Ebook Publishing and the Great Price Debate: My numbers tell an interesting story

Before Christmas and the great Amanda Hocking success story hit the blogosphere, the general wisdom among ebook self-publishers tended to be that $2.99 was the sweet spot  for selling and profiting from sales. Particularly after Amazon instituted its new 70% royalty offering (which didn’t apply for books priced at under $2.99), anything lower than that was seen as reserved for short stories or novella’s or at the most a brief promotional launch. However, the success of Amanda Hocking and a growing number of self-published authors selling their books at 99 cents changed the debate. They proved that you could sell so many books at that rate that it would more than make up for the loss of the 70% revenue. An additional upside to the 99 cent approach was that the sheer volume of sales at 99 cents would put your book(s) so high up in the rankings in the Kindle store and its browsing categories that you could dominate the market in these subgenres, thereby attracting even more buyers.

I confess, as I watched my number of U.S.Kindle sales of my historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune, begin a steady decline after it reached a peak in January (2841 sales), February (1461), March (1191), April (728), I began to think about whether or not I should lower my price to 99 cents. But so far I have held off.  I decided that what I was seeing was a seasonal pattern, rather than a lack of competitiveness of my pricing. For example, Maids of Misfortune remained at the top of the historical mystery best-seller list, which suggested to me that other books in the list were undergoing a similar decline-otherwise they should have started to out-rank me. Shatzkin in his recent post analyzing the new data on ebook sales echoed my conclusions when he stated:

…Christmas presents of ebook-capable devices would tend to result in ebook sales after December 25. (The devices would have been sold before Christmas, of course.) It might be true that people buy more ebooks in the first month or two that they own a device than they do on an ongoing basis.

So for the period left in our time of transition when Christmas presents of devices add new digital reading converts — and we certainly have one or two more Christmases like that coming, if not three or four — we can expect ebook sales surges right after Christmas that calm down in March and later.”

I think that every time Amazon puts out a new device (with a surge in new buys), every time a gift-related holiday rolls round (first 7 days of May I averaged 15 sales a day, Mother’s Day I sold 31!), Kindle books that sell well (have good reviews, good cover, are ranked high in browser categories, etc) will sell more. But I also believe that in most cases this will be followed by a decline—since people who get new devices tend to “front load” with lots of books, particularly low-priced books, and it will take them awhile to make their way through those already purchased books to begin to buy again. And I suspect that when they begin to buy again, they may not focus so narrowly on the free and 99 cent books, particularly if they found a high proportion of these cheaper books did not live up to their expectations.

This isn’t to say that by lowering my price I wouldn’t start to sell more books, but whether or not my book, in my genre, would sustain large enough numbers to compensate for the lower royalties over a month or two is still questionable. Since I hope to have my sequel out by early fall, it made much more sense to wait to experiment with lowering the price until closer to my launch-so that I could use it as a promotional tool to generate interest in the new book. I might also start out with a 99 cent price for the new book to generate enough sales and reviews to get it to climb the top of the historical mystery category.

Further evidence of the temporary effects of lowering the price of a work came this month when Amazon lowered the price of my short story, Dandy Detects, based on characters from the longer novel, from 99 cents to free. (Background here is that as a self-published author on Kindle I couldn’t offer Dandy Detects as a free short story, which is what I wanted to do. However, I was contacted ten days ago by Kindle Direct saying they were going to offer Dandy for free because it had been offered as a “free promotion on another sales channel.” I am not sure, but I think this was because Dandy had been offered as a free short on KindleNationDaily in July, 2010.

In the year since I started offering Dandy Detects, I had sold slightly over 2700 stories at 99 cents. May 11th when it was offered free for the first time, there were 3851 stories downloaded. This was the peak, and the numbers declined steadily, so that yesterday, May 19, I sold 123. However, as I had always hoped, the free short story led to sales of Maids of Misfortune. The first week in May my average sales was 15, the week after Dandy Detects started being free, my daily sales average was 31. Yet, as the number of new Dandy’s downloaded declined, so has the number of daily sales for Maids of Misfortune.

Will my daily sales, despite this bump, continue to decline? Possibly, until the next new device or a new lower price is issued, until the summer holidays cause an uptick in reading, until the people who front-loaded their devices begin to buy again. This April I may have sold only 728 Kindle copies of Maids, but last April I sold only 28.

In conclusion: from my experiences in Kindle sales as a self-published author I have drawn a few simple lessons.

  • As the number of people who own Kindles (or devices that support Kindle books) increases, the sales of ebooks from the Kindle store will increase, including sales of Maids of Misfortune. Amazon just announced that it has sold 3 x the number of ebooks so far in 2011 as it did in the same time period in 2010.
  • At the same time, the pace of the sales of ebook devices, while increasing over all, is influenced by such factors as the timing of when new devices are issued, the periodic lowering of the price of Kingles, and gift related holidays, causing a pattern of jumps in sales, followed by a temporary slowing in sales.
  • Offering short stories for free, or full length books for 99 cent prices, will also increase sales, which can be very good for promotional purposes (gets you higher ranks in categories, can raise the sales of other books), but it is not yet clear if this is a sustainable approach for the long haul (given the loss of royalties) for all ebooks (genre does matter here).

Finally, because Maids of Misfortune is a self-published ebook, and it will not go out of print (or be returned by bookstores), any declines in the number of daily sales (while does effect my monthly income) does nothing to determine the lifetime income the book will make. The first year the book was out I made over $5000, the next five months I made another $17,000 dollars, and I have every reason to expect that this income will increase in the next 5-7 months, as the number of people who own Kindles increases. And at the end of that period, I should have a second book out, and if I did my job as a writer and produced a good book, then in time my income should at least double.

So, what are your numbers telling you?

3 thoughts on “Ebook Publishing and the Great Price Debate: My numbers tell an interesting story

  1. I think what you’re saying is right on. I published Deadly Vibrations, the first in the sextoymurder series for $2.99. I have another book already completed, Easy Entry, about a woman who goes on sabbatical in a caravan across the U.S. with her dog, then I’ll finish the rewrite of next book (written twelve years ago) a month later. Pricing, along with a list of books like you have, gives you more exposure. Also writing short stories for free is a great way to get yourself noticed. I know of blog sites that will publish an interview with your book’s primary character and writer’s sites that will critique your book. All of this helps us get the word out about our books and who we are. Since I’m still new at this e-publishing business, I’m grateful for your input. I’ll check in with this blog to see how you’re doing. Good luck and many sales to you.

  2. I have to say, my experience with e-book sales is pretty much matching your own, though I haven’t offered anything for free as of yet. Considering doing it with a short story or two.

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