Smashwords Founder Mark Coker Shares Secrets of Self-publishing Success

When it comes to making it big in self-publishing, we all know it takes sales to make your e-book climb up bestseller lists. But how do you know what you should price your self-published story, whether your long and complicated epic is actually a trilogy disguised as one book and if authors who change the prices of their books frequently earn more or less for their troubles? Yesterday Mark Coker, the founder of, an online publishing platform for authors and publishers, gave RT convention attendees a look at how to make “Money, Money, Money” at the panel by that name.

During this RT-exclusive workshop the founder of the self-publishing platform talked about the factors that impact sales, all based on the statistical data mined from the site. As of this week, Coker told us that he was drawing on the data of over one hundred ten thousand e-book authors' sales. Here is a taste of some of the data that he shared about the analysis of Smashword’s figures — and what it says about how you can have financial success with your self-published books!


Do authors who offer free e-books earn more money?

"Anecdotally, yes," says Coker. He went on to explain that his data shows that if you don't change the prices of your e-books, you see slightly fewer sales than those who change their prices once, but several fewer sales than those who change their prices an average of ten times over several months. (However, Coker says, this higher number of sales does not factor in any marketing or other things that might be correlated to seeing a growth in sales. And we think that it stands to reason that an author who is more savvy about changing their sales prices a few times is also going to be more comfortable marketing their work!)

What price point yields the highest net earnings for authors?

Free e-books distributed by Smashwords see approximately 103 times more downloads on average. Coker highly suggests that authors set their first book in a series as free ... forever. This in fact will boost up the sales of the rest of your books in the series, which you can easily set at higher prices. He used Brian Pratt's and Ruth Ann Nordon's successes in self-publishing series as examples, as both of these authors set the prices of their series starters at free, but then charged more for the next books in a move that more than covered the cost of giving away the first in the collection.

And it turns out that while you may see the most downloads if you set your books at free (or up to $0.99 per book), Smashwords authors saw the most sales when they set their e-book prices between the $2.00 - $2.99 range and the $5.00 - $5.99 price range. (As compared to sales of the books that were $1.00 - $1.99 or $3.00 - $3.99.) And said Coker, e-books set at the $4.00 - $4.99 price bracket actually do quite well as there is a percentage of readers that shy away from e-books priced beneath $2.99 as they believe these books to be of lower quality writing.

Coker said it is also important to note that sales prices at different retailers perform differently, so it behooves an author to do some research of their own. 

And when it comes to putting green in an author's pocket, Smashwords data seems to say that authors who price their books at $5.00 - $5.99 make the most money, but those who price their books at $2.00 - $3.00 actually do okay, better, in fact than those who price their books at around $4.00.

For those who want the nitty gritty detail, Coker shared that the optimal price per word is approximately three cents per every thousand words, but there are outliers, so if you have a strong fan base and a captive audience, then you can price higher.

What word counts yield the highest sales, both overall and yield per word?

Smashwords data shows that in general readers prefer longer books, and the top ten bestselling e-books that were distributed by Smashwords had an average word length of 121,395. However, the average word length of the top 1,000 titles distributed by Smashwords was shorter than that. But as a general rule, longer books sell better, and 60% of the top twenty Smashwords bestsellers were over 100,000 words long. (Coker's lesson for authors looking at this statistic however, was that authors shouldn't worry so much about the length of the story or word count but instead focus on writing a really great book.)

How do sales develop over time?

Coker summed his up with the phrase "E-books are immortal" because figures definitely show that the e-books distributed by Smashwords perform better over time. This is notably different from traditional publishing's style of releasing books, where a book, most likely, will not have time to "mature" on the bookshelves if it doesn't sell through its first run of printing. Says Coker, another perk of this lifespan is that books don't have to be immediate bestsellers to do really well. He shared several examples of specific e-book sales trends that illustrated his maxim that "every book has a different [sales] pattern and the authors can't always tell why some books have different breakouts." Which is exactly why sales over time are incredibly important and the longevity of e-books is what gives digitally published works the advantage. (It is also worth noting that books can hit it big at different retailers at different times. So don't expect your e-book figures at Apple to mirror those at Barnes and Noble, Kobo or anywhere else. (Additionally, Coker points out that factors like newly released titles, sale prices that you set on other books and publishing your backlist may all affect the ways that the sales figures on any of your e-books may fluxuate.)

How do romance e-books compare on the metrics above?

When it comes to the length of bestselling romance e-books distributed by Smashwords, it turns out that romance readers preferred books of approximately ~65,000 - 80,000 words in length. In fact, 9 of the top 10 bestselling romance titles were under the 100,000 word standard for books across the genre.

Meanwhile erotica readers, says the Smashwords data, like their books even shorter. Of the top 25 bestselling erotica e-books distributed by the company, the average word length was 79,781 words long, but for the top 10 bestselling eroticas, the average was only 51,185 words long.

The average romance title at Smashwords sells two times better than the average book (and the average erotica titles sells 50% better than the average book).


For more helpful tips and useful hints to finding success in self-publishing, be sure to check out RT’s Aspiring Authors Page. And check back later tonight for more coverage of the 2012 RT Booklovers Convention!