If you’re publishing your book, you’re probably hoping to sell it. Even if book sales aren’t your key motivator, most writers (ideally) want to make as much money as possible. After all, money supports us, allowing us to continue with our writing and, if the muses are kind, publish another book. And another. (Remember to buy books from independent authors!)
If you’re self-publishing, you probably already know the importance of good marketing and promotion for your book—especially if you read our Kirkus Writers’ Center posts. And part of every successful marketing strategy is setting the right price for your book.
I was on social media a few weeks ago when I saw an acquaintance announce that his book of poetry was for sale. But the price of the book caught me off guard: he was asking for over $20 per copy. “Twenty dollars for a book of poetry?” I wondered. “Did he not talk to anyone about pricing?”
Everything has a price, as the expression goes. But when it comes to our writing—and specifically, monetizing it to be sold—there are a number of factors to consider when setting the price of your book. If weighed carefully, they can help you strike a balance between valuing your work and ensuring that readers don’t balk at the price.
Physical versus Digital
It’s no secret that offering physical books can be expensive for self-publishing authors. You’re paying not only to have the book printed with a high-quality interior and cover but also for order fulfillment. And unless you’ve engaged a printer that will print the books and ship them directly to your readers, you’ll be tasked with the onerous duty of packaging and shipping the books yourself. Depending on where your readers are (never ignore international sales!), this can be both quite expensive and very time consuming. All these costs can eat into your bottom line big-time. And in this era of digital content, not everyone wants to lug around a physical book.
Thanks to phones, tablets, and laptops, e-books are more accessible than ever and offer more choices for readers on the go who like to read at work, on transit, at the doctor’s office, and even in bed. In fact, traveling with e-books is a booklover’s dream: all the books, none of the bulk and weight. That’s not to say readers don’t still love paper books (I have full bookshelves in almost every room), but digital books provide an added layer of reading enjoyment. For readers with visual impairments, e-books also offer more flexibility in how to read.
For authors, e-books have the highest profit margin. And publishing digitally rather than in print means you can invest most of your money in an editor, a cover designer, a copywriter for your description (shameless plug: we are worth it!), or publicity and advertising. But readers are less inclined to pay big bucks for something they can’t hold and that they know costs less than a print book to produce.
Find the Sweet Spot
Readers tend to have certain appetites for how much money they are willing to pay for books. You can bet that a brand-new book from a bestselling author isn’t going to be cheap, for either a hardcover or an e-book. Most e-book fiction from major publishers sells for between $5 and $10. Many readers are willing to pay more—$8 to $12—for a big, juicy read from one of their favorite authors, especially if that author’s books tend to be long and involving. It’s a price point guaranteed to be worth the money, because they are familiar with that author’s body of work.
New authors, on the other hand, might be a greater risk. If you had enough money for only one or two books, would you spend $9.99 on an unknown author—or would you spend that money buying the book written by someone whose work you adore? What you have to ask yourself is whether you can get away with commanding a higher price.
Tip: Compare prices with other books in your genre to get an idea of what price point readers might expect to see. Look not only at big-name authors but also at leaders in the independent-author space. Check out the range of prices, and aim for something in the middle: a little more than the cheap books (because your book is amazing and worth it) but a little less than the expensive books (because people like a good deal). Avoid silly gimmicks like Only for Rich Book, which carries a list price of $3,000.
Tip: Until you have a reliable reader base, think about keeping your prices somewhat lower than the top-tier price commanded by bestselling authors.
Of course, there’s also the danger of pricing your book too low . . .
Perception Is Everything
Offering a book for free is a great way to get it picked up by a lot of people. A lot. Some authors use free books to invite readers in and then offer them additional books at higher prices. In the business world, this is known as a “loss leader”—luring in customers with an amazing deal in hopes of creating further sales. Think about value menus at fast food restaurants, endless coffee refills, or free consultations: a free read is the self-publishing version of this.
But there’s a catch. Just because someone has downloaded your book doesn’t mean that they’ll read it. In fact, some e-book retailers have discovered that free e-books are less likely to be read—and that means they’re less likely to result in new readers and fans. It all comes down to our perception of value. If something is free, everyone will help themselves. But when a product is free, that diminishes how much we value it. It’s worth nothing, so it’s no loss if we throw it away, ignore it, or, in this case, don’t read it.
The truth is, readers are more inclined to read a book they’ve paid for than a book they got for free. Once they’ve paid for it, they’ve invested in it. Not reading a book they’ve paid for means they’ve wasted their money. So value isn’t just what a reader thinks a book is worth; it’s the combination of what they pay weighed against what they receive in return.
That perception quickly spreads to the cost of the book. A book priced for $1 or less might appeal to price-conscious readers but turn off some discriminating readers who will assume that (a) it’s short, (b) it’s terrible, or (c) the author is desperate. Are these things always true? Of course not. But think about the clearance rack in your favorite clothing store: chances are, anything on that rack is out of season, unpopular, or excess stock. And while some of us are happy to comb for those amazing deals, other shoppers don’t even try. Pricing your book well will help you attract readers regardless of their clearance-shopping preferences.
Tip: If you want to try a “loss leader” book, offer one older title that has good reviews and is an excellent introduction to your writing. If you have a series, offer the first book cheap, subsequent books for slightly more, and the most recent book at full price.
Of course, no one can resist a good sale . . .
Once It Drops, Does It Stay?
When book sales are slumping, many authors are tempted to reduce the price of their book. Often this results in a bump in sales that quickly flatlines. Generally, once the promotion has ended, sales slowly taper back to their original lackluster point.
The trick to a sale is to ensure that it lasts long enough to get some attention but not so long that the sale price actually becomes the adjusted price of your title. A book sale shouldn’t last longer than a week or two—that allows you time to make an announcement, go heavy on your marketing, and advertise that the sale is for a limited time only.
A sale should be an attractive offer with a clear beginning and end. Look for opportunities to time your promotion with another offer or with current events or holidays. For example, if you published a holiday romance last year that isn’t really selling, consider putting it on sale for the lead-up to this year’s holiday. Not only might you get a bump in customer orders, but the online ranking of your book can increase if the sale successfully synchronizes with the holiday and readers who love holiday reads.
Properly advertised and marketed, a promotional discount almost always results in higher book sales. “Perfect!” you might be thinking. “Let’s do it.”
Not so fast, my dear writerly chum. There are a few things to consider.
Tip: Be wary of offering a sale, especially a steep discount, on a newly released book. Sometimes reducing the price of new work—even for a short period of time—can seriously affect sales of your book once it returns to full price, or of future new books. Once you’ve reduced the price of your new book, readers may be less inclined to purchase it for full price later and will just wait for the next sale.
Tip: Your highest-priced book should always be your most recent release. One of the best ways to bump sales of all your books is to publish a new one. If you aren’t ready to release a new book, think about publishing a novella or some short stories or essays to bridge that space. Price them nice and accessible (between $1 and $3), and make sure you give them an exciting and attention-grabbing front cover—and watch your sales nudge even higher.
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.