How much is that novel in the window?
We’re onto the second marketing ‘p’: pricing. This is a real challenge for self-publishers, particularly for a first novel. Every week brings news of some phenomenal self-publishing success, and many of us dream of achieving those lofty sales figures – after all, why publish your work unless you want to reach a wide audience? And wouldn’t it be great to be able to afford to give up your day job?
But these are two separate aims: reaching a wide audience depends purely on sales volume while making writing pay depends on a balance of volume and pricing. Which is more important to you, sales volume or income? What costs do you need to cover? You need to take these issues into account before you set your price.
What are your costs?
I’m going to consider costs first because it’s very tempting to spend money that you won’t recoup. We want our books to be as good as they can be, and for some people, this means professional editing and cover design. Before incurring this cost, writers need to think very carefully. Involvement of professionals is likely to result in improved product. However, will professional input increase sales enough to cover its costs? In my case, the answer is probably not. I’m not well-known, I’m reliant on circles of friends and family and word of mouth to generate sales, and if I sell more than a hundred copies, I’ll be delighted. That’ll probably mean a couple of hundred quid income. If hiring a professional designer and editor quadrupled my sales, I still wouldn’t have covered their costs.
So how much should I charge for my e-book?
I’m going to run through some of the strategies, then discuss how they apply to me, a debut novelist planning to publish online. This is quite a long blog, as there are lots of options – I hope you find it useful.
Price penetration involves setting your price low to maximise sales volume. These are the 75p books you see on Amazon. The advantage of this approach is that people are likely to impulse-buy your book and won’t consider it a risky purchase (if it’s a dud, they haven’t lost much). But the disadvantage is that you will compromise your royalties and possibly give a bad impression of your book. Amazon’s royalties system means that selling a 75p e-book will earn you 26p, while selling a £1.49 e-book brings in £1.04. Will you sell four times as many copies at 75p as you will at £1.49? If the answer’s no, you’ll earn more at the higher price, although your sales volume may be smaller. Bear in mind that ‘cheap’ has connotations of low quality: is that what you want for your book? Is your market looking for a bargain, or will they assume that a low price means the book isn’t much good?
Price skimming is where you set the price high initially, gradually reducing it. Publishers take this approach by publishing a hardback at a premium price for hardcore fans, then a cheaper paperback for those willing to wait and unprepared to pay hardback prices. This is not a strategy for the first-time novelist; you need a solid, devoted fan base.
Premium pricing means pricing your book at the top end of a realistic scale. What is the top price that other novels in your genre by unknown writers are selling for? The advantage is that with this approach, you’ll earn a high royalty for each sale but you need to be absolutely sure you’ll deliver on quality, because at a higher price, there is no scope for the typos and grammatical errors that litter many self-publishing debuts. A higher price carries a greater risk for the buyer and so they are more likely to try a sample before buying. If the opening of your book is a work of genius, this could be an advantage. If anything lets it down, you won’t convert the trial to a sale.
Loss leader describes the freebie: this is where you offer your work for free.
My advice is to avoid this. If you give away the results of many hours of hard work, what does that say about the value you place on efforts and your belief in your abilities? Apart from the obvious consequence that you will earn nothing from your hours of effort, you potentially devalue your writing. The exceptions are brief promotions in the hope of word-of-mouth recommendations, or as a way of increasing sales for your other books if you have a larger portfolio.
Psychological pricing refers to that little trick that we’re all familiar with: £1.99 is much more attractive to buyers than £2.01 because people look at the most significant digit of a price. You’re likely to do better at the slightly lower price, and the loss of royalties per sale is tiny.
So what’s the answer?
There isn’t a correct answer. A book is a unique product, and many authors regularly adjust their prices to gauge the effects. But I can rule out some strategies.
Firstly, I need to consider my aims. I don’t have costs to cover, so any income will be pin money. I don’t have any inclination to give up the day job: I’m a postgraduate research student and I love it! However, research grants are well below the average UK salary and some extra income would be extremely useful. This will be my only e-book when it’s published, so I can’t use it to generate interest in my other novels which are very rough drafts at the moment. This rules out loss-leading, at least for the time being.
Although I won’t have a professional editor or designer, I know from experience that my proof-reader (Hi, Dad!) will pick up tiny errors and ambiguities. Members of my writing group are giving me feedback on extracts and I have a couple of beta readers who have promised to give me objective critiques of my final draft. However, it’s possible that my novel won’t be quite as polished as many books from big publishing houses, making me wary of premium pricing. Neither do I have the fan base to try price skimming.
Nevertheless, my novel’s quality will compare well with other e-books on the market. It’s a decent length – around 90,000 words – and is the product of multiple drafts and input from knowledgeable friends and acquaintances. I’m confident that it’s worth more than 75p. While high sales volumes (and they really would have to be spectacular) could attract a publisher, a publishing contract is not on my wish list and maximising my earnings will have more impact on me than maximising sales volume. This points towards a price above Amazon’s 70% threshold, yet the book needs to compete with established writers and traditionally-published best-sellers, suggesting the price should be under £2.50 and possibly under £2.
I haven’t made a final decision, and would be interested to know what other people think (if you’d like a taster of the style and plot, you can find out more here). Are there particular strategies that have worked – or that haven’t worked – for you?
This blog is the third in a series on marketing for writers. Next time: place. What sales channels should you consider? Yes, that online versus print argument again – and more.