Moderator: See earlier item on e-book pricing. Unrelated: Rob’s test of BookGlutton‘s ePub conversion. Try it yourself.D.R.

image Sometimes you can’t win for losing. E-books get dinged for being “too expensive.” But offer great books at super-affordable prices instead—and you might get attacked for that.

Pricing is one of the most controversial aspects of e-books. When I started, my market research indicated that many e-book publishers had set price points above those charged by traditional publishers for paper books. I love e-books and can understand charging more for the portability, adjustable font, and convenience. The problem is, you have to try e-books before you discover the advantages. My market research indicated that high prices kept many from bothering.

Logical savings for the reader

There is a logic that if a publisher doesn’t need to pay for paper, for shipping, invest in printing thousands of books that might not sell and might get returned at some future point, there should be a savings for the reader. That made sense to me. Certainly for small publishers, the cost of printing is non-trivial, and the risks of offset printing a quantity (as opposed to the extremely high price for POD printing) are substantial.

I came up with the “Books For A Buck” concept and sampled everyone I could reach; a high percentage indicated that they’d be intrigued by affordable books, and that a buck was a heck of a price. Many of them indicated that they’d be willing to experiment with a new author if they could buy a book at a price low enough that they wouldn’t feel too disappointed if they ultimately didn’t enjoy it.

Why $1 isn’t the usual price

After some experimentation, I determined that $1 was not a sustainable price. For one thing, most sales come through distributors (like Fictionwise, Mobipocket, the Kindle Store, and All Romance eBooks) rather than directly. And as these distributors normally charge approximately 50 percent of the price, a list price of $1 leaves, well, essentially nothing for the publisher and author.

I decided, therefore, to adopt a pricing model with a $1 introductory price and a still-affordable standard price of $3.99. The $1 introductory price encourages at least some readers to visit our Web site, read the free excerpts (another way I and many other e-publishers reduce the purchase risks), and buy both the books listed at introductory pricing and additional books listed at standard pricing.

Share your thoughts on price

Pink Petal has a point about price being used as a signal. An excessively low price can signal that the item being sold is of low quality (and hence not worth a higher price). I truly believe, however, that the e-book market in general, and in particular, can best grow through offering a high-quality product at a price that’s slightly below the price of paper books. I’d love to hear feedback. Check out the site and post your feedback here.

The Motel 6 precedent

With continuing inflation, it’s possible that the $1 pricing model, even as a promotional price, will become unsustainable (just as Motel 6 no longer can sustain the $6 pricing that originally gave them their name). For now, though, I like to give people a reason to come back often and grab bargains.

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  1. […] TeleRead: Bring the E-Books Home wrote an interesting post today on BucksForABuck owner: The lowdown on our biz modelHere’s a quick excerpt Moderator: See earlier item on e-book pricing. Unrelated: Rob’s test of BookGlutton’s ePub conversion. – D.R. Sometimes you can’t win for losing. E-books get dinged for being “too expensive.” But offer great books at super-affordable prices instead—and you might get attacked for that. Pricing is one of the most controversial aspects of e-books. When I started, my market research indicated that many e-book publishers had set price points above those charged by traditional pu […]

  2. First of all I congratulate Rob as a pioneer in the e-book field. And he is clearly looking not just for a market niche and marketing approach, but a way to give value to customers.

    Personally, I still have a bit of a hesitance when it comes to buying any book (paper or e-book) for more than about $8 unless it’s really important to me to have that particular book. And with all the alternative choices for reading, that can become a big purchase hurdle. And, of course, if it has DRM it’s really only a rental anyway, but that topic has certainly been talked over plenty.

    For books that I am not familiar with, or don’t have a particular reason to really want to buy, I need a way into being interested. (As opposed, for example, to a new book in a best selling series that my friends may read or I’m hooked on because they are so good).

    The excerpts are great, if they are long enough to hook me. One of the saddest things I’ve seen is the tendency to make excerpts so short. Why not give away the first quarter or half of the book? Why not even three fourths of the book? Are authors and publishers afraid that people will discover that they don’t like the book after all? Or are they afraid that after reading the first quarter, people will already have gotten all the “good stuff” and not want to read more? Personally, I think that when books are sold without a long excerpt, it’s only a way of getting money out of people for books that leave the buyer feeling was a waste. But I think I must be an extremist in that view because I’ve never once heard anyone with a similar view. I must be missing something. Either that, or book sellers want to ensure people also buy books they don’t like.

    Okay, so back to the topic. The basic question I’m interested in here is the whole “price is an indicator of quality” dilemma that was brought up.

    On the one hand, you would think that big name publishers would give a customer confidence, or at least a base line that makes it worth their while to investigate the books with a possible purchase in mind. But you can do that with some really good public domain libraries for free. And price sure doesn’t indicate quality there. Nor is there a lack of quality literature.

    With Amazon, I like to read the comments. They might get “stacked” by comments from friends of the author and such, but they still seem to be of value. And sometimes a book just jumps out at you from an e-book store description or author name or title.

    But the trick is that we all have our own sources of e-books that we go to for a reason – they are most likely to lead us efficiently to the sort of e-books we want to read or buy. Unfortunately, it is currently very much based on DRM and format for the device we use (e.g. Amazon for Kindle, Sony’s store for the Reader, Fictionwise for eReader, etc). It’s also based on where one can find a well-priced book off of the best seller lists, or easy free public domain book repositories like ManyBooks.

    So, in my mind, the trick for a store like Rob’s is to get exposure. The $1 books is a great idea. Getting great cover pictures is probably essential. Realizing that the marginal cost is potentially almost zero for giving away a book (depending on the flexibility of licensing/royalties agreements, etc), I’d consider a giveaway that works something like “Buy the first book in any series, and you have a 1-in-10 chance of getting the first five (or three or whatever) books from the series at no additional cost. There could even be some kind of fancy slot machine widget on the web site that is available only to people who purchase the first book in a series. Doesn’t have to be a series… could be simply the first book by the author or genre with a chance to win other books.

    The whole social network for e-books is still pretty weak also. It’s pretty much random forum comments across the web, plus concentrated e-book discussion at places like TeleRead and, and sites for handheld owners like PalmAddicts or PDA247, and so forth. But there’s no obvious way for people interested in books to be led to a site like Books For A Buck, that would make them a blockbuster success overnight, so one would have to think that it would take a ground roots effort to build things up. But we’ve seen from politics that such an effort can be pretty effective, especially if things grow to the point where there’s a network of people that care.

    How’s this for a new way of doing publicity? (And probably not just for e-books.) Suppose you start a referral system. If people buy using their personal links, they accumulate free book coupons. If authors agree to this (it’s great publicity for them also, and giving away a few free books might even be a big boost for them also), then there’s really no cost except setup efforts. Everyone wins. You are not giving a percentage of the purchase, so there’s no real incentive for cheats to abuse the system, but book lovers might really want to spread the word. They might even put a generic associate link in their forum posts, etc, and start mentioning books they’ve read and liked.

    Okay, enough speculation. I’m acting like I actually have valid ideas and understand the business, when I’ve never tried to sell or even write a book in my life!

    But the bottom line is that one way or another, without the obvious drivers for customers to look for e-books at a particular store, there has got to be another kind of draw… long previews, social networks, price, or product quality that is so good that word keeps spreading.

    Rob seems to be on to something with his approach, and I certainly wish him all the best for his continued success.

  3. “I love e-books and can understand charging more for the portability, adjustable font, and convenience.”


    A move to ebooks eliminates the need/costs of production/printing/binding/warehousing/shipping/returns/remaindering/etc. and you feel that a few byproducts of reading a book via an electronic device (changing a font size is something a publisher feels should bring him more money???)is justification for charging MORE?

  4. When my father retired from the USCG he was an expert in his field. Companies kept asking him to consult. He kept raising his prices, hoping to ward them off. The higher his prices went, the more in demand he became. I suggested he lower his price to the minimum of free plus expenses. He thought I was crazy, but did it and the consulting dried up immediately. People value the product by the cost, even though the value does not change with the varying price. Think of all the people that won’t buy things on sale because they don’t have the value to them of the full retail priced product. Books are not immune to this phenomenon. There are a lot of people out there that do buy on sales, who will try a book for a buck and then go on to paying $4 for more of that author, and I am one of them.

  5. I try a lot of e-only authors or self-published authors who do both POD and e through Lulu, iUniverse and similar. I bought all of Steve Jordan books for example, I also bought e-books from Book Habit, and various from Lulu, iUniverse – thorugh e-tailers mostly.

    For 2-3$ I buy almost anything that tempts me, with a little sample and of course if I not too swamped by other books

    For 3-6$, it depends on how much I want the book, what I have currently to read and how the book compares subject-wise…

    For more than 6$, I really need to want the book. I will go as high as 15-20$ for selected e-books – e-arcs from Baen, or new e-books in lit format or less preferable in prc format from BooksOnBoard, Fictionwise and similar…

  6. Hi Al,

    A great story about your father. Something to think about–when the Japanese began selling cars in the US, they offered their cars at a discount to what Detroit was selling. They did so, even though their cars were of significantly higher quality. Why did they do it? Because American consumers were unaware of the quality differential and had to be persuaded to try something new.

    I think the eBook experience has some aspects in common with that.

    Rob Preece

  7. I notice I didn’t respond to Blaine–my apologies.

    The point I’m trying to make is that the eBook format has a value proposition that is different from, and in some respects superior to the paper book. Paper books are bulky, can’t be acquired instantly without leaving the home, and don’t adjust well to those of us with imperfect eyes. And yes, if you price large print books, you’ll find that they generally cost more than smaller-font-sized paper books.

    That said, I’m not suggesting that those of us who favor eBooks SHOULD price them higher than paper books. As you say, there are cost savings in publishing electronically. I think it makes sense to pass these on to the customer in order to encourage them to make the transition (and to help them recoup any investments in reading devices). I’m sorry if that point didn’t come through clearly. But I strongly believe that we shouldn’t position eBooks as an inferior but cheaper product. eBooks are a superior product at a (at least at lower price point.

    Rob Preece

  8. Thanks to Bob for his kind words and intriguing thoughts.

    I’ve gone back and forth on the whole issue of excerpts. Clearly excerpts are a boon for both small publishers and readers. In this area, our interests are identical–readers don’t want to waste their money on a book they won’t enjoy and publishers want to make it easy for the buyer to make the purchase decision. The excerpt allows both, while not giving away so much of the value of the book that the purchase is unnecessary.

    Length of excerpt is something that’s debated in eBook circles. Bob’s idea of offering half, or more, is intriguing, especially for mystery-type stories where the payoff comes in the final pages. For other genres, romance, for example, the payoff comes from the developing relationship–everyone knows how the end will work out. Still, it’s an interesting idea. Anyone have thoughts?

    For me, the keys to a good excerpt is that it:
    1. Lets the reader know what kind of story he/she’s getting
    2. Gives the reader a sense of the author’s style (and the editor’s abilities)
    3. Sets a hook that makes the reader practically need to click the “buy now” button so he/she can find out what happens next.

    Rob Preece

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