The Humble eBook Bundles and Authors

So, having now been a part of the first (but almost certainly not last) Humble eBook Bundle, I’ve had some folks curious about my thoughts on it, particularly as it relates to money. Here are my observations on the matter, and how those observations might relate more generally to authors. What follows relates specifically to the Humble eBook Bundle; I don’t know if my observations would be more widely applicable to any other possible eBook bundles.

First: I’ll probably make a lot of money on the Bundle, but possibly less than you might expect (and less per unit than I otherwise would). People are naturally interested in how much money I and other authors will make from the Bundle. Well, for the first week at least my default cut was 7.9% of money coming in (my default cut was in there independent of the fact that my book has considered a bonus book for people who paid more than the average). I didn’t check after the first week when the Web comic books were added but I suspect my default cut went down a bit, probably to something like 5%. Let’s say for the sake of easy math that when all is said an done my default amount of the bundle  was something like 6.5%. That would mean that my default gross cut of the Bundle would be something on the order of $78,000.

Now, here’s why I won’t get that much in net. One, while the Humble Bundle had default percentages, people could change those defaults and probably did. I assume that if they did change the defaults, they were not in my favor (I am assuming they would be in the favor of the non-profits, which would have been just fine with me). So the likelihood I’ll get that that total $78k seems small to me. Additionally, Old Man’s War is published by Tor, which has the rights for electronic versions of the book, and which will take its (totally fair) cut of the proceeds.

When all is said and done, if I end up with $20,000 (before taxes) then I figure I will have done well.

And to be clear, $20k would be a nice sum of money. I would not look askance at it. I will take it. Don’t cry for me, really. But that $20k will be a substantial discount, per unit, to what I usually make for the book electronically. The Humble eBook Bundle sold 84,219 copies, which is great; my book along with Neil Gaiman’s and Dave McKean’s was offered as a bonus book for people who paid more than the average price, so for the sake of simplicity (i.e., math people, don’t bug me with mean vs. median), let’s say OMW was in 42,110 of those bundles. For electronic books, I make 25% of the net to the publisher, and Old Man’s War currently sells as an eBook at $7.99. Unless I’m doing my math incorrectly, my cut is about $1.40 per eBook for OMW (no, $1.40 is not 25% of $7.99; remember, I’m working off of net). If those 42,110 copies were sold straight up, I would gross $58,000.

So, basically, if I gross what I expect to gross from the Humble Bundle, I’ll be taking a roughly two thirds cut in my income per unit than what I usually do.

(Again: This is all back of the envelope math, unencumbered by actual verified numbers and sums. This is just me speculating on what seems reasonable to expect, given what I know.)

Does this mean I’ve gotten ripped off by participating in the Humble Bundle? Of course not. One, I don’t usually sell 42k copies of Old Man’s War in two weeks, so I’m having volume compensate for per unit sales, and it doesn’t seem to have had a negative impact on OMW’s weekly sales in any event (i.e., it’s additive, not subtractive). Two, Old Man’s War is the first book in a series, and many of the people getting OMW in their bundles haven’t read it before. If they read it and like it, the additional books in the series are going to get bought and I get full freight on those, and otherwise it raises my profile as a writer.

Three, I knew going in how Humble Bundle does things so none of this was a surprise. I signed on knowing that, theoretically, everyone could slide my slider over to “$0.00” and I would ge nothing. Four, I did it mostly to help funnel money to the non-profits who would benefit (including SFWA), so anything I eventually get I figure is a nice bonus. For three and four, OMW is already well into the black and is the book of mine best designed to generate attention and interest, so it made that book an ideal candidate to be included in the Humble Bundle.

What does all this mean for authors participating in future Humble eBook Bundles?

1. Authors participating should know they are likely to get less per unit than they would in retail. That may be compensated for by a large number of sales (there are no guarantees, remember), but at the end of the day it’s still a fact to consider.

2. They should be understand that given the variable nature of the sliders, that they could get substantially less than what the “default” amount would be (they could also get substantially more, but that seems unlikely to me).

3. They should probably come in with a desire to have their book help the designated charities/non-profits, not to get a hot tub full of cash for themselves.

4. In the end, it’s probably best to consider the participation to be low-margin (but also low risk) advertisement for one’s name as an author and for one’s other works.

5. If possible, select a work of yours whose presence will benefit you and the Bundle best.

I was delighted to participate in the Humble eBook Bundle, and especially delighted to help drive so much money to the non-profits who were designated recipients. I would do it again. But I do want to be sure other authors thinking of participating know what they’re getting into if they are asked to participate.

(For more general thoughts on the Humble eBook Bundle, see this entry.)

45 Comments on “The Humble eBook Bundles and Authors”

  1. For my part, I already owned a copy of Old Man’s War, so you got money from me that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

  2. Thank you for participating, I – as consumer – like the humble bundle idea enough to buy a bundle and never touching any of the games. With books it is even grander and I will surely read them. I bought the book bundle (with bonus) despite owning signal to noise and OMW, seeing authors participate who were not really in desperate need of sales made my decision to pay for bonus. I really hope there will be more book bundles and that other authors will follow your example. Thanks for suppoorting this.

  3. I completely agree with lain’s comments. I also buy a bundle of games never touching most of them. I , too will read all of the books. I own a hard copy of OMW and loved the idea of having a DRM free copy for my Kindle. Truly appreciate John Scalzi’s support.

  4. I’m new to your work, and due to the Humble Bundle and Reddit essay up on Gawker, I gave Old Man’s War a shot. I couldn’t put it down, and I read it in one day. I’m absolutely going to read the rest of the series, and I’m going to give your other books a shot too. Thanks for being a part of the bundle!

  5. OldBrownSquirrel, same here. Though technically I had a physical copy and this was the first ebook I got. But I tend not to buy ebooks of physical books I own unless there’s some kind of special deal*. So things like the Humble Bundle, which have a mix of books I’ve read and not read (since even if I don’t like the ones I’ve never heard of, I still got books I want to reread), as well as being DRM free and substantially cheaper than buying a la carte from B&N, are great.

    * I suspect eventually I might start, since I don’t relish moving my physical library around when I finish grad school, and things like comic books and my non-fiction with nice color pictures or my work library tends to take priority over my paperbacks. But it’ll be a gradual process and probably weighted by sales and time-limited things like this.

  6. With the caveat that ‘data’ is not the plural of ‘anecdote’, IIRC, when I bought mine, I slid the slider basically *all the way* over to the charities, figuring that the point for most of the authors involved was to be helping the charities.

  7. Interesting perspective on ‘how you did’ as part of the Bundle. For reference, how long *does* it usually take you to sell 42k copies of _Old Man’s War_ ? It presumably takes about a third of that time to make $20k. Presuming that sales don’t fall off, another way to look at it would be that participating in the Humble Bundle sped up sales by that last timespan divided by the length of the Humble Bundle run – at a “cost” of the 66% per unit… and “cost” is in scare quotes because it’s really unclear if those sales would have happened without the Humble Bundle.

  8. I will be honest, I paid less than the average so I lowered your share down to 0. I have bought every Humble Bundle so far, sometimes paying over the average, sometimes not. I feel like this was the first one where you could designate the split to individual contributers, previous ones you could only split between Developers/Artists (as a whole), Charity, and Bundle Tip.

  9. This is my 3rd copy of Old Man’s War that I have bought. My paperback given to a friend and I bought the eBook after Tor went DRM free. This copy is going to my Dad, he’s having surgery in a couple of weeks and was looking for some good books to read while he recuperated. I was going to loan him my copy of OMW (because its DRM-free) but now I can just give him a copy that he can keep forever (again, I can do that thanks to no DRM.)

  10. I was really excited to see the DRM free “humble” ideas translated to ebooks. I’d like to buy more books this way rather than the lock-in ecosystems.
    Having old man’s war was frosting on top even through I’ve already read through the OMW series, but after sending extra copy to my wife there’s a good chance she’ll read through them as well.

  11. I already own Old Man’s War. I purchased a paperback as well as a Kindle copy. So this is the third time you’ve gotten money from me for the same book!

    Pirate Cinema is available on Cory’s site DRM Free under a CC license and Invasion was on one of the Baen CDs so it can also legally be downloaded for free.

    I still participated because I liked the charities, the other books were interesting and as long as I read more than one of them I’m ahead of the retail cost.

  12. I’m one of the Humble Bundle purchasers who had never read one of your books before. OMW was the first book I read from the bundle; I bought The Ghost Brigades and Redshirts immediately upon finishing it. So, there you go: anecdotal evidence of an increase in your readership as a direct result of your participation in the Humble eBook Bundle. :-)

  13. So as far as Scalzi content is concerned, I visited the Humble Bundle site b/c you asked me to. I already purchased 2 copies of OMW (paper + ebook) and so this is my third.

    I was interested in the bundle b/c I am already a contributor to EFF and don’t mind them getting money, but really if my intention was to give them money, I should just do that. I BOUGHT it because I was just about to buy Pirate Cinema that day anyway as it turns out. Doctorow had a sale cannibalized by this in my case. I gave 3x the average due to this fact. (good book in case anyone is interested).

    The good news is that I LOVED “Pump Six and Other Stories” by Paolo Bacigalupi. After I finish a couple other books from the bundle, I will buy “Windup Girl” by him. Effect: PB gets some add on sales, the charity gets some cash and I get some comics too boot when I get around to it.

  14. Does this mean I’ve gotten ripped off by participating in the Humble Bundle? Of course not. One, I don’t usually sell 42k copies of Old Man’s War in two weeks, so I’m having volume compensate for per unit sales

    So… having the retailer have a say in sale prices, rather than having them set solely by the publisher, can have a positive impact in your income.

  15. Independent verification on Point the Second (increased sales of the later books): a while back, I tried to get my housemate to read your work. Though an SF reader, she brushed me off at the time. When I mentioned the Humble eBook Bundle to her, she decided to buy it because, hey, books! And charity!

    Though she’d blown off my recommendation of Old Man’s War in the past, having now gotten a copy in the bundle she decided to give it a try. Upon finishing, she immediately went out and picked up The Ghost Brigades and The Lost Colony.

  16. All this talk about the humble bundle and The Human Division got me thinking about Old Man’s War. So, I downloaded it from my archives and read it again. And it was so damn good, I downloaded The Ghost Brigades and read it. And now, I’m reading the Lost Colony. So, I’ve fallen in love with those characters again, appreciated them and cried with them.
    And NOW to find out that John and Jane and Zoe aren’t in the next one is really hurtful, John. We really have to catch up with them. It’s your fault. You made them so real and endearing, they got hooked to our hearts and now we can’t let them go. Even a postscript with Where are they Now is preferable to not knowing.

  17. My question would be how this would be considered a charitable donation for you. If you donated a signed first edition dead tree book (such as for a raffle), you could claim that as a charitable donation for the fair market value.

    The question is how that would apply here. Since you have essentially donated part of the profit from 42k books, could you simply count the difference b/w your eventual take and the standard profit, or would if have to be based on how much the sales benefited the charities?

    It’s a puzzlement…

  18. I just got an email from Thriftbooks (Who have told me that they are aware
    that customers are idiots who can’t remember a password and might sober
    up by the time the password reset hits the inbox and were working on how
    people buying stuff in brick and mortar stores could be applied to creating a
    guest account).
    They said it nicer.
    Uhm, what was I saying, ‘K.
    They said: ”
    We … introduce … our best book bundles yet!

    Now, about the money math.
    I don’t recall (duhh) where I bought the hardcover version of ‘Old Man’s War.’
    Any money you and IIRC three other authors got from my buying the bundle
    is me buying something a second time (I didn’t change any defaults).
    Some of the authors got money from something I would never buy.
    And I bought the HB because? Partly charity. Mostly? OOH! Those! Awesome!
    I’ve been meaning to get ’em ’cause they are probably a good read.

    I’m remembering a poster named “Haar.”
    Do you get to count the difference between what you got paid via HB and woulda
    otherwise got as a charitable donation?

  19. Not gonna lie, I actually bought the entire Bundle just to get Old Man’s War and Signal To Noise. I paid far, FAR less than I would for either of those books retail (thanks, Australia!) and I got a bunch of sweet graphic novels into the deal. And my payment was easily over the average.

  20. Most of my reading comes from the library…already read Old Man’s War…probably won’t read some of those books…my Bundle buy was motivated *mostly* by the desire to participate in bifurcated neatness (charity and alternate marketing).

  21. I bought the bundle for 20 bucks, but I’m afraid John didn’t make all that much of it, as I only left 5 bucks to the writers and sent most to charity.
    So far it’s been a pretty good buy. I liked Zoo City, Pirate Cinema was okay if a bit preachy and I’ve been wanting to reread OMW anyway. Haven’t read any of the other stuff yet (well, the webcomics I read already over the past years), but all in all I’m not disappointed…

  22. John,

    If Eric Flint’s numbers are still indicative of the market reaction to free/low price ebooks, you might see a knock-on effect of the Humble Bundle in your back catalogue sales.

    Any chance of you doing an update on this in, say, three months time?

  23. I’ve just finished ”Old Man’s War” and I absolutely loved it. Thank you for the best read in years. You are now really high on my list of favorite writers, right next to Asimov and Clarke.

    It was my first contact with your work (not counting Whatever, which I’ve been following for a while but I suppose doesn’t count as work, right?), and for sure it won’t be the last. Next up: ”Ghost Brigades”!

  24. I bought the bundle and paid what I felt was a fair price for the books I wanted. Like other commenters, I already owned Old Man’s War, so your cut of my money is really a bonus you wouldn’t have seen without the bundle.

    I also notice that Pirate Cinema and both of Kelly Link’s books are available for free from the author’s web sites. As are (most of) the content in the web comic books, of course. For these authors, calculating lost money compared to the normal price of the books might be a little difficult.

  25. Well it was my first time reading anything from you and I really liked the book. I read ghost brigade and the last colony these last days. I really like your work and I’ll probably buy zoe’s tale next.
    I mainly bought the bundle because I didn’t know any author in it except neil gaiman and it’s interesting to find new authors.

  26. I already had ebooks of several of the titles in the Humble Bundle, and dead tree copies of OMW and Signal to Noise, but I bought the bundle anyway, pretty much because I thought it was a great idea.

    It’s a nice compromise between the strategy of giving away books for free to get exposure that might result in later sales, and actually selling books for money. I first discovered your books when Tor was giving away free ebooks back in 2008 – I downloaded and read OMW, loved it, bought a paperback copy, bought the sequels, then bought everything else you’d written. With any luck the Humble Bundle will have the same effect on other people as the Tor giveaway had on me, with the added bonus that you’ve already been paid a chunk of change for it.

  27. Like many others, I already had a copy of OMW, and it wasn’t an incentive for me to get the bundle. The main draw for me was Cory’s book, which I would have gotten some other way if not for the bundle, so I hope he didn’t get screwed on the deal. Paolo Bacigalupi’s book wasn’t a draw, but I’ve been enjoying it. Some of the other stuff I haven’t been able to get into, but I guess I’ll try again if I get desperate for something to read. I was disappointed at the quality of the ebooks—it looks like somebody did a rush conversion with Calibre, which doesn’t do a very good job. Of course, I imagine that whoever did it was in an actual rush, and didn’t have time to do a fussy job, so this is entirely understandable.

    I really don’t know how I feel about the book bundle at this point as a customer, but I’m glad to see authors trying different marketing tactics.

  28. Thank you, both for participating in Humble and also in writing this post. I have been concerned that the book publishing business might be anything like the music business, where contracts are written so that artists usually get next to nothing. I’m glad to hear that you get a reasonable amount of money – though I’d like to see new publishing methods that put even more of a percentage into the hands of authors.

    I bought the Humble bundle primarily to get a legit copy of OMW – I’m trying to buy copies of books that I’ve read in the past that I just borrowed at the time.

    This brings up another interesting dilemma that I have – I bought Redshirts from Google Play in order to gift it to a friend who mentioned wanting to read it when we were walking around at Chicon. It’s DRM free so I didn’t have any problem buying, downloading then emailing the file to my friend with a “happy birthday” note. That’s great, the lack of DRM makes gifting super easy, I don’t have to mail anything physically. But now I want to buy a copy for myself, and none of the ebook stores will even allow me to buy a second copy if I want to. I’d have to go to another bookstore to buy the second copy. It’s kind of interesting that the current electronic publishing system is designed to try to maximize sales but in a way is taking them away. I don’t think that anyone has addressed the problem of buying ebooks as gifts, and at least in my circles books are fairly common gifts.

  29. As to John’s comment:

    “Two, Old Man’s War is the first book in a series, and many of the people getting OMW in their bundles haven’t read it before. If they read it and like it, the additional books in the series are going to get bought and I get full freight on those, and otherwise it raises my profile as a writer.”

    This is exactly what happened when Tor released a bunch of free ebooks to celebrate the launch (relaunch?) of their website a few years ago (at least for me). After reading OMW, I went and bought (and continue to buy) every damn Scalzi novel (as well as Sanderson’s and few others). John made nothing off of my first copy of OMW. However, it’s nice to see that he’s thinking long term here.

  30. I didn’t give you the full share on my purchase, since I figured I’d already paid full price for the paperback a few years back and I increased the share the other authors got a bit.

    If this is good for the high-profile authors, it has to be fantastic for the lower profile authors like the relative newcomer Lauren Beukes. A lot of people probably bought the bundle to get books by well-known authors like Scalzi, Gaiman, and Doctorow, or the popular webcomics.

    As a “bonus” they get a book that won the Arthur C Clarke award in 2011. Sounds like a pretty good deal to take the low payment/high volume tradeoff to raise awareness that far, even though it meant a discount on a fairly recent book and she doesn’t have a large back catalog yet.

  31. John R –
    Barnes & Noble and Amazon both have a “Buy as Gift” option on their websites for ebooks. I don’t know about other stores, I only checked Amazon since i knew B&N had it. You have to do it on the website though. If you have a Nook you can’t buy as a gift through the shop on it, and i imagine the same is true on the Kindle.

  32. The problem with buy as gift from those stores is that they require the recipient to have a Kindle or Nook device with a linked account that I can send the book to, and I have to know what kinds of devices and accounts they have. I have stopped buying from both B&N and Amazon for varied reasons anyway.

  33. Both have completely free reader apps for PCs, Macs, tablets, smartphones, etc. Yes you have to have an account on their websites to download these apps, and if you have various problems with Amazon and B&N then it is a moot point. You had mentioned that no one has egifting options and I just made a suggestion. But you don’t have to have a Kindle or a Nook to be gifted a Nookbook or a Kindle book.
    We are drifting way off topic though, so any discussion of the infancy and eventual evolution of ebooks as mainstream products or the merits and deficiencies of Amazon or B&N will go even further off thread, and may draw the ire of OGH. So we probably better not get too into this.

  34. G’day,
    I paid over the average, specifically to get a non DRM copy of OMW, even though I already have a dead tree version of it. I had decided I was going to get Pirate Cinema, so this was a good opportunity to do so. All the other books were gravy; I have enjoyed them all, but even allowing for the worst case scenario, I was getting 2 books in the format I wanted, plus the warm fuzzies from donating, plus Cory and you (and some people I didn’t know) were getting some cash :)

    BTW, my 2c in the whole DRM debate – People like CK Louis won’t get pirated because they make the sales process so easy.

    PS thanks for ALL your writing :)

  35. I have Old Man’s War, but I paid over the average to get Neil’s book. However, Pirate Cinema turns out to have been worth the whole 12 bucks on it’s own, even though I could have had it for free. So I am very happy, and happy that I slid the slider all the way over to the authors.

  36. In a way your book was the worst of the bundle for me. Not only do I already own it, no, it was the only one that I really like of those. As with all humble bundles I bought everything anyway, just cause:)

    And maybe when I get around to reading the others there’ll be some I’ll like:D

  37. I got Old Man’s War through the Humble Bundle, read it, and then bought The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony. I’ve been on the fence about picking up your books, but the fact it was in the bundle tipped me over the edge. Thank you for doing this.

  38. I’m not a fan of ebooks because I like to actually own my books. I bought the bundle because I wanted to support the concept more than purchase a license for or read any of the books.

    Old Man’s War was the second I read out of the bundle and I thought it was great. I’ll be picking up the rest of the books in the series in the near future.

    Probably in paperback.

  39. I had not heard of you, nor your books, before in my life prior to this humble bundle.

    I dropped $15 on it to take me over the average and left all the sliders where they were, so you can work out how much you got out of me. Ill be honest, the entire preview chapter available before purchase convinced me to go over the average to get access to your book. I really enjoyed OMW, was kinda starship troopers and with the humour as well. I expected the protagonist to rename his brainpal to something more appropriate at some point, then realised that he was now a year into service and probably never had the time to get around to it and thus kept invoking Asshole without a hint of humour, which made me chuckle and besides there were far more important things at hand.

    If i can find DRM free versions of the rest of your books, i will strongly consider purchase now. Though i do think that $7.99 is still a bit steep considering the goods are infinitely reproducible and almost zero marginal cost, regardless of the quality of the particular work. $2-3 would be a better price point for the eBook era. I believe there is a lot to be said for selling cheap and more than making it up in volume, considering that the market is the entire world by definition, simply due to the nature of the internet. Billions of people, instantly.

    Brave new worlds call for brave new business models.

  40. I paid well over the minimum with $5 to the site(?) and the rest to the authors (purchased before comic books were added darn it) – i would have preferred to pick the charity and it did not look like that was possible so zero went there

    Anyway, i think this was a very good deal for the authors as in my mind anyway, these sales were to people that would not have purchased these books otherwise but may purchase more after reading from their bundle – win/win

  41. Just a heads up, as a humble bundle purchaser. I confess, I’d never heard of you previously, had no interest in your book, and only read it because I’d already read the Gaiman, Doctorow, and the glorious webcomics. And I feel bad about that. Really bad. Bad, because OMW was one of the best damn stories I’ve come across in a very long time, and I should have read it ages ago. But now I have read it, and will be hunting down your other books as well. So if the back of the envelope calculations still hold matter, you can add an additional 7.00 to the humble bundle profit, for the next five ebooks I’ll be purchasing.

  42. I’ve been a regular buyer of the previous humble bundles, and checked this one. Read the teaser pages of a few books… started OMW… and I *knew* I had to buy this bundle. I did immediately. I raised my amount well over the average, figuring I was getting a good deal in any case. After reading OMW (and boy did I read it fast, and had fun all the way!) I came back to the bundle and raised the amount spent there, because I liked it so much.

    I’m really looking forward to read the rest of the OMW books, and I came here searching the web for DRM-free eBook versions of the OMW series. I won’t buy DRM-ridden stuff (anybody missed ?- kudos to Neil Gaiman for twittering it). Next thing I’ll check the Tor books site, hoping for the best.

    So, from the items you listed, in my case you got
    – I didn’t know you before, now I want to read your other books
    – I paid more than average, and voluntarily a good amount more; no preference for or against charities (default split percentages)
    – I talked with friends about it, recommending OMW
    = three positive results, I think.

    You are probably correct in being sceptical about the average. But I think the advantages outweigh the possible downsides, if you have several books/products to offer.

  43. Mate, nice one… Never heard of you or read your stuff but now I’ve read OMW I will Definitely buy more of your output until you disappoint (not looking likely at this point).

    Honestly, some of the stuff I just didn’t like, one of them, I won’t tell you which one, struck me as being The equivalent of a Mills and Boon of the science-fiction world, and just as badly written as well. However, there was some real gold in The bundle and yours was one of them.

    BTW, I think it’s brilliant this humble bundle business and the next one that comes out I will be buying that as well.

  44. I just wanted to add another notch to the list of people who discovered you via the Humble eBook Bundle. I’m a fan of the gaming HBs, and was thrilled to see the eBook version since I had just decided to purchase a kindle. I didn’t even really look at what the books were since my kindle was on back-order, I just paid over the average to have a collection of new material ready to read once it arrived.

    I blindly jumped into one of the collections of short stories, but after I abruptly learned that those weren’t chapter titles, I moved onto the next one, which was OMW. This time I did some research and read the synopsis online, and got very excited, being both a fan of The Forever War and Heinlein’s novels.

    Since then I’ve purchased and read all of your other novels in the universe and am anxiously awaiting the Human Division. So I’m just posting to let you know that even if you got none of my money directly from the bundle (which you did), just by participating in it, you’re increasing the size of your audience/fan base. This ultimately leads to incremental sales of your other works, which never would have occurred if I still didn’t know who you were.

    The Humble Bundle is a great idea, and I hope other authors embrace it as you have, it seems like a win for everyone involved, and a great way to check out new stuff!

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