Reflections on the Value of Bestseller Lists vs. The Long Tail

I’m watching the tweets from the Writers Digest Conference in New York (#wdc12).  A good way to ‘attend’ a conference without attending is to follow the hashtag twitter stream.  I’ll be in New York on Monday for the follow on Digital Book World (#DBW12).  I’m on a panel of successful indie authors.  I find the tweets interesting because pretty much everything that’s being put out is in The Shelfless Book:  The Complete Digital Author, which is being published mid-February and you can pre-order in either print or eBook.  But the business is so fluid, Apple’s announcement this past week already means part of the book needs to be updated.  But that’s the great thing about digital books:  you can change them instantly.  The upload takes a little bit longer.  Even the print version can be updated instantly, although processing takes about a week or so.

I’ll be doing a blog post with the publication of the book to discuss how my eBooks did in 2011.  I’m going to quote real numbers in terms of sales.  I mean dollars. That seems cold.  Americans hate talking about money.  Even though we are a capitalistic society.  Do you know how much the person in the next cubicle/office/home office etc is making?  Hell no.  You can ask them if they beat a gopher with a stick but not how much they make.

I remember sitting at lunch years ago with several authors at the Maui Writers Conference.  We were discussing the business and I started talking about dollars and every author just about spit their iced tea out.  They said NO writer talks about actual dollars.  But they were also very happy to finally let the beast out of the closet and talk about contracts and real dollars.  Because it was their livelihood and for their entire career they had been working in the dark trying to figure out what they were worth, what their books were worth, what their time was worth and what their writing was worth.  But it was all hidden under a bushel.

All I read lately are blogs about indie and trad numbers and how many of each hit whatever bestseller lists and how USA Today is better than NY Times because it sort of tracks real sales, yada, yada I told you about the bisque didn’t I?

There are quite a few indie and trad authors making a very nice living and they never hit the bestseller lists.  To them, I say, take satisfaction in that you get to do what you love and don’t worry about the ‘validation’ of lists that are vague at best.

Because not a single bestseller list focuses on earnings (except in a way, Amazon sales rankings, although pricing can vary widely).  And that is a fatal business flaw as any MBA, or person with a business sense, will tell you.  Especially with the tidal wave of eBooks.  Let’s walk through a practical application of this.

A certain author sells 1 million eBooks.  (Stephen King just passed 1 million btw) Woohoo!  At .99.  Well, okay.  But it’s a million.  I grant it’s a brilliant marketing move.  For the first person who did it.  For the rest, sorry, it’s not that unique any more.  A million eBooks on Amazon at .99, where each earns a little over .29.  Ultimately around $297,000.  Not chump change.  Except the guy in the next cubicle who sells 100,000 eBooks at $4.99, one tenth of that all important number, earns $349,300.  Huh?  Yet which one does the publishing world focus on?  The units sold.  However, which, ultimately, is the more important number?  You can’t pay employees with units sold.  You pay them with earnings.

Bad business.  Because at the end of the day we have to pay the rent/mortgage, the utilities and our business expenses.  And our employees.  Or else, you know, we have to like, fire them.

Look at Publishers Lunch, which announces deals.  We know agents and publishers never give exact figures to PW.  So it labels them with terms:  good, nice, yada yada.  Except how many books?  What rights?  What royalty rates?  Which exact end from the low end to high end does the deal actually hit?  Ask anyone.  Big difference if they get the top number or the bottom number.

Let’s not even get into how antiquated the NY Times list is.  It’s always been skewed. Sunday’s list reflects sales through 7 January.  Hey, NYT, it’s 21 January!  Do you own a computer? Connected to the Internet?  You’ve been reporting the list the same way now for decades.  And it’s based on reports from stores, not actual sales.  One time I had the #4 bestselling fiction mass market title on USA Today and didn’t even hit the Times extended list.  Then I had a book on the Times list that never touched USA Today.  So which reality are they operating in?

I know that we’re not going to shift to reporting actual dollar figures.  But I think as indie authors we need to be aware that believing in numbers with such a high degree of variance once you get into the details as our measuring stick has inherent problems.  I took some courses in psychology on statistics and how they can be skewed.

I know, it’s all we have. The key to success in digital publishing is not the immediate success and the bestseller list.  It’s the long tail, a broad base of titles, and consistent sales over the years.  Where bestseller lists really count is on Amazon if you get on that first page for your genre.  That’s called discoverability.

All I’m saying is let’s be aware that ‘success’ is different for each of us and there are many roads to Oz and even Oz is a different place for each of us.

BTW:  I had my first title free this week on Amazon:  Atlantis.  It was downloaded 26,000 times in five days and hit #1 on the science fiction free list.  Once it was back to $2.99, it dropped precipitously in ranking, then climbed quickly until it hit the top the top ten in paid science fiction.  It is currently #14 in scifi and also selling well in audio via Audible.

We just did a schedule where at least one of my books will be free every week (in some weeks up to five will be free).  I’ll do a blog post each time a book becomes free.

Write It Forward.

About Bob Mayer

West Point Graduate, former Green Beret and NY Times bestselling author Bob Mayer has had over 50 books published. He has sold over five million books, and is in demand as a team-building, life-changing, and leadership speaker and consultant for his Who Dares Wins concept. He's been on bestseller lists in thriller, science fiction, suspense, action, war, historical fiction and is the only male author on the Romance Writers of America Honor Roll. Born in the Bronx, Bob attended West Point and earned a BA in psychology with honors and then served as an Infantry platoon leader, a battalion scout platoon leader, and a brigade recon platoon leader in the 1st Cavalry Division. He joined Special Forces and commanded a Green Beret A Team. He served as the operations officer for 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and with Special Operations Command (Special Projects) in Hawaii. Later he taught at the Special Forces Qualification Course at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, the course which trains new Green Berets. He lived in Korea where he earned a Black Belt in Martial Arts. He's earned a Masters Degree in Education.

Posted on January 22, 2012, in Write It forward and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Thanks for this, Bob. You are soooooooooooo right. It was a few years after I started attending writer’s conferences that I first asked the money question: “Is anybody making any money writing genre fiction?” The shocked look on the authors’ faces told the real story. Many authors never relied upon their writing income to support themselves and their families because they couldn’t make enough in the traditional publishing world. The e-book has finally started to fulfill its potential and more authors are taking the indie route, including me. We’re all hopeful. You give us more hope. We appreciate it. Looking forward to the new book.

  2. When I was exposed to how traditional publishing worked, it completely burst my bubble. I couldn’t see how something so inefficient could work–and it really doesn’t for most authors. I love that indie e-publishing has opened up a new avenue. Your honesty is refreshing and I always look forward to what you have to say.

  3. Very informative! I’ve been back and forth on whether or not to ePublish my latest novel. You’ve given me a lot more to go on to make an intelligent choice.

    –Gideon

  4. You make some really good points here. Of course, as far as the 99 cent million vs. the 100k at 4.99, you have to look at the rest of the books on the shelf and look at the bigger picture. That one 99 cent book that sells a million might also be bringing new eyes and buyers to the author’s ten other books in the series all priced at $2.99. It’s not quite as cut and dry as one book vs. another.

    Still, I do get the point you are making, and I agree with you. Some people still look at a traditional 3-book $100,000 contract and think that looks better than the $40,000 I made self-publishing last year. They don’t seem to understand how that 100k is going to be paid out. Certainly not all in one lump sum this year, that’s for sure. Whereas with my self-publishing, it might look slower, but it’s really an amazing way to have a career as a writer. This year, I will add more books to my shelf, and hopefully more money to my income, easily beating out that 100k by the time it would have been paid out. I’m not selling millions, but I’m in this for the long haul. It’s definitely a success in my book so far.

    Sorry for the long comment, but this was a very thought-provoking post. Also, I wanted to wave hello from one of your few fellow HCRW members who is also an Indie. :)

  5. Thank you for your post Bob. For awhile now, I have been thinking along the same lines – it didn’t make sense to sell something at .99 cents, when I could sell less of them at $2.99 – and still make more money. I did an experiment where I posted two same genre stories, similar covers and theme, with one at .99 cents and the other at $2.99. The .99 cent has rarely outdone the other one in rankings, and has only succeeded in earning a lower royalty rate.
    Thank you also for the statistics on Atlantis. I’ve seen a lot of authors brag about their free rankings (how does this help me? I wondered!), but was more interested in seeing the aftermath. Knowing that your titles went back up in sales is great to know.

  6. As a newbie author still wrestling her first novel into something saleable, I really value your insights and experiences in publishing, both traditionally and independently. To be honest, I had never given a great deal of thought as to how the New York Times cobbled together their bestseller list, but I’m startled to hear that, given the current state of book publishing and book buying, they’re still relying on sales figures from physical stores. That’s just seems…perverse.

    That’s it from the peanut gallery. Except, I’m Canadian so I don’t mind sharing that so far I’ve earned precisely zip from my writing (something I intend to change this year). And I’ve never beat a gopher with a stick, either, however fiercely provoked.

  7. “Where bestseller lists really count is on Amazon if you get on that first page for your genre.
    That’s called discoverability.”

    Sigh – but how do you do that when the majority on the list are giving their books away for FREE. I don’t wnat to give my books away. Doesn’t that devalue authors. I’ve learned that Consumer Behaviour can be taught. If you set an expectation, a consumer will learn to expect it. For instance I ran an e-commerce site and set our delivery target of 48 hours, knowing that for 99% of the time we would be 24 hours. But our 24 hour delivery was so successful, our customers came to EXPECT it, and were disappointed whern for that 1% of the time we coudln’t met it.

    FREE books are setting an expectation on price. That ebooks should be CHEAP not simply cheaper. I have downoaded free books and not bought, as in paid money, for any additional books from any of these authors for many reasons. I like the idea of steady build up of real fans at a fair price. I’m in this for the long haul not a quick buck.

  8. When I explain how the Times List and other best-seller lists work to family, friends and readers I always hear “No Way” or “That can’t be right” or “You’ve got to be kidding”. When I tell people average advances I get the same reactions. When I first entered this business someone wiser than me asked me one question: Are you in this to be published? or to make a living? Being published doesn’t equal making a living.

    The .99 eBook. Bob and I spend days in an email conversation about the good, bad and ugly of doing this type of promotion. As stated in the comments in this blog, it is a great way to pull people in and introduce them in hopes they love you enough to go buy everything you’ve ever written. Doing a .99 eBook if you only have one book might not be the best strategy. My sales at .99 are very different than Bob’s in part because well, he’s Bob, but also it does have to do with the number of books. The more books you have, the better one book at .99 will net you, both in sales, lists and money.

    The Free ebook and lists. The great thing about Amazon is that there are two lists. FREE and PAID. So if your book is set to FREE, its no longer on the paid list. Once your book is no longer free, it goes back to the paid list. What we have found is that it takes a little while for the book to get its legs back, but we have seen a major increase in sales. So does FREE work? Yes, but it is limited because just like the .99 eBook, it is a tool. A marketing tool and one of many. Price is one of the 4 P’s in the marketing mix. Price, Product, Promotion and Placement. The Free is part of a promotion, but the price is the actual price you will land on. Our books are generally between 2.99 and 4.99, the Free is seen as promotional. Placement is the lists you might get on. They all an impact on sales.

  9. Thanks for the post, Bob. Very insightful and interesting. I’d never really thought about how they determine who’s on what bestseller list. (scratching head) And you’re point about the .99 price point is exactly why I didn’t price my book that low. Especially since it’s my only published book right now.

  10. I do sell some books for .99 and I think it can be a great marketing tool. We sell a thriller, Eyes of the Hammer, and a scifi, Atlantis for .99 to hook readers. Our numbers say a lot of people do troll for .99. Also we just free for Atlantis via Kindle Select and had over 25,000 downloads and sales jumped right after it came off free.
    Free doesn’t compete with paid books on bestseller lists on Amazon. If you look at genres you’ll see they have two lists side by side: paid and free. Atlantis hit #1 in free. Then it hit #4 in paid.

  11. Hi Bob, thanks for the informative post.

    Was there any correlation between Atlantis being free and it’s Audible sales?

  12. Bob,

    I want to thank you for this great blog. Over the past two weeks I’ve been reading up and I’ve decided to give epublishing a shot. Simply put, its a faster environment and I think my military science fiction thriller trilogy (1 book done, 2 underway) and my short fiction collections will do gangbusters on Amazon. I’ve already slated overhauling my website, getting active on twitter, advertising on some genre podcasts, and a few other goodies.

    But I had a question, one I can’t seem to find answered anywhere: I want to start an epublishing company for several reasons, chiefly being the tax benefits. I was thinking going with an LLC as the company type, but can you (or anyone here) suggest anything better?

    Thanks again for a wonderfully informative blog.

  13. I don’t see any translation yet to audible sales.
    As far as LLC that’s something to take up with a business lawyer.

  14. Following all this with fascination. As a new author, I have a book at the precipice…and there’s me on the ledge wondering whether I should beat my head against the agency doors or take that giant leap. So many questions…so little time to figure it all out and still actually write. Thanks for covering all this Bob!

  15. As you pointed out, few writers talk about–or even understand–the details of the market. It’s hard to know what to expect when you are entering this career.
    Thanks, Bob! You always gives us information that’s not available anywhere else.

  16. I was a business person before I became a full-time writer. Hitting a list would be good for my ego, but I’ve always been all about the long tail. That’s the way I’ll make a living as a writer. Thanks, Bob!

  17. Thanks for putting the bestseller lists into perspective. I think most new writers don’t realize that being on the bestseller lists doesn’t always equate with making the most money.

  18. Thank you for talking about money! Trying to properly price my book has been a tricky decision so I appreciate all the input I can get from successful authors. When the day comes that I’m sitting at a table with a bunch of other authors I’m definitely going to bring up the subject of money!

  19. I’ve messed around with all sorts of pricing strategies for my soon-to-be 12 indie books. When the fourth book in my McCarthys of Gansett Island series was released in January, I dropped the price of book 1 to 99 cents. I’d intended to do that for a week. It’s still 99 cents six weeks later because the sales of the entire series have been off the charts (and the first three books have been out for nearly a year) since I dropped the price of book 1. The best part of this promotion was seeing my sales FINALLY take off a bit on B&N. This will be the first month in 14 months of indie publishing that I will do better at B&N than on Amazon. I see this 99-cent offering as “taking one for the team.” On the flip side, 99-cent specials of single title books haven’t yielded anywhere near the same results as the series book did.

    Freebies always lead to big sales for me. I’ve had three of them now, and each of the three books got to at least no. 3 on the Amazon free list and went way up in the overall paid and category rankings when they went back on sale (which is always baffling to me, but who am I to complain?). I also made more than $2,000 in January from “borrows” of the two books I have in the Kindle Select program, which has been well worth it from my POV. That’s like free money and great exposure to new readers. I plan to enroll another single title book when the three months are up for the first two. Because of the exclusivity clause, I’m not going to put any of my series titles in that program. It would be stupid, I think, to take part of a series off sale at another platform so Amazon can have an exclusive for three months.

    The best part about all of this is the ability to try new things without having to jump through hoops to do it. I am one very happy recently self-employed author. :-) Thanks for your great blog, Bob!

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