The Price of eBooks: 7 Reasons Why I’m Raising Mine

Photo © 2007 Jeff Meyer CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A couple months ago, I talked about why I believe e-books should be cheap. Big, scary (and scared) publishers tend to be raising prices on e-books, sky-high, sometimes charging as much for the e-book as for a hardcover. Responding to this trend, I advocated prices as low as possible, even under a dollar. Why then am I quadrupling prices on my own e-novels, starting next week?

1. Firstly, I never said that 99¢ was the right price for an e-novel. I only said that the right price was way less than the hardcover, and less than the trade paperback, and even less than the mass-market paperback. Mass-market paperbacks retail for $6-$8. So an e-book price as high as $6 might be palatable, given the right circumstances.

2. And these circumstances make a difference. Part of the reason e-books are worth so little is that publishers saddle them with DRM, and they bully readers into never sharing them with their friends, never giving them away, and—most importantly—never reselling them. Publishers in every media have always hated the used market and treated libraries with suspicion, believing beyond hope that if readers couldn’t buy used books and CDs, they would pay full price. The reality of course is quite the reverse: readers that become excited enough in a book to share it with their friends, those are the fans who spread fandom for the author and increase sales. That’s why my e-books never use DRM, and I don’t even mind if you share them with your friends. Knock yourself out.

3. On the other hand, industry big-wigs have a point when they say that low prices “devalue” the product. That is, people tend to think they get what they pay for. In one anecdote, often retold, a woman who owned a souvenir shop, before she went on vacation, told her clerk to cut the price of a cheap tchotchke in half, because she needed to move them; she was tired of them taking up space in her shop and wanted to get rid of them. When she returned from vacation, the store had successfully sold out of the crappy baubles. Yay! But the clerk had misunderstood. Instead of cutting the price in half, she had doubled the price. That’s what caused the pieces to sell out. Psychological studies have documented that when we have to work for something, we want it more and cherish it more. Similarly, when we have to pay more for something, we tend to value it more, even to enjoy it more, to see its good points and ignore its bad points. And I can easily understand this effect when it comes to fiction, because appreciating fiction is a very personal experience. We each have things that we like about the books we read, and things we hate. And each of us forms his own list of pros and cons according to his own feelings, which are in part formed by forces such as how much we had to pay for the book.

An aside: It’s interesting that if you receive a free copy of a book to review, the FTC is afraid that you’ll be more likely to give the book a positive review as a quid pro quo. But the converse effect can be just as strong. If you pay for the book out of your own pocket, you’ll be more personally invested in it and therefore more likely to trivialize its weaknesses. I believe, however, the biggest factor affecting most reviewers is their relationship with the author or publisher; they’ll tend to review and rate highly books that they get from authors that they’re friends with.

4. People expect 99¢ e-books to suck. Again this is the “you get what you pay for” mentality, which is hard-wired into our brains. My latest e-books have been getting 5-star reviews. Now, I don’t know how many of those reviewers genuinely loved the book, and how many were just being nice. Regardless, I think it’s clear that—for all my inadequacies—the books don’t suck. So then why do I only ask for 99¢? Well, I explained why in the earlier blog post, but do you expect prospective readers to look up that blog post and understand my rationale? Not likely. I don’t want prospective readers to think that I’m just a wannabe with my head in the clouds. So I’ve given into the fear, and I’m thinking I need to charge more than 99¢.

5. Even Amazon doesn’t believe in under-a-dollar e-books. Yes, Amazon will allow you to price your Kindle e-book at 99¢, but that’s basically the price of distribution. The publisher gets only 35¢ of that, which means the publisher is turning a loss on those sales. And for larger e-books—that is, e-books with a larger download size, possibly containing lots of graphics or images—Amazon requires an absolute minimum price of $1.99 or $2.99, depending on the size of the e-book.

6. I expect most e-books will go up to at least $2.99 this summer, to take advantage of Amazon’s 70%-royalty option. Normally, Amazon only pays the publisher 35% of the list price of Kindle books. But starting this July, Amazon will pay the publisher 70% (minus download costs), if publishers price their Kindle e-books between $2.99 and $9.99, and don’t undercut the Kindle price by selling the e-book cheaper elsewhere, and price the e-book at least 20% less than the cheapest hardcopy edition. For big, scary publishers, this is supposed to try to convince them to bring their e-book prices down. (For an e-novel with a $7.99 mass-market paperback version, the highest eligible Kindle price would be $6.39.) But this move also indicates that the ideal e-novel price, at least in Amazon’s view, is probably between $2.99 and $6.39. In any case, it probably marks the effective end of the 99¢ e-book.

7. I’m giving away free short e-books now. When I wrote the earlier blog post, I didn’t have any short e-books to give away. Since then, I’ve published two. Each is a self-contained short story. Each is revised, mastered, and published using the same, full process used for larger books. I give them away as free samplers. And I plan to publish more of these. I’m hoping that by giving away free short e-books, I’ll draw more readers, which will increase the value of my novel-length books.

Besides, I’m only raising my price to $3.97. That hardly brings it out of the impulse-purchase range. (So, it’ll cost the price of a package of candy bars, rather than just a single candy bar. Big whoop.)

Even so, if you want to get either of my e-books, right now is the right time, before the price goes up. Click here for more details.