As a guy interested in selling books, I pour over the sales charts wherever I can find a chart so that I can come up with a working theory or two about the evolving digital market place. As a mystery writer, I’m used to spinning out theories in text, so this might seem like a drawing room scene to some of you. Just play along, there is a clue or two buried in the meandering prose.
Reading is a habit a few of us have and as we enjoy that diversion, we consume a load of books. Eventually, we run out of recommendations of friends and family. Bibliophiles looking for new books have to go somewhere to find new authors to follow. The lists of top-sellers at the various distribution hubs like Amazon can give hungry readers a peek at the menu before they belly up to the bar. So how important are those digital watering holes in terms of their impact on sales?
In the example of comiXology, the leader in digital comic book distribution, it is the key to increased sales with passive readers. On Earth Day weekend, that site ran a sale on comics featuring Swamp Thing that was promoted by email notices and house ads on the company website. Comics from the 1970s were offered along with later work by Alan Moore, all for the bargain basement price of 99 cents a digital comic. The sale ran the weekend and wrapped up on Monday evening. On Tuesday, the comics went back up to original price of $1.99 and the Swamp Thing issues filled the best-seller page. They were still there the rest of the week with Friday’s list showing 43 of the 152 comics that qualified for the top-selling list. So, why did the heart of the Alan Moore run hold onto those sales even after the price for the comics doubled? It would have to be because new readers were discovering the material and consuming every bit of the Moore run. The formula for determining the best-selling books is not public, so there might gave been a time factor that helped the books hold those numbers. Either way, before the sale, the books were buried down in the lists with the rest of the comics available. It is easy to lose things on an infinite shelf.
A glitch in the checkout process on the site allowed the chance to determine how readers bought the comics. When I fired up my iPad and went to the sale through the Comix X app, I noticed that the 25 early Swamp Thing comics did not show up for sale. The comics were there, but the ‘buy’ button was disabled. In short, you could not buy the early Wrightson comics through the app, only the Alan Moore run. Those were the ones that appeared on the top-seller list meaning that the bulk of the new readers came to the material through the app, not the website. I suspect, they were new fans who don’t step into a comic shop every Wednesday for a comic book fix. This would track with the survey material commissioned by DC on the event of the launch of the New 52. Judging by the data, there are a lot of fans who read a lot of comics without ever setting foot in a comic store. Those Swamp Thing comics held onto a slot on the Top Sellers list for almost full week after the sale ended.
As an aside, I reached out to someone I know in management at comiXology and alerted him to the problem with access to the store through the app. He sent me a note saying I could still buy the comics through the store on the website and then they would be in my account. It makes sense in a cloud thinking way. But when you put a barrier to sales in front of a customer, it hurts your numbers. Not one of the early Swamp Thing comics made the top-seller lists except for the first issue from the 1970s. That button worked because the comic was free. Of course there could be other factors influencing the sales. Maybe people hate those early comics, or love the cute and cuddly Alan Moore. The end result is that only the comics with the live ‘buy’ buttons on the app were the ones that sold well enough to make the top selling list. I spent the weekend wondering how much money comiXology had left on the table.
For a parallel in the book world, let’s examine the example of Joe Konrath. Over the past few years, Konrath has gone from a mid-list author to a leader in the e-book movement. He does it by making his sales numbers public knowledge.
His story is one familiar to writers. Konrath had written a handful of novels and some of them could not find a home with a publisher. When his fans learned of the ‘lost novels’ on his hard drive, they asked him for digital reading copies. He made the books available on Kindle. Fans ate them up and passed the word. Now the novels saved from a desk drawer outsell his legacy published books, the Jack Daniels mysteries.
Konrath’s novels are well-reviewed by the fans, typically getting 3-4 stars. Many of the horror titles hang around the back end of the Top 100 in the Kindle Store. His placement on the sales charts helped Joe Konrath turn rejected novels into found revenue.
Being on the best seller list at digital distributors is a solid way to be discovered by new readers and bump sales. Positioning seems to self perpetuate and it’s cheaper than paying for new advertising.
UPDATE: Judging by the size of the latest royalty check from comiXology, you can make a few bucks without hitting the top-selling list.