Will self-published books continue to expand? Is $0.99 price tag wearing out? Can we expect new success stories from independent authors?
2011 was an exciting year for publishing, full of events changing the landscape of the industry. Self-publishing exploded and became one of the most important factors to shape digital publishing in the near future.
I’m excited to share the report with as much facts and figures as possible to help forecast how the self-publishing phenomenon would evolve in the years to come. To get the bigger picture, read also 2011 self-publishing timeline.
The report is based on figures from Kindle Store bestsellers archive and consists of five parts. You can jump directly to each one of them from the links below:
Average price of a self-published book in 2011 was $1.40, vs. $8.26 for all books in Top 100
There is a downward trend in both the number of books and the average price
John Locke is the author with the highest number of books in a single monthly list – 8 titles
Five authors stayed in Top 100 for at least 6 months – Barbara Freethy, Darcie Chan, John Locke, J.R. Rain and Michael Prescott
There are 18 self-published titles in a yearly Top 100 for 2011 (not a single self-published book in Top 100 for 2010)
2. Tables & charts
Table 1: Self-published books in Top 100: Summary Jan-Dec 2011
Data collected from Kindle Store Bestsellers Archive monthly lists. Click on months for detailed tables.
This report is based on rankings available in an archive of past bestsellers in Kindle Store, both yearly list and monthly lists. So far this archive is the best available source of information about ebook sales. Self-published books in Kindle Store are relatively easy to spot, but most importantly – past bestsellers are archived by Amazon and available online. They can be used any time in the future for comparisons and lists like this one.
Amanda Hocking’s Trylle Trilogy was removed from Kindle Store in August (as a part of the deal with St. Martin’s) and her three bestselling books are not included in a yearly list (Table 2).
The book is included in a list if on its page in Kindle Store, under Product Details:
- there is no Publisher field,
- there is a name of the author in the Publisher field,
- the Publisher field displays the name of company which is run by the author (example: John Locke’s Telemachus Press).
If the author signs the contract with the publisher, and if it is reflected on the book’s page, this book is no longer included in the lists.
The beginning of the year was the best time – February, March and April were the best months of 2011. This can be easily associated with the hype around Amanda Hocking and her Trylle Trilogy, immediately used by John Locke to increase sales of his Donovan Creed novels.
There is a high rotation of self-publishers and their books in monthly lists. Out of 75 authors listed in all 12 monthly lists, only 5 were present for 6 months or longer. The usual self-published book stays in Top 100 for one or two months. Books from established authors like Suzanne Collins, Sare Gruen, Stieg Larsson or Michael Connelly were present in bestseller lists for most months of 2011.
There are two examples, which may suggest a primary audience of self-published books and why there is such a high rotation.
In June John Locke as a first self-publisher joined the Kindle Million Club. The news coverage was huge, smartly amplified by the author himself, who published the book How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months! The problem is that it didn’t help the sales. All books from Donovan Creed series were out from Top 100 in June (check Chart 4 for details). Usually the news like that helps.
Same thing happened to Darcie Chan. Her novel, The Mill River Recluse, was #2 in Kindle Store in October. At the beginning of December Amazon announced the best books of 2011 and The Mill River Recluse was the best-selling Kindle title of 2011. Was it reflected in sales? No. The ranking of the book in December was worse than in November (#29 vs #19). It doesn’t mean the book was selling worse than in earlier months (December means much higher sales). It just says that a good recommendation – the sales proof – doesn’t work.
Both cases could suggest that the recommendations hit empty space. Books from self-publishers may be bought mainly by heavy, price-sensitive readers. They buy the books without being prompted. They actively look for new books to read and don’t need the sales proof to decide.
The self-published books become bestsellers thanks to them. The news coverage comes as an effect of their purchases. They already have the book.
This news recommendation could reach and convince the mainstream reader, the occasional reader. I think that this is the biggest challenge for the future – as the mainstream reader is not ready for cheap books from unknown authors. The Mill River Recluse doesn’t mean a lot for millions of new Kindle owners who rushed to Kindle Store on Christmas. They were buying the books from authors they knew: Suzanne Collins or Stieg Larsson.
What’s more, for the mainstream reader the price below $1 for a fully fledged novel may look suspicious. The mainstream reader doesn’t want to buy a one-dollar ebook from an unknown author. He or she wants to have an ebook from an established author… for free.
Free, free, free. It’s what customers turning to ebooks expect. They quickly discover that they can get for free thousands of ebooks from the public domain. What they also discover is that the bestsellers are not as cheap as they have expected.
And now a well-written novel you can buy for the price of a cup of coffee enters the stage.
$0.99 was a phenomenon of 2011 and was very strongly associated with self-published “risky” books (remember the news about $0.99 spam clogging Kindle Store?). Now, as I track top lists month by month, I see more and more cheap books from well-known publishers, not only indies.
At the beginning of the year there was a simple divide: $0.99 for a self-published book and $5 or more for book published by a big publisher.
It all started to melt in the second part of the year. Low price, the one bringing books to the edge of impulse purchase, is now offered in many different forms.
Kindle Daily Deal changed the landscape dramatically. At the beginning I said that self-published books were not hit by KDD, but now I admit I was wrong. Self-published books are doing worse in the second half of the year mainly due to Kindle Daily Deal. Check Chart 1 and what happens between September and December. The average price of a KDD book is $1.75 and it comes as a deal every day. There is no better way to encourage a price-sensitive customer to buy.
Kindle Daily Deal is not the only factor affecting the prices and how users perceive them. Other deal pages like Kindle Books for $3.99 or Less are adding up to the picture. We have now Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. Those who browse Kindle Store, see the price tag $0.00 next to the title of the bestselling book offered via Prime/KOLL. There is also a hugely promoted KDP Select, which allows self-publishers to offer their books for free for a couple of days.
$0.99 was the label of the self-published book, but is not any longer. When you compare the average price and the number of books, you’ll see that despite the price going down, the number of self-published books in Top 100 is not going up.
In view of what other self-publishers were doing, the path Barbara Freethy chose was a good one. She was selling her books for at least $3 and she still made it to top 100 for 6 months. But we have to remember that she was an established, bestselling author already.
If we take out the books from Barbara Freethy from the equation, Chart 2 with average prices goes flat. Compare it with Chart 4, with the number of books from particular authors and you’ll see that the higher average price in June, July, August and October goes together with the presence of Freethy’s books in the Top 100.
As I’m a self-publisher, I’d love to see the future in bright colors. There are many challenges and many opportunities still waiting to explore. On the other hand, after spending a year on trying to analyze the dynamics of the trend, I tend to say, that for self-publishing, this year won’t be as important as the last one.
2011 was the year of successful self-publishing stories. 2011 was about self-publishers breaking into the world of the book completely out of nowhere. In 2011 self-publishing was bearing the badge of novelty. Now it becomes the part of the digital publishing landscape.
What was exciting a year ago, won’t be exciting any longer. The story about a 26-year old who earns millions of dollars from selling Kindle books? We had a couple of similar news already and they had less and less impact. What may happen, though, is that such stories will ignite ebook markets in other countries and local self-published stars will emerge.
There is also one factor which will stop success stories to come into view. Publishers will catch up self-published authors before their books become bestsellers. It’s a matter of tracking sales of books, which is easy if an average ebook enthusiast like me does it every month. The author with the book on the rise may be getting an offer early. Hey, publishers, Catherine Bybee is the author of Wife by Wednesday, the best self-published book of December, which for a first time appeared in Top 100 in November.
Loud stories about self-published authors signing contracts with big publishers are not good stories, because they raise an issue of the price increase. John Locke made it right, Amanda Hocking made it wrong. Her books from Trylle Trilogy were removed from distribution in August, will be republished in weeks, in print and digital formats – and cost a few times more.
The reader has the right to ask questions. Why are those books so expensive now? Is the editor that expensive or maybe the cover artist? And is the author grabbing now more for the book? If yes, it’s not fair. If not, she didn’t make a good deal.
Publishers and authors would like to avoid such stories and that’s why they’ll find each other much sooner – and that means that less good quality books will come out as self-published ones.
I think that for readers, both heavy and mainstream, it won’t really matter how the book was published. What they will take into consideration is genre, price, reviews and ratings.
If self-publishing will no longer have the impact of novelty and if it will be perceived as a cheap, affordable alternative to quality books, self-published authors would tend to avoid this phrase. More and more self-published authors, especially those ones who made solid profits, would try to expand to selling books from other authors, just like John Locke is doing. Self-publishers will become indies. Indie publishing means innovation, there is no need to admit one published the book the DIY way.
I think those authors who had written several books, have already published them all. The 2011 was the year of bulk self-publishing. It probably won’t happen again in case of authors who were not published the traditional way. What can happen is that bestselling authors turn to digital publishing and choose to have full control over their titles. They will go the way Barbara Freethy has chosen.
It could result in books from self-published authors being priced higher than before. Barbara Freethy was not on top of the lists but she sold more than one million ebooks and earned royalties from $3.49 or $4.99, not $0.99.
Another thing to take into consideration is that when self-publishers become more and more successful and more and more recognizable, they will raise the prices of their books – especially that $0.99 is not a competitive edge any longer.
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Self-published books took off in 2011. Are they going to fly high or will they become a part of a landscape and sell at the lower level than in 2011? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
By the end of the month I’ll also finish an infographic on self-publishing in 2011. This infographic is purely designed to be a promotion of self-publishing as such, so if you think you might want to use it, just subscribe to future posts by RSS or email.
The posts as long and detailed as this one don’t come very often as I mostly focus at Ebook Friendly on encouraging mainstream users to get interested in reading – by showing that ebooks are enjoyable and helping them discover new titles, mainly self-published ones.