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Should You Price Ebooks at 99 Cents When You’re a New, Unknown Author?

| Posted in E-publishing |

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Pricing is one of the most hotly debated topics in the e-publishing world. Traditional publishers and self-publishers alike are trying to figure the magic number for ebooks, and the big kahunas (i.e. Amazon) are applying pressure by making it more lucrative (offering a 70% royalty rate) for those who price their ebooks between $2.99 and $9.99.

Despite the appeal of that 70% royalty rate, a lot of new independent authors choose to sell their full-length novels for 99 cents. Why? This is what I usually see as the reason:

I’m an unknown author so I need to price my ebook at 99 cents to get people to give it a try.

Let’s talk about this idea today. As long-time readers will know, I’m not against 99-cent or even free novels, but I tend to recommend that to those who have multiple ebooks out and can use that price as part of an overarching marketing plan. For example, giving away the first ebook in your four-book series for free might earn you far greater sales on Books 2, 3, and 4 than if you’d simply priced all of the adventures at $3.99.

So, why don’t I recommend 99 cents when you only have one ebook out (or when your novels aren’t related)?

Because of the way Amazon and Barnes & Noble offer royalties, your per-book earnings are going to be mediocre on anything less than $2.99. For a 99 cent ebook, you bring home 35 cents per sale. Unless you’re able to leap up to a sub-1,000 sales ranking on Amazon (selling hundreds, if not thousands of copies a day), that money is going to take a long time to add up.

You also may deal with the stigma that some folks associate with “cheap” ebooks. Even if there’s not a lot of truth to it in the e-publishing world, people have been trained to associate low prices with inferior products.

How do I get around that with my free first book? It’s possible that I don’t entirely, but if you check out the book’s Amazon page, you’ll see that it’s free via price-matching, so the regular price appears to be $4.95. Because the price and Kindle price are both listed ($4.95 and $0.00 respectively), people think they’re getting a deal on a product that’s usually priced higher. People love deals like that (think Costco — good deals on otherwise expensive “luxury” items). I may put my book back up to $4.95 eventually, but right now I’m choosing to leave it “on sale” because that’s increased my earnings overall.

Okay, I’ve given a couple of reasons why selling your ebook for 99 cents may not be optimal, but I haven’t yet addressed the part about being an unknown author.

The “But I’m an Unknown Author” Argument

This is common thinking, but, really, we’re all someone else’s “unknown” author.

One of my favorite authors is Lois McMaster Bujold, a lady who’s been publishing smart, character-driven science fiction and fantasy since the early 80s. She’s won heaps of awards, including the coveted Hugo. She sells well enough that her back-list has remained in print, and you can find at least a few of her books in any bookstore. I can’t tell you how many times I mention her to other SF/F fans only to find out they’ve never heard of her. This is an established, traditionally published author with over 20 books out.

I recently asked my mom, an avid mystery/thriller reader, if she’d tried anything by thriller author JA Konrath (see my post discussing his $140,000 earnings month). She’d never heard of him, despite his traditional publishing career and his infamous indie fame of the last couple of years.

The point is that 99.9% of the traditionally published authors out there are unknowns to a lot of readers, even readers in their own genres. Very few self-published authors have achieved measurable fame either. But you know what? They still sell. Authors in both camps are doing this for a living, some a very good living.

Please don’t bargain price your book because you think you have to. If you have a few reviews on your book sales page, a professional-looking cover, an interesting (preferably typo-free blurb), and strong sample pages, you’re ready to compete with any other author in the e-store.

Sure, you may have to bust your buns a little to get those first 5-10 reviews on your book page (I got a lot of my early reviews through giveaways on forums, Twitter, and through doing book blog tours — some of the tour hosts would choose to read and review the book as part of posting about it), but after that you’ll be on even playing ground with a lot of 20-year veterans, at least at first blush. All the reviews don’t even have to be glowing, so don’t sweat that. As many folks will tell you, people often trust reviews more when they’re not all 5 stars. Just look at how many one-star reviews the popular authors have. That doesn’t keep people from buying their books!

In the beginning, it’s hard to make sales at any price point (as they say, obscurity is our biggest enemy). Try not to get discouraged (I know, always easier said than done). You often have to hand-sell (via Twitter, your blog, blog tours, forum posts, Facebook, etc.) your first 1,000 copies. After that, on Amazon at least, the store’s algorithms tend to start helping you out, automatically recommending your title to readers in your genre and also showing your books in other authors’ “also bought”s.

Of course, as we discussed on that post about full-time independent authors, the best thing is usually not to worry too much about that first book or two and to instead write, write, write and get more work out there.

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Comments (44)

All of my westerns novellas are $2.99, even though I’m a complete unknown and the stories are short. It killed me at first, but now that I have my 3rd one up there I am starting to see good returns and good reviews.

Patience paid off and people are seeing the quality despite the price.

You make some good points here, and experimenting with price is something I’m turning around in my head right now. I’ve got one short story collection published on Amazon at $0.99, and I’m working on a series of six novelettes. Each one is going to be in the 15k word range.

My initial plan was to sell each at $0.99, and then an omnibus version of the whole series for $3.99. But now I’m not so sure that’s the way to go. I’ve been seeing a lot of opinions out there about pricing ebooks a little higher, otherwise they’ll seem cheap. After all, low price often means low quality in our society.

Can I get away with charging 1.99 or 2.99 for a 15k word book? I don’t know…I’m still thinking about it. I might run some live experiments with the price when I release the first book.

I think $1.99 for a 15K story is reasonable. $2.99 might be stretching it for me, personally.

A lot of folks do 99 cents for short stories and more for novellas. People might feel 15k is more of a long short story than a novella, though you could always be different and do $1.29 or $1.49 or some such. ;)

Great post. As a new writer I struggle with the pricing question. Currently both of my books are $2.99 and I found that when I lowered the price to $0.99 it didn’t make any difference in sales.

That seems to be how it goes these days. With so many 99-cent options, it’s hard to stand out amongst the crowd, and you’re basically hand-selling your books via social media and blogs and such. If you’re doing that much work, you might as well make $2 per sale instead of 35 cents!

I’ve found similar results, Lee. $0.99, $2.99… sales don’t seem to really change much. I’ve experimented with prices as high as $7.99 for longer works. I’ve found as long as I don’t breach the $5 barriers, my sales don’t differ significantly.

“We’re all someone else’s “unknown” author.” — A great line, and very true.

Did you see Dean Wesley Smith’s post about what he thinks are fair e-book prices for 2012? (I think it was posted in late February or early March.) What do you think about his pricing structure?

Hi Sandra,

I think this is the post: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=6391

It seems like as good a paradigm as any. I skew things lower, especially for the short fiction, but that’s just how I like to roll. One of the things I love about being an indie is that I can give folks a good deal by selling my novels at $4.95 and, because of the differences in royalties, make more than traditionally published authors whose books sell for twice as much.

Also, one thing some people may consider that across-the-board, word-count models don’t factor in is the number of books that are going to sell per month, year, etc. After a while (when you have multiple titles out), you start to get a feel for things like how long it’s going to take to earn back your production costs on a new release and how many books you need to sell a month at $X.XX to make a living. I think it’s legitimate to let those factors have a say in your pricing strategy.

I might see a Top 100 category bestseller in my genre whose first ebook is free and who sells the rest of his novels for $0.99 and $2.99 and think, gee, he’s pricing his books too cheaply based on the pricing structure I’ve decided upon. But, ya know, I can tell from his sales ranking that he’s making more overall than I am, so who am I to judge?

I like the idea of people testing for themselves and seeing what ends up earning them the most overall rather than simply going by a chart.

Yet another great post, Lindsay. It’s nice to read these and get an idea of what we as indie authors are doing right or wrong. I started with my debut novel at $2.99 and saw some okay sales in the first couple of weeks before it slowed down. I dropped it to $0.99 as an experiment for two weeks and had less sales as a result. Back up to $2.99 it went. Sales are far from stellar but with a novella coming out in a couple of weeks and the sequel to my debut out in a month or so things will hopefully be better!

As far as pricing of novelettes and novellas go, I would agree on $1.99, maybe $2.99. I think it depends on a lot of factors: target audience, marketability, serial vs. stand-alone (I would put serial novelettes lower personally), etc. My novella is a bit past the 20k word mark and I will be listing it at $2.99.

I could, but for the sake of brevity will not, list a huge number of traditionally published novellas that cost as much as full-length novels.

Keep up the good work, Lindsay!

Thanks, Harrison!

I’ve definitely heard of authors who sold more books (not just made more, but sold more actual copies) at $5+ than when they dropped their books to 99 cents for sales or experiments or what have you. In one case, that was for an author who was selling thousands of books a month, so that’s a not insignificant difference in earnings!

I, too, tried the 99-cent price point and got nothing from it–even giveaways have done more for me. My theory is that (unless you’re selling a short story) 99 cents is so low that people question the quality, but they still have to pay, so it’s not exciting and frictionless like a freebie. I feel like you should either go all the way and do a freebie, or not bother with the discount prices (except maybe for a well-marketed sale).

Great post, Lindsay! I must say that pricing is a murky and confusing subject. There are so many different opinions out there! I agree that a 0.99 price point only makes sense as a promotion or lead-in. It’s too little for a stand-alone novel.

But, that said, I have a friend who buys lots of ebooks at that price because, as far as he sees it, he’s lost very little if he doesn’t like the book. He’s more willing to take a risk on an unknown and he won’t take a risk on any indie book at a much higher price. Aren’t writers worried that a higher price will put off readers like him?

I’ve heard quite a few authors argue that you wouldn’t want “those kinds of readers” anyway and that people value something more if they paid a decent price for it. Maybe that’s just a justification to charge more though. ;)

You can always have some short stories or short novellas at that price point to try and capture those readers that way. Then, if you hook them, maybe they’ll open their wallets a little wider for your more expensive works.

I think you’re right, Lindsay, shorts are probably the best way to entice those sorts of readers, though they’d have to be knock-out to make up for the fact they’re getting less (in terms of quantity) than they’re used to.

Not sure I like the idea of “not wanting those sorts of readers”. Maybe I’m just greedy, but I want all the sorts of reader available! Even the overpriced, limited edition seven disc, gold foil-covered ones with the extra three seconds of never-before-seen footage.

I suspect a lot of people like him have moved to getting freebies when authors (like me) run Kindle Select promotions.

I’ve experimented with prices. I originally priced my book at $2.99 and it did fairly well. I tried 99c, and doubled my sales, but I’d have to sell 6x as many books at 99c just to make the same money, so at 2x the sales, I was losing money.

Then I decided to raise my prices to $3.99 on one of my books. There was zero difference in sales. So everyone who was willing to buy at $2.99 was just as willing at $3.99. I’m planning on experimenting with raising some books to $4.99 to see if I can find the sweet spot for my books, but it sure ain’t at 99c.

I see some people selling the hell out of 99c books, and I don’t really get why it doesn’t work for me. At my current price of $3.99, I’d have to sell 8x, and I’ve never had anywhere near that success by dropping my prices.

Printing and distribution costs have always dictated the price of goods but with the digital economy the production costs being so low has allowed variant pricing which reveals this truth: different books are worth different amounts to different audiences.

One person’s audience may buy lots of $.99 titles. Another’s audience may never buy at that price unless it’s the first book in a series.

It’s all about value perception.

Use the twice as many at $.99 to boost your sales rank fora day or two. Then go to the higher price point.

I can’t sell at $.99. I moved my prices up a few days ago from $2.99 to $5.99 and my sales increased.

I remember hearing a podcast with some self-publishers and someone suggested that SF/F fans were used to paying more (because the chihuahua killer epics tend to be priced higher?) than, say, romance or thriller readers. It’d be interesting to see a break-down of what sales prices average in different genres.

This whole price thing is a nightmare. I’m firmly set on $3.99 because why the hell not. Sure, I live in Poland and the exchange rate is pretty favorable and even at 0.99 I’d still get a nice paycheck after currency change, but then I remember that Dresden Files novel I’ve seen for $10 (I’m sure it’s because my IP is outside of the uS and I get added price, unlike you lucky lot) and go back to thinking that $3.99 isn’t that expensive.

When my book goes live I’ll probably set the price and not look at what’s going on so that I don’t obsess about changing the price (I lie. I lie so terribly, I’ll be refreshing the sales page every 10 minutes, you know I will).

Actually, I think the new Dresen Files ebooks are $10+ here too. Ebooks tend to be more if they’re only available digitally or as hardbacks, and then the publishers drop the prices when a paperback comes out.

Great post as usual, Lindsay.

I’m going to try something new with my next novel this summer. For a month or two after launch, I plan to “specially price” my novel at .99, mostly to coordinate with blog tours and early promos. Later I’ll bump the price up and set the first in the series to free (this one is number 3). I’ve heard other authors have jump-started their rankings by pricing low out of the blocks. It’s worth an experiment.

As a reader — yes, this works. I’ve discovered a number of new authors this way. I don’t mind paying .99 – 2.99 just to “give it a try.” If I don’t like it, I don’t feel ripped off. However, more often than not, I do like what I read.

Excellent advice, as usual, Lindsay. I have used 99 cent pricing on the first book in a series and it worked very well for me but that was before Kindle Select. I confess I am starting to have my doubts about the 99 cent loss-leader price point in these days of free promotions and free first book in series. I would not advise anyone to price at 99 cents if they had only one book. I would be inclined to say use Kindle Select and try a few days of free promo at a higher price. You can always drop the price later if you feel the desperate need to see what low prices can do :).

I agree. I use Select and it’s been good to me. I also think it has undermined .99 promos.

I agree entirely on the negative image of .99 books, Lindsey. I’m considering joining with several other authors to do a Mother’s Day Week promo during which we’ll jointly promote and blog and list our books at .99. But since I’m selling well at 3.99, I’m hesitant. Any thoughts? Thanks.

Hi Carol,

Unless you’re selling hundreds of copies a week, it probably won’t hurt too much to drop the price for a few days. And who knows, you might pick up some new readers that way.

Good luck!

Thanks, Lindsey. It’s all a big experiment to me these days, so I’ll probably go for it. However it turns out, one more bit of learning!

Love your point that even renowned and brilliant authors are yet unknown to some of their prospective readers. New future readers born every day! (Grin!)

I had wondered about the pricing for eBooks too once I began doing them. I figured that $5 for a full length novel was reasonable, and for the short stories, I charge $1. I figured a buck for a short story is reasonable, especially for an unknown, and perhaps someone would take a chance and read them and if they liked it, may take a chance on buying one of the novels. It’s worked pretty well for me thus far – not selling in the thousands but selling more than I expected.

Speaking strictly from a reader’s point of view, I think the free, or $.99 first book works remarkably well. For the most part, these days, most of the books I read are by unknown authors. Or at least unknown to me. I do 99% of my reading on my Kindle lately and so I subscribe to Pixel of Ink. This is where I found your first Emperor’s Edge book. It was like book crack. I read it, became an instant fan, and then found and bought ALL of your books available on Kindle. It’s a win-win. Now I’m trying to be patient for the next Emperor’s Edge book. :) It’s kind of like Field of Dreams for books. If you write it (well), they will come.

Thanks for checking out the EE books that way, Heidi! I’m glad my master plan worked and I snagged you. :D

It’s cool for authors, too, to see that sites like Pixel of Ink (that charge for sponsorships) do indeed have an audience of readers who go onto check out the ebooks.

[...] Lindsay Buroker: Should You Price eBooks At 99 Cents When You’re A New, Unknown Author? [...]

It took a review of one of my books to make me rethink the price. The review was high-praise for my book but it also said: I don’t usually buy .99 books because they are often crap.

Got me thinking anyway, and I’ve been experimenting with the price ever since.

Interesting article, as was the one by Dean Wesley Smith that was linked to.
My partner, Jilly Paddock has two science fiction novellas (22k & 26K) on amazon at 99c/77p. They’ve sold a few, mostly when they were free of course, but have ground to a halt recently. This is mainly because they haven’t yet been much promoted outside of Facebook. There’s time for that. There’s a novel (85k) out there now, at $4.99/£3.23 & sales so far are pretty much nil. Again, it’s early days yet. We have work to do.
Maybe we priced the novellas too low, but I’m loathe to change them right now, as we just got one of them reviewed on the British Fantasy Society website, quoting the 77p price. Personally, I’m not very inclined to buy short works, unless they are very cheap. I’m more inclined to wait for a collection. Maybe we have charged too low a price for the two novellas, but I think Dean’s price of $4.99 for 20k-30k is way too much.

Dean generally makes a lot of sense, but I think he’s just a bit too high on all his prices. Frankly, as a reader, I will not usually pay more than £5 for a kindle edition of a book, when the paperback is likely to be available at that price, or lower with amazon discounts. If publishers want to worry about cheap ebooks competing with their hardcover prices, then they should either wait until the paperback is out, before publishing it, or if they aren’t planning on releasing a paperback, hold off releasing the ebook, until they feel they can charge less, without impacting hardcover sales (at least lower the price after a few months, if they want a simultaneous release with the HC). The problem I face as a Brit is that amazon.co.uk whack 20% tax on top of ebook prices, so when it comes to the top end of the prices Dean suggests, I tend to look for alternative vendors. Not all publishers sell kindle versions directly to customers, so If it’s only available from amazon, $8.99 (£5.58 plus 20% VAT) is going to put me off. $7.99 is borderline. $6.99 is much better.
While I may occasionally fall in line with the idea that a book I pay more for might be better, it doesn’t really happen much when the cheaper books are much over £4.00.
I love my kindle & I love ebooks, but I’m never going to stop being aware that I can’t loan out, give away, or sell on a kindle book in the way that I can a real book, so the price absolutely MUST reflect that.

I can’t sell at $.99. I tried when my sales were pitifully low months ago. Worked for one week, then zip. I do fine with free promotions but sell about the same, maybe less or maybe more at $.99 compared to $2.99.

I tried a $.99 boost last week on Wrath of the White Tigress and got a few sales but not enough to justify. I then moved the price up to $5.99, by accident, hit 5 instead of 4. My sales increased and are just as good as they had been at $2.99.

I tried the same with The Storm Dragon’s Heart. No sales at $.99 but sales have started coming back up at $5.99.

Perceived value is my guess.

[...] should actually do it. Amazing author and a blogger I follow almost religiously, Lindsay Buroker recently posted on the subject. Reading her post reminded me all those nights I spent debating whether or not my own writing would [...]

[...] Last week, we looked at reasons why new, independent authors often feel they need to price their novel-length ebooks at 99 c… (and why they probably shouldn’t). Perhaps as a backlash against all those 99-cent ebooks, [...]

[...] Should You Price Ebooks at 99 cents when You’re a New, Unknown Author by Lindsay Buroker. Also from Lindsay: Ebook Pricing, How Much is Too Much? [...]

Linsay,
You’re oh so right about the difficulties of getting reviews. I’ve hand sold and given away many, many copies, and some have been sold on Amazon w/out my direct help. Still, even after asking people to take a couple minutes and write a review on Amazon and/or Barnes & Noble, I have 3 reviews to date. You’d think I was asking them to let me pull out their front teeth with plyers and a rusty pocket-knife and no anesthesia! I really dont’ get it.

I hear you KC. I have one book published right now at $2.99 and the sales are horrible. I was thinking about dropping it down to $0.99 for more sales and reviews but people must be lazy to review a book. I honestly don’t know what to do.

[...] Lindsay Buroker: Should You Price eBooks At 99 Cents When You’re A New, Unknown Author? [...]

I’m a new author and been just now reading about this pricing debate on 99c. For six months as a new author I couldn’t sell 10 books at $3.99. In December I did a winter promotion and made the book free for one month. The response was fantastic. There were almost 5000 downloads, 80% of which was on Amazon UK. That in itself was very instructive. I changed to 99c now for the next month and the response was also positive. Been going for ten days and selling about 5 books per day. What this has done for me is that I’ve gained 6 reviews, from the free book promotion, which I’m sure has helped the 99c promotion. In the next month price is going back up to $3.99-$4.99. Lessons learnt were big about where my markets lie and what prompts people to buy your book especially if you’re a new and unknown author. One has to work out a strategy when it comes to pricing. I know I’ve worked damn hard to get my book published (even though its indie) and giving it away for free is not ideal at all. That’s why 99c and free has to be part of a promotional cycle for a short period only.

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