After James’s last visit to Magical Words and his post about publishing ebooks, a few folks asked some follow-up questions that lead to this follow-up piece. Take it away, James:
The image above is a screen shot from Amazon’s author central showing the March 6th sales rankings for the Kindle edition of Nobody Gets the Girl. My superhero novel has done very well since coming out on Kindle. Amazon advertises 810,000 titles available in the Kindle store. Sales ranks change hourly, but it just happens that if I average out my sales numbers for a full month, Nobody’s average would be very darn close to the number 8,100. This means that Nobody is selling in the top 1% of Kindle books right now. That still doesn’t make it a “best-seller.” I’m not getting rich off this, but I’m selling enough copies that I’ll almost certainly make more money off the ebook this year than I ever did off the print edition.
My dragon books haven’t been quite as successful as my superhero novel. I don’t think I’ve yet put the right covers on them, and I also think they face stiffer competition. As a superhero novel, Nobody gets linked to the dozen other standalone superhero novels currently for sale on Amazon, and is almost always on the front page of “customers who bought this also bought this.” If you’re looking for superheroes, the book is easy to find. If you’re looking for dragon based fantasy, my books do show up in the “also bought” streamer, but on page 17 instead of page one. Still, most of my dragon books maintain sales rankings above 81,000, so I feel like I can safely say that they are in about the top 10% of Kindle books, again, not bestsellers, but also nothing to be embarrassed about.
I love having books on Kindle. I love being able to check my actual sales hourly. I like getting sales statements three days after a sales period ends instead of three months. And I definitely have a warm glow when Amazon deposits my royalties into my checking account every month like clockwork. It’s the dream of every writer: sales information that is timely, transparent, and accurate.
And yet, I’m writing this blog post to say, if you are an unpublished author thinking of self-publishing your novel to Kindle, my current advice would be: Don’t.
I have a fifth title on Amazon, my short story “Final Flight of the Blue Bee.” Last month, I sold 4 copies of this title. And, on average, FFBB has a sales ranking somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000. I think I can safely extrapolate from this that the vast majority of Kindle titles, roughly half a million of them, sell fewer than 4 copies a month.
My dragon novels, in upper 10% of sales, sell about 40 copies a month on Kindle. 40 copies is fine for me, since I’ve already earned a lot of revenue from the print editions of the books, and at this point any further revenue I generate is just free money. My books have already been read by tens of thousands of readers in print, so I feel like I’ve done my artistic duty in getting the books read. But, if these books had never had print editions, selling 40 books a month wouldn’t be something I’d get excited about. 40 copies a month in print would be kind of sad.
Your mileage may vary, of course. Right now, if you google “kindle success stories,” you’ll find a dozen authors who kept getting turned away from traditional publishers who self-pubbed to ebooks and are now making thousands of dollars a month. It’s easy to want to emulate their path to victory. But, the important thing to remember is that the people who put out books and find themselves unexpected bestsellers are of course going to jump on their blogs to write about it. It’s easy to talk about success. But the thousands of writers who self-pub their ebooks and sell less than 4 copies a month… they aren’t blogging about their failure.
So, if you’ve written one novel and want to publish it to Kindle, don’t. If you’ve written three novels and are thinking of publishing to Kindle… maybe. If you’ve written a dozen novels and are positive you’re good enough, go for it. One key element of the writers who have been successful in self publishing is that most of them had written a lot of books before they gave up on traditional publishing. They’d honed their craft; quantity does eventually produce quality. Also, the revenue of one ebook selling 20 copies a month might not pay your power bill, but if you have ten titles selling in this range, you’ll probably have enough income to cover your mortgage.
One final caveat: The publishing world is changing so swiftly that advice I’m giving today could be completely outdated a month from now. Borders is shedding stores and when I go into Barnes and Noble these days, I can’t help but notice that they have less and less store space devoted to books and more and more devoted to toys and games. It’s getting tougher to put a book into a book store, so the allure of ebooks is seductive. But, for now, if you are a new novelist, I strongly advise trying to find a traditional publisher. Maybe ebooks will be all your future revenue, but you at least want that first “real” book to be on paper, something you can show your mom and say, “Look! I’m an author!” Something you can put on your bookshelf in your living room so that when visitors come to your house you get to casually nod toward the book as your guests notice it and say, “Oh, that? That’s the novel I wrote.”
Looking at my sales data on Kindle is pleasant. On days when I’ve really sold a lot, I’d even describe the experience as euphoric. But gazing at my own bookshelf, with all the various editions of my novels and anthologies I’ve been in, is a much, much deeper satisfaction. Don’t throw away your shot at this. The wait is worth it.