I’m not really going to enjoy writing this blog post. Partially because it’s about a subject that doesn’t make me very happy, but mostly because it’s a million fucking degrees right now, and I’m writing when I could be sitting under an airconditioner in my underwear drinking chilled Mountain Goat and eating NYE leftovers.
Oh yeah. Happy New Year! Hope that some of you don’t live in Melbourne or Adelaide and thus have escaped the crippling heat that’s only going to be worse tomorrow.
But heat aside, I want to talk about the sales of my ebooks Hotel Flamingo and Godheads, which – and I need to use a technical publishing term here – suck rancid iguana testicles. Possibly not in relative terms, since most ebooks don’t sell squat, and every time I do sell a copy of something it briefly catapults about 400 000 places on the Kindle Store charts, but in absolute terms the big lizard nuts are on the table and they stink something fierce.
In the spirit of openness, let me share some sales figures with you.
I published Hotel Flamingo on Smashwords back in December 2010, and then on the Kindle Store in April 2011. (I was waiting for Smashwords to organise their distribution deal with Amazon, but that’s still in progress, so now I just publish versions through each outlet.) In that time, I’ve sold 65 copies through Smashwords (most of those in the first couple of months) and 13 through Amazon, netting me a total of 78 sales and $148.13 (US) for that book. That’s obviously small change, and once I get through paying tax on it twice (both the US and Australian governments take a cut) it’s closer to chump change, but again, it’s probably more than a lot of other self-epublishers ever see. It stops short of respectable, but it’s a start.
Godheads is newer – published in May 2011 on both sites – and has had a less successful sales profile. Okay, a bloody shithouse sales profile – 18 copies on Smashwords and 15 on Amazon, for a total of 33 sales and $56.90. Whoot. That’s well short of respectable; that’s one toe over the line of stillborn.
So that’s a grand total of $205 (and 3 cents) made from my ebook publishing efforts over the last 13 months. Which is disappointing. It’s even more so when you consider that the covers of each ebook cost me $217 a pop. And I was happy to pay that, because they look amazing and they stand out from the terrible clip-art and MS Paint covers on a lot of other ebooks. But given that, I’m still about $230 in the hole at this point, and it seems pretty obvious that I’m not getting out any time soon unless I do something differently.
Am I angry about this? No, not at all. All along I’ve considered this project as an experiment, and an experiment that fails is still an experiment that yields a result. So what I need to do now is consider what the result of this experiment means at this point, and what needs to be done next.
There are a couple of questions I’ve asked myself:
- Do my books suck? Ego aside, I think Hotel Flamingo is an occasionally uneven but worthwhile piece of prose, and I know a lot of people who’ve really enjoyed it. Godheads is… you know, I’m prepared to say that Godheads isn’t all that it could be, and that the quality of the stories in it is too variable. But hell, none of the stories are bad, and the collection as a whole is decent. ‘Decent’ isn’t that great, though, and if I do another anthology I’ll spend more time honing it rather than rushing it out. But still – no, I feel confident saying that my books don’t suck.
- Is there a market for my writing? It’s certainly possible to write material that is good but that simply doesn’t appeal to anyone but a small audience. Certainly the kind of new weird/paranormal fantasy/horror in those books doesn’t align that well with the popular titles and concepts in those genres. I’m writing niche stuff and I know it. But I also know that the three free short stories I have up on Smashwords are popular; last year I had 417 total downloads of those stories through Sony and 2339 (!) through Barnes and Noble/Kobo. That’s close to a thousand people that have read (or at least thought about reading) those stories, which is both a massive egoboost and a sign that there’s an audience for my work.
- Do I need to do more marketing? Well, yes, obviously. You always need to do more marketing. I certainly haven’t done much, and that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure – and when I have done some, I’ve seen results. Well, I think I’ve seen results; there seems to be an Amazon sale or two popping up in the weeks after I get a review or a retweet or whatever. But at the same time, it’s a question of return – will the (potential) sales I get from marketing my stuff compensate for the time and effort I spend on marketing my stuff? Time and effort that could otherwise go towards writing new books. (Or to playing Dragon Age 2. Whatever.) Marketing’s important but it’s not the magic bullet.
- Are my books too expensive? Having thought about it for a month or two, I’m gonna say yes. And move out of bullet-point-time to talk about this more.
There’s a definite desire – hell, an expectation – in the ebook market that 99 cents is the standard price for an ebook. Not the baseline, the standard, just as it’s the standard for a iPhone app. As a reader, I don’t share that desire; I think 5 bucks is a better baseline for a full-length novel, and that shorter work can justifiably be set at 3 or 4 dollars, working all the way down to a short story at maybe a dollar. Those are prices I’m happy to pay, and that’s as a starting point for epub-only work; I’d happily pay more for work that I think is worth it.
But that is not a common view. As usual, Chuck Wendig has written a terrific essay on this that is worth reading, and I’ve been mulling over that piece and readers’ comments on it – comments that showed that a lot of readers, people who love books and fiction, felt that a dollar or two was still all that they were prepared to pay for an ebook. And I’m not egotistical enough to tell them, and all the others with the same attitude, that they’re wrong to feel that way. I don’t have to like it, but I do have to accept it and work with it.
Author Mur Lafferty also wrote a blog post recently about her own experiences in repricing her e-novellas down to 99 cents, and the increase in sales that followed, and that’s what prompted me to give it a try as well. So as of today, I’ve dropped the price of both books to 99 cents (US) on both outlets, and presumably on all the other sites that Smashwords distributes its files to.
Once again, it’s an experiment, and if the sales stay the same but pay me even less, well, that’s an experiment that Armin Zola will be confining to a cage and never letting out again. I don’t know that I’ll up the prices of those books again – I think that kind of sends the wrong message and makes it look like I’m just throwing shit at a wall to see what sticks, which is true but I don’t want other people to realise that – but it’ll inform the pricing decisions I make for The Obituarist and any other work I publish online. And, more than likely, cement my desire to focus on shorter works like novellas and anthologies for self-publishing, while trying to find a print publisher for Arcadia and other full-length works.
Because I don’t want to put a 90 000-word novel up for sale for a dollar. Even RPG writing pays better than that.
In any case, the takeaway here is not doom and gloom, and it’s not grumbling about cheapskate readers who aren’t prepared to spend the price of a takeaway coffee on an ebook. (And I’m not even talking the good coffee, I’m talking McCafe-level shit, but whatever.) The takeaway is, like always, what happens when I do this? And all I ask is that the world not end.
…if the world does end in 2012 as a result of me making my ebooks cheaper, you have my sincere apologies.
And if you read the above and feel like taking the 99 cent plunge, some links to make it a bit easier: