Friday, February 18, 2011

The Changing Face of the Amazon Top 50

I watch sales trends a lot. It’s important to keep your pulse on the marketplace so you can best judge trends and reach the largest marketshare possible. One of the things I’ve noticed is a HUGE change in the Top Amazon sellers.

Sometime ago there was only one list, and not surprisingly it was dominated by free books. Amazon corrected this to make two lists, one for free one for paid. Once this happened, the list was dominated by traditional publishers most selling their books in the $7.99 - $9.99 range with a few at the $11.99 and $12.99 price points.

I’m going to regularly analyze and post the results of the top 50, which by their very nature have to be snapshots (but they don’t change all that much day to day). To see who was on the list as of this analysis see the screenshot below. This is a bit hard to read (even when blown up) so a better representation can be found here.

First I’m going to remove any “non book” entries. This includes games, magazines, shorts, and newspapers. This leaves us with 43 titles – heavily dominated by fiction

  • 2 of 43 Non-fiction (4.7%)
  • 41 of 43 Fiction (95.3%)

This is not surprising considering this is for an ebook but is definitely not indicative of book sales overall where non-fiction generally outperforms on a 3:2 basis.

Next let’s look at traditional verses independents. This list was virtually devoid of any offering except those that had the backing of bookstore sales for their print editions. This is certainly no longer the case.

  • 17 of 43 Independents (39.5%)
  • 26 of 43 Traditional (60.5%)

That’s quite an accomplishment that shows that you don’t need a traditional publishers to sell a ton of books. How much is a ton? Well anyone on this list is selling tens of thousands of books. At current sales levels a ranking of 30 – 35 is selling about 1,000 books a day. This is based off of Victorine Lieskie’s sales numbers. I suspect the scale is somewhat logarithmic which means that people ranked in the top 10 are doing substantially more than 3 times those at 30.

Unfortunately, indies are getting these sales at a cost – mainly price. Of the indies listed:

  • 13 of the 17 (76.4%) price their books at $1.00 or less
  • 4 priced at $2.99 (3 of which are sequels to a $0.99 book

I'd like to use Stephen Carpenter at #20 as an example. I’m going to guess he sells about 1500 books a day and his per book profit is $3,139.50 which is about $94,185 a month. Even if I’m wrong and say worse case he sells 1,000 books a day (he has to be doing more than that because he is ranked higher than Vicki who was selling 26,000 books a month) that comes out to $2,093 a day which is $62,790 a month.

For those selling for $0.99 they only make $0.35 so for those selling 10,000 a month (probably about right at the 50 ranking) they make $3,500 and at 30,000 a month they make $10,500. Good money to be sure but it doesn’t take a genius to see how much more successful Stephen Carpenter is and again I give him a tip of the hat for bucking the bargain basement mentality.
One problem with the $0.99 bestsellers is it’s difficult to know who is reading the books and who is merely buying them like pebbles on the beach. Without Question Amazda and John Locke are gaining true readers as evidenced by multiple books on this list. Having multiple books available is good for sales for both Independents and Traditional Published Authors and there are many with multiple books on the list:

  • Amanda Hocking: 5 books
  • John Locke: 5 books
  • Suzanne Collins: 3 books
  • James Patterson: 3 books
  • Stieg Larson : 3 books
  • Susan Wiggs: 2 books

Using price to gain readers is a long tradition with independent authors but starting at the end of 2010 we saw traditional publishers dropping prices as well. The #1 best seller is a traditionally published book at $0.99 (I suspect in order to make the new NYT ebook bestseller list) prior to December 2010 I did not see much in the way of prices below $6.99 for traditionally published books I now see the following:

  • Only 1 out of 26 at $0.99 (3.8%)
  • 7 out of 26 in the “bargain category” of $3 - $5 (26.9%)
  • 13 out of 26 in the “traditional price” of $5.50 - $9.99 (50%)
  • 5 out of 26 at the “high end” above $10 (19.2%)

What does all this mean? Well first off it proves that you don’t have to be traditionally published to move a lot of books. Secondly, New York publishers are making in roads into lower priced books (though most seem to think that $5 is the floor).

My prediction is that the top 100 will become more and more inundated with low cost books which may mean some danger signals for those that are going indie and trying to sell at a decent price. I wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon doesn’t split the list again into three categories: free, bargain ($3 or less), and standard. Personally, I think this would be a good thing for both buyers and sellers as I think there is a core group of readers who focus on the low price reads and having a list exclusively for this segment would mean they can find a larger number of them more readily. It will also help NY as their books won’t have to compete with the people who are pricing their books in a race for the bottom.

I’ll keep you posted as more results are available.

NOTE: I mistakenly thought Stephen Carpenter's book sold at $3.99 it is a $2.99 book so I adjusted this post.


Edward G. Talbot said...

great analysis, Robin. I can't see traditional publishers going much below $5. The reason is that even if they did so with books a year or more old and started dominating the list, then readers would expect it and their new titles would suffer. they're between a rock and a hard place. At its core, they face a problem - they have to figure out how to create a combination of added value and price where they can:
-make a profit
-compete with books for $1-$3
-not lose authors to the more lucrative world of indie

I honestly don't see how they can do it. We've only seen the tip of the iceberg here. Yes, on balance a $10 from tradpub is likely to be better than a $1 book from an indie. But over time, more and more readers are going to sample the $1 books and some of them are as good as the traditional ones. And they won't need to pay $10, or even $5. That momentum has just now begun to build. I know people say that readers care about finding good books and price isn't the long-term driver. I do think that's true for a decent segment of readers, but not enough of a segment to allow publishers to make profits.

Another prediction - soon, authors will be able to make more than 35 cents on a sub-2.99 book. It's arbitrary, the defacto standard simply because Amazon was the early adopter. I don't see this winding up like Itunes, I see this staying more competitive, and I think you'll see a lot of changes in commission structure over the next few years.

And here's another prediction, 6-9 months from now, it'll be 60% indie, 40% tradpub. Or even more indies than that. Once the ball rolls with enough speed, it becomes difficult to stop.

Unknown said...

This is an excellent post! It is an exciting time to be a writer!

Unknown said...

I LOVE your blog. You have such a fantastic overview of the indie world. Thanks for sharing.

Alex F. Fayle said...

Thank you so much for publishing this. It's great, useful information but it's the sort of detail work that bores me to the point of sticking a pen in my eye...

Unknown said...

I have not been following your blog long but have become a true fan. This is a great post and inspired the post I wrote today for my own blog.

Victorine said...

Fantastic post, Robin. :)

I will mention my 1,000 sales a day does include my B&N sales and UK sales as well. An average day for me sees about 750 sales on Amazon US, 40 on the UK site, and around 220 on B&N. I did sell 1,073 one day on Amazon US and my rank got up to 28, so I do think your guesses are still pretty accurate.

It will be very interesting to see how things look in six months.

wannabuy said...


You know I'd love 'analysis.' Thank you!

I like your suggestion of 3 tier lists.

As Edward notes, we're only at the tip of the iceberg. But I think for 2nd books, readers will pay. I buy $1 ebooks, but I prefer reading books from authors I enjoy.

For the first book from an author... I can see bargain books becoming the standard. How will publishers compete in that world? Will they only sign authors who put out a $1 ebook on their own?

For authors, I agree with V. Furnas, it is an exciting time to be a writer.


Robin Sullivan said...

@Edward - Yes I agree the shift will be more indie - but I think that will have to do mostly with a "low price" in that genre that won't be matched by traditional publishers.

Robin Sullivan said...

@Victorine - thanks for stopping by - and for letting me know that that 1,000 a day included B&N and UK - Having data point like yours really helps (for now as the same rank in 6 months will mean much different sales numbers) but it does help to frame things - I'm so glad for all your success.