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Giving an eBook a Short Title Can be Good For Sales But Writing a Longer Story Helps More: Insights From Smashwords

smashwords_logoMark Coker of Smashwords has just posted the slides from the presentation he gave last week at the RT Booklovers Convention.

The graphs and the data on the slides are generated from the aggregated sales data of ebooks distributed through Smashwords. These slides are a great source of market research into the indie ebook market, and they answer questions that most other market research reports would charge dearly for.

This one of those things that you should bookmark so you can find it again.

Key findings include:

1. Books that ranked higher in sales tended to have shorter titles, though there isn’t that much of a difference between the best sellers and the bottom-ranked books:


I wouldn’t read too much into this; a good long title is probably better than a short and crappy one.  But if you can come up with a title that is both short and good, that’s even better.

2. Readers overwhelmingly prefer longer books over shorter books. The top 100 best selling titles were noticeably longer than the ebooks that ranked between 101 and 500, and the same general trend applies to lower ranking ebooks as well.


And no, there is not a typo in the chart. That gap in the data was left out intentionally.

3. The most common price point for indie ebooks is $2.99. Lower price points are nearly as popular, so much so that there is almost a congestion or clutter in that part of the chart.


Given how many authors are using the super low price points, it might make sense to price ebooks at $399 and above. That might sound crazy but sometimes separating yourself from the pack can be a good thing. And if nothing else, I’d pay $4 for an ebook.

4. Covers sell ebooks. A good-looking cover can be worth the cost. TThis is actually one that we knew all along, but it’s good to have it confirmed again. When one author replaced the cover on the left with the cover on the right, sales jumped through the roof:

cover-187x300[1] playing-for-keeps[1]


5. The retail price can affect how many titles are sold. Here’s the other reason I say that a $3.99 price point is better: it actually generates more units sold (and thus more revenue) than an ebook priced at $2.99.


The interesting thing about this chart is that last year Smashwords' data identified a $2.99. Now there seems to be a second sweet spot at $3.99. Given the extra revenue, that is a price point worth pursuing.

On a related note, last year’s data also showed that an ebook priced at or about $6 could earn more than if the same ebook were priced at $2.99. As you can see from the following chart, that is no longer true. Now the most profitable price point is the one around $3.99, with the $6.99 price point coming in second:



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Peter Turner May 8, 2013 um 10:01 pm

Wouldn’t it be illuminating to have some baseline of unit sales?–otherwise comparing relative benefits of publishing self/indie vs. traditional is left as anecdotal. Or am I missing something?

Nate Hoffelder May 8, 2013 um 10:11 pm

I would not use this data to draw conclusions about comparisons between indie and legacy ebook sales. Given that Smashwords is entirely focused on indie I think that would be an apples to oranges comparison.

If I wanted to do that kind of comparison I would seek out traditionally published authors who are releasing their out of print backlists as ebooks. Virtually all the midlist authors I know of have said that they make more money as indie than from the books published with legacy publishers.

Some have even posted sales figures, though I don’t have any info within reach at the moment.

Peter Turner May 8, 2013 um 10:34 pm

I agree, but the Smashwords study seems to want to make just such comparisions:

"Most books don’t sell well, but those that do sell well sell really well. This finding wasn’t a surprise. Just as in traditional publishing, very few books become bestsellers."

Without a baseline of units sold on average for some grouping of titles (e.g. books selling less than 1,000 units annually), such statements are maybe misleading–especially given the emphasis on the post of short-term revenues vs. longer-term brand-building.

Anecdote is one thing, and fine, but an analytic survey is another, especially if part of the goal is to help authors weigh the benefits of self/indie vs. traditional publishing models.

Stephanie May 9, 2013 um 1:23 am

The findings on book length are interesting as there has been a noticeable trend for ebooks to get shorter. Clearly this is authors being lazy rather than trying to please their public! Value for money is something that everyone wants.

Rogue Haggis May 9, 2013 um 12:25 pm

"The findings on book length are interesting as there has been a noticeable trend for ebooks to get shorter. Clearly this is authors being lazy rather than trying to please their public!"

I wonder if longer works outselling shorter ones is in part because a lazier or less confident writer is going to not merely write less, but write less well. In other words, if shorter ebooks sell less well (in aggregate) simply because they aren’t as good (in aggregate) as longer ones. You’d think this might be especially true in self-publishing, where the barriers to entry are so low. Brevity might mean laziness rather than rigor far more often than in a traditional publishing model.

Obviously there are great novellas and terrible epics, so shorter does not necessarily equal better. But brevity might often be a symptom of a problem inherent to self-publishing, and maybe the Smashwords data is picking that up.

David May 9, 2013 um 12:54 pm

Good point. I hadn’t thought of that loophole…yeah, I’m actively looking for ways to say it ain’t so. Anyone want to help me create an echo chamber?

I wrote a 112K book, but my last novel was only 60K. And my current WIP looks like it’ll be between 60 & 70K. Plus I have an aggressive schedule in mind for the rest of this year.

I can change my plans if I decide I need to. I just don’t want to. {8′>

David May 9, 2013 um 12:48 pm

Yeah, that Smashwords post was interesting even though I thought the title was (literally) a bit presumptuous.

And the book-length bit is making me rethink some assumptions I had. I really wish I could get at the raw data. I’d also like to see what they could tell me about a series vs. a standalone novel. There’s lots of anecdotal stuff out on the net, and this is a cut above that…but it’s still just someone’s summary.

But FWIW word-count and book-length are not necessarily all that closely related in all places. If I publish a POD version of a title, Amazon will show that page count for the ebook. If I don’t do a POD version, they’ll show an estimated page count.

Sounds like it might be worthwhile to do a POD version even if I don’t think anyone will buy it. Hmm. So far I haven’t gotten around to it. Food for thought….

Today was supposed to be a writing day. Instead I’m thinking about the publishing stuff (See? .

Back to work, finally, I hope. Lots to do.

Nigel Mitchell May 9, 2013 um 3:24 pm

What awesome data. I agree that shorter ebooks at lower prices are a glut in the indie market. Longer work for higher prices, that’s what we need and will succeed at.

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