On Ebook Pricing And Promotion
This post will really only be of interest to other people who self-publish or plan to. The rest of you can ignore it. It’s a little addendum to the post I made last week.
There is nothing more likely to get arguments raging on self-publishing discussion boards than the question of pricing one’s book (and it’s almost always ‘book’ singular. Very few of the people involved have written more than one). One group insist that the right thing to do is to publish books at 99 cents – or give them away for free – for ‘exposure’. The other group think their work is too valuable to give away at such a low price – “my book is worth more than a chocolate bar.”
Both sides are, ultimately, arguing from a lack of evidence. The first side can point to the occasional success story – writer X whose first novel sold 100,000 copies, and she sold it for only 99 cents – while the other side can say “the major publishers don’t sell anything for under $10. If I sell mine for $5 that’s still only half their price.” But basically they’re going from instinct.
My case is a little different from many of these people. I write entirely for pleasure. But I publish for business. This is why I post almost all my writing to my blog first and let people read it for free if they want to. But if they want to have a physical copy or an ebook of it, then they need to pay me for the time and effort I put in for cover design, typesetting, formatting, uploading and so on, because unlike the actual writing that stuff is hard, tedious work that I don’t enjoy and am not very good at. So I’m looking at pricing entirely from the point of view of what will maximise revenue.
The tactic most often endorsed by self-publishers is to write a book, put it out cheap, for ninety-nine cents, and promote the hell out of it on all the social networks for as long as you can, and only then start writing your next book.
Now, this tactic would be painful for me, because I find it almost impossible *not* to write. I can’t always write the thing I intend to write (I’ve got my half-finished MindlessWho post that should have been up a week ago as proof of that), but the only time I’m not writing something is when I’m physically incapable of doing so. But imagine that I could.
So you have your ninety-nine cent book and you spam everyone about it. Let’s imagine a best case scenario here, and say that you don’t get blocked by everyone on Twitter and Facebook. We’ll further imagine that pricing at ninety-nine cents is actually an effective way of getting noticed at this point (it isn’t, because literally millions of people are doing the same thing now). So let’s be optimistic and say that your book sells a thousand copies a month for the year you’re promoting it.
Many of those sales will be to people who won’t particularly enjoy it, and will give it bad reviews. The sales are mostly coming from social networking, so once you stop that to write the next book (if you ever do), sales drop to zero or close. So we can take the first year’s income from that single book as being a year’s income from writing. 12,000 ebooks at ninety-nine cents, at a 35% royalty, comes to $4200.
So write a single book a year, sell it for ninety-nine cents, spend the rest of the year promoting it, you can get $4200 a year, in an ideal world.
Now let’s look at what I do.
I wrote five full-length books last year, for which I’ve priced the ebooks at $5. I did essentially no promotion for any of these – one blog post, a tweet and a facebook post is about it. I did do a couple of guest blogs promoting my fourth book, but that’s all. I spent the time writing instead.
Now, none of them are selling anything like a thousand copies a month. But this month, between them they sold 87 books as ebooks alone (not counting for the moment either paper copies or revenues from stores like Apple which haven’t reported for this month yet). Admittedly, this is one of my better months, but also I write stuff for *incredibly* niche audiences in most part. And those books sold that much without any additional promotion on my part. I used that time to write instead.
Eighty-seven books at five dollars a pop, at a seventy percent royalty (actually some are at a higher royalty because Smashwords pays better, but let’s keep this simple and stick to Kindle royalty figures) is $304.50 . The single-book author who’s promoting rather than writing makes $350 from her single book.
I’ll actually surpass what she makes with her thousand downloads, because I’ve also got a couple of short stories up for ninety-nine cents and a longer story up for three dollars (I’m not saying never to price something at ninety-nine cents – I use the price if the ‘book’ I’m selling is under ten thousand words or so, because it would be cheating the readers to charge more), and I’m selling paper books (most of the ninety-nine centers don’t) but even if we take that figure as all I’ll make, I know I can write at least five more books this year. (In fact I’ve got at least eight that are either in the planning stage or partly written, most of which should come out this year, along with a few more short stories and novellas. I’m aiming to get *something* at least e-published every fortnight this year).
So next year, assuming the average sales stay the same and I do another five full-length ebooks, I’ll be on $609 a month from ebook sales. The year after, $913.50 . Meanwhile, the natural audience for the ninety-nine cent book by the one-book-a-year (or less) author has already been exhausted, and that author is essentially starting from scratch with the next one.
Now, not everyone can write as fast as me – I’m lucky in that I write extremely clean copy, and I’m very good at structure, so I don’t need to rewrite much, and I think very, very fast. My books are also mostly on the short side (my natural medium is the essay or the short story, rather than the novel or series, though I think my two best books are the ones where the essays build and reflect on each other in a novelistic structure). And these numbers obviously don’t apply to everyone. But I think this shows that there is certainly a *very good case* for the best strategy for self-publishers to pursue being to charge a relatively high amount, but to write a lot, and let the promotion take care of itself.