The Great E-Book Experiment: Results

This month marks the one- year anniversary of my Great E-book Publishing Experiment. With 11titles now live on Kindle and 5 live on all other platforms via Smashwords, I am here to report the results. Here’s a hint: they are somewhat less than spectacular.

Background: around this time last year I became intrigued by the success of authors such as Joe Konrath who had begun making their backlist and original titles available on’s Kindle platform, and whose staggering monetary rewards far outshone any print deal offered them (or me!) by traditional publishers. One of my own print publishers had offered one of my titles for free on Kindle over the 3 day Christmas holiday and over 60,000 copies were downloaded (more importantly, my spring royalty check was 5 times higher than it had ever been before) Even more surprising to me was the fact that many of the most successful Kindle authors were completely self-published, with no previous New York publisher to give them a platform, and none of them claimed to do any extraordinary marketing. I have a huge backlist, with most of my titles in two of Kindle’s most popular categories: romance, and suspense. Moreover, I have four titles from a major New York publisher currently in print, which you would think might give me something of a platform. With the rights to ten of my most popular contemporary romances and two mysteries in hand, I wanted to see whether or not I could approach the kinds of numbers I was hearing from other writers. My goal: $2000 per month in sales—which was modest according to some of the figures I was hearing.

I fell a little short.

For those who want the short version, here are the numbers tracing the Kindle sales of my highest selling book, Smoky Mountain Tracks, and my lowest selling book, Matchmaker, Matchmaker, through the year. (I had no sales in March of last year and March of this year has not yet been reported):

April: 19 May: 20 June:61  July: 64 Aug: 75 Sept.: 56 Oct.:63 Nov. 66 Dec. 60 Jan. 94 Feb.: 113
TOTAL: 691 for the year

April: 2 May: 12  June: 8  July: 7 Aug: :9  Sept.: 7 Oct.:2 Nov.: 3  Dec.: 6  Jan.: 15  Feb. 16
TOTAL:87 for the year

Here’s my analysis. Anyone who has a better theory, PUL-EEZE share it, because there is a reason I went into writing and not economics.

Most people agree that there are four major factors driving e-book sales.
1) Content (a good story, professionally written, edited and presented)
2) Product description page
3) Cover
4) Pricing

Because all of the books I uploaded were previously published, professionally edited best sellers and award winners in their category, I modestly submit I think I had the “quality product” part covered. Since my print publishers actually use the copy that I write for their product descriptions, I feel pretty good about the product pages as well. I even added editorial reviews and quotes from major trade publications, which is an advantage most self-published e-books don’t have. That left two big variables:

The first book I uploaded was Smoky Mountain Tracks , the first book in the Raine Stockton Dog Mystery Series. I was such a clutz at this, I accidentally uploaded a grayscale copy of the cover , which I didn’t notice for three days. Embarrassing, but what difference could it make, since no one even knew the book was published. But when I went back to upload the color cover a week later – holy cow! Eight people had already bought my book! In one week, with a grayscale cover, no publicity, and the product page on not even completely built yet. Clearly, this internet thing was out of control. My expectations soared.

But here’s the interesting thing: the color cover made no difference. The book continued to sell at about 8 copies a week. Throughout May, with three more books uploaded ( all of them cross-referencing the other e-books), and a complete product detail page built, still 5-8 copies a week. I sent out a notice to my reader list, featured the books on my blog and web site, made an announcement on Facebook and Kindleboards. No change. 8-10 copies a week on the dog mysteries. I upgraded the cover (this cover is still pretty bad, but you should have seen the original!) No difference.

In June, something happened and sales doubled. My only theory is that by this time I had nine books live and the cross-promotion between books was beginning to take effect. Or maybe people who downloaded samples in April had just gotten around to reading them in June. Who knows?

Old Cover
Product Details
New Cover
The romances all sold about 4 copies or less a week, which made no sense to me. First of all, there were seven of them, all cross-promoting each other, and only two of the mysteries. Secondly, they had much better covers than the mysteries. The exception was A Man Around the House , whose cover was so bad even I laughed at it. However, since it sold exactly the same amount as all the others (even better than some) I left it alone for most of the year. In October, I replaced the old cover  with a professionally designed one
to see if it would make any difference. In August and September (old cover) A Man Around the House sold 12 copies each month. In November (new, sexy cover) it sold 9! By December and January it was selling 12 copies a month again, just as it was with the old cover.

In June I sold 61 copies of Smoky Mountain Tracks at 1.99 and 47 copies of Rapid Fire, its sequel. I raised the price to 2.99 to comply with Kindle’s new 70% royalty option at the end of June. In July I sold 64 copies of Smoky Mountain Tracks and 42 of Rapid Fire , but by August Rapid Fire was up to 55 and Smoky Mountain Tracks to 75 (more copies of both books than were sold at 1.99!). The romances, which were selling 10 or less copies per month, dropped in July to 7-10 copies a month, but were back up to 15 by August, and by the end of the year were selling more copies at 2.99 than they were at 1.99. Go figure.

What I did notice is that my two best sellers are the dog mysteries (the ones with the least impressive covers, IMHO). This could be because of the genre, the dogs (a suspicion supported by the fact that my next best seller, For Keeps also has a golden retriever on the cover) or—and this is what I think—the fact that these books still have an active product page from the print publisher, with links to the original print books and dozens of customer reviews. I know that many independent authors seed their product pages with reviews from family and friends (hey,if I had enough family or friends to write reviews on 11 different titles, I would too!) but I actually have not been able to do that. Most of my romance product pages look pretty barren, and none have links to print books.

The other thing one can’t help noticing is that in January, when everyone was downloading goodies for their brand new Christmas Kindles, all my sales doubled or tripled across the board. They’re still not giving my print publisher anything to lose sleep over, nor are they even beginning to approach what I had hoped for. But if they stay at this level or grow, I can live with that.

From April-December 2010, with nine e-books available on Kindle for most of that time, I made $1685. For the year.  Even if you added a zero, that would still be far less than the worst year I’ve ever had with a print publisher, so will I be relying on e-books to pay my mortgage any time soon? Probably not. In terms of the sense of control over sales I hoped for when I started this project, it would appear that actual sales are linked more to the things I can’t control-—the number of customers who write book reviews and the number of people who buy Kindles —than to the more obvious things like cover and pricing.

On the other hand, I acknowledge that there is still a lot of room for experimentation in this Great E-Book Experiment. For example:
*While the difference between $1.99 and 2.99 might not make all that much difference in sales, the difference between 2.99 and 99 cents might. I just published a non-fiction book, Ten Things Your Puppy Needs to Know to Be a Great Dog (hey, who says I don’t know anything about self-promotion?) that’s selling less than 1 copy a week. Today I lowered the e-book  price to 99 cents on all platforms. We’ll see if it makes its way to the head of the pack now.

*Kindle doesn’t allow authors to give away their books for free, but with Smashwords coupons you can run a “free e-book” promotion, and that’s exactly what I’m doing during Read an E-Book Week March 6-12, 2011. (Here's the info on how to get your free books. ) Because I have selected only a few of the lowest selling romances to feature in this promotion, it should be very easy to see whether this makes a difference in sales when the price goes back to normal.

*After A Man Around the House *(from worst cover ever to sexy naked man)I remain unconvinced that the cover alone has a substantial impact on e-sales, although it certainly may contribute if there are enough other negative factors. Eventually I may redesign the dog mysteries for print, at which time I’ll invest in a professional cover. It will be interesting to see what happens.

*Finally, I would love to know whether filling the product pages on my romance novels with customer reviews would make a difference in those sales. So anyone who’d like to write a review for any of my e-books can contact me for the coupon code for a free e-book, a shameless offer made with absolutely no apology (Although I'll probably limit the offer to the first 10 on each book).

When I started the project a year ago I speculated that the formula for success in e-book sales had more to do with chaos theory than algorithms, and nothing has happened in my experience since then to change that opinion. Does that mean I consider this experiment a failure? Absolutely not. Am I giving up on the search for that elusive golden goose of e-book megamillions? Hell, no. In fact, I’m more enthusiastic than ever. Why?

Chaos theory. If lightning is going to strike, it might as well strike me.

And because, as I’ve said many times before, if I were smart I wouldn’t be trying to make a living in this business in the first place. The experiment isn’t over. It’s barely begun. Stay tuned.


Jenny said…
Donna, I think it's important to establish yourself and make your presence known as well. If you're not finding ways to spread the word about your books and experiences it will be difficult for people to find out about you. You can have the most beautiful cover in the world, a great blurb and clean copy and a $.99 price tag on your eBook, but if no one hears about it, it won't sell.
Maria said…
I'm on two cozy groups that are very active. I remember your mystery books coming up as being on Kindle sometime last year a couple of times. I would imagine that helped drive some sales. As someone mentioned on Kindleboards, presence online and being active in groups makes a pretty huge difference. I don't have backlist--I have all original stuff, I'm a complete no-name. Some of my covers are professionally done, some are homegrown.

BUT. I spent about two hours per day on various cozy forums, on Kindleboards, Goodreads, and so on--not promoting, just participating, getting to know the readers and so on.

My book covers are in my signature line on forums where it is allowed. Links to my books are in my signature when allowed.

Forums do peak and fall, but in general participating has helped my momentum.

I also have an active blog; I do cover polls there which has drawn a lot of interest. I submit review copies to bloggers who have e-readers.

Just making them available was a great first step. Getting a mention from readers on forums--golden. But they have to know about the book and that can mean some serious footwork, especially initially. I know writers who spent an hour per day. I know writers who seem to spend all day on forums. But those who are visible, sell better by most accounts!!!

At any rate, best of luck. You've been at it a while and it looks like you have the legs to continue--and your eggs aren't all in one basket!!!
Donna said…
These are great comments and absolutely on point. When I started the experiment I admit I was MOST intrigued by authors on the Kindleboards & elsewhere who said all they did to promote their books was make an announcement on KB or Facebook, who rarely blogged,never went out of their way to market their book. That's my kind strategy! Of course I now realize that by their very presence in the forums they were creating awareness. And if my question was--Can you make an impact on Kindle without marketing your books?-- the answer is No. (sigh) And I was hoping for a magic bullet.
C.J. Archer said…
Thanks for your honest post, Donna. I'm not really sure what the "magic bullet" is either. Sometimes contributing on forums feels like you're just talking to other writers and not reaching readers. I think you've got the best explanation - chaos theory. Some books resonate with a wider audience for some reason but predicting which ones is impossible. At least we do know that it's the same no matter how you're published - traditionally or independently.
Rex Jameson said…
As someone who only recently came to Kindlebooks, it's goods to get a splash of cold water to the face (from my perspective) about the realities of the self publishing industry. How do we setup a platform? How do we maintain or establish presence?

Thanks for posting your results. It was a good read.
Tara Maya said…
I think the missing element is promotion. Every successful bestseller on Joe Konrath's blog does fantastic promotion. A few of them claim they don't but then you find out, "except for five hours a day on twitter" or whatever. They do.
bowerbird said…
your books are stuck.

you need to do something
that will get them unstuck.

you can try "marketing"...
might work. (might not.)

but until you've tried
pricing all your books
at $.99, not just one
unrepresentative one,
you haven't really tried
to get 'em unstuck at all.


p.s. $1.99 is no-man's land.
buyers search $.99 and $2.99.
I thought I recognized your name, and more particularly your character's name. I just talked to my wife, and she confirms that we've both read all three of your Raine Stockton mysteries. But, as Barbara said, there's been nothing new since 2007 in that series. We already own the print copies, so there's no particular reason for us to buy the ebooks.

I'd suggest you price the first in the series at $0.99 and leave it there permanently as a loss leader to draw in readers. If you have DRM on your books, republish all of them without DRM. And start knocking out new books in the Raine Stockton series. With ebooks, there's no reason not to build your list as quickly as possible. How long would it take you to add a new title? Two or three months? That's only 1,000 words a day or less.

As to promotion, I think you'll need to do a lot less than you fear. Hang out on popular blogs like Joe Konrath's, sure. (That's where I just noticed you.) Put a link at the end every time you post on one of those other blogs. Post stuff on your own blog.

But part of your problem is summed up by your comment "(Although I'll probably limit the offer to the first 10 on each book)." Why would you want to limit it? Every free copy you give out is potentially both a review on and a new fan, and that's what you want. Hell, if you get 1,000 requests you'd be nuts not to send free copies to all 1,000. That's 1,000 new people looking at your stuff and potentially singing your praises to their friends privately and to Amazon browsers publicly. You can't buy that kind of promotion.

You're on the very early part of the curve right now. Look at Amanda Hocking's and John Locke's current numbers and look at how they did their first few months. You may never get anywhere near their numbers. In fact, you probably won't. Few will. But there's no reason you can't get to the point where you're making $1,600 a week and then $1,600 a day.

But to do all that you really need to get as many more Raine Stockton mysteries written and posted as soon as you can, and price them at $2.99 without DRM. Seriously, try to get one new one finished and posted every two or three months for the next year or so.

And don't hesitate to ask the readers you provide free copies to to post reviews on
Donna said…
You guys are terrific! I'm the kind of person who tends to take instruction well:) so you can expect me to implement your suggestions to the best of my ability over the next couple of months.

Robert, I think you are spot on. Readers have begged for another Raine Stockton mystery but I have been too busy trying to eke out a living with my print publisher to write one. And YES of course I could write another in a couple of months but at 75 copies a month is it worth it? It seems little scary to me to price Book One as a loss leader, since I would be taking the monetary hit on my biggest seller, but I do see the logic.

In fact I think part of my issue is that I am STILL thinking like a print publisher (hmmm... the root of all evil) and I need to turn that around.

Great comments, all! I hope you'll stayed tuned for further developments.
Anonymous said…
To be honest, look at your pricing. Your current pricing model is out of step with current market expectations. If you can't control the pricing, then you're not going to compete against those indies that can control everything. E-publishing and trad publishing are two totally different animals.
Kate said…
I understand what you mean in a lot of ways. I'm a lot younger in the e-book realm than you, I have one book out that's been released since December.

I've experimented with price, cover and description. For me, I think the things that have driven my sales are price and presence. I originally priced at $1.99 using Barnes and Noble to force Amazon to put it on sale. Then on the advice of others like Bowerbird, I raised to 2.99. My sales tanked. I was back to one a day. So I went back to $1.99 in March and I've since been at 3-4 a day, varying. I do think $1.99 is a good price point.
Reviews have helped me too, I'm certain. I have a large group of family and friends that reviewed my one book. I asked for honest reviews and I think I mostly got them. I was so excited to finally get a few from people I didn't know that were good, too.
I also use goodreads, which I used before I was a writer. I try to be my normal self on there, with my blog and my reviews of others' books. I also put a small ad on there. It doesn't generate a TON of views or anything (by my choice) but there are enough people to read my book and hopefully pass the title along to others.

Six Keys is not a best seller yet, but I'm hoping to find time to release other titles, since that seems to be the key to a lot of writer's success. Write more, and write well. To me, those seem to be the most important.

You could try some novellas, if you don't have the time to write more. I've heard those are pretty successful and you can price them low to drive sales to your other books.
Anonymous said…
This is interesting, but two things I see right off the bat having to do with price and cover.

Most of your covers need work. Serious work. The new sexy cover was an improvement, but still could use some work.

Price. You're way out of step with your competition. Where is the entry point for your series? The follow ups? You may be someone who doesn't want to 'lower' herself to the current market demands, but without a strong platform, or a hook, you get a little stuck. So you're left with depending on longevity to sell and 1 year isn't enough.

I'm willing to bet if you got new covers, dropped the price down to .99 cents, and offered it was a promotion/entry point, it would increase.

What have you got to lose really?

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