The book market is in constant flux.
However, while the big picture continues to churn and swirl, the individual author is still plagued with one simple problem: “How do I sell more books?”
It’s hard to make sense of the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of book guru’s out there these days, many of which have confusing, even contradictory advice. And that’s to be expected, because what worked for them may not be valid any more, or they may not be something that scales well to other people.
The end result is thousands of authors out there trying to figure out what they should be doing right now to sell their books.
This short blog series was written to help provide some clear information, possibly even a path forward, for authors in 2016.
And, it starts with an understanding of the book market, past and present, and how the changes between the two affect authors today.
So, What’s Different?
In the turbulent realm of self published authors, there is a dream of “making it big”. That dream is fueled by looking to successes like Hugh Howey, Amanda Hocking, Bella Andre, and H. M. Ward. All indy authors who wrote some great stories and made it HUGE. Like, MEGA huge.
But, there aren’t so many making it “mega” huge anymore. Or even just the “mildly successful” iteration of huge. Thousands of books are loaded up into the digital kindle stacks and shelves every day, growing the Amazonian empire. Independent authors are now better in terms of story and production value than they ever were, and, as the stigma of self publishing continues to diminish, more and more swarm to their ranks. Overall quality is up, overall sales are up, and the bar rises higher every day.
Just from a sheer numbers standpoint, with so many authors writing so many stories, probability suggests there should be magnificent breakout stories left and right.
This year’s sudden success story was The Martian — but it wasn’t sudden, was it? The Martian was originally published in 2011 as an independent – where it did quite well. In a recent interview, Andy reported that he was selling 300 copies a day right from the beginning — an amount per day that most authors are unlikely to sell in their lifetime.
What is the common denominator between the sensational success of past authors and the lack of breakouts in recent years? Does such a thing even exist? And, if it does, what can authors in 2016 do about it?
Quality, Effort, or Timing?
In a recent study by Idealab regarding the qualities of a start-up’s success, one of the most influential factors was not quality or buzz. But something that was, in reality, out of their control.
Yes, there had to be a certain level of quality and marketing effort, but, by far, the most important factor was “market timing.” Things too far “before their time” usually don’t make it, and “too little, too late” kinda says it all. Companies outside this timing window may earn some mild success — but not UBER success.
I got to thinking whether success as an author fell into the same pattern.
Real author trend data is hard to come by, but checking out the best selling Kindle authors list over on Kindle Boards, there is a listing of the top 100 bestselling authors, and it actually has some data we can extrapolate from. Here’s what that data can tell us about the publishing history of the top 100 authors:
Authors first published in 2011 and prior: 70
Authors first published in 2012: 15
Authors first published in 2013: 13
Authors first published in 2014: 2
No author on the list had started publishing in 2015. A whole lot had books ready in 2011. And, what this graph doesn’t show, is that there are no authors in the first 25 spots (the highest sellers) who had published after 2012.
Was 2011 the “sweet spot” for getting in on the Indy Publishing movement?
Let’s take a look at what was going on with Kindle in 2011 and see how it compares to what is happening today in 2016.
The Market Conditions of 2011 vs Now
Number of Books In The Kindle Store, Then and Now
To get a good perspective of the difference between now and then, we need to take The Wayback Machine to 2011.
And our first stop is to look at the number of titles on Kindle over time, to get a good understanding of the overall market competition for Kindlespace.
As you can see in the chart above, there is a huge difference in the breadth of competition for readers. With less than a million titles on Kindle in 2011, there was a lot more room to breathe for individual authors. Plus, there was a clear breakout in price at the time, with traditional publishers all hugging towards the $9.99 end while self publishers started exploring the cheaper side of $2.99 and below.
The bottom line of this chart: There are significantly more titles competing for reader attention in 2016 than there were in 2011.
The Great Kindle Price Plummet
Next step in our Wayback Journey is to look at Kindles themselves. What has been happening with Kindles, and was there anything special about the year 2011?
While we have little actual sales data of Kindles (Amazon doesn’t like to share that), we know a lot about their sales price. And, though it’s hard to make a direct data correlation, it definitely apepars that the e-reader market changed dramatically in 2011.
Here’s a chart showing the cost of a Kindle over the years:
List cost for Kindle from 2007 to 2015
Quite a drop in 2011, right?
I’ll go into some more detail on the data behind this chart.
The Kindle came out November 19th, 2007 for the bargain price of $399. It was cool, but a niche product. Not a lot of books were converted to kindle format (about 90,000 titles), and the whole thing got pushback from readers everywhere — I like paper!
In 2008, the second gen came out, for $360.
In 2009, the Kindle 2 arrived and price dropped further down to $299 – wait, now $259!
2010 saw the 3rd gen — the Kindle Keyboard — drop in at $189. Now, it’s getting serious.
On September 8th, 2011, the 4th generation showed up in stores at $79! Holy Shit! But, the kindle catalog remained shy of a million titles. Still, the price was now $79 — and Amazon expected to sell over 500,000 kindles that year.
And they did.
Audience Met Opportunity in 2011
This explosion of kindle readers combined with an undersized digital bookstore provided an almost ideal market situation.
A lot of people now had a kindle and were hungry for the promised savings on books their eReader was to provide. After all, they had just paid for a device to read books – they did not want to buy digital books at paperback prices.
Publishers resisted this urge, keeping their books priced at the higher end of the $2.99-$9.99 spectrum, and argued with Amazon to price higher. Self publishing authors, on the other hand, embraced cheap pricing as a result of their control of the royalty.
Authors with quality books (story, edit, format, cover art) willing to price to the market started to see large growth in sales.
Those authors who were already on kindle in 2011 and flexible on pricing — H.M. Ward, Hugh Howey, John Locke, Michael Sullivan, Nathan Lowell, Amanda Hocking, David Dalglish, Michael Hicks, Bella Andre — started to sell. A little at first, then it cascaded. They rose up the Kindle charts due to low prices and good reviews.
Almost no one else was pricing at 99 cents back then – publishers certainly weren’t! Those readers who had just spent $100 for an eReader were happy to get the bargain, and as more sales came in, those cheap, quality books rose into top spots on the Kindle book charts. Success fueled more success.
However, just as important as competitive market pricing, each of these breakout authors were either already prepared for the increase in readers or quickly adapted. They were able to meet these new fans with informative websites and newsletters, rapidly converting casual fans to dedicated ones at a time when no one else was bothering. This preparation and quick action enabled them to capitalize on the market shift and build a strong reader base that catapulted them into the future.
By 2013, the Kindle boom began to wane. And, again, this is evident in the Kindle Boards ranking — in the top 100, only 2 listed started publishing after 2013. But, those who were prepared continued to thrive.
Is There Still Opportunity For New Authors?
OK, I can see how these facts can be a little depressing for authors just starting out. But, it doesn’t mean there is no hope. There are still books and authors that jump out of the pile — Jennifer Wells is a great example, so is Richard Gleaves — and if you’re consistently good, authors can make a decent living at writing and self publishing.
The key here is to understand and accept that the methods of success authors used in the past may no longer be valid. The Marketplace is very different now than it was then. Technology, market, and cultures have changed significantly.
As authors move into 2016, I urge them to keep these three things in mind:
- It will take a whole new bag of tricks to be successful moving forward than it did prior to 2013. And a lot more work. Understand that several marketing tips you find may no longer be valid, so be willing to experiment with new things. Try Kindle Unlimited, try other platforms, blog differently (or more often), be more focused on your newsletter. See what really works for you.
- If authors want to make a living at writing — or even just see a decent return on their investment — they need to have strong tools and a solid plan for marketing their books. This means giving equal thought and preparation into promoting your book as much as producing it.
- You don’t know when the market will shift, so be proactive and have everything in place to ensure you’re in a strong position for when it does. Have your website and email newsletter in order. Have at least one sales funnel developed. And encourage an active community around your books.
Speaking of New Tricks…
The next topic in this series talks about Newsletters. No single tip is more recommended for authors than eNewsletters — growing them and using them. So stay tuned for that one coming up next week.
This is the first part of a multi-part series on trends and advice in Book Marketing as we move into 2016. This series is the summation of research, data, observations, and insights taken throughout the last year from a variety of sources, including data from ThirdScribe.