The price of ebooks

How much should an ebook cost?

It’s pretty clear that a large proportion of the ebook audience resents publishers setting ebook prices at the same levels as print editions. We can all see that, for a start, an ebook has little material cost to produce: no paper, no ink, no physical distribution or storage.

Other costs are similar, though, if a book is to be produced well. A book needs editing (yes, even indie books need that!) – structural edits, copy edits, proofing. A book needs marketing, perhaps more so in a market swamped by e-product; although, let’s face it, most ebooks get little if any additional marketing input from the big commercial publishers. The book needs design, both internal and external, and striking, appropriate cover art. And, of course, someone has spent a substantial part of their life producing the words: most writers can’t just give that work away for nothing.

Taking all of the costs into account, it’s still clear that an ebook is far cheaper to produce than a print edition, but even then, from a publishing perspective we should consider a book’s different editions as a package: good mass market paperback sales can subsidise the hardback edition; ebook sales can provide an income flow that makes the difference between a book being viable or not. Deal or no deal, as far as the author is concerned.

This is a dangerous argument, though, and it would seem that some publishers are using inflated ebook prices to subsidise print to too great a degree, and this is one reason readers object.

Considering all the arguments, it’s clear that ebooks should be priced substantially lower than print editions. This can have other benefits for author and publisher, drawing in the waverers who might not shell out a tenner but will take a punt on an ebook for two or three quid.

That does become a self-perpetuating argument, though.

If $2.99 brings in a new audience who might then go on and buy other books by that author, why not $1.99, 99 cents, even freebies?

As the market stands, some of the most successful indie and self-published authors have priced their books at 99 cents. It’s not a guaranteed route to success, but it’s certainly a well-trodden one.

When we launched infinity plus ebooks in December 2010, pricing was something we discussed at length. Rather than match the prices of the larger commercial publishers, we opted for what seemed to be a good compromise level of $2.99, and we’ve been reasonably successful with this, with all of our titles hitting Amazon category bestseller charts at some stage.

The market is always moving, though, and the summer has been fairly quiet. Time to try something new.

Well, as it happens, what we’ve tried isn’t so new (not for us, and certainly not for other publishers): earlier in the year we priced Kaitlin Queen’s romantic crime novel One More Unfortunate (my favourite review of that one described it as “Essex noir”) at 99 cents for a month. Sales took off, and we sold around 30 times as many copies that month as we would have expected; sales subsequently returned to a bit more than previous levels, but at least a fine book found a whole bunch of new readers.

This month we’re doing it again. Iain Rowan’s first collection of crime stories, Nowhere To Go, has been cut to 99 cents for September. Again, it’s a book I love (naturally, you might point out, as I published it…), with some cracking stories, including the Derringer Award-winner “One Step Closer”. It’s been reasonably successful since we published it earlier this year, and has picked up some fantastic reviews. Hopefully this promotion will get it out to a new audience, just as the earlier promotion did for Kaitlin’s novel.

From a writer’s perspective, the whole price debate provokes mixed feelings. Writing a book is hard work and it’s nice to think that people place a value on our books. When people expect it for free that’s bound to have an effect. And do note: I don’t object to free fiction on principle – for ten years I distributed millions of words of free, professional fiction through infinity plus. What concerns me is trying to find a model that rewards the writers and encourages good writers to write, rather than making it harder for that to happen.

I’m also intrigued by the effect this rapidly changing new market has on the words we actually produce. Already ebooks place more emphasis on openings, for example.

In the past, readers might pick up a book in a shop and glance through the opening, which is one reason why we needed to make sure our openings hooked.

With ebooks and the emphasis on downloading samples, everyone’s at it! Now, the opening chapter or three become even more important: if your sample doesn’t hook ’em, then they’re not going to click ‘buy now’.

And the impact of pricing? When prices drop below a dollar or so, prospective readers are far more likely to buy than sample. The effect this has is that these price-influenced readers accumulate large personal libraries of free and cheap ebooks. They’re never going to read them all. They’ll do the e-equivalent of picking a book up, reading a bit, putting it down again and then… next time they read they have to choose whether to resume something they’ve started or try something different. Just how many of these cheap books never get read beyond the first few thousand words?

So as the market twists and turns and finds a new shape, what do we have? Increased emphasis on good books that make a reader keep reading. More weight on good openings, on hooks, on engaging the reader. It’s all about storytelling.

Writing this, I realise that a lot of the questions that trouble me as a writer don’t really trouble me at all. The new market hasn’t changed how I write. With each new book I still want to make it my best one, and I want readers to be unable to put it down. Which is exactly the kind of writing the new market should encourage.

All I really need is to find a publishing model that allows me to find the largest, most receptive audience for that, and to make it rewarding enough to help me write, not hinder it. Easy, eh?

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About Keith Brooke and infinity plus

Keith Brooke is a writer of science fiction, fantasy and other strange stuff, and editor and reviewer of same. He is also the publisher at infinity plus, an independent imprint publishing books by leading genre fiction authors. View all posts by Keith Brooke and infinity plus

7 responses to “The price of ebooks

  • James Everington

    Interesting reading, particularly for someone (like me) who’s about to send his book ‘the other way’, from 99c to 2.99c.

    Good luck with Iain’s book though; it deserves to do well.

  • James Everington

    Hi Keith – well, as an experiment really. I have a novella coming out which I’ll charge 99c for, so I want to see how my collection of short stories fares at 2.99, now it has got some decent reviews under its belt. So I figure I’ll raise the price of the collection when the novella comes out, so that I’ve still got something at 99c in the water as bait.

    I must admit, I slightly concerned that the widespread pricing of novel length books at 99c is putting a pretty low value on a writer’s work – if the author and publisher don’t value it, why should a reader? – but it seems to be the only way to get traction in the current market. It angers me a bit, that people aren’t prepared to pay more for a good book. It seems the flurry of bad books being self-published that are only worth 99c, if that, are dragging the price down for the rest of us (I’m all for self-publishing, but we have to accept there’s a lot of shite)

  • David Mathew

    Years ago I remember seeing an interview with someone who said that he couldn’t think of paperbacks as ‘real books’. It was okay (he said) to read a paperback on a plane or a train, for convenience, but it was then to be thrown away. Only hardbacks were welcome on his shelves at home.

    I think that for a lot of people there is a similar attitude with paper and e-books, along the lines of: e-books are fine to read on a plane etc but they are not ‘proper’ books.

    I’m not saying I agree with this but I think it’s a widespread attitude. Yet I should add that I do prefer, by some distance, a paper copy. It would never cross my mind to pay (say) the better part of ten quid for an e-copy, as I would with a paperback. But I would pay a couple of dollars. _Pace_ James Everington, I don’t think this implies a lack of faith in the author’s work at all: it’s simply a reflection of the fact that our reading habits are slowly changing. We still appreciate the work; but in a world of mass production we want it now, we want it faster, and we don’t want to be caught out by a ‘bad’ purchase.

    I can’t be the only one who buys those 1p equivalents of remaindered copies on Amazon either!

    All the best…

    • keithbrooke

      Yes, while I love reading on my Kindle I’m still reluctant to make the move completely from ‘real’ books! And, like you, I’m reluctant to pay a tenner for an ebook. That could be my bad (as the young folks say), and in a couple of years’ time we’ll wonder what the fuss was about, but that’s how it is for now and a lot of people feel the same.

  • David Mathew

    The newspapers occasionally run a headline like ‘Death of the Paper Book Exaggerated’, or words to that effect. People are still buying them, though maybe not as many or as often (don’t know). I work at a university and the Waterstone’s shop down the road closed down recently… Don’t students need books anymore? Yeah, they do: but they don’t need Wasterstone’s, evidently. People are buying online, perhaps, rather than in a shop. I personally like the browsing process, but ah well. Nostalgia’s not what it used to be 🙂

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