Sane eBook pricing is not rocket science… Image via License

A Sane Self-Publishing EBook Pricing Model

Indie doesn’t have to mean rogue.

Who Made This Monster?

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In a previous essay — Wake Up Indie Authors! Free EBook Promotions are Killing Us! — I explored how the 24–7 parade of free eBook giveaways has conditioned a significant segment of the book-buying public to believe that eBooks should always and only be free. Why would anybody pay for your book when, in a few weeks, you’ll almost certainly be giving it away? All they have to do is wait.

Sometimes the reader is right and by waiting they get your book free. Sometimes they’re wrong, but because they chose to wait and didn’t click “Buy Now” when their interest in your book was piqued, they’ll soon forget about you altogether and never download your book, free or otherwise.

I believe the free eBook frenzy of self-published authors has conditioned readers to “wait for the freebie.”

We indie authors created this monster. So it’s up to us to set things right.

I propose that the first step in the reader-reconditioning process is agreeing among ourselves to hold to a sane eBook pricing model for independently published work.

A Sane Self-Publishing EBook Pricing Model

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In the general psychology of shopping (not just in the world of books), people tend to equate price with quality. If product A costs twice as much as similar product B, then product B must be a shoddy rip off of the “better” expensive brand. There may be zero evidence to support this conclusion, but people still believe it. For this reason, you’re not doing yourself any favors by selling your 400 page novel for 99 cents. The low price only leads readers to ask — what’s wrong with this book that it has to be so cheap?

I propose we stage an industry-wide campaign to redirect our readers’ thinking. Working together, we can set a self-publishing pricing standard that breaks the unconscious link between price and quality.

In my model, the sole determinant of eBook pricing is word count.

Here’s how it works:

· No free eBooks, ever, with the caveat that free review copies provided directly to reviewers in exchange for an honest review don’t count.

· SHORTS: Works under 20,000 words will be referred to as shorts. They will sell for 99 cents.

· MID-LENGTHS: Works between 20,000 and 39,999 words will be referred to as Mid-Lengths(Mids). They will sell for $2.99.

· FULLS: Works with word counts of 40,000 or greater will be referred to as Fulls, or full-length works. The minimum price for a Full will be $3.99. Fulls can sell for any price above this minimum pricing floor that the author deems appropriate (I have Fulls that sell just fine at $5.99 and above). But no full should ever dip below the floor price.

· Shorts and Mid-Lengths should never sell above their word count category cap price.

· Any number of Shorts and Mid-Lengths can be combined to create a Full (as with short story or essay collections). Pricing should follow the total word count of the collective work.

It may be easier to think about this in terms of pages. The publishing industry standard says one page equals 250 words. Few real paper book pages have only 250 words on them (300 to 350 would probably be more accurate), but 250 is the number traditional publishers use, based on an average of page sizes, margin widths, and common fonts. So let’s use 250.

· A SHORT would be up to 19,999 words (under 20,000)/250 = 79 pages or less.

· A MID-LENGTH would be 20,000 to 39,999 words/250 = 80 to 159 pages.

· A FULL would be 40,000 words/250 = 160 pages or more.

That’s about right when you think of this in terms of paper books. And we need to think in those terms here at the very beginning of the global transition from hard copy paper to electronic reading, because the vast majority of our readers still have a foot in both worlds. When they consider the value of an eBook, at least part of the equation they are running in their heads is a comparison of the price of that eBook to what they think the same title might cost as a real paper book. A brick and mortar bookstore shopper would not expect to pay anywhere near the same price for a five page short story as they would a 200 page novel. I propose that eBooks should follow this same common sense rule.


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There will be certain logical exceptions to the scale above. In brick and mortar world, illustrated children’s books are usually well under 80 pages and 20,000 words, but still carry a high sticker price. Comics and graphic novels may also be low on words but high on illustration value. Art books, travel guides with lots of pictures, whatever the eBook equivalent of a coffee table book might be… Most Indie Authors don’t create this kind of book, so the folks that do are the ones who need to set the scale of their value.

My proposed eBook pricing model is solely for works of fiction and nonfiction that are composed exclusively or primarily of words.

The Benefits of a Sane Self-Publishing EBook Pricing Model

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Here are some of the things I like most about this eBook pricing model:

· It works for both fiction and nonfiction. No need to puzzle over question like “what’s the nonfiction equivalent of a novel? A short story? A novella?” Word count is word count.

· It ensures that A) hardworking authors are paid fairly for their labors, and B) readers are assured at least a quantitative value for their money. Readers will always “get what they paid for” regarding at least the length of books. And with the price playing field leveled, authors will have to compete for readers based solely on the quality of their work — and that’s the kind of positive competition that ultimately aligns the best interests of authors and readers.

· It gives readers a valuable tool for evaluating purchases. For example, if a book is priced at $2.99 or higher, but Amazon’s estimated page count says it’s a 30 page document, the reader can easily identify it as a rip-off and move on to a trustworthy title.

· It gives writers, if not a brand new tool, at least a fairer one in the quest for discoverability. A reader who might hesitate to spend $3.99+ for a novel length work (a Full) by an unknown author might be perfectly happy to drop 99 cents on a short story or novelette to sample the author’s talent before taking the plunge. When free eBooks cease to exist, 99 cents will become the new “sampling price.” Authors deserve to be paid for their work, and readers deserve inexpensive ways to discover new authors. Shorts present an equitable means of filling both needs.

· When the reading public is made aware that Indie Authors have united to establish a common pricing scale and will no longer give their quality work away for free, then very soon the unconscious equation of free with inferior will simply be correct. Only a shyster out to cheat the reader would undercut their fellow Indie Authors by giving books away. Readers will instinctively avoid such obvious deceptions, and that’s good for readers and writers.

· Right now, Amazon pays only a 35% royalty on eBooks that sell below $2.99. Their stated reason is that, at that price, they foot the whole bill for delivery of the file to the buyer’s Kindle. I don’t know how much delivery actually costs Amazon, but I do know it depends on the size of the file. Amazon’s 35% royalty on inexpensive titles is almost certainly based on an average delivery expense. Some 99 cent books are 30 pages long (often less). Some are 400 pages or longer. If all Indie authors embraced the pricing model proposed in this article, 100% of the files Amazon delivers for under $2.99 would be 79 pages or less. With zero large file books to factor into the equation, Amazon’s average delivery cost should drop significantly. As a large group of united independent authors, I suspect we could convince Amazon to pay a 70% royalty all the way to 99 cents. Why wouldn’t they? We would be offering them something of real value in exchange for a better royalty deal. I think they’d go for it.

Take Action

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So you’re on board with the plan, now what?

This weekend:

1. Adjust the price of all your self-published eBooks on Amazon, Smashwords, iTunes, etc. to follow this pricing model.

2. Add this statement to each title’s online book description:

This book adheres to the Sane Self-Publishing Ebook Pricing Model. It contains (enter number here) words, and is approximately (enter number) pages long.

3. With future releases, and whenever you update the interior files of your backlist titles, add it to the copyright page, as well.

It is a noble act to come together and take a public stand for the integrity of our industry. By embracing our responsibility to produce a quality product at a fair price, we preserve Independent Publishing for future generations, and prove ourselves worthy of reader trust. Each one of us, alone, is an Indie Author. But united, we become a force for change.

Thanks for reading!


Jack Preston King

Written by

Author, poet, philosopher.

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