I recently attempted to purchase ad space from a blogger, and was basically told that they would only sell me ad space if I reduced my eBook’s price to 99 cents. My first inclination was to laugh and roll my eyes, but then I thought about it further, and realized that since the subject of 99-cent eBooks keeps coming up, it was worth explaining why my eBooks aren’t priced at that price point. This article is the result.
The first and most obvious reason I don’t price my eBooks at $0.99 is that most of the people I’ve talked to who read books seem to prefer actual physical editions (and I do, too). I’m a big fan of hardcover books, and those don’t come cheap. Right now, my hardcover editions sell for $21.99. I can’t reduce the price much at all, because I’m only making three or four bucks per copy even at that price.
Clearly, selling a hardcover edition at $21.99 and the eBook at $0.99 wouldn’t make sense. But even if it weren’t absurd to price the hardcover edition at 22 times the price of the electronic edition, I can’t imagine any serious author selling a full-length novel at the $0.99 tier, because it is a terrible marketing strategy:
Psychologically, the price of a product is a strong indicator of its value. If you sell a book at $0.99, people naturally assume it is junk, just like most of the other books in that price category. This reduces the chance of your book actually being taken seriously.
As a reader, I don’t even bother to look at books in the $0.99 category. I automatically assume that if an author feels a book is worth only a buck, it is probably worth even less, and it is almost certainly not worth the time it would take me to read it. (I have occasionally bought cheap short stories by authors that I already know, but those are cheap because they’re short, which is a totally different prospect altogether.)
Price is also a strong indicator of disposability. A reader who buys a book at $0.99 is much less likely to care whether he or she finishes reading it (or even starts). In fact, the market research I’ve seen suggests that people who buy heavily discounted ($0.99) eBooks don’t typically read most of them. They buy them because they’re a “deal”, then hoard them, thinking that they’ll eventually read them later. Unfortunately, there will always be another book that somebody is trying to sell at $0.99, so the odds of your book being the one that they happen to read ends up being relatively low.
I did the same thing with all those free iTunes songs just a few years back. I’d download almost all of them, but I listen to very few of them. Heck, I’m guilty of taking several years to read paperbacks that cost five or six bucks. I can’t fathom how little most people would care about finishing reading a book that costs under a buck.
Given that an unread book is much less likely to lead to purchasing the next book in the series, and thus doesn’t usefully build an audience, those increased sales are basically of no real value. They’re noise. I’m not interested in getting millions of people to download my books and then not read them. I’d much rather have a weaker response to my advertising dollars and know that the people who actually responded to those ads are likely to read them, and to buy future books in the series.
The $0.99 tier doesn’t really do readers any favors, either. Readers could just as easily read the free samples of the same books and then choose which books to spend money on, rather than buying and hoarding cheap books and reading those same first few pages before deciding whether to finish reading the books or toss them. All those extra books do is waste space on their hard drives.
But by spreading their already small reading budget across a larger number of books, many of which are subpar, the $0.99 category encourages subpar authors to continue publishing crap, thus making it even harder to find good books in a sea of mediocrity. And it encourages many good authors to spend their lives doing something else that actually pays the bills. The invariable result is a decline in the quality of available literature. Don’t believe me? Take a look at journalism salaries over the past thirty years, and then take a look at the quality of news reporting over that same time period. In particular, pay attention to the period in which news outlets began giving away content for free over the Internet. I think you see my point.
Bear in mind that I’m saying this as someone whose previous works, had they not been anonymous works for hire, would likely put me on the NYT bestseller list. My computer programming books have been read by tens if not hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom speak English as their second language (for whom imprecision would be very, very bad). I’ve won awards for my writing, and my book on shell scripting has been compared (by anonymous reviewers, sadly) to Kernighan and Ritchie—one of the most well-known, widely read technical books of all time.
But even though I’m not really a new writer, I’m still completely unknown to the world as a whole, because my name isn’t on most of my previous writing. This puts me in something of an awkward position. On the one hand, readers are cautious about reading works by an author they've never heard of. On the other hand, I’m trying to sell a trilogy of books that took 14 years to write, and are highly edited and polished. I chose the price point of $9.99 with a lot of care. It is substantially cheaper than the print edition, but is high enough to immediately set it apart from the self-published book crowd. That was not accidental, and if that pricing means my books aren’t eligible for various book mailings because their pricing doesn’t fit the mould for self-published authors’ books, it’s unfortunate, but that’s life.
To give you an idea of the level of polish I’m talking about, I did about a dozen editing passes on each book (more on the first). As a result, so far, my readers have found only one typo in almost a thousand pages of content. I’ve seen books by major publishers with more than one typo per ten pages, so that’s really quite impressive. (The most egregious example in recent memory was Jim Butcher’s third book, in which the word “dais” is consistently misspelled as “dias”. I still loved the book, but I swear if I ever meet him, I’m going to say “buenos dais” just for grins.)
I also spent hundreds of hours developing publishing tools, fonts, stylesheets, etc. to ensure a commercial-quality book release, meticulously ensuring that to the maximum extent currently possible, my electronic editions match the print editions. I suspect that my books are probably the only fiction eBooks on the market in which text flows around the actual shape of the drop cap letters (in compatible readers) instead of flowing around a straight vertical edge. In fact, my eBooks push the bounds of eBook technology so hard that I contributed several pages of known eBook reader bugs and workarounds to MobileRead’s wiki site based entirely on bugs I had encountered personally while preparing these three books for publication.
And it’s not just the production that was crazy. When writing the books, I actually took the time to calculate the positions of planets hundreds of years from now, so that when I said things like “Mars is on the other side of the sun from Earth” on a particular day, I’d be correct. And of course, I released an entire trilogy simultaneously because the timelines of the books overlap and had to be kept in sync, thus requiring both individual editing and parallel editing. So the writing and editing were both more than a bit nuts.
All in all, the amount of work that went into this series pales in comparison to a typical eBook release (even from the major publishers, much less from a typical self-published author). My books are not comparable to typical $0.99 books by any stretch of the imagination; they weren’t written in a couple of months, they weren't released without editing, the cover art on the first book involved weeks of hand painting in Photoshop (the others weren’t quick, either), and so on. I hope that the positively bats**t crazy amount of work that went into them resulted in a level of polish that my readers will recognize, and that they will then understand why I priced my eBooks comparably to big-publisher releases.
So I’m not going to try to compete in the thoroughly saturated bargain book market. I’m trying to be an Apple-like author in an Android world—to compete solely on quality. I won’t be drawn into a competition based on price, not only because I feel my books are significantly better than that a $0.99 price point implies, but also because the race to the bottom harms authors and readers alike.
With that said, if you really want to get my eBooks cheaply, buy the hardcover. The Kindle edition is free with the purchase of a physical book. After all, to readers, the real value comes from the story, not from the specific pile of pressed wood pulp or bag of bits that contains it.