Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Bestseller Shift

In just a week, Amanda Hocking has sold over 10,000 ebooks.

Who is Amanda Hocking?

She's a self-published paranormal romance author. Check out her blog.

Not counting sales of Shaken, Afraid, or my Jack Daniels ebooks, I've sold about 2200 ebooks this week. And I've got about three times as many titles for sale as Amanda does.

Now, this isn't a competition, and writers should never compare their numbers, but I'm bringing Amanda's numbers up because I think it's indicative of a paradigm shift within the industry.

In the traditional publishing model, the most important factor in how many books sell is distribution.

A bestseller, by definition, has to sell a lot of books. In order to sell a lot of books, the book has to be available in a lot of places.

There's a chicken/egg thing happening here. Do authors become bestsellers, and then get huge distribution? Or is the huge distribution the reason they are bestsellers?

James Patterson is available in every airport, big box store, drugstore, supermarket, and non-bookstore outlet. Within the bookstores, his books get coop so they are available in mass quantities, for a discount.

Of course he sells a lot. If you're looking to read a thriller, often he's one of the only choices you have. The more places you are for sale, the more places you'll sell.

Some folks may say that Patterson sells well because he's an established brand. People know him, and that's why they buy him.

The multi-billion dollar advertising industry would like you to believe that it is essential to become a brand name, and for your product to become recognizable. Certainly Patterson has ad revenue behind him. He has TV commercials, for heaven's sake. It isn't difficult to draw a connection between how much he sells, and how well known he is, and advertising plays a part in how well known he is.

So let's get back to Ms. Hocking.

She has no name-recognition. If you look at her blog, she only has a few comments per post. She has no traditional publishing background, either.

Compare that to me, who has some name recognition, and a prior platform in the print world. I've been doing this longer than she has by years, have a large installed fanbase, have a blog that gets a million hits a year, and it's tough to find a discussion about self-pubbing or Kindle that doesn't mention me.

Yet Amanda is creaming me in sales.

So what's happening here?

What's happening, I believe, is a shift in how readers decide what to read.

The old distribution method of print books isn't valid in the ebook world. While Patterson can get into tens of thousands of retail locations with his books, his ebooks and Amanda's ebooks (and my ebooks) only have a few sales venues; Amazon, Apple, B&N, etc.

The playing field is even. On an even playing field, anyone can win.

While Patterson no doubt sells a good number of ebooks based on brand recognition, Hocking is a perfect reminder that a lot of things influence why people by things, not just a famous name.

Many items that aren't name brands can still sell very well. In fact, for every Sam Adams, there are dozens of popular microbrews who would perhaps give Sam a run for the money if they had wider distribution.

As ebooks take over as the dominant format for fiction, we're going to see a shift. Those who succeeded in the old print model will no doubt carry some of their fans along with them, but they'll see a drop in sales and profits, simply because their publishers price their books too high, give them too little in royalties, and because there is now a lot more choice for readers.

It's no longer a question of going to Walgreens and only having fifteen books to pick from.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, authors like Amanda Hocking, and Zoe Winters, and Karen McQuestion, and Selena Kitt, and Lorelei James, are making big money without the brand recognition, advertising, or distribution of James Patterson.

Years ago, publishers used to "grow" authors. They'd build them up, year after year, until they had a sizeable backlist, and then take a shot at the bestseller list by having a big print run and a big marketing campaign. Many of the authors you see on the NYT list got there through this method.

These days, authors can grow themselves. By writing good books with good covers, and pricing them low, readers can discover them.

No widespread distribution, advertising, coop, brand recognition, or famous name needed.

In the future, the bestseller lists won't be dominated by name authors.

They'll be dominated by good books.