)  I can’t mind-read Amazon, but that possibility sounds very plausible to me.  More money for Amazon, less for us.  Hmmm…

While on the subject of selling price, I note that Amazon’s price recommendations for authors, when publishing a book via KDP Select, are trending significantly downwards.  They used to be in the $3.99 to $6.99 range for my books.  Those same books are now uniformly recommended to be priced at $2.99 (as the article linked above also found).  Is this because of market demand, or because Amazon is trying to condition authors to expect a lower return on sales price, one more in line with what they can earn through a KU “borrow”?  Your guess is as good as mine… but I know what mine is.

Amazon’s recommendation does not square with Author Earnings’ January 2018 report, which offers this graphic of actual sales by price point on Amazon up to that date.

Author Earnings January 2018 report 2

I’ve also heard from some readers of my new trilogy, saying that they found $4.99 a little excessive as a price for an independently published e-book, and regarded $3.99 as more realistic.  That wasn’t the case in earlier years, and isn’t in line with the Author Earnings figures above. Why is it now an expectation? Who or what is driving it?  Is it the effect of KU?  Is it subtle marketing propaganda from Amazon and/or other vendors?  I’d be interested in hearing from readers here about that.  Do you think that $4.99 is now too high for an indie novel?  If so, why?  What do you think is an appropriate price point for a quality indie e-book, and why?

There’s a lot more to say about frequency of publication, book length, outsourcing of various elements of the writing process, and other things.  As I said, the lessons we’ve learned through publishing this trilogy at 30-day intervals are still being analyzed, and I’ll have more to say about them in a month or two.  Nevertheless, I hope that these initial thoughts and analyses are useful to you.  Please discuss them in Comments, and ask any questions that come to mind.  Dorothy and I will do our best to answer them.

 

35 Comments Post a comment
  1. In pricing my trilogy, I did something I expect to do whenever I manage to get my next series out – price the initial book at a lower price point, then the following ones up a bit. For example $2.99, then 4.99. I figure if they like the first, it’s a loss leader to pull them into the rest of the series. Of course, I have to write well enough for the reader to want to do this!

    And thanks for the compliment on the cover, I am rather happy with how that turned out.

    July 13, 2018
  2. Draven #

    did you not use larger versions of those images on purpose? I can’t quite read them.,

    July 13, 2018
    • WordPress automatically sized the images like that. For a larger view, right-click on the image and select “View image”, or whatever command your OS uses. That will open it at full size in another window.

      July 13, 2018
  3. “We’re less likely to succeed in that if we write in a genre with a smaller number of readers, because we’ll sell fewer books.”

    Today in the 20Books group, there’s a writer who showed us her earnings over eight months for her erotic “m/m age play” stories: $104,000.

    She found a niche where the majority of the books were sub-standard so her books stood out.

    “For example, when there were 2½ million books in the Kindle Store, to be in the top 1% meant one’s book was among the best-selling 25,000 titles. Today, with about three times that many books in the Kindle Store, the same percentage ranking means one’s book is in the best-selling 75,000-odd titles. That’s a big change….”

    I would be much more interested in learning if the line has shifted downward for making a decent income.

    And thank you very much for sharing this information. It’s nutritious food for thought.

    July 13, 2018
    • It’s become more difficult to sell a lot, which means it’s more difficult to earn a good living. In my best month prior to my health issues, I made about $21K. Since then, even with this trilogy, I’ve never even come close to that. I hope to in due course, but it’ll take a few more novels and sustained effort at marketing.

      I’d say the average indie author on Amazon now makes about one-quarter to one-half of what they would have made five years ago, solely due to the greatly expanded market and the difficulty of gaining visibility among so many books and writers. One really needs to make an effort to stand out if one’s to be noticed. Writing high-quality books doesn’t hurt, either – something I try very hard to do. I’m constantly puzzled by how books that are poorly edited, with lots of misspellings and bad formatting, can be expected to sell well; yet, some authors (none of the MGC crowd, AFAIK, I’m pleased to say!) continue to put out work like that. Bad idea.

      July 13, 2018
      • TRX #

        Judging by what I see on email and in forums, some large percentage of readers probably doesn’t even notice spelling errors, much less formatting issues.

        July 13, 2018
    • Dorothy Grant #

      From what I can see on the data, is appears (and I may be mistaken) that the pool of readers is expanding – so supply and demand are both rising, though not in equal amounts nor at the same time.

      Therefore, the very few books that go viral are doing better; the reliable bestsellers (King, Patterson, etc.) with push are seeing their sales go down as a lot of push becomes ineffective in the face of mass choice, the trad midlist with no push is watching a lot of their sales dry up, and the new indie midlist that creates their own push is exploding, as is the long-tail low sales end… but the list of high-earners has a lot of turnover, and is still a very small pool compared to the expanding pool of authors who want to be in it.

      So there are, comparatively, more people making high 5 to 6 figures, but it’s a lot harder to stay making that long term. There are a lot more people making 4-5 figures than there used to be, but again, there’s no guarantee that 4 figures this year is 4 figures next year.

      Some of this, too, is the maturing of the market – what passed as “good enough” covers and blurbs 5 years ago no longer are good enough to attract the buyers. Some cover art styles have changed in genre and subgenre, as well, so old covers can look dated and less interesting/exciting.

      Some is the aging out of marketing techniques – multi-author box sets turned out to have an effective marketing life of roughly 12 months, max. So what used to work no longer does near as well.

      Some is burnout or personal crises that affect production, or popular series reaching their natural end and the next one not being as popular, or switching genre…

      And some is just the sheer amount of entertainment available – not just books, but Netflix, Steam, CrunchyRoll, and so on… we’re working harder and harder to be the entertainment that’s worth their beer money.

      July 13, 2018
  4. Has anyone tracked the SF/F overlap, or does Amazon even allow such things? For instance Brian Neimeier’s “Soul Cycle” series is pushed (by Mr. N.) as SF/Horror, and it has elements of both. But from what I’ve read so far, it could also be SF/Fantasy well enough, and would selling the same book to both demographics help sales by double-shelving, or harm them by confusing Amazon about which sole niche to stuff it into?

    July 13, 2018
    • Don’t forget that authors are the ones who decide which categories/genres to use, and which keywords. Amazon doesn’t make that call. If we pigeonhole our book in “Horror” when it might be better suited in “Comedy” . . . that’s our problem.

      That said, one of the things I’ve learned from Dorothy is to look at the search terms through which readers found my books. If a lot of them are searching for a keyword I haven’t used to describe the book, among others, then I may revisit my keyword selection and revise it to incorporate that keyword. It means one has to be constantly vigilant, and monitoring one’s market – but that’s part of being a professional.

      July 13, 2018
  5. OldNFO #

    Thanks for the deep dive Peter. Not necessarily good news, but still important to those of us that are trying to make a living at this.

    July 13, 2018
  6. I will try out a new author on KU, then buy the next. I’m also listening more on audible books and will often buy the kindle and audible when linked.

    Not a writer but a fan of Peter’s that found other enjoyable books from here.

    July 13, 2018
    • Dorothy Grant #

      We always appreciate the opinions of readers – after all, we’re clearly conspiring here on how to entertain you best! Thanks for giving other authors a try – and glad you liked ’em!

      July 13, 2018
  7. “It used to be the case that a given rank, or range of ranks . . . equated to an approximate number of sales per day. . . . it’s no longer universally true.”

    That surprises me.

    “For example, with the second book of the trilogy, “An Airless Storm“, its sales rank fluctuated up, down and back again by over 8,000 (i.e. between the mid-2,000’s and the mid-10,000’s) over the course of about ten days.”

    That’s a pretty dramatic swing. You’re just looking at the “Paid in Kindle Store” numbers, right? Not any of the subgenre rankings.

    “The reason is obvious. When I started self-publishing, there were about 2½ million books in the Kindle Store, paid and free. Today there are well over 7 million, and the total will probably exceed 8 million by the end of this year.”

    Actually, that’s not obvious. Given the behavior of power-law distributions, this isn’t as big a change as you might think. If the rankings have become more unstable, I would blame some change made by Amazon in their software that computes the rankings.

    Are you seeing any pattern? When I last looked at sales ranks, I saw that a given work would be at about the same rank 75% of the time, but it would occasionally jump around wildly. I got good results if I looked at five consecutive days and simply picked the median rank.

    July 13, 2018
    • Dorothy Grant #

      Yes, that was the Kindle Store rankings, not a subgenre ranking.

      July 13, 2018
  8. I respectfully disagree on your expectation of future drop in royalty levels from Amazon – because I think you’re focusing on the wrong revenue source. The KU income is, as you pointed out, essentially at 35% royalty for the length of books they want in the program…

    Which means authors who are wide make 35% on sales in Amazon, and 35% on sales outside, while KU Authors make 70% on sales and 35% on borrows. If Amazon dropped the royalty revenue to merely match outside sales, then there’s no financial incentive to keep the books in Select instead of pulling them out. At which point, savvy indies will pull out their best books from the known and shrinking revenue source, and see what they can get by building multiple streams of income. This will reflect in KU’s dropping availability of products and quality of remaining product, which will make it far less attractive to the subscribers, and the competitors more attractive.

    Amazon still remembers the lesson of myspace: you only remain on top as long as a critical mass of people prefer you to other platforms. Once the critical mass of whatever drops below threshold, obsolescence is swift, terrible, and unavoidable. All of its Prime offerings are aimed at attracting and retaining customers who prefer to come to them first for entertainment and shopping.

    If squeezing the vendors (and that’s what we are) for a little more margin causes them to remove their entertainment from the platform, or to make it available anywhere the customers can go, then the customers don’t have a reason to go to Amazon to get what they want. That’s stepping over dollars to pick up pennies. It’s far better to provide vendors just enough financial recompense that they’re still coming out a little bit ahead by staying exclusive, and keep the customers coming for the exclusive content.

    July 13, 2018
  9. David Lang #

    re: your comments about not needing as good a book in categories with more readers.

    that may be true for the casual reader finding your first book, but if that first book doesn’t satisfy them, that will be the last book of yours that they look at.

    You also don’t look at (and don’t know) how many different authors they are in the different categories, it may be that in some of the smaller categories there are fewer authors per 1000 sales, and so it could be easier to be found there.

    don’t under estimate the effect of rabid fans

    July 13, 2018
  10. Margaret Ball #

    Yes, I have that problem with much of Peter’s analysis. It seems to be based on just one number: sales in a given genre. I would think you need to pair that with number of titles in that genre before making any generalizations. Romance writers may not have it as good as Peter thinks if there are far more titles in romance than in other genres. Itsy-bitsy genres like time travel might perform well for writers if there are very few titles to choose from. If I’ve overlooked an obvious point here, Peter, feel free to set me straight.

    July 13, 2018
  11. Steffen #

    I had a thought earlier today that might be worth a short story Urban Fantasy foray. Remember that guy who was the inspiration for the Priest character in Larry Correia’s MHI? Whatever happened to that guy?

    July 13, 2018
    • I’ve had a lot of success (relatively speaking) with urban fantasy. Mine tends to be off-beat enough from the usual vampires-werewolves-witches that people like it.

      July 13, 2018
    • Heh. I’ve talked with Larry about that. One of these days . . . watch this space!

      July 13, 2018
  12. It seems to me that what matters is the ratio of the number of readers to the number of titles. There may be few readers, but if there is even less competition you may do OK.

    July 13, 2018
  13. Mary #

    Amazon also changed how it calculated ranks, to mitigate the effects of Book Bombs.

    July 14, 2018
  14. Dennis #

    As a reader, I drop in and out of KU, depending on season and my spare time. One effect of that is that a series of books like Cochranes Company is greater than the monthly subscription price of KU, and I have read enough of Peter’s books that I ordered all of them once I signed up. Last month I read Dorthy’s books, and the free excerpt was enough to get me to buy the rest.
    As a side note, once I am in KU, I find it aggravating if the first novel of a series is in KU, but the remainder are not. If you are picking and choosing, put all of one series on KU, and then I might buy those that are not, but since my book budget is in KU, I will binge read all that I can get from a good author before going to another. That is to say, once I am in KU, I will stay in KU for a while, and not jump out to buy additional non-KU books for the most part. Would you rather I read all of your books at half income, or wait for me to buy the individual books? by design, I only buy individual books when time is limited, or I want a permanent copy, so that number is very limited.

    July 14, 2018
  15. 23 skidoo

    July 14, 2018
  16. D.J. #

    My pricing comment: look at what the regular mass market paperback price is.
    Price it a dollar below that, and I’ll buy it easily. Price is less than that, and I am astounded. Price it more than that, and I become very hesitant.

    July 15, 2018
  17. brad #

    You asked for reader input on ebook pricing. For me, psychologically, $5 is a pretty firm upper limit, and I prefer to pay less. Why that is, I can only speculate, but here’s my speculation.

    When I started to transition from paperbacks to ebooks, a typical paperback cost around $5. Ebooks clearly must be cheaper: there is no physical production, no logistics, no copies sent needlessly to stores only to be destroyed. Ebooks should – must – be less expensive than paperbacks, and $5 is the price point embedded in my brain for a paperback.

    Perhaps a related product: Indie Ebooks are inferior products, compared to those $5 paperbacks of yesteryear. Why? Because there is no editor, and no professional proofreader either. Most ebooks have scenes or plot problems that a good editor would have caught. Absolutely every ebook has typographical errors, as well as errors in grammar and punctuation. In both cases, beta readers just do not achieve the same level of quality. And in both cases, these problems distract the reader, throw them out of their immersion in the story.

    Finally, thinking about this issue more broadly, I also come up with this: For at-home entertainment, $1 per hour is about the maximum I pay for anything at all. A sword-and-sorcery computer game takes very roughly 60 to 100 hours to play through – and retails for maybe $60 (but you can get them for less, if you don’t have to have them on their release date). Movies or television? Roughly the same price limit applies. How long does it take to read a typical ebook – there’s your $5 again.

    July 15, 2018
  18. tom #

    I will say, as an increasingly-savvy Amazon consumer, I’m slowly finding a longer and longer list of authors I like. At that point the price competition is real. I was quick to pay $3.99 or $4.99 for an e-book I was sure I would like over chancing $2.99 on an unknown, but as I start to get a broader list of “authors I definitely like,” I’m starting to find more and more opportunities for “Oh, now I can spend $2.99 on an e-book I *definitely* will enjoy.”

    I know that $2.99 is a magic number for 70% royalties, so it seems like the floor.

    I definitely have a “sticker shock” moment if I feel like an eBook has a physical-book price attached to it.

    Question – isn’t the KU “royalty” independent of sticker price for the book? Or have I picked up a misapprehension somewhere?

    July 15, 2018

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