Ebook MarketView: The Value of Promoting the First Title of a Series

Dan Lubart, Iobyte SolutionsBy Dan Lubart, Principal, Iobyte Solutions, with Anne Kostick

[Ed.: Commenters have noted how hard it can be to get a handle on the current state of ebook sales from the shifting and volatile information available to us. Digital Book World is pleased to offer weekly reports from Dan Lubart’s eBook MarketView, to help us see what stories the actual data has to tell. Using a proprietary market analysis tool, Dan pairs publicly available data from multiple ebook retailer bestseller lists with analysis and visual presentation to help publishers identify and understand emerging patterns.]

Finding the perfect price for ebooks often seems more like art than science.

Publishers and authors are testing a method of promoting the first title of a series and/or dropping its price to increase sales of the subsequent books, and the results have swung between resounding success and near-total failure using the same techniques.

Barnes & Noble’s Spotlight program meets all the conditions for a great test for this activity: it is prominently featured on their Nook landing page; the first title of the series is dropped to $0.99; there seem to be at least five titles in the series, which are all (or almost all) featured in the same promotion; and the latest title appears to be a recent publication.

Wicked Lovely, by Melissa Marr, is a series with five current titles, but the older titles may be buried in the backlist. Alerted to its upcoming promotion a few weeks before it went live on the bn.com site, I began tracking the ranking of these titles. The first title was re-released as a promotional item with a different ISBN, which clouds the performance numbers (people still bought the original at regular price!), and the last book was a current release that was already performing well. But books 2 through 4 were all ranked below 5,000 when I began tracking them in late February.

Chart 1: Daily Ranking of Wicked Lovely

Chart 1: Daily Ranking of Wicked Lovely

In this chart, you can clearly see the huge uplift that occurred almost immediately when the promotion went live on March 1. As expected, Title 2 got the fastest and most extreme improvement, but Title 3 and Title 4 quickly followed suit, and all three stayed very strong not only through the end of the promotion (March 31) but well after it. Two months after the promotion ended, they are still substantially better sellers than they were before it started.

Did dropping the price of Title 1 (from $8.99 to $0.99) pay for itself with increased sales, not only of Title 1, but of Titles 2 through 4 at the full retail price of $8.99? I don’t think there can be any doubt in this case that the answer is yes, considering that prices of all titles are back to $8.99 and still selling well. On March 22, Ink Exchange (the second title in the series released in March 2009), was ranked 54 on the Nook Bestsellers list after dwelling below 5,000 only a month earlier. Titles 3 and 4 peaked at 109 and 246, respectively. These titles’ rankings barely budged on Kindle lists at the same time, so we can presume this performance was almost entirely due to the retailer site promotion.

Should every author and publisher rush to try this promotion method? Maybe not: In a subsequent Spotlight promotion, we witnessed very limited improvement in the rankings of the middle titles of a series. Most of those titles moved up from ranks of 30,000 to 15,000 and similar levels, but none cracked the top 1,000; some didn’t improve at all. You could argue that the results were as bad in that case as they were good in this one.

Why did the promotion work so well for Wicked Lovely? One possible answer is that the series, appealing to a young adult/adult female audience in the romance/paranormal genre, plays right to Nook’s strengths. The next series tracked was in the science fiction genre, which probably does not. So the old real estate maxim of “location, location, location” applies in the digital space as well.

Chart 2: Most Popular Words in Kindle Romance Bestseller Titles on June 1

Chart 2: Most popular words in Kindle Romance Bestseller Titles on June 1
Take a look at this tag cloud of the most popular terms in the Kindle Romance bestseller list titles: it’s very non-scientific, but if I wanted to sell a lot of books in this genre right now, I would run with the paranormal angle.

Another factor in its success may be the starting popularity of the series. A series may need to be above a certain sales threshold to be able to benefit from this type of promotion. Perhaps the author and/or publishers supported the promotions differently as well.

As we continue to measure the impact of ebook promotions we learn more and more about what works and what doesn’t. The difference between getting it wrong and getting it right can be enormous, and you can measure that difference with words like “Sales,” “Revenues,” “Profits” and “Bestsellers.”

Dan Lubart is the principal at Iobyte Solutions, an IT strategy firm with a specialty in publishing and entertainment media. Iobyte’s eBook MarketView tool enables publishers, authors, agents and others to study the dynamics of the ebook retail marketplace in various ways. Dan blogs at eBook MarketView.

3 thoughts on “Ebook MarketView: The Value of Promoting the First Title of a Series

  1. Daniel McNeet


    If good books can be exposed, the reader can find them, then they will do well. The problem I see with the price at $0.99 or any other price is: if the reader cannot preview the book, plot and skills of the author before purchase there is no value to the reader at any price. Also, it seems to me the extremely low price would lead a reader to believe the author/publisher does not think highly of the work. Good work if exposed will sell at a reasonable price, not $0.99.

    1. Carolyn Jewel

      Daniel: I’m not sure I follow what you’re saying. While I can’t completely disagree with your comment about the impact of a $0.99 price, if that price is clearly identified as a promotional price that is for a limited time, I think readers will understand that it’s a special deal and not a reflection on the value or quality of the book. Further, it doesn’t take long to find authors who are doing well at the $0.99 mark, so I think it’s premature to suggest that such a price devalues the book — but that’s an emotional analysis I think isn’t the point of this article.

      Nook readers (kindle, too) can download a sample of just about any book. It’s a foolish publisher indeed who would go to the trouble of disallowing that, so I think you’re off the mark there.

      I’m curious about your dislike of the 0.99 price, since this article amply demonstrates that, in the case of Marr’s books, that price led to increased sales across the series — which included books that were priced substantially higher than $0.99. Marr’s series, by the way, was getting great buzz from the start. I suspect the promotion brought in readers who were aware of series, but didn’t want to commit 8.99 to find out if the buzz was right. At 0.99, the risk is low, and the results suggest a great many new readers agreed the series was for them and went on to buy the other books. too. I suspect that may be a reason the second book mentioned here did not do as well. Perhaps there wasn’t already that buzz. However, as I recall, eReader owners are, at the moment, voracious readers of YA and Romance, so that’s a another reason for the poorer performance of the Sci Fi book.

      I think I’d disagree with the characterization of Marr’s series as “Romance” because it’s not. It’s YA. While there are certainly Romantic elements, it’s not Romance.

      1. Dan Lubart


        Good point on clarifying the genre of the series. I do belive you have stated it more correctly than I did in the article. I think there is some blurring in the way we label genres (paranormal romance, YA romance, YA paranormal romance?) but in the end, I think it still plays much better to the core Nook audience than Sci-Fi does, so the point still stands.

        Another key question this starts to raise is about the differences between the two major retailer sites. It really comes down to understanding the way consumer behavior, differs on each. Nook customers are very different from Kindle customers and it is reflected in the besteller lists and how they react differently to promotions and price changes. Kindle readers had every means to be just as aware of these books as Nook readers, but they barely flinched at the price drop. Did the Spotlight promotion account for all of the success, or was it partly due to the difference in the audiences? Would publisher promotion have generated more activity on Kindle?

        What makes this challenging is that publishers have to account for the possibility that they may get a negative revenue effect on Amazon in pursuit of a positive one on B&N (or vice versa). Because the prices are linked by the agency agreement, it’s important to understand how the price change will impact sales on both platforms, even if you are just promoting it on one. (And yes, I know there are more retail platforms…I’m just not sure they affect anyone’s pricing decisions yet). But I think this is starting to veer off into another topic 🙂



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