Pricing ebooks: dollars and sense

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m about to put my novel online in various ebook formats, and part of the process is working out how much to charge. It’s a controversial topic, so it was nice to see this post by John Rickards (which came to me via the superb Loud blog). As Rickards points out, joining the “buy my book for 70p!” movement isn’t necessarily a great idea:

You’re pandering to a dangerous kind of hysteria that sees the stuff that we produce as a commodity with almost no inherent value. Any kind of industry that drives its prices down as close to zero as it can get, and which has no other revenue stream at all, dies on its arse. How long do you think superstores would stay in business if all they had were their loss leaders on the shelves?

If you’re interested in electronic publishing, the whole post is well worth your time. I particularly liked this bit:

I’ll reiterate: this is the same as the cost of a cup of coffee. And of so many of those cheap smartphone apps you and I purchase like candy.

That’s pretty much my thinking too.

If I can ever persuade Amazon to charge the right price (I’m having a few issues with Amazon just now, so if you spot Coffin Dodgers in the Kindle Store before I tell everybody that it’s on sale you may end up with a not-quite-perfect version) I’m going to be charging $2.99US/£1.99GBP for the ebook of Coffin Dodgers.

For what it’s worth, my cut of that is around a pound per book (and that’s taxable, of course). The likelihood that I’ll even recoup the cost of the beers I drank while writing it, let alone the cost of time spent editing and formatting it, is pretty slim.

At 70p, your cut is even smaller: after VAT, Amazon’s delivery charges and Amazon’s 65% cut, you’re left with pennies. In the unlikely event that you sell even 10,000 copies, you’ll be lucky to make two thousand quid. Do a much more likely 1,000 copies and you’ll make around £200. That’s £200, before tax, for two years’ work.

I don’t think £1.99 for a book is excessive, particularly as (unless I’ve made a complete arse of things) I’m letting readers on every ebook platform sample the first fifth of the book for free. If you’re that far into the book you can be pretty sure of what you’re getting for your two quid. I’ve also gone for the DRM-free, go-ahead-and-lend-it options on Amazon, so I’m hardly trying to persuade people to hand over cash for something they can’t sample.

I could charge less, but I don’t want to. As Rickards puts it, if you’re selling too cheap you’re saying:

“Buy this, it’s cheap!” rather than “Buy this, it’s good!”

I completely understand the rationale behind charging less – I’ve spoken to authors for whom that’s worked – but it’s a game I don’t want to play.

More to the point, it’s a game I can’t afford to play. Writing Coffin Dodgers was fun, but it was fun that took every second of spare time I had for five months – and if you’re a parent, you’ll know how precious spare time can be. And writing was the easy bit. Writing the first draft took a few months, but the next seven drafts took a year and a half of RSI-inducing extra-curricular work. Believe me, that wasn’t fun – and neither is buggering about with ebook publishing platforms, checking formatting and wondering why Amazon’s system is so bloody frustrating.

I’m not doing this for the money – I’ve junked another, much more commercial novel because Coffin Dodgers’ world is the one I want to spend time in – but I’m not an idiot either: time spent writing (or editing, or formatting) a book is time I could be spending on paid journalism, or on pitching for paid work, or recording stuff in Logic, or on killing space monsters on Xbox.

This turned out a bit longer than I intended, so I’ll wrap up: I’ll be plugging my book in a day or two. If you’d like to buy it, that’d be great. If you don’t, I hope the plugging isn’t too annoying.





0 responses to “Pricing ebooks: dollars and sense”

  1. What Rickard says makes absolute sense. Going straight to the 99-cent minimum is a crazy move. Nobody is going to value your work if you don’t set a reasonable value on it yourself.

    Having said that, I did come across someone who had success offering a first book for free, resulting in improved sales for the second book:

    Admittedly only a single data point, but interesting.

    Also, when I looked at the following list of self-published authors, it quickly became obvious that covers play a MAJOR role:

  2. gary

    I wonder if the cover is a good indication of the care and attention that’s gone into the rest of the package?

    I agree entirely that cheap and free can work, especially if you can build on it to do live things, events or whatever. And of course short term discounts can be very effective. at £1 The Hanging Shed is a bargain, and I’ll happily buy later books for more cash. I’m not saying it can’t work, just that I don’t think it would work for me :)

    Here’s a question. Would you rather sell 20,000 copies to people who don’t really give a shit, or 1,000 copies to people who will engage with the book and maybe come along for the ride with your next one? The income’s the same: if you go for ultra-low prices you don’t qualify for the highest royalty rate. And tbh I suspect it’s still easier to find 1,000 readers at £2 than it is to find 20,000 at 70p.

  3. mupwangle

    It’s on Amazon at the moment for 1.91. And in the listing is says by you and ronnie.

  4. Gary

    I know. Amazon doesn’t give you a final screen to check things, so a pricing typo has gone live – and I can’t make any changes until it’s finished going live, which takes 24-48 hours. There’s no preview of your data either, so I didn’t know my attempt to credit Ronnie would make him co-author until I saw it on the site. Stupid, stupid system.

    What I need to do once Amazon lets me in is fix the credits, sort the price (I could have sworn I’d entered it properly, but I CAN’T FUCKING CHECK until etc etc etc) and upload the final final final digital version. Maybe tonight, possibly tomorrow. Then it’s another three to five days before it goes live on the US site (and if you view it from the UK Amazon adds tax to the price you see).

    It’s on Smashwords in all formats:

    They’ll propagate the book to the various non-Amazon retailers – Sony, Apple, Barnes & Noble etc – but that takes a couple of weeks. And it takes about 1 billion years to find out what you’ve sold through those outlets.

    ePubs look nice on iPads though :)

  5. Gary

    I think I can maybe explain this better. In my line of work there are content farms that pay fuck-all and produce Google-friendly content on every conceivable subject. Their stuff is shit, and I’ve blocked it from search results. Many, many cheap ebooks are like that.

    Another example: in freelance writing or web design or graphic design there are loads of sites where rates are on a race to the bottom – you get hired because you’re the cheapest, not because you’re great. And that’s fine if you want to do that, but it’s not for me: I wouldn’t work for those sites, and I wouldn’t hire from those sites.

    Bear in mind that Amazon et al don’t care – a million shitty books selling one copy apiece is still a nice wee earner, especially when Amazon et al don’t do any of the work.

    It’s a bit like the intern/work experience thing. Discounting because you’re not Ian Rankin is fine – I’m not charging the price you’d pay for, say, a Carl Hiassen book because nobody knows who the hell I am – but effectively giving your hard work away for nothing is a risky bet. What if you build an audience and it turns out that audience is entirely unwilling to pay more than 70p for your second, third or tenth book?

    It’s entirely possible that I’m delusional and that my book is one of the shitey ones, of course :) And I need to stress that this is a personal choice; I’m not saying BLAH BLAH ALL EBOOK WRITERS SHOULD DO THIS. Do what works. I’ve been talking to a 70p author whose book has been optioned by the BBC. That worked.

  6. What’s my cut?

  7. gary


  8. Well, I’ll be buying it and reading it when I can. The title makes the book sound right up my street :)

    I think you’re going the right route with this. Cory Doctorow can get away with releasing his books for free under CC and still sell truckloads of eBooks/hardbacks. That’s because he’s got the Internet following and I admire his support of CC/digital rights.

    No offence but you’re not another Doctorow ;)

    John Scalzi released his first novel for free on the Internet too and look where he is now. He’s written quite a lot of good posts on self-publishing etc too (worth searching his site for).

    You’ve positioned this just right. Cheap enough for a casual buyer but not too cheap for people to assume that it’s shit ;)

    Good luck. I’ll be sure to tweet to my 260 followers when it’s out

  9. Gary

    You’re right, I’m no Cory Doctorow :) He’s got an enviable profile, and there are things that work for him that won’t work for others.

    > Well, I’ll be buying it and reading it when I can

    Thanks :)

  10. Bought (via US Kindle store). First 3 sentences made me laugh so that’s a good start ;) — top work mate, looking forward to reading this on my next trip, will plug anon

  11. Gary

    To be honest, it goes badly downhill after the third sentence :)