The Great eBook Experiment, February 2012 Update

For the people who already know the background of this, bear with me a moment.

I’ve been running an experiment since June of 2010. The experiment involves finding out what happens when you put up a free ebook online and instead of promoting it decide to let it “sell” (it’s free, so “sell” may not actually be the right word …) via word of mouth. More accurately, the question is, does that ever actually work, and if so, how well?

We, as a community of writers, are taught, by and large, that ebooks need constant attention and spam-style promotion to succeed. And that’s probably true for most books. But there’s this vast, unexplored territory of kudzu-style proliferation that exists in the real world marketplace, where unforeseen factors, shifts in social and economic status, and the vagaries of the wider field in which a product or idea exists, can directly affect the success or downfall of that item or idea, and that, to me, is the much more interesting aspect of the writer’s market.

Now, the history of this idea goes a little like this: I had dashed off a novella (about 45.5k) in six days. Wasn’t really interested in expanding it to full novel length, and not really knowing what to do with it, I tried wading into the ebook market. Put it up for sale (priced at what I now know was slightly too high for the length/self-publication) and saw 1 sale until I discounted it down to free, about a month in, as part of a opt-in sale. For that month, there were purchases. A fair, if not impressive number, actually. So I decided to make it free in general, and since I had done no actual promoting of the work (which is also part of why there was only one sale first month out) I decided to see what would happen if I let the work speak for itself, doing absolutely no promotion whatsoever (though I do occasionally talk about the experiment here on the blog).

Now, before we get into numbers, it’s worth mentioning that like any slow growth investment (which is pretty much what this is the marketing equivalent of), there will be little to no attention early on, until the work in question starts building momentum. And because we’re talking about a novella, and a writer (me) with no real market presence already, whatever momentum is generated will be a rock rolling down a hill, not an avalanche coming down the mountain.

It is also worth mentioning that this has been an experiment with a) a novella (not quite as bad as trying to sell a novelette, but not much better either), b) no expectation of making a profit doing this (free to download, remember?), c) this experiment was run through Smashwords (which has deals with other distributors for cross-market hosting, but not with Amazon), d) the novella in question is Spec Fic, so it really has no bearing on how this might work for other genres, and e) I would probably do a ton of things differently with the book were I to do this again (like figuring out how to embed the damn cover image in the ebook file, and I think I would probably go with a tighter prose style, among other amendments).

So, to show how this has worked out so far, I’m putting up the “sales” numbers for the ebook, broken up by various categories:


Total book sales, June 2010 to present: 3250 (approximate)


Smashwords sales (all time): 700 (approximate)


Other retailers, by year:


Barnes & Noble – 65
Diesel – 3
Kobo – 25
Sony – 51


Barnes & Noble – 2022
Diesel – 5
Kobo – 79
Sony – 296


Barnes & Noble – no information yet
Diesel – no information yet
Kobo – no information yet
Sony – 6


Barnes & Noble is clearly the market where this book does best, and to that end, I thought it might be interesting to see a breakdown of B&N sales by month:


Barnes & Noble sales, by month:


August – 1
September – 9
October – 4
November – 23
December – 28


January – 29
February – 55
March – 38
April – 84
May – 165
June – 207
July – 238
August – 187
September – 145
October – 141
November – 148
December – 585


No, I can’t explain that massive jump at the end of 2011. I expect a massive drop off for January of this year, but I could also be pleasantly surprised, I suppose.

Interestingly, the only place I’ve received comments (aside from one at Smashwords), is the Barnes & Noble listing for the book (shocking, right?). The B&N page for An End to Dreaming can be found here.

There’s been no fiddling of anything on that page on my part; no attempt at manipulating comments or ratings – I don’t have a B&N account so I can neither reply to comments, nor rank them in terms of usefulness.

And, of course, if comments and ratings tell us anything, it’s the affirmation of the adage that you can’t please all the people all the time:

One commenter would have liked more description (that novella is extremely lush as it is), another wanted to see more of one of the central elements (which is only the pivot the entire plot revolves around, and which has a very healthy presence in the book, I might add). Others didn’t understand the book (no book can speak to everyone unfortunately), others just didn’t like it (ibid), and some were equal parts enthusiastic and quietly disparaging (it would have been better if you had …).

Like any form of haruspicy, we’re picking over old bones and entrails, and at best guessing what they mean when we look at numbers like these. But, given the unusual nature of this book’s sales process (the “no marketing” thing), it’s interesting to see some internal numbers. At least, I think so. And how often does anyone run this experiment, really?

And for anyone who would like to contribute to the experiment, the book is free to download everywhere it’s been hosted, so, if you’re curious, go ahead and grab a copy.

If anyone has questions concerning the experiment, or comments to make, feel free to do so. Feedback is always welcome :)

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5 Responses to The Great eBook Experiment, February 2012 Update

  1. Dandelion Head says:

    So are the results of the experiment such that you’d try the experiment again? On a related note, I admire Paulo Coelho, whose bestselling book was originally distributed for free. Maybe his was a spectacular breed of kudzu, but I don’t know. It might be an experiment to learn from!

    More info:

    • I think I might try this again in future, but I don’t normally write at that length, and it’s not nearly as interesting an experiment with short stories. So, we’ll have to see.

      As to Coelho, yes, there is a kudzu element to that massive explosion of sales. Also, his work is very, very good, which is not always the driving force behind high sales, but it’s still nice to see it happen with good work. I think, also, that Coelho’s embracing of pirating/free copying and distribution of otherwise copyrighted works has helped. For all the damage that pirated copies do to a writer’s earnings, they do tend to have a very positive effect on exposure, which can, in the right set of circumstances translate into more sales. So, it’s a bit of a round robin really, but there is something to be had even from not technically “selling” your work, when speaking to this kind of kudzu-style marketing/market boom.

  2. Pete Denton says:

    They are impressive numbers and you have had a good experiment. Good luck with 2012 numbers

    • Well thank you :)

      They’re really not half bad, yeah. I’m curious to see what those numbers look like in half a year or a year’s time though; kind of wondering whether the trend will continue or fall off. Guess we’ll have to wait and see.

  3. I thought your study quite interesting. I’ll be putting up my own novel a supernatural/thriller. I’ve been doing lots of premarketing. It’s quite a learning experience. By the way, my name is Michael Matheson

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