Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Book Prices

I've been reading a lot of discussions about book pricing lately and like every other person out there, I have an opinion and a mouth, too (a different and perhaps more polite orifice than the one usually referenced in these kinds of statement, ha, ha). My opinion is that, like any other product you'd care to mention, pricing is in a constant state of flux.

So...what do I really think?
How to I decide on a pricing strategy if I independently publish (self-publish) my book?

I should state first that concerns about pricing doesn't show a lack of experience--even veteran authors who decide to self-publish their backlist have to go through the trauma of deciding on prices and periodically reviewing/revising them. It is a very real concern and no one--including publishers--have a really good handle on yet. Even big publishers are playing around with pricing and have different strategies depending upon author name, genre, etc.

For example, one well-known publisher recently released most of Georgette Heyer's books (originally published in the first half of the 20th century), with an introductory price of $2.99. Then the publisher raised the prices, some to almost $9.00. Now, prices vary on those books from $2.99 to almost $9.00, with a few periodically showing up as free.

So you can see that even publishers are experimenting with price.

And to make matters more complicated, there are a lot of readers like myself who absolutely WILL pass up books because of price. I generally will not buy a book above $4.99 at all, unless it is something I require for work (rare) or a reference book. And I don't buy a lot of books above $3.99. I have to really, really want the book at $4.99 to buy it. Those account for maybe 1 book every few months versus several books at $3.99 or less. I simply can't afford to feed my reading habit if I buy books that cost more. That's why I also used to go to used book stores and libraries. And I still look for specific books (e.g. classics like "Rebecca") for free, if I can find them for my electronic library.

However, I follow trends on marketing and what others are pricing their books at in several markets. Here is what I've seen:
Most authors decide on an overall strategy for the types of books they write, something like this:
$.99 for short stories up to 10,000 words
$1.99 for novellas from 10,000 through 50,000 words
$2.99 for novels that range from 50,000 (e.g. a Harlequin-length category romance) through 75,000
$3.99 for long novels that range from 75,000 on up
---Some folks go higher, e.g. $4.99 and up, when their particular genre supports that price or they have a wide audience. A quick survey of other books in a specific genre may provide a clue about the "sweet spot" for independently published or self-published books.

For authors with series, here is what I've seen:
$2.99 For the FIRST book in the series, when no other books are available yet (or $3.99 is popular, too)
$.99 Drop the price of the FIRST book in the series to $.99 when the second book comes out
$2.99 or $3.99 for the second and subsequent books in the series (some go as high as $4.99 before sales drop off, but usually after the series is better established)
PERMA-FREE (Oh, my goodness!) You can drop the price of the FIRST book in the series to free when there are three or more books in that series available, as an alternative to $.99. This cycles in/out and authors often adjust this as part of promotional activities. It is also useful to build up reviews as part of promotional activities with the idea that the money will be made on the subsequent books if you have a good "read-through" rate (I made that up as a term to account for people who get the first book and then buy subsequent ones in the series).

Free vs $.99 for the first book in a series swings back and forth as far as effectiveness, so folks tend to manipulate that as necessary. Right now, so many are set to $.99 that the price point is becoming less effective. The pendulum is swinging back to perma-free. That will then work for a few months before it becomes less effective again and prices for the first book in a series will swing back up to $.99.

Or we may see some other changes.

That is certainly a strategy that seems to work for series pricing, but there are some caveats:
1) It works best if the first three books come out with no more than one month between releases. The quicker the other books in the series are released, the better.
2) Read-through and sales/earnings are best if there is a cliffhanger at the end of each book in the series, forcing the reader to pick up the next one. Note that this ticklish. It can backfire if the subsequent books aren't available because it irritates readers. Also, it assumes that you DO wrap up the main story's arc and that the cliff-hanger-ish part is a minor sub-plot or even a the start of a new plot/new story arc. You really have to be careful because a lot of readers totally loathe cliffhangers and books that don't have a "real ending." (I know I dropped Jordan's series because I got tired of long books with no resolutions and a seemingly endless series. I'm not a big fan of cliffhangers and often decide to stop reading after the first book. I don't think I'm completely unique in that.)

So there are a lot of strategies. Also keep in mind that some companies that want your price to end in $.99 so you'll have to take that into consideration. It means $3.99 versus $3.49, for example. And for me, I find that readers like the slightly odd $3.49 because it "feels" cheaper than the more common $3.99 and is a little different, making it look less like one of the herd. A little more thought went into it. A lot of folks now equate $2.99 with self-published and perhaps a lack of skill, although some publishers are now releasing old books (like those Heyer books I mentioned) at that price, which is helping erase that stigma.

That's why, though, many authors are going to $3.99 or even $4.99--it can sometimes make readers believe it is a higher quality product. But it can backfire when you have a reader like me, who honestly looks for bargains AND READS THEM (I don't buy stuff I don't want just because it's free or cheap). I won't buy a book at $4.99 if I have the least concern that I may not like it. But I'm more likely to take a chance on a new author at a lower price.

It is much more difficult if you write books that "stand alone" and are not in a series. Then, using the simpler pricing strategy of basing price on the length of the book may work best. Then you can change the price for various promotions, e.g. free or $.99 for a few days or week to build up reviews and get some momentum going.

Psychological games. Ha, ha.

Many successful authors recommend playing with price until you find the sweet spot where you're selling a nice number and still making a comfortable profit.

Remember: You can always change the price. Nothing is permanent.

One last note: do an informal survey of the books in the genre your book fits within and see what the range is. That also helps. You don't want to be at the upper range of price unless you're already so famous that people will buy your books no matter what they cost. :) Likewise, only use prices in the lowest range for specific purposes, like the first book in a series or a special promotion.

Hope that helps someone. I also hope to hear from readers. What prices make you buy a book? Do you equate price with quality?