Kindle Books - Big Publishing Bites Back

Forget all that's been said about big publishing (BP) and amazon not getting on too well after the Big Six failed to take part in KDP Select. BP is back on Kindle, big time!

Just take a look at the Kindle US Top 100 Charts. Six months ago you would have found many indie and self published titles there. Now there are almost none. BP is dominant.

For brevity, here's the Top 50 at 31st March:

Hunger Games book cover image

1. The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins $5.00

2. Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games) Suzanne Collins $7.70

3. Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games) Suzanne Collins $7.14

4. Fifty Shades of Grey: Book One of the Fifty Shades Trilogy E L James $9.99

5. The Hunger Games Trilogy Suzanne Collins $18.99

6. Fifty Shades Darker: Book Two of the Fifty Shades Trilogy E L James $9.99

7. Borrowed Time CJ Lyons $4.99

8. Fifty Shades Freed: Book Three of the Fifty Shades Trilogy E L James $9.99

9. The Lucky One Nicholas Sparks $7.99

10. On the Island Tracey Garvis-Graves $2.99

11. Guilty Wives James Patterson, David Ellis $14.99

12. The Crossroads Cafe Deborah Smith $1.99

13. Defending Jacob: A Novel William Landay $12.99

14. Lover Reborn: A Novel of the Black Dagger Brotherhood J.R. Ward $14.99

15. Stay Close Harlan Coben $14.99

16. The Marriage Bargain (Marriage to a Billionaire) Jennifer Probst $2.99

17. The Past Came Hunting Donnell Bell $1.99

18. The Lion, the Lamb, the Hunted: A Psychological Thriller Andrew E. Kaufman $2.99

19. Betrayal Danielle Steel $13.99

20. A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One George R.R. Martin $8.99

21. Loving (Bailey Flanigan Series) Karen Kingsbury $9.99

22. Victims: An Alex Delaware Novel Jonathan Kellerman $12.99

23. A Dangerous Talent (An Alix London Mystery) Aaron Elkins, Charlotte Elkins $4.99

24. Anathem Neal Stephenson $1.99

25. Lone Wolf Jodi Picoult $12.99

26. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest: Book 3 of the Millennium Trilogy (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard) Stieg Larsson, Reg Keeland $9.99

27. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Book 1 of the Millennium Trilogy Stieg Larsson, Reg Keeland $9.99

28. The Girl Who Played with Fire (Millennium Trilogy, Book 2) Stieg Larsson, Reg Keeland $9.99

29. The Last Boyfriend: Book Two of the Inn BoonsBoro Trilogy Nora Roberts $9.99

30. Private Games James Patterson, Mark Sullivan $12.99

31. I've Got Your Number: A Novel Sophie Kinsella $12.99

34. The Girl Who Came Home - A Titanic Novel Hazel Gaynor $0.99

35. George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones 4-Book Bundle: A Song of Ice and Fire Series: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings,... George R.R. Martin $29.99

36. Calico Joe John Grisham $12.99

37. Kill Shot (Mitch Rapp) Vince Flynn $12.99

38. The Help: Movie Tie-In Kathryn Stockett $9.99

39. The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking) Patrick Ness $6.99

40. Basic Training (Kindle Single) Kurt Vonnegut $1.99

41. A Dance with Dragons: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book Five George R.R. Martin $14.99

42. A Clash of Kings: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book Two George R.R. Martin $8.99

43. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: A Novel Jonathan Safran Foer $7.03

44. No Way Out Joel Goldman $1.99

45. The Expats: A Novel Chris Pavone $12.99

46. 11/22/63 Stephen King $14.99

47. Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West Blaine Harden $12.99

48. A Perfect Storm (The Edge of Honor) Lori Foster $6.39

49. Breaking The Rules Barbara Samuel, Ruth Wind $2.99

50. Divergent Veronica Roth $9.99

The argument was that since the big publishers couldn't make KDP Select pay at the maximum price set by amazon, they would be excluded. Indies could fill the gap. But as the above chart shows BP didn't need Select. It's come to dominate sales on Kindle without it.

Why do the chart positions matter? Well, the graph of books sold against Kindle chart position is one half of a bell curve. In the Top 10, sales are of the order of 1,000s per day or higher. In the lower reaches of the Top 100, that number is 100s per day. Below that and into the lower reaches of the Top 5000, think in terms of 10s per day.

sales rank vs sales graph

Not good reading if you're an indie author. I can count only 6 titles that are self published with amazon or pubished by small publishers. The indie heroes of not so long ago are all gone.

And take a look at the pricing. $8.99 or $9.99 is almost a norm. $14.99 is becoming less uncommon. While in the very recent past, Steig Larsson's trilogy was having to be sold at $3.99 or $4.99 to hold its own against the pressure of cheaper indie books, now its publisher is asking its preferred price of $9.99 and getting it.

It's a big turnaround. Readers appear to have accepted the proposition that they should pay as much as they would pay for a paperback version of the book if it is a title that they want.

Meanwhile, what about the self published and indie sector? The situation is not yet bad, but it's nowhere near as good as many indie authors think it is or could be.

While KDP Select has given much needed publicity to books that have deserved to see the light of day, it has reinforced the idea in readers' minds that indie books are either available for free or at a very low price. As one reader replied to me in discussion forum: 'I don't see why anyone pays for kindle books; I just wait for them to come round as free.'

And, indeed, there is now a mini industry around alerting readers to the hundreds of indie kindle books that are made available for free each day. Sites like 'E-Reader News Today', 'Pixel of Ink' and many others email subscribers daily with lists of free books. Subscribers post on the Facebook pages of these sites how happy they are with their free books and how they'll never have to pay for a book again.

What does the indie author get out of this? Well, in the short term KDP Select is beneficial. Your title gets much neded publicity. Your book is placed in the hands of many thousands of readers. (Of course, that doesn't mean that it's necessarily read that many times!). And there is a very welcome 'bump' in paid for sales once the title returns to paid for status, bringing much needed income. But in almost every case, a 'bump' in sales is what it is and within 7-10 days at most, the title returns to somewhere close to its former position.

And the danger is that in taking these short term benefits, indie authors are playing into the hands of BP. Indie books are free or very cheap. BP books command a much higher price and because of that they must be better.

In one sense, there's something for everyone here. Amazon helps indie and self publishers to find an audience and gives a little pay for providing the bargain basement deals that crerate a buzz around their Kindle business. It's hard to see this as much more than a popular loss leader for them. Where the real revenue is being made is in shifting the sales of the high value BP books out of the normal retail outlets and onto Kindle. BP is helped since it has now found a way of overcoming the threat posed by newcomers in digital publishing, a threat it was supposed to be unable to meet. And, of course, BP has found a way of getting the full price for a digital product that involves no printing, paper or distribution costs.

And the indie author in the long term? Well, that's an open question but from the above it really does look as if the terrain is becoming far less open to newcomers who want to make a profession out of writing via the self publishing route.

The reason? Once readers take on board the idea of paying $9.99 or even $14.99 for an ebook and that's no impediment to sales, it's difficult to see how indie and self published authors with limited resources can compete with the mainstream publicity machine that BP has to call on – the national newspaper reviews, the TV publicized movie tie-ins, the full colour ads in international magazines. BP is big for a reason and it looks set to stay that way.

(A small note: BP doesn't seem to have this worked out yet in the UK. There are many more indie and self published titles in the Kindle Top 100 there. But, maybe it's just a matter of time….. As a sign that BP hasn't the same dominance in the UK as in the US, note the price of Suzanne Collins' 'Hunger Games' books - £3.48. That's almost an indie price!)

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Louise Wise said...

It's a depressing read for indies. But I'd NEVER pay those sort of prices for a download - I'd buy the book but not read it on Kindle.

And I hate to say this (because normally I champion indies), but a lot of them have brought it on themselves. The quality of some of the books are awful.

Romance Girl said...

I absolutely will not pay that much for an ebook. I can honestly say I would have enough reading material in my house already plus my kindles and Ipads to last until I die. There is already a couple of books I have passed on because they are $10 ebooks. Stupid I am not and I have never been called cheap. When I bought the original kindle, the books were not expensive. They upped the prices, at one point, to $6+ dollars. I quit buying them. I will buy hard copy before I pay that much. I may not be able to get the newest books; but I only have 3 authors that I run for their new books and I buy paper copies of those.

Jamie said...

I have to differ to your opinion somewhat...having spent my own time writing, polishing, and doing my best to present my best work, you would have me sell it for. 99c? Because it is in a digital format? Sorry, I work just as hard as other authors, and that work has value. That is where the price comes from. Sadly, I know my work isn't perfect, I can't afford an editer, and selling my work for that little will ensure it will be a while until I can.

Glenda Bixler said...

Here's one reader that won't pay... I think it is ridiculous to even consider paying 9.99 for what is essentially an electronic copy that does not require, even, the cost of paper! I haven't tried the newer readers, but the Kindle I have is definitely not worth long-term use. Besides, what does the reader get beyond the reading...we can't resell an electronic copy, even at a yard sale for 25 cents. I know it is the future, but the transition should be worth more than an electronic copy that you read and delete...all for 9.99 or more??? I wish more people thought about those who don't have "big bucks..."

Kelly McClymer said...

Interesting -- but depressing for BP, too. On the list I see authors I recognize as household names -- and then indies (based on price, I'm too lazy to go check every one). James Patterson, Harlen Coben, Suzanne Collins (whose movie just opened), Danielle Steel, Stieg Larsen (whose movie just went to DVD), George R.R. Martin (whose TV series just started a new season), Stephen King.

These people always sell heaps of books, at steep prices (and I buy some of them :-). But, at standard 25% net royalty, Collins is making 87 cents on her $5 Hunger Games ebook sale (pub is making $2.63).

An indie makes $2 on a $2.99 ebook.

An indie can make a living selling books in the 20,000 range rankings (if they sell at the 70% royalty pricing).

I'm a little shocked to see a Nicholas Sparks (another movie tie in) at $7.99, to tell you the truth. I'd expect him to go for at least $12. I suspect it's a tie-in sale price.

TPC3 said...

I'm not particularly concerned about the Big Six current dominance on these lists. Indies are still doing quite well, especially since we have the flexibility to think outside the box to promote/market books. Also, we can pump out books way more frequently than Big Six. It's true, there are a ton of low-quality indie books. But then again, there are many that are on par with Big Six books, too. Still, it shouldn't be about Big Six vs. Indies. We can all coexist!

Roger Weston said...

Interesting analysis, Seb. Publishers Weekly had an update on the class action pricing lawsuit today. Penguin books has made a motion to stay the proceedings and move to arbitration.

Kat Yares said...

Bottom line - this reader is not going to pay the BPs prices for a Kindle (or any other ereader) book. Why? I won't even pay BPs prices for a hardback and only occasionally a paperback if it really impresses me. Otherwise, I wait for it to become available on a swap site - I pay less than 5 bucks. And the author gets none of that. I am not alone either - most swap sites have thousands of members.

As a writer, I feel somewhat bad that the author will not make a royalty from my swap - yet - when even a mass market paperback is now pushing upwards to ten bucks, I just don't have that kind of money to spend.

As stated above, indie authors can make 65 to 70 percent royalty on a 2.99 book - that's much better than the BPs pay their authors.

BP may always remain on the bestseller lists - but the indie authors can still earn a living for the 2.99 book they sell if it is written well.

Alan Tucker said...

I think you're taking too narrow a view of the numbers. As more and more devices find their way into the marketplace, works will have to sell more and more copies to be at the top of any list. Yet, those people who are selling in the 10's per day range, are making a living. These are the new "mid-listers". So, just because there are fewer Indies in this snapshot you've taken, it doesn't mean the pricing structures are unravelling or look bleak for the Indies. To me, it's just an indication of the growing number of devices out there.

Jolea M. Harrison said...

I won't pay those prices either, even though I'd like to pick up a copy of the latest Stephen King. He's priced himself out of my market, or rather, his publisher has. When agency pricing goes away, which could happen sooner rather than later, there's going to be another axis shift we'll all have to adjust to.

Dana Taylor said...

Hi Seb--Being an Indie is like being an Amazon puppet. Two months ago we were the stars and now we've been yanked back into the wings. Through the Prime program I moved 40,000 books from Jan-Mar by being visible on the charts. Now it's back to obscurity, although I am getting some sales from those previous sales. Amazon is in the business of making money and they make more on BP's leaders. Still, Amazon has done more for Indies than anyone else. I am betting they will find another way to support us. Dana Taylor

Jeff Faria said...

Indies did quite well last year. Question is whether big publishers will take more of a bite of the market this year. We'll see.

Hope Welsh said...

There are very few books I'd pay $10 bucks for in ANY format by any author. I don't buy hard backs. I have a few authors I collect in print.

Many of the mid-list authors are staying in the $4.99 range. I'll buy those. I'll continue to buy Indie.

Indie's get the short-stick in that the Big Six can do free-for months at a time--and we can't.

My little old book, LINKED--was a few spaces above Lori Foster on the Romance list the other day. I won't get rich--but I'm not complaining.

Readers aren't fools. They know those free days aren't for all books. Only those that do KDP or are huge publishers like Harlequin's free books.

My 2 books are consistently on some Top 100 list--either in one genre or another--and better in the UK for one of them--it was #6 in Romance Anthologies today. I can live with that.

Remember--some of those indie authors were picked up by NY--Amanda Hocking, HP Mallory to name just two.

Readers do look below those huge sellers for better deals--at least I do--and I'm a reader as well as a writer.

Kevin Domenic said...

$5.00 is the most I'd pay for an ebook. The only way I'd pay more is if I was buying a compilation of multiple titles.

Seb said...

Thanks for all the comments so far.

Roger raise the point about the class action law suit concerning publishers and Apple. Here's a link to latest news that:

And here's some background:

It's complex but shows what a battle ground there is over book pricing.

Charmaine Clancy said...

When ebooks are the same price as paperback I'll always buy the paperback. I refuse to pay so much for a digital download for fiction (I will consider a little more for non-fiction). I've recently experimented with free days and made it to #2 in my genre, but now is the time to evaluate if that actually assists sales vs giveaways. I am concerned we may be biting off our own noses with the free and 99c books. Too early to tell.

I'm not surprised the BPs are trying to push out Indies, they're outnumbered.

Author Scott Nicholson said...

I disagree somewhat, Seb. Publishers are paying lots of money to Amazon for co-op and good placement, just as they did to get in stores, and big traditional media has almost zero effect on consumer sales. Indeed, PW reviews and the like are primarily to stir enthusiasm withing the industry circles. Hunger Games doesn't happen in a vacuum. That's a machine driven by books delivered to stores, not a sudden grassroots discovery (although the grassroots certainly came later). That same effect has not yet been duplicated in ebooks, where a publisher started the wave without the benefit of distribution push.

I don't see how anyone could have expected the indie scene to stay like it was. KDP Select seems almost deliberately constructed to yield diminishing returns. But it's also hard to complain about the easiest time in recorded history to reach a reader...

Duocarns - Erotic Fantasy books said...

This is quite interesting. Your article has been discussed in our FB authors group. It opened many eyes.. Thanks

Ellie Warren said...

The UK is still behind in embracing the ebook and often we can get paper books for the same price or less for those published in the traditional manner (not just the big six btw). So the low prices still drive sales. I still read primarily in paper and I rarely pay upwards of £10 for a book. I don't think people are thinking they are being pro-indie, they are just after bargains.

Jakob said...

.99 might be too cheap if you expect to live only from the book sales. However, in the non-fiction world authors often have other, larger revenue sources like consulting, speaking, membership services etc. For such people a free or cheap book is simply a lead generator for the rest of their business. If it makes a bit of money too, it's not that bad, but it's not necessary.

Seb Kirby said...

Pricing is important. I agree with just about everything above. An ebook should cost less than a paper book. Yet it should be of as good quality. I think that's the goal for indie authors.

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