Authors: Setting the price of eBooks. The debate.

Posted: May 13, 2011 in #ebooks, #self publishing, formatting for kindle

Authors: Setting the price of eBooks. The debate.

I have followed a number of interesting author blog’s and forum discussions on the subject of pricing eBooks. Points of view seem to be fairly entrenched, leading to heated debate at times.

Some of the blogs opinions seem to be motivated by self-interest, which of course drives most of us. One blog likens the 99c price tag to monkeys feeding at a banana tree until there are none left. Another infers that anything lower than her price, or free, is generally crap. Very few of the blogs seem to discuss the opinions of purchasers of e-reading platforms, or the views of readers that are available for all to see on readers’ discussion only forums.

So how does a new author set the price of their eBooks?

Here are some of the factors that drifted through my mind.

  1. What is my work worth to me as a new author?
  2. What is the price customers are prepared to pay for unknown author with a first book?
  3. Will the price I set be cast in stone?
  4. What is happening in the market place regarding price.
  5. If I set a low price, how will potential readers’ perceive my work?
  6. What factors could change my pricing strategy?
  7. Is there an advantage to putting my work out free?


1. I think it is fair to say that authors of whatever standing would not be self-publishing, unless they thought they had a potential bestseller on their hands, or unless their book is for a niche market. But what is my work worth to me in terms of blood, sweat and tears? Everyone will be different and it will depend on many factors. The time it can take for a new author to produce a work can take considerably more time than for an experienced author. Then there is the question of the associated costs in preparing for publication. For those inexperienced, it can mean many late nights over periods of weeks, of them head scratching, to work out how to design book covers, format the publication and in self-editing and proofing a book. For those who can pay for these services then the costs are easy to identify. I came to the conclusion, that however many hours I had worked , or however much money I had spent, my book could not realistically be worth the same as a traditionally published book in terms of retail price. Whilst I had undoubtedly learned many new skill sets, I am of the opinion that these cannot match fully those skills available to the publishers professionals with any certainty and whose expertise is honed to a particular skill. Further as a new author, whilst I had a marketing plan in place, the structure could not begin to kick in until the book was published and it would not be possible to match the marketing departments efforts of traditional publishers, or fellow self-published authors’, who were ahead of me in the game. This led me to the conclusion that my price would have to be lower than a traditionally published book, but at what price point.

2. It would be foolish to think that a reader would be prepared to pay for the time it takes a new self-published author to learn the skill sets leading to publication. The readers prime concern is to purchase a product, where there is an understanding between author, publisher, reader, that the product should be of a quality that will entertain them throughout the read to a satisfactory conclusion, regardless of price. With new authors’, quality is the unknown part of the equation and therefore the readers perception of the likely quality of your work, is a serious obstacle to overcome.

3. Whatever price is set, it is not cast in stone. The facility is there at any time to increase, or decrease a retail price. However, the danger is that an author will become known for his or her price point making the decision to change pricing strategy upward difficult, but not impossible.

4. Pricing strategies have changed rapidly in the eBook market. From looking at blog posts of other more established authors who joined the eBook revolution early, there are rumblings that where they could price just under the price point of a traditionally published book and make decent sales, this  no longer seems to be the case. Some of them in the past experienced reasonable numbers of sales, helped by being carried along with the initial growth of e-reader devices; the trend to lower pricing for indie authors has now dented their sales. Last year when Amazon announced the change of their commission structures, many authors reduced, or increased their price point to the minimum $2.99 to give them the 70% commission ($2.00 royalty). Others stayed at, or reduced their prices to $0.99, which would only give them 35% commission ($0.35 royalty.) On the face of it, the $2.99 price looked to be set to be the norm, but a number of things happened. (a) Many who increased their price saw a dramatic drop in sales.(but not necessarily income.) and( b) those who chose $0.99, saw their sales take off (but not necessarily their income). The experience will not have been the same for everyone, but generally, the 0.99’s brigade seemed to win out as their books gained that all-important traction, gaining rankings, which can escalate the sales of a book. The inevitable happened and many reverted to a $0.99 price, together with the new authors joining and setting this price to gain a reader base. The current quandary is that the $0.99 price no longer has the same effect. For traditional publishers, the reverse seems to be happening, with quite a few of their new releases priced the same as their printed books. Some posts on the e-reader forums are complaining about this and feel their initial reasons to buy their device was to save money over time to get a return on their investment.

5. Looking at some reader only forum discussions regarding Indies, reveals wide opinions as to the quality they encounter and they are quite vocal about it. “You get what you pay for.” comes into conversation quite a lot, perpetuating the problem for Indies to overcome. Some say they will never buy books at $0.99 after a bad experience. If you think that you can get away with publishing an inferior product, you are deluded, as word of mouth in the forums and reviews will out you. Fortunately, many readers will purchase at this price point to give the author a chance.  From what I understand, readers will generally pay up to $4.99 for an indie book, but only after looking at every aspect of what is on offer, to include reading a sample.

Another reader’s gripe that has recently surfaced seems to be value for money regarding the length of a book on offer. Most readers think in terms of number of pages in a book and despite trying to fight the corner from the perspective that it is like trying to explain how long is a piece of string because of different book sizes and printed book formatting, they don’t buy it. The problem seems to be where someone say uploads a short story, not listing at such and however good it is, they feel cheated buying a five thousand-word story for $0.99, when they could have purchased a full book for the same price. Because of this discussion, I have now put both the word count and the approximate page count in my blurb and await Amazon making the changes. That is not to say there are not readers who appreciate the short story medium and will gladly pay for it, but not stating what your product is, runs the risk of one star reviews from others not so appreciative of the short story art.

There are many things you can do to overcome the quality question, for example, why not put you have had your book professionally edited at the beginning of your book blurb, if that is the case. For now, I have only placed this information on my copyright page, but it is something I intend to do. Maybe you could list any other credits you may have. It could be the difference between making a sale or not.

6. Indies are at the mercy of the eBook distributors. As a new industry, distributors have their own motivations for allowing other than traditionally published books into their catalogue. They are quite happy at the moment to allow indies to publish their eBooks at low prices and sometimes to offer books for free. For some readers new to buying devices, it makes the offering tempting against buying printed books when they see the low prices of eBooks. This situation will not last forever as the market matures. There is nothing for the distributors to be gained by offering books free in terms of revenue and it would be easy for them to alter commission structures, or have minimum prices to generate additional revenue when the market becomes stale. They could also alter the algorithms of their system to favor the visibility of higher priced books, or newly released books, so although now you can build your own back catalogue over time, the benefits may not be as they are now in terms of providing income. The notion that makes me shudder is if they insist on you using their editing services to have some sort of quality stamp on your work as a means of increasing their revenue, although some sort of quality stamp that you have had your work professionally edited from any source would be welcome. If it is the case that you have used an editor, or maybe won an award, then it could be one aspect of you deciding on a higher price. However, all this is looking into the crystal ball, for now all we have to work with is the current situation. I think it is worth experimenting with price. There is nothing wrong with trying a higher price first, or moving the price upward once a book gains momentum by achieving a rank.

7. Free can be a useful marketing tool, it can be used to give away short samples of your work, in the hope of convincing readers that your longer work is worth buying. In some circumstances, it can propel you into the limelight and gain you considerable downloads to build a large reader base. Before you embark on offering your work free, there are a number of factors to consider. Some people will only ever download free books and will not buy your other works. Some will download everything in sight, to the extent that they will never get round to reading it. It is the same for other price points. Many readers have a range of prices they will pay for books. The numbers seem to diminish the higher the price you set.

I can’t tell you what is the best pricing strategy for your own particular circumstances. All I hope you take away from this article is for you to see different aspects of arriving at a decision.

Good luck to all.

Following debate on my writers’ author site, I am adding this footnote.

If we go back to last year, Amazon decide it wanted to negotiate prices for books and eBooks with traditional publishers to retail at no more than $9.99. McMillan and others fought this. The result was that Mc Millan’s catalogue was pulled. At the same time, Apple introduced their own eBook platform and together with Barnes and Noble, they saw no reason to stop publishers setting their own prices. The loss of the McMillan catalogue meant that Amazon no longer had the number one best seller, other than through third parties. As the largest retailer of books, for Amazon, this situation would have given consumers a reason to buy other that the kindle platform. This year they caved in to McMillan. This is the reason customers are now complaining as new releases are coming through at prices in some cases of dearer than the paper book.

Traditional publishers see the future as flexible pricing for their products. e.g., starting at say$15.99 at release and reducing over time to $5.99. This situation gives the indie a price point to work with at between $0.99 and the magic $4.99, to remain competitive and to overcome to some extent the notion of quality to price for indie books. The problem for indies is to decide where to set their price point within this margin.

It also give the indie a price point to work toward when formatting for POD to remain competitive  and to be able to retail a paper book at $9.99. Hence, the reason I posted my free guide on how to format for POD on my site to enable you to retail a 100,000-word paper book at$9.99.

  1. JRTomlin says:

    One factor that you left out is genre. There are certain ones that tend to be a little higher than others and some a little lower. I buy a genre that tends to run a dollar or two higher. I write one, historical novels, that rarely goes below $2.99.

    I think you made some good points on this though. I think as long as indies “own” that magic $0.99 to $4.99 slot we have a huge advantage.


  2. declanconner says:

    The more I research the subject, the more I agree with you. I feel that Amazon definately needs Indies. With big publishers who have established eBook rights, they clearly seem to be pricing high. Amazon need to be able to point to savings to continue the massive growth of eBook sales. Publishers have a massive start up cost per book by comparrison to Indie’s and have to think of shareholders.


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