Book Pricing Strategies

Many authors who self-publish aren’t happy with their sales. So what do they do? Lower the price! When that doesn’t boost sales, then what? Figure out how to make the book free. If that doesn’t work, what will they try next? Surely, they won’t pay people money to read the book…

99 cents is just a price. Even free is just a price. Readers aren’t shopping for prices; they are searching for books in their favorite genres that show strong potential for engaging their interests.

A book with a lower price suggests lesser quality. Many readers who are hoping to find something professionally done and worthwhile stay away from the lower price point.

Authors instinctively expect to sell more books when they lower the price, but often discover that they sell fewer books when they try this. Fewer sales with a lower royalty for each sale – that’s not what they were expecting.

These authors are thinking about the concept of supply and demand. The problem is that there must first be a demand before the price can affect the demand. Authors who don’t market their books effectively so as to create a demand probably won’t benefit from lowering the price.

Readers know what price range is typical for the type of books they read. Anything below this price range is screaming low quality; anything above this price range will seem risky. It makes sense to research this price range among established competition (i.e. not among other self-published authors who haven’t yet achieved success) for similar books.

However, it is possible to use lower prices effectively.

For example, if the low price appears to be temporary, then customers may view it as a “sale” instead of an inferior product.

Simply lowering the price won’t give the impression that the book is on sale. If the book is normally $5.99 and the price is dropped to $1.99, Amazon will just show it as a lower list price; Amazon will not show it as regularly $5.99, now on sale for $1.99. (Amazon does sometimes put books on sale at their own discretion. For example, CreateSpace paperbacks are sometimes discounted this way, and Amazon pays the full royalty based on the list price. The author has no role in these discounts.)

Yet the author can still make a temporary discount appear as a sale. The way to achieve this is through marketing. Authors can spread the word in person, on their blogs, on their websites, and via social media (but 90% of the posts must provide useful content geared toward the target audience, otherwise the promotion is likely to be tuned out), for example.

Authors may also find other blogs and websites that match their target audience and gain a little exposure for their promotions through them.

If people see that a book is highly discounted for a limited time, then the low price appears as a good deal. An author can use a low price to increase demand in this way.

There are many ways to spin this. Authors can add “special earlybird pricing” to the top of the description when the book is first published, promoting an initial sale price with their premarketing materials. They can periodically discount the book and promote the sale. They can offer special holiday pricing.

But beware: If the sale is too frequent, word will spread. Customers will wait for the sales, and few books will sell at the regular price.

Remember that price changes may not show up immediately. It’s not easy to change the price and time it perfectly for a one-day sale, for example.

Another opportunity comes with series of books. This strategy works best for series where the reader is very likely to be drawn into the next volume, but not nearly as well when there are unrelated stand-alone books.

One way to benefit from a series is to have a discounted omnibus. If you can buy each of 4 volumes for $2.99, or the entire series for $6.99, the omnibus is a good deal. When pricing the omnibus, keep in mind that some readers will buy volume 1 by itself to try it out. With this in mind, it might be desirable if volume 1 plus the omnibus together are discounted compared to buying each volume separately.

New readers are more likely to start with volume 1; referred customers might be confident enough to head straight to the omnibus.

Putting volume 1 or the omnibus on sale and promoting the discount can help spur sales. Some authors price volume 1 very cheaply (even going to great lengths to permanently price it for free), showing confidence that it will hook the reader.

But remember that free is just a price. Free doesn’t sell books; marketing sells books.

If the book is just free, it might be perceived as worthless. If the free price is promoted effectively, then many readers may view free as a great value.

Note that the series is currently in fashion. Numerous authors are publishing series and trying this tactic. A series is a big commitment for the reader. If it’s known (through reviews, for example) that the first volume isn’t fulfilling in itself, readers may not want to take a chance on the series. Ideally, each volume will provide satisfaction for a reader who wants to walk away, but be good enough so that most readers will want to continue the series.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

5 comments on “Book Pricing Strategies

  1. Interesting insight. I’ve actually noticed quite a few authors who promote their books on twitter by giving them away for free, for a limited time. Usually they do this so that people leave reviews on Amazon, which I imagine is essential towards future sales. It’s not exactly “buying” reviews, but as a recipient of such free ebooks myself, sometimes I feel “obliged” to give a neutral-to-favorable review, because they gave me their books for free.

    Anyway, I agree, maintaining a low price for an extended period of time can damage your book’s image. But ultimately, no matter how you price your books, it all comes down to quality.

    • These authors hope that the freebies will lead to a few reviews and some word-of-mouth sales. Unfortunately, many of the freebies don’t get read or aren’t read for months. Sometimes they attract people from outside the genre who don’t have realistic expectations. Then there are a few people who are upset with the freebies in general. But for the author who successfully promotes the freebie, it can also lead to several customers who do read the book, are happy to get it for free, and who take time to review the book or spread the word. Thank you for supporting some of these authors. 🙂

  2. Hi Chris. I’m currently writing a series with the first one in print and the second due out in a couple of months.

    My strategy is to make the first one available for free as often as possible to encourage people to check me out. Not only am I a new name, I also write sci-fi, which is not a huge favourite with the masses.

    I don’t give it free for the reviews, more to get a reader into the series and into my style of writing. Also, I can only promote it for free for 5 days out of every three months, and yes, I think people DO wait for the freebie to come back again.

    The basic price of my Kindle version is $4.95, that’s the one that goes out for free. The paperback is $19.95. The remainder of the series will be priced the same and NONE of them will go out for free. I use the first one basically as advertising and to get my work into as many hands as possible. At the moment I have a growing number of readers eager for book two, and that’s what I’m after.

    I agree that writers shouldn’t undercut themselves, and also that people think poorly of cheap books. The trick is to find that balance – not too much, not too little. That’s the hard part.

    Cheers! 🙂

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