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eBook Pricing Strategies for Self-Published Authors

By Chris Robley, editor of The BookBaby Blog

One of the most common questions we hear at BookBaby is “how much should I charge for my eBook?”

Like most good questions, this one doesn’t have a simple answer. In fact, we usually have to ask the author a few questions ourselves:

  • What is your goal with this book?
  • How much do you want to make from each sale?
  • What is the size of your existing readership?

In the early days of the digital music revolution, iTunes helped standardize pricing for downloads; it was generally 99¢ per song and $9.99 per album. The digital book world has no such standard — so things can get confusing fast.

eBook pricing, just like promotion and the writing of the book itself, doesn’t work the same for everyone.

In this article, I hope to outline the most common eBook pricing options for authors today, talk a little about how each might work for you, and help you make the smartest decision for where you’re at in your writing career.

Value vs. price

As we begin the discussion, it’s important to note the difference between price and value. As David Gaughran points out in his article “The Great eBook Pricing Question,”:

“The price is something we, as self-publishers, attach to the product. The value is the worth the consumer places on it (not the author or publisher). In simple terms, unless your price is lower than the value a reader places on your book, they won’t purchase.

Marketing isn’t simply about reaching consumers but also about convincing them to place a value on the product higher than the price tag. The higher the price, the harder that job will be.

In other words, it’s a lot easier to sell a book at $2.99 than $9.99.”

Does price affect a potential buyer’s assessment of value? Will a reader perceive a $1.99 eBook to be of lesser quality? Maybe, but probably not. As Gaughran says, things like your book cover, your book blurb, and your book reviews will be far better indicators of value than the price. If those elements of your book are captivating, the customer will perceive value—regardless of price.

For argument’s sake though, let’s assume that your book is fantastic, your blurb is enticing, your book cover is beautifully designed, and the text is formatted correctly. The question still remains: “How much should I charge for my eBook?”

To answer the question, we’ll look at some of the benefits and drawbacks of each of the common pricing tiers.

$10 and higher

If you’re selling some kind of enhanced encyclopedia or an exhaustive informational resource on a niche topic, then sure, charge a high price for your eBook. But in my opinion, pricing a self-published novel or memoir or self-help book higher than $9.99 is a mistake — not simply because readers are accustomed to purchasing eBooks for far less, but because Amazon* pays authors only 35% per sale for books priced higher than $9.99 (and lower than $2.99). For books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, you earn a 70% cut.

* Many eBook retailers have similar price banding policies.

“But I spent countless hours writing this book,” you might be saying. “It’s worth more than $10!”

Again, it’s good to remember the value vs. price distinction. It might be worth more than $10 to YOU. But to someone who’s never heard of you… it’s only worth what they’re willing to pay.

Also, in the mind of the abstract marketplace, your eBook SHOULD be cheaper than a hardcover or paperback. Your only costs (potentially) are the hours writing, editing, eBook formatting/conversion, cover design, distribution, and book promotion.

Once those costs are covered, your “digital shelf space” is unlimited. No manufacturing costs (paper, binding, etc.), no warehousing or shipping costs, no returns from bookstores.

With physical books, the more you sell, the more you have to keep paying to print and distribute them. Not so with eBooks.

$4.99 to $9.99

Again, with books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, you earn 70% per sale. With these percentage payouts, you stand to earn almost the exact same amount of money per sale whether you charge $4.99 or $10. Since that’s the case, relatively unknown authors might as well charge $4.99 in hopes of attracting more buyers.

However, if your existing readership is both sizeable and loyal, you should consider pricing your book between $4.99 and $9.99 to maximize your cut per sale. The demand justifies the higher price; yet it’s not so high as to be cost prohibitive. 

$2.99 to $4.99

$2.99 is the most popular eBook price among self-published authors.

Firstly, it’s the price floor that will still yield a 70% payout from Amazon. But it’s also a low enough price to encourage impulse buys. A reader is apt to “take a chance” on a book priced at $2.99 — and that is one of the most crucial things to consider when you’re trying to build your audience: attracting readers that aren’t fully committed. 

That being said, pricing your book a bit higher (at $3.99 or $4.99) gives you some wiggle room if you want to run occasional discounts to drive purchases when sales begin to dip.

99¢ to $2.98

It’s tough to argue with a 99¢ tag. At that price, there’s almost no barrier between the buyer and your book but a quick online transaction and a measly dollar.  Impulse buys could be really high, especially as buzz begins to build around your book, and as that happens, you increase your chances of ranking on Amazon, since their charts count sales, NOT revenue. Setting a low price could help you creep up the rankings and gain some attention for your book.

Plus, the more books you sell, the likelier it becomes that you’ll appear in Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” section. Another reason to price your book cheaply!

On the flip side, you only earn 35% per sale, which isn’t going to make you rich unless your book sells extremely well. You give up the high percentage of return in exchange for a larger numbers of readers. Many authors though (like John Locke), have had great success with this pricing strategy.

It’s worth noting that this approach often works best when you’re distributing a number of books in a series. You can entice readers to buy the first book with the 99¢ price tag, get them hooked, and then charge a higher price for the subsequent titles in the series.

If you’re selling a shorter eBook (20-100 pages), something equivalent to a Kindle Single, you might want to consider pricing it at $1.99, as 45% of all Kindle Singles in the top 100 were priced at that point. The second most-popular price point for short eBooks is 99¢.

Free

Free is a perfectly fine price, and a popular one at that. You should consider “selling” your eBook for free if:

  • you’ve written a series (as mentioned above) and want to get folks hooked on the first book, and then charge more for the follow-ups.
  • the main purpose of your book is to help you establish expertise in your field, so the more downloads the better.
  • the free eBook will help you generate income in some other way, attracting clients to your product or service.

A price-point for everyone

Now that we’ve looked at all the pricing tiers, it’s clear there is no one-size-fits-all answer. It’s possible that today’s successful authors need to have, as Richard Nash says, “A product for everyone; a price-point for everyone.”

In fact, he views eBooks as the “gateway drug” to an author’s entire body of work. As self-publishers, authors can’t bet on any one revenue stream. By setting an extremely low eBook price, you can cast a wider net in hopes that a small percentage of your fans will buy products all the way up the demand curve.

For instance:

  • a 99¢ eBook for the casual browser
  • a $15 paperback for people who love the book
  • a $75 signed, limited edition hardcover for the die-hard readers
  • a $300 writing class or meet-and-greet dinner for the most dedicated fans

If this is the smartest model for indie authors, well, you still have to decide what to charge for that gateway drug — the eBook.

Chris Robley is an award-winning poet, songwriter, performer, and music producer who now lives in Portland, Maine after more than a decade in Portland, Oregon. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Magma Poetry, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard's Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2014 recipient of a Maine Literary Award in the category of "Short Works Poetry." By day, he is the editor of The BookBaby Blog and CD Baby’s DIY Musician Blog.

69 Responses

  1. As a marketer, I get very ranty over mis-use of price. It's such a powerful sales motivator, but boy do people mis-use it. Why slave over creating the best book you can and then give it away .. either literally or almost literally? You have to sell an awful lot to make up for the discount. THANKS for putting such a clear post together that shows free has its place, but it shouldn't be the default. Nor should 99c. If it's part of your plan, that's fine. Otherwise respect your writing and price it accordingly.
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