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.