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.)