20,000 Kindle Edition Copies in Six Months: The Backstory
by Stephen Windwalker
My nine-year-old son’s voicemail message said it all.
“Hi, Daddy, this is Danny. It’s 7:18 p.m. on Saturday, May 3, and I just went onto the Kindle store and saw that for the first time that your ‘Email Kindle and Other Cool Tricks’ thing is number one in the Kindle store! Congratulations! Bye-bye.”
It didn’t matter that Danny butchered my title. He was excited, and so was I. After three months of rubbing shoulders with the likes of Stephen King and Eckhart Tolle in uncharted territory near the top of Amazon’s Sales Rankings for its Kindle e-reader, my “title” had climbed into the top spot. Profiting from the placement perks that Amazon’s search-optimized Web real estate confers on titles that climb its bestseller lists, my title remained at the top for the next five weeks, and it has now been ensconced firmly in the top 15 for over five months. Among over a dozen Kindle titles published by tiny Harvard Perspectives Press, it leads the way with over 23,000 “copies” sold so far in 2008.
Although our independent publishing company had achieved some success before, with five printings of our 2002 online-bookselling bible and several months of brisk sales for a quick-to-market book on the anthrax scare late in 2001, we’d never been in Amazon’s top 200 for more than a couple of hours, and we’d never seen anything like our newfound Kindle success.
I’m no Luddite, but I had gone on record a few years earlier with a windy paragraph in my bookselling book: “The increasingly universal availability of good used books at good prices will tend to slow the growth of e-books and related concepts such as print-on-demand and diminish the likelihood of concomitant predictions of the demise of the mass-printed book.”
If it was time to eat my words, I was prepared to enjoy the meal. Here’s how it happened.
A Platform for Beta-Testing New Publications
It was fiction and narrative nonfiction that inspired me to shift careers into publishing after working as, among other things, a bookseller, publishing executive, and journalist, but I have no illusions about the likelihood that business and informational writing will continue to pay the bills. I was casting around for my next project in mid-November 2007 when I chanced upon Jeff Bezos’s Charlie Rose show appearance pitching the launch of the Kindle. I was immediately charmed by the expensive little gadget—launched at $399, later reduced to $359—and by the fact that Bezos had clearly consumed his own Kool-Aid as he evangelized about a device that could remake the connections between readers and writers, empower authors and indie publishers to cut out intermediaries and their related costs, and offer readers “every book ever printed” in a 10.3-ounce package.
Thinking as an entrepreneurial author, I realized that some very successful writing could be done about the Kindle. It took me about an hour to decide that I was the right person for that job. Within 24 hours I had started work on two books: one on the Kindle as a gadget, with plenty of attention to some neat features that Amazon was playing surprisingly close to the vest, and the other on how independent publishers could make the most of the Kindle as a publishing platform.
I quickly realized that the Kindle could be ideal for reading—and thus for publishing—short works in all categories and genres as well as book-length works. I resolved to take individual chapters of my two works in progress, whenever I believed that they had appropriate stand-alone potential, and publish them as excerpted articles.
This approach had several obvious benefits:
It meant I could market-test the appeal of these books as I worked on them.
It provided potential revenue before completion of the books.
It allowed the excerpts to stand in for the final completed books in ways—given the architecture of the Kindle Store and Amazon’s site generally—that would help create active market expectations for the books prior to their completion.
Less obvious, but equally important, was a feature that I discovered in my project’s early weeks. Amazon’s Digital Text Platform (DTP) for Kindle publishers makes it a snap to update, revise, or create a new version of any title that you have previously uploaded. You can make these changes in the same Amazon Standard Identification Number “footprint” occupied by a title, without terminating or suspending the title. Although the DTP states that such changes will require “12 to 72 hours” to take effect, my experience in multiple revisions is that content changes are live within minutes, while changes in price or the bibliographical material that appears on a title’s Amazon detail page take longer.
It was convenient to be able to make content revisions and other changes so quickly, but the real treat was that anyone who had previously purchased a title could access the revised material with a few easy clicks. This feature enabled me to market a book’s beta excerpt and to promise buyers that they would be able to download the finished product at no additional charge when it became available—a win–win, especially with no production or shipping costs. The feature also has tremendous potential as a tool for publishers who seek to serialize books of any category, or even to provide, in effect, an electronic magazine or newsletter for a single front-end “subscription” payment.
A Growing Customer Base, and Growing Sales
One thing that makes the Kindle platform an exciting opportunity for publishers is that, amid relentless media focus on the declining population of American readers, the Kindle’s “installed base” is a steadily increasing universe of customers who, by virtue of the cold cash they have plunked down for an e-book device, have obviously proven their chops as readers.
Amazon has been very quiet about the number of Kindles that it has sold so far or that it expects to sell in the future, and some critics of the device or the company have come up with lowball estimates of an installed base of only 20,000 or so Kindles. But the actual number is almost definitely over 300,000 and will likely pass the 1 million mark early next year and continue to grow, based on a thorough review of available information in an excerpted article that I have posted on my book’s blog at tinyurl.com/646t6n.
I published Kindle editions of three excerpted book chapters in December 2007, and added four more titles in January 2008 (three full-length books previously published by Harvard Perspectives Press as well as a Kindle original edition of a new novel, Say My Name). Our Kindle edition sales began at 50 copies in December, then jumped to 1,500 in January and over 4,000 in April. In May, when our leading title spent almost the entire month in the astonishing #1 position among all Kindle titles, our sales totaled 7,750 copies. This sales growth reflects the fact that late April and early May were a catch-up time for Amazon’s production capacity against previous backorders. In June and July, my sales fell back to a more moderate but still pleasing 1,000 to 1,500 copies per week.
No doubt you have noticed, and I fully acknowledge, that the title that has produced the lion’s share of our Kindle sales is perfectly calibrated to be a niche bestseller among Kindle owners: it is a Kindle book that is about the Kindle, after all. So the first takeaway lesson I must share from my experience, of course, is that it always pays to focus on content niches and ways of reaching the groups for which those niches will drive readership and sales.
But there are several other e-books about the Kindle, available in Kindle editions, that have failed to crack the top 500 in the Kindle store sales rankings. And I have also been pleased with the sales of our other titles, even those relatively far out in the Kindle store’s “long tail.” We now have over a dozen titles available for the Kindle, including fiction, essays, and how-to books, with cumulative sales figures ranging from more than 500 copies to a couple of dozen. The production, warehousing, and shipping costs are nonexistent.
As the installed base of Kindle owners continues to grow, it is only natural to expect that sales of Kindle-edition copies will grow apace. Amazon’s own management stated recently that, among books available both in Kindle editions and conventional book form, Kindle editions accounted for 6 percent of all its sales during the first calendar quarter of 2008 but reached 12 percent of all its sales during the second quarter. It is only natural, then, for any publisher to look at the Kindle as an essential distribution channel in the very near future.
I’ve been increasingly evangelical about the independent publishing movement since I began reading books by Dan Poynter and John Kremer a decade ago, founded Harvard Perspectives Press in 1999, and arranged with Tom Campbell at adibooks.com for our first print run in the summer of 2000. The velocity of change in technology and its concomitant opportunities for publishers continue to astound me and draw out the early adopter and the cheerleader in me for every enhancement that allows publishers, authors, and readers to connect with each other more directly. For the foreseeable future, the Kindle will certainly qualify as one of those enhancements.
Under the direction of Stephen Holt, Harvard Perspectives Press publishes fiction, nonfiction, art, and memoir by several authors including Holt himself, who uses the pen name Stephen Windwalker for his nonfiction. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.