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  • What Is A Book Worth? (And Three Reasons I Am Deeply Discounting Mine)
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What Is A Book Worth? (And Three Reasons I Am Deeply Discounting Mine)
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
September 2015
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
September 2015

A few months ago, I had drinks with the publisher of a major imprint at Hachette. We were discussing the matter of ebook pricing, as fraught and contentious an issue as there is at the moment in the publishing world. As a party to the Hachette deal with Amazon, he wasn't free to discuss the terms of their agreement in detail, but the bottom line was this: the Big Five want to be able to control their ebook pricing, and they think ebooks should sell for something relatively close to what a print copy retails for. The cost of printing and distributing books isn't so high that a hardcover, for example, should sell for $28.00, while the ebook of the same title should cost only $9.99. (In other words, the cost of printing and distributing a book isn't nearly $18.00; it is the content that holds the value.) The years of effort a writer puts into his or her book, along with the hours expended by the team of editors and designers who contribute to the finished project, should not be discounted by a whopping two thirds just because the book is delivered as an electronic file and not as a printed object. This was a principle the Big Five were willing to fight nearly to the death for, and at the end of 2014, they got what they wanted: ebooks from Hachette (and the other Big Five publishers) now sell on Amazon for no less than $14.99. 

Not only that, this publisher added, but people are far more likely to read something they paid a meaningful amount to purchase. This gave me pause--I had just concluded a Mother's Day sale of my ebook for $3.99. He reassured me that that price was all right if it was for a short time, but that it was as low as I should ever go. Any lower, he told me, and people might download my ebook, but they would never read it, and I would have cheapened myself and my book in the process.

That conversation took place a few months ago. Today, as part of a BookBub promotion, I put my book on sale for $0.99. BookBub has an email list that exceeds one million subscribers, and I had to pay for my book to be included on it. (Even if you are willing to pay, BookBub is highly selective, rejecting many of the authors who request to participate.) And as of 10:42PM EST tonight, I've gone from being ranked 88,821 on the paid Kindle store to being ranked #149 in all books, and #5 in contemporary literature. According to the Hachette publisher, all I've done is get a lot of people to download my book who will never actually read it, so while I might get an ego boost from seeing my Amazon rank at its highest, the high is cheap in more ways than one. According to the book marketing expert who steered me toward BookBub, however, discounting my book is a marketing tool that will connect me with an audience I never would have reached otherwise. 

Who's right?

Here are three reasons why I think discounting my book this deeply--I'll make less than $0.50 a copy on any sales between now and September 23rd--is worth it. 

1) For the most part, these are not readers who would have bought my book at $9.99. If even a fraction of the people who download my book between today and September 23rd actually read it, I can be fairly certain they are readers I would never have gotten otherwise. The way I see it, I'm not losing money I would ever have earned, I'm investing in an audience.

2) As an indie author not publishing with the Big Five, being able to price my ebook below $14.99 is a competitive advantage I'd be crazy not to leverage. According to the just-released September 2015 Author Earnings Report, since the Big Five enforced agency pricing for ebooks, they have lost substantial market share. Yes, they are making more per ebook sold, but they are also losing readers who don't want to pay that amount. As an indie author who can control the price of her ebook, I have a real and significant advantage over authors who are unable to discount their books, and I would be remiss if I didn't use the opportunity to connect with readers more likely to take a chance on an author they've never read when her book is available at a lower price point. 

3) I'm taking the long view. Yes, I will probably lose money on this promotion with BookBub--though stay tuned, I promise to report back as to whether that ends up being the case! But as a debut novelist of a certain age (shout out to all you over-forty first-time writers out there), I am looking to launch my career and build an audience over time, and I know that while this first book isn't likely to be a bestseller, it is the first step in building a readership for my work that, in the end, I hope will sustain me. Not only that, but once this promotion is over, I plan to raise the price of my ebook again--to what price, however, I'm not sure. Brooke has written very compellingly about the case for parity pricing for ebooks, and I think her arguments are sound. My book is certainly worth more than ninety-nine cents, over the long haul. But I view this time-limited sale as a marketing investment, rather than as a devaluation of my work. 

I'd love to hear from others of you who have wrestled with this question, both as writers publishing and selling your ebooks, and as readers purchasing them. What do you think of a writer selling an ebook for as little as $0.99, or even giving it away for free? And what do you think of buying an ebook for $14.99 or more? It's a bit like the Wild West in the world of ebook pricing at the moment, and I'd love to hear what you have to say. 

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  • Lloyd Lofthouse

    If I'm going to spend $14.99, then I want to read the paperback. There are too many choices of quality e-books with great stories to read that cost $0.99 to $3.99. Why spend $14.99 unless it's for a paperback? At least that’s what I think.


    On that note, I've run three ads on BookBub for my first novel that sold its first copy early in 20008 . My other three books have been turned down by BookBub.


    The first BookBub ad ran in 2013 and about 3,000 copies were sold in the first 48 hours at $0.99

    The 2nd BB ad ran in 2014 and another 3,000 copies sold at $0.99.

    Both times, the sales paid for the BB ad and made a nice profit. This book has sold 14k copies at $3.99.


    The 3rd time, BB turned my ad request was in 2015 for $0.99.  I then ran an add through eReaderNews today and sold about 160 copies.  Then I spent time thinking about offering that novel for FREE through a BB ad, and I did. The results were more than 40k downloaded.


    The day the BB ad ran for FREE in June 2015, that novel only had 117 reader reviews on Amazon. From 2008 through 2013---running no ads---the book had only garnered 65 reader reviews---that’s an average of 13 reader reviews a year.


    Today that book has 255—more than doubled in less than four months.  I think that is proof the publisher was wrong that no one would read a book that cost 0.99 (or was FREE for that matter), and I don't think most of those readers who downloaded my 1st novel for 0.99 or Free would have paid any more for the book.


    What about the reviews for my other three books that never had a BB ad?

    #2 (2013) has only 20 reader reviews on Amazon.

    #3 (2014) has 27

    #4 (2015) has 6

    I wonder what the results would have been if those three books had been accepted for a BB ad---I’ll probably never know.

  • Carolin Zeitler

    I bought your book in the BookBub promotion and read every word of it - and enjoyed it greatly. I also found out about this website and became a member through your book.
    As an avid reader who likes to read up to 3-4 books a week at times, I certainly cannot afford to pay 15$ per book. My upper limit is usually 7$.
    Having self-published my own book both as a paperback and an ebook, my experience was that the difference in cost was enormous (maybe because I only printed 1,500 copies) and I also get a higher cut when I sell my ebook on Amazon than when I sell the hard copy through stores that will not deal with me directly but only with a distributor. Since the proceeds from my book go towards a cause, I have adjusted the ebook price, so that the proceeds are the same - 21$ for the hard copy vs 9$ for the ebook.

  • Carol A. Stephen

    Since the price of ebooks has gone up to near or even more than the price of a printed copy, my buying habits have changed. I now look first to see if the book can be borrowed from the library, next to a remainder outlet, next to a used seller and only after failing to find a copy at a price I am willing to pay will I look at paying the higher price.  And even then, the book goes first onto a wishlist, till I am sure that I still want it as much in two weeks as I did when I first read about it. 

    I strongly suspect that the argument about not devaluing your writing that the publisher is using is a smokescreen.  I suspect that, unless you are an indie author, you would never see that additional revenue anyway, it would all stay in the pockets of the Big Five.  And I too have bookshelves full of unread, full-cover-price-paid books.  I still prefer hard copies, but I have run out of shelf space.  And gradually working through the books I have, and then sharing them with friends and local charity outlets that resell at $2.00 each. So there is lost market there as more of us cost-split via sharing.  And that means less in the pockets of the Big Five, but also for the author.

    Ultimately I guess pricing depends on whether or not you are in it because you must write, or because you want to make money.  As was said, a potential customer base of millions vs a few customers spread over years.  

    And I still can't see how they can possibly say that the elimination of shipping costs doesn't put more in the hands of the publishers. It has to improve their bottom line!  So why not improve your own as author, instead?

  • Liz Gelb-O\'Connor

    I totally agree with Kelli MCCracken. People who read a lot (myself included) are not willing to pay a lot. My limit is what I'd pay for mass market paperback, not trade. If I'm paying that much because I can't wait, I'll go to my local B&N (where I do my book launches) or a close by indie, and buy it in hardcover paired with a cup of coffee from the cafe to make it an experience. So, $14.99 for an ebook is not viable pricing no matter how you slice it. Even when I published my first book with SWP, I opted for $5.99, since I knew that was the most my audience could handle. Publishers are deluding themselves if they think $14.99 books are a good strategy...

  • Kelli McCracken

    Avid readers who read between 2-3 books a week would have to take out a loan to afford the Big Five's books. Readers that I know or have spoken with will not buy eBooks over $5.99. Why should an eBook be as much as the print version? It doesn't devalue the work. It gives readers an inexpensive way to read books. I feel that since eBooks came along, there are more people reading.

    …people are far more likely to read something they paid a meaningful amount to purchase. 

    I disagree. I have a bookshelf lined with books priced over $10 that I haven't cracked open. If this is the strategy the Big Five are using, I foresee an increase in indie authors over the next few years, more so than what we've already seen. Just my two cents…

  • Sue Y Wang

    Thank you for this article. I am self publishing in 2 weeks so this is timely. I have downloaded many free books and haven't read them (lots of recipes and how-tos)... I don't think I'll give my memoir/ebook away, I'd probably charge a nominal amount for a time, like you did, just to get your work out there, to a broader audience. It's more of a promo price. If I have to pay $14.99 for an eBook, I'd probably buy a used copy of the printed version instead of an ebook. I am old fashion about books -I actually like them in my hands. What Brooke says about the value we bring in ebook is true, and we probably need to balance that with readers' sense of 'it doesn't cost much to produce' (little do they know the sweat, tears, and $ pour into the effort over years). 

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    These are all great -- Nicole Cyrus, I am always grateful to read something so thoughtful, no worries about the length, when the content is good! I had this same feeling for awhile, and have been very concerned about this discounting. But the truth is the vast majority of authors (including yours truly) don't make a living solely by selling books, they do it by teaching, editing, and doing other things "in the biz", or by having a day job, and in some cases you are trying to get your book read, period. I will not leave my book at $0.99, it's a limited sale, which I also think is important. Even for making money, of course, the idea is that you make up in volume what you lose in each individual sale, so we shall see about that -- I will get my sales figures as soon as is possible and will share them!

  • Nicole Cyrus

    Hi Kamy,

    The deep discounting of books hurt authors, but the precedent has been set.

    In my former life, I crunched numbers for several Fortune 500 companies, setting consumer prices for computers and landline phone services. The companies made billions of dollars in revenue (and profits) because they won the perception war. Customers bought the hype (real or perceived) about the value of these products and services. We all do it every day.

    For example, I pay $100 every month to use a smartphone and stay connected to the world. I gripe, but I pay. I value keeping the world at my fingertips.

    One of my old managers warned me, “If pricing becomes an issue, we’ve lost the war.” People who focus on pricing tend to commoditize products and services. In their eyes, a book is a book is a book. You can’t win.

    Readers who demand publishers to sell books at the bargain-basement price of $0.99 ignore the practical expenses of authors. Authors have to eat, pay rent, clothe themselves, and save money. They have the right to be compensated for their efforts. Any sane employee would quit their job if she or he received $.99 for their work.

    The authors who launched the use of steep markdowns have cheapened the value of book writing. They didn’t understand that profit = revenue – expense.

    Book production and distribution comprise part of the total expense. Writing a book takes TIME. Employees across all industries receive paychecks for their TIME.

    I am an aspiring writer who has been studying the publishing industry for four years. I am not sure if there is a solution to the $0.99 book fiasco.

    But effective promotions have expiration dates. Offers end, and companies return to making money.

    The sweet spot of pricing books may differ for each genre, but it is there. Most people will not pay $14.99 for an e-book, but if they will pay $3.99, $4.99, or $7.99, take it. You deserve it.


    P.S. Sorry for the long post.

  • Virginia McClain

    Haha! Thanks, Suzy!

    Comment by Suzy Soro 1 hour ago 

    Virginia McClain wins the Internet today! 

  • Eileen Flanagan

    Thanks, Kamy. I did an e-book price discount for a few days around Earth Day, since my memoir Renewable is about the mid-life crisis that lead me to climate change activism. I did see a significant improvement in my amazon ranking, mostly for the e-book, but it seemed I also got a bit of a bump for my paperback. Since I was not being promoted by someone like BookBub, I suspect I mostly reached people in my usual network, but the e-book sale gave me an excuse to remind my network to buy my book, which I think you can only do so many times unless you have something new, like a lower price. When I got my royalties statement, there were not that many e-book sales (like 76 for four months, I think?), which made me wonder how many were during the sale. I think your logic with BookBub makes sense. I'm curious what you think after you've done the math. 

  • S. Ramos O\'Briant

    Do you think the genre makes a difference in these sorts of promotions? 

  • Suzy Soro

    Virginia McClain wins the Internet today! 

  • Virginia McClain

    I personally think that Hachette and the rest of the Big 5 are looking at a slow financial suicide if they try to maintain the higher price point for ebooks. People who read ebooks have now had years of exposure to ebooks selling for 9.99 or under and many of them are downright refusing to pay above that. I, for one, will not be paying above 9.99 for any ebooks unless they are by a dearly loved author for a long awaited sequel, and even then, I'm likely to wait for the price to come down. 

    Sadly, what I think the Big Five are actually trying to do is to raise the price of ebooks so that more people continue to buy print books. After all, if it's only the difference of a dollar or two between the ebook and the print book price, why not buy print? This is something they feel compelled to do because, rather than enjoy the freedom of print on demand that most Indie Authors now do, they are still stuck with printing of thousands of books in each run and if no one buys them they have to eat the cost.

    I understand why they think it's necessary, but I disagree with the principal and, frankly, I think they are going to continue to lose out on a large piece of the market because of it. Very few people are going to be willing to try a new author whose ebook is priced above 9.99. Many won't even try a new author priced above 4.99. At least not for their first taste. The model that bookbub, the midlist and other curated discount lists use seems to work well at getting new authors exposure, meanwhile I just read (and participated) in a discussion thread on amazon of a number of people up in arms over the ebook price of the next book in the series of a well known author. And these were fans. They were angry. I was actually in there saying, "Hey guys, I know this price is ridiculous, but there's no need to berate the author, he's not the one setting the price, his publishing house is." It didn't do much good. Folks were furious. This author's works had been reasonably priced previously. So, if it can turn loyal fans against an established author, what will it do to new readers and new authors? Nothing good. 

    Just my opinion, of course, but I think both as an author and a reader that you did the right thing by doing a limited time book sale dropping the price to 0.99. Honestly, there aren't any books that I pay for that I don't read. (I will admit to occasionally not reading the free books that I pick up, but I always read the ones I spend money on, even if it's only 99cents.) Furthermore, I don't think we need to be looking to the what the Big Five are doing or saying in order to model our sales and marketing. They are very large but slowly sinking ships. 

  • Denise Dahl

    Kamy, I bought a hard copy of your book and loved it.  I appreciate the dynamic you are describing but when I step back and put on a marketing hat I wonder if such discounts aren't negatively impacting the value proposition of your efforts and book.  There is a challenging marketing dynamic that has grown through social media, one of low to no cost - equating to larger marketing lists for the future.  While those within the writing community completely understand the dynamics  describe and face, those outside of it, without the understanding may perhaps see it as a devaluation of product.  I believe there will be a correlation with price and propensity to read the book in such situations.  And if one does not read the book, one will not be a future fan-which would be unfortunate on many levels as it is a great book.  I believe deep discounting can also trigger building a market of hesitant shoppers who don't pull the financial trigger until they see a substantial discount feeling a precedent has been set.  Whether it is a book, retail item, nonprofit membership, etc. value proposition has repeatedly been shown as a necessicity in successful pursuit/implementation.  So discount, absolutely, deep discount...not so sure.  

  • Liz Gelb-O\'Connor

    Kamy, Great article and congrats on getting into BookBub! Based on your numbers above, I'd be really surprised if you didn't make a profit. You did it for the right reason, and that's smart. Building a readership and a mailing list is the cornerstone of future success. BTW, I won't spend $14.99 on an eBook. I just won't, even for bestselling authors I've read for years. There are too many good options through the daily newsletters for eBook readers available.

    An interesting trend I've seen in the last two Big 5 new releases that I purchased this month - they set both the eBook price and the hardcover price at $10.99. I'm assuming they are taking a bet to drive volume to the hardcover versions - which makes sense, since these were both YA. Demographic data has shown that YA readers skew more to paper than originally thought. Also, wondering if this helps their rankings on the lists. Something to watch. Good luck to you! I was excited to see your book show up on my Bookbub newsletter :-) 

  • Sande Boritz Berger

    Kamy and others...my novel, The Sweetness, came out in September 2014...and after a few really fine reviews on Booklist and Kirkus and Library Journal, I noticed that while the paperback sales and ratings seemed solid and initial orders were more than I'd ever expected, ebook sales seemed to lag. So I did my first Book Bub promo in January 2015 and was more than thrilled when the The Sweetness went to #1 in Historical Fiction Jewish and then stayed in the low digits for a few weeks. Yes, it was costly, but I did sell over 9000 books between Sept and Jan and built an audience I might never had attracted. I think the subject matter has to come into play as well. I had a very young protagonist that appealed to an ebook buyer and a wider audience. You do run the risk of attracting some strange people looking for their own platform when you discount to $.99 ...some Book Bub people from SWP did not do  as well...I am grateful for the readers who were touched by the story and can now read a one star review without nausea. Good luck to you!!

  • Suzy Soro

    An acquaintance of mine is published thru Big 5. Her initial pricing thru them was 12.99 for the ebook. I knew this was a mistake right off the bat because her book was an anthology and sometimes those books have a hard sell without a large social media platform. But right before publication, her editor lowered the e price to 10.99, a much better price point for a first time author (editor of the anthology). Since books sell the most in the first 3 months (unless it magically transforms into a best seller)after the 3 months was over and sales started to lag, her publisher jacked the price back to 12.99.

    When her sales slowed and then stopped, and word of mouth had not transformed it into a best seller, they needed to lower the book to a more realistic price. This is why indie publishing has it all over traditional publishing. Authors want readers, Big 5 wants money.

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Kamy, the first think that comes to mind in the price argument is: the library. Kindle has a lending library which I like to think of as a free option for readers. I love the brick and mortar libraries I grew up with. Do you think there is room in the pricing conversation for the place of the library?

  • Trula Varnum

    I got your book (ebook) on BookBub. I agree that you are building your reader base, expanding your audience. I hadn't read any of your work until now. I love it and have you on my list of authors to read. I go out of my way to support authors. I live to read, thus need good authors. Just know that in all the "numbers" of books you sell I will be in those numbers. Fan for life here.

    Also, I feel obligated to write a review, and I did write one on WISHFUL THINKING, or I don't take the freebie. Just wanted to provide my personal feedback. Love your work. Keep it up. 

  • RYCJ Revising

    I, too, agree with deeply discounting books... for the reasons listed and one more reason. LIBRARIES. There are too many readers who would rather borrow a book, or get it for FREE, than purchase a book full price. And yes, most of those who go through those lengths WILL READ the book. Yet, I won't go into that whole song and dance on this topic, but will say having the 'lee-way' to deeply discount your book is an attractive benefit of publishing independently.

    That said, I purchased 'Wishful Thinking' on Amazon at *I guess* full price, and am happy to have done so, though I consider myself a sort of anomaly in that way of believing this is the best way to support authors.

    FYI. I started reading it a couple of days ago, which initially I was thinking this was the type story best enjoyed taking my time curled up in bed with it, but now I can't put the book down! It so reminds me of my contemporary series, in that 'down-to-earth' realistic quality, and must admit it is doing wonders for my spirit right about now.