Confessions of an Ebook Publisher

Confessions of an Ebook Publisher

Last week an ebook by an author you’ve probably never heard of celebrated one full year in both the Kindle and iBooks bestseller charts, and did so firmly ensconced in the Top 10 of both.

Confessions of a GP by Dr Benjamin Daniels was published in both print and digital formats in August of last year. A possible Tesco promotion fell through at the last minute, even though we had changed the cover at their request, which was disappointing and left us with a very mass-market looking book on our hands. Thankfully it didn’t put off WH Smith or Waterstone’s who promoted it in their multibuy offers and it sold very respectably, 500-750 copies a week for a short while, before dropping off to just over 100 a week once the promotions ended.

So much for the print edition, for a few paragraphs at least, the really interesting stats come courtesy of the ebook. All Friday Project ebooks are priced at £2.99 or below. We do this for a number of reasons, chief among them being that we tend not to publish big blockbusters from household names (OK, we never do that) and we feel that a competitive price at least gives our books the chance of being noticed from within the digital throng.

And that policy seemed to work reasonably well when it came to our GP, helping to sell a couple of thousand copies in its first month and for it to linger around the lower reaches of the retailer ebook charts. It was holding its own alongside the print edition nicely.

Sales doubled the following month, around the time that the print version was at its peak so no surprise there. Once the book dropped out of promotions the ebook sales also declined, back to a couple of thousand a month (not that I am complaining about that level of sales, mind you).

But then something totally unexpected happened: the ebook started climbing the iBooks charts. I hadn’t noticed at first; it had been hovering around for a while but there was no reason to expect a sudden flurry. But a flurry came nonetheless as readers started rating it, and rating it quite highly in the main with 4 and 5 stars. It appeared to be a bit of a word of mouth hit among iPhone and iPad users and once it reached the top ten it stayed there.

When the nice people at Apple noticed how well it was doing they gave it a bit of a promotion on the iBooks main page and this pushed it up to the number one slot where it stayed for pretty much the whole of Christmas, occasionally being knocked off for a day or so by Keith Richards, Alan Sugar or another festive heavyweight, but always popping back up to the top spot.

One year later and the book is about to notch up its 100,000th sale. It is, at the time of writing, #7 in the iBooks chart and #9 in the Kindle bestsellers. So why has it been so successful, and why have such a high proportion of its sales been on the digital format?

Well, the honest answer is that I don’t know. But I do have some theories.

The early Apple success was certainly helped by the fact that a number of major publishers did not have their books on the platform at that time. Dr Ben didn’t have to fight any dead Swedish crime writers for a high chart position.

Apple’s own support, and their reaction to its early success, was a massive factor. Their decision to get behind an unknown book that their customers seemed to like was a canny bit of old school bookselling in the digital age.

The catchy title didn’t hurt. Neither did our blurb (and metadata) which was pithy and summed the book up in just a few sentences.

Our pricing policy also seems to have done the trick. A year ago £2.99 was a very low price for a title from a major publisher. It is not so unusual now of course but it made a difference in those early days. We have made a couple of strategic drops since then: going to £1.99 when the book started to drop down the charts and, more recently, to 99p to support the big Kindle Summer Sale. On both occasions the reduction led to significantly increased sales across all retailers. This latest 99p reduction will deliver sales in excess of 20,000 copies during August alone. It will go back up in price in September.

There is also, to be fair, an element of self-perpetuation once you hit the top of the charts. Thousands of people check out their Kindle, iPad or other device every day and with many of them noticing Confessions of a GP at #1 there must be a temptation to check it out.

But, most important of all, it is a cracking little book: funny, moving, insightful and thought-provoking. Its short chapters are ideal for reading on an electronic device and Ben’s simple, direct style has won him many fans. Although within the nearly 2,000 reviews and ratings on iBooks and Amazon there are a fair few people who didn’t like it. But at least they bought it first!

But what has this meant for the print edition? Have these huge ebook sales at low prices killed off its more expensive version?

Nope. Quite the contrary. Depsite not being promoted in any bricks and mortar retailer since last autumn it has gone on to sell nearly 15,000 copies according to the Nielsen figures and its best sales of 2011 have come in the few weeks since we dropped the ebook down to 99p. Average selling price of the print edition during this time? Between £6.50 and £8.

So there you have it. A relatively unknown author sells 100,000 copies of his debut book without a single review in the books pages, with no retail promotions after the second month and largely on the back of ebook readers discovering it themselves and spreading the word.

And the story doesn’t end there. With last month providing the book’s biggest ever sales there is no sign of this phenomenon slowing down. Dr Ben has written a bunch of new chapters and these will form part of an updated and extended edition that will hit bookstores and online retailers in November.

So happy birthday Confessions of a GP, here’s to another year in the charts!