DIY E-books by the Numbers: A Case Study
I had a great time yesterday at Book Camp NY, an unconference about book publishing that—as I mentioned to several people—was like my Twitter timeline come to life. It was like a weekend conference compressed into four hours, which was great, not to mention efficient.
If you’ve never been to an “unconference”—and I had not—here’s how it works. The organizers (in this case) set-up four time slots and five rooms on a grid. Then, in a somewhat chaotic opening session, people proposed sessions, announced what they were about to everyone, then put them on the grid. When the grid was full, the schedule was done.
I came prepared to lead a session called “DIY E-books by the Numbers: A Case Study.” I picked this topic for a few reasons. First, I have several years of experience distributing my e-books on various self-serve platforms, and some more recent experience marketing a paid e-book original through a traditional publisher. And since I’m a bit of stats geek, I’ve accumulated a lot of data about what has worked and what hasn’t, so I thought this was something I could contribute to the Camp. Also, discussions about publishing these days almost invariably devolve into vague theory, so I wanted to be as concrete as possible.
Camp organizer Ami Greko has asked that all session leaders write up a summary of their sessions, so this will serve as that. I will also share some key slides and data. Doing so, at Book Camp and here, is a funny experience, particularly since I am what you would call, for lack of a better term, a writer of “literary fiction.” The nagging feeling that it’s unseemly to talk about real business and real numbers is there, and even though I think it’s bunk, it is difficult to defeat. I am fighting it slowly.
Yesterday, Richard Nash said something that I’ve being thinking about lately. Namely, that it’s sort of interesting that the people who create all the value in publishing—writers—have been encouraged to cultivate an attitude of indifference and even snobbery about business. Oh don’t worry about that, we’ll handle all that for you. I’m not sure that’s going to serve us so much further into the future, so I’ve tried to be as transparent as possible—both yesterday and here.
The session was attended by a great mix of people, including a few people I read all the time but have never met, namely Teleread’s Paul Biba and publishing soothsayer Brian O’Leary. Guy from Digital Book World was also there. There were a couple of agents, a couple of authors interested in self-publishing, one guy who had started his own small publishing concern, and a few others who drifted in at various times. (One of the tenets of Book Camp is you can come and go as you please.)
My talk was, in part, a continuation of a post I did last year, exploring how well my first free e-book, Single, had done on various platforms, like Manybooks, Feedbooks, etc. Setting aside my second free offering, Cassingle, I reported how many downloads Single had racked up so far in 2010.
As you can see, Feedbooks is still my go-to platform for distributing a book for free, based purely on results, although it should be noted that I send people to Feedbooks myself—since it performs so well—so my thumb is on the scale a little bit. Last year, I had 3000 downloads of both my e-books. That number is 4322 YTD, so I’m looking at a 50 percent increase year-over-year.
Of course, what is all this free stuff getting me? One woman, in particular was skeptical. Well, I’m not getting rich. In fact, I started off my talk by saying that I have made a grand total of $750 writing fiction in my lifetime. (I have made hundreds of thousands writing other things. I say this to provide context—and to protect my ego.) I may never make a living writing fiction. However, these two free e-books did earn the attention of Joyland and ECW Press, who published Why They Cried, and paid me for it. How much?
Well, I shared the details of my contract. $500 advance, 10 percent of the $9.95 cover price, world digital rights only (I retain print rights but ECW has the right to match offers), and digital rights are eligible for reversion after two years. The agents in the room were especially interested to know what other value I felt my publisher provided. After handling it for myself for so long, I explained, it was a relief to have an editor to work with, a great cover design that I didn’t have to lift a finger to produce, expert production and distribution to more online outlets than I’d ever considered, and an established publisher with a publicity team behind me.
And I made money finally, right? Well, no. Since I’m a stats geek and an online geek, I knew from the start that I would put the entire advance (and then some) into online marketing. I spent my whole life hoping to publish a book. I’m not going to sit back and hope for the best. Here is what I’ve spent.
These expenses date back from the summer—months before the book launch—and the net is what you get when subtract the advance, ad coupons I redeemed, and my share of the door from the Adult Education session that served as the Why They Cried launch party. So I’m in the hole about a grand (although, as I mentioned, this is still much cheaper than an MFA.)
As I explained in the “lessons learned” section of my talk, I could have saved $738 by cutting out Google ads. I’m just not sure how to make them work for books. I’m writing them off as an educational cost. If you know, please let me know in the comments. I also shared the following lessons:
- Expect to pay .30-.50 per click for Goodreads and Facebook ads. These will never earn out on a near-term ROI basis, but you can build an audience and perhaps some momentum.
- Look at direct ad buys for deals. The big winner here? My above-the-fold, book-cover ad on the popular lit blog HTML Giant yielded .10 per click. That’s a good deal, and I’m always on the lookout for similar opportunities.
And while I never got around to it on this project, in the future I will try to persuade my publisher to help shoulder the costs of this kind of online marketing. I can provide research, optimization, and reporting—which has value—and we can share the cost.
So how is the book selling? The fact of the matter is, I don’t know. I haven’t really seriously asked—since I’ll get a statement at the end of the year—but I now feel terrible for all the years I spent asking my published friends how their books were doing. I now know they weren’t lying when they said the didn’t know.
Reporting that has to flow back from retailers through the distributor and the publisher to the author is anything but “real-time,” which is the missing link if you’re trying to fine tune an online ad campaign. I just threw this out as a problem that publishers—all publishers—would have to solve, but it ended up being a big topic in the session. A gentleman in the room who was publishing books direct-to-consumer via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others talked about how he was getting more or less real-time sales numbers from all of them. In other words, authors give up more than percentages when they go through publishers, they give up information—another things publishers will need to address as the ground shifts beneath all of our feet.
Hope the session and/or this recap will be helpful to someone. But I wasn’t the only one there, so if you were and want to add something I might have missed in comments, please do.