E-Books: The Tipping Point?


Ten months ago I uploaded Mousetrapped to Smashwords and what was then called Amazon’s Digital Text Platform (DTP) – now Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) – almost as an afterthought.

I was looking for something to do while I waited for my Createspace proof copy to arrive.

Turns out it was the best afterthought I’ve ever had.

Back then, I knew nothing about e-books other than by giving my mother a Kindle for Christmas, I was saving real books from the horrors of her page-turning, sunscreen-smearing and unnecessary spine-bending. Therefore I presumed ebooks could only be a good thing, even if all they ever gave to the world was that. I had no clue that there was a growing army of self-published e-books authors selling thousands of titles a month and covering their mortgages payments with the proceeds, nor did I have any idea how easy e-books could be to sell.

I figured since all the work was already done, my e-book sales – if I got any – would just be bonuses. So I priced Mousetrapped‘s digital edition at $2.99 and waited to see what would happen.

My monthly e-book sales

The first month I sold 6 e-books from Smashwords and 9 from Amazon.com’s Kindle store. At the time Amazon was offering something like a 35% royalty rate and so I collected about $26 from the two outlets, barely enough to cover the cost of the paracetamol I had to take to combat the headaches I got from the formatting process.

The three months after that, I sold around 45-55 e-books a month.

In June, e-books overtook print sales significantly for the first time.

Then in September, a big jump: monthly e-book sales went up to around 150. This coincided with a jump in my monthly blog hits, which seemed to stem from my ‘Big Reveal’ posts. It may or may not have been related.

E-book sales versus print sales over time

So by the beginning of December I was selling 150-ish books a month, earning 70% of the list price off the vast majority of them and having e-books account for some 80% of my total sales. All the mega-selling e-books authors write fiction and have multiple titles for sale; I wrote a travel memoir about Disney and therefore was happy, frankly, to be selling anything at all.

Then over Christmas, something happened. Sales jumped up on Christmas Eve and never came back down.

In December 2010, I sold 369 e-books (and 45 paperbacks).
In January 2011, I sold 789 e-books (and 56 paperbacks).

And those numbers are only from Amazon’s Kindle stores, US and UK.

I presume I’ve sold more from the likes of iBooks, Barnes and Noble, Sony, etc. but Smashwords hasn’t reported those figures yet. In fact, the last time they reported sales data was Christmas Day, so when they do arrive they should be very interesting.

Something else interesting: in January, e-book sales of Mousetrapped were higher in Kindle’s UK store than in its US store. That had never happened before; US sales – which also include all Kindle book sales elsewhere in the world, besides the UK – were always well above their UK counterpart. Since the UK store went live in August, UK Kindle book sales of Mousetrapped counted for only about a quarter of my Kindle sales in total. But this January, the UK Kindle store reported 418 copies sold to the US store’s 371. My guess is that this has something to do with the fact that there were probably more brand new first time Kindle owners in the UK market than in the US, where early adopters were probably getting newer Kindles than buying or receiving them for the first time. But this is just a guess.

Kindle e-book sales: US versus UK store

One night in early January – when I could already tell that sales were up significantly – a thought occurred to me. Sure, it was great that I was on track to sell double what I’d sold the month before (especially when what I’d sold the month before was over double what I’d sold the month before that), but you know what was even better? I was getting paid for them: 70% of most sales. Because payments are so far behind (i.e. the one that arrives at the end of December is for sales that occurred in November), it hadn’t clicked with me that my monthly cheques would be taking the same bump up as my sales.

Back in April 2010, I received my first payment from Amazon: a whole $9.25.
This month they’ll be sending me $648.03.

And that’s already minus a 30% standard US tax withholding.

And that’s for December, when I did half the sales I did in January.

And here’s the thing: I didn’t do anything different. I’m doing the same thing now as I was doing back in the summer, when I was selling 150 a month, which is nothing but my usual: blogging, Twitter, the odd Facebook update.

And I had an e-book ready and waiting when thousands of new e-reader owners powered up their devices and went looking for something cheap to read on them this past Christmas.

This shows exactly the same information as one of the graphs above, but isn’t it snazzy?

Will this continue? Who knows. I – obviously! – hope it does. But considering the majority of self-published e-book authors who are selling at high rates write fiction and/or have multiple titles available, I’m pretty pleased – and shocked, and a bit confused, to be honest! – that a little travel memoir about working in Disney World, Space Shuttles, Bruce Willis, automatic transmissions and the Ebola virus is doing that well.

I think it also means that Mousetrapped is no longer a self-publishing success story – not in any kind of Print of Demand sense. I’ve sold around 360 paperbacks but does that matter? It pales in significance now to my e-book sales.

So really, this is now all about e-books.

And my book is non-fiction, a travel memoir about working in Disney. Take the example of Talli Roland, whose debut novel – the very funny The Hating Gamewent on sale in Kindle’s store at the beginning of December. (Hers is traditionally published but in an unusual move, she and her publishers decided to release an e-book first to build word-of-mouth buzz about her paperback, as hardbacks may have done in the past. But Talli has been using social media to promote her book, as any self-published author can, and the book is priced at the magic $2.99 mark. So I think it’s fair to include her here.)

Talli sold 1,400 Kindle books in January.

It’s her first book, so she’s not relying on an established readership, it’s not crime or fantasy or sparkly vampires or any of the genres the Thousand E-Book Army seem to be writing, she only has the one book and not the three or six or nine the big sellers have, and it’s only been on sale for a bare eight weeks. And she’s shifted 1,400 copies in the last month.

And to prove the point that he isn’t the only one selling thousands and thousands of e-books, JA Konrath has been hosting a series of guest posts from similarly successful e-book self-publishers on his blog. They range from traditionally published authors who got their rights back to absolutely newbies to the publishing world, and their numbers will amaze you.

A year ago this may have been an anomaly, but now making a living selling e-books is becoming a trend.

You need to get in on it.

I get e-mails from self-published authors all the time (despite what it says on my Contact page!) or those considering it, asking silly questions like, ‘I’m on Smashwords… should I upload to Amazon DTP too?’ or ‘I have a print edition.. should I do an e-book?’

Here’s what you should do:

  1. Get an e-book out there. NOW.
  2. Upload to Amazon KDP.
  3. Upload to Smashwords too.

And remember an e-book doesn’t have to be a full-length novel. This is an advertisement for you as a writer, so if your writing is short stories or a novella then so be it. Just price the e-book accordingly.

But do it.

What have you got to lose?

Click here to find out more about Mousetrapped.

32 thoughts on “E-Books: The Tipping Point?

  1. Rebecca Brown says:

    Wow Catherine! First off, huge well done for your hard work. I know you say you’re not doing anything different to last year but that’s kind of the point- you’re not just sitting back, you keep blogging, tweeting, you’re updating the book all whilst working on other things. And I know that’s what fulltime writers have to do, but it doesn’t hurt to say well done!

    Second, excellent post with much food for thought. I think ebooks are certainly the way ahead and have very little patience tbh with people who say how sad it is that ebooks are overtaking tree books. There are some things that I prefer a physical book for – it’ll take a while to get used to not opening a book at Christmas or birthdays for example, but on the whole ebooks so totally rock dude.

    And I would love to get in on that… 🙂

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Thank you, thank you, thank you!

      Of course the irony of all this is that I don’t READ e-books. Never have. And although I’m sure I will at some stage, it’ll only be for convenience (traveling or whatever) and never as a replacement for my beloved friends, physical books. But they definitely do rock and have great potential for school kids (no heavy bags), enhanced books, updating travel guides, etc. etc. etc x lots more.

      What I’m most happy about though is that the financial reward lets me concentrate on my novel, etc. So woo-hoo to that! And YES, hurry up and get in on it! 🙂

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      That’s what kind of scary. Numbers are only going up all the time. I can see just from the first 48 hours of February that sales are still as strong, if not stronger, than January. Where/when will it end?

  2. Reena Jacobs says:

    Very encouraging post. 🙂 I just released my debut last month. It’s an exciting time, waiting and hoping. Like you, I’ve noticed a trend for the mega seller authors to have multiple titles. Some of them take off with the debut novel (especially YA writers).

    Every indie success is like an extra beam of light at the end of the tunnel. Congratulations on your success.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Thanks very much!

      It definitely takes some time to get going, and of course the big sellers have more than one title, because otherwise they couldn’t possibly be selling the thousand and thousands of books a month that they are. And if someone reads a cheap ebook they enjoyed, they are likely to buy any other cheap ebooks the author has for sale. So we better get writing! 🙂

      Good luck with your e-book!

  3. Maria Staal says:

    Congratulations on your book sales taking off like that. Truly amazing!
    I am especialy glad to hear about the sales, because your book is a travelogue and not fiction.
    I published my travelogue as POD in October last year and uploaded it to smashwords and Amazon in December. So far I have sold about 25 POD copies and about 7 ebooks (with minimal marketing). I am now slowly getting into marketing and reading this post is really encouraging!
    Thank you for sharing.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Thanks, Maria!

      That’s why I’ll continue to publish my sales – all the Kindle authors we hear about seem to write fiction, have multiple books and price at 99c. Us non-fiction writers can get in on the action too!


  4. Rebecca Woodhead says:

    This is amazing! I’m writing about all this stuff for a magazine in the UK, and I plan to publish my first novel in the next couple of months. I had planned to publish through Lulu, with my own ISBN. Do you think it’s a better plan to go through Smashwords? Did you use your own ISBN or one that they provided?

    Well done on your success. Brilliant!


    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I say take the free ISBN; there’s really no advantage to purchasing your own, as I see it. It doesn’t affect your copyright. It also keeps costs down. If you take the free ISBN, publishing with Createspace can cost as little as the price of your proof copy (about $5-8 for a paperback) and the extended distribution plan ($39). E-publishing costs nothing at all up front.

      I would always recommend publishing a POD print edition (with Createspace or Lulu) AND then a digital edition with BOTH Amazon KDP and Smashwords. That is the only way to cover all bases – many, if not most, people (myself included!) still prefer to read print books and reviewers prefer a paperback. Kindle (KDP) is the best opportunity for high volume sales, but then you don’t want to alienate iPad or Nook owners (Smashwords – Premium Catalogue). There’ll be no conflicts.

      If you look on my Self-Printing -> All Self-Printing Posts page you’ll see more info on this.

      Good luck!

      • catherineryanhoward says:

        P.S – E-books can’t use print ISBNs, and my Kindle edition doesn’t have one. Neither does my Smashwords edition, but I have a feeling they’ve changed that since I uploaded there. You may need one now, but they are offering them.

        • Reena Jacobs says:

          It’s not that eBooks can’t use print ISBNs. It’s more on the lines that every format needs its own ISBN. Amazon doesn’t offer free ISBNs for the kindle edition, but they do offer an ASIN, I believe it’s called, for tracking. Barnes & Nobles puts ISBNs on the eBooks, which is free. Also, you can request a free ISBN for your eBook through Smashwords. Having an ISBN for Smashwords will allow your eBook to be distributed to other channels, such as Apple and Sony.

          Since the Kindle edition and Smashwords edition are different (same content, but one says Smashwords edition the other Kindle edition) it requires different ISBNs.

          Ramble ramble. 🙂

          • catherineryanhoward says:

            Wow – thanks for that, Reena! ISBNs is really the one area of this whole thing that is confusing – every site seems to be different.

            The only ISBN I paid any attention to was the print (I took the free one) and that’s because CS check that you’ve put it on your copyright page.(Or get their computers to!) No ISBN appears anywhere in my ebooks, although they will might on the listings. And my Smashwords Ed is in the Premium Cat so I must have opted into an ISBN along the way there sometime…!

            Thanks for the info! 🙂

  5. Christopher Wills says:

    Congratulations Catherine. As a collector of rejection letters myself I’m impressed by your success and long may it continue. I’m hoping to catch the epublishing train around Easter with a novel I wrote during nanowrimo a couple of years ago. I’m currently in the final edit. Then I can give some of my rejected work a quick look over.
    I love your site it’s got a very accessible and welcoming feel to it. I’ll be back to explore. Keep writing.
    Oh by the way, what’s that big pink thing that looks like a piano, next to the cup on the book? 🙂

      • Vanessa O'Loughlin says:

        HAVE to point out here that these superb sales may just be related to the fact that Mousetrapped is a brilliant read! Entertaining, so funny in place you’ll laugh out loud, and in others you’ll cry. It’s well edited, has a fab cover, is a really professional product. It’s not just about a hungry global market place, its about having a fabulous product!

        • catherineryanhoward says:

          LOL! Thanks Vanessa – your fiver’s in the post! 😉

          I think it’s such a convergence of factors: an appealing product, a professional cover, right place/right time, etc. I may be prepared for a lot of things but I do think luck played a role here too. Whatever the reason, I’m not complaining!!!

  6. themelbournebrunchreview says:

    Hi Catherine!
    I am doing a thesis proposal on the print publishing industry in Australia, and I was wondering if I could use your graph of e-book sales vs print book sales as an example of the suggestion that whilst the popularity of e-books has increased, the popularity of print books has decreased?


    • catherineryanhoward says:

      You can use the graph but it’s just one book and all it proves is that self-published books are easier to sell in low priced e-book editions (if even that…)

  7. christine behan says:

    Help! I have followed all your wonderful advice and now have my book ‘The Angel Garden’ published on amazon. However, on the ‘look inside’, the sample is indented on the left hand side too much (??) but the first paragraph is fine, any advice Catherine, please?

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      My advice is not to worry about the “Look Inside” sample. It never represents the actual book, in my experience, and most Kindle shoppers will download the sample to their Kindle which is formatted as per your actions. Have you checked that?

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