Selling short fiction as Kindle and PDF downloads

>> Monday, June 1, 2009

Over the past week, John August has had an original short story he wrote available for sale both as a Kindle download and as a PDF download. The price: 99 cents. John's a screenwriter by trade, but he was asked to write a story for a print anthology that may or may not materialize, and wanted to do something with his story. Rather than submit it to national magazines, he thought he'd try this online experiment with it instead, and the results are fascinating. Numbers and a blurb from his blog:

"Short version: I sold more copies than I expected, with fewer technical issues. I had picked the Friday of Memorial Day weekend precisely because I hoped it would be slower-paced, allowing me to fix whatever disasters struck without a crush of weekday traffic. But I could have been more ambitious, and a mid-week launch would have made more sense."
Yes, he makes only .35 out of .99 for Kindle sales! Even so, he made more money selling through Amazon because three times as many people downloaded his story for the Kindle than did for alternative eReaders. (I, who own no Kindle, bought one of the PDFs and read it on my computer.)

The New York Times
wrote an article about John and his experiment today, in which they report that "[a]s of Friday, 'The Variant' was ranked No. 69 on Amazon’s list of most popular Kindle offerings, right behind 'My Sister’s Keeper,' by Jodi Picoult." That's not too shabby. But as John will be the first to point out, his sales at that level may not be as sustainable as Picoult's. Amazon doesn't give him any kind of breakdown on his sales--not even by day!--but he was able to use the PDF downloads from e-Junkie to make some observations. John sold 171 downloads of The Variant PDF on the first day, but was selling only 17 a day by week's end. More than half his sales came in the first two days. He'll no doubt continue to sell The Variant over time as new readers find him, but probably never again in those early, bestselling quantities. John again:

"It’s a fine number of sales for a short story that would have likely been buried in some specialty magazine. But I’m not sure I can offer any meaningful analysis of the publishing model, partly because I started with a higher profile than many fiction writers might."

And therein lies the rub, as Hamlet might say were he in the publishing industry. (And not fictional.) Could I acheive the same kind of numbers he did in one week offering up an original short story on Amazon and on my website as a PDF? No. I don't have his audience. Could I sell those numbers over time? Perhaps--and since uploading a story to Amazon is free, it wouldn't cost me anything to try it. And though I'd be selling directly through the Evil Empire (as far as the Rebel Alliance, er, independent bookstores, are concerned), I'd be selling something there that indies couldn't sell. It's not like they have a section for short story chapbooks, and it's not like I can afford to print up short story chapbooks anyway. These would be middle grade and young adult short stories that would have no other venue. (And don't tell me Cicada; they're closed to submissions from authors they haven't worked with before, and they can't pay their contributors right away either.)

So I'm considering it. I hate that Amazon would take such a bite, but you can't argue with sales figures of 3 to 1. I'd still want to offer my stories as PDF downloads on my own site using a service like e-Junkie, but there's a pound of flesh to pay there too--it costs $5 a month to post up to ten items for sale. Would I, over time, be able to make back the cost of the cart service, and then profit on top of that? Even with ten stories up for sale?

Aye, we're back to that rub again. More thoughts on this as I tinker.


J. June 1, 2009 at 12:52 PM  

I will be interested to see how this works but how does John Allen have a following if he normally writes screen plays? My kids have nmo clue who writes their favorite movies.

Alan June 1, 2009 at 12:58 PM  

It's John August, and he has a following not because of his movies, but because he writes a really GREAT blog about writing--and hence has hundreds, if not thousands, of wannabe movie writers (and probably a fair number who ARE movie writers) checking in to read his pearls of wisdom. And I gotta say, in the week since I found him and his Variant experiment through someone's Twitter, I've gone back time and again since then to read some of his older posts, and they're full of great writer advice and anecdotes. THAT'S his audience--writers!

Fabricationist June 1, 2009 at 1:59 PM  

Wait for Google to get in the game.

Alan June 1, 2009 at 2:03 PM  

Awesome. Now I want them to make a Kindle-quality reader that I can put anything and everything on, not just what they sell. Enough with content slaved to the device people want to sell you! Working titles of the word unite!

Jodi Cleghorn June 2, 2009 at 1:26 AM  

I'm intrigued by the experiment and will be forwarding this onto my business partner in London.

We have been looking at ways to allow all writers to access a market for their short stories (because we believe short stories are the new big thing - they're short, read in the time it takes to order coffee and finish it)

At around $900 with a continuing (albiet dribble on market) it's a boon for short story. How much would he have sold it for?

It also proves that a successful high traffic blog is the way to go for writers - free publicity. I read recently you need a core following of 1000 fans who will spend up to $100 a year on what you create.

I'm off to check out e-junkie.

Thanks for sharing this and thanks to Jon for the post on Facebook that lead me here.


Alan June 2, 2009 at 10:07 AM  


John addresses that very question (how much would he have sold it for to a magazine) in this post. The caveat here--and he's up front about it--is that he has a strong following on his blog, and thus a built in audience. As you say, it is the well-run blog that may be a writer's best friend.

I can tell you that I've made .05 a word on stories sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. That's a professional rate (at least according to organizations like SFWA) and I was thrilled to make the sales. My first story with them earned me about $300. But if you compare that to the kind of money you could potentially get selling a story yourself...

The question for me becomes, would enough people find me and my stories--and BUY them--to actually earn more than a national magazine would pay me? And is the exposure I get there worth a little something extra to me?

I'm definitely going to try this with a couple of stories I like but haven't sold, and see what happens. I'll report the results here on the blog when I have them.

Thanks for reading!

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