Self-publishing is a pretty tough game for most authors, but as the industry matures and best practices start to emerge, we’re starting to learn more about what makes a self-published title sell.
Each year, Smashwords parses its sales data to give the rest of the world a little glimpse into what works for its best-selling authors. To absolutely nobody’s surprise, the fifth annual survey revealed that romance, erotica, and young adult fiction are the top sellers for the digital self-publishing platform.
These categories are so popular, in fact, that romance titles (adult and young adult combined) make up more than seventy percent of the top 200 best-selling titles, Smashwords CEO Mark Coker said. Seventy percent. That’s a pretty steady paycheck for the seamstresses that have to repair all those ripped bodices.
Fantasy clocked in as the fourth most popular fiction category in 2016, which I can only assume is due to the fact that we’re the only other genre that talks about bodices a lot. Fantasy novels made up 4.22 percent of the best sellers this year. Meanwhile, Sci-Fi titles only scooped up a measly one percent of the marketplace.
This may seem kind of depressing for those of us who are not big fans of the romance genre, but there are some concrete reasons why these authors have such huge success. And, as Coker points out, it’s possible that the wild success of these authors can teach us some lessons about how they garner such legions of loyal fans.
“Romance writers are typically ahead of the curve when it comes to adopting new best practices,” he said, “and certainly this is underscored by their early adoption of series writing, free series starters and preorder usage.”
So what are some of the key tactics that best-selling writers employ, and how well do they work?
Racking up sales before release day
Preorders are especially important for boosting a book’s chances of success, the survey found. Average earnings for books that were available for preorder were 6.7 times greater than books that only banked on a big release day. More than half of the top 200 books in 2016 were available for pre-order. Of the top 200 pre-order books, 78 percent were romance titles.
“Every preorder gains you incremental benefit in terms of expanded readership, and over the course of years this incremental benefit compounds upon itself like a great investment. This is because the more readers you gain, the easier it becomes to gain even more readers because fans breed more fans through word of mouth,” said Coker.
That’s also why social media is so important. Unsurprisingly, the top 100 authors were much more likely than others to have a good website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account.
But this may be more of a correlation-not-causation scenario. I know plenty of authors who tweet like crazy and constantly post to their Facebook pages but remain unsuccessful – and that’s probably because they don’t know how to use social media wisely. Spamming your Twitter followers with cringe-worthy self-promotion tactics won’t get you anywhere.
Balancing price and length
When it comes to generating sales, pricing is probably even more important than Facebook likes, says the survey. The data uncovered this shocking fact: if you want to get your book in front of lots and lots of eyeballs, don’t charge anything for it.
On average, readers downloaded free books 41 times more often than priced titles. That’s a lot of books.
Just like in previous years, the “sweet spot” for sales seems to be around the $2.00 to $3.99 mark. While a 99 cent book might seem suspiciously cheap, readers aren’t willing to spend more than 4 bucks to experiment with a new fiction title.
If they do spend their pennies on your book, however, they’re expecting to get their money’s worth. Lengthier books still sell better than shorter titles. The average top 100 seller is around 112,000 words – but again, be careful here. Writing a 400,000-word epic isn’t going to make you the next Stephen King if the story is incoherent and the writing quality is low.
A series of fortunate events
If you want to gain fans and sell books, don’t stop your stories, Coker says. Even though literary agents are constantly asking for more stand-alone titles to sell, a series is still the best bet for self-publishers. The majority of top performing authors bank on series to give them long-term sales, and it seems to be a good bet.
The top 1000 series titles show an average 195 percent sales increase over the top 1000 stand-alone books. And if you want to get your readers hooked, you should consider offering your first book for free.
Series with free starters earn an average of 83 percent more than series with priced first entries, the survey shows. More than half of the top 200 best selling series offered their first installments for free, including 80 percent of the top 10.
Putting the data into action
So should we all start writing paranormal romance series with ten books’ worth of teenaged angst? Please, God, no.
Romance is always going to dominate everything, because it’s romance. And there will always be a market for stories about impossibly beautiful and mature teenagers doing impossibly world-altering things, because…well, I’m not really sure why those have such appeal, but apparently they do. Someone will have to explain that one to me some day.
The most important takeaways from the survey probably aren’t about genre, but are more about strategically positioning your book, whatever it may be, to generate the maximum number of sales.
Regardless of your subject matter, you can try to implement the five strategies that seem to work for the majority of best selling authors:
- Establish a strong but savvy social media presence
- Consider the $2.00 to $3.99 bracket for pricing
- Think about offering pre-orders
- Invest the time and effort into creating series that capture reader attention
- Hook readers with a free first installment
While Smashwords – and life in general – make no guarantees that these techniques will launch you into the rarified air of the best-selling self-publisher, it can’t hurt to experiment with some of the things that have been proven to produce sales.
Have you had success (or abject failure) with adopting some of these tactics? Let me know in the comments!