EBooks are here to stay. Figures from the USA suggest eBook sales now account for over 13% of the adult fiction market in the US, with the UK widely held to be less than two years behind. Recent eBook sales figures from Penguin UK, who have an accelerated eBook program both here and in the US seem to testify to this. A growing market of digital readers should then be seen as an overall opportunity, rather than a threat to traditional publishing. After all, Kindle owners, having made the initial conversion, buy more books, even if this is skewed in favour of free and cheaply priced books. The challenge for publishers is to make sure they are invited to the party.
The Kindle store, whether accessed on a Kindle device or via an app, currently has an overwhelming market share, and has therefore become the single biggest digital frontier for all publishers. From tiny independents to the ‘big 5’, this is the place to experiment, learn about their readers, and ultimately sell books. Getting the basics of price, place and promotion right, and innovating in this space are the keys to success.
There are no set rules for eBook pricing, though recent research suggests that readers expect to pay 36% less for an eBook compared to the equivalent print edition, perhaps spoiled by the volume of titles selling for £1. While the headlines are grabbed by the sheer weight of £1 eBooks, the biggest player in the Kindle store in 2011 has probably been George R. R. Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire series; each priced within a penny of the paperback edition, from £3.99 to £11.99, with the advantage for Kindle converts of continuing to read with a click of the ‘buy now’ button.
Selling books cheaply on the Kindle store certainly has its advantages for the right book – for example, launching a new series, as we have recently for James Craig’s debut novel London Calling, which charted at No. 1 for several days this month. Looking outside the top 100 or so in the Kindle chart you see a much wider variety of price points. As the Kindle Store and other aggregators become more sophisticated book recommendation engines, expect books to become more ‘discoverable’ and the current downwards price pressure to ease. Aggressive pricing can certainly be effective, but if the customer can’t find out about the book in the first place, it is likely to disappear into the ether.
Ebook conversion costs aside, entry into the Kindle Store is affordable for all publishers. Simply making your books available should be a high priority, and swift negotiations with authors and agents encouraged. If a title isn’t available as an eBook, readers might get frustrated, buy a book they hadn’t intended to, and in doing so discover a new writer. Getting individual titles and backlists up early is important for this reason.
It has been clear since the Kindle store launched that the early adopter market is hungry for fiction, and that genre fiction, - most notably crime - sells very well to this demographic, so we have made this a focus. One of the first titles we featured in the first Kindle promotion ‘12 Days of Kindle’, was Cath Staincliffe’s The Kindest Thing, an author we have subsequently included in each successive Kindle promotion. Her crime novels have found a receptive audience online, selling for between £1 and £1.79, and have come close to topping the Kindle store for several weeks.
There are almost endless ways to promote your titles both inside and outside the Kindle store. For a brief period, it seemed that price was the only means of promotion, but the market has since matured. Kindle is able to support new initiatives and experiments with posts on their official blog, as well as including key eBook titles in Kindle’s many available promotions. Social media, and the thriving book reading community on Twitter offers the most obvious, and effective means of marketing your books directly, a strategy that works even better coming directly from authors. Some publishers are better than others at creating an all-important sense of community, but it is interesting to see independents such as Angry Robot offering free eBook downloads of forthcoming titles for book bloggers, and Penguin experimenting with offering books in exchange for reviews for key ‘influencers’ on Twitter, eschewing the traditional publicity process.
Now is the time for publishers to begin experimenting with eBooks, moving beyond price as promotion to engage with and create new eBook readerships. Shortfire Press occupies an interesting position in the digital landscape, exclusively publishing digital-only short stories from new and established writers, and I expect many publishers to follow suit by commissioning eBook-only content from their authors. Random House have made long-form journalism a focus of their digital strategy with the Brain Shots series, and the Guardian recently joined the game with their Guardian Shorts debut eBook: Phone Hacking: How the Guardian broke the story, selling for £2.29 and currently residing in the top 1000 of the Kindle store.
We are also beginning to experiment with shorter form eBooks, and have commissioned Robinson crime writers to write short stories on current affairs issues – the first ‘Robinson Quick’, Violation by Cath Staincliffe, on the subject of media intrusion, will be available as a Kindle eBook early September, with Constable and Corsair Quicks to follow.
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