“Devaluation” and Other Pricing Myths

A natural consequence of writing books with the intention of making a profit from their sale is that the author and publisher (sometimes different entities, sometimes the same) tend to think of the books as having an intrinsic dollar value. In other words, if selling books is your business, you tend to associate a “reasonable” price with those books. What you deem a reasonable price will rest on many factors, including the length and genre of the book, the percentage of the sale price you will earn per sale, and what the market seems to bear for similar titles, but the bottom line is that whatever price you come up with, it is easy to get married to it. I cannot tell you the number of times I myself have thought, “This book is WORTH at least as much as <insert similarly priced disposable item>, damn it, and I will NOT devalue it by setting the price lower.”

But guess what? Every time I have thought that, I have been wrong. Oh, perhaps I have not been wrong that my book is WORTH as much as I think it is to those who know what they’re getting when they buy my books. Fans of my work may even tell me it’s a STEAL at that price. But if there aren’t enough readers willing to PAY that much for it without knowing what they’re getting, I have a problem. The more I stick to my guns and refuse to budge on my pricing, the more readers DON’T discover my book. The fewer readers buy my book, the more it sinks into obscurity. The more it sinks into obscurity, the less money I make, no matter what price I set.

I am dealing with this right now with Hot Under the Collar. I am going to be completely honest, here: I’m disappointed by this title’s sales. I expected it to do much better than it has and at a higher price point, because, after all, it’s longer than the first novella in the series (The Lesson Plan) and frankly, I think it’s a better story.1

I started out pricing this novella at $2.99. After all, it’s nearly 40,000 words, which is a short novel by RWA’s standards. But it didn’t sell. For a couple of months, I resisted dropping the price and “devaluing” my work. After all, I busted my butt writing that story. It was *worth* $2.99, damn it. Surely it would catch on.

But it didn’t and I was forced to face the facts. I could either drop the price or allow a book I’d put my heart and soul into to drop into complete obscurity, never finding its audience. This wasn’t even about making money anymore; it was about not letting something I care about sink into oblivion. And so, I dropped the price. And then I dropped it more. And then I even made it free for a short period of time. And all of those decisions, in the end, have made me more money than I was making when I stubbornly stuck to my guns about the book’s worth. Making it cheaper didn’t make devalue the book–it made it accessible and visible. And that, in turn, makes me more money than sticking to my predetermined per unit price ever could.

I know a lot of people who say that when a book is free or 99 cents, they assume it’s a crappy book with poor production values and pass right over it. I’m sure this is true. But the majority of readers/digital book buyers simply don’t see things the way those of us who are immersed in the world of books and who understand the time and effort and expense that goes into producing a quality product. And unfortunately, writers can’t make their living by depending solely on the readers who see a higher price point as a sign of quality. We have to appeal to the readers whose impulse buy point is free or 99 cents or “look, it’s under $2 and on a bestseller list so it must be a good book.”

Does this mean our work isn’t WORTH more? No. But Shakespeare is free. And guess what? We still have to compete with the asshole, even though he’s dead.

1When I say it’s a better story, I don’t mean that it’s better written or more engaging or anything like that. I mean that I personally find the issues and ideas I was able to explore in Hot Under the Collar more personally fulfilling to me. Plus, I’m in love with the hero of that book. Walter is definitely my fictional husband; don’t tell Mr. Barbosa :).

The Dilemma of Digital Discoverability

By now, I don’t suppose anyone is terribly surprised by the news that some authors (notably self-published “sensation” John Locke) have paid to have reviews posted on Amazon in the hopes of boosting their books’ visibility. (NYT article here.) The fact that it isn’t surprising doesn’t make it any less unethical, but it does make me look at my own practices as a publisher trying to gain visibility for my books and wonder where, exactly, the line between ethical and unethical really falls.

The thing is, for authors whose books are available only at online retailers (i.e., no print copies distributed to bookstores), the whole discoverability game comes down to convincing those retailers’ algorithms to display your book instead of other people’s books. The goal is to push your book up the charts in a way that makes them more visible to potential buyers than other similar books. Moreover, all of the ways you can accomplish this have relatively little to do with the actual merits of your book. Whatever you’re doing, you are, on some level, trying to trick the retailer into putting your book in front of a reader and, by extension, to trick the reader into clicking it and then into buying it.

Here are some tried and true methods of gaining visibility, particularly on Amazon:

1) Make the book free for a short period of time. When the book comes off free, Amazon’s Also Bought and other recommendation engines will tend to propel the book back up the charts. The higher the book was on the free charts when it went “unfree,” the better the results when it comes off free are likely to be. This is entirely because Amazon’s engines are “rigged” to see a book with a lot of free downloads as more popular and more relevant than similar books with about the same number of actual sales. The more readers “see” your book in the Also Bought lists as a result of it having been free, the more likely they are to be convinced it’s a good book, because (obviously) lots of people must be buying it. Except they haven’t been buying it; they’ve been downloading it for free.

2) Get the book into any top 100 list for any category. Some categories are much harder to get “into” than others. For example, if your book is shelved only in “contemporary romance,” you are going to have to sell many more copies to break into the top 100 than if you are shelved in a more obscure category, like “Anthologies/Short Stories”. Although getting into a more popular top 100 list like contemporary romance will lead to more sales than being in one of the lesser known top 100 lists, there is still no doubt that hitting any list will make your book more discoverable and will also lead Amazon to display it more often to readers of other books in that category. For this reason, it’s not unusual for authors/publishers to shelve their books in categories they barely belong in for the sake of making it “easier” to hit a top 100.

3) Drop the price of the book to 99 cents to get it to climb the charts, then boost the price back to $2.99+. This is an incredibly common practice. I’ve seen authors set their whole list of books to 99 cents, then selectively set the ones that are selling well back to higher prices…in some cases, much higher. Again, this is an attempt to “trick” readers on some level; what the author is hoping is that readers buying the book today at its higher price will assume it reached the top of the charts at this, higher price rather than realizing most of its purchasers only paid 99 cents.

4) Sell a lot of books. This one seems kind of obvious, but what I mean is the practice of the author buying his or her own books as a means to boost its ranking. Now, unless you have a lot of money on hand, it’s hard to do this at a scale which, by itself, will be enough to launch the book into the top 100 overall on Amazon, but it’s certainly not inordinately expensive to buy enough books in a span of a few days to materially and significantly affect the book’s placement. This is a simple mathematical equation. An author can pay a few hundred dollars for advertising on a blog or other website or pay a few hundred dollars to buy a few hundred copies of his or her own books. Which is going to be more effective? I’ve never done it, but I have to tell you, hands-down, I suspect that buying your own book is more likely to boost sales and be an effective use of promotional dollars than buying an ad.

Okay, so I freely admit to having done #1 (I’m doing it right now, although Amazon stubbornly refuses to make the book free and is instead setting its price at 99 cents) and, to a lesser extent, #3. I don’t tend to move prices around based on when I think a book has reached its current zenith in rankings, but rather based on when I feel the lower price has stopped being a “draw” for readers to buy the book. But I’m still engaged in a form of manipulation and I definitely am trying to get Amazon et al to give my books more visibility by making it seem as though they are going to sell well, given that visibility.

I’m not really sure I have a grand point in this post. I simply think that, given all the other ways I see of “gaming” the system, purchased reviews seem like just one cog in a much greater wheel. If that is wrong, why isn’t #1 or #3 wrong? Aren’t those just as “manipulative” as fake reviews or mis-shelving? Why is buying your own books as a promotional tactic wrong when big publishers can pay to get front page placement and you can’t? I can see both sides of this, I guess, and while I draw the line at tactics I consider to be out and out deceitful and dishonest (like buying reviews, misshelving my books, or buying large numbers of copies), I can’t say I’m completely sanguine about the ethicality of some of the other tactics I have used.


The Sky Is Not Falling, or Why 99-Cent Books (Probably) Won’t Take Over the World

Over the past few days, I’ve noticed a lot of hand-wringing over the 99-cent book. Yesterday, both the Huffington Post and Nathan Bransford waxed eloquent on the problems with the 99 cent price point. Bransford was, in my opinon, considerably closer to the mark than the HuffPo’s writer when it comes to explicating the long-term implications of the 99-cent price trend.

So, here’s the thing. If you put your book up a year ago (or even 6 months ago) and priced it 99 cents, the chances that you would move a LOT of units at that price were very high. It made sense to price in the bargain basement, even if you only made 34 cents per copy, if you could sell ten books at that price point to every one you could sell at $2.99. ($2.99 x 70% = $2.09, while $0.99 x 35% x 10 copies = $3.40).

But, as Bransford rightly notes, there’s now a glut of 99-cent ebooks. There are so many, in fact, that the price point is no longer much of an enticement to readers. Yes, it’s easier to get the casual browser to buy book at 99 cents than at $2.99, but it’s not as much easier as it used to be. When there are so many 99-cent options to choose from, readers become pickier about what they’re willing to pay even 99 cents for.

It used to be that the 99-cent price point helped browsers find you. Now, there are so many books at 99 cents, pricing at that point no longer makes your book stand out. Instead, it just leaves your book swimming in an ever-expanding pool of other books at that same price. So, unless you have something ELSE to distinguish your book from all the others (great cover art, title, concept, and most especially IMO, lots of reviews/ratings), the chances that you are going to make 10x as many sales at 99 cents as at $2.99 are simply not that great. And for the 99-cent price point to make sense financially, at least as a price for a novel-length book, you really have to to sell a lot more copies.

The fact that 99 cents is not a huge incentive for readers anymore was brought home to me by watching sales of my short story, THE REIVER. When I initially released it, I priced it at 99 cents (it’s a very short story, so more than that seemed like price-gouging). Sales were in the neighborhood of 5-6 per day on Barnes & Noble but no more than 1 per day on Amazon. On Amazon, the book was quite simply LOST in the sea of 99 cent slush and people just weren’t finding it. After a couple of months, I decided to raise the price to $1.29 on the theory that the 99 cent point wasn’t bringing me any eyes I wasn’t finding otherwise. Sales dropped precipitously, but then a funny thing happened. Because the Smashwords version hadn’t sold but two copies, I didn’t bother raising its price and Kobo (one of the retailers that gets books from Smashwords) discounted the 99-cent version to 89 cents. Amazon, being all about keeping up with the Joneses, discounted the story on their site from $1.29 to $0.89 and, lo and behold, I very quickly started selling almost 10 copies a day on Amazon.

So, are people really that price sensitive? We’re talking a 10-cent difference between the original price and the discounted price that attracted so many more sales. What are people buying with the 10 cents they’re saving? The answer, of course, is that it wasn’t the prospect of saving an extra 10 cents that boosted sales–it was the fact that the 89-cent price is so unusual that by itself, it made the book stand out in a way it hadn’t before. More eyes FINDING my book led to more sales.

I think the fear of a lot of authors and publishers is that 99 cents is becoming “the price” of a book, the way 99 cents has become the “price” of a song on iTunes (although, in fact, most new/popular songs are now priced at $1.29). I can understand that concern, and I’ve shared it to some degree, but I think in the long run, it’s not going to happen because of the convergence of these three things:

1. 99 cents is no longer a point of differentiation, and…
2. The total number of books you must “differentiate” yourself from to attract readers/buyers is growing exponentially, so…
3. You will have to differentiate your book by something other than price.

It’s #3 that’s the sticky wicket. When 99 cents was a “marketing” point in and of itself, it made a certain amount of sense to price your book there, especially when you initially released it. But now, it’s not enough (if it ever really was, which I doubt). Smart writers and publishers know they have a following and that the market can and will support prices of $2.99 (and more) for ebooks. The key is that, whatever the price point, your book has to be able to find its readers and vice versa. And that is going to cost authors and publishers too much for them to afford to sell their book for 99 cents indefinitely.