Who's Afraid of Very Cheap Books? Publishing

CheapthrillsA common meme in publishing is that cheap books are destroying the world or literature, and that low prices are undermining the viability of publishing or writers’ ability to make a living.

I’ve long thought this position is nonsense – a narrative which plays on misplaced fears of change and a confusion of price and value, which is also based on flawed assumptions and analog, zero-sum thinking.

And, if anything, the opposite is true.

Why So Cheap?

Self-publishers are fond of 99c pricing for a number of reasons. It’s the lowest price you can set at Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo without making your book free, and it has an obvious impulse buy appeal to readers. This price point is particularly popular for the first in a series or a limited-time sale in conjunction with an ad spot, but some have used it more aggressively.

I launched my latest novel Mercenary at 99c (logic here) but plan to raise it to $4.99 this week. Authors like Joanna Penn went further and kept that launch price for several months (reasoning here, stunning results here). And, of course, lots of writers like Amanda Hocking built enormous readerships with perma-cheap pricing.

The obvious downside of such an approach is a financial one. Amazon pays 35% royalties, instead of 70%, at prices below $2.99. Apple pays 70% on 99c books (curious how Amazon gets charged with encouraging a race to the bottom, rather than Apple) but the iBookstore simply doesn’t shift books in the same quantity – and particularly not for self-publishers.

As such, 99c is no magic bullet. The royalty rate disparity creates a very real chance that it can backfire in financial terms, particularly these days when more authors experiment with pricing. However, critics of aggressively cheap pricing don’t tend to center on results for the author, but rather the effect on the market as a whole.

In Praise of Cheap Books

I take issue with the viewpoint that releasing books at 99c is somehow unfair, or that it devalues books, or harms the long-term health of the industry, or the viability of writing as a profession. In no particular order:

1. 99c doesn’t devalue books. How could it? Readers love cheap books! Do libraries devalue books? What about cheap paperback classics? Second-hand bookstores? Friends sharing books? All of these things encourage reading. Books reducing in price is a wonderful phenomenon that should be encouraged and celebrated. Unless you want reading to be a minority sport for the (shrinking) middle class.

2. A writer has a duty to herself and no one else. She shouldn’t have to make decisions for the good of the “industry.” What does Penguin Random House care for the average writer? Does it care if its decisions impact upon the ability of self-publishers to earn a living? Hell, no. Cheap pricing is a wonderful tool when used correctly and can greatly expand an author’s readership (and income).

3. Cheap books expand the pool of readers which safeguards the industry’s long-term health and makes writing as a profession more viable as a result. Self-publishers don’t have to pay for office blocks, printers, binding, storage, distribution. In a digital world, there are fewer up-front costs and far less ongoing costs. Why shouldn’t we pass on some of those savings? Let’s not forget that readers have been screwed by higher prices from large publishers since the consolidation wave of the 1990s.

4. Self-publishers’ pricing isn’t that cheap if you take a historical view. As this great post from Ed Robertson shows, indies’ e-book pricing is more-or-less in line with historical paperback prices. The industry veered away from that historically consistent pricing during consolidation. Who is holding the line against discounting the most? Who was willing to break the law to fix the price of books? Who is trying to turn a business dispute over percentages into a hysterical, emotional battle for the future of books? Those very same companies. Writers need to be smarter about recognizing when one viewpoint is subject to a huge media push, and why. And they need to realize their interests – even if they are traditionally published – don’t always align with publishers, especially on a topic like pricing.

5. Beware analog thinking, this isn’t a zero sum game. If I make $500 more by employing a certain strategy, I’m not taking $500 out of another writer’s pocket. If a reader waiting for my latest release (who was willing to pay $4.99) suddenly gets it for 99c, they now have $4 more to spend on books. So maybe they’ll end up buying two or three instead of one. Also, while I might leave money on the table this week, the strategy is to maximize sales by getting more of my disparate list/platform to try my historical fiction. If it works, I’ll have expanded my readership and made money. If it doesn’t… the worst that will happen is I’ll make a little less money, but still expand my readership somewhat and make existing readers happy. But however it works out for me personally I don’t see it having much effect on anyone else, other than somewhat increasing the amount of books my readers can afford.

6. “What if it’s successful and everyone starts launching books at 99c?” Again, this is analog thinking. This development would be wonderful for writers. Readers would swamp our mailing lists knowing that all self-publishers now launch at 99c. This would allow authors to build very powerful platforms, independent of any publisher or retailer.

7. If you make a decision which is pro-reader, you won’t go too far wrong. There’s a lot that’s confusing about the pricing issue, and publishing in general, but if you default towards treating readers with respect and making decisions which favor them – rather than trying to squeeze them for every last penny – then you won’t go wildly astray.

Worrying about the “industry” is pointless because the industry doesn’t care about you. But I don’t share those fears anyway. Books have proved remarkably robust over the last few hundred years and I don’t see how changes which are positive for the two most critical actors (writers and readers) pose a threat. If any threat or competition does exist – which may well be overstated – it comes from other forms of media and entertainment.

Creating and consuming stories is central to how we interact with the world. Aside from storytelling forms like music, novels, stand-up comedy, movies, and television, we seek out narratives in other areas all the time, like politics, news, and even sports. Stories can entertain, teach, amuse, disturb, and befuddle, and we will always be consumers of stories… and will always need creators of stories.

Many argue that books are in a real fight for attention and consumer dollars against other, flashier forms of entertainment. Popular movies have a powerful water-cooler effect that even top-selling authors rarely benefit from. Virtually everyone has a television in their home and access to endless amounts of free programming – some of it of astounding quality. There’s more free reading material and entertainment on the Internet than a whole army of people could get through. And even game studios are encroaching on books’ turf, especially with the engaging, interactive narratives like The Walking Dead.

But even if the threat is as serious as some think, isn’t this all the more reason to make books cheap?

Maybe Expensive Books Are Destroying Literature

If publishers had their way, prices would be a hell of a lot higher. When the agency model was forced on Amazon through collusion, prices of bestsellers from large publishers jumped overnight. In short, when publishers have control of pricing, books get more expensive.

Some publishers like Kensington CEO Stephen Zacharius have openly fantasized about self-publishers being removed from retailers, or at least segregated away from traditionally published books. This, of course, would remove all that pesky price competition which has been instrumental in self-publishers grabbing a huge chunk of the market.

Cheap books don’t devalue literature. What devalues literature is letting it wither on the vine. Old classics wouldn’t be as widely read if you could only get them for $7.99. Cheap (and free) pricing keeps their work alive.

High prices do the opposite and letting great backlist books flounder is tragic. Often when recommending a traditionally published book to a friend, I check the ranking on Amazon out of curiosity. Invariably, the book is around $10, despite being out for several years, and selling poorly.

What about new voices? Readers are going to be even more reluctant to pay high prices for completely unknown authors. They aren’t willing to pay a premium because the publisher is Simon & Schuster, but because the book is written by Stephen King. Debut authors miss out on truckloads of new readers because they are $10.99 instead of $4.99.

The numbers bear this out too. The latest Author Earnings Report was perhaps the most fascinating, but got drowned out by hysterical reports over which large corporation is going to make slightly more from e-book transactions. Hold the front page!

The real headline is that self-publishing is breaking more new authors than The Big 5. We’re doing it with, in part, aggressive pricing strategies. But the massively increased royalty rates from retailers like Amazon mean that more of us are making a living from this than ever before too.

Hooray for cheap books!

* * *

mercenaryIf you would like to help me destroy literature, my new historical novel – Mercenary – is now available from Amazon, B&N, Kobo and Smashwords for just 99c, and you can add it on Goodreads here. The price goes up soon, so don’t delay. The blurb:

Lee Christmas gets drunk and falls asleep at the throttle of his locomotive, plowing straight into an oncoming train. Blacklisted from the railroad and his marriage in tatters, he flees New Orleans on a steamer bound for the tropics.

In Honduras, he begins a quiet new life. But trouble has a way of finding Christmas. With unrest sweeping the countryside, he’s kidnapped by bandits. Soon, he finds himself taking sides in an all-out civil war–as leader of the rebellion.

MERCENARY is the story of the USA’s most famous soldier of fortune: the hard-drinking drifter who changed the fate of a nation.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Smashwords $4.99 $0.99

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

86 Replies to “Who's Afraid of Very Cheap Books?”

  1. I love this post. I think my favorite part, and the part that others have to do to remember is: this isn’t zero sum game. It’s not a race. Me winning doesn’t mean you lose. Me earning $500 doesn’t mean you don’t. Readers love to read, and if they can get books for cheaper, they’ll often read more books. Readers who love to read also tend to always be looking for something to read, so if they pick up your book and like it, they’ll likely want another one. And that’s a good thing. They’ll adore you if you sell it to them for cheap, so they can own their very own copy, instead of being 25 on the waiting list at the library because they didn’t sign up quick enough (or because the library only has one ebook copy available). It’s always good to help your readers, and by pricing low, you’re not hurting anyone else.

    1. I could also argue that the industry focus on overall dollar revenue of ebooks versus print – rather than unit sales – is analog thinking too. Since self-publishing grabbed such huge market share, readers dollar spend is flat or down. But unit sales are up. A real world example might be this: readers who used to spend $20 on two traditionally published e-books, now spend $19 total on one trad-pubbed book and two or three or four self-published books. The industry sees a decline, but in author earnings terms it’s a huge improvement. Of course, in *publisher* earning terms it’s a big drop.

      1. Authors and publishers are free to price their books however they want. It is missing the point to argue otherwise. The point is this: Comparing full-service publishing to self-publishing is apples and oranges. It makes no sense. It’s a useless straw man. A business that offers a wide range of services to authors has staff to pay and overhead to cover. A full-service publisher provides an author with liability insurance, a sub-rights department, a marketing department, distribution, and much else. Selling books at dirt-cheap prices is impossible for that business model. It’s not a matter of greedy choices; it’s a matter of paying the bills. Many authors *want* that kind of publishing experience. And arguing that old backlist titles of a publishers’ should be offered cheaply shows a lack of understanding of how much management costs are involved in even those old titles. They still have to pay their way.

        If self-pubs would stop dealing in simplistic arguments and try to understand the business of running a business, and how that business differs depending on the size and structure of the business, we could have a useful discussion of pricing. “You get what you pay for,” has never been truer in terms of self-pubs receiving a 70 percent royalty but *no* publisher support, risk,investment, creative or career management services. That system works well for those who can run their own ship, but many authors can’t stay afloat. ,

        1. Hi Deborah. I fundamentally disagree with you regarding backlist titles. But because you think the self-publishing comparison is unfair, let’s take a publisher like Open Road. It is aggressive both in its digital marketing and its e-book pricing. And, despite that, it can still afford to pay authors way higher royalties than the Big 5 – leading authors like Michael Chabon to sign digital rights over to them instead of accepting the paltry industry standard at Random House.

          Do you think readers should be forced to pay for the inefficiencies of large publishers? That’s a particularly tough argument to make when you are talking about backlist titles – especially those which have already earned out and are now withering on the vine.

          It’s not very imaginative to insist that Backlist Title X has to pay for some basket of legacy costs so we can’t discount it. And it’s the kind of zero sum, analog thinking that I’m arguing against.

        2. “If self-pubs would stop dealing in simplistic arguments and try to understand the business of running a business, and how that business differs depending on the size and structure of the business, we could have a useful discussion of pricing.”

          Deborah, maybe you live in a different corner of the internet. I’m seeing a lot of discussion on the business issues of independent publishing. Have you read Kristine Rausch, Hugh Howey, Dean Wesley Smith, Passive Guy, Joe Konrath, Johanna Penn…? There is a lot of focus on money, and income. And the simple fact is that indie authors are not only staying afloat but actually thriving. (AuthorEarnings.com is a great place to start to read up on this.)

          If all you see are “dirt-cheap prices” then you’re missing the bigger picture. Yes, some indie authors self-publish because they write crap that wouldn’t see the light of day otherwise. But for many of us, it’s a business decision to go indie.

          E&O insurance can be purchased. Professional editing can be contracted. Talented cover designers can be hired. Marketing talent and techniques are available in all industries. Yes, some indies may skimp on these things. And on the other extreme, we have divisions of multinational conglomerates who own and/or lease some of the most expensive real estate in the world and maintain huge staffs, focusing on blockbuster books and treating midlist authors as the necessary churn to power their hit machines, and they’re raking in the profits right now. We’ll see over time which business models work.

          As for “career management” … isn’t that up to the author herself? Some say there’s never been a better time to be an author. When I look at the world today, with all these options, I tend to agree.

      2. Deborah –

        You seem to have an intimate knowledge of the costs associated with legacy publishing. Why don’t you share some of the costs with the other readers here so we can make that apples to apples comparison?

        I think the strongest argument you could make is to show exactly what services legacy authors receive and at what cost to the publisher.

        1. Personally, I love the idea that every author gets a “marketing department.” That’s not the experience of any author I know, except the lucky few who get the red carpet treatment along with their big advance.

          Most authors get assigned a publicist (often an unpaid temp), who has a ton of books to look after at the same time. The “marketing” mainly consists of appearing in the publisher’s catalog, appearing on the publisher’s website, and having some ARCs sent out. Not exactly a big push.

  2. “Worrying about the ‘industry’ is pointless because the industry doesn’t care about you” – brilliant. I couldn’t agree more.

    Like you say, it’s about readers and writers – if books sell in large numbers because they are cheap, who exactly is losing out?

  3. And hooray for you, David. I’ve been having this argument with writer and reader friends for a while now, and I passionately believe that the easier it is for people to rget their hands on a book, the more we writers all benefit. Where does RRP leave students, children and people with no money to spare? I buy new books, I buy from charity shops and I use libraries. I don’t want my books to be valuable commodities, I want them to be READ.

  4. We have to trust readers, not the experts who’ve built a complex, good old boy publishing network that was found guilty of collusion and bilking readers of hundreds of millions of dollars by over charging for ebooks. I find it simply fascinating no one latched onto that and was outraged. No Colbert lambasting publishers. Nope. They price fixed, got called on it, CEOs lied in court on the stand (I love it when people say publishing is ‘honorable’) and hardly anyone blinked.

    I trust readers.

    1. It’s amazing that both the mainstream press and the trade press still refer to things like “the alleged collusion” or just deny anything took place whatsoever. The revisionism takes a number of forms, but my favorite is that the judge and/or the DOJ were biased somehow. If that’s the case, why did regulatory authorities in Europe, Canada, Australia and more come to pretty similar conclusions about publishers’ behavior? Publishers *love* price-fixing. Look at markets where it’s permitted (like, to a certain extent, France, Germany, and Italy) – they embrace it, celebrate it, campaign for its retention.

      And yes, they have totally wriggled off the hook for this and have been able to pitch themselves as pro-reader or pro-author. But I think more people are starting to see through the spin.

  5. Let’s say, hold on to your seats… that books eventually get sold for 1 penny a piece in digital form, or printed form if you want a more extremist take on this.

    (NOTE: It probably won’t ever happen in our lifetime, but … ???)

    Self published authors in control of their book business could find other ways to make money, make a living (maybe selling the audio or gasp… VIDEO versions of their books … or other means).

    But traditional publishing companies are already behind the curve, as evidenced by their “99 cent books destroy what WE do” argument. So, if it does happen, that books are sold for 1 penny … they will fold up shop and leave? Or will they innovate, struggle, and try to survive?

    The fear that expresses itself in almost every argument for the “old” way tells me they aren’t ready for dramatic change (it’s coming, digital isn’t the dramatic change it’s capable of, yet).

    1. Let’s assume your scenario comes to pass, or let’s go even further and imagine a world where all books are always free – that this is the only price the market will bear. Retailers and authors would need to generate money or else they won’t keep writing and selling books. So we’d probably evolve to some ad-supported model, or some subscription model, or some freemium model where readers pay more for extra stuff (a novel with a side character, enhanced content, extra stories, whatever).

      Whatever change is coming at us, self-publishers are probably going to be in a better position to handle it as we are more nimble and can learn from each other. But if the change coming at us is a negative one, then all the more reason to be aggressive now about audience building.

      1. And that’s why I read whatever you write David 🙂

        This … “But if the change coming at us is a negative one, then all the more reason to be aggressive now about audience building.”


  6. It’s not relevant for fiction readers but for a howto author like myself, 99ct has a big benefit even though it is 35%: we can go crazy (well kinda) with the media, f.e. with images and alike.

    It may not make a big difference in royalty, but a reader is much more likely to buy 5 books for 99ct than several for 2.99 – and if I get nearly as much royalty from the 99ct as from the other one, I can plan differently. Smaller books with a lower proce are okay to be 99ct – less expectation with it too.

  7. PW has broken out the whole Amazon/Hachette/Price thing this morning… one mo’ time. I’ve heard enough of it. Markets are set into movement by the consumers. Price is one of the variables, and the combination of low price and high quality is something the Big 5 can only dream about at this point. By the way, David, I’ll be happy to help you wreck literature and just downloaded from B&N — not to jump on the bells and whistles bandwagon to boycott Amazon, just ’cause I own a Nook!

    1. Thanks Richard. By the way, speaking of B&N, I’ve been hearing reports that the store has gotten much better recently, that search has improved etc. Have you noticed anything? What has your experience been in general?

  8. Another good post, David. The noise of those messages going out from the Big 5 is itself telling–they have the money, the clout, and the P.R. machine to keep beating the drums of Amazon Derangement Syndrome. I guess indie authors will simply have to keep our heads down and keep writing…and bringing in the money to support ourselves while authors stuck in the TradPub system watch in amazement.

  9. Publishers are more than happy to take advantage of this tactic when it suits them. Despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, the no.1 Ebook when I published my own novel this year was “12 years a slave”, reduced to 99p to cash in on the film’s popularity.

  10. I think the real problem writers have with Traditional Publishers isn’t pricing, it’s the ridiculously low royalty percentages, and I think that’s the problem writers ought to be pressuring them about. I don’t see how selling your book as though it belongs on McDonald’s Dollar Menu and making next to nothing on a sale helps that. It’s just another example of the writer getting ripped. I see the value of occasional 99 cent pricing for marketing reasons, and I’ll be using it shortly, but I think it would be a shame if it became the standard. Even a bad book is worth more than 99 cents because there’s a writer’s heart and soul behind it.

    1. Well, in a sense it was kind of standard for a while in 2010/2011 – that’s the strategy that worked so well for Hocking, and put Victorine Lieske on the NYT list (at least I think she was running at 99c at the time) – and the world kept turning. There were a lot of incentives to price at 99c at the time, but no one was compelled to. Eventually so many writers did put their work at 99c that there was a glut, and the aggressive experimenters moved to $2.99 and $3.99 and $4.99.

      IMO, 99c is a great tool if used correctly. I’m sure pricing will go through all sorts of convulsions in the future, but we’re pretty adaptable and even when the digital market was strongly characterized by heavy readers and bargain hunters (less so now as the market matured), it was still better than the system before and plenty of writers were building audiences and making money (both at 99c and above).

  11. Good points, though I’ve done limited 0.99 pricing other than a sale here and there. I have one permafree 4 short story collection set in the trilogy series. Nothing has had a lot of effect, but that is probably due to other factors.

    A lot of the arguments you mention would also apply to the lower prices (below $5) and traditionally published prices. But mostly you refer to $0.99 pricing. What is your thoughts, preferences on, say, $0.99 vs. $2.99?

    One argument I’ve heard against $0.99 pricing as opposed to $2.99 and up is:

    It indicates to a reader how much the author values his own work, and that it is more likely to be bad from the reader’s perspective.

    Is it a good idea, in your opinion to sell everything at $0.99, or just select books for periods of time?

    Thanks for the post.

    1. I think that argument confuses price and value, which I blogged about here (and also talk about various price points): https://davidgaughran.com/2014/04/07/the-great-e-book-pricing-question/

      In general, I think you should be flexible, experiment, and price according to your goals. If your goal is audience expansion (the first book in a series is a perfect candidate for this) then it makes sense to experiment with free and 99c. If it’s a standalone, then you may prefer to maximize income and price at $2.99-$4.99 (or more, depending). Genre can be a big factor. Romance seems to demand lower prices. Historical fiction seems to allow higher prices. And readers’ responses to various price points has changed dramatically in the last few years as the market has developed.

      Personally, I prefer keeping 99c for special occasions – a sale over a weekend when I have a few ads running, or, in this case, a very particular kind of launch. But the most important thing is to figure out your goals, experiment to see what price brings you closer to those goals, and remain flexible as things change.

      For me, that has generally meant pricing at $4.99. For you, it might be different.

  12. I’ve read about the push to segregate books into those published by the major publishers and those published by self-published authors, and my response is, “Bring it on!”
    Let’s separate the two and see who wins. Do most readers want limited, overpriced-selections with overused themes, or a huge, rich variety of fresh ideas and stories, reasonably priced?
    From a recent post in “Writer Beware.” I got the impression that BEA shoved self-publishing into a backroom closet (apparently embarrassed at having to host something so tawdry.)
    Well guess what? We’re here and we’re here to stay, so get used to it!
    We OWN our rights, they’re our property. We haven’t peddled them off to a publisher. We can charge any price we deem fit and no one can stop us. If Amazon or any other retailer wants to make life hard for us, some free-thinking soul (like Smashwords) will come up with an alternative and make money in the process.

    1. We can actually see an experiment in action! There are plenty of ebookstores out there which either stock self-published titles. In the UK, I don’t think there are any self-published titles in WH Smith since the erotica mess. I haven’t heard any stories about readers responding wonderfully to this more limited selection, nor have I seen any articles about WH Smith suddenly grabbing huge marketshare now that they only have “curated” books. If you want a store which takes curation further, then you have things like Zola books – and I don’t think that’s gobbling up market-share either. And while Sony allowed self-published titles, it gave them zero visibility. It’s now gone.

  13. I suppose there were critics back in 1482, faulting Aldus Manutius for making printed paper books affordable in the first place. But what happens when no discount pricing strategy has an effect on sales? R.L. Copple has posed some good questions here.

    1. Marketing isn’t as simple as Do X and Y will result. But that’s a good thing! If it was that easy, there would be a quarter of a million authors and publishers pressing the Big Red Marketing Button and everyone would be selling identically.

      The good news is that effective marketing today, with the tools we have, is less of a challenge than it used to be. You have to try a lot of stuff, and iterate so that you get a better feel for it and how to pitch your books. And I think authors should generally focus on this kind of stuff: https://davidgaughran.com/2014/01/03/if-you-dont-enjoy-marketing-youre-doing-it-wrong/

  14. Another great & informative post David!
    It’s getting to the point where the first thing I do on WordPress is check your blog before checking my own! Kudos

  15. Hi, David — I’m glad I got you started because I’ve been having this debate with my fellow indie authors and have been at a loss as to how to offer a cogent counterpoint. You’ve gone a long way towards doing that for me.

    I think the biggest objection my fellow indie authors have expressed is the fear that by releasing at 99c, our readers will be conditioned to expect to always pay 99c for eBooks. Soon, they will no longer be willing to pay full price. Not everyone will sell Amanda Hocking-like numbers and so won’t be able to make a living if all books are 99c. I might, in the short run, benefit from a 99c release, but what if, in the long run, readers no longer want to pay even the low indie regular price of $2.99 – $5.99 because we conditioned them to pay 99c for new releases? Will that mean fewer indies can make a decent living off self-publishing?

    I make a comfortable 6-figure income selling my eBooks at $4.99 a piece, with the occasional sale or BookBub at 99c to boost sales and gain new readers. But I only sold 85,000 books last year. When I put my books (regular price $4.99) on sale, for example, I go from earning $3.44 per book sold to $0.3465 per book sold. To break even, I have to sell ten times more books or make up the loss through a bump in sales of other full-priced books in the series or my backlist. If all my books were priced at 99c, I would have to sell ten times that amount a year — or 850,000 books — to make the same income.

    You can make a decent living with books priced 99c only if you sell in huge quantities. In other words, are we conditioning readers to expect eBooks for 99c? Will they pay more once they’ve been used to paying so little?

    That is the concern I have read or heard from my fellow indie authors. I am buoyed by your optimism but I fear it rests on theory alone rather than cold hard numbers.

    1. If you look back to 2011, most of the indies making money seemed to be pricing most or all of their books at 99c. What we have seen since then is more indies making money at all price points – and a move away from 99c as a permanent price, except as the intro to a series.

      We’ve also seen indies who were primarily selling at $2.99 edging up to $3.99, and $4.99 (and sometimes more).

      In other words, effective prices for self-publishers seem to be trending up rather than down.

    2. Readers can great books every day for little or no money. They can go to the library, borrow a book off a friend, or download one of the millions of free books available on the internet (both legally and illegally). If they want a little more convenience, they can subscribe to ten different deal sites which have great books every day, for only 99c. You can buy great books every day for next to nothing. This hasn’t conditioned readers to only pay 99c. Books with higher prices are all over the charts. If you want cold hard numbers, just count all the different price points in the Kindle Store Top 100 – from indies too. People have been launching books at 99c for three or four years. Free has been a big tool for self-publishers for almost three years. Writers have had identical worries during all that time and business conditions have improved!

  16. David, I generally take everything you say as gospel truth (don’t have time to chase down every single detail, you hang together when you write, and in the past – and mostly today – are spot on).

    But you shouldn’t use Joanna Penn links from TWO THOUSAND AND ELEVEN – in the current indie publishing, that’s the dark ages. What do you think? Her results – and the John Locke stuff she based the theory on – are ancient history (oh, I get it – you write historical fiction!).

    Looking forward to hearing from you how your current results are – something you’re inimitable at.

    But you made me click – AND spend time reading – before I realized I started learning about self-pubbling AFTER 2011, and Joanna’s links won’t be applicable to this Fall (IF I can get myself done by then).

    Everything else was lovely, as usual.


    1. Hi Alicia. If you want a more current example of someone pricing aggressively – even more aggressively than Locke ever did – look at what Ed Robertson did recently. When he was releasing his fourth Breakers book, he put books 1-3 in a box set for 99c. He went on a crazy sales run and brought (i’m guessing) tens of thousands of new readers into his series. He made more money on the series overall, and that was before counting all the new readers who bought Book 4, then Book 5, and who signed up to his mailing list and who will swarm all over Book 6 when it comes out soon.

      This isn’t really about 99c per se, but how all sorts of aggressive pricing can be very effective, and writers shouldn’t bar themselves from using certain tools out of misplaced fears that it will devalue books somehow.

      1. Thanks – that’s far more current, and more applicable.

        I think one benefits from thinking about – and comparing carefully with – similar writing styles as well as genres. Some of us will never put out quick books – our style is to have complicated novels which take time to plot and write – others seem to toss off 80,000 words, switch a few commas around, and put them out there for sale (and do well).

        If you’re writing them like pancakes, the strategy of luring in reader with inexpensive starter sets is going to work well. However, if you put your first book at .99 – and it’s going to take you two years to write Book 2 – you may need to rethink your strategy, and look for other authors who are slow.

        At least folks are very kind with their data – and I love it that so many different writing/sales models are catching readers’ attention.

        And it never hurts being fast AND good – so check your writing style for places you may be slowing yourself down unnecessarily, as well as places where you really have to stop using cliches (or whatever) and up the quality a bit (usually more in response to drooping sales than to a desire to change your style).

        I’m working on making myself faster. Really.

  17. What is the lifetime value of a new customer? If you haven’t asked yourself that question, you’re doing it wrong. A permafree or permacheap book or a sale on one of your books should be part of your reader acquisition strategy. Optimize your process for going from story idea to words in front of the reader. Publish regularly and often.

    1. William, ‘Publish regularly and often’ is like dieting and exercise programs: sound good in print, gets people all enthused, and fails for some of us.

      I literally can’t – and I’m ten times faster than I was a year ago. I need the strategies other people like me – VSW (very slow writers) – figure out.

      If you like what I write, you won’t want it any other way: that’s the way I write. Twisted, connected, Byzantine, and long. Many people will not – I’m hoping some will.

      Right now Book 1 IS free – it goes up on my blog, new finished scene every Tuesday. But I don’t know what I’m going to do 1) when it’s done, and 2) as I get into the next Book (of 3).

      Strategies very welcome.


      1. 10x faster than a year ago and publishing every week sounds good to me. Publishing doesn’t just mean putting something on Amazon, et. al. I think your next step is figuring out how to reach your potential audience, not to sell to them but to participate in a community. Find out where they congregate on the web. Or create a place for them.

      2. A few suggestions from an avid reader of Byzantine SFF. Think about putting up a the first 3-5 chapters as a permafree when your ready to publish or a few months before. That gives you 2 works and a way for people to sample your work. If drawn they then buy the book. I know this has worked well for a number of authors just make sure you label it well including the cover art.

        You might also find that you are able to write a few short back stories for the main characters of the book as you have those stories in your head. Or during editing of the book some sections might work if pulled out and published as short companions. I wish some of my favorite authors had done that with their 800-1000+ page novels as those pulled out sections would have been much more interesting as standalones and the main book would have been easier to follow.

  18. Reblogged this on A Keyboard and an Open Mind and commented:
    Fantastic post that totally pulls apart any arguments one might put forward about how cheap books (e-books, self-published books, both…) are certainly NOT destroying the world of literature, and are in fact, probably enhancing it.

  19. Yes to your point about high prices ruining the industry. There are very few e-books I will buy for what publishers charge for them. I think it’s criminal that they are trying to get as much for an e-book as they charge for a paperback. The production costs simply aren’t comparable and, as a result, there should be a discount to the reader who buys an e-book. As a result, I rarely purchase traditionally published e-books and instead look for options where I can purchase e-books that are lower in cost.

  20. Interesting post. I hate the fact that big publishers charge paperback pricing for e-books, but I also don’t like the .99cent book either. Personally I feel people are getting used to the low prices to where anything over .99cents is passed over because we only want free or next to it. Unless it’s for promotional or temp. Nothing says cheap like a cheap book. At least that’s how I see it.

  21. I think there are two things at play here: “cheap” is a matter of perspective, and there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy.
    I grew up at a time when mass market paperbacks — which I read a ton of — cost $5.99. For a novel-length work of fiction, I feel like the value-exchange there is balanced. I also remember when I used to shop at Barnes & Noble for the remaindered hardcovers, and usually thought $4.95 was a good price there, and was happier still when I found one for $3.95.
    When hardcovers are $27.95 or more, and trade paperbacks are $14.95, those prices seemed both inexpensive and reasonable to me.
    Now that I’ve gone on to start a press myself, and work with other authors, I’ve been experimenting liberally with different pricing points. For a while we used KDP Select to ensure that there was always one title free. Later, we published short stories priced at 99c, so we had something at pretty much every price point between 99c and $4.99. Lately, $5.99 has been our upper price point, and there are tiers down to $2.99 — which we use as the price for a nano-collection of three short stories. I’ve noticed lately that we’re selling more books than before, if slowly but surely.
    But then that’s the other thing: I want to be doing this for years to come. I want to be publishing while inflation and rates change and dip and rise. There’s no shortcut to the long game.

  22. “If you would like to help me destroy literature…” But of course I do! I already downloaded it and it is on the to-read list. You are hoot 🙂 Cheers.

  23. The line about helping you destroy literature made me laugh. Good one. David, you’re a man after my own heart. Writers should always be pro-reader – they are after all why we do what we do, aren’t they? Naturally the pricing wars will go on and indies and those who back them will be accused of all manner of things. But the truth is when a group of people think they have the market cornered on something and somebody comes along and proves them wrong by offering some real competition, they scream ‘injustice!’ and various other chicken little strategies. Hey if ‘destroying literature’ results in more people reading, I’m all for it.

    Really like your stuff.

    Writer Chick

  24. “If you make a decision which is pro-reader, you won’t go too far wrong.”
    “Cheap books expand the pool of readers”
    Are you basically saying, through this obvious contradiction, that a self-publisher is an hypocrite by nature?

  25. So, here’s the thing: there’s a big difference between $.99 and what the big 5 are charging for ebooks. It’s not an “all or nothing” proposition – $.99 or big 5 prices. In between are prices like $3.99 for a new release, $2.99 for an older book, $4.99 for a book from an NYT bestselling self publisher. I’m not in this to save an industry, and I know quite well the industry doesn’t give a crap about me. BUT, I am here to earn a living, and honestly, nothing I’ve experienced at the $.99 price point is going to achieve that for me. I need to sell so many more books at $.99 to equal my normal earnings at $3.99 that it’s just not viable. I’ve tried $.99, for sales, to celebrate next in series releases, for introductory offerings. I’ve lost money. Every. Single. Time. How do I know? Because I can compare how many sales I had for the previous release or the week before (on an existing title) at $3.99 or $2.99 and how many sales I have at $.99 during the sale. I’ve never broken even financially. Now, did I get new readers? Honestly, I don’t know. I got more copies out there, but I’ve never felt the “surge” that you get from some promo opps. Growing a readership is a very tricky thing, and relying on rock bottom prices to do it may not be the disaster that some would claim, but it’s also not the pie in the sky dream scenario that’s painted around the Indie world either. Sales engines like Bookbub probably make the $.99 price point more effective, but I’d caution all self pubbers to think very carefully before jumping on the “cheap will solve your problems” bandwagon, because $3.99 is still pretty damn cheap, and at least you can pay the mortgage with it.

    1. I certainly don’t rely on rock-bottom prices. I use them judiciously. I normally price full-length books at $4.99. I gave a range of examples of how 99c could and has been used just to show the possibilities. Personally, I only use 99c for full length work in very specific situations.

      The point of this post was not to argue that 99c is the only price or the smartest price. The point was that writers shouldn’t restrict themselves from any tool – even 99c.

      Some writers don’t price cheaply at all – in any situation – because they feel it devalues their work, or undermines the viability of the profession. *That’s* the viewpoint I’m arguing against.

  26. I’ve found that 99 cents works well for short stories – hate to charge too much for something so small. As a sidebar: I was wondering how Kobo works for you. My short story just seems to keep saying it’s publishing. Not sure what the hold up is. Have you had any trouble with them?

  27. Fantastic post, David, insightful and inspiring – and great timing for me as I’m about to launch a new book and have been dithering about the price. Decision made! “Quick Change” (flash fiction) will now launch at 99p on 21st June. I’m also going to buy your 99p novel now by way of thanks. (Love the cover, btw). I know I buy a lot more books at 99p, whether that’s their permaprice or offer price, and it’s also encouraged me to try books normally outside of my comfort zone, with some great results.

  28. So, I’ve never read any of your books but I just bought Mercenary on the strength of this piece alone. Yeah, I went with the Kindle sample first to see if it’s something I’d enjoy, and the first few sentences convinced me that it would be.
    My problem with Big Publishers is that I live in a third world country. Their ebooks are priced high enough as it is, but it becomes even higher when the $2 surcharge that randomly gets added for anyone buying outside the US. While I wouldn’t mind paying $5.99 – 7.99, $10 and up is just ludicrous. That’s more than what I spend on my daily living expenses 🙁
    And the regional distribution rights nightmare associated with Big Publishers… It’s kind of frustrating when I can’t purchase an ebook I want because the Publisher didn’t make it available in my country due to rights or contracts or whatever hoopla. This is less of a problem with Indie ebooks. Even if an indie ebook I wanted wasn’t originally being sold in my corner of the world, I would just contact the author and they’d get it sorted. Not so with the Big Publishers. I actually emailed an author about it once. She said she doesn’t have any control over it, but I have her blessing to download the books via torrent because it’s not my fault that the publisher won’t sell it to me.
    I don’t actually remember the last time I purchased anything from the Big 5. I mean, I can derive as much enjoyment from a well written, cheap ebook by an as yet undiscovered author than I can from expensive ebooks from those big publishers. And I get to have money left over for a decent meal 🙂

  29. Pingback: Monday Must-Reads [06.16.14]
  30. Reblogged this on David Pandolfe and commented:
    Since I’ve been running Streetlights Like Fireworks at $0.99 so more readers become familiar with my work, it seemed fitting to share David Gaughran’s post regarding “cheap books.” Believe me, my intention is not to devalue books but rather to give readers a chance to check out someone new (namely, me). This is a great post and I especially appreciate David’s point that maybe it’s expensive books that are devaluing literature.

  31. Pingback: The Value of a Book -No Blank Pages
  32. I just discovered this blog yesterday, and after reading several of your articles, I have to say that you are one of the most rational voices out there on the subject of e-publishing. I’m glad I stumbled across this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *