Humble eBook Bundle Post-Mortem

The sale period for the Humble eBook Bundle has concluded, and in the course of the two week period it was available it sold over 84,000 copies and grossed $1.2 million dollars, both of which are nice, big numbers. And, if everyone stuck to the default settings (which they all didn’t, but go with me), the bundle raised something on the order of $120,000 each for Child’s Play, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and SFWA, and that’s not chicken feed, either. Unless each of these recipients decides to buy chicken feed with it, and I don’t know why they would, as feeding chickens really isn’t part of any of the mission of any of those groups. Speaking as President of SFWA, I can guarantee that no part of any money my organization might receive from the Humble eBook Bundle will go toward the feeding of chickens. That’s a promise you can count on.

More seriously, a fair number of people have speculated on what the success of the Humble eBook Bundle means for the future of publishing. As both a participant and an observer, I think it could mean something, but before we speculate on what that something means we should look at the elements that made the bundle a success in the first place, and then ask whether those elements can be replicated (and replicated frequently).

So, in my opinion, here are the things that made the Humble eBook Bundle work.

1. The Humble Bundle brand name. The Humble eBook Bundle was not Humble Bundle’s first trip to the rodeo; the organization has done several of these bundling events, primarily with games but also with music. Over the course of its several bundles, it’s developed a reputation for high-quality bundles, low-irritation fulfillment, and for being a desirable group for creators to participate with and for consumers to invest in. In other words, Humble Bundle has developed both credibility and trust in its communities.

This means that when Humble Bundle did its eBook bundle, it already had community buy in, which made it easier for the group to spread the word about the bundle among those most likely to pick it up. Humble Bundle’s primary audience has been gamers, but the overlap between those who game and those who read science fiction and fantasy (the eBook bundle’s primary thrust) is, anecdotally at least, significant, so transferring the goodwill generated by HB’s gaming bundles to this eBook bundle was not difficult to do.

2. A well-curated eBook bundle. First, as noted, it made sense to have the bundle focus on science fiction and fantasy, because of Humble Bundle’s area of success (bundling games to gamers) suggests — to me at least — that focusing on geek-centered genres would be the best path to a popular bundle. Second, the addition at the one week point of the Web comics-oriented book from Penny Arcade, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal and xkcd added an additional area of overlap with both gamers and science fiction/fantasy readers.

Third, the bundle featured an intelligent mix of authors — popular and/or critically well-regarded and spread out across the range of the SF/F genre for a broad appeal to a large number of both established readers of the genre and for those who were dipping their toe into the genre for the first time or after a long absence from the form. The books in the bundle were also well-curated, with books new and old, bestsellers and rarities, novels and collections, cult classics and emerging hits. Something for everyone, basically, and again, the addition of the Web comic books only added positively to the mix.

The books were well-curated for a different reason as well, in that several of the authors — most notably me, Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman, have significant online footprints, both in our own right and in our ability to have a knock-on effect, i.e., to get other people to talk about the things we talk about, online and off. Then add the Penny Arcade folks, who have their own media empire, and Randall Munroe, who has gotten linkability down to a science, and you’ve got the makings of a bundle that will get a lot of attention not only because of the quality of the material, but the ability of those in it to make a conversation about it.

3. It was DRM-free. Leaving aside the technical/commercial/rhetorical arguments for and against DRM for now, there is a significant group of people — which I strongly suspect is highly correlated with the sort who would have an interest in the Humble Bundles generally — for whom the presence of any DRM is a deal-killer and conversely, the lack of DRM is in itself a selling point, independent of the actual contents of the bundle.

4. The charitable angle. Again, an anecdotal observation, but one founded on my own experience drawing attention to work I’m involved in: people seem to be more willing to engage in something offered online if there’s a charitable hook to it. The idea there being that you’re not only getting a good deal but you’re also doing some good, for people who are helping others and/or are fighting the fight for you.

5. Relative Uniqueness. The Humble eBook Bundle was the first high-profile attempt, with high-profile creators participating, at doing an ebook bundle. That in itself made the bundle attention-worthy (or at least, attention-attractive).

6. The ‘Pay What You Want’ and ‘Time Limited’ aspect. The fact one could get the whole thing for a penny, if one chose to go that route, brought some folks to the door. After that it was up to the people participating to set the average price, which unlocked extra books. Humble Bundle also does a very good job at engineering the bundle’s dynamics to encourage people to pay more than the bare minimum. There was also the fact that if you didn’t get it within the two week window, it was gone, which both motivated people and gave the bundle a frame to work in, especially when it came to generating conversation — “Will the ebook bundle crack $1 million in sales before it closes up? Tune in tomorrow!”

So, those are the things that have made this ebook bundle a success.

Can this success be replicated? Well, I think in the future Humble Bundle has a reasonably good chance of replicating it, as they’ve pioneered the formula, have the good will of the community and otherwise are well-positioned to make it work again, even as the relative uniqueness aspect fades. Other folks trying to hook into this formula have to find a way to compensate for the advantages HB brings to the table, which it has cultivated over time. I think other organizations will find it more difficult to replicate this particular formula for success, in part because they don’t have what HB has at this point: the name brand and the track record, which give it an ability to attract top-line talent and to generate attention that moves large number of bundles.

Now, this one particular formula isn’t the only possible formula for ebook bundling success, but inasmuch as I think all of the factors in the formula contributed to its success, I wonder how much fiddling with the formula will increase the difficulty for success. Could a major publisher create an attractive eBook bundle without, say, incorporating a charitable aspect, keeping DRM and establishing a lower bound price of more than a penny? Sure, and I would be very interested to see how it would play out; my own opinion is that it would probably not work as well. Likewise, a charitable organization which created a bundle which did everything the Humble eBook Bundle did, but which did not have authors who were well-known or had significant online footprints might also find its bundle facing a steep path to success.

It’s not to say other organizations shouldn’t try and experiment and see how these things work. I encourage the publishing industry to try lots of different things and to see how they work, so long as that experimentation is not done by the coercion of authors, and that the authors are adequately compensated for their participation. It’s more to the point to say that they should be aware that, like so many successes that seem out of the blue and/or accidental, the success of the Humble eBook Bundle wasn’t out of the blue or accidental at all. Expecting the same sort of success without considering all that went into that success is not at all likely to get you the results you want.

I have some thoughts for authors thinking of participating in a bundle like this to consider, but I’m going to put those in a separate entry. Stay tuned (Update: It’s up now.)

43 Comments on “Humble eBook Bundle Post-Mortem”

  1. Are you sure you can keep that promise John? Don’t the Were-badgers eat chickens when not out destroying your multitude of foes?

  2. With the initial bundle (before they added the several graphic novel collections), I saw three books I had not bought previously. But I bought in at the $25.00 level because I thought it was a great idea. I can’t see this succeeding (say) monthly, but 1-2 times a year, with similar good choices in titles? It’ll do great.

    It’s a shame these sales were not counted in the bestseller lists. That would have made the sleeping industry sit up. (They’d probably try to repicate it and fail…but at least they would try something!)

  3. Feel a need to point out – Baen books has been bundling ebooks for over a decade with a fair degree of success. It is not nearly as high-profile as the Humble Bundle, and it will be interesting to see how their model holds up now they are not one of few publishers actively pursuing ebook sales. There model is based on a mix of new releases and backlist books, priced for less than the cost of a hard cover, and released a month before the new releases come out in stores.

  4. Since I first heard about the Bundle on Whatever, I thought that I would give you my thoughts as to why I donated. I believe that I am probably older (fast approaching the big 6-0) and more luddite (I own neither an e-reader nor a tablet) than many of the individuals who donated, and these are among the first e-books I have ‘purchased.’ For me, the most important of the reasons you mentioned were probably, in order, 4, 2 and 6.

    I think that the charitable hook is what first drew me in, especially since I have supported two of the charities in the past. I also agree with you that it was a very well-curated package. Even though I own hard copies and have read several of the titles, it will give me a chance to sample several writers with whom I am not familiar. Finally, as one who is fairly unfamiliar with ebook formats and is not sure if I want to go that route, it gave me a chance to sample various examples for a low investment (though I did give more than the average).

    (And, for a semi-luddite question, I will be apt to download these books to an older model MacBook running Mac OS 10.6 and/or to an iPhone 4S. Does anyone out here have any recommendations for a good reading program, especially for the MacBook. Thanks)

  5. Highest for me was #4. I’ve donated to all of these charities in the past and benefitted at least one. The Pay What You Want was nice- I paid well above the minimum, but much less than the books would have cost as individual purchases. Plus, I liked supporting DRM-Free books. (Now to get some sort of e-reader or tablet)…..

    I hadn’t heard of Humble Bundle previously, but the presence of writers and artists that I trust made me willing to buy.

  6. Looking at the indie gaming world, it seems there are diminishing returns for bundling over time. Humble Bundle is the 1000 lb. gorilla of bundles, and they sell bundles like flap-jacks at a Paul Bunyan convention. Number 5, which included basically every must-play indie game from the last 5 years (Amnesia, Limbo, Psychonauts, Bastion, Super Meat Boy, Braid, Lone Survivor, Superbrothers) cracked $5 million in sales, with about 600,000 total bundles sold. That’s pretty impressive, but as one might expect, a host of imitators have sprung up in HB’s wake (e.g. Indie Royale, Indie Gala, etc) and, while most of them have some degree of success, none have even close to matched HB’s; the most successful typically sell 20,000-40,000 bundles, and some struggle just to get a couple thousand. This happens, I think, because the relative obscurity of the smaller bundles means they struggle to attract both consumers and developers. As a result, the quality of the games they offer is second or third tier. And it seems that the payoff for the bundles is pretty sensitive (as might be expected) to the quality of what’s on sale. An example: after the success — mentioned above — of HB5, HB6 offered a group of first tier, high quality games that were just not “indie game of the year” winners, and made less than half of what HB5 made.

  7. I didn’t buy the bundle because there were books that didn’t interest me. I’d like to see a future bundle that would let you pick from a larger set of books to assemble your own bundle.

  8. Missed it. I … some how I thought it ran through October, I can’t think of why I thought that. Maybe something else does. Ah well.

  9. @Colin – The good thing about the Humble Bundle was that they were separate files. You could just ignore the ones you didn’t want.

    It wasn’t like some other bundles I’ve bought (through publishers) where you get one file having two (or more) books.

  10. Colin, in essence, you could have assembled your own bundle and paid what you thought it was worth, even if it was only one or two of the books. I expect never to read some of the books in the Humble Bundle, especially the comics, and I took that into account in setting the price I decided to pay.

  11. If there were only 1 or 2 books in the bundle that interested you why not pay what you think is fair and download? It’s not like anybody was going to slap your hand for paying less than average, if that is where your number came in.

  12. So the whole article was cool Mr. Scalzi, truly. I however was looking at the pie chart for some time (my obsession with pie charts is a dark secret of mine, don’t tell) and I gotta ask; whats up with Linux user on average paying more? Is it a simple situation of that OS being smarter and therefore the users being smarter and therefore being more charitable? I don’t know I use Windows and on average we Windows users paid less. I think that it is an anomaly that someone should be looking into.

  13. Thom Gough, I noticed the discrepancy from the first time I looked at the site when John posted here about it. My speculation is that some of the big-number donors are Linux users. That would skew the numbers high for Linux.

  14. @JoelZakem:  Consider this a shameless plug for Calibre. It’s a bit more than an e-book reader – it’s a cross-platform e-book management system – but worth every penny it doesn’t cost.

    Disclaimer:  I have no MacBook (nor experience with same) and I must screen. ;^)

  15. > I can guarantee that no part of any money my organization might receive from the Humble eBook Bundle will go toward the feeding of chickens

    That’s a fairly difficult promise to keep, as it implies knowing that nobody who your organization pays out of the proceeds will then turn around and use some of the money they got to pay chickens.

    So: does the SFWA know the chicken-owning status of all of its employees and vendors?

    Enquiring minds want to know.

  16. I came across this bundle via Cnet (which also pushed the Humble Bundle), but do not think it is curated as well as the SFWA version. However, I may give it a try to get some new horror novels.

  17. BS, I agree that is what has happened, I just want to know why. Is there really a personality difference among different OS users, that would be amazing to study.

  18. BW, not BS… sorry about that. I’m going for more coffee, and not posting for a while…

  19. When you have a limited budget for books and live someplace where getting books can be challenging as I do, it’s difficult to spend money on an author you’ve never read. Mr. Scalzi’s endorsement prompted me to spend the money as I was assured I’d find value as most, if not all of the selections would be entertaining. I have not been disappointed.

    Thanks for the recommendation.

  20. I had bought some of the previous game bundles so I am on their email list when new bundles come out. I’ve visited this blog before, but actually never looked into the books you’ve written. I’m generally interested in fantasy and sci-fi, so I decided to jump in. As you say, the previous humble bundles have built up good will and trust. I was completely unfamiliar with “Old Man’s War,” but it was the first book in the bundle I read and I loved it. It brought me back to your blog, and now I’ve already bought “The Ghost Brigades” to read on my smartphone. I hope I enjoy the other books in the bundle as much.

  21. The bundle is a good way for publishers to support both their back catalog and feature new authors. I bought it for your book, the Doctorow & the Gaiman but discovered Kelly Link and now I want to know what else she has written.

  22. Matt W: There’s often more to it than that. I missed Indie Bundle 6 (or would have bought it), but I bought Indie Bundle 5 not for the games (most of which I already had in one form or another) but for the soundtracks. I had some of the songs in the Humble Music Bundle, but considered it worth it. In the same way, I’ve read some of the ebooks in this bundle, but thought it was worth it for charity and the ones I didn’t have (or getting ebook versions of print books I have). I skipped one bundle specifically because I had too many games. Heck, there are several games from previous bundles I haven’t played that much due to time restraints.

    One thing to note is that many of these bundles have high profile games available a long time after they have pretty much sold to their core audience. Braid came out on consoles in mid-2008 and PC mid-2009. Putting it in the bundle one and two years later allowed it to gain sales it might not otherwise have gotten. The same is true of games likes Super Meat Boy, Bastion, World of Goo and so on.

  23. 2,4,6 for me. Never heard of Humblebundle before. And already own OMW, but in dead tree edition. I was interested enough in the other books and our hosts recommendation to punt in above the average asking price.

    I liked the ability to slide the charitable donations, too – I’m not a fan of EFF, as I think it is too extreme, but the ability to cut them out meant a lot to me.

    I did read Pirate Cinema, though – enjoyable but a bit candy coated, though I assume it is a YA book.

    I can see buying a bundle every six months or annually, more than that gets a bit too much.

  24. Everything about the Humble Bundle is full of win. The three things I love about it the most are that I got a selection of books from authors I know and ones I don’t (some titles I would not have bought individually); I got to give to charity and control the ratio of giving; and delivery was a snap. I love the game bundles for the same reasons.

  25. Re: breakdown by OS

    I don’t think “discrepancy” is the word you’re looking for. The high-level donations (and it looks like Wil Wheaton was having a bit of fun there) drop off pretty quickly, and the sample groups are simply too large for ten or even twenty donations at the $460 mark (the average of the top ten donations) to have that large of an effect on a large group. Also, there’s nothing to state that the large donations were made from any specific platform. I’d love to see some anonymous data on that: each donation amount, the time of the donation, the average price at the time of donation, and the platform the donation was made from.

    Also, keep in mind that the vast majority of Linux desktops are community-supported distributions such as Ubuntu, Fedora, and Mint. There are a few advertising tricks they use for some income, but most of their income is via donations. So, the idea of a pay-what-you-want, combined with being associated with a really cool charity, appeals very much to the Linux way of thinking.

    But this does make me think of something that might be a drawback for HB. Suppose a big donor wants in on the action, and gets there early when there are only a few hundred purchases, and tosses in a ridiculously high amount (with 200 purchases at $1.00, big kahuna tosses in $20,000). Suddenly, the price for an average unlock goes from $1 to $100, which could discourage people on a tight budget from playing. Those people who are conscious of that effect might be encouraged not to donate that high, but that’s still a detriment to the charity. The solution would be either a ceiling to the math driving the average, or providing an option to not include the amount in the calculation. The first would be practically invisible, and nothing’s there to say that they don’t already do that.


  26. @Jessica Burde – if you’re talking about the monthly Baen Bundles – what they used to call Webscriptions – that’s an artificially-serialized format, which is a bit different.

    Aside from all its other good aspects, I’m hoping that a regular-ish Humble eBook Bundle might be a good way for timid authors/publishers to dip a toe in the unencumbered water, and hopefully discover that the universe does not in fact end as a result. I think John’s spot on about the anti-DRM zealot dollar, including DRMlessness being a selling point in itself, though I think that’s going to play out as a first mover advantage. If you were doing the Right Thing when all around you were running lockin plays, we’re going to remember you fondly for a long, long time. Johnny-come-latelies, not so much.

    I was a bit surprised to see the Linux/Mac/Win average-price-paid rankings carry over from the game HBs. There it’s a vote for platform support, but that doesn’t really apply to books.

  27. I already own OMW in ebook, and a couple of the others in the bundle. But I didn’t have the XKCD book, and have been wanting it for quite some time. Plus DRM-free? SOLD! Sent all the charitable amount to Child’s Play, because I donate to them every year anyway, and this seemed like a great way to donate and support the Humble bundle project.

  28. Also crap. I’m too broke this time around. Put together another one some time in the future and I’ll be glad to hop aboard.

  29. @B. L. Holliday 14:22
    In re: your average-distorting, big-kahuna scenario:
    Use median average instead of mean average — less sensitive to outliers.
    However, no handy =median() function like the =avg() function AFAIK.

  30. RE: Avg. paid per OS – I am a Linux user. Have been for years. When the first Humble Bundle was announced, it caused something of a stir within the community that supports the Linux distribution I use. Here were some previously “unavailable on Linux” games which were now going to be playable cross-platform. Linux has been largely ignored as a gaming platform since it has a smaller user base than either Windows or Mac. Smaller user base equals smaller return on the investment to make a game cross-platform.

    It is my (not backed up by a shred of evidence) opinion that many Linux users have viewed the Humble Bundles as a vehicle for encouraging game developers to support Linux by showing that there are many users willing to buy the games. That support is shown by paying more than the average. It is a way for us geeks to say, “Hey! I’ll give you money if you’ll develop games for me!”

  31. I’m surprised you (or anyone else) haven’t mentioned story bundle. Story bundle launched a few months ago, providing a similar service to the humble bundle but with a key twist – stories prominently feature indie authors rather than well known writers.

    Here’s a link for anyone interested. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone at humble bundle saw this and then decided to the humble e-book bundle.

  32. Really? Would you be able to elaborate what problems you have with something like story bundle? I would think you’d be all for indie authors getting their work out to a larger number of readers. I’ve bought the first two bundles and really enjoyed the majority of the books, so its been a great hit for me.

    Also, not sure why my name came through as “samsam” lol.

  33. “Problems” in this case relating to getting sufficient publicity for the bundle, not regarding the quality of the books. I have no opinion of the quality of the books, having not read them, although I suspect they’re probably at least fine.

  34. Gotcha. Well I can’t help but think that these kinds of bundles (just like with any bundle regardless of media) simply promotes the author and his work. I don’t see how that can be a bad thing.

    As for the quality of the books, some of them are surprisingly good. They can be plagued by the fact that they didn’t have a professional editor going over the work, but the majority I’ve read have been surprisingly good. A big standout is Joseph Lallo’s Bypass Gemini series.

    Considering that indie writing (not just in bundles like this – but also through publishers like amazon) have really taken off in the last few years – it’d be interesting to hear your take on it. Is it a good thing that anyone with a story can write a book and publish it with minimal effort? Will well known authors have to compete more to stay relevant? Will publishers focus more time on trying to find “hot” indie writers?


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