Book Sales Dismal Lately? Could Be The Big 5!

My friend (and frequent guest here) Toby Neal recently posted on her blog about flagging indie book sales. Here’s an excerpt:

“The DOJ price-fixing case with Apple and the Big 5 publishers was settled a while ago, but September was when Amazon began really discounting big name books. I get email lists of discounted books daily in my inbox, and I’ve been agog to see big names going for 2.99 or less. And in September, my sales went to half of what they’d been. They’ve stayed [there] in spite of doing active marketing, ads on Kirkus Reviews, giveaways, promos in those same lists I get in my email inbox, and launching two new books. Cheaper pricing was our advantage as indies. I predicted this would happen in this blog post. In fact I’m surprised it took this long to happen. I’ve been asking around to other indies and they’re reporting similar dismal sales.”

Read Toby’s entire post: Are Indies Getting Clobbered by Big Name E-book Discounts?

… and last week, a Facebook conversation on the subject caught my eye. The authors who participated gave me permission to post their words because I thought you’d be interested. Here’s what they had to say:

Toby-Neal_OptimizedToby Neal: I try to keep ahead of trends, and the level of discounting of big name authors by traditional publishers is unbelievable! I’m still doing okay but as you can tell from the piece, it’s challenging. What’s it been like for you?

Steena-Holmes_OptimizedSteena Holmes: I haven’t been hit yet (fingers crossed). My sales are steady, but I think it helps to be aligned with one of Amazon’s imprints.

David-Bishop_OptimizedDavid Bishop: Are sales lower? Yes. A lot? No. I agree the post-settlement market is different. I also think the wave of emails with book specials that reach readers’ inboxes daily with promo pricing is a significant part of this change in the market.

Readers (many of them, not all) have come to expect low/no cost books. Why? There are thousands of frees every days and thousands more at 99 cents. These promo low/no cost books come to them daily in their email. So, if they are trying an author with whom they are not yet familiar, why not try low/no rather than pay several dollars.

It is not an issue of what we’ve earned or should be paid. It is an issue of how consumers behave when buying anything. The underlying economic principle is: One does not pay more for ANY given item than the amount for which they can buy an equally desirable substitute. And, when a group of authors are all unknown to the consumer, and some are free/99-cents and the others are 2.99 to 4.99, taking the easy-to-acquire free/99 centers is the “equally desirable substitute” economic principle at work.

The only one who can change this is Amazon and they are, as yet, unwilling to take a couple easy steps to eliminate free and drastically reduced 99 cent books. Amazon is not ready to do this and that is their right as a business. As for the consumer, they have always acted subject to the above defined economic principle in the marketplace for all goods and services. Our challenge is creating a perception of value in our books so that the consumer does not see low/no cost books as an equally desirable substitute to our books.

However, there are still readers who enjoy the satisfaction of discovering an author with whom they were previously unfamiliar. Just keep writing good stuff!

Rachel-Thompson_OptimizedRachel Thompson: Of my 3 books, the highest priced one (at $5.99) sells by far the most, but not nearly what it did 6 months ago. I was averaging 500-800 sales a month; sales were half that in October. Like you, Toby, I do a lot of marketing and advertising (primarily Google Adwords). I agree the discounting by traditional publishers is nuts (Gone Girl is 2.99!), which to me shows a degree of desperation on the part of the Big 5 – and hey, if more work gets into readers’ hands, that’s a good thing for everyone. Hybrids are definitely affecting the market, but again, that’s a good thing for authors AND readers.

Christine-Nolfi_OptimizedChristine Nolfi: I’ve noticed a greater fluctuation in month-to-month sales; however, long term, my sales are on the rise. My backlist earns healthy royalties because readers increasingly suggest my books to their friends. Word-of-mouth endorsements from one happy reader to the next are a critical part of any publishing model.

I think we’re seeing two events happening in tandem: Rachel mentioned the first: desperation book discounts by established publishers. They now understand the indie movement has produced some damn fine storytellers. But I believe we’re also experiencing a second event. The dreamy, strike-it-rich-as-an-indie phase is ending. Many writers entered the field either because they thought this was an easy road to riches or they had one novel from the heart they felt compelled to write. Which is great, but writing one novel doesn’t make one a career novelist.

2014? I believe we’ll see increasing numbers of hybrid authors from among the career novelists, and many of the one-hit wonders will leave the field.

Toby Neal: I think generating a lot of books is also critical to long term success, and I love what Christine said about most indie authors, that’s my (unsupported by data) opinion too. I set out with the idea that my books were a business; I think you have to generate “product” and do a lot of marketing to pay the bills. That said, I’m still having a blast writing up a storm! Loving my second (or is it third?) career!

Authors, how are your sales? Readers, are you buying indie books? Are you scooping up Big Name Author’s slash-priced specials? Leave a comment and share!

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34 Responses to Book Sales Dismal Lately? Could Be The Big 5!

  1. Nicole December 9, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

    I can’t say that I’ve noticed a vast difference, sales have always taken some effort to get and this hasn’t changed for me. As a reader, I can’t say I’m more inclined to “trad” over indie. I just like a good book. I do think if this change slows the ‘get-rich-quick’ bunch of writers who spew out monthly junk (sad but true) then that’s not a bad thing. It’d be nice to see indies really motivated to improve the quality of writing – I know it’s always on my mind as an indie!

    • Molly Greene December 9, 2013 at 3:50 pm #

      Thanks, Nicole. I think we all agree that any trend that encourages indies to continually work to improve their product is a good one!

  2. Kelly O'Callan December 9, 2013 at 4:56 pm #

    Great article! It’s been fascinating to see how this market fluctuates, and all the things that influence it.

    • Molly Greene December 9, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

      I agree, Kelly. Thanks to Toby for starting the conversation!

  3. D,G,Kaye December 9, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

    Wow what an informative post on the waters I’m about to tread! As I learned on my journey through self publishing I questioned myself many times as to why the big 5 would remain stoic with higher priced books and let us Indies take the gravy, shoot, now that I’m about to publish they are starting to understand the concept :). I suppose this just evens the playing field now and like everyone said, we have to put out our best and keep it coming! 🙂

    • Molly Greene December 9, 2013 at 5:15 pm #

      Well said, Debby! As my friends mentioned, we need to write great books if we want to compete.

  4. Toby Neal December 10, 2013 at 9:04 am #

    I love how you wove this blog post together. I think we need to just press on, building relationships and writing the best books we possibly can!

    • Molly Greene December 10, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

      Thanks, Toby! I find the issue hugely interesting, since I just made a decision this year to raise all my book prices. If the Big 5 continues to discount big name back titles (which would be a good strategy, really) we might have to meet those discounted prices at some point to compete. But I’m sticking with 3.99 for now, and I agree with your philosophy – we need to produce really good books, that’s the best competition.

  5. N. Gemini Sasson December 10, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

    Hi Molly! I write historical fiction and spent the better part of two years with one or more books in the Top 100 for the genre on Amazon. My sales have dipped considerably this year, too, despite having more books out. Competition is fiercer than ever and the change has me thinking in new directions and exploring different genres. I think the lesson here is that this is a young and rapidly changing landscape. Everyone is learning to adapt.

    • Molly Greene December 10, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

      I think you’re right! Loads of new authors entering the field now, in addition to Big 5 discounting back lists to gain market share + vendors like BookBub emailing discounts daily. We’ll need to stay nimble to stay in the game.

      • N. Gemini Sasson December 10, 2013 at 4:24 pm #

        Yes, there are a lot of factors playing into it. Three years ago there were far fewer self-publishers – and traditional publishing hadn’t begun to discount. Who knows how long it will take for the business to find its groove, but you’re right – you have to stay alert and be willing to be flexible, in marketing and writing.

        • Molly Greene December 10, 2013 at 4:55 pm #

          So true. We better put on our running shoes!

  6. John December 10, 2013 at 7:49 pm #

    Gee put on running shoes… I haven’t even got my socks on yet. I don’t know if this is good news or bad for the emerging not yet published Indi. author, but I do know this from having lived a long time, when one thing contracts, another expands. Perhaps with all the new books coming in, and all the cheaper prices, there will actually be more traffic and consumers so the actual numbers in toto will rise but market share will be to those who produce not just more, but better. Regardless of price.

    I like the article Molly, it is both encouraging and frightening, always a combination to comb out the nettels.

    • Molly Greene December 11, 2013 at 4:14 pm #

      Thanks, John! Everything changes, and as we know, that’s the only constant. The competition has increased and we’ll probably have to work harder for sales, but the basic remains the same: We have to write really good books.

  7. Steve Douglass December 11, 2013 at 6:26 am #

    This is a great post. While reading it I was reminded of my career in the oil business. I worked my way down from the two largest oil companies in the world to one of the smallest: my own. It was an independent gasoline retailer, competing for customers with the giants of the industry. As gasoline surpluses developed, the Indies proliferated, and so too did their share of market. The Indies prospered by discounting, and for a very long time the Majors passively allowed them to do it. Proudly, the Majors assumed their brands were worth at least 5 cents/gallon more on the street. They were proven wrong. The indies continued to gain share of market.

    Eventually, the Majors decided to re-establish the dignity of their brands by matching Indie street pricing. Massive and prolonged gasoline price wars ensued. The results, as any intelligent reader would expect, were devasting to the Indies. There was bloodshed. Their share of market was severely compressed, many went bankrupt, and only the strong survived. Numerous Indies were acquired by Majors or by strong Indies.

    As a participant, I witnessed the entire event over my 30 years in the game. Today, only a very few truly independent gasoline retailers exist. Almost all of them are large and well capitalised. Many, appearing to be independent, are either partially or wholly owned by Majors.

    I have written this because I believe a very strong parallel exists in the publishing space. It is apparent that The Big 5 have decided to re-establish the dignity of their brands and that their strategy is to discount. It is also apparent that their strategy is working.

    For Indie authors wishing to survive, I would suggest that they do what I did as an Indie in the gasoline business: to the limit of your capital resources, upgrade your offering. One further piece of advice: do not attempt to survive by discounting. The strategy is an illusive butterfly.

    • Molly Greene December 11, 2013 at 4:17 pm #

      Thanks, Steve. I agree, discounting backlist titles is a superb Big 5 strategy – after all, that’s what put indies on the map. Now we’ll have to meet them in product quality because that’s where many self-publishers have been weak.

    • Toby Neal December 14, 2013 at 6:18 pm #

      Thanks so much for sharing this great story Steve, I’m impressed with it and with your advice!

    • Christine Nolfi December 16, 2013 at 7:49 am #

      Thanks for sharing, Steve. Like Big Oil, telecommunications witnessed the same upheavals in the 1980s. Remember the breakup of Ma Bell?

      With regard to discounting as an illusive strategy, I don’t fully agree. Many indie authors have successfully built a readership for a series by offering the first release at a discount–or free. In 2014 I’ll do something similar with my Liberty Series by publishing a novella depicting two of the major characters. The story will be set before the happenings in Second Chance Grill and Treasure Me–perhaps decades earlier. I plan the same strategy with my next series, which will be set in South Carolina.

      However, I do agree that as indies we can’t gain tractor if we attempt to build a business model on constant discounting.

      • Steve Douglass December 16, 2013 at 9:04 am #


        You are correct. I should have been more specific about the discounting strategy. Your case refers to the loss leader strategy, to which I fully subscribe. In my years in the gasoline game I was very successful at offering a free car wash will every fill up over a certain volume. I was able to do that because I had that combination on a number of my properties. Similarly, as the author of a series, you are in the position to prime the pump by discounting the first volume.

        The illusive butterfly, to which I referred in my original post, is the flawed strategy of offering permanent discounts. It was a recipe for disaster in the gasoline retailing business, and I’m virtually certain it is in the book selling busness. The arithmetic worked for the first movers in previous years, but now it’s no longer unique. Sadly, a large number of Indie authors have adopted this strategy. The market appears to be flooded with offerings in the $0.00 to $0.99 price range. The category has been severely diluted.

        I suspect that among the survivors of the current situation will be authors with multiple offerings, such as yours.

        • Christine Nolfi December 16, 2013 at 9:52 am #

          Steve, I agree wholeheartedly–loss leader is a tried-and-true model in many businesses and some indie authors don’t appear to fully understand that they can’t survive on discounts. I can’t imagine how anyone makes a living wage as a writer with constant freebies and 99-cent deals.

          That said, it’s also clear some writers aren’t concerned with earning a living. Last weekend I was chatting with a new indie author and he said, “I don’t care about price. I just want my books read.” This is where commerce merges with art. I believe we’ll continue to see discounting as writers produce that one “book of the heart” for the simple delight of reaching publication and a select readership.

  8. Barry Knister December 11, 2013 at 6:28 am #

    I’m not yet fortunate enough to have the problem you raise, but I will say this: after sampling some of the freebies and $.99, books on offer, I am guessing it won’t be long before people come to know the truth in the saying, “You get what you pay for.” Giving away books, or selling them for next to nothing can have just two explanations: the books aren’t worth a fair price, or they’re being used to market other books by the author that ARE fairly priced. Otherwise, giving away something worth reading–and therefore paying for–makes no sense. At least not to me.

    • Molly Greene December 11, 2013 at 4:21 pm #

      I agree, Barry. Almost all retailers employ the loss-leader strategy of discounting one product in hopes customers will buy others. There’s no harm in that in my opinion, it’s a common enough strategy. But I wonder if consumers are getting a bad taste in their mouths about the quality of many cheap indie books? That’s what will have to change, and that’s what persistent self-publishers who want to make a living will have to do, just like many other commenters here have noted: Up the quality of the product they offer.

  9. Amish Author Sicily Yoder December 14, 2013 at 9:15 am #

    I write full-time, and I have seen that this Christmas season has been the slowest since 2004. I write Amish Christian Romances and Cookbooks. My genre is flooded, and the newer books are .99 cents. I pay editors and give free books to a Proofing Team now, so I can’t afford to sell my books cheap unless they aren’t edited. Readers want .99 cent books and don’t understand how expensive and time-consuming editing and revisions are. I finally explained this for a bad review I got today.
    I was doing $200 a day, but I have dropped to $148 a day this month. I am very disappointed because I paid to advertise on Storyfinds for their Theme Week as well as a day ad. I also marketed heavily on social media like I always do.

    • Molly Greene December 14, 2013 at 11:53 am #

      SO sorry to hear your reduction in revenue. As most of the authors in this article report, it’s happening to them, as well.

  10. Dan Erickson December 14, 2013 at 9:30 pm #

    As a self-pubbed author I’ve never had many sales, but it’s been even more difficult lately. I’ve been watching the trend of dropping ebook prices. It’s a bit concerning, but it also seems to be the market.

  11. sessha batto December 15, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

    Sales on Amazon have tanked, true, but sales at all the other outlets have picked up so it works out about the same. Getting into a lot of the smaller ebook stores seems to be the best way to combat the vagaries of Amazon price cuts.

    • Molly Greene December 16, 2013 at 10:58 am #

      Interesting point, Sessha. Many authors sell exclusively on Amazon so won’t have experienced a bump someplace else.

  12. Lawrence Grodecki December 15, 2013 at 5:10 pm #

    One thing I never hear mentioned is the impact of storing so many books on an e-reader. If a large number of readers are kind of hording up on books, often based on price, sooner or later that has to take a toll. It can become a hangover from both impulse buying and the kind of marketing that feeds it.

    • Molly Greene December 16, 2013 at 11:00 am #

      Thanks, Lawrence! Free ebook hoarding may be one of the reasons BookBub promotions aren’t working as well as they have in the past. Readers have enough books to last for years, so why buy or download more?

      • Lawrence Grodecki December 16, 2013 at 11:25 am #

        Exactly, although I have no solid idea how big an issue this is, there certainly are signs. I’ve come across enough readers with tons of books on their readers and my guess many will never be read. In a way this backlog also becomes competition.

        As for pricing, it really is a Catch-22. One of the most important questions I learned in business school was, “Who controls the channels of distribution?” The book industry is a classic example of a struggle for that control, and pricing is a key strategic tool.

        Collectively “we” are training the market in terms of pricing, and these days it is pretty much impossible to establish any meaningful price/ quality formulation . . . and pricing is always psychological, mostly irrational.

        Buyer behavior becomes a lot more rational when a reader knows an author’s work well and there is more room for price flexibility.

        Then again, there are so many more quality writers out there. Through my own pseudo-scientific research, my estimate is that there are about 5,000 to 6,000 high quality works out there in the indie world in any given year. By that I mean a savvy publisher would be wise to sign them up.

        However, that totally screws up the business model of those who traditionally control the channels of distribution. They’re in a Catch-22 situation as much as indie authors are.

        Part of the individual author’s sales decline may also be tied to a dispersion and increased awareness of more and more of these 5-6,000 books/ authors. In other words, avid readers may have an increasingly broad range of loyalty.

        That’s enough marketing musing for now!

        The only thing I’d like to add is that for any business person, marketing research can be a very valuable resource. Indie authors really don’t have access to that, and it is sorely missing in the industry, unless you have a ton of money to commission your own, and it becomes a highly guarded secret.

  13. BC Brown December 27, 2013 at 1:50 pm #

    Great article. Thanks.

    I have noticed a drop off in sales. While my numbers are not large, they typically remain steady. I began noticing the decline in October and it has continued through the end of the year.

    Some, I’m sure, was due to a drop in my marketing. (I moved 2100 miles across the country and something had to give in my time demands. Promotion was part of it.) But I also think it’s due to the Big 5 titles dropping in price.

    Second, where on Facebook did this conversation take place? It sounds like a great group for industry discussion and I’d like to be a part of it. 🙂

    • Molly Greene December 27, 2013 at 2:01 pm #

      Thanks, BC. Judging by the replies, almost everyone noticed a slow-down the past few months. As for the FB convo, it was an unofficial talk among a few authors and not a regular thing. Although making it a regular occurrence sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it?

  14. Martin Lake February 2, 2014 at 12:50 am #

    My sales have gone up, for two reasons. The first is I changed the cover of the first novel in my ‘The Lost King’ series. Then, just before Christmas, I discounted it to 99 cents.

    The increase has naturally been most on the discounted novel but it has also spun over to the two other novels in this series and my other books.

    But I’m still keeping my fingers crossed concerning sales.

    • Molly Greene February 2, 2014 at 1:13 pm #

      Congrats, Martin! I think you’ve found the secret: try lots of different things. Best to you on your book sales!