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Episode 7:  Smashwords Survey 2017

Mark shares the results of the 2017 annual Smashwords Survey, which takes a quantitative, unconventional approach to identifying best practice opportunities to make your book more desirable and more enjoyable to readers.  As a special bonus, Mark provides new data never before released prior to this podcast episode.


Supplemental links:

Download the original 2017 Smashwords Survey presentation, and access links to prior years' Surveys.



Welcome to the Smart Author Podcast, where you'll learn to publish eBooks with greater pride, professionalism, and success. I'm your host Mark Coker. Let's get started.

In this episode, we discuss the 2017 Smashwords Survey. Before we get started, some background. The purpose of the Smashwords Survey is to identify data-driven insights into best practices that make an eBook more discoverable, more desirable, and more enjoyable to readers.

The Smashwords Survey shines a bright light on the characteristics of best-selling books, and the habits of best-selling authors. We compile the survey using real sales data. I'm about to share information with you you won't find anywhere else. The individual retailers don't share this data, but as an eBook distributor serving over 130,000 authors and publishers, Smashwords works with these retailers, we sell through these retailers, and we can share the data.

Smashwords has been sharing this data for six years now in the Smashwords Survey. For this year's survey, we analyze 12 months of sales that occurred between March 2016 and February 2017, for more than 250,000 titles aggregated across the Smashwords distribution network, representing millions of dollars in global customer purchases. It's impossible for a survey like this to directly measure the quality of a book, yet beyond writing quality, there are numerous other direct and indirect factors that impact the book's visibility, desirability, and enjoyability to readers.

We can analyze and quantify these factors as we sift through the survey data. All of these factors are easily controlled by the author. As an indie author, you have the opportunity to tweak and tune these factors to improve your book's performance. What are these factors? For example, book length. Do readers prefer shorter books or longer books? Here we'll analyze the word counts of our bestsellers and compare them against the poor sellers. What about pricing? What are the pricing sweet spots?

If you want to maximize readership, or if you want to maximize earnings, or if you want to maximize both? We've got that data. What about preorders? Do books that originate as preorders sell more copies than books that do not? If you've listened to the prior episodes, you already know the answer to this question, though in this episode, I'm going to give you even more information on the impact of preorders. We'll ask these, and many other questions, during the course of this episode.

For the last six years, I've released the findings of the Smashwords Survey at the RT Booklovers Convention. It's a conference attended by over 1500 romance authors and their readers. And then after the convention, I publish the findings at the Smashwords blog along with the full presentation, and the presentation contains dozens of charts and graphs and you can download it straight from the blog. For this podcast episode, I'll cover the highlights of the 2017 survey though I encourage you to go over to the show notes at, where you'll find the link where you can download the entire presentation and then that way you can look at all the charts and graphs.

Each year's survey is interesting, not just for the new insights it reveals, but also for comparing it to prior years' surveys. When we're looking at trends, sometimes what hasn't changed is just as interesting, and just as important, as what has changed. You'll find links to the prior years surveys in the show notes as well. Let's do a reality check before we explore these findings together. Much of the data I'm about to share is based on averages. Averages can be misleading.

Your book is unique. You are unique as an author, and your results may not conform to the averages. For example, you'll learn the average word count for our top 100 bestselling books, but your book can still become a bestseller if it's sorter, or if it's longer. Averages are only averages, and a couple of big bestsellers can skew all the results for the average. Use these findings as reference points, and as potential clues to the characteristics of bestselling books, and the habits of bestselling authors.

In other cases, I'm going to give you the median of the numbers. Median is a term that is derived by arranging all of the results from lowest to highest, and then taking the midpoint in that range. Sometimes the median is the more typical result, but not always. Now here's another caution that I want to leave you with before we get started: correlation does not mean causation, and by this I mean one thing doesn't always cause another thing to happen. For example, just because most of the highest earning books are priced at a certain price, it doesn't necessarily mean that that price caused those books to sell so well.

One characteristic alone cannot fully explain the multi-variate factors that motivate a reader to purchase, or enjoy, one book over another. Maybe the best authors demand a certain price from their books. Maybe readers harbor conscious or unconscious biases for one price over another. Maybe retailers are promoting certain prices above others. Maybe price had nothing to do with the purchase at all. Maybe the reader was motivated by author reputation, or by the book cover, or by a recommendation from a friend.

This means that at any given time, the reason the reader purchases a book could be for all of the reasons above, or none of the reasons above. With that said, when we observe certain characteristics as common traits among bestsellers, and when we see these same factors present across thousands of bestsellers over the course of multiple years, at a certain point we begin to view some of these factors as universal truths. But a factor need not rise to the level of universal truth for it to be applicable to your publishing strategy.

You'll learn many factors today that appear to help readers choose one book over another. Okay, let's get started. In Episode Three, I introduced you to the concept of the power law curve. The power law curve describes how the sales of a book can rise exponentially as it rises in sales rank, and how these sales can also drop quickly as sales rank declines. To visualize the power law curve, imagine you're looking at a steep alpine mountain peak. At the tip of the peak is the #1 bestselling title.

It's at the highest altitude of sales rank. It's #1. As you move to the right, the elevation and the sales per title drop precipitously as you drop down to #2, as you drop down to the #3 bestseller, the #4 bestseller, and so on. And eventually the curve flattens out as you reach the long valley where books sell fewer and fewer copies. I'll give you a real world example of the power law curve in action. When you download the Smashwords Survey for 2017, you'll see that there's a chart in there where we show the power law curve for the top 500 highest-earning Smashwords authors.

You'll see that we show the earnings for the author who was #500, the author who was #250, they're at the midpoint, and the author that was the #1 bestseller. So the earnings for author #500, we call it X. We found that author #250 earned exactly twice what #500 earned. Now if this were a linear chart, if sales were linear, then you would expect author #1, the bestselling author, would earn twice what #250 earned, so they'd earn four times more. But no, the bestselling author earned 61 times more than the #500 ranked author.

Now let's look at this data another way, and this is data that didn't even make it into the Smashwords Survey. I put this together as I was compiling this episode for the podcast. Our #1 bestselling book during the survey period sold 23 times more what the #500 book sold. The #1 bestselling book sold 40 times more than #1,000, 200 times more than #5,000, and 425 times more than #10,000. So during the course of this episode, when I talk about the quantitative characteristics associated with the bestsellers, and compare those characteristics to the poor sellers, it provides hints of what you should be doing, and what you shouldn't be doing.

It illustrates how as you move to the left of the power curve, your sales increase dramatically. You want to do the things that the bestselling authors are doing, and avoid the practices of the worst selling authors. Be like the bestsellers. So visualize this power law curve as we discuss all the data today. Keep in mind that every best practice yields you an incremental advantage in sales rank, and that incremental advantage in sales rank will lead to an expediential increase in sales. Now let's dig into the survey, and first we'll talk about Smashwords and where the data is coming from.

So the Smashwords catalog of over 450,000 titles is fiction heavy. 87.5% of Smashwords' sales during this survey period were for fiction. Romance, including YA romance, accounted for almost 50% of all sales. Erotica was 11%, non-fiction was 12%. The Smashwords catalog is about 95% English language books, and our authors come from all over the world, and our retailers are selling books all over the world. When you download the complete survey over at the show notes for the podcast, you'll find the survey has slides that show the top fiction categories and the top non-fiction categories during this 2017 survey period.

I'll give you just the top five of each. So the top five for fiction were Romance, Erotica, Fantasy, Young Adult & Teen, and Science Fiction. The top five for non-fiction were Self Improvement at #1, Health, Well-Being and Medicine #2, Business and Economics, Religion and Spirituality, and Relationships and Family. So there are a lot more that you'll find when you download the complete presentation, I don't need to go through them all here in the podcast.

Let's look at how some of the different categories perform. When we look at the categorizes of the top 200 bestselling titles at Smashwords for the survey period, we find that 73% of all those top 200 bestsellers were romance, and then the other bestsellers came from other fiction categories, such as fantasy, science fiction, mystery, historical fiction, and literary fiction. You might be wondering, why does romance outperform? Here's why I think romance dominates, and has dominated for a long time.

Most readers are women, and most romance is written by women for women. The women who write romance have always impressed me. They are the smartest authors in the publishing business. And it's kind of ironic. Romance has always been the Rodney Dangerfield of publishing, it's never gotten much respect. Back in the old world of print publishing, when it was a print centric world both for publishing and for retail, romance usually got small shelf, tucked away in the back of the store.

It wasn't until eBook publishing came along and eBook self-publishing came along that readers finally had access to even more romance titles, and romance started taking off. What the rise of eBooks showed us is that there was this tremendous latent demand for romance among women, and that demand wasn't met until the rise of eBooks. So what are some of the other characteristics that are driving this category? Romance readers are the most amazing readers. These are the voracious readers who will read a book a day.

Romance authors are usually among the first to adopt new best practices for book marketing, such as preorders, free series starters. They've been the most innovative with cover design, especially when it comes to micro-targeting your cover to your micro-targeted audience. I find so much inspiration studying romance covers. Romance authors often tend to be more prolific with more frequent releases of new material. Romance authors are also the most organized within the industry.

They have a strong industry association backing them, the Romance Writers of America. They've got some of the largest, strongest, most well-attended conferences, so that would be the RWA National Conference, and also the RT Booklovers Conference, and there are many other romance-focused conferences. And there's a culture of experimentation and sharing within the community. You find that romance authors are really great about supporting one another, sharing what works, what doesn't work, it's something that we don't see as much in some of the other genres. For a deeper dive on romance and the subcategories of romance that perform the best, download the complete survey over at the show notes.

So let's look at social media. Does social media have an impact on sales? In the Smashwords Survey, we can't measure an author's social media activity, but we do have the ability to measure the author's social media presence, because when authors set up an account at Smashwords, we allow you to enter in your Facebook address, your Twitter address, and the address for your website or blog.

So one of the questions that we asked of the data this year is, do authors who have a social media presence sell better? We looked at all of our bestsellers, among our top 10,000 bestsellers. We chunked the bestsellers into different bestseller bands so we could look at the top 1000 bestsellers, then the next 1000 bestsellers, then the next, all the way down to the 9,000 through 10,000 band. And what we find is that among the top 1000 bestsellers, there's a much higher social media adoption rate than among the poor sellers down at 10,000.

Close to 75% of the top 1000 bestsellers have a website or a blog versus 60% for authors in the lower band, where they sell very little. Over 60% of the bestselling authors are on Facebook and on Twitter, compared to only 45% for the poorer selling authors. What we see here is an indication of much higher participation on social media among the bestsellers. The findings here are interesting.

It would make sense that the authors that are active on social media, or at least have a social media presence, are more engaged in the marketing of their books, more engaged with their readers, more likely to be out there promoting their books. So if you're listening to this podcast and you're not on social media, this is a clue that you will get some advantage if you get out there and engage with people.

Now let's look at box sets. In the Best Practices episode, I recommended box sets as one of those best practices. We've got over 4700 box sets at Smashwords. There are two common forms of box sets: there's the single author box set, where the author will usually combine multiple books, like a full series, into the set and then sell it as a value bundle. The second form of box set is the multi-author box set.

This is where multiple authors contribute a single book into the bundle, and then the authors use the box set as a collaborative marketing opportunity, or to raise funds for charity. The top two bestselling box sets during the survey period were both romance, and both of them were issued by New York Times bestselling authors. The #1 best-selling box set was Honeymoon from Hell Box Set 1, by R.L. Mathewson. She priced the book at $4.99. It was 141,000 words, and it included six short novellas. If these novellas had been purchased individually, it would have cost the reader $5.94.

So R.L. Mathewson offered this box set at a 16% discount. So that's a nice deal for readers who are willing to commit to purchase the entire series all at once. The second best-selling box set was the Burg Series by author Kristen Ashley. She actually had the #1 bestselling box set in the prior year's survey. Her box set was priced at $17.95. It included six books, and these six books combined came to 1.2 million words. If these books were to have been purchased individually by the reader, it would have cost the reader $24.

So the reader saved about 25%, so that's a nice discount for making a large commitment to acquire the entire series all at once. When we look at the top 30 bestselling box sets at Smashwords during the survey period, all of them were single author box sets. Among the top 50 highest-earning box sets during the survey period, 90% were single author, and only 10% multi-author. The average price was $7.43 of these top 50 bestsellers. The average word count was about 316,000 words.

When we look at the top 50 box sets with the most unit downloads, and this is a measure of which box sets reached the most readers, 90% were single author, and 10% were multi-author, similar to the bestsellers. Almost half are priced at free, so 23 of those top 50 were priced at free. If we exclude free, the average price for these box sets was $5.37. Box sets are generally not big money makers. Only three of our top 100 bestselling titles overall in all categories at Smashwords during the survey period were box sets.

So only 3% of our bestsellers were box sets, and all were single author, and all were romance. Although box sets generally aren't big money makers, they're other compelling reasons to do them. Box sets are a great way to amplify your readership. They're a great way to make your series books more affordable to a broader swath of the reading audience. And they also appear to be one of the habits of the most successful authors. When we look at our top 100 bestselling authors at Smashwords, 65% of them have participated in a box set. And as the sales rank declines, we see a market decline in box set participation. What this tells me is that box set authors are getting indirect benefit from their box set participation.

Now let's talk about pricing. As you learned in Episode Three on Best Practices, each time you sell a book, you gain a reader and you gain a royalty. If your longterm strategy is to cultivate the largest, most loyal readership possible, then in the short term, optimize your pricing strategy to drive more unit sales rather than to maximize earnings. However, if you want to maximize readership and earnings at the same time, that's fine. The findings that I'm about to share with you will help.

So my first question here is at what price can you generate the most readership? At what price are you going to move the most units? And the answer to that question is free. Books that are priced at free, on average, get about 33 times more downloads then books at any other price based on the data from the Smashwords Survey. Free is a powerful platform builder. By pricing your book at free, you make it easy for new readers to take a chance on you, an author that they never tried before.

In the 2017 Smashwords Survey, which you can download at the show notes, you'll see various pricing charts. We show a chart of the most common price points for indie author eBooks. This chart is useful if you want to understand what does your competition look like at different price points. Where are authors pricing? And what we found is 299 is the most common price point for indie authors. If you want to maximize your unit sales and you've got a price on your book other than free, so $.99 and up, we've got a chart for that as well.

We found that the top for price points, other than free, that maximize unit sales were, in order, $3.99, $4.99, $.99, and $2.99. So those are the sweet spots if you want to have a price on your book, and you want to maximize unit downloads. If you want to maximize earnings, the top four price points for maximizing earnings were, in order, $4.99, $9.99, and $3.99. Let me share a couple of comments here. This is the first year, in several years, where $4.99 was one of the top sweet spots.

What this tells me is that many authors that started at $2.99 or $3.99 and built their audiences at those price points are now starting to price higher, and their readers are following them. That's really good news. $9.99 was popular, but I wouldn't recommend it as a price for most indie authors. I think, in our data for this survey, for this year, I think our $9.99 results were skewed by one enormously successful series that was later acquired by a large traditional publisher, that was priced at $9.99.

But the other price point, $3.99, $3.99 has been the sweet spot for maximizing earnings for the last couple of years. So if you're a successful indie author and you've already built some readership, I think you should be looking at $3.99, $4.99 for full-length fiction. If you're writing non-fiction, you should definitely price higher. Non-fiction customers expect to pay more. There's perceived value in that higher price, so you should be looking at $7.99 to $9.99 if you're writing full-length non-fiction.

The worst price for your eBook, both in terms of downloads and earnings, is $1.99, and this has been consistent now for all six Smashwords Surveys. $1.99 is a black hole. I can almost promise you that if you write full-length fiction and your book is priced at $1.99, if you increase the price to $2.99, you're probably going to sell more units. Now I don't know exactly why readers hate the $1.99 price. I don't have an answer for that. I can only speculate.

Another takeaway from this data is that if you've already been successful building readership at $2.99, you might want to start experimenting with $3.99 or $4.99, because it's not a big price increase once your readers already know you, and once they trust you. It's still a tremendous deal for a book, to be able to get a great book, a great full-length book for $3.99 or $4.99. And on the topic of pricing, now let's look at box sets. The most common price point for box sets is $4.99.

Other than free, the price point that gets the most unit downloads for box sets is $.99. That's a really popular price with readers. As you might expect, we find that as the word count for the box set increases, the average price increases, and you'll find a chart when you download the survey. The price that maximizes earnings for box sets, we found, is $9.99. Here's an example: I mentioned earlier how just because the bestselling authors are at a certain price point doesn't mean it necessarily applies to you.

This is a great example where earlier I mentioned that R.L. Mathewson priced at $4.99 was the #1 highest-earning bestselling box set author, and Kristen Ashley was the #2 bestselling author at $17.95. Neither of these were pricing at what I'm telling you was the sweet spot for our survey. So this is just another reminder that your book is unique, and just because I'm saying $9.99 was the sweet spot, the highest-earning price point on average for most of the box set authors, doesn't mean it applies to you.

You've got to take a lot of other things into consideration, like the loyalty of your readership, the product that you're offering to the readers, how many books, how many words do you have bundled in that box set, what are your goals with that box set. If you're looking to maximize readership of the box set, then price lower. If you're looking to offer your readers a value-priced bundle, but still earn reasonable money, consider pricing at 15-25% less than the value of the parts.

The next topic, does length matter? In each of the last five years of the Smashwords Survey, we've found strong evidence that longer books sold better. Even though this was the complete opposite of what I expected when I first founded Smashwords 10 years ago. So the findings for this sixth annual Smashwords Survey further solidify my confidence that what we're looking at here is a universal truth. Longer books sell better. Readers of eBooks, buyers of eBooks prefer longer books.

Our top 1,000 bestselling authors had an average word count of 103,000 words. And as the word count drops, the sales rank drops. Remember what I mentioned at the beginning of this episode about the nature of the power law curve. If you've got bestselling books selling more than 100 times more than what the #10,000 ranked book is selling, you're wiser to emulate the characteristics of the bestselling books, and the best practices of the bestselling authors, as opposed to emulating the characteristics of the poor sellers.

Let's turn our attention to preorders. As you'll recall, we dedicated all of Episode Four to preorders. So here, I'll keep my comments brief and we'll focus on some of the highlights. During the Smashwords Survey period, only 12.2% of the books that were released were released as preorders, and this was up from 11.7% in the prior year's survey. These are really low numbers. This means that over 85% of indie authors are not releasing their books as preorders. Yet we found that this small minority of books being released as preorders accounted for the lion's share of author earnings during the survey period.

61 of our top 100 bestselling highest-earning titles that were released during the survey period were released as a preorder. When we step back and we look at our top 10,000 bestselling titles at Smashwords, we find that of the top 1000 bestsellers, 45% of them were released as preorders, and as we move down in sales rank, the percentage that were released as preorders decline significantly. If we look at that bottom band of the authors that are ranked 9000-10,000, only 18% of their books were released as preorders.

As I mentioned in Episode Four on preorders, 2017 was the first year that the Smashwords Survey took a look at preordered adoption rates among the different genres and categories. We also analyzed the performance of those books to understand what percentage of the releases during the survey period in each category went to the preorder books, and what percentage went to the books that were just uploaded the day of release. This is where the data got really interesting.

Let's review some of the different genres and categories. I'll share the preorder adoption rate, and then I'll share what percent of that category's sales went to books that were released as preorders in that category. So here we go. Romance, 25% of romance titles were released as preorders during the survey period. That small 25%, one in four titles released as romance, earned 72% of all sales for the romance category for new books released during that period.

Almost three quarters of the sales for new books in romance went to the 25% of books that were released as preorders. In fantasy, 19% were released as a preorder, yet that small 19% captured 59% of the category sales for the year. In mystery and detective, 18% released as a preorder capturing 69% of the category's sales. In YA and teen fiction, 25% released as a preorder capturing 82% of that category's sales. Here's the takeaway from that data: young adults, the future of reading, love eBook preorders.

In gay and lesbian fiction, 36% released as preorders. In fact, gay and lesbian fiction authors have among the highest preorder adoption rates of any genres. Of the 36% released as preorders in gay and lesbian fiction, it captured close to 50% of overall sales for the category. In science fiction, 15% released as a preorder capturing 43% of the category's sales. In thrillers and suspense, 18% released as a preorder capturing 41% of the category's sales. In non-fiction, specifically in biographies, 11% of those books were released as preorders, capturing 38% of the category's sales.

That's pretty amazing. And then in historical fiction, 25% released as preorders capturing 63% of the category's sales for the year. I think the data we uncovered this year in the survey on preorders is absolutely stunning. The vast majority of indie authors are not taking advantage of preorders, yet the minority of indie authors who do take advantage of the preorders are vacuuming up all of the sales. So if you take away just one thing from this episode, I want you to remember that every book that you release from this day forward needs to be released as a preorder.

This is one of the most important best practices, and it's the most underutilized best practice, which means you have a chance here to gain incremental advantage, a chance to gain tremendous competitive advantage in the marketplace over every other author. Five or 10 years from now, when the entire indie author community recognizes that preorders are an essential best practice, then everyone will be doing preorders, and while they'll still be important and valuable then, you won't get the same impact.

We're at preorders today where we were eight years ago, when I first started recommending to authors that they should be pricing their series starters at free. Back then, free eBooks were getting over 100 times more downloads than books at a single price. So what you're going to see in the years ahead is that the effectiveness of preorders will decline even though they'll remain important. If you want to capture most of the benefit, and the greatest benefit, do it now.

Now let's turn our attention to series. Of the top 100 bestselling series at Smashwords, 67 of those series had a free series starter, so that's two thirds. Two thirds of the top 100 bestselling series had a free series starter. Of the top 100 bestselling series, 58 of those series had new releases during the survey period. This is an interesting statistic, because that means that 42% of the top 100 bestselling series during the survey period didn't have a single release during the survey.

I think this speaks to the staying power of series. The average word count for all the books within the top 100 bestselling series came to 97,000 words. We see here that the longer books are performing well. When you download the PowerPoint for the survey, you'll find that I've got another chart in here that illustrates the performance of series overlaid on the power curve. So we look at the power curve for the top 200 bestselling series, and what we find is that the #1 bestselling series sold 17 times more than #200, and I can tell you #200 performed really well.

As I analyze the data for the Smashwords Survey, I ask questions of the data, and one of the questions I asked was, "Are bestsellers more likely to come from a series?" So I looked at the top 10,000 bestselling titles at Smashwords, so this is both stand alone titles and series titles. The top 10,000 bestsellers organized into the bands, so the top 1,000 then the next 1000 and the next 1000, all the way down to that lowest band of 9,000-10,000, and remember again, you don't want to have the book that was ranked #10,000. That book's not selling very much.

So we look at the top 1,000 bestselling titles at Smashwords, 72% of them were attached to a series. When we look at that lowest band in the 10,000 range, only 37% of their books were attached to series. Series books are dominating the bestseller lists, and as a book lands lower in sales rank, the probability of that book not being attached to a series increases. Another fun finding from the survey this year is we looked at the impact of the series starter price on overall series earnings.

We looked at it from an angle that we've never looked at it before. They took the top 100 bestselling series organized by series starter price. So the top 100 bestselling series that had a free series starter, the top 100 bestselling series that had a series starter priced at $.99, and the top 100 at $1.99, top 100 at $2.99, etcetera, all the way to $9.99. And then I added up the sales of each of these cohorts, each of these groups, and then compared them against one another. And the findings were really interesting.

What I found is that the cohort with the free series starters earned three to five times more than series that had a series starter priced at $2.99, $3.99, and $4.99. So definitely download the presentation so you can take a closer look at this chart, but again, I think it's more evidence that this is approaching a universal truth. Series with free series starters perform better. Understand that every book, every series, is different. Your results may vary. But if you've never tried a free series starter on your series, now would be a good time to just experiment.

That's one of the great things about being an indie author is you can change the price of any of your books at any time. Let's look closer at this question of, "Do series with free series starters really earn more sales?" In this example, what we did is we created two cohorts: we looked at the top 100 highest-earning series that had a free series starter, and then we looked at all of the other series that did not have a free series starter. So independent of what the series starter price was, whether it was $.99 or higher, we combined them altogether, totaled the overall sales for the free series starter group and the group that had a price series starter, and compared them.

This is an analysis that we've now done for three years of the Smashwords Survey, so when you download the prior years' surveys, you can see how the results compare. And what you'll find is the results are generally very consistent. What we found here is that series with a free series starter, on average, earned 55% more than the group that did not have the free series starter. Because averages are dangerous and a few bestselling titles can really skew the average, we also looked at the median result.

So we arranged in each of those groups, from bestseller down to poorest seller of the top 100, and then we took the midpoint, and then we compared those two midpoints. So the midpoint for the free series starter group, and the midpoint for the non-free series starter group, and we found a similar result: the free series starter group had a median that was 49.7% higher, so about 50% higher. So the takeaway here is that if you're an author that's already performing well, there's a good chance, on average, you might increase your sales by 50% just by simply making your series starter free.

If we step back a second, I can tell you over the last eight years, I've lost track of the number of times I've seen successful authors, and moderately successful authors, simply change the series starter to free, and it catapult them into the bestseller lists. And if that happens for you, that's a life-changing event. So give it a try. The next question that we asked related to series is do individual series titles earn more than stand alone books? So this is a good question if you're an author and you're trying to decide, "Should I write another stand alone book, or should I write a sequel to an existing book?

And if you're leaning toward writing the sequel, if you're leaning towards writing a series, then this is helpful data. We looked at all of the new book releases during the survey period. We added up all of the sales of the series titles, and then we added up all of the sales of the non-series titles, and then we averaged them. And what we found is that the series titles on average earned almost four times more sales. That's pretty crazy. Performed four times better on average.

And then here again, we looked at the median, because a couple of really big authors can skew the average. And what we found is that the median showed a 43% increase for series compared to the non-series books. So that's really the more reliable number that I would look at. Series books perform great. There are a lot of reasons for that. Once the reader invests the 10, 12, 25 hours necessary to read your series starter, if you've hooked them by that point, the reader's invested in your story, they're invested in your characters, they've spent time with you, they've spent time with your writing, they've learned to love your writing style, to love your storytelling capabilities.

They're invested in the story. They want to know what happens next, so that reader is more likely to want to read the next book that's connected to the story they just finished. That's why series perform so well. The other reason I think series perform really well is because you've got the ability to price that series starter at free, as we've talked about quite a bit now. When you're writing just stand alone books, you can still take advantage of free, but the reader is not as compelled to read a different book than to read a book that's a continuation of the book they just finished.

We're going to look at one more question before we wrap up this episode on the Smashwords Survey. This question was a whimsical fun one. I wanted to know, do books with shorter titles sell better or worse? I looked at the top 10,000 bestselling titles at Smashwords, and then I calculated the character count of their titles, so how many characters. And what we found this year, I think as pretty compelling evidence, that shorter titles sell more books. What we've found is the top 1000 best-selling titles at Smashwords had an average character count of 27.7 characters.

And when we look at this chart of the top 1,000, and again this is organized in bands of 1000 sales rank, the chart steadily increases in character count as the sales rank drops. The books that are ranked in that 9,000-10,000 rank, so those are the books that are at the bottom of the barrel, have 35.5 characters in their titles on average, versus 27.7 for the top 1000. Now you may say, "That's only a difference of eight characters." From from a percentage point of view, it's about a 25% increase in character count.

So why is it that shorter titles might help you sell more books? My theory here, and this is only a guess, but if we go back to the discussion that we had in Episode Three on best practices, we were talking about cover design, how words and images are symbols for meaning. So a word is a symbol just like an image is a symbol. Words represent things. But there's a higher cognitive load for the human brain to process the meaning behind words, and we talked about how your objective as an author, as you're out there marketing your books, is that you want to form the closest, most efficient possible connection between the reader's aspirations and your book's ability to satisfy those aspirations.

So this is a communications challenge. The reader is visiting an online bookstore, their senses are assaulted by thousands, millions of other books. And so which books are going to jump off of that page to them first? The books that jump off the page to them first are the ones that most efficiently convey the message to the reader that this book is for them. So that's why I think the shorter titles sell better. I could be completely wrong, it might be for a completely different reason.

Maybe the only reason that shorter titles are selling better is that the most successful authors like shorter titles. There might be other reasons. In fact, it's fair to say that now that we're at the end of this episode, I've shared my analysis on the findings. It's perfectly possible that in many instances, in fact it's likely that my analysis is only touching on one aspect of the reason some of these characteristics are traveling in the same orbit as successful authors and successful books.

And there's a very good chance that as you sift through the data that we share in the survey on your own, you might have insights that I didn't have, and that's great, I expect that. And your ability to interpret the numbers in ways that other authors may not might make the difference between you getting more out of this data than someone else. We're near the end of this episode, let's summarize some of the key takeaways of this episode on the Smashwords Survey.

One of the biggest things is to remember the nature of the power law curve. The power law curve is a universal truth. It describes how there are always very few bestsellers, and then a lot of books that don't sell very well. It describes how you increase in sales rank, your sales increase exponentially, and it describes your opportunity to implement best practices so that you can gain an incremental advantage in the marketplace, so your books can become more visible and more desirable to readers.

And as you climb in sales rank, you spark this virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle of greater visibility leading to greater sales leading to more sales and more visibility. But it all comes back to best practices. So what are some of the best practices that we've talked about in the survey? #1, preorders. Preorders, preorders, preorders. Preorder books are capturing most of each category's sales in a given year. So if you're not releasing your book as a preorder, you're leaving readers on the table, you're leaving money on the table, you are doing your career a disservice if you're not incorporating preorders into your release strategy.

Free. Free remains a powerful marketing tool for building readership. Especially if you write series, use a permanently free series starter, and if you don't write series, hopefully you're writing multiple books. I think you should always have at least one of your titles priced at free so that can act as the chum in the water that attracts readers, exposes your author brand to more readers, helps more readers discover your authorial brilliance, and to help you drive more readers into your other books.

And then book length. Longer books sell better, this is a universal truth, but don't take this data point and say, "Okay, my book's 80,000, I'm going to pat it with an extra 50,000 words." Don't do that. Write your book to the length that your story, or that your book, requires. But what this does mean is if you've written the book that you're happy with and it comes out at 150,000 words, then that's the right word count for your book, even though people in the traditional publishing industry will tell you you're crazy.

Earlier in this episode, I mentioned Kristen Ashley. I've lost track of the number of times she's hit the New York Times Bestseller List. Her books tend to run over 150,000 words. She's had tremendous success with longer books. If you can combine long books with awesome writing, then you have a chance of pleasing your readers more than the next author. Series. Series books have the potential to earn quite a bit more than stand alone books on average. But if you have a passion for writing stand alone books, and you don't have a passion for writing series, then I don't want you to write series.

Always write what you have passion for, because that's how you're going to produce the best possible book. On the pricing front, I think the big takeaway this year is that $4.99 has joined $2.99 and $3.99 as a sweet spot for full length indie fiction. This is really great news for indie authors. There's been a lot of concern over the last decade that eBooks would lead to devaluation, that readers would no longer want to pay for books, and that books would start becoming free and then authors couldn't make any money.

What I see in this data is that the authors who've built loyal audiences have pricing power. They have the ability to increase their prices. So if you're performing well at $2.99 or $3.99, experiment with $4.99. If it doesn't work, no harm, you can put the price back to what works. The good news is that readers will pay for great books. Box sets, the most successful authors are doing box sets, but the benefit of those box sets is indirect. They're doing multi-author box sets to grow their readership, even though these box sets are not direct money makers.

They're doing single author box sets not because they're huge money makers, but because it's an opportunity to grow your readership by offering a value price bundle. It makes your books more accessible and more affordable to a segment of your target audience. And then finally, remember that data-driven publishing decisions are irrelevant without a great book. That's your most important mission, is to write that super awesome book that takes the reader to an emotionally satisfying extreme.

A lot of what we're talking about in the Smashwords Survey, as I mentioned in the introduction, it's external to the book. It's like the packaging of the book, if you think about it. It's external to your story, it's external to your writing style, it's external to your writing talent. So if you don't have a great book, then all this other stuff we're talking about won't make a big difference. Remember that your book is immortal. You have the opportunity to experiment, to iterate your best practices, try different things, find what works, what doesn't work. You have the ability to evolve your book and your meta-data, and all these externals factors over time so that you can evolve until you get the formula just right, and so that you can start connecting more effectively with readers.

If you want a refresher on best practices, you can listen to Episode Three again, or you can download my free eBook, The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success.

That concludes Episode Seven. Check out the show notes at to download the entire 2017 Smashwords Survey with all of its charts and graphs and expanded information. Also, be sure to check out the official Smart Author Podcast Facebook page, at, where you can ask questions and communicate with fellow listeners.

Give the page a like and a share, and help us spread the word. In the next episode, Episode Eight, my topic is the art of delusion. Every writer, even successful writers, will face dark days when the reasons to quit feel more sensible than the reasons to power on. In this next episode, I'll share tips on how to find the strength to power on as you pursue your dreams. Until then, keep writing. I'm Mark Coker.