Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Pricing for Ebooks - How and Why I do it

First of all, I’ll talk a little bit about the different sales vendors and the regular prices you see when you buy books off the internet, then I’ll talk a little bit about my own decisions when it comes to pricing.

The Basics

If you’re new to self-publishing (SP), on Amazon you can basically price your books how you like, as long as they’re over $0.99 or other currency equivalents. So, yeah, I could price my books at $50 each, but of course no one would buy them. The important thing to remember with pricing is your royalty.

On Amazon you get 35% between $0.99 and $2.99, then 70% from $2.99 to $9.99, before it goes back to 35% over $9.99, but to be honest, you’re unlikely to sell much priced that high. Good luck if you want to try, though.

This is true for most branches of Amazon, but they have certain rules, for example at the moment if you want 70% in India, Japan, Mexico, or Brazil you have to be enrolled in Amazon’s Select program, otherwise it’s 35% regardless of what you charge. All of this is visible on your pricing page when you’re publishing your book.

Amazon’s Select Program

What is Select? If you enroll in Select through your Bookshelf on your Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) page, you have to grant Amazon exclusivity (meaning you can’t be published on any other vendor) for 90 days. In return, you can set your book free for five days per 90-day period, or run a Countdown Promo, and benefit from borrows made by Amazon Prime members, for which you’ll get paid roughly $2 each time.

Some people like Select. I'm not a fan, which is why I’m gradually pulling my books out of it. It used to be awesome - a free run would get a ton of downloads, then when your book reverted to paid you’d get a load of knock on sales for a month or so afterwards. I came into SP when Select was at the end of its golden period. My first free promo on Tube Riders got me 4000 downloads and 60 knock on sales at $4.99 over the next month, which was nice at the time. The second time I did it, knock on sales stopped dead after a week. The most recent one I did (on Head of Words) netted me just 3 sales after giving away 1500 copies.

I’m not going to bitch about Amazon because I love Amazon - both as a publisher and a customer. They absolutely rock. However, they’re a business and they do what they consider best, and if reducing the visibility of free books post-free is in their best interests then it’s up to us writers to roll with it and adapt. I never really liked free promos unless I could find a way to benefit my other books, plus I wanted to publish on other platforms.

Other Platforms

These are the smaller venues, such as Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Google Play. If you’re US-based, you can publish to them direct, or for Apple you need to have a Mac. Alternatively, you can publish through an online distributer such as Smashwords or Draft 2Digital.

I currently use Smashwords for most of my stuff, and while I don’t hate it, I’m not particularly fond of it. It works, but it has certain annoying features. Many people complain about the uploader, known as the “meat grinder” and the fact that you have to put “Smashwords Edition” in the front matter of your book. I find these things irritating, but for me the big downside is the ridiculous lateness of the reports. Amazon updates sales as they come in, or with a short, pretty unnoticeable time lag, but for Smashwords you’re lucky if you get sales updates once a month. I go through all of the other vendors with Smashwords, but for example, on my Smashwords dashboard this morning it says that the free downloads through Kobo, for example, were last updated on November 30th, 2013. That’s like, five months ago? What the hell? Most updates are once a month, but even that is pretty poor. There really isn't any reason why they can't provide reports at least once a week.

I’ve only used Draft 2 Digital once, but it was far easier and I’ll probably be using it for most future publications. One advantage that Smashwords apparently has, though, is that you can price books at free on Barnes & Noble, whereas Draft 2 Digital only pushes free books to Apple and Kobo. However, as Apple becomes bigger and B&N becomes smaller, this may not be such a problem. Anyway, if you’re interested in more of a comparison, here’s an interesting blog I came across this morning which talks about them both in more detail.

One last point and then I’ll get back to my original topic(!) - I don’t currently use Google Play. To be honest, I don’t know much about them, but one thing I have heard is that they have a tendency to discount your books without warning. And this can cause big problems with Amazon.

The Price-Match

Amazon is the undisputed God of SP, and you should upset them at your peril. Amazon likes to have the lowest price around, and as a result they will often price-match their books if a book is priced lower on another vendor. If you go to my UK Amazon page you’ll see that Tube Riders: Revenge is priced something like £3.08. This isn’t the price I set. I set it at £3.99, the same as Exile, but somewhere Amazon has found a lower price and matched it. I can’t for the life of me figure out where, unless they’ve actually price-matched it to the US Amazon, where it is priced $4.99 (£3.08 at current exchange rates). There’s not a lot I can do about this. I could email them, but it’s selling and I kind of wonder if it being a fraction cheaper than Exile might be tipping those on the fence about Exile into taking a chance on Revenge. However, this price-matching is why I don’t use Google Play, because its notoriously difficult to get Google Play to change their prices, whereas you are in control of all the others either directly or through Smashwords or Draft 2 Digital.

You can effectively set your prices as you want on other vendors and Amazon will likely price-match it if it is lower. Be careful, though - Amazon won’t be happy if your price is $0.99 on another vendor because pricing matching it to $0.99 on Amazon forces them to pay you the 70% royalty on a book that they usually only pay 35% for, unless you quickly go in and change your requested royalty. If not, you’ll get The Email. I’ve got it, and it’s scary. I don’t want to get it again. Therefore, if you reduce your book to $0.99 for a bargain book promo, be aware that Smashwords can take a week or so to up the prices on the other vendors. Don’t get caught out.

The only real use of price-matching is to get your book priced permanently at free. This is what I’ve done with The Tube Riders. This means you can reap the long term benefits of having a book free without having to be in the Select program. I currently have several perma-frees - The Tube Riders book 1, the short stories Going Underground, Fallen from the Train and The Cold Pools, and the first in my Beat Down! novella series, (under the name of Michael S. Hunter) (if you love me go and grab them all!). All of them (except The Cold Pools, which is only perma-free because it was popular) act as funnels to drive people towards other connected books.

One of the downsides of perma-frees (and frees in general) is you get a lot more bad reviews from people who don't really like your genre but grab it because it's free, the "there was a bloody skull on the front but I wanted to a read a romance and it was a horror, so here's your one star" types. The Cold Pools and Beat Down! have several. There's nothing you can do about it except roll with it, because it comes with the territory. As a word of warning, unless you're a bestseller, making you pretty much immune from the flamers, don't waste your time trying to stand up and justify your books in such cases. It's a huge waste of time and energy, and at the end of the day people are entitled to their opinion, even if you think its grossly unfair or way off the mark. Shrug it off and get back to writing the next book.

Amazon sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t price-match. You can’t guarantee it. Sometimes it just happens (Tube Riders took less than a day) and sometimes it never happens (Beat Down - Clones is still not free in the UK after more than a year). There is a report box on the book’s page on Amazon, so it’s a good idea to report your book as often as possible. I’ve found that the higher priced the item, the quicker it gets price-matched. Also be aware that they can un-price-match at any time. This happens a lot in the UK. Just this week, Tube Riders reverted to paid, meaning my wonderful free ranking got reset. I emailed them and its been set to free again now, but that could be disastrous if it happened on the eve of a big promotion. Make sure you keep an eye on them.

I’d quickly like to take a moment to shout out to a book I’m reading at the moment called Write. Publish. Repeat. By Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant. This is basically the self-publisher’s bible, and if you haven’t read it you should check it out. I’m happy to note that I’ve been doing a lot of the things they talk about, but not nearly enough. They talk about a lot of the same things regarding pricing, particularly the “funnel”, and a few more besides.

My prices

In the US I price short stories at $0.99, collections and novellas at $2.99, standalone novels at $3.99 and my Tube Riders sequels at $4.99. On the other Amazons I round up my higher prices to the nearest -99, just to make them look tidy. As a long term strategy I’m moving away from lower prices and also free promotions. Other than my perma-frees, it’s my intention that the only way to get free or discounted books will be through my mailing list (sign up here!) with coupons via Smashwords or Draft 2 Digital. Arbitrarily giving away free books is akin to the often used metaphor of slinging mud against the wall and hoping it sticks. I’ve been trying it for two years and I can tell you that it doesn’t.

I have absolutely no intention of ever giving away Exile or Revenge for free. I’ll just point that out now. It is very easy for self-publishers to cultivate a “culture of free”, where they’re known for giving away everything so much that fans will just wait around until the price eventually comes down. I’ve been there, done that, but after two years of building a base I’m moving away from that now. If anything, I consider Exile and Revenge to be underpriced, but for now $4.99 works for me. I’m a nice person, very generous and all that, but I’m trying to make money, not spend all my free time slaving away at a computer screen to then give books away to people for free. If people want to read my books, I expect them to pay for them.

I’ve had a number of people ask (or even criticism me for) why The Tube Riders is free, considering it took me six months just to draft, and god knows how much longer to revise and get ready for publication. The Tube Riders is my loss leader, the funnel which draws people into the Tube Riders world where I hope they will part with their money for the sequels and eventually the prequel trilogy I am currently writing. I view the series as a set, and each free download of book one is potentially $10 of revenue, which works out at $7 in my pocket. Of course, only a fraction of free downloaders actually go on to even read the book, let alone buy the sequels. I’ve heard of sell-through rates of everything from 0.5% to 15%, but if you can get 5% you’re doing great. Since Tube Riders went permanently free in the US on January 29th and February 5th in the UK I’ve had almost 26,000 downloads. My sell-through rate is currently less than 2%, but since the first book is so long I’m hoping that it will have a long sell-through tail.

I also recently released a boxed set, which is now linked to in the back of The Tube Riders, rather than Exile, which was linked to before. My boxed set is $7.99 in the US and 5.99 in the UK, meaning a saving of about 20%. This is pure marketing. While many readers will (and do) buy the individual books, if there is a boxed set available I’ll likely hang on to some readers that might have read Exile, not enjoyed it (impossible, I know!), and moved on. It also looks nice and shiny, adds another item to my author’s page, and could provide the series with a boost through promotions if and when interest in the initial series begins to wane.

Anyway, like a lot of my blogs, this one has expanded into a two-thousand word beast, so it’s probably a good idea to set it free now. Any questions or comments are welcome, and one more time, please signup for my new releases mailing list if you're interested in what I write.

Chris Ward
19th March 2014


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