E-book Price Battle: Free, 99 cents or Over Ten Dollars?

newbie photographyImage by gurana via FlickrWhat is the Right Price for an E-book?

Some people swear by the 99 cents price: they see it as the sweet spot for impulse buying

Others claim that allowing your book to go free for a while is like a magical wand: it expands your market reach and brings in new readers who are then willing to pay for your other books. 

Yet others - usually more conservative writers who believe in the intrinsic value of literature - think this sort of pricing policy is debasing. They can accept the idea that an indie will set prices below those practiced by traditional publishers in order to gain some traction in the market, but not much below - say around $10, or more precisely $9.99, the price where Amazon still pays a 70% royalty - because otherwise it would be like a public admission that one's books are not as good as traditionally published ones, that somehow indie books are second class!

Which price is right for a newbie selling a first book? 

In the spring of this year, the debate raged, fueled by J.A.Konrath's regular sales reports on his blog, the Newbie's Guide to Publishing. Amanda Hocking, the indie author who shot to e-publishing stardom in just one year, making eventually a fortune with a fabulous advance from a traditional publisher, openly admitted that the 99 cents helped her launch her YA paranormal Trylle Trilogy. She used it systematically on the first book of her trilogy as a "loss leader", raising the price on subsequent books in the series (and so do I, by the way). Another indie e-star, John Locke - the man who famously sold one million copies in five months - still swears by the 99 cents price, claiming that it played a major part in his success. Let's note in passing that he also admits to using another marketing tool to great effect, what he has called "loyalty transfer" (i.e. finding like-minded readers who recognize the author "as one of theirs" and thus are eager and happy to buy his books) . 

Konrath however presented a more balanced point of view. Openly sharing with everyone his monthly sales calling it a "price experiment", he eventually concluded that the magic sweet spot lay somewhere between $2.99 and possibly $4.99 but not higher. If he's right, John Locke by keeping his books at the 99 cents price level may well have foregone a considerable amount of revenue from his sales.

Now Konrath has sparked yet again another hot debate in the blogosphere publishing a post from one of his friends, author  Elle Lothlorien who points to the marketing concept of "imputed value" as the correct way to set e-book prices. Using her own experience with pricing her novel The Frog Prince, she argues convincingly that the 99 cents is too low and books sell better at a higher price that adds "value", particularly in the eyes of readers who equate 99 cents books with trash. She claims that is what happened to her and that she started making more money and selling more books as soon as she raised the price of her novel. 

To explain this phenomenon, she refers to Starbuck's coffee pricing policy: by pricing their product at the higher end, Starbucks has imbued its coffee with an "imputed value" that customers are induced to look for and even if they don't find it, they will be reluctant to admit dissatisfaction since they have paid a high price for the coffee. Nobody likes to admit to making a mistake!

Is a book like a cup of coffee?

Probably not, even though there is a lot of truth in the simile. By raising prices - say around $4 to $6 - indie authors send out a strong signal, saying "look my books are good, they have value, and even though I'm an indie and have to price at a lower level than trad publications to sell,  I price them at a level far from trash." Setting your book in a price environment that suggests it is a valuable product will surely help sales (and your income!)

But can this be proved in some way? I have friends who are convinced that lowering prices and making their books free for a short period are valid and effective marketing tools. They invariably tell you "I've seen a bump in sales, more people are buying my books, that is proof enough for me!"

They may well have seen a "bump" in sales but I'm afraid this doesn't prove much. 

That bump in sales would be convincing evidence only if every other marketing tool in use were suspended: no more blog posts, no advertising, no participation in readers' fora, no interviews, no blog tours, no reviews, no articles, no comments on other blogs on publishing and books, no use of Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn or any other social media - in short, if you put a full stop to your Internet presence and only play around with your book prices. Then you might see a result that you could attribute with a fair degree a certainty to your price changes.

Otherwise, no. No way. There are too many other factors at play to be sure that the price had the effect you are claiming for it. 

The solution?

In my opinion, use your common sense. Vary your price strategies: use the 99 cents as a "loss leader" but don't do it all the time and for every book - better restrict it to the first one in a series and for a limited period (in fact I shall soon raise the 99 cents price on Forget the Past, the first volume in my trilogy to align it with the other two). Ditto for a free price campaign: it should be kept as short as possible in order not to send out the wrong signal. Experiment with higher prices like Lothlorien and see what works for you: find the price you feel comfortable with, that is not degrading to you and that makes you the "right" amount of money...

What is your opinion?