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What does a self-published career look like?

July 21, 2014

Inspired by Jim C. Hines’s openness about his own writing income and Hugh Howey’s analysis of Amazon’s sales figures, I decided to do some analysis of my own books’ sales data. I got these data from Amazon’s Kindle Direct Program and Smashwords, a site that distributes e-books to just about every bookselling site that’s not Amazon. Both programs offer authors a wealth of statistics about how their books are doing.

I got into this game at the end of 2009. I aggregated all my data collected since then into the following two charts. One shows book sales per month and the other shows downloads of free books per month.

Click for full size!

Click for full size!

Click for full size!

Click for full size!

The first thing you’ll notice is that I’m not making a princely amount of money. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The next thing you’ll notice is that my books do way better on Barnes and Noble than anywhere else. This is a surprise to me, and while I don’t know exactly what’s going on, I have a few ideas.

I’ll walk you through some of the features of the figures. First of all, what happened in September of 2010? Well, I published my second novel, The Confederacy of Heaven. At the time, both The Confederacy of Heaven and Grizelda were free. (Grizelda was briefly $2.99 and I managed to sell one, which is why there’s a blip in the sales figure.) Why did I suddenly get a bunch of free downloads of both books once The Confederacy of Heaven went up? One idea I’ve got is that The Confederacy of Heaven was a hit in B&N’s free book category and pulled Grizelda up with it, all while I suspected nothing. Or maybe I signed up for Barnes and Noble distribution that month, or Smashwords added more distribution channels that month.

What happened in September of 2013? The free downloads drop off there and the sales spike up. For this one, I know what’s going on. In September 2013 I signed up with the Amazon Kindle program and switched my books from free to $3.99. It seems to be working well, but my B&N sales might be declining, just like the free downloads generally have declined since June 2011.

A couple other notes on the figure: Apple’s download data look pretty spiky because for a couple of years they would report all their downloads to Smashwords once a year in December. They started reporting once a month in 2013. My free downloads figures for Smashwords itself are underestimated because Smashwords only tells me when somebody redeems a 100% off coupon for one of my books. They don’t store data on other kinds of downloads for more than 90 days. I generally get 2 or 3 downloads of my free short stories per day.

You can see that little orange bump there when people redeemed coupons from my Kickstarter campaign.

So why do my books sell so much better on Barnes and Noble than anywhere else? I think there’s a couple of reasons. Barnes and Noble is bigger than any other channel except Amazon. And I had two novels distributed through Barnes and Noble free for a few years. This gave the books a chance to build up a stock of book reviews that convinced people to buy later on. I don’t have any free download data for Amazon because Amazon will only let you give away your book for two weeks per year, only if you agree to publish exclusively with them. But that’s a gripe for another day.

You can’t tell from these figures, but why does The Confederacy of Heaven consistently sell better than anything else, on every channel? I think it’s better than Grizelda but worse than Cannon Fodder, and it definitely has the worst cover art. But I sure appreciate the attention.

What do you guys think? Would you like to see another Confederacy of Heaven giveaway? Better cover art? Have you got any sales stats on your blog?

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