Top Sales Categories, Most Common Prices, Box Sets, And Other Useful Indie Sales Data

This Friday I recommend checking out Smashwords survey results for 2017 regarding sales by independent (self-published) authors. Smashwords is the world's largest distributor of ebooks by indie authors.

The slides below summarize and show graphs of the survey results. Slides 29-30 show Top Categories for fiction sales on Smashwords (the top three are Romance, Erotica, and Fantasy) and non-fiction (top three are Self-Improvement; Health, Wellness and Medicine; and Business and Economics).

The slides also cover the most common prices ($2.99, but Free for Book 1 in a series), facts about box sets, the value of pre-orders, and the word counts of best selling books.

There was a little bit here that gave me pause, as a pie chart on Slide 32 shows of the Top 200 Best Selling Smashwords titles, 73% were Romance, which I don't write, and only 1% mystery, and I just finished a first draft of Book 1 in a new mystery series.

But it's important to look at more than one of the slides, and to look at the big picture. Despite the 1%, Mystery and Detective is No. 3 on the list of pre-order books capturing an outsize share of the market (Slide 78). Looks like I'll be doing a pre-order of The Worried Man.

Until Sunday, when I'll write about Kobo, an ebook publishing platform that can help you reach readers all over the world.


L.M. Lilly



Scrivener (Tools of the Writing Trade No. 1)

Recently I tried Scrivener, a new software (at least new to me) for writing.

I started word processing when I worked during college. I temped at different companies, and I learned many word processing programs. (Word Star, anyone? Yes, that long ago.)

Of them all, Microsoft Word emerged as the winner in the business and legal worlds.

In my view, Word was clearly not the best, but because I used it for legal work, I used it for my other writing, too. No sense in confusing my finger/brain connections with multiple programs.

Now, though, once again you can choose from many other options.

In this post, I'll talk about Scrivener.

Scrivener – Software For Writers

Over the last year, I kept hearing about Scrivener. In blog posts and podcasts, writers raved about it having been created specifically for writers and about its organizational features.

After using it for a 30-day trial, I bought it for Mac for about $40. I mostly used it to create blog posts, but kept writing novels in Word.

Recently, though, I started writing a non-fiction book (on creating characters) in Scrivener. I discovered I love the program.

Here's why:

Non-sequential writing

I tend to write novels in order. I begin with a rough outline of five plot points, then I write from point to point. When I rewrite, I mostly do that in order as well, or I'm searching for specific character names or scenes.

Word works fairly well for that, though once the document gets past 50,000 words, I sometimes see certain functions (such as Spell Check) failing.

With non-fiction, it's not always obvious what topics should come first. My topics on character creation include, among many others, how the character handles confrontation, how the character defines family and who belongs to it, personality traits, and impressions others have of the character.

Some topics lend themselves to entire chapters, others to a paragraph. I don't always know which until I start writing.

With Scrivener, I can open a folder, label it by a topic name, and start writing, then create another folder and another. The names appear on the left, so I can easily see the topics.

I can also easily rearrange them with a click and drag. That, for me, is the best feature.

What you'll see


Scrivener offers display options Word doesn't, including a corkboard with index cards. With a click of a button, I can see my topics as if they were pinned to the corkboard.

I can rearrange them on the corkboard, too, again by clicking and dragging.


The folders are the equivalent of chapters. You can write directly in the folder. You can also create sub-sections under the chapters. It's easy to switch a topic from a folder to a sub-section or to rearrange within a folder.

This is wonderful if you hit a point where you realize that a topic you thought you could cover in a couple sentences actually requires a few pages and its own chapter.

Research and notes

The right side of the screen allows you to enter all kinds of information, such as research or notes, that won't appear in the manuscript but will be easy to access.

Referring to other documents

Scrivener allows splitting the screen.

You can view two different documents, such as an outline and the manuscript. Or you can view two different parts of the same document. This is particularly nice if you need to edit a section that may be repetitive or that refers to a previous or later chapter.

30-day trial period

You can download a 30-day trial version of Scrivener. The best part of that is that, at least when I downloaded it, that meant 30 days of use.

So if I worked on a manuscript for two days, then had a week where my law practice took up all my time, I'd only used two days of the trial, not nine.


As I write this, Scrivener costs between $35 and $45 (a bit more if you want it for Mac and PC both).

The Downsides Of Scrivener

Scrivener does have some challenges.

For one thing, you will definitely want to use the tutorial. At least, I definitely did. While you can learn a lot by playing with different features, I don't find the icons or the menus particularly intuitive.

In fact, I struggled a lot with certain features. Once I did the tutorials, they seemed easy.

Also, while Scrivener is available for Mac and PC, I've heard that it's not quite as amazing for PC. It's a good enough program that if you have a PC, though, I still encourage you to try it out. My guess is that it's still much better than Word for long documents.

Have you tried Scrivener? If so, please share you experiences in the comments.

Until Friday–


L.M. Lilly

P.S. For software that will convert your files into ebook and print formats for publishing, see Using Vellum To Create eBooks And Paperbacks.

Book Launch Tips

While I don't write in either genre, I recently started listening to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketing podcast. The three hosts combined have a good mix of experience, as they've self-published, won awards, and had books traditionally published.

This particular episode grew from a snafu. The hosts planned an interview with Nate Hoffelder (of The Digital Reader blog) about recent publishing news. Some tech issues cut that short and made it hard to hear. So the hosts added a first segment where two of them  talked about their recent book launches.

SFFMP 137: Launching Books That Aren't “to Market,” Agency Pricing, and Are Ebook Sales Down?

I loved that because they covered the challenges of marketing books that don't fit perfectly in the more typical genres and sub-genres.

Other topics in this episode included:

  • ebook pricing
  • payments to authors for pages read of books in Kindle Unlimited
  • KU scams
  • ebook subscription services
  • the pluses and minuses of paperback and audiobook publishing

The Nate Hoffelder segment is a bit hard to decipher in spots. Also, I found his cockatiel chiming in a little distracting, despite myself being the proud owner of a very cute bird, parakeet Joss Whedon, shown here admiring himself–I mean, inspecting the chair leg in my office.

If you're short on time, you may be tempted to skip that second segment. If you can fit it in while dealing with dishes or laundry or jogging, though, it's worth it.

Until Sunday, when I'll share my experiences using Scrivener to write non-fiction–


L.M. Lilly

The Beauty Of Book Fairs

A lot of authors question whether in-person book events are worth doing.

For the last few  years, I’ve brought my books to one of the largest outdoor Illinois book fairs, the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago. I’ve also sold books at several indoor events during that time.

Here's what I've learned:

Getting People To Your Table

At previous events I stacked my books on the table with a couple propped up for visibility, along with a poster for the first book in my Awakening series.

When people stopped to browse, I’d ask them what they liked to read and tell them about the premise of the series. I often felt awkward and salesy because, as a reader, I usually want to browse in peace.

This year a friend suggested I have a spinner where people could win prizes, as everyone likes to play games and win things. I was skeptical, but the night before the fest, I went to Target, bought a cheap game of Twister, and modified the spinner.

The four prizes were candy (Jolly Rancher), a free audible download code, a free signed paperback, and a free e-book.

To play, people needed to sign up for my email list.

It worked out great. People stopped to check out the spinner. When I explained the prizes, they asked what the books were about. That made it easy to tell them the premise of my series and the other books.

If they weren't interested, they didn’t sign up. If they were, they did. Either way, it felt like a relaxed, natural conversation.

Paperback winners all chose the first book in the series. While that’s a loss to me in the moment, I got an email sign up for each and the potential of three more book sales, as it’s a four-book series.

The exercise also helped me learn about people's reading habits. In previous years, I had a drawing for a free audible code and most people said, “What's Audible?” This year, that was a big reason people wanted to spin, and the three people who won the codes were really happy.


New Readers

If your primary goal is sales from new readers, you’re probably better off skipping book fairs and spending your time and marketing dollars online.

I say that because unless you’re already a well-known author, most sales you’ll make at live events will be from people that you draw there through your mailing list, social media, or other publicity. Attendees have a limited budget to spend and a ton of books to choose from. If they don't already know you, it's hard to get them to part with those dollars.

Also, it’s hard to compete with the pricing at many fairs. Several large tents at the Printers Row Fest, for instance, sell all their books for $3 each.

[Further–and slightly more encouraging–thoughts on making connections with new readers are included in the 2018 article Sitting, Not Pitching, and Relaxing: Lessons Learned at This Year's Book Fair.)

Current Fans & Friends

So why work to drive people who already know about you to an in person event?

For one thing, it's a reason to contact readers and fans and post on social media without just saying “Buy my book.” A fair is fun, it's exciting, and it's a chance for them to meet you in person if they haven't before.

Also, an event can nudge acquaintances or friends who have been meaning for a while to buy one of your books to take the leap. Finally, for some people, seeing you at a book fair with paperback books that they can touch and handle legitimizes or validates your work in a way that seeing an e-book or audio book online does not.

What Sells

In e-book and audiobook format, my best sellers are my series books, especially now that it's complete. So I brought only a few each of my standalone horror novel and nonfiction books. To my surprise, the non-fiction and standalone sold quickly, while I only sold one series book, and it was to someone who specifically came to buy it.

My guess on why the standalone sold better is that if someone doesn't know your work already, buying the first book in a series seems like more of a risk or investment. Also, my standalone novel had a tie in to the neighborhood, and I made that part of my pitch: “Gothic Horror In The South Loop.” Plus some people who came already had the Awakening series, and they wanted to buy something new.

One of my non-fiction books also had a tie-in. It's Super Simple Story Structure, and I was under the Chicago Writers Association tent. Quite a few writers stopped to ask about the association and then looked at the book. That made it an easy sell.

Time, Location, And Exposure

One reason to lug books to a book fair and spend all or part of your day is that even if you don't sell much, people who might not otherwise come across your books become familiar with them.

Exposure at a book fair or other live event can be particularly helpful if you mainly sell e-books or audiobooks. In person, you get in front of people who may only read in print.

But to get exposure people need to see you, and that’s not always easy.

The worst placement I ever had was on an upper floor in an indoor book fair. The main room was on the ground floor of a large building. While lectures and discussion groups took place on the upper floor, there were no signs directing people there. If you attended and didn't look at the program, you’d think the only book tables were the ones on the first floor.

At Printers Row, which is an outdoor festival, there really are no bad locations, but some are better than others. Single tables stand along the sidewalks on either side of the street. They seem to get fewer browsers, maybe partly because they're directly in the sun.

I typically buy half a table for a few hours under the Chicago Writers Association tent. That tent is one of many set up in the center of the main street at the fair. (This photo shows the afternoon before the book fair.)

I like that placement because more people seem to explore the tents at the center of the street. And there's shade.

Also, when you're in a row of four or five authors, that's more books to look at and more authors to talk to. The wide variety makes people more comfortable approaching the tables even if they’re not sure they’ll be interested in what’s on display.

While you often won't know in advance where you'll be placed, you can investigate. Usually there are online maps from previous years. Compare them to the prior year's program to help figure out what the main attractions are and how close or far away you'll likely be. It also helps to talk to others who have been at the fair in previous years (readers or authors).

Time of day also matters. Printers Row is a two-day book fair, and I had the best results the morning of the first day. Attendees are more excited about being there early in the fair. They’re not on overload yet from too many books and people. Also, they're still enthusiastic even if the weather is too hot/too cold/too windy. (Chicago weather is rarely “just right.”)


The cost for in person events varies widely. An individual table at large fairs can run thousands of dollars. On the other hand, I’ve paid less than $50 for half a table or a spot under a larger organization's tent. Both paperback book release parties I organized myself were at coffee bars where I paid nothing for the space.

Your time is also valuable. There is travel and set up time, as well as however many hours you won’t be writing, handling other aspects of your writing business, or using your time some other way.

Finally, packing the books for travel and the handling they get at the book fairs means at least of few of the ones  you take back home won’t be shiny and new anymore.

The Verdict

I've found book fairs fairly close to home and reasonably priced (below $100) worth doing.

They're great for connecting with people you've met online but not yet in person, or who've bought e-books and want to meet you and buy in print. You can also gain email sign ups and may sell a few books to brand new readers.

There's also the plus of new people seeing your books at the fair and later buying when exposed to your books again.

To make the most of a book fair, it helps to figure out a fun way to draw people to your table, to find out as much as you can about placement and time slots in advance, and to figure out a pitch with a local or event tie-in.

Questions? Experiences of your own to share? Please post in the comments.

Until Friday—


L.M. Lilly



Publishing Paperbacks: CreateSpace And Ingram Spark

If you are publishing your book yourself in print format, you'll need to decide what publishing company to use.

This article by Karen Myers on the Alliance of Independent Authors website explains why some authors use two companies–CreateSpace for books sold on Amazon and Ingram Spark for other distribution outlets, such as Barnes and Noble.

Right now, paperback editions of my Awakening supernatural thriller series are published only through CreateSpace, but I'm thinking of adding Ingram Spark, as it appears from Myers' article that bookstores will be more likely to carry the books. Note that you need to use your own ISBN (the number that identifies your book) with Ingram Spark, so you will spend a little more.

Until Sunday, when I'll share some tips on book fairs.


L.M. Lilly

Learning About Point Of View From Donald Trump And James Comey

This past Thursday, during time I’d scheduled to work on my current novel The Worried Man, I found myself glued to the TV instead. I watched former FBI Director Comey testify about conversations with the President.

When the testimony was done, I flipped between commentators on different channels, then listened to the President's personal lawyer give a rebuttal.

I felt like a slacker until it hit me—I might not be writing, but I was learning a lot about point of view.

Who Has The Most At Stake

A good rule of thumb in fiction is to write from the point of view of the character with the most at stake.

If, for example, an employee is called into the boss' office on Friday at 5 PM to talk about an issue that might get her fired, odds are she has more at stake than the boss.

But it's all a question of perspective.

If the boss is being scrutinized by her supervisor for unfair hiring and firing practices, she may have a lot on the line too.

The stakes of a story or a scene rest on a lot of factors. Going back to the hearing I watched, since we can't know for certain what the facts are in the real life theater of United States politics, let's imagine we’re writing a novel about a fictional President Grump and former FBI Director Spumy.

If President Grump really did or said something that could get him impeached, that’s high stakes for him. That would make watching the Spumy testimony through his eyes compelling.

Grump would anticipate every question, sweat over every answer, and worry about what words would come out of Spumy’s mouth next.

Spumy, on the other hand, has already been fired. That suggests that the stakes for him are pretty low. Using that set up, writing from Grump’s point of view is a no-brainer.

But it’s not hard to shift the scenario if you as the writer want to do that. If our fictional FBI Director Spumy is lying, he could be exposed as a fraud or eventually convicted of perjury.

To add to the imbalance, let's say our fictional president is a lot like Jed Bartlet of the West Wing. Our Bartlet-like Grump would have acted in the best interests of the country at all times, and his confidence that nothing bad would come to light would be well founded. He wouldn’t sweat through the testimony.

In that scenario, Spumy’s point of view is hands down more interesting to the reader because he's the one with the most at stake.

When Everyone’s Risking Something

The best novels–and scenes–are when both the protagonist and antagonist have a lot at stake.

In our example, let’s say Spumy is telling the truth as he sees it. He can still be stressed. His reputation is on the line.

To further raise the stakes, you could create a fictional former FBI director who feels strongly about being seen as truthful and reliable and, to up it even more, who dislikes the spotlight. (This is fiction, remember.)

All of the above would make testifying nerve racking for Spumy.

Similarly, even if Grump did nothing wrong but the way he conducts himself makes everyone think he did, he could still be in hot water. After all, it’s often the appearance of a cover up, not a bad act itself, that gets a politician in trouble.

So our fictional president might believe he did everything right but still worry about impeachment and watch the testimony with his phone on speaker with a direct line to his lawyer. (Perhaps with his hands cuffed behind his back to keep him away from his Twitter account.)

With these fictional characters, I’d write the scene first from one point of view and then the other. The contrast between how the two men see the same event and the same testimony would draw the reader in and make it fascinating to read the same scene twice.

Who's the hero and who's the villain? That's for the reader to decide.

Until Friday-


L.M. Lilly

Children’s Books: To Self–Publish Or Not To Self-Publish?

Recently a friend asked me to review a children’s book she’d written and advise her whether to seek an agent or traditional publisher or to publish it herself. I don't write children's fiction myself, so I researched. I’m passing on what I learned for those of you who write for children or plan to do so.

To start with, I did try some children's writing right after I graduated from college. For years I belonged to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It remains a wonderful resource. The SCBWI hosts local and national events, has regional chapters, and offers information and articles through its website.


This 2016 article from Writer's Digest lists agents looking for children’s books with directions on submitting. It’s a year old, so you’ll want to check each of agent’s website to see if the directions are still accurate, but it’s a great way to get started if you'd like to find an agent.

Here is an article on writing query letters to agents or editors regarding children's books. (The article provides a good overview on queries for any writer.)

Finally, if you think you might want to get an illustrator, or if you've illustrated your own book, this article on self-publishing children’s books from Huffington Post provides useful information.

Until Sunday, when I'll be writing about point of view as inspired by real life events between the current president of the United States and the former FBI director—


L.M. Lilly

P.S. If you’re in the Chicago area tomorrow (6/10/17), check out the Printers Row Lit Fest. You can find me and my books under the Chicago Writers Association tent on Dearborn Street just north of Polk Street in Chicago. There are tons of writers, books, and events, including many for children, throughout Saturday and on Sunday as well.

Can Every Book Be A Bestseller?

If you connect on Twitter with other authors or you see Facebook ads about books, you’ll often see tags like “bestseller” or “bestselling author.”

What does this mean, and how can your book become a bestseller?

Amazon Best Seller Lists

If you primarily sell your books in ebook editions or plan to, the best shot at a bestselling book is to hit one of Amazon’s Best Seller lists. These lists include the Top 100 sold or downloaded, update hourly, and are available for numerous categories and sub-categories. Each list has a Free ebook category and a Paid ebook category.

The more competition there is, the harder it is to get to the top of that list, even for an hour or two. Sub-category lists are easier to top than more general categories.

As an example, as I write this article, the No. 1 Kindle Best Seller in Literature & Fiction > Horror > Short Stories (Paid) is No. 2,616 on the overall Kindle Best Seller List (Paid). In contrast, the No. 1 Kindle Best Seller for the more general category of Horror is No. 4 on the overall list. So it takes a lot more sales to make it to the top of the Horror list than to make it to the more specific list of horror short stories.

It’s even harder to be on top of the Kindle Mystery, Thriller, & Suspense list, as the No. 1 book there right now is also No. 1 on the overall list.

Because the lists update hourly, though, one really good sales day can put your book in the Top 20 of more than one category even if you don't reach the Top 100 of the overall list.

The highest overall ranking my first thriller The Awakening reached was 128 on the overall Paid list and it stayed there for less than a day. But more than once it's hit No. 1 on the the Horror, Occult, and Feminist lists, and stayed in the Top 20 of those lists for many weeks.

Amazon Charts

As I noted Friday in Topping The Charts, Amazon recently rolled out Amazon Charts. The Charts list the top 20 Most Read and Most Sold books for fiction and non-fiction on Amazon.

Right now, these lists include mainly well-known authors and books that have been around for quite some time, such as the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. This suggests it’s quite challenging to get to the top of it.

All the same, the Amazon Charts may be easier to reach for self-published authors than the USA Today and New York Times bestseller lists.

That is so because, not surprisingly, the list does not require books to be available on multiple platforms, but only on Amazon. It also takes into account ebook, print, and audiobook sales combined.

Based on these factors, it appears to me an author who sells only Kindle books through Amazon could reach the list. Likewise, it seems an author whose living is mainly made through Kindle Unlimited page reads could see a popular book on the Most Read list.

Finally, most self-published authors I know rely heavily on ebook and audiobook sales. The fact that print sales are not favored means a better shot at the charts for them.

USA Today Bestseller List

To get on this list, a book must be available on multiple platforms. That means that if you sell your book only in a Kindle edition, it can’t become a USA Today Bestseller.

Author Joanna Penn describes in an article on her site how one of her J.F. Penn three-book box sets hit the USA Today list. The box set was normally priced at $6.99, and she put it on sale for $0.99. She lists her total sales for the week (4,294 Kindle, 491 Kobo, 544 iBook, 902 Nook), the places she advertised, and her costs versus sales.

While based on that week only, Penn reported a $787 loss, she felt it was well worth it for a host of reasons, including a bump in sales after hitting the list, a significant increase in her email list sign-ups, and the cachet of being a USA Today Bestselling Author.

I encourage reading the entire article, especially if you’d like to try the strategy yourself.

The New York Times Bestseller List

This list is what’s known as a curated list. It is not a by-the-numbers list of the books that sold the most for the week. Rather, the New York Times uses a formula, which it keeps secret, to choose the books.

It's been reported that only a select number of book stores throughout the country report their sales to the New York Times list. New York Times curators review the books that sold the most and decide which ones are worthy of being New York Times Bestsellers.

There is a lot of speculation about what factors influence the list, including that is it is weighted toward independent book stores and does not count big box stores such as Sam’s Club, that it favors authors who have been on the list before, that it looks at sales stamina as well as one-week sales, and that bulk orders (such as 50 books that a corporation orders for a seminar) are not counted the same way as individual sales.

The list splits out print and ebook sales. This means that you might sell enough overall to qualify for the list but not enough to reach either the print or ebook list.

Author and marketer Tim Grahl's article analyzing the New York Times Bestseller list and what it means and doesn’t mean is also well worth a read.

Until Friday—

L.M. Lilly


Topping The Charts

If you haven't already done so, this Friday I recommend checking out Amazon Charts. For a long time, Amazon has made available best seller lists in multiple categories that are updated hourly. (For instance, you can click and find the Top 100 Free Occult Kindle books or the Top 100 Paid Reference books.)

Amazon Charts, though, is something different. It lists the Top 20 books for the week in four categories. Most Read Fiction, Most Sold Fiction, Most Read Non-Fiction, and Most Sold Non-Fiction. The lists include audiobook, paperback, and ebook sales on Amazon.

These companion lists allow for comparisons between what people are buying and what they are reading.

Until Sunday, when I'll talk more about best seller lists–