Ebook Pricing Discussion: Buy an ereader if you’re considering giving out ebooks for free.

This keeps coming up.  People want to know how to price their books in a situation where nobody has had enough time to test a method–the method that might work great during one five-year stretch might not work out so well during the next stretch.  Who knows?

However, I’ll tell you my theories at the moment so you can consider them and argue with me.  I’m no economist, so there are potentially a lot of considerations that I may have missed.  So be it: I plan to keep on learning and keep on experimenting, and this may not be my final word on the subject, either.

One thing I do know, though: the experience of reading ebooks is not 1:1 for reading paper books and probably affects people’s purchasing habits.  So if you’re thinking about epublishing, even if you’re dead-set against the ebook-reading experience and want to stay with print books, you should:

Get an ereader

Before you start selling ebooks, get an ereader.  Heck, they’re cheap–get several and write them off on your taxes.  Spend at least a month reading books on your ereader.  JUST on your ereader, if you can manage it.  Here are your goals for that month:

  • Download several books from your local library, if ebooks are available.
  • Download a THICK book from your ereader’s online store.  Maybe even a boxed set.
  • Download 20-30 free ebooks from your ereader’s online store.
  • Figure out how to read an ebook in the bathtub (hint: wrap the ereader in a freezer bag).
  • Download several books from Project Gutenberg.
  • Scroll through the Smashwords home page until you see at least ten books that you’re tempted to buy.
  • Download 20-30 free ebooks from Smashwords.
  • Cruise through the ebook store for your ereader and find one book that you can’t resist buying at $.99.
  • Do the same, but for a $2.99 book.
  • Again, do the same with an ebook $9.99 or less.
  • Finally, go nuts and buy a book that you’ve been planning to buy, regardless of the price.
  • (You might want to consider doing similar things on your smartphone, if you have one: try Aldiko and the Amazon and Nook apps, try the Overdrive app and set it up for your library.  You should download those things from your app store, by the way, not online.)

Buying books on an ereader isn’t like buying a print book.  With print books, you have to consider both price and space.  Generally, you have to pay for print books, and you generally have to pay more than $.99, even at Goodwill.  (Mine are usually $1.)  And regardless of whether or not you pay for a print book, you always have to keep in mind that a print book takes up shelf space at your home (or chair space, or floor space, or space on top of your kids’ heads if they’re especially flat).

With an ereader, you could go for the rest of your life, reading a book a day, and never have to pay for another book again.  Don’t believe me?  I set up a list on Twitter with nothing but free ebooks. And you’ll never have to return the books, either, unless you get them from the library.  And those books don’t take up space, except metaphorically on your ereader–but you can save books on your computer, too, should your ereader overfloweth.

Yet people are still selling ebooks for money.  How?  Logically, shouldn’t readers be gravitating to free books?

The real cost of reading books, one that people don’t talk about much, is that it takes time.  Is a book “worth” $1 or $5 or $8.99 or $27.99?  Without the distraction of a physical book and thinking, “Oh, well, it must cost a good deal of money to print and ship it, etc.,” it becomes obvious that books cost hundreds of dollars to read.  Just take your hourly wages times the amount of time it takes for you to read a book.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some people who’ve invested at least $5,000 of their time reading The Wheel of Time series, even though the cover price, in paperback or ebook, is going to be less than $150 total.  Probably.

(It’s about 11,000 pages for the whole series.  I read quickly, at least a page a minute.  That’s about 184 hours, or about $27 an hour to make $5,000.  I’m pretty sure there are people who make over $27 an hour who are reading that series…and people who read slower than a page a minute.)

So what’s the real cost of reading The Wheel of Time?  At $27 an hour & a page a minute, about $5,150.  Or about 190 hours (184 hours to read, plus six hours to make enough money to pay for the books).  The actual cost of the books is not the big expense here.

The more time you spend on an ereader, the more obvious it becomes that you download or don’t download books (free or otherwise) based on whether you think you’re getting your money’s worth for the time spent.

You’ll have a ton of books on your ereader that you picked up for free.  Here’s my prediction on most people’s pattern in picking up free books:

  1. They pick up anything that’s free.  “SQUEEEEE!!!!”
  2. They start limiting themselves to things that a) look professional and b) look at least somewhat related to their usual genres.  Except for that one book they just couldn’t pass up.
  3. They start limiting themselves to books from #2…except they read the sample first, to make sure it’s edited and formatted decently, and that they have any interest in reading that author.
  4. They bypass at least 99% of the free books they see and stop feeling guilty about not reading all the crap on their ereaders.  They may start reading an author that they picked up for free, but only if that author hits their particular sweet spot.

Writers will probably also go through a phase of picking up all the free indie writer books they can find; this will thin out after a while, too.

In the end, free is not a panacea.

Putting up a book for free will guarantee you more downloads, especially if your book has a professional-looking cover, is formatted and edited correctly, and shows some modicum of talent.  But it won’t guarantee that people will ever read it.  With free books, you will run into a lot of people in stages #1 & #2, to whom free books are still like crack.  But they won’t read your book unless it hits one of their niches.

I think there’s a place for free; it’s a tool that will catch lots of #1- and #2-stage readers that may fit your niche but probably won’t, by a factor of hundreds if not thousands.  But acquiring those #3 & #4-stage readers–the ones who are both likely to read and enjoy your book–is much harder, and free won’t always cut it.

“Free” cannot be the only tool in your sales toolbox, and this quickly becomes obvious if you have an ereader.  And, really, why would you want to sell something you wouldn’t want to buy?  Even for free?

Next (probably on next Friday): How to calculate the money you need to make on your book to break even.

13 thoughts on “Ebook Pricing Discussion: Buy an ereader if you’re considering giving out ebooks for free.”

  1. You’re right — most people are going to go free ebook crazy, and it’s unlikely they’ll ever read everything they’ve downloaded. Hell, I’ve borrowed books from the library that I never read because I took home a pile with me and just didn’t get to them all. I think that offering free promotions is helpful in that it gets the book out there, but the conundrum is clear here.

    I read several forum discussions over on Amazon about pricing, and the consensus seems to be $2.99 for ebook novels. The veterans over there said they’d tried many pricing models and $2.99 seemed to work best, so that’s what I’ll be trying first when I unleash my first novel(la).

    There comes a point, too, when you have to stop giving everything away. Yes, it’s awesome to have your stuff read, but it’s even more awesome when you get paid for it.

    I’ve been pricing all of my short stories at $0.99, because that seems to be the norm, but I often wonder if that’s selling myself short. At the same time, though, who’s going to pay more than $0.99 for a short story? I’d imagine it might piss people off if they bought a short story for $1.99 or even $2.99… Then again, comic books are $2.99-$3.99, and they are essentially only chapters of a larger tale, and amount to the same length as a short story.

    I think it’s interesting that you calculated the worth of buying a book by how long it takes someone to read it. I don’t think I’ve ever bought a book based on how long I’d be reading it for, but now I’m wondering: If someone paid me to read, how rich would I be?!

    Great post as always.

  2. I just found your blog by way of a post in the Writer Unboxed FB group. Read the sample for Alien Blue and borrowed it via amazon prime. I think I would have just bought it outright at $4.99 or less, just on the strength of the writing and voice, but $7.99 is getting to the price I pay for a dead-tree version of a book. It seems a little high for the right to read those particular electrons on my kindle without the tangible product for my hands and my bookshelves.

    I look forward both to reading it and to hearing more about what you have to say about ebook pricing.

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  4. Very interesting post. I certainly fit the stages of e-reader owner that you describe as I started off downloading all sorts of junk, and now sample first etc. But I still have about 300 free e-books that I haven’t read yet.

    Liz – I don’t think you can sell for less that $0.99 on Amazon, so you kind of have to offer your short stories for that. However, I have been told that if you make them cheaper (or free) on Smashwords, Amazon will match the pricing (although you might have to alert Amazon to the cheaper price).

    1. Iola, if you want to make a story free on Amazon but not go through the KDP Select program, practically speaking, you need about 6-8 other people to alert for you, too, and it works better if you have them report on B&N or iBookstore prices than Amazon.

  5. Thanks for the post, I was going to mention during your twitter-draft of this that the only currency that ultimately mattered to me is time (and you’ve addressed that here).

    If I can liken a book to conversation, being approached to read a book is less about the price and more about the fact that someone is asking me to sit down and listen without interruption for hours on end. My comfort with that proposition usually decides whether I’ll read or finish a book.

    I am more likely to read things I’ve paid for than the several free books I’ve been given or have downloaded. Paid things tend to “jump to the front of the queue”. Why? Because it cost me money and I want to attempt to get some value for it.

    Overall, I’d guess that “free” gets books downloaded, but doesn’t lead to any extra urgency to get them read.

    1. James, the more I thought about it, the more time was more important to me, too. I think part of my book-buying thought process is still stuck back in my childhood years, when I had to scrimp for every book. I still do to some extent, but it’s not that bad! I still prioritize books-I-paid-for, but books-from-the-library go ahead in the queue.

  6. Very nice post. I’m a reader and compulsive reviewer (not the most prolific – 135 books read and reviewed on Goodreads last year not my personal best) and have both Nook, Fire and Kindle3 as well as iTouch (love reading on that) and all reading apps for the iPhone. I now prefer reading on one of the readers rather than the physical books I’ve accumulated (over 2000) over the years. Kindle software works absolutely the best, especially the highlights web site which for reviewers is really nice. Generally, I don’t mind paying for books (spent $4000 on books last year to my horror) but will NEVER pay more for an ebook than the paperback price (excluding used books which bring no revenue to the author – my wife is an author so I’m sensitive to this.) I will often get a free book to sample an author and then purchase more of the author’s books if I like them so free book promotions (for me) are like advanced reader copies without killing trees. Being able to download the complete Dickens, Maupassant, Zola, etc. for .99 is extraordinary and I’ll usually pay for competent formatting for the ereader in question. You are absolutely correct in urging authors to get and read on an ereader. It will change the way they read in a good way (Jonathan Franzen notwithstanding.)

    1. Eric, you spend even more than I do on books every year. I wish! Question – do you download from the library? And Franzen’s right–ereaders will cause the downfall of civilization as we know it. This happens like, every year, which is why VH1 keeps on doing different specials for different decades. Ten years from now, we’ll have a special on the 2010s…REMEMBER WHEN EREADERS WERE A BIG DEAL?!? kind of thing.

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