Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Version 3.3 of The Bright Black Sea Released


Version 3.3 (10 May 2016) of The Bright Black Sea is now available on Smashwords and Amazon. In the coming days it will trickle down to iBooks, B & N, and Kobo as well. I had hoped that version 3.0 would be the final one, but, alas, it proved not to be the case. However, thanks to R. Carlos, who read the story on his ipad, noted the errors he found and sent those notes along to me to fix, we now have a significantly better version. Between his 180 items, and going over the story again with MS Word's spell and grammar checker, I've squashed something like 200 “bugs” in the text. I'm sure that's the last of them. If you can prove me wrong, please do so. Send in any typos you find from version 3.3 to me at cmlitka@gmail.dom 

I'd like to do print editions of my books, but I don't want to go that route until I'm confident that they're not riddled with typos. I gather print editions generally don't sell all that well, but I'm not in this for the money, so that doesn't matter. What matters is that I'd have print books, which would greatly simplify my Christmas gift giving… But this depends on how confident I am that my print books will be professional enough. 

Version 3.3 also sports a slightly new cover again. I've added “Captain Wil Litang's Adventures #1” to the title, using my old cover art once again on all the versions.





Sunday, May 1, 2016

A Window to Self-Publishing

A Window to Self Publishing or the Wages of Free


One year ago, on 27 April, 2015, I released my first novel, A Summer In Amber followed in July by a second, Some Day Days, and a third, The Bright Black Sea in September. All were published on Smashwords and Amazon, all were free on Smashwords and price-matched free on Amazon within a week of their release.

I'd like to share the results of my first year in self-publishing in the hope that my readers will find this window to the world of self-publishing interesting. Fellow authors may also find these results interesting, since I've conducted a pretty pure experiment in the potential and limitations of offering books for free to create or grow readership.

My rational for free was straightforward. As a new writer, I'd forgo royalties in exchange for readers. I had written the stories over the course of five years for the fun of writing with no intention of making money on them – if only because I wrote them to suit my own taste, which is not, as far as I can judge, very mainstream. All three books were released as science fiction, though none of them fit comfortably in any particular sub-genre. My space opera is not military s-f, my post-apocalyptic, steampunk story has neither zombies nor airships, and my little romance is not a conventional commercial romance – though I'm not a reader of popular romances so I can't say that for certain.

Beyond starting this blog, I lifted not a finger to promote them. My business plan was to publish them and let lightning strike. Which is not a business plan. It is, however, all I cared to do. Anything more would have been work and this is all about having fun writing stories, and having fun publishing them. Nothing more. These results can be seen as a test of what pure "free" can achieve.


The Books and Their Numbers

I should make it clear that the numbers reported below are for free downloads, not sales. Anyone who downloads a "sample" gets the whole book. My books have been on sale at list price on Amazon's foreign sites, and for the last 6 weeks, The Bright Black Sea has been at full price on Amazon's US store as well. The total for these actual sales is in the low double digits.

Books published on Smashwords are also distributed to Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and Kobo. Kobo does not report download numbers of free books, so the totals are somewhat under reported.

Rather than reporting exact numbers for each store, I'll report the combined downloads. The ratio of Amazon downloads to the Smashwords versions varies by title, but taken as a whole, the combined Smashwords downloads were something like double Amazon's downloads.

I've also listed the number of review and ratings for each title. Rating and reviews from Amazon (A), Smashwords (S), iBooks (iBK), Barnes & Noble (B&N), Kobo (K) and Goodreads (GR).

A Summer in Amber
A mystery/adventure/romance set in a post-apocalyptic Scotland. A mirror-image steampunk story with 19th century tech transposed to the late 21st century after solar storms lay waste to power grids, satellites and digital devices.

Released 27 April 2015 (Free on Smashwords, $.99 on Amazon, price matched in about a week. List price changed to $2.99 in March. Has been free on Amazon UK for several months.)
Days on the market: 368
Downloads to 1 May 2016: 2222
Average downloads per day: 6 (April average: 2.7)
Reviews and/or ratings: 33
Downloads per rating/review: 82
         A  S iBK B&N K GR Total
5 star 9  0   2   1     0  1      13
4 star 4  4   3   0     3  2      16
3 star 0  0   0   0     0  0        0
2 star 1  0   0   0     0  3        4
1 star 0  0   0   0     0  0        0
Total 14 4   5   1     3  6      33

Released in Science Fiction Steampunk & Adventure, changed to Steampunk and post-apocalyptic after Feb 2016. (Amazon rating include 2 at Amazon UK)

Some Day Days
A new adult romance and exploration of technology set in Oxford & Cambridge in the not too distant future. Somewhat experimental in style & structure. A collection of "pieces" that are the start of a never to be written much longer story.

Released 9 July 2015 (Free on Smashwords, $.99 on Amazon before price matching. List price changed to $1.99 1 March 2016 Full price outside of Amazon.com)
Days on the market: 296
Downloads and sales to 1 May 2016: 1139
Average downloads per day: 3.8 (April average: 2 )
Reviews and/or ratings; 5 (including one none starred one)
Downloads per rating/review 570
         A S iBK B&N K GR Total
5 star 0 0  0     0   0   0        0
4 star 0 1  0     0   0   1        2
3 star 0 0  0     0   0   1        1
2 star 0 0  0     0   0   1        1
1 star 0 0  0     0   0   0        0
Total 0 1  0     0    0  3        4

Released in Science Fiction romance & Romance, changed to Literature & New Adult Romance after Feb 2016

The Bright Black Sea
A long, 325,000 word, old-school inspired space opera/adventure/mystery. Began as a serial, written in three novel-length parts, and released in a single volume since there was no financial incentive to stretch it into a trilogy.

Released 16 Sept 2015 (Free on Smashwords, $.99 Amazon until price matched. List price changed to $3.99 1 March 2016. Full price outside of Amazon.com. Amazon dropped price matching on 9 March so it is now available at list price.)
Days on the market: 227
Downloads & sales to 1 May 2016: 3176
Average downloads per day: 14 (April average [including Amazon sales]: 5 )
Reviews and/or ratings: 80 (The 2 non-starred reviews were positive reviews.)
Downloads per rating/review 45
           A   S   iBK   B&N K GR Total
non-starred 2                               2
5 star 11  6     30     3    0   9        59
4 star 5    2      3      1    1   0       12
3 star 0    0      4      0    0   0        4
2 star 0    0      0      0    0   1        1
1 star 0    0      2      0    0   0        2
Total 16 10    39      4    1  10      80

Released as Science Fiction Space Opera & Science Fiction. Since Amazon stopped price matching this book, it sells a copy or so a week. I'll let it ride at $3.99 for now while awaiting that lightning strike.

Total downloads and sales reported for the year: 6,537 copies.

Let's compare this result to the ebook market as a whole.

The ebook Marketplace

In traditional publishing, a book that sells 10,000 copies is considered a successful book. In the past, at least, it would likely earn the author a contract for a second book. Thus, by traditional publishing standards, even overlooking the fact that I was just giving away the books, all failed to make the grade in a traditional publishing in their release year (to date). However, that market includes paper books sold in bookstores as well as online, so those books receive far greater exposure (for a month) with traditional publishing.

So how did my books fare compared to the online only ebook market, and the self-publishing market in particular?

I'll use Amazon's ebook sales as generated by Author Earnings's Feb. 2016 report as my basis for comparison, since they provide hard numbers and data based estimates. You can view their report here:

Authors provide sales and ranking data to AuthorEarnings who then use this data to reverse engineer how Amazon ranks each book. Once a quarter, on a single day, AuthorEarnings collect the sales rankings from all the books listed on Amazon's many "100 Best Selling Books" lists and use this data to estimate sales volume and the actual sales of each book on those lists on that day. This captures data on 200,000 ebooks.

The information from their Feb 2016 sample is displayed on the graph below. The green and grey dots represent author supplied data.



Note that this is a logarithmic graph. While it nicely displays their data points, it presents a very distorted visual view of actual sales. A linear graph of the same data would look something like this:



Using numbers from these graphs, we can roughly estimate the sales range for ebooks in the various levels of ranking:

Sales Rank    number of titles  sales per day   sales per year at day rate
#1 to #10                        10     8000 to 2000    2.92 to 730,000
#11 to #100                     90    2000 to 500    730,000 to 182,500
#101 to #1000                900    500 to 100      182,500 to 36,500
#1001 to #10,000          9,000      100 to 12        36,500 to 4,380
#10,001 to #100,000    90,000         12 to 1            4,380 to 365
#100,001 to #200,000  100,000       1 or less            365 or less
(Corrected 11 May 2016 to reflect sales-to-hold curve)

These 200,000 titles represent about 5% of the 4+ million ebooks Amazon currently offers in the Kindle Store and about 6% to 7% of the ebook authors. To put it in better perspective, 95% of all the ebooks Amazon offers likely sell fewer than 365 copies in a year.

These figures include the ebooks of traditionally published authors as well as self-published ones. Self-published books and single author publishers make up 39% of the top 5% of Amazon bestsellers. Their books account for 47% of the daily sales volume, but only 27% of the sales in dollars, reflecting their generally lower price.

As for the market mix of genres, 77% of Smashwords' top 200 selling fiction titles are Romance (including YA Romance) with YA coming in second at about 11%. Detective stories and Fantasy are around 4% each and science fiction clocks in a 1%. Other categories are less popular. Most of these titles are self-published or small press. I've seen other figures that likely cover a broader sample of books and publishers that put science fiction at about 7% of the ebook market, placing it in 6th place, after Romance (16%) Paranormal (15%), Thriller (12%), Mystery (12%) and Fantasy (8%). Science fiction is a player in the ebook market, but far from a leader.

Amazon offers just under 300,000 science fiction ebooks in the Kindle store with almost 8,000 being released each month. About 4,500 science fiction books are offered for free.

The Money

Author Earnings found that 2.8% of Amazon authors or some 5,643 authors with books in the top 100 lists are making more than $10,000/year from their Amazon ebook sales alone. They estimate that there are "many" more authors earning this much who were not captured with their methods because their books were not in any top 100 list. More than half of the authors captured in this category were traditionally published authors. Less than 800 self-published authors were earning more than $25K per year, and a little more than 400 were earning $50K or more per year. It should be noted, this is gross royalties, not profit. Many self-publishing authors invest significant money producing their books. (More on this in a moment.) 

To see how my books fared in this market, I will treat my downloads as "sales". A fantasy, and yet, a book in hand, is a book in hand no matter how it got there. And if building a readership is your primary goal, then distribution matter more than sales.

First, assuming all my books were "sold" exclusively on Amazon, how would they rank overall? (Using rank to hold curve)
A Summer in Amber sales/day 6 -- approximate sales rank #11,000
Some Day Days sales/day 4 -- approximate sales rank #30,000 
The Bright Black Sea sales/day 14  -- approximate sales rank #9,000

Using only books actually downloaded on Amazon we get these approximate sales rankings:
A Summer in Amber sales rank --  #50,000 
Some Day Days sales rank --  #150,000 
The Bright Black Sea sales rank -- #27,000 

Now lets put a money value to these "sales". I'll use Amazon's royalty rates for simplicity. For my total "sales" of 6537 copies I'd have earned for the year:
@ $.99 x .35 $2,288
@ $1.99 x .35 $4,553
@ $2.99 x .70 $13,682
@ $3.99 x .70 $18,258
@ $4.99 x .70 $22,834
@ $5.99 x .70 $27,410

The real numbers would likely have been far, far less. Smashwords' data suggests that about 41 copies of a free book are downloaded for every one sold. Dividing my total "sales" by 41, gives us a more realistic royalty figure in the range of $55 to $668 with the low figure being the more likely one.

Clearly I left very little money on the table by giving my books away. In return, I achieved a circulation level in the upper 2.5% of all ebooks. If my free downloaded books been sold at $2.99, I would've been one of the elite self-published authors making more than $10,000 a year in ebooks – in, mind you, my first year of publishing, starting from a readership of zero. Outside of romance, how likely would one achieve results like these, and at what financial cost?

Which brings us to the flip side to sales – the expenses involved in publishing professional quality ebooks. A lot of money can be spent on preparing a book to be published. There are all sorts of editors, book coaches, proofreaders, cover artists, and book designers offering services to authors. There are also a great variety of advertising and promotional services available to get a book noticed. Authors travel to book fairs and conventions at their expense to meet readers and promote their book. And they can pay to attend seminars or take classes to improve their skills. Most experts suggests that authors avail themselves of at least some of these services to increase their chance of success.

I did everything in house so my expenses were $0.00, and considering that I actually, sold some books, I made a profit in my first year of self-publishing.

But let's say I followed the experts suggestions and hired professional help. I'll keep it to a minimum, “hiring” only a professional proofreader and a professional cover artist. Professional proof readers charge $.02- $.03 a word. Professional artists, $300 to $500 for a cover.
                                              
                                        Proofreading     Art             Totals
A Summer in Amber 115K  $2,312/$3,468  $300/$500   $2,600/$3,968
Some Day Days 79K          $1,530/$2,285  $300/$500   $1,830/$2,785
The Bright Black Sea 326K $6,500/$9,780  $300/$500  $6,800/$10,280
                                                   Grand Total: $11,230 to $17,033

Had I hired these professionals, I would had to have sold, at the $.99 price point between 32,000 to 48,700 copies to cover my initial expenses. Or between 5,373 to 8,149 copies at the far more unlikely $2.99 price – to make as much money as I made going it alone and for free. Most likely I would have lost between $11,000 and $17,000 dollars, and since sales tend to fade, future sales would not likely do much cover these losses. Whether additional spending on promotional services would have narrowed the gap any is questionable, especially in the science fiction market.

Risking money on this scale for lightning-strike sales results, is not, in my opinion, a wise business decision. There is, of course, a price to be paid for foregoing these expenses in terms of reviews complaining of typos. However, I believe that with the lessons I've learned and new procedures I've put in place, I'll be able to produce future books with far fewer typos right from the start. But there will likely still be typos. They are the price of free.

Final Thoughts

Clearly, releasing initial books for free, especially without any sort of financial investment or marketing, has definite limitations. It takes you only so far. Still, the results, in terms of distribution, are significant.

Update 12 May 2016:  The Bright Black Sea has now been on sale at Amazon for $3.99 I think I have a long enough period to compare sales to free. I've sold 11 copies in two months (plus several days), several of those copies must have been sold on Amazon UK since it's current sales rank there is around #62,000 compared to #1.2 million on Amazon US. While the price is a bit on the high side for a largely unknown author, its 4 1/2 star average rating on 16 reviews, should, I think compensate for that. I think this illustrated the fact that unless an author actively promotes their work, its unlikely to sell. Giving away 100-200 copies free each month seems to be an easy and effective way to "sell" if not the book, its author -- which is more important in the long run. And it "cost" just a few dollars of sales.

From my perspective, I think the results are very positive. I made a profit. Without even trying. I did what was necessary, but avoided all the aspects of self-publishing that I wouldn't care to touch with a barge pole while still placing my books into circulation at a level equal to the top 2.5% of Amazon ebook titles. By publishing my books in all available markets, I tripled my sales over going exclusively with Amazon. Those million plus self-published titles tied up in Amazon's Kindle Unlimited Program may have soaked up a lot of excess inventory from other ebook stores, making discovery a little easier outside of Amazon. 

I've seen it said that free books are less likely to be read than purchased ones. I've also read that one can expect a review on Amazon for every 100 to 200 books purchased, with 1 in 150 mentioned several times. Using this measure and only Amazon downloads and reviews, A Summer in Amber was reviewed once for every 67 downloads and The Bright Black Sea 1 in 63 downloads, suggesting to me that they were read just as often as purchased books. Circulation is circulation.

The path I've chosen suits me. I'm happy that my work has been generally well received. That's a great relief, since there was no guarantee readers would like my stories. I hear of first time authors who can count the sales of their book on the fingers of two hands, and give almost every buyer a name as well, so that my 6,500+ books and 110+ ratings is not a bad beginning. 

Now, I've no intention of getting into the business of self-publishing – this is just a hobby for me – so that turning the corner to start actually selling books is not a concern of mine. I would think, however, that I'd be looking at downloads over 10,000 copies before I'd make the move. And that may well take several years and half a dozen free books to achieve, if all goes well.

So this, then, is my first annual report. Next year's report should be interesting as well, since I don't have plans to release a new book in 2016. We'll be able to see how sustainable free is over time. (This, by the way, is also not a good business plan, but I like writing long books, and rather than break them up, I'd rather publish them as complete novels, so the next 300K+ novel won't be out until sometime in 2017.)

So, success or failure? Smart or stupid? Any ideas or suggestions? Let me know in the comments below or via email.