Yesterday, we talked about free ebooks and me. Now let’s talk about you, too. Recently we said, “Free is the new 99 cents!” Now free is fraught with diminished opportunity and all that lousy freeness. Let’s delve into pricing ebooks for promotions and try to figure out for ourselves if this is a time to rest and recover or should we double down on ebook marketing?
History: Last year, selling at 99 cents still moved some books and gained new readers. The royalty wasn’t great but it was a loss leader. Now 99 cents just seems to be a loss. I had my novella, The Dangerous Kind, up for 99 cents. It’s a great story that slides the steel home at around 10,000 words. After analysing the sales (took two seconds) I’ve taken it down. Later this week it will be back on Amazon for $2.99, bundled in with some Poeticule Bay short stories. My short story collections sell, but offering a deal on a shorter work didn’t attract readers and my short stories on Smashwords (each priced at 99 cents) aren’t moving as is so they’ll all be in one collection: The Dangerous Kind and Other Stories.
Part of the problem was the old cover for my novella. I’ve blogged about this issue before so I won’t rehash it. I’ll only say: Be indie if you want, but make sure your covers don’t look indie. (My graphic designer, Kit Foster can help you with that at a very reasonable price for a very professional look.)
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The Loss Leader Pricing Paradox: You’re pricing your work inexpensively to attract new readers. You’re hoping new people will find you, take a chance on you, dig your flavour, buy all your books and spread your holy word. However, going cheap actually repels some browsers because they associate a cheap price with a bad book. So many times I’ve read in comment threads, “If the author values their work so little, why should I?” There’s someone who doesn’t appreciate the indie author’s bind. I’ll save your life for free. Does that make your life worth less? (Ooh, he’s cranky today!)
Which brings us to the Opportunity/Problem Paradox: The same browsers who think 99 cents cheapens the inherent value of the book often think no less of an author who offers their work for free. All ebooks have free samples, of course, but I don’t think very many potential buyers look at them. They go by genre, the author’s rep, the cover and the description (not necessarily in the that order.) Free is easy and no risk and I haven’t seen many people casting aspersions on authors offering free entertainment. Free is so ubiquitous, it’s considered the norm. It’s an opportunity for the reader and the writer. Free is so ubiquitous, it’s a problem because of the glut of free ebooks on e-readers. We’re drowning in free.
The Perceived Value Corollary: There are so many free books filling up e-readers that readers have no commitment to what they download. (Amazon says, “Click to buy”, but if it’s free, it really means “Click to download”, doesn’t it?) Many of those free books will go unread. When you can click and get, click and get, click and get, there’s no investment on the reader’s part in individual books. Instead, the hoarder mentality rises. What this means for writers is, the minute you’ve dared to slow down your narrative, the quicker the reader is to dump you for another free ebook. We’ve already seen evidence of this trend: there’s less of a market for literary fiction that demands more of the reader.
PV Corollary Case study: A buddy of mine was a sales rep for Margaret Atwood and loved her to bits. I told him I couldn’t get into The Handmaid’s Tale. I bailed out after too many slow pages examining the scratchings of previous handmaids in the rear of the bedroom closet. “Chazz,” he said,”What you’ve got to learn to do when a story slows down too much is grab a few pages and flip forward.” I’m a bit OCD about reading every word so I was a bit shocked. Skipping a page had never occurred to me. “So…” I said, “You haven’t read it, either!”
The Hidden Unintended Consequence: On an e-reader, no one knows what you’re reading on the bus to work. Sales of erotica have risen because we don’t have to hide our actual taste or pay at a bookstore register manned by a silver-haired woman who looks exactly like Baptist Grammy. Only Homeland Security and the computers that record everything know all you really want is Fifty Shades of Grey. However, it’s not just about erotica. The market has ruled and so-called “downmarket” fiction is what people buy. The readers disagree with the historic arbiters of taste about what’s important. (Did you hear that pop? Somebody’s head exploded again. Clean up, aisle three!)
The Value Addition: When you buy a book — not just download it for free — you show commitment. You’re trusting the author to show you a good time and if you throw it aside, you aren’t just tossing the book. You’re throwing away the bucks you put into it, too.
The Cost-benefit Analysis: For readers, free books are great because choice is awesome. For the writer, providing free books is a way to gain the trust of the reader at no risk (to the reader.) It’s about exposure so you get ranked on lists. Many readers don’t trust reviews (often unfairly) so free is one avenue into their hearts and minds. We’re making a short-term sacrifice to get our work read, to get on “also viewed and also bought lists” and to get our share of that sweet lending pot of gold from Amazon. Giving our precious away for free is an advertising cost that doesn’t show up as a debit in our bank accounts, but it’s still a cost.
The Cost-benefit Caveat: Since Amazon changed their algorithm, it’s not as happy a story as it was last December. Unless you wrote Fifty Shades of Grey, sales have slumped across the board since March and we’re now into the summer doldrums of the book buying year. The market is as cyclical as the sea. The wind will come back in our sails. The readers will return as free diminishes. Some authors are opting out of KDP Select, or opting in for one three-month cycle for the promotion and then opting out to stop the exclusivity clause and give other sales outlets a chance.
The Irrational Variable Conundrum: Does free devalue literature? Will our prices be chronically depressed because of free? As an indie writer, this isn’t a question that affects me. The higher prices traditional publishers charge for ebooks doesn’t mean that their authors are getting more dough. It’s going to the publishers for their high overheads. I only have to pay me so the 70% royalty rate on my books still looks pretty sweet to me. Like they used to say in cheesy, local car commercials on cable, “How do we do it? Volume!” I’m glad traditional publishers keep their ebook prices high. It gives a guy like me a chance at being discovered.
Will these short-term sacrifices mean long-term financial pain? No, yes and maybe. Who knows? I’m suspicious of too much certainty. Your answer may vary because the fulcrum for this heavy conundrum rests of an irrational variable: How high were your expectations to begin with? Is this side money, the size, say, of the little Swiss Chalet side salad? Did you want the comfort of the double leg dinner as an income? Or did you want the richness of the full Swiss Chalet Family pack with the coconut cream pie for desert? Input your variable and solve for X.
Conclusions: Given the free ebook glut, do you market even harder now that we’re into summer’s slow days? I think I’ll just stay the course. It feels like trying to run up the down escalator and I already flog hard enough as it is. Instead, I’m focusing my energies on putting up more of the work I’ve prepared and I’m writing new stuff. I’m giving the market more time to recover so I’ll be ready with more books to sell.
Putting up more books is the only sure way I know of selling more books.
Predictions: New strategies will emerge, but no one seems sure what The Answer is. It might not be one answer and it might not be as dramatic and sweeping as the free ebook boom that hit the market when Amazon’s KDP Select algorithms benefited us so much back in December. I suspect we’ll be actively spending more money on advertising and promotion for our books in the near future. I’m aware of a few new and clever-sounding strategies, but they are as yet untested by the market’s searing flame. I’ll revisit said strategies in a future post, but today’s post is already too long and don’t we have some serious writing to do?
Filed under: publishing, Amazon, Amazon Kindle, Bigger than Jesus, books, Cost–benefit analysis, dangerous kind, E-book, ebook, ebook marketing, free, free ebooks, Publish, Robert Chazz Chute, short story, Smashwords, story collections, writer, writing