Price isn’t the point

Discussions have been raging for a while among self-published authors about ebooks and price points. They break down into three major schools:

The Buck Stops Here School. For these folks, 99 cents is the price point. They see a lot of sales of books at that price point, figuring that no one is going to blanche at spending a dollar and taking a chance on buying something that stinks. As one author boldly suggested, by pricing his stuff at .99, he forces others who price their books at $9.99 to prove their work is ten times better than his. To be sure, there are a lot of ebooks which get sold at .99 cents; though because that price is below the magick $2.99 price point, Amazon (and other retailers) only pay 35% of the price to the authors, instead of 70%.

The Three’s a Lucky Number School. Here, the price point of choice is $2.99 for two reasons. First, as noted above $2.99 is the lowest price at which online retailers will return 70% of the revenue to authors. Second, and decidedly more dubious, is data from some poorly-constructed pricing research experiments what confirm, in the minds of some, that $2.99 is the perfect price to entice a reader to buy a novel. There are lots of folks who have sold novels at this price point and who are very happy with the results.

The My Stuff Is Worth More Than That School. The adherents of this school charge prices ranging from $5 up to a mass market’s paperback price. I generally fall into this school, figuring that if I charge $1 an hour for reading entertainment (10,000 words taking the average reader roughly an hour to consume), I’m doing okay, and the charge is reasonable. If it’s a long novel, I’ll usually cap the price around $6, and even toss in bonus material. The price isn’t unreasonable for the consumers, and the return is equitable for writers.

The debates can be pretty fierce. .99 centers point out that by having a low introductory price lots of readers can be enticed to sample. The Stuffy folks counter that while lots of folks eat hamburgers off the dollar menu, not all meat gets sold as ground beef. They charge what they see as a premium price for premium work. The folks in the middle think the other two schools are silly, since they’ve hit on the perfect price point, proven by science, and they have the screen caps of payouts to prove it.

But, as the title of this post indicates, price is not the point. At least, not the only point—it’s a crucial variable, but not the only variable. Anyone who thinks that a particular price is the magick bullet that will turn them into the next J. K. Rowling is so completely out of touch with reality that they’re not so much writers of fiction as they are correspondents embedded in some other world. To be fair, anyone who thinks that readers will buy no matter what the price is are equally insane. We have a name for them: traditional publishers.

It’s important to bear a couple things in mind here. The first book to sell over a million units on the Kindle was The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Kindle price point: $9.99. James Patterson broke into that club fairly soon after, and his books sell from between $7.99 to $14.99.

Given that data set as a counter-balance to the .99 centers; and acknowledging that authors in the same genre, offering similar work at the same prices can have wildly divergent sales numbers, let’s pull prices out of the equation. What does this leave us with?

The immediate, knee jerk reaction is to dismiss high sales by well-known authors with the, “Well, they’re established, so they already have an audience” argument. The problem with that dismissal is that it directs hopefuls away from look at how these authors got established. Since we know that some of the most popular authors in the digital self-publishing field, like Amanda Hocking, weren’t even on the radar until they started selling ebooks, we have to ask how did they get established; and how do the already established authors maintain their presence in this new world? If that’s not a pursuit, then new authors end up believing that 99 cents for a novel is the magick price, or that $2.99 is the magick price, and when they do nothing but adjust prices up and down, they’ll get frustrated—rightfully so.

Another monster variable is genre. Romance outsells mystery/thrillers, and mystery/thrillers outsell SF and Fantasy—with huge gaps between them. I know of no pricing experiment that has tried to control for this variable. Heck, if you look at print books, Romance readers are willing to pay full price for a 50,000 novel; whereas an SF/Fantasy reader would get 2-4 times that much wordage for the same price. Could it be that some genre readers will be willing to pay more for books they like versus other genres? I don’t doubt it, especially when we remember that the main comparison point for sales is not the price of other ebooks, but the price of the equivalent book in print. (That may change, but right now, that’s the yardstick by which these things are measured.) As noted above, authors in the same genre will generate different sales profiles, so we shouldn’t be surprised that authors in other genres do the same. In short, comparing my numbers to Hocking or Konrath might well be an exercise in futility.

Last November I brought out a digital original book, In Hero Years… I’m Dead. I brought it out in two editions. The basic is $5 and has just the novel in it. The Deluxe version has the novel, plus a long essay talking about what inspired the book and how it came to be written. My expectation for that experiment was that the Basic would outsell the Deluxe 2-to-1.

The reality? Through 9 months of sales, the Deluxe outsells the Basic 5-to-1. Now, I’d not point to this experiment as one that invalidates claims of greater sales at lower price points. I take two things from it. The first is that for most readers, 99 cents is nothing. Second, it strikes me that readers will pay more if they perceive greater value at the higher price point.

In August, I’ll bring out another digital original, Perfectly Invisible. I’ll do for this second book what I did for In Hero Years… I’m Dead:

1) I’ll offer samples through my blog.
2) I’ll do readings at conventions and via the net (through Second Life)
3) I’ll distribute free copies to friends and reviewers, asking them to review, blog, tweet and otherwise help me to promote the book.
4) I’ll do the same sort of distribution to podcasters and do interviews with them to get the word out.
5) I’ll do ads at the bottom of blog posts (like the one you can scroll down to now) reminding you that the book is out.
6) On my to-do list is figuring out contests and other promotions for the book.
7) I’ll also be turning out more content in the Homeland Security Services universe to support Perfectly Invisible. (I’ve not done that for IHY, yet.)

Some folks may figure that success at selling ebooks is like catching lightning in a bottle. Heck, I agree with that. But instead of having one bottle and chasing after thunderstorms, I’d rather create a bunch of bottles and hope the storms find them. Spreading out, doing some mysteries, or adding romance elements into work might just produce a few more of those bottles for catching lightning and move me outside a genre ghetto where I might find more readers.

The sad, sobering and yet hopeful truth about self-publishing is this: there’s one magick formula. It is:

1) Produce content.
2) Promote content. (Producing more serial content is actually a promotional tool.)
3) Repeat steps 1 & 2.

It’s that maddeningly simple. Worrying about price points that will do the work for you adds variables you don’t need, can’t really control, and blinds you to what you really need to be doing. You’re a writer. Write. If you get good enough at it, folks will buy. That’s the one inescapable truth of our business: Writers write. Everything else follows therefrom.


Writing up this series of blog posts is cutting into my fiction writing time. If you’re finding these posts useful, and haven’t yet gotten yet snagged my latest novels, please consider purchasing a book. Nice thing about the new age of publishing is that you become a Patron of the Arts, letting writers know what you’d like to see more of simply by voting with a credit card. (Authors charge less when they sell direct, so you save, we make more, and that frees us to write more.)

My latest paper novel, At The Queen’s Command, is available at book retailers everywhere.

In Hero Years... I'm Dead. A Digital Original novel.
My digital original novel, In Hero Years… I’m Dead is available for the Kindle and in the epub format for all the other readers, including the Nook, iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. (Imagine the Batman, Watchmen and Kick-Ass movies all rolled into one, as written by Dashiell Hammett, and you’ve pretty much got the idea of the book. Oh, and with some satire and political commentary slipped in for irony.)

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18 Responses to “Price isn’t the point”

  1. I wonder how an experiment in just letting users pay a price they choose would turn out?

    It’s possible that “books” (really, art patronage) are actually some kind of prestige good and that a lower price-point may actually hurt sales, because what does it say about you that you’re willing to sell your work at a lower price?

    People seeking direct employment are often advised not to price themselves too low, the same may be true of writers.

    In all, though, I agree, price isn’t the point. It’s all about getting your name out there so that the next time you produce content, people will look at whatever price you have set and say “Yeah, I can go that much to keep Mike eating.”

  2. Fantastic post, Michael, I’ve learned so much about so much from the one post.

    When I first published I went for 99c but then reading Dean Wesley Smith made me experiment and put my novels up to £2.99. (It also made some sense to differentiate between a novel and a couple of short stories which up to that point had all been 99c)

    Sales slowed, yes, but I gritted my teeth and thought, maybe the people who pay this will actually read the book rather than just shelve it at 99c. I’ll see. Sales are heginning to pick up again.

    I think your point about genre is so illuminating. I write mainly historical fiction and your point that they may compare with print historical fiction rather than say romance or thrillers was a moment of epiphany.

    Thanks for all of this.

    Martin Lake

  3. I feel the same way as JediBear…as a consumer, buying a .99 cent book from an unknown author requires an endorsement of some sort, because otherwise I presume I’m getting .99 cents of value. I don’t want to read someone’s .99 cent effort…I don’t have time for that. I want someone’s God-honest $9.99 effort. I know that price is not necessarily an indicator of that, but it’s a common signal that humans use to telegraph quality.

    I recommend reading Influence, which is Robert Cialdini’s classic work on the signals people use to make decisions, and how they can be harnessed for marketing. He makes good sense of this phenomenon, and others. You’ll find it helpful 🙂

  4. Oh, and also, regarding the name-your-own-price strategy, you guys might find Radiohead’s experience with that interesting, though I don’t really think that it applies to us anonymous people, since most fans already knew what they were getting…but perhaps attached to a sample?

  5. Speaking as a reader, I’m willing to pay a reasonable price for a book, movie, or music album. What I consider “reasonable” is variable, though. I’m willing to pay a little more for an author whose stories have consistently proven to be entertaining and well-written. Thus, a Mike Stackpole book is worth more to me than a James Patterson novel. For someone else, that could be different.

    As an aspiring full-time writer, I don’t expect my first (likely self-published) books to be barn-burners. I’m anticipating a low price point, probably in the $1 to $2.99 range. Once I’ve established some level of readership, I’d plan to gradually bump up the numbers until I found a price point that optimized sales for me. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s $5-6, given the research you’ve already done in this area.

    My place among your fans is a testament to the validity of your promotional model. I first met you during a “Rules of Writing” seminar at Origins a few years back. I had not read anything you’d written. Since then, I’ve purchased and read quite a few of your books, subscribed to The Secrets, bought a few CDs from you, a “spy pen”, etc. I’ve convinced a few others to check out your books. Heck, I even wore a custom-made Mike Stackpole shirt at Gen Con this year. I’m sure that sold dozens of novels right there… (just kidding!)

    Your “magick formula” sounds on-target as well. On a much smaller scale, I’ve seen it work on my web sites. There are a handful of articles that do really well and draw consistent traffic. (I’d imagine these are like the novels you’ve written that sell consistently.) There are some articles that generally see only a trickle of traffic, but occasionally spike dramatically when something triggers a bunch of searches that my pages happen to mesh with. (I suspect that is analogous to the spike in sales you might have had for a “sparkly vampire” novel when Twilight took off.) Monitoring the search results that bring people to my site has helped me to optimize existing content and given me ideas for new content that has proven to be very popular (such as my list of open source writing tools). I suspect you gain similar insights talking with fans at the conventions. (I wanted to pick your brain a bit at Gen Con but you were just too darned popular!)

    You’ve mentioned before that authors need to keep their backlist titles alive, even if publishers don’t want to invest in them. I read a story in one of the writing magazines (Writer’s Digest, maybe) about an author who’d written a novel that sold modestly and then dropped to a mere trickle. At about the time it might have gone out of print, another author published something very similar that sold extremely well. Sites like began doing the old “If you liked Novel A, you might like Novel B” recommendation thing. Soon, people began buying the first author’s novel again. It seemed to really strike a chord with readers, and now the first book widely outsells the second. “Lightning in a bottle” indeed.

    Keep up the good work. You’ve got my support and appreciation.

  6. It’s my belief that the price-point that makes the most sense for a writer without an established readership is “free.”

    Unlike a $.99 price-point, consuming something for free doesn’t imply any kind of endorsement, and so people are a lot more likely to just download and read something than they are to pay for it.

    “Free” has incredible power over the consumer and implies nothing about the quality of your work — rather it implies something about you. Specifically that you are awesome.

    If you’ve somehow lost your day job and can’t afford to write for free, you might consider putting a section in your text explaining that you can’t work for free and asking people to send you money after the fact. It worked for Shareware in the ’80s and 90s, it’s working for YouTube channels even now, and there’s no reason at all it can’t work for you.

  7. I just bought a nook (I like the feel of it better than the kindle) and went online to decide what books to purchase in what order. I had been planning to buy a kindle before until I tried it and the nook both out in person and fell in love with the nook.
    So I had seen “In Hero Years I’m Dead” on Amazon along with the last 3 books in the “Dragon crown series”(why is Fortress Draconis which I had read all ready not on ebook?).

    I went on and found that the dragon crown and X-wing books are listed, but none of your self published novels are available. I understand that you sell the epub on your website, but i was wondering why you have chosen to publish on Amazon, but not Barnes and Nobel? It could gain your more exposure with the fact that I bought both your book and another author’s book the same way it helps on Amazon.

    Technically you could sell mobi files for the kindle and only sell from your own site if that was a desire of yours.

    I just was curious if there was a reason you as an author have chosen not to make your books available for purchase from my device by making them available on .

  8. I look at it like this. I might be willing to buy a new book at 14.99(what most publisher want) though I’ll buy less books over all. I will buy(no might will) two new books at 9.99 if they are from authors I like. I’m more than willing to pay 5.99 for an older story or one I’ve read before, but want an ebook copy of(I’ll pay less if you really want me to). I’ll pay 2.99 for a novella if I have faith in the author. And I’ll pay .99 for a new author because if it is bad a dollar isn’t such a loss and if it is good then the next I’m going to be willing to pay more for.

  9. I just went to and my self-published novels and anthologies are all there. Not sure why they didn’t show up when you looked, but B&N keep cutting me checks, so someone is buying them.

  10. I just published my first romance novel (MASTERS AT ARMS) in August and am finishing up the next in the series (NOBODY’S ANGEL) to be published Sept. 30. For many of the reasons you stated, Michael, I chose the 99-cent price point for MASTERS because 1) I’m an unknown author and 2) it’s an introduction to the series and anyone who gets hooked on those characters will more than likely come back to pay $2.99 for the next three books in the series (one in December and another in February).

    I’m on a one-year experiment (May to May–okay 13 months) to see if I can make a modest living at writing full-time. If not, then it’s back to the evil day job.

    By that fourth book, though, I expect to have established a loyal readership and to be able to raise the price, but I know that I rarely buy a novel for more than $3.99, so I’m not so certain I’d go above that price on my own.

    I’d like to suggest a marketing tip for other new writers. Don’t talk about yourself–talk about your characters. I didn’t exist on Facebook as Kallypso Masters until May 2011. I chose to market my characters, so most of my updates involved the goings and comings of the three Doms in my series. I was getting requests from people to send one or more Doms over to them for discipline, motivation, whatever.

    I received my first fan “letter” from a reader in Australia before MASTERS was even written and before I started a blog where I planned to post my excerpts (which I’ve kept active at least with weekly posts since mid June). Wow–SUCCESS!

    I even have readers starting “fan” clubs (the first, again, Australia–from a woman who hadn’t even read a BDSM novel before she heard about what I was writing). My readers refer themselves as Masters Brats. (It’s a BDSM thing. )

    And now I am working with my graphic artist to start a line of products to sell at Cafe Press to keep my Brats happy–plus to have some swag made up for conventions, signings, etc. (Even though I don’t have books to sign physically, I’m told there are tricks for e-book writers to use to market their books and themselves at live signings. I don’t expect those to sell lots of books, but to be a means of meeting reader fans–and finding new ones.)

    By the time I published MASTERS, I had 650 “friends” on Facebook and in under three weeks from release (3 weeks on Smashwords and 2 on Amazon), I sold almost 300 copies at the 99-cent price–I am certain mostly to the FB friends, even though I am now getting requests every day from readers who found it in other ways (reviews, blogs–mine and guest ones on other people’s, Twitter, etc.).

    I’ll be honest, I wanted to have sold more than that in that time. (I’m an optimist!) But writer friends (with and without publishing houses) say that’s very good for a new book by an unknown author. Now it’s on Barnes & Noble–and hopefully soon Smashwords will distribute it to Apple, Sony, and other sites in their distribution channels. (Had to jump through some hoops due to some issues with formatting–learning curve.)

    But the bottom line is that I wrote a compelling story people couldn’t put down. They were crying on p. 3, screaming in section 2, and laughing and crying throughout the book. Oh, another “rule” I broke was to write the damned prequel BEFORE the series. (Honest to God, I don’t understand the logic of doing it the other way–but people actually told me that I couldn’t call it a prequel because I hadn’t written the other books yet. I blame Star Wars on this logic. )

    So, my first erotic romance BDSM novel has very little BDSM or erotic sex scenes–those come with the romances that follow. I actually started writing this book to be a huge teaser. Well, then the stories of these honorable war heroes just grabbed me and I had to turn a novella into a novel. (Good thing I write fast!) Now people say they can’t believe it’s a debut novel–but you have to fall in love with your story before anyone else will. And you have to be able to write. (I’ve been practicing that part for 35 years to be an overnight “success.”)

    Still, it doesn’t really fit the erotica genre I placed it in. MASTERS was given a 2.5 out of 5 for sensuality at Book Wenches review–and rightly so. But they also gave the book itself a 4.25 out of 5 for quality. ( For non Romance writers, Book Wenches is a well-respected, independent review site in the romance genre and usually only accepts and reviews books from publishers. But, I figured I am my own publisher, so I asked if they’d consider it. No guarantees, but they said sure. A couple weeks later–BINGO. Great review. My biggest review site so far, but, just as I pointed them to all the 4s and 5s my book has on Amazon, Smashwords, and Goodreads, now I can use the Book Wenches one to go after the bigger ones.

    I hope there are some tips in there that will help other indie writers to write and market a blockbuster! Now back to Master Marc, who is flicking his flogger at me for taking so long to get back to him and the telling of his story. This can’t be good.


  11. Hmm, so I can get a hold of the goods for free by asking for a review copy…?

    I’ll put in a word for you at Amazon. I know some guys. Text fields and Submit buttons, guys like that. I got your back.

  12. This hit HackerNews today: The Myth of the 99c Ebook

    Same lesson – content is king. Catch that lightning.

  13. I have no problem sending copies of books to folks who write reviews. I check out the sites, see what they do, and make that decision.


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