Ebook Pricing Strategies for Indie Authors

Please note that material such as this is time sensitive and may vary somewhat from one genre to another. I offer what is here as a framework for your own research and thinking. Do your homework.

State of Confusion with capital buildings and overlaid by "state of confusion."

Confusion abounds when deciding the best price for ebooks. (Image: public domain.)

Many fairy tales surround pricing for indie ebooks. Looking over the first four pages of the Smashwords bestseller list for full length science fiction, I see only one title for sale at the often-recommended price of $1.99 – everything else is higher, most of it much higher. I have been studying the price issue for months and have concluded the following:

  1. Free ebooks attract what I call the freebie hounds. These folks have learned that they do not have to pay to read. When you stop giving away your ebooks free, they just switch to someone else who is still doing that. They are philosophically opposed to paying for ebooks. Francis W. Porretto is the best example of this problem – 100,000 free downloads followed by lacklustre sales.
  2. Then there is what I call the 99 cent set. This group are mostly young people who see no difference between a tune download and a novel download. Tunes are 99 cents, so ebooks should be the same. They are philosophically opposed to paying more than 99 cents for anything that is downloadable. Raise your price and they all go away. Romance author Ruth Ann Nordin saw an 80% drop in her sales when she upped the price of her early books from $.99 to $2.99. She no longer gives away free novel-length works and prices all her new books at $2.99.
  3. You have probably read many times that print authors make only 40 or 50 cents on a mass-market paperback sale. This fact is routinely trotted out to justify the 99-cent price point for ebooks. You read far less often that mass-market paperbacks always sell in the tens, sometimes the hundreds, of thousands. Even with their books priced at 99 cents, what indie author can expect such sales?
  4. Summarizing points one through three: neither the freebie hounds nor the 99-cent set will make you any money. At 40 cents profit per ebook, 1000 copies sold will net you a paltry 400 dollars.
  5. The self-publishing phenomenon has shattered the market into a million pieces. The overwhelming majority of indie authors can expect only a small number of sales. This undeniable fact changes the pricing situation completely. Any businessperson will tell you that with slow moving items, you have to make a substantial profit per sale or it simply is not worth your while.
  6. The readers you want are those who believe an author should earn a little something for their trouble. These folks are less numerous, but they are willing to pay a reasonable price for an ebook. Build a following among them and you can make a few dollars.
  7. Psychology plays a role here. Charging too little for your work makes some people think it must be no good. In their eyes, a decent price tag makes you look respectable. This is the old, “You get what you pay for” philosophy.
  8. Conclusion: Accept the fact that you are incredibly unlikely to win the internet sales lottery. Charge a fair price for your books (I like $4.99), and work on attracting those who are not just looking for a freebie or a 99 cent anything-will-do special. Indie fantasy author Brian S. Pratt sells many ebooks at $5.99. He uses a single novel-length freebie as his lead in.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

9 thoughts on “Ebook Pricing Strategies for Indie Authors”

  1. It’s wise not to be too strict about generalizations. As a reader, I’m grateful for the free and .99 cent books, but I’m looking for new authors as much as fresh reading. I don’t even get through the first chapters of many of the free/cheapies, but when I find something I really like, I will try to remember to catch it later and pay for it — unless it’s drastically overpriced. Free and cheap can be valuable as part of an overall sales plan.

    As a writer, I’ve decided to price in line with my comparative obscurity, and level of craftsmanship. My first two novels are $2.99 and will stay there. I’ve improved since then, and even though those novels aren’t bad, I don’t feel it’s fair to charge more. But my next novel and the following ones will be 3.99. My very long short stories are 1.99, and that seems to be a good price for them. We have to keep rethinking and adjusting, and in the context of building a career as a writer, writing better novels allows you to increase prices without making readers feel they’ve been cheated.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to make such a thoughtful comment, Catana. The reasoning behind the pricing scheme for your work is extremely interesting to those of us about to venture into self-publishing. Your approach is measured and intelligent. I sense the same kind of thinking in your remarks about free and 99 cent ebooks. However, the numbers suggest that your reasonableness in this area is not typical. I stand by my (admittedly brash) assessment of the situation with freebie hounds and the 99 cent set. Reading the self-publishing adventures of numerous indie authors and adding in personal correspondence with still others has revealed a very clear pattern of failure with both the free giveaway and 99 cent pricing strategies. Perhaps your own experience differs?

    I believe the critical factor in indie success is quantity of titles. You have five books out there as well as a number of short stories. By my way of thinking, you should be close to making some significant headway in the sales department. Unfortunately, where a situation (such as indie ebook sales) is poorly understood, it is always difficult to say exactly what made the difference in the end.

  3. Outed! No, my attitude isn’t typical, but it just occurred to me that if it were included in such discussions, it might have a beneficial influence. When we speak in generalizations, we give the impression that whatever specific angle we’re looking at is the only one.

    I’ve never done a giveaway, and probably never will except as a very short experiment when my next novel goes on Select. And it’s mostly because I value my work and don’t want to cheapen it. I made that decision long before the .99/free bubble popped. I agree that the number of works is an important factor, particularly if you’re writing, as I am, in a niche that isn’t popular, and never will be. In order to find and keep readers, I have to offer a more or less consistent body of work, with a quality that my readers can count on. One or two books can’t accomplish that. That said, by most standards, I’m one of the least successful writers out there. But I’m willing to take the chance that my readership will grow over time. Since, as you said, we really don’t know what works and what doesn’t, I’ll bank on the writing.

  4. Thomas, thanks for the award, that’s really kind. I’m having problems with logging in at the moment myself, I’m going to have to sort it out, there seems to be a jinx on IT as far as I am concerned, I’ve been unable to get into Librarything for the same reason.

    Fascinating discussion, and obviously one I am following anxiously.

    have been torn over this issue of pricing and the ‘freebies’ thing. I don’t like to sound snide,thre ae some wonderful writers out there, like the author of ‘The Year God’s Daughter’ but there ARE quite a few Indie authors out there whose work I’ve had a look at who haven’t learnt how to write a grammatical sentence (you’ll laugh; on Kobo and other sites my conversion company have scrambled by blurb and at the moment it looks as if I can’t) and who seem to specialise on raunchy, glitzy covers and as an Indie author one is automatically catogorised as being the same as these.

  5. Lucinda, you are so right about those indies who can’t write. No less a personage than Smashwords founder Mark Coker has said many people on the site really have no business writing. Self-publishing’s greatest strength – its openness to everyone – is also its greatest weakness. Without the mediation of a for-profit publisher, there is no filter to screen out the garbage. I believe some remedy will eventually emerge. It must, or indie writing will inevitably collapse under the weight of all that trash. We might see websites that specialize in compiling “best of” lists where readers who know a good book when they see one have vetted the titles. Buyers will start there, and then go on to Smashwords, or wherever, to make the purchase.

  6. We all dread the writing gremlins, Lucinda. I pride myself on being quite good at avoiding the various pitfalls, but now and then, I get caught anyway. This is not good when I’m in one of my “to be or not to be” moods!

  7. If you just want exposure, freebies are a great way to go. If you want to become an income-earning writer, there is scant evidence to suggest that giving your work away free will set you on the road to success. However, why not try a few short trial runs, and then take some time to evaluate your results?

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