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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.