Guest Post: Experiments with E-books

by Jim C. Hines

Jim C. HinesEarlier this year, I was studying my royalty statement from DAW, comparing my print and electronic sales. I’ve been hearing for years that print is dying and e-books are the future, so I was rather surprised to find that electronic sales made up only 3-5% of my overall book sales.

Certain champions of self-publishing were quick to point out what I was doing wrong. My books were priced too high at $6.99. Digital rights management (DRM) was hurting me too. And of course, by going through a major publisher, I was cutting myself out of the big royalties.

So I decided to experiment. In October, I put my out-of-print mainstream novel Goldfish Dreams up for sale on B&N and Amazon as a $2.99, DRM-free e-book. My friend Steven Saus did the conversion for me. (This is not an instant or easy process; both Amazon and B&N have guidelines for their preferred formats.)

Here were some of the advantages I had going in:

  • I’ve published six books with a major publisher, so readers (hopefully) have some confidence that I can write a decent book.
  • I’ve got a moderate online following. At best guess, about 2000 people see my blog each day, and would hear about the book.
  • Goldfish Dreams is an out-of-print book from a small press, so it’s already been through the gatekeepers once, and has benefited from some editorial feedback.

After roughly two months, I’ve sold 33 books through Amazon and 4 through B&N, for about $75 in royalties. Hardly the thousands certain voices led me to expect. By comparison, in the past eight weeks, Bookscan tells me that my backlist with DAW has sold 2200 books, an average of 370 per book. Even the book that came out more than four years ago sold about 280 copies. Those royalties come to more than $1000.

So much for buying that new mansion. But there are people making this work. I’ve spoken to a number of authors who are earning hundreds or even thousands a month from self-publishing e-books. Sherwood Smith describes a slow trickle of sales in the beginning, but after eight months, she’s selling about 700 books a month through Smashwords and Kindle. Scott Nicholson recently wrote about selling close to 30,000 self-pubbed e-books in 2010. So what are these authors doing right?

First of all, these are writers who have been published commercially, meaning they’re likely to have a preexisting audience for their work. In my case, I may have a good-sized fantasy fan base, but not so much with mainstream readers. So by e-publishing Goldfish Dreams, a mainstream novel, I expect my results are much closer to what brand-new writers would see if they skipped straight to self-publishing their e-books.

Genre matters too. Smith says, “Most of the sales are two romantic fantasies, one YA and one early YA, more like middle grade. My tiny bit of experience is correlating with a recent article in the New Yorker or the NYT or something, wherein the journalist reported that romance is outselling everything else.”

Most of the more successful writers I spoke to had also e-published multiple books. Almost everyone who spoke of making a thousand dollars or more per month was talking about total royalties from multiple books.

Not everyone’s experiences were positive. Laura Anne Gilman published a short story collection electronically, and described results similar to my own, adding, “Of course, that doesn’t account for the copies that were immediately pirated and torrented everywhere. It was the latter that put me off doing another collection – too much work on my part to reward people who don’t want to pay anything for it.”

Several other authors reported similar findings, suggesting that electronically self-pubbed short fiction collections don’t appear to sell as well as novels.

Publishing is changing, and overall e-book sales are growing. What’s happening five years from now will be different from what’s happening today. But one thing I expect to hold true is that there are no shortcuts. Writing is hard, publishing is a business, and slapping your very first manuscript up on Kindle is not going to make you rich. On the other hand, for authors with a fanbase and backlist, there are ways to make it work.

Jim C. Hines‘ latest book is RED HOOD’S REVENGE, the third of his fantasy adventures that retell the old fairy tales with a Charlie’s Angels twist. He’s also the author of the humorous GOBLIN QUEST trilogy. His short fiction has appeared in more than 40 magazines and anthologies. Online, he can be found at http://www.jimchines.com

23 Responses

  1. cynthia

    Thanks for this article. I just started looking hard at what I need to do to get started in ePublishing. Tons of information out there, but I like hearing from SFWA folk (because I’m assuming that SFWA folk’s experience will be more relevant.)

  2. Jim C. Hines

    I think a fair number of us are still exploring e-publishing, trying to figure out where it’s going and how best to take advantage of it. I definitely don’t have all of the answers yet, but I keep coming back to two points.

    1. There are no shortcuts.
    2. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

    I’m curious, Cynthia — have you been published before, and what are you looking to do with e-publishing?

    Best of luck!

  3. Linda Nagata

    I put my first four novels out for Kindle and Nook this fall. (Will do the others soon.) It is a lot of work, especially when starting from older manuscripts that have been converted from ancient word processors, and of course coming up with a cover is its own challenge. But I love having them available, and they will be there & buyable when my next book comes out.

    I’ll also be offering them as print-on-demand before long. Very curious to see if that will be more or less popular than the ebooks.

  4. Annie Bellet

    Having a traditionally published background probably doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it is the key to success with ebooks.

    The writer’s section of the kindle boards has reports of many people with no traditional background selling well (including people who have books in the top 100 paid on kindle). Genre does seem to matter, as does cover, blurb, and content. There’s a lot of debate about if reviews matter and about price.

    But what Jim says holds true, if a writer doesn’t put the time and work in, their writing will suck. And no one will buy a bad book, not a publisher or a reader.

  5. Jim C. Hines

    Annie – so what are these people doing that’s helping them to succeed, do you think? How much time are they spending on the Kindle Boards, Twitter, blogs, and elsewhere doing sales/publicity work?

  6. Michele Lee

    My experiences are similar to yours. My zombie novella Rot came out through a small press in August 2009. It got almost universal good reviews, and made it to the Stoker Long List. Knowing that it being a “affordable limited edition” (ie a novella that the press and I still needed to make some money on, but didn’t want to charge $50 for) would limit its audience I insisted that the press offer it as an ebook (to the point of volunteering Rot to be their guinea pig entry to the ebook market). It was very important to me that there was an affordable ebook version.

    A year later digital sales outweigh print almost three to one, and I still get regular sales (not many, but 1-2 a month is something I’m happy with since this was my “debut” work.) I am nowhere near the hundreds a month other people say they get and don’t anticipate being so anytime soon. But I wouldn’t sign with a book publisher who refused to offer an ebook version of my work either.

  7. Andrew Burt

    @Michele Lee, while I suspect most publishers would now take electronic rights whether you want them to or not, I think the more interesting question becomes how much you earn from ebooks sold via that publisher vs. sold yourself. A first novel sale to a major publisher for, say, $5,000, would only require you to sell around 700 ebook copies in your life to earn as much. (714 copies @ 70% take of $9.99 ebook price = $5000.) 714 copies is only 6 copies a month for ten years, or 1.5 copies a month over 40 years.

    If ebooks climb above 10% of book sales to a majority (as seems possible), letting a publisher even have your ebook rights today, at a low royalty rate, may harm your income in the long run.

  8. Andrew Burt

    Jim, interesting info! With the $1,000 being for six books, that’s $166 each, which is much more comparable to the $75. FWIW, I wrote up some other thoughts, longer than fit here but possibly of interest, on my blog at: critique.org/c/blog/?l=20101228092418

  9. Andrew Burt

    Also wanted to encourage authors to enter their ebook sales data anonymously in a survey I’m conducting, to help us all find the optimal pricing for our ebooks. It’s at: critique.org/edsurv

  10. Jim C. Hines

    Andrew,

    Yes, the $1000 is for six books. I also pointed out that those six books each sold an average of 370 copies compared to 37 copies of the e-book. I.e., I’m selling ten times as many copies of each paperback. (More, actually, since Bookscan numbers underestimate total sales.)

    I glanced at your blog post. Could you please point me to where I said Goldfish Dreams was turned down by the major publishers?

    Thanks,
    Jim

  11. Andrew Burt

    Jim, sorry if I misinterpreted what you meant by “Goldfish Dreams is an out-of-print book from a small press, so it’s already been through the gatekeepers once, and has benefited from some editorial feedback” when I said it might mean the book had a more limited audience.

    The opportunity for the largest advance and widest circulation would come from shopping a book to the major publishers. They are, however, going to be less likely to take the risk on a book for a number of reasons, generally having to do with how wide an audience they think they can sell the book to. Small presses are often the home to excellent books that can reach smaller, more targeted audiences. It’s about the risk — lack thereof — that the major publishers want to undertake.

    A great example I read the other day was about Ted Sturgeon having an enormously hard time selling “And Now the News,” despite already being a highly regarded author. The major markets he sent it to extolled how excellent it was, but turned it down saying it wasn’t right for their audience. He did get it sold, after begging a publisher, with whom he was on good terms, to take it as his last resort. It is, o f course, an excellent piece.

    My point was thus that a book that comes out from a small press might be excellent, but it might also have a narrower appeal — which could in turn possibly account for it selling fewer copies in ebook form than a different book might.

    Anyway, I’ve corrected my blog to reflect this. Sorry for any confusion!

  12. Annie Bellet

    I don’t know what the secret is for those Kindle authors doing well, honestly. I know that getting their book reviewed helps, but there are plenty of authors who do that (there are now large lists of blogs and such that will review indy books) who still see very small sales.

    I’d say that a few things help for sure:
    1- Lots of product (ie your name and covers in multiple places on amazon and B&N) (3 or more novels out seems to be a magic number, though some are doing well with 1 or 2, but they devote a ton of time to self-promotion)
    2- Good covers (professional looking, eye-catching covers)
    3- Good descriptions (ie a catchy blurb that tells clearly about the book and what sort of book it is)
    4- Low price (there’s debate as to how low, but below the impulse buy threshold is important. I’ve seen kindle board authors selling thousands of copies with prices as high as 6.49 for a full-length novel, so cleary 99 cents or 2.99 isn’t necessarily the sweet spot for everyone)
    5- and the most important: A good book with professional editing. A bad book won’t sell, no matter how much you promote and get the word out, and it definitely won’t help you sell a second or third book.
    Hands down the biggest complaint I hear about indy published books is the number of mistakes that a decent copyeditor would have fixed.

    To sell well you have to have a good book and I think genre helps here. The best indy sellers I’ve seen are in the Myster/Thriller/Suspense, Paranormal Romance, and Fantasy genres. I’ve seen some doing well in the Women’s Fiction and more general romance categories as well.

    As I mentioned on your LJ, Jim, I think that Goldfish Dreams was an interesting but perhaps flawed choice for a true experiment. The subject matter is a tough sell. It isn’t a book I can recommend to most of the readers I know even though as a survivor I really liked it. I, personally, think a collection of Goblin stories or something more in line with your more popular works would sell a lot better, but given your day job and family I’m guessing doing something on the side just for an experiment that might not pay off (and probably wouldn’t pay off immediately) is not feasible and doesn’t make sense for your career at this time.
    It would be interesting if you ever had enough goblin short stories with the rights reverted to try it, and that’s an experiment I’d watch with interest :)

    (FWIW- I’m trying my own ebook experiment here soon, so I’ve been watching and trying to figure out how the truly successful authors do it. So far there’s no “one way” that I can see beyond the things I discussed above, so we’ll see how that works out since I’m pretty much an unknown at this point. But I have the free time since writing is my only job to cover both my indy and my traditional submission bases. And my literary short stories which I put up on kindle and smashwords under a different name and don’t promote have been selling 3-7 copies or so a month without me doing anything. It might be the 99 cent price, who knows?)

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  15. Keyan

    Jim, I think you have to think of it as a product and branding. I was all set to buy it when I thought it was fantasy… I mean, Goldfish Dreams? From Jim Hines? Will it involve aquatic goblins?

    Then I realized it was mainstream. I don’t read much mainstream. There’ll be no aquatic goblins.

    I guess what I’m getting at is, your name attracts a certain audience. A better experiment would be to put one of your fantasy books out there, and see how well *that* would sell.

  16. Jim C. Hines

    Thanks — that’s pretty much the point I was making when I wrote, “I may have a good-sized fantasy fan base, but not so much with mainstream readers. So by e-publishing Goldfish Dreams, a mainstream novel, I expect my results are much closer to what brand-new writers would see if they skipped straight to self-publishing their e-books.”

  17. Rick Lipman

    Jim – I stumbled onto this post through Twitter, and I think your experiment is an interesting one, though I’d agree with some earlier commenters that it may have been slightly flawed.

    The self-published writers – of whom I’m aware – currently making the majority of their income from ebooks put an awful amount of time into self-promotion. While the numbers may look like magic, and it sounds too good to be true, both of these things are because a lot of the fanfare tends to overlook the self-marketing aspect.

    This is the double-edged sword. A lot of writers want to write. They don’t want to meet-and-greet, or spend hours trying to market their own materials, or sink time into message boards. That’s what the marketing departments at major publishers are for.

    But if you’re going to circumvent the Gatekeepers, it takes a lot of effort to make up for those losses. These writers are all over the Amazon Kindle boards, and GoodReads, and Twitter, and many other things that I’m sure I’m not even aware of.

    I think it’s a fascinating process, I think there will come a time (if it hasn’t already) where the ability to earn real money from self-publishing is a gamechanger, both for writers and the industry – but like you said, it’s not a fast fix and it will never happen overnight.

    Just my two cents.

  18. Rebecca McKee

    One Michigan reader’s experience: I really enjoyed _Goblin Quest_, Jim, and would like to have more of your work on my Kindle, but I have to admit that I’m trying to reduce the overabundance of hard copy books in my life. I’m just cheap enough that I’m not willing to pay Amazon $1.66 more for a bunch of electrons than I would for a hard copy of it. That’s one situation you’re going to have to overcome before you win over many more e-book readers.

  19. Jim C. Hines

    Rebecca,

    Thank you! Very glad you enjoyed Goblin Quest.

    Since all of my books are available for Kindle, and the Kindle editions are all cheaper than the paperbacks, I’m not sure what you’re saying here…

    Best,
    Jim

  20. Anke

    Rebecca might be another person outside the USA.

    All the books with a paperback cover price of $7.99 cost $9.65 for Kindle if you live in Germany, for instance.

  21. Jim C. Hines

    Anke – that’s a good point, thanks. VAT does weird and annoying things to e-book pricing in other countries. Not something I can do anything about, but I understand where the frustration comes from.

  22. Jim C. Hines

    Whoops — Nope, just re-read Rebecca’s comment, and she identifies herself as a Michigan reader. So I’m back to having no idea where she’s finding e-books that are *more* expensive than the paperbacks.

  23. Hemisphire

    Rebecca’s in the same place I am: discovering you can buy a new or used copy for less than you can buy an electronic copy (Jim, go to Amazon and check out the Goblin Quest page).

    The other problem is that nowhere on the B&N page does it state that the book is DRM free, which is a plus for those of us who have ereaders that are not Kindles or Nooks.