The New Statesman on Déjà Vu Sales

A heads-up from Ben Johncock tells me that no less than Nicholas Clee has been writ­ing in the New Statesman about the trans­ition from tan­gible to elec­tron­ic books. (I’ve been strug­gling to find an offi­cial link to the piece; here’s an unof­fi­cial-look­ing one.)

It’s fair to say that Nicholas Clee is tra­di­tion­al in his per­spect­ive.

Ebooks are des­troy­ing this eco­nom­ic mod­el. …Will 99P become the optim­um price for an ebook? If so, who is going to make any money out of pub­lish­ing or writ­ing books for such a mar­ket?

I agree with the first point here. The ebook is a dis­rupt­ive entity. But any­body who has been around since the early 1990s has seen, in the music industry, an example of elec­tron­ic mer­chand­ise des­troy­ing an eco­nom­ic mod­el based on the phys­ic­al. Perhaps ‘des­troyed’ is the wrong term to use in this con­text. The mar­ket is still there. But how much growth does the CD mar­ket have? How much in the hard­back mar­ket?

The second point speaks to a fun­da­ment­al issue of busi­ness. One should not ask ‘How are all the employ­ees of the leg­acy pub­lish­ing industry — from recep­tion­ists to the CEO — going to main­tain their income?’ because this leads to the prob­lem that afflicts all pub­lish­ers: they decide as a group, impli­citly or expli­citly, to act as a car­tel. Prices are kept high. This cre­ates situ­ations where the elec­tron­ic ver­sion of a book costs the same as or more than the tan­gible. Try explain­ing this to a con­sumer. It’s hard. ‘We need these prices because of the way our busi­ness was set up’ makes for poor advert­ising copy.

Now for the part that men­tions your humble cor­res­pond­ent:

As for the fin­an­cial implic­a­tions — on the Me and My Big Mouth blog, the nov­el­ist Ian Hocking … has con­fided his sales fig­ures and rev­en­ues from self-pub­lish­ing ebooks with Amazon. Two of them have sold more than 8,000 cop­ies. This is a fig­ure that many con­ven­tion­ally pub­lished nov­el­ists would envy. But Hocking’s profit to date is only just over £300 (his rev­en­ue is just over £2,000).

Had Hocking chosen a con­ven­tion­al pub­lish­er, he might well have sold few­er cop­ies, but he would have earned more, thanks to the publisher’s advance.

Yes, my profit is just over £300, but this fig­ure is essen­tially mean­ing­less (the rev­en­ue is more inform­at­ive) as a proxy for suc­cess. First, I’ve ploughed vir­tu­ally all the money from the first book into the second, and so on. ‘Profit’, then, in this con­text, rep­res­ents the amount that I’ve decided not to spend. I might have adjus­ted that up or down arbit­rar­ily. Second, my sci­ence fic­tion nov­els con­tin­ue to sell in great­er num­ber each month, and unless I can find oth­er book-related expendit­ure, this ‘profit’ fig­ure will rise sharply. Overall, I believe it was more sens­ible for me (as a writer nobody has heard of) to price low and sell in quant­ity than opt for the pre­ferred option of a leg­acy pub­lish­er, which, per­haps, is to price high and sell few.

The ques­tion of the pub­lish­er advance is an inter­est­ing one. It would cer­tainly be in my short term interest to land a large advance, which I may not earn out. But, if I may say, the industry-wide beha­viour of dol­ing out these advances is one of the reas­ons the busi­ness mod­el is unsup­port­able.

To return to this ques­tion: Is 99p too cheap for a book? I really don’t know. If you’re employed by a busi­ness that requires the new Ken Follett book to be £16 or more, you’ll prob­ably think it’s too cheap and con­sider me an upstart who is under­cut­ting you. If you’re an indi­vidu­al, cre­at­ive per­son who is put­ting out a product and is in con­trol of the con­sumer exper­i­ence, you will think care­fully about the impact that your price will have on the per­cep­tion of the product. I think 99p for Déjà Vu rep­res­ents good value. After all, you can get it from a lib­rary for free, and that doesn’t lessen its worth. Neither does pick­ing up a second-hand copy from the church baz­ar.

Last word from Mr Clee, which requires no com­ment bey­ond a brief nod to its past tense:

An industry that paid unre­cov­er­able advances for books, and then pub­lished them in formats that the pub­lic thought too expens­ive, had its eccent­ri­cit­ies.

★ Is the Kindle Store 1000 Times Better Than Apple’s iBooks and Smashwords?

Probably not.

But the data for sales of my nov­el, Déjà Vu, which I’ve pub­lished on the Kindle, iBooks and Smashwords, point to a sales ratio of about 1000:1.

Kindle Sales

Déjà Vu unit sales per month, begin­ning in March, are: 320, 938, 915, 738, 844, 643 and 581.

Smashwords (this includes Barnes and Noble, and a billion other ebook stores)

For the same peri­od: 4.


For the same peri­od: 1.

Overall, then, the ratio of sales Kindle:other is 4979:5. Call it 1000:1. If Déjà Vu is rep­res­ent­at­ive of more gen­er­al trends (it won’t be; but it’s in the ball­park, I expect), the Kindle store could be around 1000 times more suc­cess­ful than the oth­er stores com­bined. Remember that the blurb, cov­er image and price are identic­al across stores.

What Leads to These Differences?

All of my mar­ket­ing — if you can call it that — has poin­ted people to the Kindle store.

Amazon has a lar­ger cus­tom­er base to begin with, so cross-pro­mo­tion will be more effect­ive. That is, when Déjà Vu is recom­men­ded to people who have a his­tory of buy­ing sim­il­ar titles, there are more of those people around to see the recom­mend­a­tion. It could well be that many people see Déjà Vu on Amazon when they’re not look­ing for it; few see my book on Smashwords or iBooks.

Amazon has a mature chart-based shop­front. I don’t think Smashwords does this very well. And when I (rarely) look at iBooks, the charts seem to be full of odd books, and they are all writ­ten by Jeremy Clarkson. Nothing wrong with that; but it sug­gests a smal­ler num­ber of read­ers.

For the ver­sion of Déjà Vu sold on Amazon, I can con­trol the look and feel of the ebook pre­cisely. The ver­sion sold on Smashwords is pro­duced using a Word tem­plate and, frankly, it looks like a piece of crap. Blockquotes don’t work prop­erly; indent­a­tion is shot to hell. Likewise, the ver­sion for iBooks looks awful. Now, ebooks aren’t meant to look beau­ti­ful — but the cre­at­or should be able to provide a well-designed doc­u­ment whose struc­ture melts away so that the read­er can enjoy the story.

A Caveat

It’s worth not­ing that both iBooks and Smashwords are push­ing huge num­bers of books. Scott Pack recently repor­ted large sales num­bers for Confessions of a GP. And my friend Stephen J Sweeney has been selling his Battle for the Solar System books like gang­busters across many plat­forms. But Amazon has the lion’s share of this mar­ket for now.

★ More Ebooks

Further to my review of the COOL-ER eBook Reader, it’s worth not­ing that, else­where, the Internet is light­ing up with com­ments, spec­u­la­tion and reviews about the com­ing storm in pub­lish­ing that is the digit­isa­tion of lit­er­at­ure. Check out this MacWorld story. It out­lines the ten new ebook read­ers announced or released at CES this week.

I had a brief exchange with @Sifter on Twitter yes­ter­day. He reminded me that the key factor in the digit­isa­tion of books is the devel­op­ment of a device that will bring such books to the masses. Remember a few years back when only stu­dents, tech journ­al­ists and geeks were using email? Then, sud­denly, your mum and dad had email accounts. You could bank online. A tip­ping point had come. For ebooks, the tip­ping point will come with a device that can finally com­pete with the prin­ted book as the tech­no­logy best adap­ted for read­ing, short form and long.

Andy Ihnatko recently pub­lished a sens­ible round-up of what the fabled Apple Tablet (or iSlate, or iBook) might fea­ture. Elsewhere, Neven Mrgan hopes that Apple will take the reins of the dis­tri­bu­tion mod­el for writers so that pub­lish­ing a book will be as easy as upload­ing pho­tos to Flickr. John Gruber over at Daring Fireball has pub­lished two posts of spec­u­lat­ing about the Tablet: the Tablet and Tablet Musings. How close will this device come to Apple’s 1987 Knowledge Navigator concept video?

Friday Project author Caroline Smailes — in a post entitled I’m Cheap — announced that her books In Search of Adam and Black Boxes are now avail­able as ebooks for the rel­at­ively cheap price of £1.05. This, I think, is more sens­ible than the sky-high fig­ures I’ve seen else­where, and I expect the trend to con­tin­ue through­out the industry. (Note that some authors, such as Cory Doctorow, have been giv­ing away ebook ver­sions of their com­mer­cial fic­tion for sev­er­al years.)

Interesting times.