The Anatomy of Amazon Sales

When I released THE REIVER as a digital short back in January, I had no idea what to expect in terms of sales, but I didn’t really have particularly high hopes. I’m nowhere near a household name, nothing I’ve ever published with any publisher has ever sold more than perhaps a thousand copies in digital format (and the print version of Behind the Red Door hasn’t even sold more than a few thousand copies), so it’s not like there are hordes of readers champing at the bit for the next Jackie Barbosa title. (That’s not an oh-woe-is-me observation, by the way, just the parameters around which I set my expectations.) The story had also been published in a print anthology, which meant that some people who might have been moved to buy it digitally if it had been new content had already bought a copy in print. It’s also only 8500 words long, and I know many people feel that even 99 cents is too much to pay for something that short.

So, with all those factors in mind, I figured if I made back what I’d invested in the cover art within a a year or so, I’d be happy. (That meant I had to sell about 150 copies.) As I’ve mentioned before, things have gone much better than that, and I wound up earning back my investment within the first two months it was out. This isn’t to say that I’m selling all that many copies compared to many folks I know, but I’ve been really surprised by the trends and I also find them very instructive when it comes to the relative value of various marketing strategies (which is, after all, what all writers want to know–how to market our books so readers can find them).

So, without further ado, below is an Excel chart of my sales since I released THE REIVER on January 17th through 4:00 PDT today:

All told, 1,235 copies have sold. In other words, a LOT more than the 150 I’d hoped to maybe sell in a year. It’s not particularly large number of digital books to sell in four and a half months (some folks are probably selling that many in a day), but based on the historical norms of books by Jackie Barbosa, it’s pretty fricken’ fantastic :).

But what’s particularly interesting to me in the data isn’t that I’ve sold a lot more books than I expected. It’s the way the curves for Barnes & Noble and Amazon go in completely different directions. When I first made THE REIVER available for sale, I sold about 10 copies on B&N to every 1 I sold on Amazon. Now, I’m selling about 2 copies on B&N to every 100 I sell on Amazon. To what to attribute this?

Given that I’ve never done much to promote this short story save tweeting and/or Facebooking links to it and mentioning it on my blog and occasionally in discussion on other blogs about what I see happening in digital/self-publishing, it really CAN’T be anything I’m doing. The lovely Jessica at Read, React, Review was kind enough to buy a copy of it as well as my Spice Brief and review them both, but as far as I know, that’s the only standalone review of the story available anywhere, so it’s not like there’s this big rolling buzz behind it or anything. So it must something about the actual sites and the way they’re constructed.

I’ve concluded that the single most important thing that drives sales on Amazon is not the Top 100 category lists–although it certainly doesn’t hurt to get into them–but the “Also Bought” lists that display when you are looking at OTHER books. As sales increase, the number of people who also bought a different but related book goes up, and as that number goes up, the number of books for which your title is in an “Also Bought” title expands as well. This has a cumulative effect, because as the number of “Also Bought” lists your book appears on increases, the number of new sales you goes up as well, which in turn increases the number of “Also Bought” lists, and so on. The more copies you sell overall, the higher in the Also Bought lists your book appears, as well, so the more sales you get that way, the more readers are likely to find your book.

The thing about this observation, though, is that NOTHING I did caused it to happen. The single biggest factor was probably the fact that, back in March, Kobo discounted the book (which it got from Smashwords) to 89 cents. This is something they are not supposed to do, but I’m glad they did, because it led Amazon to price-match and that, in turn, led to people finding it on Amazon, not because they were looking for anything by me in particular or even because they were looking for Scottish historical romances, but because the price was unusual/stood out. My sales spiked when that happened in the last week of March and then everything steamrolled from there, even though the price has since gone back up to 99 cents.

So here’s what I think now regarding promotion and marketing: the best promotion/marketing is to sell a lot of books. Seriously. That’s it. Almost everything else is of limited or unsubstantiatable value.

Are DNF Reviews Fair?

There’s been some discussion on the interwebs lately on the subject of DNF reviews and whether it’s really “fair” for a reviewer to opine on a book he/she didn’t actually finish. How can a reviewer know whether the book “worked” or not if he/she didn’t read the whole thing?

Well, my answer to that is that I can tell a LOT about whether a book works for me or not based on whether I finish it. If the author can’t hold me all the way through to the end, for whatever reason, that tells me something about the book. The question is why didn’t the author keep me reading?

For me, as a reader, a DNF review is just as useful as any other. The reasons a reviewer couldn’t finish reading a book are as important as their reasons for giving a book they did finish any grade from an A to an F. They help me decide whether it’s a book I want to invest my time and money in.

So, all you reviewers out there–please post your DNF reviews. I read them, I appreciate them, and I use them.

How Fast Can You Write a Book?

In the past few days, I’ve either been involved in or eavesdropped on (although I guess if it’s posted publicly on the internet, it’s not exactly eavesdropping) several conversations that revolve around the question of how long it takes or should take to write a book that’s worthy of publication. Some people seem to feel that authors who release multiple books in a single year are “rushing” their content to market, either because their publishers are demanding it or because they feel that quantity is more important than quality when it comes to sales and promotion.

Similarly, I’ve seen it implied, if not stated outright, that it should take about a year to write one single title (75k-120k) manuscript and that, if it takes less than that, the author must not be paying sufficient attention to detail. There seems to be a perception that the longer an author takes to write a book, the better that book will be. Of course, I’ve also seen the converse argument–that if an author is taking more than a year to write a single title manuscript, said author is probably a) a procrastinator (um, raises hand!), b) a perfectionist, or c) both.

So here’s the thing–the one categorical statement I can make about writing books is that no two people do it the same way or at the same pace. Some writers are fast drafters who can pump out 5,000 new words a day, then do numerous revisions. Others (like me and, I recently learned, a certain bestselling author by the name of Dean Koontz) write at a creepingly slow pace, trying to get every word right (or nearly right) on the first pass so that our revisions are minor and take less time. And then there’s everything in between. And no one way is “the right way.” I wouldn’t presume to tell authors who write quickly and revise more heavily that they’re doing it wrong. Equally, I don’t want to be told that my way is wrong because the only way to wind up with a “good” book is to revise and revise and revise (that maxim “Writing is rewriting” makes me insane).

All of that said, if you write on a regular schedule, whether you’re a drafter-reviser or a write-right-the-first-time kind of writer, you don’t have to write at a ridiculously fast pace to produce more than 100,000 publishable words in a year. I’m slow, but I average about 1,000 new words a day, 5 days a week. I do revise when I finish a manuscript, but it doesn’t take me as long to do my revisions as it takes me to write the new words. I can probably do revisions on 5,000 words as fast or faster than I can write 1,000 new ones. (I know lots of authors who are exactly opposite–they write new words much more quickly than they revise them. And there are no doubt some writers who are 1:1 writing:revising.)

So, assuming I only write new words 40 weeks out of the year, not including weekends (giving me 12 weeks for revisions, copy editing, vacations, and procrastination–my Waterloo!), that’s a minimum of 200,000 words a year. How many “titles” that results in depends on how the stories I’m telling break out and on how many of those words actually contribute to manuscripts that I finish. Since I have no active contracts binding me to finish any particular manuscripts, I have a tendency to poke at and then set aside a lot of stories, meaning I’m adding words that may someday be publishable, but aren’t yet because I didn’t finish.

But if all 200,000 words I wrote in a given year wound up in something I finished, that would mean that in a year, I could release roughly two single titles or three-to-four category-length novels, or 5-8 novellas, or some combination of those lengths. And I wouldn’t be “rushing” or doing slipshod work to achieve that (especially if, in a single year, I finished several manuscripts that I started in prior years).

Now, I realize that even 1,000 words a day is too a fast pace for some writers by the time they work in revisions and editing. Especially for writers who have a day job, families, etc., writing more than even a few hundred words a day may be too much. But for most professional, full-time writers, I suspect that two or possibly even three single-title books per 12-15 months is very, very doable and doesn’t require the author to cut corners or sacrifice quality for quantity. Will some be slower than that? Absolutely, and that’s fine, too.

So, how fast can you write a book? The answer is…it depends. It depends on what you mean by “a book”–short story, novella, category novel, single title novel. It depends on what the author’s goals and commitments are. And it depends on the individual author’s individual process. There’s no one true way or one true pace.

None of which is to say that some authors and publishers don’t put out books that aren’t really ready for prime-time. It’s just that I think it’s just as possible for a book that took five years to write/revise/edit to be “not good” as one that took five months. Monkeys with typewriters producing Shakespeare provided infinite time notwithstanding, some writers will never write a good book, no matter how fast or slowly they try to do it. And by the same token, some writers are so ridiculously talented and fast that they can release three or four novels a year and every one of them is brilliant (hello, Ann Aguirre).

Bad Deals and Really Bad Deals

Twitter went aflutter this morning (and also broke, although that may not be related) over the news that Ed Victor, a UK-based agent, has opened a separate publishing house to release its clients books in digital and POD. For now, it looks like the plan is only to publisher reverted backlist titles, although Victor is allowing for the possibility of first releases at some point in the future. I’ve already expounded at length on why I think agents should not become publishers, although I think there is probably a framework in which agents could offer publishing services to their authors in a way that is both ethical and helpful. The Vincent framework is not, however, ethical or helpful, because of this:

Net receipts will be divided 50/50 after costs of production are recouped from first receipts.


Let me read that again. In this case, the agent-publisher is going to take 100% of net until the “costs” of production are recouped (and how am I supposed to know what those costs are) and then is going to skim HALF the royalties after that. Um, can you say “bad deal”? Because this looks all around like a crap arrangement that benefits the agent-publisher a hell of a lot more than the author. (Courtney Milan has a good post examining the monetary conflict-of-interest issue here.)

On Twitter, we all agreed that authors who accepted this sort of deal must be either insane or uneducated or possibly somehow felt bound by the terms of their contract to go with the flow (and by that, I don’t mean that they were necessarily legally obligated to do it, but they didn’t want the hassle of publishing their backlists themselves and taking this would keep their relationship with their agent intact).

But then I started thinking about it and…there are hardly ANY publishers, big NY houses or smaller digital houses, that are offering 50/50 splits on net royalties for digital books. With most of the major NY publishing houses, my understanding is that the author is paid 25% of net on digital book sales (and it’s unclear how the costs of production get accounted for in the “net” calculation). Obviously, that’s not 100% consistent–some authors may be getting more and some less, depending on when their contracts were signed and what their agents pushed for/got in negotiations. But by and large, 25% of net seems to be pretty typical.

Now, for a lot of those contracts, there’s also a print side, and the royalty there is lower (usually 6-8% of the cover price, IIRC) and often, there is an advance. And if you are getting a guaranteed payment upfront that ensures you will never be paid LESS THAN X for the rights to publish your book, it is arguably a better deal to take the lower royalty percentage in exchange for cold, hard, certain cash than to “do it yourself” for a much higher percentage of very uncertain and unpredictable sales. Most of the digital small presses pay better than 25% of net–they usually come in closer to 30-50%, from what I know. But still, they’re usually taking at LEAST 50% of net.

So what makes the agent-publisher deal that’s 50% of net so horrific when 50% of net from a digital publisher would be a good deal and 25% of net seems to be considered completely acceptable? Well, obviously, there’s the whole conflict of interest issue. In the agent-publisher model, it’s very possible for the agent to make a lot more money by publishing the book through his/her own house, because he’s getting a much greater percentage of the money that way (50% as opposed to 15%).

But frankly, I have to question whether 25% of net is EVER a good or acceptable deal from a publisher unless you are getting an advance. And even if you are getting an advance, it may not be a good deal if the advance is too low.

The thing is, most of the big publishing houses are either starting or have already started digital-first imprints. Harlequin has Carina Press. Avon has Avon Impulse. Random House is on the verge of announcing a digital imprint. NONE of these publishers are paying anywhere CLOSE to 50% of net and most, I suspect, will settle at 25% of net. (Carina may be at 30% of net. I can’t get a clear bead on that as they don’t seem to disclose this on their website and the rest is just chatter.)

So, if 50/50 is bad when Ed Victor does it, isn’t 25/75 or 30/70 or even 40/60 more bad? Honestly, I think the agent deal is worse because of the incentive it gives the agent to push you toward its publishing arm rather than selling you to a publisher that might pay you a nice advance that you will get more of than your agent will. BUT, in the age of 65%-75% royalties on self-published titles from B&N and Amazon, I’m not sure that authors ought to blithely accept 25% of net, especially when there’s no advance, just because it’s become the standard digital rate and they feel they have no other choice.

The reasonable author cut of royalties on a digital book put out by a publisher that is providing solid editorial, cover art, formatting, and distribution may be LESS than 50%, but it is certainly (IMO) more than 25%, especially when there is no advance (and thus, no guarantee that the author will make even $100 from his/her efforts) and no print distribution. If you disagree, tell me why. I’m all about being reasonable, and if I’m being unreasonable in this belief, I want to know about it!