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Mark Coker's third annual 2014 Smashwords Survey. Examines quantifiable characteristics of ebooks that give books an incremental advantage in discoverability and desirability. The 2014 survey attempts to answer such questions as: Do readers prefer longer or shorter ebooks?; Do ebooks that start out as preorders sell better?; How should I price my ebook?; Do series books sell better than standalone books?; do series with FREE series starters earn more money than other series; and many more.
MONEY MONEY MONEY:
Facts & Figures for Financial Payoff
New 2014 Data
Originally Presented May 14, 2014 at
Slideshare Edition Published July 7, 2014
Smashwords Survey 2014
For each of the last three years we released the
Smashwords Survey at the RT Booklovers convention.
This is the Slideshare edition of the data presented
May 14, 2014 in New Orleans.
The Slideshare edition adds additional slides and new
written analysis, some of which was conveyed
verbally during the live presentation.
At the end I’ve added an appendix with indie author
The Smashwords Backstory
• My background is tech marketing (UC
Berkeley Haas business school)
• About 10 years ago, along with my wife I co-
wrote Boob Tube, a novel about daytime soap
operas (wife is a former reporter for Soap
Opera Weekly Magazine).
Repped by top NY lit agency
• Book rejected by all NY publishers (twice)
• Previous soap opera-themed novels had performed
poorly, so pubs were reluctant to take a chance
I realized publishers were unable, unwilling and
disinterested to take a risk on every book
Decided to try to fix problem
Back in the dark ages of print-centric
publishing (10 yrs ago), writers were
unable to reach readers on mass scale
without a publisher’s support
Writers relied on publishers to provide
three essential capabilities. I refer to
these capabilities as the three legs to
the stool. Remove any leg and the
Three Essential Legs of the
Professional Publishing Stool
- 1 -
- 2 -
- 3 -
Knowledge: best practices
There’s also a fourth leg that builds on
a publisher’s ability to professionally
produce and distribute a book
#4 = DISCOVERY TOOLS
The tools and processes that make
books findable and desirable
The Fourth Leg: Discovery Tools
My solution: Smashwords
• FREE eBook Publishing Platform
Free ebook printing press
Distribution to major ebook retailers and
Free educational resources – best practices
knowledge to help writers publish like
Free tools to assist Discovery (marketing,
merchandising, metadata, preorders, etc)
Today, Smashwords is the world’s
leading distributor of indie (self-
Smashwords provides writers FREE
self-serve tools to publish and
distribute like a pro
It all started with my belief that every
writer has something special to share
with the world, and every writer
deserves the right to publish
Ebooks published at Smashwords
How Smashwords Works
• Upload a Microsoft Word file or epub file,
formatted to our Smashwords Style Guide
• Ready for immediate sale on Smashwords
• Global ebook distribution to major retailers and
library platforms such as iBooks, Barnes & Noble,
OverDrive, Scribd, Oyster, Kobo and more
3. GET PAID
• Author earns 60% of list for retail sales (retailer
earns 30% list and SW earns 10% list)
We looked at 12 months of sales data
(April 2013 – March 2014) for ~250,000
titles, aggregated across the Smashwords
distribution network, totaling over
$25 million in global customer purchases
Knowledge discovery starts with simple
? ? ?
“Do readers prefer longer or shorter books?”
“What’s the best price for my book?”
“Do preorders help sell more books?”
“Do series books sell better than standalones?”
“Does FREE work?”
“Do series with FREE series starters earn more?”
AND MUCH MORE
What’s a Viral Catalyst?
• A viral catalyst is anything that makes your
book more available, accessible, desirable
and enjoyable to readers
• Read the Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success (it’s
FREE!) to learn how viral catalysts spur word-of-mouth
A Viral Catalyst Gives a Book
an Incremental Advantage
Take every incremental advantage
you can get
There is no single magic bullet for
bookselling success. To maximize
viral word of mouth, you must do
many things right and avoid big
Millions of books competing for limited eyeballs
Glut of high quality books increases each month (immortal
ebooks never go out of print)
The secret to reaching more readers is to implement best
practices (see The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success)
and seize incremental advantages (Viral Catalysts)
wherever you can find them.
This survey seeks to identify opportunities for incremental
Numbers are Dangerous, But
• Averages are only averages
• Not always the typical outcome; big variances in a sample
can skew results
• Median = midpoint of numbers in a range when
arranged from lowest to highest. Often a more “typical”
• Medians not always useful either
• A million butterflies: Cause and effect is not always
provable (forces are often multi-dimensional,
synergistic, opaque or delayed)
• Your book is unique. Consider the information I share
as only one of many data points upon which you base
your publishing decisions.
Book sales are characterized by the “Power Curve” principle.
(next slide) Very few titles sell spectacularly well. As your
book moves to the left of the curve (i.e. your sales rank
improves), your sales grow exponentially.
Your Objective: discover and implement the viral catalysts
that give you incremental advantage and nudge your book up
and to the left of the curve.
The Power Curve: incremental
increase in sales rank causes
exponential increase in sales
(Land O’ Bestsellers) (Land O’ few eyeballs)
The power curve reveals the key to getting the
most out of the findings that follow.
Ask yourself, “What are the characteristics of the
bestselling books and the worst-selling books?”
Anything that gives your book incremental
advantage will move it to the left of the curve, and
leftward movement reaps exponential benefit due
to the nature of the curve
Consider the Power Curve
Principle as You Review the
The Long Tail of Authordom
Author sales rank
Q: Do readers prefer longer or shorter ebooks?
A: For the third year in a row we found strong
evidence that readers prefer longer ebooks.
How to Interpret: Visualize the power curve
overlaid on top of the chart that follows to
understand how the incremental advantage of
higher word count translates into an exponential
increase in sales.
Tip: Don’t write longer or shorter books based on
this information. Write the length your book
deserves. If your story takes you to epic lengths,
go there, and understand that shorter books can
put you at a disadvantage. If you split a 100,000
word novel into three novellas of 33,333 words
each, the numbers indicate you’re likely to earn
Longer Books Sell Better!
As word count drops, sales and sales rank drops. Visualize the power
curve overlaid on this chart. Books ranked in the top 10, 50 or 100 will
sell exponentially more units than books ranked 1,000 or worse
Interesting: We observed the same reader
preference for longer book in our 2013 and
(2013) Readers Prefer Longer
When we look at various sales rank bands, the impact is
(2012) Do Readers Prefer Longer
The 2012 survey found similar behavior. Longer books
increase sales rank, on average.
(2012) Do Readers Prefer Longer
This chart gave an aggregate average look at the top 1-10, top 1-
25, etc. We see how the sales rank is pulled down by lower
average word counts
What’s the average word count for
the top 70 bestselling Smashwords
= average word count of top 70 Smashwords romance for
2014 Smashwords Survey
= average word count of top 60 Smashwords romance
I’m constantly in awe of romance
authors. For decades they got no
respect. The rise of ebooks +
democratized ebook distribution +
unlimited virtual shelf space exposed
the genius ability of romance writers
to connect with readers
Relationships are at the center of
most great stories. Romance writers
make relationships the central focus
of their stories.
Romance Dominates across the
• Romance accounts for
• 70% of top 10 Smashwords bestsellers
• 70% of top 100
• Smartest authors in the business
• Most professionally well-organized (RWA) fostering greater
communication and information-sharing among writers
• Embraced indie ebook publishing early
• Most sophisticated
• Most experimental
• More likely to write series
• More likely to publish more books
• Serves ravenous power readers
Top Romance Subcategories for
Top 100 Bestselling Romance
Q: Are bestselling authors more or less likely to
have a web site?
A: Authors with websites generally sell better
than those without.
How to interpret: Caution. correlation doesn’t
always mean causation (Keep this in mind
throughout this presentation!). It could be that
bestsellers are just more on the ball with all their
marketing, and more serious about going the
extra mile to connect and communicate with
Bestselling Authors More Likely
to Have a Website
Q: Silly question: I wonder if bestsellers have
longer or shorter pen names?
A: Interesting. Shorter pen names appear to have
a very small advantage.
Warning: Don’t change your pen name based on
Q: Do authors who change prices have an
advantage over authors that rarely change prices?
How to Interpret: Strong sellers are slightly more
likely to have changed the price of their book in
the last 12 months, but we’re not seeing benefit of
ADHD-style frequent price changes. Worst sellers
are slightly less likely to have changed their price
in the last year, which could indicate they’re
slightly less attentive to their book marketing.
The incremental price change benefit is probably
related to the author running a promotion.
Q: Do bestsellers have higher or lower opt-out
rates for new and innovative ebook distribution
A: Interesting! Opt out rates are extremely low,
but a small segment (~3%) of bestselling authors
appear more skeptical or fearful of non-traditional
ebook-selling models and channels. Oyster and
Scribd are ebook subscription services.
My read: A small minority of bestsellers are
undermining their success, and could do better by
having greater faith in these new entrants.
Fear Factor? Distribution Opt-outs
For Innovative New Channels
Q: Fun: What are authors earning per published
A: 14-18 cents per published word per year for the
top 50 Smashwords authors. Most authors earn
How to Interpret: Note that this was computed by
taking total dollar sales for each author divided by
the number of words they had published as of the
end of the survey period. It’s dangerous to read
much into this data point, other than the fact that
most authors don’t earn much.
Q: Do better-selling authors publish more books?
How to Interpret: The reason is probably
representative of multiple factors.
More books mean:
1. more chances to be discovered and read.
2. more options for promotion.
3. more opportunity to leverage reader loyalty
when a reader discovers they love you.
4. Positive feedback: If your books are selling,
you’re probably more likely to write more.
Q: What’s the average published word count of
authors in each bestselling tier? Do bestsellers
publish more words or less?
A: Like the previous chart, there’s strong
correlation between the number of words published
and author earnings.
How to Interpret: Remember the power curve?
Visualize the power curve overlaid on top of this
word count curve, and you see why authors who
publish more have a tremendous sales advantage.
Tip: organize your time to spend more time
producing (writing) and less time on everything
else. Gratuitous plug: save time by consolidating
your distribution, metadata management, sales
reporting and payments via Smashwords!!!.
Q: Do longer or shorter book descriptions sell
How to Interpret: Not much useful here. Slight
indication that poorest sellers have slightly
shorter book descriptions. On the other hand,
there’s little evidence that longer descriptions
Tip: Focus on the quality of your description, not
Average Word Counts for Book
Descriptions (is longer or shorter
Q: Are the highest-earning indie authors utilizing
high price points on average or low price points?
A: Low, but not ultra-low
How to Interpret: Strong evidence here that
highest earning indie authors are pricing their
books lower on average, and lower-earning
authors are pricing higher. Note that even
poorest selling indie authors are still priced, on
average, quite low compared to traditionally
priced ebooks. Low prices make it easier for
readers to take a chance on an unknown writer.
Note that most authors, even traditionally
published authors, are unknown to most readers.
You can hit the NYT list with 50,000 sales, but
there are still tens of millions of readers who don’t
Q: Rather than ranking authors by the average
price for all their books (previous chart), let’s look
specifically at individual books. Are the highest-
earning titles utilizing high or low price?
A: More evidence that lower prices help indie
ebooks earn more.
Cautionary tip: Note that this data is *on
average* and aggregates titles across fiction and
non-fiction (Smashwords sales are heavily skewed
toward genre fiction).
Average Prices for Books in Each
• FREE moves ebooks
• 39X more downloads on average compared to
priced titles (last 12 months)
• Was 91X in our 2013 survey and 100X in 2012
• FREE has lost some mojo (authors who followed my go-
free advice five years ago got the most tremendous
benefit!), but it still remains one of the most powerful
and effective tools for building readership. Given the
downward trend, it may lose more effectiveness in the
years ahead. Use it while you still can.
• Powerful platform builder
• Powerful sales catalyst for series or deep backlists
• 35 million free downloads of Smashwords books at
iBooks in last 12 months
Q: Other than FREE, which price points get the most
A: $.99, $2.99 and $3.99 get 60-80% more unit sales,
Caution: This is based on averages. Your results
may vary due to multiple factors:
1. Reader awareness of your author brand
2. Reader trust in you author brand (once you earn
the reader’s trust, you can command higher prices).
3. Your book is unique
4. Does not factor length into equation
Which Price Points Get the Most
Downloads (% over/under
Q: What are the most common price points
(helpful to understand the level of competition
your book may face in each price tier)?
A: $2.99 is the most common price point for indie
ebooks, accounting for about 25% of Smashwords
Note: This aggregates both fiction and non-fiction,
but is skewed toward fiction since fiction
comprises majority of SW catalog.
Common Price Points
(Aggregates all Fiction, NF, other)
Q: What are the most common price points
for FICTION only for Smashwords books?
A: $2.99, followed by $3.99
Q: Other than FREE, which price points get the
most downloads for FICTION?
A: $.99, $2.99 and $3.99.
How to Interpret: Note how, on average, $3.99
titles at Smashwords sold more units than $2.99
titles. We observed the same behavior last year
when we looked at the combined numbers for
fiction and nonfiction (we didn’t break out F and
NF last year). Conclusion: Readers will pay more
if the quality and author brand trust is there. I
suspect many bestsellers have an opportunity to
experiment with higher prices.
Which Price Points for Fiction Get
Most Downloads (% over/under
Q: Other than FREE, which price points get the
most downloads for NON-FICTION?
A: $.99, $2.99 and $9.99.
How to Interpret: Interesting! The non-fiction
downloads charge is dramatically different than
fiction. Although $.99 and $2.99 get the most
downloads, note how there’s not dramatic
variation in the curve, and note how $9.99 gets
more downloads than every price point except
$.99 and $2.99. This indicates that most NF
authors are probably under-pricing their books.
The NF earnings chart will tell us more in a few
Which Price Points for Non-
Fiction Get Most Downloads (%
Q: Which price points earn authors the most
money (quantity * earnings per book)
A: $3.99, for second year running.
How to Interpret: These results are based on
averages and combine fiction and non-fiction (it’s
90% sales-weighted toward fiction, so it
represents fiction behavior more than non-fiction).
$3.99 remains a good price for full-length fiction.
This could be an indication that authors with
strongest brands realize they have pricing power.
$1.99 and $.99, as in previous years, underperform
on author earnings. See the separate charts for
Q: Which price point earns non-fiction authors the most money
(quantity * earnings per book)
How to Interpret: Although prior caveats apply (this is based on
averages and your book is not average, it’s unique), note how non-
fiction performs dramatically different than fiction. The data
indicates that as non-fiction authors increase prices, the earnings
increase. The implication here is significant. It indicates that non-
fiction’s demand curve is more inelastic (buyers are less price-
sensitive, whereas fiction’s demand curve is more elastic (buyers are
more price sensitive, demand goes down as prices go up). I’ve been
advising authors for several years that non-fiction can generally
support higher prices than fiction, but this is the first Smashwords
Survey in which we’ve crunched the aggregated numbers to prove it.
Why the difference: Most likely, non-fiction readers are buying books
to acquire knowledge or solve a problem, and this knowledge or
problem-solving has a high value attached to it. As long as the value
of the knowledge exceeds the price of the book, it’s easy for a reader
to justify paying a higher price.
Conclusion: Many non-fiction authors are pricing their books too low
and should experiment with higher prices.
Non-Fiction Only: Which Price
Points Yield Highest Earnings
Ebook Authors are
When you consider both the units sales advantage and earnings
advantage of lower prices, you understand why indie ebook
authors have such a strong competitive advantage over
traditionally published ebook authors. Indie fiction ebooks (our
combined fiction/NF list is ~90% sales-weighted toward fiction) at
$2.99-$3.99 earn about the same as $7.99+ prices, but get about
triple the readership which means they have platform-building
incentive to price lower yet still earn more or the same. Non-
fiction ebook authors can price higher while maintaining strong
unit volume. Combine this with the fact that indies earn 60-80%
list on ebook sales while traditionally published authors earn only
12-17% list and you understand the economic and fan-building
advantage of indie ebook authorship.
Traditionally published ebook authors are suffering from high
prices and low royalties. As reading continues to transition to
digital, the pull of indie authorship will increase.
New Data on Ebook Preorders
In July 2013, Smashwords launched
ebook preorder distribution to iBooks,
Barnes & Noble and Kobo
We predicted a sales advantage, and
sales data now confirms
How Ebook Preorders Work
Preorders allow an ebook to be listed for sale in advance of its
official onsale date
Customers place a reservation – their credit card is not charged until
the book is released to them on the onsale date
Preorders enable more effective advance marketing
Authors can capture the order at the moment they have the reader’s
greatest attention and interest
Preorders help books hit bestseller lists
All accumulated preorders credit as sales on day one of the book’s
release, causing the book to spike in bestseller lists (bestseller lists
are weighted to measure unit sales over recent 12-24 hr period)
Books in bestseller lists (ie higher sales rank) are more visible and
more desirable to readers, leading to more sales
Learn more about Smashwords preorders at
http://smashwords.com/preorder or Google
“smashwords preorder strategy”
Q: Do preorders give a book launch a sales
How to Interpret: The data indicates bestselling
titles are more likely to have been birthed as a
preorder. Poor sellers are less likely to be birthed
as preorders. Strong evidence that ebook
preorders help a book sell more units when we
add up presales + post-sales. If you’re not
launching your next new book as a preorder,
you’re not taking advantage of this powerful new
tool. Smashwords distributes ebook preorders to
iBooks, B&N and Kobo. Check out my blog posts
on ebook preorder strategy at
Q: In the previous question, we looked at individual titles.
Now let look at top-performing authors. Are bestselling
authors more likely to utilize preorders?
How to Interpret: There might be a multiple cause and
effect implications here: 1. The mere act of a preorder
may help an author sell more copies, and therefore help
an author become a bestseller. 2. Bestselling authors are
more likely to have more books out, which makes it easier
to market a preorder, which means bestsellers might be
capturing more benefit from using preorders, which
further increases their adoption of preorders. 3.
Bestsellers might be more likely to use advanced tools
such as preorder distribution. 4. Preorders increase odds
of merchandising promotion by retailers which increases
Bestselling Authors Utilizing
Preorders at Much Higher Rate
than Low Sellers
Q: During the survey period, were
bestselling authors more likely or less
likely to have released a book as a
A: More likely. This result, when viewed
within the context of the other preorder
findings, confirms that bestselling authors
are making much more use of preorders
than poorer-selling authors.
New: Our 2014 Survey Now
Includes Data on Series Books
Launched Smashwords Series Manager tool
Enhanced discovery at retailers gives
Smashwords authors advantage
Over 8,000 series at Smashwords
We can now track sales performance by
series (and will now share data with you)!
A Look at the Top 10 Bestselling
• 7 out of 10 are romance
• 7 out of 10 have a free series
• And 3 of the top 3 have a free series starter
Q: What does the sales distribution curve
look like for our top 1,000 series?
A: Like a power curve!
How to Interpret: See the chart that
follows to see the impact of the power
curve in action. The 1,000th bestselling SW
series earned about $900 during the
period, whereas #500 earned about triple
that. The #100th bestselling series earned
almost 20X #1,000, and over 62X #2,000
(#2,000 not shown on chart, earned ~$262).
The Power Curve for Top 1,000
Point of reference: #2,000 (not shown) earned ~$262
Q: On average, do books in a series earn more
than standalone books?
How to Interpret: Strong evidence that books tied
to a series have a competitive advantage over
standalone books. Caveat: Keep in mind that
romance is a top-performing genre at most
retailers (and the #1 genre at Smashwords) and
romance authors make greater use of series than
most other genres. A self-fulfilling feedback loop?
More series, more sales, more series adoption,
more incentive to write more series?
Q: What’s the average and median number
of books in a series for series in each sales
A: About 3-5.
How to Interpret: Interesting observation:
Note how the top 50 bestselling
Smashwords series are comprised of three
to four titles, and there’s not a tremendous
variation as we go down the sales curve.
Average and Median Number of
Titles in Series
Q: When we look at the average word count for
books in a series, do series with longer books sell
How to Interpret: Strong indication that bestselling
series have longer books. As you look at this chart,
overlay the power curve in your imagination, and
you’ll understand how series with shorter books are
disadvantaged. This means authors should
probably avoid the temptation to chunk their books
into shorter serials. Instead, write and publish full-
length. Also remember that length alone is not the
most crucial factor. Quality of writing is most
important. But it’s clear that longer works have an
incremental advantage, which can lead to an
exponential sales advantage.
Q: Do series with FREE series starters
outperform series without FREE series
How to Interpret: Strong evidence FREE
series starters turbocharge the overall
earnings of a series. If you write series, and
you haven’t experimented with either a perma-
free series starter or a temporary FREE, give it
a try. FREE has helped catapult the careers
of many bestselling Smashwords authors.
Q: How does the average wordcount per series
book impact the overall earnings for the series?
A: Big impact
How to Interpret: Note the steep drop-off after
50,000 words in the incidence of high-earning
series. Indicates series authors face penalty from
readers if series books are under 50,000 words
Series Ranked by Word Count.
Length Matters. Highest Earning
Series Have Longer Books
Q: Let’s look at the top 1,000 highest
earning series, and then plot their word
count against earnings tiers.
A: What we see is what we’d expect from
previous data groups: Lower word counts
per title are associated with lower sales
per title for series books.
Closer Look, Word Count Per
Book for Top 1,000 Highest Per-
Closer Look, Word Count Per
Book for Top 500 Highest Per-
Another Look at Average Word
Count per Title for Series Books,
Adjusted for Yield per Book
That’s it for the 2014
Until next year…
• Incremental advantages lead to big advantages on the
power curve (always do things that move you to the
left of the curve)
• Most important findings include the advantage of:
longer books, series books, series with free series
starters, preorders, free as a marketing tool
• Numbers provide hints at reader preferences
• Dangerous to make decisions on a single metric alone
• Data-driven publishing decisions are irrelevant without a
• Every book is unique. Your book may respond differently
• If your story demands 200,000 words, go for it!
• Sometimes it’s dangerous to draw cause and effect
conclusions because multiple related or extraneous factors
may be at play.
Learn more about indie
authorship in the slides
that follow …
Learn to Publish Like a Pro with
These FREE Best Practice Guides
• Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success (best practices of
• Smashwords Book Marketing Guide (how to market any
book at no cost)
• Smashwords Style Guide (how to format and publish an
Checklist for Publishing and
Distributing with Smashwords
View an overview of the free Smashwords platform at
Sign up for a free account at www.smashwords.com
• The confirmation email will walk you through the next steps
Download the Smashwords Style Guide to learn how to
format your own ebook for free -
Read the Smashwords FAQ to learn how to get the
most out of the Smashwords platform -
Watch my YouTube best practices tutorials (It’s like a
free e-publishing seminar) More on next slide…
Smashwords YouTube Tutorials
• View nearly 10 hours of Smashwords video workshops at
• Smashwords video series:
• #1: Introduction to ebook publishing -
• #2: Ebook publishing best practices:
• #3: 2013 Smashwords Survey:
• #4: 10 Trends Driving the Future of Authorship:
• #5: How to reach readers at iBooks, the #2 global ebook seller:
• #6: How to add navigation to Smashwords ebooks:
• Check back for new videos in the future!
What does is mean to be an
• Indie means self-published
• You are your own publisher
• Indie authorship is a worldwide cultural movement
• In April, 2014, I published the Indie Author Manifesto at
manifesto.html which is my attempt to describe and
distill the ethos behind the indie author movement.
• The manifesto explores the mindset, attitudes and aspirations of
• Contrary to some reactions, the manifesto is not “Anti-publisher”
• Instead, it provides a roadmap by which indie authors and
publishers can work toward mutually aligned interests
• Infographic on next slide…
The Indie Author Manifesto
• Read the story behind the manifesto (and download a high-res
poster) at http://blog.smashwords.com/2014/04/indie-author-
manifesto.html or Google “indie author manifesto”
10 Reasons Indie Ebook Authors
will Capture 50% of the Ebook
Market by 2020
• In March 2014, I predicted indie ebook authors would capture
50% of the US ebook market by 2020
• Some have said my forecast is too conservative (they’re probably right)
• Read the post at http://blog.smashwords.com/2014/03/sizing-self-
publishing-market-10.html or Google “ebook market by 2020”
• Includes a downloadable spreadsheet so you can create and publish your
View other Smashwords
Presentations on Slideshare
• View more Smashwords presentations on Slideshare at
• Here are some notable presentations
• Ebook Publishing in the Classroom (Includes a primer of ebook self-
publishing and also best practices):
• How public libraries can launch community publishing initiatives:
• 2013 Smashwords Survey - http://www.slideshare.net/Smashwords/new-
• 2012 Smashwords Survey - http://www.slideshare.net/Smashwords/how-
Connect with Mark Coker
Blog: blog.smashwords.com (subscribe via email
and never miss another post)