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July 8, 2014
The survey found that readers want longer e-books; that series books outsell standalone titles; and that series that offer the initial title for free earn more money.

Readers in the market for indie or self-published e-books favor longer works, priced between $2.99 and $3.99, and are attracted by free e-book promotions, according to data from the third annual 2014 Smashwords Survey. The annual survey is based on data from $25 million in sales generated by the indie/self-publishing e-book vendor.

The data is interpreted by Smashwords CEO and founder Mark Coker, and the 2014 Smashwords survey takes into account sales of e-books through the Smashwords retail site, iBookstore and B&N, as well as distribution through channels such as public libraries and subscription services like Oyster and Scribd. The data, Coker said in a blog post, is examined in an effort to find "viral catalysts," or "anything that makes a book more discoverable and more enjoyable to readers."

Although Coker cautions that his interpretations of the data are based on averages, and that the indie/self-published e-book market is also dominated by the romance genre, he noted a number of points for authors and publishers to consider.

While average lower e-book pricing continues to drive higher author earnings, Coker said this does not mean that "ultra low prices" are necessary. He noted that the "sweet spot" appears to be between $2.99 and $3.99 for bestselling titles. He emphasized that incremental increases in a title's sales ranking are "usually matched by an exponential increase in sales." He also said that, according to the data, indie e-books selling for $2.99/$3.99 earn as much for their authors as conventionally published e-books selling for $7.99 or more, but generate "triple the readership."

"As reading continues to transition to digital, the pull of indie authorship will increase."
The survey found that readers want longer e-books (the top 70 bestselling Smashwords romance titles averaged more than 96,000 words); that series books outsell standalone titles (and the best performing series books are long e-books); and that series that offer the initial title for free earn more money overall than series that do not.

"For the many Smashwords authors who are reluctant to experiment with free for fear it'll devalue your books, now you've got the kick in the butt you need to give it a try," Coker said.

Coker also said data showed that self-published e-book pre-orders (a service Smashwords instituted over the last year) sell more than e-books that don’t offer the pre-ordering service, though he emphasized that most authors do not use the service.

While self-publishing is dominated by fiction, Coker said the survey shows that nonfiction indie e-books can be priced higher, and still maintain unit sales volume. "Nonfiction buyers are less price-sensitive," Coker said, noting that nonfiction authors may be "underpricing their works."

The results of the 2014 Smashwords survey are available on the Smashwords blog (the powerpoint presentation can be also be embedded on any website).  While he offers a number of caveats about his interpretation of the data (results vary based on each book, cause and effect cannot be proven, and results skew to fiction and romance fiction specifically), it should come as no surprise that Coker sees a favorable and continuing trend toward self-publishing.

"Traditional e-book authors suffer from high prices and low royalties," Coker wrote. "As reading continues to transition to digital, the pull of indie authorship will increase."

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