Mark Coker Interview – Part 2

- by Lina Gardiner

Welcome back to our interview with Mark Coker.

-Which genres are selling best at Smashwords in 2014?

For Smashwords authors, genre fiction is #1, with romance dominating up to 70% of our bestsellers over the last 12 months. Our other bestsellers are rounded out in no particular order by YA fantasy, sci-fi, epic fantasy, mysteries, thrillers and historical.

-You mentioned (at RT in Kansas city) that books sell better at a higher price-points at some retailers. Would you care to explain for Ninc members?

Hmm… At RT in Kansas City in 2013 I presented our annual Smashwords Survey. I don’t recall mentioning that higher price points work better at some retailers. I recall saying that non-fiction supports higher prices than fiction. Could that be it? We actually haven’t explored the question of whether different prices perform differently at different retailers. You can find our 2013 survey here – http://blog.smashwords.com/2013/05/new-smashwords-survey-helps-authors.html and our latest 2014 survey here - http://blog.smashwords.com/2014/07/2014-smashwords-survey-reveals-new.html   What we did learn in 2013 and again in 2014 is that $3.99 appears to a sweet spot for our bestselling authors, especially in fiction. For the 2014 study, for the first time we looked at price points for non-fiction. We found that non-fiction behaves radically different than fiction. For fiction writers, lower price points around $2.99 and $3.99 generally earn the authors greater unit sales and greater overall earnings. For non-fiction, we don’t see the same price-elasticity. The average $9.99 non-fiction book sells about the same number of copies as a $2.99 non-fiction book. We found that as non-fiction authors increased their prices, they earned more. With fiction, authors earn more money at lower prices.

What were the most important findings in your 2014 survey?

Our most important findings related to the sales distribution curve, the pricing sweet spots for fiction, book length, series books, series with free series starters and the incredible power of preorders.   The purpose of our survey is to give authors guidance on the steps they can take to gain incremental advantage. The chief findings:

Dynamics of the Power Curve – In publishing, a few books sell well and most sell poorly. The distribution of these sales is typically referred to as a Power Curve. In the 2014 survey, we took a closer look at the sales distribution curve, shared numbers behind different rankings, and explored how authors can use the power curve to inform their decisions. The nature of curve underscores the importance of the rest of our 2014 Smashwords Survey findings. If authors can take incremental steps to improve sales rank, they receive an exponential earnings benefit as they move up in sales rank. As authors review our findings, it’s helpful to imagine the sales distribution curve superimposed on our findings. For a prime example, see the next finding on word count.

Longer Books Sell Better – Readers, measured by their book-buying, continue to favor longer books (over 100,000 words) over shorter books. As the word count declines, average author earnings tend to decline precipitously. With this knowledge, you can visualize the power curve superimposed over this finding and learn, for example, that for most authors it would probably be unwise to break a 120,000 novel into two 60,000-word books. The disadvantage of the shorter books will probably outweigh the advantage of having two books to market and sell. Of course, every book is different so writers should write to the length that best serves the story.

Fiction pricing – For the second year running, on average, fiction priced at $3.99 sold more units than any other price point, and earned the author more money. The $.99 and $1.99 price points earn about 60% less than the average earnings at other price points.

Series Books Earn More – In 2013 we introduced our new Series Manager (http://blog.smashwords.com/2013/09/new-smashwords-series-manager-improves.html) tool, which increases the discoverability of series books at our retail partners. This also enabled us to analyze series sales data for the first time in our 2014 Smashwords Survey. We found strong evidence that the average series book will earn more income than the average standalone book.

Series with Free Series Starters Earn More – We found that series that offer a free series starter earn more money overall for the author than series that start with a priced book. If series writers haven’t experimented with free series starters, now’s the time.

Books Born as Preorders Sell More – Since July 2013, Smashwords has been offering preorder distribution (http://smashwords.com/preorder) to iBooks, Barnes & Noble and Kobo. So for the first time, we examined preorder sales results in the Smashwords Survey. We found that books born as preorders sell more books than other books. There are two primary reasons: 1. A preorder allows advance book marketing, and the opportunity for the author to capture orders at the moment they’ve captured reader attention and interest. 2. At iBooks, B&N and Kobo, all accumulated preorders credit toward the first day’s sales rank. A higher first-day sales rank caused the book to rise higher in the charts, which makes the book more discoverable and more desirable to readers, which leads to more sales.

FREE Still Works, but it’s Losing Potency – We found that free remains an incredibly useful marketing and readership-building tool – possibly the best – though the effectiveness of free has dropped considerably in the last 12 months. Authors who followed our advice on free four or five years ago reaped the most reward, though we still see it catapulting author careers today. Take a look at the most-downloaded free books at any retailer. Those authors will be the bestselling authors of tomorrow if they’re not already there today.

Download the full survey at http://blog.smashwords.com/2014/07/2014-smashwords-survey-reveals-new.html

-Is it true that the average (well written-well edited) author sees more successes in sales after they’ve pubbed several books? Is there an average tipping point?

Yes, this is true. In our 2014 Smashwords Survey, when we looked at our top 400 authors, the average number of books published by each was around nine or ten titles. But averages are misleading, because a few super-prolific authors can skew the numbers. When we look at the median number of books published by our top 400 highest-earning authors (median is more representative of the typical author experience in this group), it’s a solid four titles. The median number for our worst-selling authors – those ranked #2,000 and below – was a solid one book. This makes sense. The more you write, the better you become as a writer. The more you publish, the more you learn and the more you evolve your ability to employ best practices. And the more you publish, the more opportunities you have to hook readers and develop their awareness and trust. So there’s little doubt that authors with more books have greater odds of commercial success. This advantage is amplified when you superimpose the power curve on the data because authors who gain a small advantage in sales rank gain a much larger increase in earnings.

 -What book-price is selling best in 2014?

It’s a close race between $3.99 and $2.99 for fiction. We’ll publish our next survey results in May of 2015, but I suspect $3.99 may, for the third year in a row, take the top spot in terms of author earnings and unit sales. I suspect many high-quality writers are underpricing their full-length fiction at $2.99 when $3.99 or $4.99 would make more sense. For non-fiction indie authors, we found a strong indication that they’re underpricing their works. Higher prices are often correlated with higher earnings, something that’s the opposite of what we see in fiction.

-What do you think about an author making the first book in a series perma-free?

I think it’s smart to do so. In our survey, which for three years now has looked at the impact of free on downloads at the iBooks store, we found that free books are downloaded 39 times more often than priced books. So free more than anything will help drive readers into your series. If you write full-length, and your first book hooks the reader, some percentage of readers will funnel into book two. Free eliminates the economic risk that readers take on an unknown author. Free will get your book tried, and then it’s up to your book to earn and deserve the reader’s loyalty. Free works best on super-awesome books that take readers to an emotionally satisfying extreme. A book that is merely “good� is not good enough, and will have lower conversion rates into the series. If authors are fearful to go perma-free, I’d suggest they experiment first with temporary free.

Back in 2009, Smashwords was the first to open up distribution for self-published ebooks to Barnes & Noble and Sony, retailers that were previously inaccessible to indie authors. Today, most major retailers allow direct uploads to retailers. Why should authors use Smashwords when they can upload direct?

I think the primary reason the vast majority of our authors choose to distribute with Smashwords is that we make it faster, easier and more convenient to reach multiple retailers, and we provide powerful time-saving tools to help manage the digital logistics of these books. We help authors spend more time writing and less time fussing with the upload, monitoring and maintenance of multiple platforms.

The advantage of using Smashwords becomes especially pronounced once you’re publishing multiple books. Imagine you’ve got ten books and you want to run a price promotion on all of them. It takes about 60 seconds to change the price of ten books at Smashwords, whereas it would probably take over an hour to log into four different platforms and effect the same change. If you want to upload a new version of your book or cover, or update your book description, you do it once in the Smashwords Dashboard and that changes ripples out everywhere. Smashwords provides authors access to exclusive tools and distribution channels that can’t be found anywhere else. We’re committed to developing tools and capabilities that help Smashwords authors gain a competitive advantage over other authors. We’ll never stop pushing the envelope to serve our authors.

What do You Make of the Ongoing Dispute between Amazon and Hachette?

The dispute saddens me. It has led to ugly divisiveness in certain quarters of the indie author community where indie authors are turning against fellow authors, indie and traditionally-published alike.

Amazon and Hachette are engaged in a business dispute that most industry watchers believe is centered around agency ebook pricing. I blogged about it back in May at the Smashwords Blog (http://blog.smashwords.com/2014/05/amazons-hachette-dispute-foreshadows.html ). At the heart of the dispute is a simple question of control: Should authors and publishers control pricing and margin, or should retailers control pricing and margin?

Everything else is a distracting sideshow. In this case the sideshow actors have hijacked the debate by fomenting a rage-fest against large publishers, against the media, against fellow authors, and against anyone viewed as a critic of Amazon or a critic of their rage-fest.

It has created a polarization within the indie community where any author or group of authors – notably Authors United – that questions Amazon’s business practices is bullied and shouted down. Ugly is the best way to describe it. It’s made all the uglier and more disappointing to me because the sideshow is led by some good people for whom I have much respect.

I see interesting parallels with the rise of the Tea Party political movement here in the U.S. Regardless of what anyone thinks of the Tea Party, it brought together well-intentioned people who had intersecting and passionate interests related to big government, taxation and free enterprise. The passions were stirred by fear-mongering and demonization of “the other.� Fear leads to irrationality and extremism. What many early Tea Partiers didn’t realize was that big corporate interests such as the Koch brothers were pulling strings behind the scenes, and standing to benefit greatly by the demonization of government.

This war of words won’t end well for Hachette, publishers, authors or Amazon. Civility has been lost. There will be no winners here.

-Is there anything you’d like to share with Novelist Incorporated members?

Thank you, Lina, for inviting me to participate in this interview. It’s an honor. I’m a big fan of NINC. I appreciate NINC’s dedication to helping authors publish with greater professionalism and success. We live in a golden age for publishing where every author enjoys exciting possibilities that simply didn’t exist a few years ago. There’s never been a better time to be a writer. NINC members have an opportunity to seize the day, own their future, and shape a better tomorrow for publishing and the culture of books. Never quit writing and publishing!

MarkCokerSmashwords

BIO: Mark Coker founded Smashwords in 2008 to change the way books are published, marketed and sold.

In the six years since its launch, Smashwords has grown to become the leading ebook distributor serving indie authors, small presses and literary agents. Over 80,000 authors from around the world publish and distribute nearly 300,000 books at Smashwords.

In June 2010, The Wall Street Journal named Mark one of the “Eight Stars of Self-Publishing.� In March 2012, MediaBistro named Mark one of the “Five Ebook Experts to Watch.� In June 2012, Forbes profiled Mark in feature story titled, Apple’s Biggest (Unknown) Supplier of E-Books. In both 2013 and 2014, Forbes Magazine named Smashwords one of America’s Top 100 Most Promising Companies.

5 comments

  1. Thanks, Mark. It’s nice to have a place to go to keep up on what’s happening in the indie world in numerous ways. And a site where I can manage my books easily. As always, thanks for Smashwords.

  2. Mark, you never waste our time. This is such great meaty data! Thank you!

  3. Hi Mark, you talk about novel length fiction in the discussions above, but I wondered if you had insights with respect to the value of short stories either as an introduction to a series for free, or as their own 99c niche. Another trend I have noticed recently is “book bundling”, either by one author or several. Do you have a sense if readers like or prefer this type of packaging of books and whether they would pay more or still be looking for that 3.99 or 4.99 pricing?

  4. Hi Ann, on average, 99 cent ebooks get about the same number of unit sales as $2.99 and $3.99 ebooks, but 99 cents under performs in average earnings by about 60%. If short is what you write, then $.99 could be the best price for your length. It’s just tough to maximize your income at 99 cents. Amazon pays only 35%.

    You’d think a 99 cent ebook might be multiple times more desirable than a $2.99 ebook, but that’s not the case when we look at unit volume. Readers are willing to pay for a good book, and we know there’s a segment of readers that avoids ultra low-cost ebooks like the plague for fear of poor quality.

    Although we didn’t measure the impact of word count on series starters (something we might do next year), we did find that series with higher average word counts per book (total words in the series divided by the number of books in the series) sold more than series with lower average word counts. We also found that series with free series starters earned more than series without free series starters.

    Because we have good data that says readers prefer longer books over shorter books, the evidence would indicate that longer series starters will perform better than shorter series starters, regardless of whether it’s free or $.99. To understand why, it’s probably helpful to understand why readers prefer longer books, and here I can speculate at five possible reasons: 1. If a reader loves the author’s world as manifested in the book, then more hours of reading pleasure builds more goodwill than fewer hours of reading pleasure. We all know that sad feeling when a book we love ends too soon, or when the author ended prematurely so they could try to sell us another book. 2. A longer book has more ability to develop a richer, more multi-layered world. 3. A longer book gives the author more time to earn the trust of the reader, get the reader invested in the characters, and more time for the reader to appreciate the author’s voice. 4. Value. Longer books typically deliver more value per dollar spent. 5. Less friction. It’s easier for the reader to make one purchase of a 120,000-word novel (one purchase, one download) than to purchase four 30,000-word novellas (four purchases, four downloads, six extra interruptions).

    Although the majority of readers prefer longer books, there are many readers who prefer shorter. By writing at multiple lengths and participating at multiple price points, an author will make their books more accessible to the widest range of reader preferences.

    None of the above is ironclad. Nothing’s more important than story. A poor story priced at free will get very few downloads regardless of length. A short free novella that’s super-awesome and hooks the readers will still drive readers to the author’s other books. Do what’s right for your story or your series, and don’t hesitate to experiment with different price points and lengths.

    I’m a big fan of box sets, both single-author box sets and multi-author. Different reasons for each. For single-author, it’s a chance for readers get a value-priced bundle (and often, they’ve already purchased at least one of the books already), and it’s a high-value (for the author) spontaneous purchase for new readers. If you like writing short, then a multi-story bundle could be the best of both worlds in terms of satisfying both your writing style and reader preferences.

    Multi-author box sets are also often value-priced, but they’re interesting for a different reason, and that’s the collaborative aspect. If the authors execute well on the collaborative marketing, each participant will dramatically amplify their reach. If you participate with nine other authors, and each author promotes the set to their private mailing lists and social media platforms, then you start to appreciate the potential for amplification. When I talk with authors who don’t like box sets, usually it’s because they participated in a set where their fellow authors didn’t pull their weight on the collaborative marketing side. Choose your partners carefully! I blogged about box sets recently at http://blog.smashwords.com/2014/08/how-to-do-box-sets-at-smashwords-for.html

  5. Thank you!

Leave a Reply