Monday, 1 August 2011

How I didn’t sell 1 million e-books in 5 months – Katherine Roberts

Authors are not publishers for two good reasons. The first being that writing a decent book leaves very little creative energy or time for anything else. The second being that most of them haven’t a clue about marketing. Since my first e-book Spellfall has now been available for Kindle for five months, and my sales are still a bit shy (poetic licence) of 1 million, I thought I’d read John Locke’s book How I sold a million e-books in 5 months in the hope of picking up a few tips.

This is a great book to get your hands on if you’re a marketing virgin like me, but it doesn’t claim to wave a magic wand. First of all, note that clever title "How I sold…" Not "How to sell…" or "How you can sell…" John Locke is not saying that reading his book will enable you to mimic his success, yet those sales did happen for him, and he shot to fame for being the first independently published author to sell a million e-books. This book gives an honest account of how he thinks he achieved this using social networking and blog posts such as this one. (John, if you’re reading this, you’ll see I’ve taken notes!)

If you’re curious about those viral marketing campaigns publishers are always promising for new titles, John Locke’s book will open your eyes, and I’d recommend reading it for this alone. But no amount of marketing will be effective if your price is not competitive, and this could be where I made my first mistake. John priced his best-selling e-books at the minimum allowed by amazon (99 cents in the US / 86p in the UK), and then became infamous for saying “Now I don’t have to prove my books are better than those of famous writers; the famous writers have to prove their books are ten times better than mine.” Touche!

Of course, at 86p you are taking a chance on an unknown. But quite often, you are also taking a chance at £8-99. Being a thrifty sort of book buyer who has always sourced as many books from charity shops as I buy new, I have been disappointed as many times at £8-99 as I have at 86p. These days, belt-tightening as we all are, I’ll only buy a book costing £8-99 if I am absolutely certain I will love it or I am buying it as a gift for someone else, whereas I am much more inclined to buy something costing 86p to try out a new author or genre. In the US, I understand 99 cents has the same effect.

So where does that leave my e-book? Spellfall is currently priced at £1-71 ($2-99 in the US). Going by John’s price-value logic, that means I need to prove my book is twice as good as a John Locke book to make it of equal value to a casual UK reader, and three times as good for US readers. So maybe I priced it too high? Am I being big-headed because I'm an award-winning author and Spellfall was a highlighted title in the American Independent Booksellers’ Children’s 76 as “the book most likely to fill the Harry Potter void” when it was first published in 2001?

Well, let’s examine the facts. In its printed form, Spellfall had two issues selling a combined total of around 28,000 copies in the UK (more in the US, but I have not seen those sales figures so will work on UK ones here). Going by the average Kindle sales ratio people on amazon’s forum are reporting of 5 to 1 US to UK sales, then let’s assume John Locke’s million sales translate to around 200,000 for the UK market (note this is a guesstimate for illustration purposes only and is not intended to reflect anybody's actual sales figures). If those sales referred to a single book, I might be giving up writing, because working on John's price-value logic that means I’d need price Spellfall at less than a seventh of his 86p, or around 12p per copy - and even if my head is not swollen, I have more respect for my editors who helped me turn it into a decent book than that!

But John did not publish just one book to make those big sales. He published ten. This is important, and now those figures start to look a bit more realistic. Taking an average split, those very impressive 200,000 UK sales would then become around 20,000 per book. That’s actually less than Spellfall’s existing print sales in the UK. Again working purely on the price-value logic, that means my book should be giving equal reader value at 1.4 times the price of one of John’s… or £1-20. So now my e-price of £1-71 starts to look more realistic, too, especially when you take into account the fact most of those 28,000 sales were at the paperback price of £5-99. (I don’t want to get into relative pricing issues here – that’s the subject of another post!)

So what am I doing wrong? Well, leaving aside obvious differences between the adult and children’s e-book market, here’s my theory. John Locke admits he is an entrepreneur first and an author second. He was trying to make money from his e-books, so he created a system to do this and worked at it tirelessly until it yielded results. I am an author first and an entrepreneur second. What’s important to me is that my books are available for my fans when they want to read them, and if I make enough money to keep me writing new work, then I’ll be a happy author. I do not have to become a millionaire overnight - actually, I think that might be rather distracting.

This brings us neatly to the final part of John’s title: “in 5 months”. While I am with him on the pricing logic, I’m not so sure about this part. Of course it’s impressive that he sold so many copies so fast, and it’s no lie. But this seems to be following slavishly in the footsteps of the old print bookselling model, and I think the opportunity for riding that initial kindling wave – when fewer books were available to buy and readers were eagerly snatching anything priced under $1 – has gone now. If we want to replicate John’s success, we will be paddling very hard to catch up. Other waves might come… a Kindle wave in the UK this Christmas, a kindle wave for children’s e-books a bit later on… but they are going to be much smaller, and future marketing is going to be much harder work.

Yet sales do not have to happen this quickly with e-books. They will not disappear from the virtual shelf in 5 months’ time, or even in 5 years. They can be there for 50 years, clocking up sales for as long as you have the energy to continue marketing them. They might be read on unrecognisable e-readers by then, and the virtual shelf might be a different shelf, but if you keep them updated and the content has quality, they will continue to sell. This is good news for authors like me who are in this writing game for the long term. The media won’t be remotely interested in a book called “How I sold twenty thousand e-books in 50 years”, but those 20,000 readers are what matters to an author in the end.

I did pick up one thing from John Locke’s book, and it’s the same game our publishers play. The numbers game. You’re unlikely to get rich selling a single title, but with multiple titles you have more of a chance. So now the marketing virgin is playing the game. From now until February, I am going to publish one of my Seven Fabulous Wonders books a month, pricing each title at amazon’s minimum of 86p (99 cents) for the one month only, when the price will rise to £1-71 ($2-99) as the next one in the series is published. My unicorn muse thinks this is summer madness but he hates to dirty his glittery hooves with such grubby things as sales figures. This process will obviously take me seven months, not five. But come February, when my next contracted novel is published and the competing works clause means I might no longer be able to price my e-books so competitively, I could well be writing a blog post called “How I sold twenty thousand e-books in 7 months”. Or I might not.

I suppose the real question to ask is did Mr Locke miss anything out of his book? Some secret ritual that he’s keeping all to himself? Well, yes, of course… the all-important book words! Because the truth is there’s no magic marketing wand out there that will lift your sales figures from one or two a month into the thousands. The only certain way to sell a million copies of your book remains the same as it ever did… write a book a million people are desperate to read.
(And then do all the other things, too.)

My e-books:

The Cleopatra Curse (Seven Fabulous Wonders series) 86p/99cents until August 31st

Spellfall (£1-71 / $2-99)

Death Singer and other fantasy tales (£1-71 / $2-99)


Dan Holloway said...

I think your point about timescale is important. What we've seen in general with "indie" sales is similar to what we see in the film world where blockbusters have a massive opening and then tail off whilst independent films grow through word or mouth. Until now we've been mising the blockbuster presence on Kindle, though we're beginning to see more of it with publishers going in with initial low pricing. I think you're absolutely right that the initial wave of opportunity has passed. Independent authors will need to fight harder to find their niche, and the tide of mainstream published books will make it harder for independents to work their way into Amazon's algorithms.

Becky said...

Fascinating post. So much to get your head around. I look forward to hearing how the marketing strategy works out.

Ann Evans said...

A very interesting post Katherine, I think the more we can learn about marketing and self promotion, the better.

Julie Day said...

I've just read about John Locke in the new Writing Magazine. Makes me feel that what I plan to do in self-publishing an ebook series for teens is going to be worth it. Just need to work out what price to cost it - maybe the 99c.

Katherine Roberts said...

Yes, Dan, word of mouth... so important! 10 years ago, it could still happen for paper books. Now I am not so sure. I actually wonder if Harry Potter would have taken off if Book 1 was published on a small buget today? It was 3 books before people really caught on...

Yes, it's going to be interesting to see if the marketing strategy has any effect! I am not convinced the low price will make much difference for children's e-books, unless adults are reading them. And as always the real trick is getting the word out with limited time to work on the publicity.

Good luck with your series, Julie! You could maybe try a promotional price for a limited period?

Anthony Schumacher said...

Thanks for the great post, I'll be awaiting your sales figures with interest. I'm second drafting some work I'm hoping to publish this year, and if I sell 28,000 I'll be amazed and astonished!

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