So My E-book Sales Are Down… But Why?


Last month something happened for the very first time: Christmas peak aside, I sold significantly fewer e-book editions of Mousetrapped than I had the month before. Overall my May e-book sales were down about 16%, or 122 books on my average monthly sales from January-April.

Talking to other self-published e-book authors it seemed they also experienced a dip, slowing or even stoppage in their sales, and as The Bookseller’s Futurebook blog reported, the traditionally published e-book market wasn’t throwing any parties either as their sales came back to down to earth soon after the Christmastime high.

Why has this happened? Is it a sign of things to come, or just an anomaly? Should I be filling out an application form for my local Starbucks (dream job for me; revenue loss for them) now that my future as a full-time e-book seller suddenly looks unsure?

Well, I think I’ll hold off on the barista training for the moment and I’ve no idea if this is a trend or a one-off fluctuation, but as for why this happened, I do have some theories…

1. I Wasn’t There

I was missing from the 19th of the month onwards and unlike previous vacations, I left the blog grow HTML-webs in my absence. (Normally I “re-play” popular posts.) This of course also meant that my Twitter feed and Facebook page were unattended too.

Could this have made a difference? Could the lack of new Google search results, posts and tweets have reduced the number of people finding out about Mousetrapped for the first time? If it did then I can’t really bring myself to care, because a girl needs a break every once in a while.

And all those agua de Valencias were soooooo gooooood.

2. Flogging a Dead Horse

Maybe Mousetrapped has run its e-book course. Maybe everyone who (a) has an e-reader and (b) would consider reading a book like Mousetrapped has already done so – at least at $2.99. It’s a niche book (that’s why I self-published it in the first place) and maybe I’ve saturated its relatively small market.

If this is the case, then I’m not concerned. I’m approaching 6,000 sales and for a self-published travel memoir about working in Walt Disney World (among other things), I don’t think that’s too shabby. Plus it’s easy to forget – hell, I try to – that I released it in March of last year. March 2010. By the time the follow-up, Backpacked, comes out in September, Mousetrapped will have been on sale for a year and a half. So if things are starting to slow down now, I can’t really complain, can I?

Plus as luck would have it, I have a brand new travel memoir, a novel and essay collection all scheduled for release this side of Christmas, so I’m not freaking out just yet.

3. Equidistance from Two Highs

We really don’t know that much about e-book readers’ habits, do we? Do they tend to buy books every week, or download a bunch all at once that will keep them going for a while? Do they sometimes read print books but turn to their e-readers for special situations, such as traveling? Is there something that they do that ensures summer is the e-book low season, and Christmastime the high?

Why is Christmastime the high? Two things: it’s high season for books, and always has been. I once read a statistic that said something like 60% of all books sold in stores during the year are sold between October-December* and any year-round visitor to Waterstones on Cork’s Patrick Street could attest to that – coming up to Christmas you can’t move for the shoppers pushing each other aside for celebrity biographies and novelty reads; the rest of the year, you and the 3 for 2s practically have the place to yourself. It’s also now high season for Kindle (and other device) buying and giving. Existing owners might update their models, but the real bonus for e-books are the new adopters: the people who are switching from print to e-books (i.e. getting an e-reader) for the first time. As Simon Cowell thinks to himself when he sees a tween boy-band who can actually sing, CHA-CHING!

But here, in the summer, we’re as far away as we can be from both last Christmas and next Christmas. We’re potentially in a wasteland where last December’s new Kindle owners have had the novelty wear off, and potential Kindle owners are waiting for the price to drop or for Santa to give them a shiny new e-reader for Christmas. Therefore, e-book sales are down. Maybe.

*I could just be pulling this statistic out of my arse; booksellers, do correct me if I’m exaggerating.

4. New, Clearer Listing

A few weeks ago, I changed Mousetrapped‘s product listing on Amazon so that it reflected its subject matter better.

Mousetrapped, very generally-speaking, is about me moving to Orlando to work in a hotel in Walt Disney World. WDW is the size of two Manhattan islands and there are lots of hotels, restaurants, shops and other businesses that while being on the property are not owned by the Walt Disney Company. It’s still working in Walt Disney World and in my job we were even “Cast Members” and had to attend Disney-run training.

But there were people buying Mousetrapped thinking it was a behind-the-scenes Disney exposé (clearly missing the reviews, the downloadable sample, etc.) when it wasn’t, and I wanted to stop that happening. I left the blurb as it was but on the Amazon listing I added a table of contents and a little spiel explaining why the book is called what it’s called – it’s named after Chapter 3 in which I describe being geographically trapped in Disney World thanks to no money or car – and how the word  “Mousetrapped” doesn’t actually mean “employed directly by the Walt Disney Company.”

Now sales have dipped. Is this why? If it is, so be it. I’m not changing it back. I don’t want to “trick” people into buying a book that isn’t what they think it is, and not all the listings have been changed so that doesn’t really account for a dip across the board.

5. Amazon Sunshine Deals

This only just started, so they can’t be the reason why sales dipped in May. However if sales are down even more in June, I will certainly be blaming Amazon’s Sunshine Deals.

(Well, maybe just a little bit. We’ll see.)

As long as the big publishers are fighting amongst themselves over e-book prices, we self-publishers are doing a-okay because we can charge whatever we like, and what we like is $2.99 or less. This seems to be what e-book readers like too, so it’s all good. But now the big publishers are copping on, and have got together with Amazon to charge what has traditionally been self-publisher prices for some big publisher works. Over 600 of them are on sale for 99c, $1.99 or $2.99. If you’re interested in taking advantage of it, Sunshine Deals ends tomorrow.

(P.S: I just had a quick glance at the titles on offer and aside from some interesting non-fiction titles, pickings are slim.)

6. Much Ado About Nothing

Maybe this all means nothing. Maybe it’s just an unexplainable dip. We have a while to go before we get anywhere near pre-last-Christmas’-e-book-spectacular levels (I was selling about 180 copies a month, total, up until December 2010; since then it’s been 700-800) and anyway I’ve got plenty of things in the pipeline, namely Backpacked, Mousetrapped‘s “sequel”, and a novel coming in November. I’ve also got a couple of tricks up my sleeve, a kind of “Break Open in Case of E-book Sales Emergency” ideas box.

And if I learned one thing about self-publishing e-books, it’s that today doesn’t matter. This week might not even matter. You always have to look at your sales – and with them, success – on the long-term landscape. If you don’t, you might give up. For example one sale a day might make you want to throw your computer out of the window and go hide in a cave, but in five years that’s over 1,800 books, or an achievement to be extremely proud of.

So I’m not stressing about this. But I’ll let you know what happens.

UPDATE: Re: the comment from Chris below, the chart above shows all e-book sales by month since Mousetrapped‘s launch in March 2010.

Find out more about: my self-publishing adventures, Mousetrapped: A Year and A Bit in Orlando, Florida, Backpacked: A Reluctant Trip Across Central America or Self-Printed: The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing. Follow me on Twitter at @cathryanhoward

17 thoughts on “So My E-book Sales Are Down… But Why?

  1. Nick says:

    Well, I think its worth mentioning that the economy overall is in the crapper. Unemployment here in the US is at the highest point in 80 years. 80. Its the worst thing I have ever seen. Isnt Ireland and the UK in a similar position?

    The first thing to give in that situation is discretionary spending. That’s going to include ebooks and more importantly, sales of Kindles and Nooks.

    Like you said, its probably just a blip but the factors I have mentioned cannot be discounted.


  2. Christopher Wills says:

    Interesting analysis of why you think sales might have dipped. Obviously you can’t compare with last year as the launch etc will have biased the figures. Do sales dip before the Christmas surge? I don’t think you have reached saturation point yet, certainly in the UK. I heard someone from the Bookseller on the BBC say they believed only 10% of book readers in the UK had some form of ereader by the end of the last Christmas period. He expected that to multiply by 4 x this year; so there are many more potential sales out there. Also remember that every year the population ages by a year so potentially the lower age readers of your book will be replaced by a new bunch looking for things to read. And when you launch your next book that will drive new readers to your current book
    I think you have every reason to be be optimistic, apart from the fact that it will mean you have to continue paying for your drug of choice. 🙂

  3. Tahir says:

    Thanks for the analysis, sorry about the sales. Here’s my take on it: the fluctuation is not random (statistically speaking I worked out that the chance of it being random is less than 0.01 percent; however the dip in April has more than a 5% chance of being random). I don’t think it’s because it is you were away – at this stage you must be selling a significant number of books to people you don’t know and who don’t read your blog..unless you a large number of people regularly retweet your tweets. I think your momentum after the january spike was from the exponential effect of the Amazon pairings (etc.) factors.
    One thing you didn’t mention, may be the answer. Mid May is the end of school activities in the US. Two to three weeks of end of school things like concerts, sports, trips, graduations. Not just school but end of college as well. You basically lose anyone who has kids in the range 5-25+ yrs old for a few weeks-they have got way too many things to do, and reading a book for pleasure during this time is a fantasy.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      How do you work out the probability of randomness? Very interesting. And am I right in assuming that the potentially random dip in April, i.e. the month right before, contributes to May’s dip not being random? (Because the downturn is continuous instead of new?)

      • Tahir says:

        This is the sort of thing I do for a living (applied to astrophysics) – I’ll write an article on it (don’t want to make this reply too long), maybe your readers will be interested as well. Basically, your April result is what is known in the business as a 2 sigma result and your May result is 4 sigma (approximately). You can see why I love it when you put up your data! The general benchmark for accepting a scientific result as “real” as opposed to a statistical fluctuation (i.e. you wouldn’t get laughed at) is a minimum of 3 sigma. Yes, you’re right, you can’t correlate the downturns in April and May and conclude that there is a trend. You need at least two months more of data and then you could work out the probability that the trend is real. Hopefully by that time you will get an upturn, or at least a levelling off. At this stage it’s impossible to predict what will happen, but whatever happens it will be interesting.

      • Tahir says:

        whoops, sorry, I realized I didn’t quite answer your last question: both the April and May probability estimates are relative to your March sales, and are independent of each other. But doing May relative to April won’t make much difference because the drop between May and April is so large.

  4. Lizzy says:

    I’m not sure whether I’m on my own here or whether others use Kindle as I do: I’ve had a Kindle since January but I only ever purchase books for £2.99 or less. I still buy hardcover and paperbacks of my ‘must-read’ titles. Kindle is great and I probably would never have discovered some gems like Mousetrapped if I hadn’t bought one. But…I still crave the look, feel and COLOUR of the paper version. There is something so satisfying about wandering around a bookshop. On the other hand, when it’s midnight and I want to browse, there is Kindle at the flick of a switch & a couple of clicks – hey presto – another 6 books downloaded! I will be looking out for Backpacked and I have a feeling that sales of both Mousetrapped & Backpacked will be on the up! Keep up the good work , Catherine!

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      If I had a Kindle Lizzy, I would probably do what you do. (Including the – oops! – 6 books downloaded at midnight!) Backpacked is why I’m not really worried because I feel that that will have a more more general-leaning readership, i.e. more people would read a book about backpacking than a book about working in Walt Disney World. Then – if the book isn’t crap, of course! – they might be more open to reading MT.

      As I said in the post though if I never sold another copy of MT I’d still be overjoyed with what I did sell. We’ll just have to see what happens.

      And thank you for your kind words!

  5. Elisa Michelle says:

    I wouldn’t worry about the dip unless it lasts for a few months. At this time, gas is just so high, people are spending money on summer vacations or the movies, and unemployment and the economy are still bad. That being said, I really hope it’s just a random fluke and that you keep going strong. Best of luck!

  6. LPepWu says:

    I totally agree with Elisa’s comments. I wouldn’t fret. I personally haven’t seen a dip in sales on KDP, but have on B&N. Gas is super high and people are busy – from what I can see in California kids are busy, parents have tons to do and now the evenings are longer people are taking walks and getting outside in the evenings, not huddling up inside with a book.
    I like your point about not knowing much about e-book Readers habits. So true, and I’m excited to find out more about that over the coming year or so. Reminds me why all this is so fun – we are all learning together!

  7. John Hindmarsh says:


    Interesting problem, in the sense that I have just released my first ebook, and am wondering where it will be in 12 months.

    Perhaps you need more than one published title and that will give you a better presence? It seems to be a popular belief that multiple titles provide marketing leverage. It will be interesting to see what happens to your sales when you release Backpacked.

    Exciting times!

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Hi John,

      Yes, I think I’ve actually been quite lucky to have the sales I’ve had with just one title. Can’t wait to see what happens when I put up another – hopefully it’ll have a positive affect!


  8. Candice L Davis says:

    Just discovered your blog via Taleist. Thanks for sharing your numbers. Last month I got my first ebook up. I have 2 more close to ready to publish. It really helps to see the numbers for a writer who doesn’t have a huge backlist. Wishing you continued success.

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