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.


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7 Responses to On Ebook Pricing And Promotion

  1. Catana says:

    Although I’m way behind you on publication, your experience is very encouraging, since it’s the same path I’m taking. I have two novels on Smashwords and sold some 60 copies in the last six months, with very little promotion. Like you, I publish at least some of my work free, online, on my blog. I’m about to publish my third novel and plan on at least two more, plus several novellas or short stories this year. I raised the prices of my novels a dollar, up from $1.99 and $2.99, and I expect more interest in them as more are out there. Also like you, I write to rather narrow niches, so it’s great that I’m making any money at all. Let them all argue about how great their sales are at $.99. I’m trying to build a reputation as a good writer, and that’s not something you can do on the basis of one bargain basement book.

    • Absolutely. Given a choice between spending all day every day spamming Facebook for a pittance, or writing another book and putting it out for a decent price, you should always choose the latter. You won’t make millions overnight, but you just might build yourself a career.

  2. I think if this sales tactic works for GNeil… It’s certainly what I’d be doing if I could be arsed getting my arse in gear.

    • Yeah, although Gaiman has a few advantages that I don’t (like talent, and a fanbase, and personal likability, and the resources of several of the world’s biggest corporations backing his work, and good looks, and connections within the industry) which might just explain why his books sell more than mine.

      And you really should try getting something out there. I know it’s harder for you to find the time than it is for me, because you have a child, but I bet you could get a book written and published this year. I’d buy it.

  3. Emily says:

    I suspect the niche market aspect of this works in your favour for sales though. If I am interested in the subject of one of your books and I find your book, then there is a reasonable probability that I will buy it as there are not many books on the subject. I also like novels but I’m much more choosy about what fiction I read relative to the vast number of novels out there – the author/publisher needs to work much harder to make me notice their book and convert me to actually buying.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      That’s true to an extent, but in another way it isn’t – I may get 50% of the market for books on the Monkees, with the market being forty people a month, but if the market is, say, for romance novels, something like twenty million of those are sold per month – you only have to get 0.0001% of the market to sell the same number of books.

      Certainly the writer Dean Wesley Smith suggests this approach works. He’s got a backlog of ninety novels and a couple of hundred short stories, under a load of different pseudonyms, which he’s making available with no promotional effort. He doesn’t even say on his blog when something’s gone up – or even let his readers know about many of his pen-names. His stuff sells slowly but steadily – same sort of rates that mine does.

      He says that what seems to be the decisive factor isn’t the amount of promotional work, but the quality of the cover and blurb – which makes sense. Certainly the worst-selling thing I’ve ever put up was my short story Bubble Universe, and that had a terrible blurb at first (and doesn’t have a much better one now, because it’s a hard story to describe without giving away the plot, and it’s a story whose appeal is almost all in that plot).

      If you’ve got books up on Amazon, people can find them quite easily (“customers who also bought…”, genre bestseller lists and so on – discoverability is very good there) and then they have a cover, a blurb, reader reviews and a 10% sample of the book to read. Between those things, I don’t think there’s much need of a hard sell on top of that.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      (Further to that though – Smith is an unabashed genre writer, who writes SF, Fantasy, thrillers and romance. It may well be that ‘literary fiction’ has different sales patterns to both non-fiction and genre fiction, and I don’t know of anyone doing that kind of thing as a self-publisher, so I can’t tell how that would work out.)

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