Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What sells ebooks

There's no question we had a gold rush period with ebooks where the market was immature and both indie/self-published and mid-list authors could do well by advertising in the right places and taking advantage of certain Amazon features. As people should've expected things have changed as the market has matured. What used to work no longer does, and sales are down across the board with both professional and self-published writers I talk to. So in this ever-changing climate, what can authors do now to sell ebooks?

From my own experience, observations, as well as conversations with a number of other authors (and with a focus geared towards amazon), here's what I've seen in the area of mysteries, crime, noir, horror and thrillers (I can't comment about other genres, although my gut is fantasy & sci-fi ebooks are following along these same lines, and romance is a completely separate beast):

Advertising: Early on in the ebook era, advertising in the right places, like Kindle Nation, Pixel of Ink, and EReaderNewsToday could generate a flood of ebook sales, but their effectiveness over time has worn off. Right now Bookbub probably generates the highest number of sales, but their ads are expensive. Last year and early this year, you had a good chance of making money with a Bookbub ad, but now most authors I know who've used them over the last 6 months haven't broken even, and with the changes in Amazon's algorithms, these ads have become a losing proposition.

Free promotions: For a short time after amazon started their KDP Select program, they rigged their algorithms so that authors could generate a huge number of sales by giving away free books. After about four months of this, amazon changed their algorithms to make this less effective, and have since made further changes, both with their affiliate program and with their algorithms to make these free giveaways virtually useless. Originally they needed the free giveaways to help push kindle sales, but once they dominated the ebook reader market they needed to stop these free giveaways to keep ebook prices from moving to $0, and in effect, they've removed any value from authors now doing this. As far as free giveaways leading to future book sales by winning over new readers, forget it. Stephen Colbert recently joked on Colbert Nation how the kindle is a great device for storing 1000s of books that he'll never read, and kindle readers grabbing free ebooks are mostly hoarding 1000s of ebooks that they'll never look at.

Online book reviews: Web reviews seldom sell more than a couple of books--print or ebook the same.

Newspaper reviews: I've never been reviewed by the NY Times, so I can't comment on their effectiveness, but I have been reviewed very positively in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, LA Times, Orlando Sentinel, Newsdays, as well as others, both here and in the UK, Italy, Germany and France, and even rave reviews seldom sell more than a few hundred print books, and very few ebooks. The one place where I've been reviewed that does sell a lot of books is NPR.

While newspaper reviews might not sell a lot of books, one thing that they're very effective at is getting Hollywood to notice you.

Web short stories: I've never seen anything more than a small uptick in ebook sales from this.

Magazine & anthology short stories: I've gotten relatively small upticks in my Julius Katz ebook sales whenever Ellery Queen publishes a new Julius Katz story, but never more than 50 sales. I've gotten smaller upticks when I appear in print anthologies.

Social media: Social media might've worked early on in selling ebooks, but with 10s of thousands of authors doing it, it has long ago reached a saturation point and has no effectiveness anymore in selling ebooks, although it can still have a positive value in making more readers aware of you.

Killer cover: There was a time when a certain author was proselytizing that all self-published authors needed to be successful was a good cover and a good book description. Like any other snake oil, this sounded too good to be true, didn't it? Well, I doubt this was ever true--I think there were other factors on how Amazon could be gamed that contributed to early success of some self-published/indie writers, but to set the record straight, while an unprofessional cover might hurt you, a killer cover isn't going to sell anything.

Membership in a group to jointly market ebooks: I started Top Suspense with Ed Gorman and Harry Shannon because we thought that if we provided readers with a safe place to find high quality mysteries, thrillers, horror ebooks readers would gravitate to us. So how has that worked out? I think it has helped somewhat, but not as much as I expected. Where the greatest value with this group has been is to be part of a group of fellow pro writers for sharing information and ideas. From what I can tell, other groups that formed after Top Suspense have also had limited success.

Amazon: Bingo! Other than being a bestselling author, having Amazon promote you is the only clear way to sell ebooks now. Amazon has proven to be incredibly powerful in pushing ebooks--originally with ebooks that were triggered by their algorithms, and now the books that they're publishing and choosing to get behind.  They've proven over and over again that they can sell 10s of thousands of copies through their direct marketing and recommendations.

Given all this, and given how unlikely it's going to be moving forward for a self-published/indie author to get Amazon behind them, it seems most likely that the vast majority of self-published/indie ebooks are never going to recoup their production costs (covers, proofing, formatting, etc.). So what should new authors and midlist authors do moving forward?

Face facts. The gold rush period is long over. More and more ebook sales are going to either writers Amazon's promoting or to bestsellers. If you're a midlist author, try to stick with traditional publishing, and if you bring back your backlist as ebooks, try to either contain costs, or go with someone like Crossroad Press who is able to make deals with B&N to feature their books. If you're a newer writer who is serious about having a writing career, keep working toward being published traditionally. It's your best chance of gaining real readers and establishing a career.


Vicki said...

I don't know about the early "gold rush" years because I never did much with social media or advertising until recently, but I have found that efforts in the past several months have only boosted sales a little. With Bookbub I barely broke even.

J. R. Tomlin said...

I have to disagree with you about the current effectiveness of Bookbub. I ran a Bookbub ad less than a week ago and did considerably more than break even, most importantly boosting the sales of the other novels in the series. I have talked to a number of other authors who tell me the same thing. What tends to cause issues is the assumption you'll find people making that it will necessarily work for ALL novels. Nothng works for all novels. :)

J. R. Tomlin said...

Oh, on the rest of your post, I certainly agree that Amazon pushing your novels is highly effective. No, it isn't that hard to get them to do. They do it all the time with emails to people who buy similar books. I have made a fair amount of money with them doing that, far more than I ever would have with the trad publishers you advise. I would say that I disagree almost 100% with your conclusions.

Dave Zeltserman said...

JR, I can't argue with success, but again my experience, and with the other authors I talk to, is in mysteries, crime, horror & thrillers, and it looks like you're writing fantasy & romance?? Hey, my conclusion was based on authors making a sustainable amount, at least $40K a year, which is what most midlist writers used to be able to do. If you have hints & suggestions on what writers can do get Amazon to better push their books, I'd love to hear it, and I'm sure others would also.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Btw. Since publishing this post I've heard offline from 3 other authors (all previously traditionally published and acclaimed) who've lost money on recent Bookbub ads.

dman4227 said...

Hey Dave,

As a reader who pays great attention to blurbs, how do you feel having other high attention authors blurb your books help with sales? I have to be honest that blurbs are one of the biggest reasons I pick up a book. If authors that I consider "in the know" blurb a book, I figure it's worth a shot. I have realized that certain authors are blurb wh*res and they either blurb tone of books that I feel aren't that good, or blurb books for authors they are using as co-writers for their bi-weekly novels (guess who?). Just wanted to ask if the blurb route is something that pays off or am I in the minority in using them? I have wondered why more authors don't have sections on their web sites with books they have read and enjoyed. If I see you, Roger Smith, John Rector or other authors that I feel have consistently good taste say an ebook or a hard copy of a book is worth a read, it would sell some books for the mentioned author.

Dave Zeltserman said...


I'm not sure how much they help with ebooks, but I'm guessing not much. I know they can help with print books. I had events at bookstores who only picked up Small Crimes because Ken Bruen blurbed it--and I made several fans working at indie bookstores who never would've read the book, and later hand sell it if it wasn't for his blurb.

Occasionally I write on FB and here about books I love, and I need to do that more often. Everything I've written about Roger Smith's and Paul Tremblay's books are if anything an understatement!


I agree with most of what you say. I was fortunate to have ridden the "gold rush" of indie publishing in 2011-12. I also had great results using KDP Select. Five-figure income and national media exposure. Since then, however, I just can't seem to get visibility and traction for my new books. Bookbub won't accept my books, so that's not currently an option. I'm at a loss for new strategies. Where I disagree is with your assertion that traditional publishing is the way to go. I see that as a dead end. I've had three good agents, yet I have no intention of trying that route again. I believe we're in a highly saturated market that is in flux. Rising above the tsunami of crapola that is flooding the market is more difficult than ever. That's the challenge now.

Lavender said...

Well, here are my thoughts. I write historical fiction, which is moderately popular. Not as big as thrillers, but not as small-time as literary fiction (my other genre). I think much of an indie’s success with the various routes you examined depend on the genre. Some genres are maybe a bit oversaturated and it’s much more difficult to stand out. In others, an indie author has a very good chance of standing out because there are fewer obviously high-quality books on offer.

I say “obviously” high-quality because I do think that cover (and title, actually) have a huge impact on how well a book sells. As well as the product description (that thing everybody insists on calling the “blurb”). Taken together, these are the packaging of your product and all the luck or advertising or Amazon algorithms in the world aren’t going to help you if your packing doesn’t make a reader want to click the “buy” button.

How do I know this? I’m an avid reader and a huge buyer of books, and these are the things that make me buy. Or at least make me investigate the book more and consider buying it. If a cover looks shoddy or dumb or looks like it’s in a genre I don’t typically read, I will not buy the book. If a title is uninteresting or silly or otherwise doesn’t grab me, I will not buy the book. If the product description is poorly written, I’ll assume the rest of the book is, too. The things that get me to buy a book, in order, are: 1) Title 2) Cover (including proof that it’s in a genre I like), 3) product description, 4) sample, 5) reviews. There’s nothing special about my buying habits or criteria. I’m a pretty average reader.

What was most successful in launching my book early on was the relative uniqueness of the book. In 2011, there were few books to choose from if a reader was looking for ancient Egyptian historical fiction. Mine was one of only a few choices, and by giving it a good cover and an interesting title, I encouraged readers to take a chance on it. Since then, the offerings of ancient Egyptian HF have become rather saturated, especially from indies, so I’m moving on to other settings which I feel are currently under-represented in historical fiction. I’ll come back to Egypt eventually, but early in my career, my strategy is to look for gaps in what’s available to readers and fill those gaps with really good books. So being well aware of trends and subgenres, and using the CAT-LIKE SPEED AND REFLEXES you get to enjoy as an indie to stop gaps in the offerings before the big publishers can do it, can really help boost your visibility even within a saturated market.
BookBub has been fantastic for me. Four months ago I did a free run with them, and got 25,000 downloads and triple the usual sales of my paid titles. Still looks like a good avenue to me, but again, having a less popular genre (compared to thrillers) and working with a more unique setting (compared to, say, Tudor England) makes me stand out.

Amazon promotes books that already sell moderately well. You don’t have to sell big-time to enjoy their promotional engine. One of my books usually ranks around 25,000 and it consistently shows in the Also-Boughts of many popular historical novels.

Those are my thoughts from the historical fiction genre!

Also, you mentioned in your post to JR Tomlin that midlisters (with trad pubs) are making $40K a year. Not anymore – not the authors I know. About half that. Most midlisters I know can’t afford to quit their day jobs.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Lavender/ElHawk, you've convinced me that authors can still do well if they're writing in niche subgenres that haven't been over-saturated yet but that also has a good demand, as in your case, Egyptian historical fiction. But as you've seen, these under-saturated subgenres quickly draw a flood of ebooks. I'm also convinced that once a market becomes over-saturated, as with the genres I write (thrillers, mysteries, crime, horror, noir), ebooks sales are now reverting to the historical norm--which has always been highly publicized books (bestsellers) and books the bookstore recommends (in this case with Amazon being the bookstore, more and more their own published titles). While I don't think that Amazon is rigging things against indie/self-published booksales, I do think that in the recent past they rigged things to generate indie success stories, and I think they did this because it was in their best interest. All you have to do is look at the incredible success generated by free book promotion during the early days of Amazon's KDP Select program to see this.

James, I hear you. Trad. publishing right now is harder than it's been since I've gotten into this racket. Advances are down significantly, bookstore outlets are down, newspaper review space for smaller books is down. If you can write in a niche subgenre that isn't over-saturated, like El Hawk/Lavender does, then maybe that's the answer. But otherwise, traditional publishing seems to me the best bet in building readers, getting foreign deals + movie deals. Yeah, I know, occasionally an indie book gets a film deal, but it's rare--odds are much better with published books because as I know from experience a lot of Hollywood scouts find their books from PW and newspaper reviews.