Does This Book Have a Sell-By Date?

do-books-have-expiration-dates-copyright-ks-brooksThe other day an indie author asked for my opinion with this series of questions: “How long is it reasonable for an indie author to keep marketing the same title and expect results? Is there an expiration time for titles in general… even trad published ones? What’s the data?”

As often happens, my first inclination was to respond, of course not, don’t be silly. As Konrath points out, an eBook is forever. There are millions, billions, or trillions of people in the world (I’m not going to look it up, but it’s a bunch, and this is the only data I’m going to provide.) No matter how many copies of a book have been sold, it is only to a miniscule portion of your target audience. Even if we exclude those who don’t or can’t read, don’t understand English, or are readers who never touch your genre, by the time an author runs out of potential customers they’ll have made enough to buy Mitt Romney or maybe even Bill Gates several times over.

But I didn’t want to get slapped for calling her silly, not even a virtual slap, so I took the easy way out, and answered a question with a question. “Why are you wondering?”

It turns out she was pondering what advice she could give one of her peers who was concerned with a decline in sales. Rather than attempt to answer specifically for her friend, because every situation is different, I’m going to throw out my thoughts on the original questions. But first, a few words on the drop in sales.

It takes three to make a pattern and I’m now into the third year of closely observing the Indie book world. The grumblings about low sales start about now and reaches its apex in October or November. With all the talk about books that are good “Summer Reads” or an “excellent choice for the beach,” the reality seems to be that Indie book sales drop in the summer, start improving when the cold and snow of winter come, then really start to climb post-Christmas because nature abhors a vacuum, and all those new, empty ereaders create a vacuum that needs to be filled. (One possible exception to this is the Young Adult genre, for the obvious reasons.)

Back to the original questions, it’s no secret that there is an expiration date on traditionally published books, at least paper books, due to limited shelf space. If the book doesn’t find its audience, it is pulled quickly and is as good as dead. If it does well, then it gets a reprieve, as long as it continues selling. Some of these are obvious. Many of them those books you were assigned to read in school (To Kill a Mockingbird, Hemingway, Dickens, etc). But I did a quick perusal of Amazon and also found Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (first released forty years ago) and Carrie, Stephen King’s debut released the same year, both available in what appear to be current editions on Amazon. I doubt they’re popular selections for high school literature teachers’ reading lists.

However, any marketing endeavor is going to reach a point of diminishing returns. If an author has a single book, unless they’re finding new places with a lot of readers in their target audience who have never heard of their book, promotional efforts aren’t going to work as well, because many of the audience have either already read your book or decided it wasn’t for them. If you’ve written multiple books in a single series, the effect might be the same, as essentially you’re promoting the first book in the series to new readers as you inform existing readers of the new book.

Common wisdom says the best way to increase your sales is to write another book. This makes sense to me. People like new and shiny things. But if a reader enjoys your latest, there is a good chance they’ll go looking for your backlist, so a new book increases sales of all your books. If you’ve written several books in a series, maybe a standalone or starting a new series is the best bet. A reader who wasn’t interested in your series might give a different book a try and, if they like it, reconsider your series with the possibility they’ll end up buying the entire series.

Based on the anecdotal evidence I see on various author blogs and such, those with multiple books see the sales of all books increase with a new release, then sales settle down to a consistent rate with unpredictable ups and downs, one book doing well for a few months and then another suddenly selling well for no apparent reason. Back to the original questions. Does your book have a sell by date? Of course not, Konrath is right, an ebook is forever. But if your book has a period where it does well expect sales to ebb and flow, with your long term sales numbers being much lower than they were during their sales peak. They might hit another nice peak if something having nothing to do with your marketing the books happens (a movie made from your book would be nice, but another book is more in your control.) I think the common wisdom is right. After the initial push, concentrate on the next book.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

30 thoughts on “Does This Book Have a Sell-By Date?”

    1. Yvonne, I think it’s a trade-off. Ideally you don’t want to be so different that the fans you have aren’t interested (see JK Rowling’s novel for adults), but enough different that those who haven’t read you trilogy even if they’ve been exposed to it might be drawn in by the new book or series. Hopefully some of them will like the new stuff enough to be willing to give the old a try.

  1. This is exactly what I experience, Al. Whenever I come out with a new book, sales of the first one suddenly jump. Happens every time. But…with each book in a series I also find it more difficult to market. Many reviewers aren’t interested in the second or third book if they haven’t read the first, and the first is already listed just about anywhere I can list it. If the people who keep up with me haven’t read it yet, chances are they aren’t going to.

    I also always experience a slump in summer. We hear often about summer reading or beach books, but I really think we’re all so busy doing other stuff in the summer that we tend to read less. I’ve been reading the same book for weeks now (I usually blow right through good books). It’s a great book, but the kids are home, we’re going places, etc. Not much time to read.

    1. I agree, Melinda. I’ve decided the “summer” or “beach” reads are a marketing concept. Not that people don’t read at the beach, but books are competing with many activities during the summer that they aren’t other times of the year. Some YA authors tell me they don’t have this happen, but I suspect that is because a lot of their readers have more time and without school assigned reading are more likely to read for recreation during the summer.

      Also, congrats on your new venture and for anyone who hasn’t read Melinda’s series (start with Appalachian Justice), you should. It gets my highest recommendation.

    1. But Laurie, I think what you’re doing is about as perfect as it can be. Not counting your first book (since I haven’t read it I can’t comment) your other two are enough different to pull in new readers, but enough the same that if someone likes one, they should like the other. Your next book fits that as well.

  2. Aha! That explains it! I knew I shouldn’t have rest my laurels after writing just a sneak peak of a novel. 😉

    Great advice as always, Big Al-san!

  3. I’ve been seeing what Melinda sees — a new book boosts sales of others in the series. And I’ve also seen what you’re talking about, Al — my sales are highest in December and January, do pretty well in the spring and early summer, and drop to just about zero starting in September. My theory on the fall slump is that many people are settling into the routine of the new school year. I released a book at the end of August last year and sales were dismal; I’ll never do *that* again.

    I’m actually starting to think in terms of aiming for three new releases a year — one at Christmastime, one mid-spring, and one in late May/early June. I did really well with the “Annealed” launch last month; I paid for a book tour this time around and it made a difference, but I wonder whether I earned enough in sales to pay for the tour, lol. Ah well, I guess I’m still in the “branding” phase….

    1. Lynne, how much of your readership do you think is made of of a YA audience (High School and College students)? I would expect end of August/first of September would be a natural slump for selling books to them.

      1. That’s a good question, Al, and I don’t really know how to find the answer without paying for market research. 😉 But the beginning of the school year is hard for parents, too, with all the kids’ new activities you have to drive them to and stuff.

  4. I agree with the concept of continued marketing of the same book – because I am a writer with a series. The first in my series (which I have decided to keep as a free download) experiences a surge of downloads whenever I choose to pay for marketing. The results usually trigger increased sales of the other books in the series. And writing something else entirely different, to capture the readers that aren’t interested in my first series, is something I’m glad I did as well.

    But sadly, I do not believe in a magic formula that will one day be discovered… which will explain the route to commercial success… I do realize that my journey as an indie-author is unique to me and there is a luck of the draw element that may or may not happen. I’m just happy that I am on the road.

    1. Thanks, Ms. Baum. I agree, there is no magic formula and what works for one won’t always for another. But I think there are some things that increase your chances to get lucky. (Sometimes I feel like I”m channeling Konrath.) Write good books (which you do) and keep ’em coming. I think your serial will work well to draw a new audience, while still appealing to many of the fans of your Immortal Ones series. It was a good idea.

  5. It gets taxing to continue to market only one book. Lucky for me I decided to write a series. As mentioned above I found a spike of all my books when I do a promo. I’ve left KDP Select in favor of bargain book ads and while doing so my other two in the series began to sell. It’s an ever changing road, but one I’m happy to be on.

  6. Interesting post, Al. I’ve heard the same thing from several authors, too. My own experience was the opposite, but my books have only been around for a couple of years, so I don’t have a lot of data.

    Last June sales really picked up, did great through the fall and winter, then began to stall about March. Now they’re starting to pick up again. I did change prices and rework a couple of covers, and had two sales. Another factor influencing sales is that sometimes Amazon rules, sometimes B&N, sometimes iTunes, KOBO, etc. Still, there’s no way to know if it’ll be another good summer until it happens. (I hope so since I have a new title coming out in less than a week, but there’s definitely no guarantee.) Like you suggested above, the one thing an author can control is to write the next book…

  7. Great post BigAl. As a reader, I know I like to read all the books a favourite author has published and feel disappointed if there aren’t any ‘more’. Having a body of work seems to be the one, sure-fire way of keeping interest in your books ticking along.

    1. Thanks Meeks. I don’t do that so much anymore although I have some reviewers who have been known to do that. But when I was younger I’d stumble on a book I’d like and devour the rest of what the author had written.

  8. Great thoughtful post, Al. Marketing one book definitely doesn’t work, but has helped in watching the sales during certain times of the year. I’m currently working on a series now so will be nice to see if they sell better than a stand-alone. I’m also trying a couple of different ways to market them as well.

  9. Good advice, Al. Ideally, keeping up a prolific outpouring should do the trick. I have noted that even very mediocre writers, if consistently productive, eventually get a fair following.

  10. Great post and comments—thank you! I’ve done really well with speaking engagements and many readers are asking for a sequel, but, though I’ve made many notes for the second book (there’s also a third one brewing!), I haven’t settled into real writing. My books are non-fiction. Oh me! This post has stirred the fire again!
    Amazon sales have slowed, but I’m not concerned…Last month I uploaded to Kindle, and was stunned to see the number of sales over a six-week period. Where are the buyers coming from? I’m watching with bated breath!

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