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Authors: Learn to reach more readers with your books. Mark Coker's fifth annual 2016 Smashwords Survey. Reveals quantifiable ebook sales data to help authors reach more readers. The 2016 survey answers such questions as: Do readers prefer longer or shorter ebooks?; Do ebooks that start out as preorders sell better?; How do I price box sets?; what are the sweet spots for ebook pricing?; Do series books sell better than standalone books?; which ebook genres are most popular?; do series with FREE series starters earn more money than other series; and much more. For historical context, check out the prior three years of Smashwords Surveys, all here at Slideshare.
SPECIAL SLIDESHARE EDITION
Annual Smashwords Survey 2016
MONEY MONEY MONEY:
Facts & Figures for Financial Payoff
April 14, 2016
Welcome to the Fifth Annual
An RT Booklovers Exclusive
Notes Regarding this Special
For each of the last five years, I’ve revealed our annual
Smashwords Survey at RT Booklovers.
For this special SlideShare Edition, I’ve added
supplemental text to capture additional context and
analysis I shared in the original live presentation.
If you find the findings useful, please share the
presentation with your writer friends on Facebook and
Twitter, or blog about it.
Slideshare has a cool embed feature that allows you to
place the presentation directly into your blog. I share this
annual study to help ALL writers – even writers that don’t
publish and distribute with Smashwords.
~ Mark Coker, April 17 2016
Notes Part II
RT Booklovers is primary a conference for romance writers and
Romance also happens to be the best-selling genre in ebooks. I
met one reader who reads over 300 books per year.
Although you may find sections of this presentation romance-
heavy, it’s because I presented this to an audience of romance
authors, and because romance truly dominates ebook sales.
Romance authors have been at the forefront of the indie ebook
revolution. Writers in other genres have much to learn from the
romance authors. They’ve been the first to pioneer and adopt
best practices such as preorders and free series starters, and
they’re probably the most professionally organized with
organizations such as RWA and conferences such as RT
There’s much opportunity to find great ideas and inspiration from
these smart authors! I know I do.
Last year’s study has been
viewed over 35,000 times
• Access the prior study at Slideshare
Identify data-driven factors that can give
indie authors an incremental advantage in
What’s a Viral Catalyst?
• Viral catalysts drive word of mouth - anything that
makes your book more accessible, discoverable,
desirable and enjoyable to readers
• Read the free Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success to
learn how viral catalysts spur word-of-mouth
Topics we’ll explore
• Where are writers excelling?
• What’s happening with
• Sweet spots for pricing: $2.99 and $3.99?
• Does FREE still work?
• Box sets
• Do longer books sell better?
• and more!
Data was aggregated from across the
Smashwords Distribution Network March
2015 – February 2016 from these sales
? ? ?
We asked questions of the data
We looked at 12 months of sales data
(March 2015 – February 2016) for over
250,000 titles, aggregated across the
Smashwords distribution network,
representing over $20 million in actual
global customer purchases at retail
Some findings are useful, some not
The Smashwords Behind
(Where the data comes from)
15 years ago I met Lesleyann (now my wife), a former reporter
for Soap Opera Weekly magazine. We decided to write a novel
together that explores the wild and wacky world of daytime
television soap operas. It took us about three years to research,
write and edit.
Here’s the finished book. We shopped it to literary agents and
were lucky to get repped by one of the most respected NY
literary agencies. They were awesome, and for two years they
tried to sell it to major publishers.
2004-2005: Publishers Said “No”
For two years our agent got nothing but rejection. Though they
did receive one piece of valuable feedback: Publishers were
reluctant to acquire the book because previous novels targeting
soap opera fans had sold poorly. Soap books weren’t a hot
• Publishers unable to take a risk on
• They can’t say YES to every writer
• Publishers judge books based on perceived
• Publishers guess what readers want to buy
• Dirty secret: They throw spaghetti against the wall
• Considering that most books flop, publishers can
really only guess at what readers want to read
I evaluated our options
1. The rational option
Admit we weren’t good enough and
1. The irrational option
Believe in ourselves
Keep in mind our rejection came about 10 years ago, during the
dark ages of publishing when nearly 100% of sales were print
books, and publishers controlled the printing press and the all-
important access to retail stores. At the time, if a publisher said
no to writer, it essentially sealed the fate of the writer. You
were a “failed writer.”
Wouldn’t it be COOL if there was a
publisher that could say YES to every
author? This way, readers could decide
which books were worth reading.
MY CRAZY IDEA: What if there was a
technical solution to this problem? Maybe
digital books held the key? What if I could
develop a free ebook publishing platform
that would enable any writer, anywhere in
the world, to enjoy the freedom to self-
publish an ebook at no cost???
My solution: Smashwords
Launched in 2008
• FREE eBook Publishing Platform
Free ebook publishing
Free best practices knowledge - to help
writers publish like professionals
Distribution to major ebook retailers and
Smashwords Distribution Network
Upload once, reach multiple outlets
* Limited distribution to AMAZON, see http://smashwords.com/distribution for instructions
How Smashwords Works
• Upload a Microsoft Word file, formatted to
our Smashwords Style Guide
• Ready for immediate sale online
• Distribution to major retailers
1. GET PAID
• Author receives 85% of net, which equals
60% list at major retailers and up to 80%
list at the Smashwords Store
The hazards and opportunities of
data driven decision making
• Averages are only averages
• Big variances in a sample can skew data
• Median = midpoint of numbers in a range
when arranged from highest to lowest. Often
represents a more “typical” outcome.
• Your book is unique.
• Data cannot fully explain the multivariate
factors that drive readers to purchase one
book over another
• We try to identify opportunities for
Navigating Data-speak (the
dangers of “average”)
Higher rank Sales rank Lower rank
The Power Curve – Sales at Each
Best practices yield incremental
advantage in sales rank, exponential
advantage in sales
For every well-implemented best practice, you’ll gain an
incremental advantage that moves your sales rank to the left.
With each incremental move to the left, you receive an
exponential increase in sales due to she shape of curve.
The Long Tail of Authordom
Here’s the power curve for the top 500 highest earning
Smashwords authors. Author #500 looks like they’re doing poorly,
but they’re actually doing quite well. The even bigger sellers on
the left create the shape of the curve. However, if you’re the
#10,000 best-selling author at Smashwords, you’re doing poorly.
The tail is long. Always make decisions that move you to the left.
(source of these survey results)
Smashwords authors and
publishers come 175+ countries
Top Fiction Categories
3. Young adult or teen
5. Mystery & detective
6. Gay & lesbian fiction
7. Science fiction
8. Thriller & suspense
Smashwords Catalog is Fiction-
• 89.5% of sales are fiction
• Romance (incl YA romance) is
~50% of sales (45% excluding)
• Erotica is 10% of sales
• Non-fiction 11% of sales
Top Non-Fiction Categories
2. Health, wellbeing, &
4. Business & Economics
5. Religion and Spirituality
6. Relationships and Family
7. Sports & outdoor
8. Education and Study
9. New Age
12. Home and Garden
13. Sex and Relationships
14.Cooking, food, wine
15.Computers and Internet
Romance Dominates across
• Romance titles account for
• 9 of top 10 bestsellers
• 78% of top 50 bestsellers
• 75% of top 100 (vs 87% 2015, 70% 2014)
• Why Romance Dominates
• Romance authors most professional, sophisticated,
experimental and organized
• Amazing relationships with amazing readers
At various points in the presentation, you’ll see me reference
prior years. Check out the prior years’ surveys at Slideshare to
do your own historical comparisons. It’s fun to see what
changes and what doesn’t over time.
Relative average earnings per
title by category
Top Selling Romance Categories
Based on Smashwords sales analysis of 30,000+ titles
3. YA Romance
5. New Adult
14. Action adventure
15. Time travel
17. African American
18. Short stories
20. Clean & wholesome
In the next slide, I looked at every sale of a
romance title to see how the different
subcategories performed relative to one another.
Just because one category is larger than another
doesn’t mean that’s where you should be writing.
Write what you love, whether it’s Romance, sci-fi,
fantasy, mystery, horror or any of the myriad non-
fiction categories. There are a lot of readers even
in the smaller categories. There’s a lot of
opportunity to become the big fish in the smaller
Mega view: All Romance
Categories, Ranked Performance
NEW: How do different romance
categories compare to one
• In the two slides that follow, I took a completely different
look at romance subcategories
• Analyzed 32,900 romance titles priced $.99 and up
• Aggregated sales per subcategory, then computed average
and median sales per title per subcategory
• Averaged the average and median yields to create
aggregated benchmark, then compared each subcategory’s
average and median yield to the appropriate aggregated
• From here, calculated the percentage +/- divergence for each
• The “average” chart hints at where the biggest hits are found
• The “median” chart hints at where books typically outpeform
other subcategories. I think it might identify some under-
Average Relative Performance,
yield per title per category
Median Relative Performance,
yield per title per category
In Romance, this might suggest sci-fi/fantasy/erotic and adult
subcategories are underserved?
One of the opportunities of our Survey is to try to
identify the successful habits of the bestselling
Is there a correlation between an author’s social
media presence and their sales?
The next chart shows some insight.
As in our past surveys, it appears better-selling
authors are more likely to have a social media
Bestselling Authors More Likely
to Have Social Media Presence
There’s been a lot of buzz about box sets. Box
sets were big in 2014, but there’s been a little less
activity with them over the last 12 months.
I remain a big fan of box sets. As you’ll learn in
the slides that follow, there are different types of
box sets. To earn sales, do a single-author box
set. To grow your readership, do a multi-author
box set priced at FREE or $.99.
To learn more about box sets, check out my how-
to post at:
Fun Facts: Box Sets
NEW: In June, 2015, Smashwords introduced
a new metadata option to allow authors to tag
their books as box sets.
Over 3,000 box sets at Smashwords
Primary reasons authors do box sets:
Single author value bundles
Fund raising for charity
#1 bestselling boxset at Smashwords is
The ‘Burg Series by Kristen Ashley
Priced at $17.95 and sports 1.2 million
Fun Facts II: Box Sets
Among top 50 highest earning box sets:
88% (44) are single author box sets, 12% multi-author
Average price is $7.09
Average word count is 328,000
Among top 50 box sets with most unit sales:
78% (39) are single author, 22% multi-author
Average price is $3.75
Average word count is 259,000
Only 4 of top 100 bestselling titles were box
sets (2 single-author by Kristen Ashley and
R.L. Mathewson, two charity; ¾ romance)
The next set of box set slides indicate that even
though box sets generally underperform other
titles, box set participation appears to be one of
the successful habits of bestselling authors.
Better-selling authors are much more likely to be
doing single-author box sets and participating in
multi-author box sets.
In the next three slides, I look at the top 100
bestselling authors (arranged in sales rank bands
of 10), the top 1,000 and the top 10,000.
Remember, the #10,000 author is not doing well.
When looking for best practices, what the worst-
sellers are or aren’t doing is often as informative
as what the bestsellers are doing.
Bestsellers more likely to
participate in box sets
Box set participation among top
1,000 bestselling SW authors
Box set participation among top
“Where should I price my book” is one of the most common
questions authors ask.
It’s an important question. Every time you sell a book, you
earn a reader and you earn royalty. While money is great, I’d
argue earning that reader is even more critical to your long
With smart pricing strategy, you can maximize both
readership and earnings.
The slides that follow are interesting on a number of levels.
For example, note that the patterns have not changed
radically over the years we’ve been tracking this. $2.99-
$3.99 appear to be the sweet for most indie authors where
you can maximize both downloads (readership) and dollars.
But note that many authors are finding success at higher
• FREE draws readership
• 41X more downloads on average
compared to priced titles (last 12 months)
• Was also 41X last year (interesting!), and 39X in
2014, but 100+ in years past
• Powerful platform builder
• Powerful sales catalyst for series or deep
NOTE: The charts that follow aggregate both fiction and non-
fiction sales. With about 90% of Smashwords sales
dominated by fiction, these charts are most representative of
However, at the higher price points you’ll gain hints to how
non-fiction performs at higher prices. In prior surveys we
found higher price points help NF authors earn more unit
sales in addition to higher earnings. See our 2014 and 2015
NF authors are usually best served at $7.99+, whereas fiction
authors are generally best served at $2.99 to $5.99
Also remember this data is based on averages. Your book is
unique and may not conform to averages. This is why price
experimentation is so important.
Now that we support enhanced metadata for box sets, for the
first time ever we’re able to look at how box sets perform at
Some surprises here!
Note how box set behavior is radically different to single-
In prior Surveys, we found strong evidence that readers
prefer longer books. Longer books are much more likely to
be among our top sellers.
Possibly this is because if readers find an author or story
they love, more words equals more hours of reading pleasure.
As you look at these charts, especially the top 1,000 and
10,000, visually superimpose in your imagination the Power
Curve. The titles on the left sell exponentially more than on
the right. The titles on the left are much more likely to have
higher word counts.
This means, for example, if you have a great novel that’s
100,000 words, you probably should not break it into two
50,000-word books, or four 25,000-word novellas. You might
disadvantage the book.
One of our bestsellers, Kristen Ashley, often writes up to
200,000 words per book.
Average and median word counts
of top 100 bestsellers
Average and median word counts
for top 1,000 bestsellers
Average and median wordcounts
for top 10,000 bestsellers
Word Count for Top 10,000 (2015
Survey for comparison)
What’s the average word count for
the top 70 bestselling Smashwords
= average word count of top 70 Smashwords romance for
2016 Smashwords Survey
Excluding box sets, the top 70 non-boxset bestsellers
= average word count of top 70 Smashwords romance for
= average word count of top 70 Smashwords romance for
= average word count of top 60 Smashwords romance
Smashwords Launched Preorder
Distribution July 2013
Preorder distribution to iBooks, Barnes
& Noble and Kobo
We promised a sales advantage. Did
Fun Facts: Preorders 2016
Only 13.5% of books published during the survey period
were born as preorders. (9.8% in prior survey) BIG
implications here. Preorders remain the most
underutilized best practice.
7 of top 10 bestsellers born as preorders (5 of 7
preorders were romance)
On average, preorder books earned authors 6.7X what
non-preorder books earned (median earnings for
preorder was 2.8X non preorder books (3.5X last
Of top 200 bestsellers, 55% (110) were born as
preorders (2015: 67%)
Of top 200 preorders, 78% supplied by romance authors
Smashwords Series Manager Tool
Gives New Insight about Series
Launched September, 2013
Enhanced discovery at retailers gives
Smashwords authors advantage
15,000+ series at Smashwords
We track series performance!
Fun Facts: Series 2016
Of top 10 bestselling series:
7 are romance
4 are YA (of which three are romance)
6 series did not have a new release during the survey!
Of Top 100 bestselling series:
Average 6.49 titles per series (median is 5)
Added just under one new title to the series on average (.8
62 series had new releases, 38 did not
Average word count for all books within top 100 bestselling
Among top 10,000 bestsellers,
the series advantage is clear
Do series with FREE series starters
earn more sales?
Free vs. Non-free series starters
• We looked at two categories of
• The 100 highest-earning series that have free series
• The 100 highest-earning series that have non-free
• Next, we totaled up the sales of each
group and calculated the average
earnings per title, and the median
earnings per title.
• We first did this in last year’s 2015
(2015 SW Survey)FREE Series
Starters Lead to 66% Boost in
FREE Series Starters Boost
Series (2016 Survey)
Free series starters among the
top 100 bestselling series
Free series starters among top
1,000 bestselling series
Free series starter usage among
10,000 bestselling series
Do series books earn more than
Series books sell significantly
more than standalone
Summary of Key Takeaways
• Romance writers and readers dominate
• Climb the power curve by implementing no-brainer best
• Series books sell better
• Longer books generally sell better
• Preorders remain huge untapped opportunity for most
• $2.99 and $3.99 remain sweet spots for most indie
romance authors, but some authors finding success when
they migrate higher
• FREE remains powerful catalyst for readership-building
• Box sets generally not big moneymakers, but they have
ancillary strategic benefits
• Data-driven publishing decisions are
irrelevant without a great book
• Numbers provide hints at opportunities to
engage with more readers
• Dangerous to make decisions on a single metric
• Your book is immortal
• Experiment and iterate until you get viral catalysts
just right. Then iterate some more.
• Read the Secrets to Ebook Publishing
Success for other viral catalysts
Free resources about
ebook publishing 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
Don’t Keep Knowledge a Secret!
For the last eight years I’ve shared the best practices knowledge
that helps writers publish with greater pride, professionalism and
success. I learn from our authors – I learn from you – and I share
it for everyone’s benefit. The secrets I teach are universal. The
knowledge – like Smashwords - is free and available to everyone.
One need not publish with Smashwords to benefit from this
information. I share this information because I believe a rising
tide lifts all boats. I want to help writers everywhere achieve
their dreams because dreams are important, and books are
important! Please share these resources with your friends.
As you peruse my free resources, please do your fellow writers a
favor and share what you learn. Blog it, Facebook it, Tweet it and
share hyperlinks to it across social media.
How to Publish Ebooks
• In 2005, I presented a four-module ebook publishing course at the
Pacific Northwest Writers Conference.
• View all the slides at http://bitly.com/howtopublishebooks or
• Modules include: 1. Introduction to Ebook Publishing. 2. Ebook
Publishing Best Practices. 3. Ebook Preorder Strategies. 4. iBooks
Summary of Smashwords Tools
• Smashwords offers free tools to help
you publish with pride, professionalism
Single upload – reach many retailers and
Manage your book across multiple retailers
from your Smashwords Dashboard
Preorders, including assetless (metadata-only)!
Centralized metadata management
Smashwords Coupon Manager for custom
Daily sales reporting
Are you a Smashwords author or
Over 115,000 indie authors and small independent presses use
Smashwords to publish and distribute ebooks!
If you found the Survey useful, we’d love to welcome you to
By partnering with Smashwords for distribution, you are directly
supporting our ability to continue bringing you such great educational
resources including this annual Smashwords Survey.
To join Smashwords, click to
www.smashwords.com and click JOIN.
For more information, visit
Checklist for Publishing and
Distributing with Smashwords
1. Sign up for a free account at www.smashwords.com
The confirmation email will walk you through the next steps
2. Prepare your manuscript and cover image. The
Smashwords Style Guide will teach you how to
professionally format your book -
3. If you want to hire a low-cost expert to format your
book or design your cover, check out Mark’s List at
4. Upload your manuscript and cover to Smashwords for
distribution to major retailers.
5. Bonus points: Read the Smashwords FAQ to learn how
to get the most out of the Smashwords platform -
Have you heard about assetless
• For two years running now, the Smashwords Survey
conclusively proved that books born as preorders sell
• Smashwords is a leader in ebook preorders. We’ll get
your preorder listed at iBooks, Barnes & Noble and Kobo
• With assetless preorders, you can get your listing
established up to 12 months before you release your
• Advance listings enable:
• More effective advance marketing
• Higher first-day sales rank at iBooks and Kobo
• Learn more at
Smashwords YouTube Tutorials
• View nearly 10 hours of Smashwords video workshops at
• Smashwords video series:
• #1: Introduction to ebook publishing - https://www.youtube.com/watch?
• #2: Ebook publishing best practices: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
• #3: 2013 Smashwords Survey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
• #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 it mean to be an “indie
• 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 in which I described the ethos behind
the indie author movement.
• The manifesto explores the mindset, attitudes and aspirations of
• 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
• Is my forecast too conservative? Maybe.
• 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
• How to Publish Ebooks (a collection a four-module training course mentioned on prior
• Ebook Publishing in the Classroom (Includes a primer of ebook self-publishing and
also best practices): http://www.slideshare.net/Smashwords/ebook-publishing-in-the-
• How public libraries can launch community publishing initiatives:
• 2014 Smashwords Survey - http://www.slideshare.net/Smashwords/2014-smashwords-
• 2013 Smashwords Survey - http://www.slideshare.net/Smashwords/new-smashwords-
• 2012 Smashwords Survey - http://www.slideshare.net/Smashwords/how-data-driven-
Connect with Mark Coker
Blog: blog.smashwords.com (subscribe via email
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Thanks for your time!
Connect with Mark Coker:
Blog: blog.smashwords.com (subscribe