Survey of a Genre: Science Fiction eBook Market Under the Microscope

So there's two big questions on everyone's minds about ebooks these days, right? 1) How much of the market do indies (self publishers) really have?

2) What price is working for folks?

There's going to be some variability to the answers. Some genres will likely see greater or less indie penetration; some will see higher or lower prices as the most popular. What follows is raw data mined from Amazon (which represents ~70% of the US ebook market, and is therefore a better tool for ebook numbers than Bookscan is for print). Answers from one genre won't answer decisively for all genres. Nevertheless, it's a useful tool for getting some ideas.

Overview

I picked science fiction for the genre to mine. A couple of reasons: SF was consistently a genre where indies had a lower presence in the top 25 bestselling list, for my December/January checks; and I write SF, and have read SF for over three decades, so I know the publisher names very well.

Analysis and data are from the top 200 bestselling science fiction ebooks on Amazon, February 26th 2012. EVERY attempt was made to ensure the data was as accurate as possible. Publishing companies owned by the author were counted as self publishing. Publishing companies which publish any submitted book for a fee were likewise counted as self publishing (there was one case of an Outskirts book). Publishing companies which in any way vet incoming books or have a submission process were counted as traditional publishers (couple of cases of Piers Anthony books by Premier Digital Publishing, for example). Whenever a question existed whether a publisher was trad or indie, I counted it as trad.

Please note that this is a limited data set, from one retailer (albeit a dominant one), about one genre of fiction.

Self Publishing (Indie) vs Traditional Publishing

Top 25 Bestselling breakdown was 72% indie, 28% traditional, with a 18/7 split.

Overall for the top 200 books, there were 154 indie books and 46 traditionally published books, or 77% indie and 23% traditional publisher.

Of interest: out of those 46 trad pub books, only 25 were recent books (which I define as originally published in the last ten years). The remaining 21 were older books, by authors like Burroughs, Heinlein, Asimov, Orwell, Anthony, and Adams. These older books represent most of the prices under $10 for traditionally published ebooks.

A couple of stray thoughts:

1) The idea that "only a few" self publishers are doing well is false. This is 154 books all selling well in excess of a thousand copies per month, in one (rather smallish) genre.

2) The data showed 72% indie penetration for the top 25, and 77% for the top 200. I suspect that the figure would remain roughly constant much deeper.

Pricing

I've broken out pricing by price, and by indie/trad.

$0.99 - indie 48; trad 3; all 51 (25.5%)

$1.49/1.50 - indie 2; trad 0; all 2 (1%)

$1.99 - indie 7; trad 0; all 7 (3.5%)

$2.99 - indie 74; trad 4; all 78 (39%)

$3.95/99 - indie 8; trad 3; all 11 (5.5%)

$4.50/4.79/4.99 - indie 13; trad 7; all 20 (10%)

$5.99-6.35 - indie 2; trad 4; all 6 (3%)

$6.99 - indie 0; trad 4; all 4 (2%)

$7.95-$8.09 - indie 0; trad 10; all 10 (5%)

$8.99/9.00 - indie 0; trad 2; all 2 (1%)

$9.99 - indie 0; trad 3; all 3 (1.5%)

$11.99 - indie 0; trad 1; all 1 (0.5%)

$12.99 - indie 0; trad 2; all 2 (1%)

$13.99 - indie 0; trad 2; all 2 (1%)

$14.99 - indie 0; trad 1; all 1 (0.5%)

Despite the marked dominance of the 99 cent and $2.99 price points, I am noting an upward trend in self published ebook prices among better selling writers. As they grow fanbases, I suspect these writers are becoming more confident in their work and bolder in their pricing. There's a distinct move toward the $4.50-$5.00 price point for indies (8.4% of indie books), and 14.9% of bestselling indie SF ebooks were priced above the $2.99 point.

There's also a distinct drop off point after $8.00. Very few books were able to prove highly successful above that price, indicating that about the price of a mass market paperback is the highest most consumers are willing to pay for most ebooks. The exceptions were books by well known name authors such as George R.R. Martin.

The Future?

What's next? Difficult to say. I feel that the 99 cent and $2.99 points will remain dominant for as long as Amazon continues to use their current pricing structure. The 99 cent point is the lowest price allowed; the $2.99 point is the lowest books can get a 70% royalty from Amazon. That makes these prices standard starting points for newer writers trying to "earn their chops".

I believe we're seeing a trend which will continue of self published authors starting at those points, then gradually moving prices up as they acquire more readership and audience. More books, more years of work in learning the craft, and more readers will enable writers to boost prices and therefore profit more from each sale.

On the trad pub side, I believe we'll see less books published at prices over MMP price. Their ebook prices will trend down - *must* trend down, to compete with indie pricing - so we'll see a settling into $5-8 for most traditionally published ebooks, with higher prices for books they believe will sell well at a higher price. However, with such a high percentage of the ebook market (in this genre; preliminary evidence suggests similar self publishing penetration in most other genres) seized by self published books, publishers are in a tough spot. Retaining dominance in chain bookstores is their only remaining point of strength. As sales in those chains continue to dwindle, publishers will be forced to find more effective ways to regain lost market share in ebooks, or be relegated to a minority market position.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the data presented above! If you see flaws, please point them out; this is the first time I've done this in-depth a survey, but I intend to do more. If there are other things you think I ought to have looked at, or would like me to examine in future surveys, please let me know. Hopefully, this data will prove useful to many of us in making informed business decisions!