Am I Selling Books Just Because My Books are Cheap?

Self-published author Catherine Ryan Howard ponders her e-book pricing strategy: In the midst of the Polly Courtney hullabaloo over the term “chick-lit”, I happened upon a  somewhat snide blog comment that suggested Courtney would do better if she were to return to her self-publishing roots and “sell her books for 10p on Amazon”. The implication being that self-publishing success stories, which invariably feature e-books being sold for sofa change, are only success stories because those e-books are being sold for sofa change. 

Now I’m only in the minor leagues of self-publishing success, but I have had some: since March 2010 I’ve sold around 8,500 copies of a travel memoir of sorts, Mousetrapped, and  have topped the charts in no fewer than three of Amazon’s most obscure categories. (Like Kindle store–> Kindle E-books–> Non-fiction–> Travel–> United States–> Regions–> South–> South Atlantic, for instance. Yup, that baby’s all mine...) But would I have sold anywhere near as many if I’d charged more than $2.99 (about £1.90) for them? And if the answer to that question is no, what does that mean for traditional publishers – who, forgive me Self-Publishing Overlords, I call “proper” publishers – and their £9.99 e-book price-tags? And if I can only sell bargain books, is that my cue to abandon my writerly dreams and start crying uncontrollably into my coffee? 

Why did I charge $2.99 for my e-book in the first place? It was because that price achieves three things:

1.  $2.99 is low enough for people to take a chance on my book without being so low that they might subconsciously conclude that it’s worthless. Mousetrapped was my first book, the first real bit of writing I sent out there into the world; I had no track record, no name recognition and no evidence that I hadn’t written 70,000 words worth of total poop. To compound this problem, the book was self-published. No qualified and trusted professional publishing type (e.g. an agent, an editor, a bookseller) had said, “Thanks to my x years of professional experience in this industry, I can certify this to be A Good Book.” A low price helps reduce the risk of buyer’s remorse – if someone buys my book and then doesn’t like it, the most they’re down is $2.99. So they take a chance, and buy it. 

2. $2.99 is the lowest price a self-publisher can sell their book for through Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing and still earn 70% profit from their sales. Any less and you’re only getting 35%.

3.  It covers my costs, and I don’t have many. Unlike a publishing house, I don’t have to pay anyone’s salary or keep the lights on anywhere other than my own home. (And I don’t even have to do that because I live with my parents which, thanks to the abysmal economic climate here in Ireland, has become an acceptable thing to do even if you’re 29. Hooray!) I pay for copyediting, proofreading and a cover design, but I can get those costs back in about 500 sales. And I’m not greedy. Once I can cover those costs and afford the odd 3 for 2 spree in my local Waterstone’s (oh... wait), I’m just happy to have readers. I despair when I see self-publishers charging £9.99 for their e-books because “it’s worth just as much as a traditionally published e-book. It’s just as good.” It might well be, but those calculations are skewed. What would be the price of a traditionally published e-book if you took away the costs a publishing house has that a self-publisher doesn’t? Answers on a postcard, please.

As for traditional publishers, I sympathise with you. Yes, even though a few of you have sent me faint photocopies of form rejection letters in the past, I really do. There you are, paying for all sorts of fancy marketing and promotional stuff, and yet your book is a lowly #17 on the Kindle Store–> Kindle eBooks–> Non-fiction–> Travel–> United States–> Regions–> South–> South Atlantic bestseller list. I pay for nothing, am the only warm body on my sales team and regularly fall out of bed after ten o’clock in the morning, and I’m at #1. It must be incredibly frustrating for you, and I’m only the tiniest bit smug about it.

But if you’re searching for the magic formula that will enable you to emulate the kind of self-published e-book success we’ve seen in the headlines recently, price is the wrong place to start. And also, there isn’t one. What you need are the authors who are achieving that kind of success, or look like they will soon. (HINT, HINT.) Because along with a little luck, we are what’s driving the sales of our e-books. We have this online promotion thing figured out. We know that our personality is our brand, and we act accordingly. We put in the time because we know no one else is going to do it for us. My computer is on almost as much as I’m awake, and I’ve done everything from tweeting to blog touring to book trailer-making to help shift copies of my books – and I’ve done it almost every single day for the last eighteen months.

As for whether having a low price is the only reason I’ve sold any books, I don’t think I’m going to be crying into my coffee any time soon – and not just because that would needlessly dilute good coffee. Frankly, I’m just happy to be selling any books at all, for any reason. And anyway, what does the price of a book have to do with its quality? To dust off a line I’ve used before, if the price of a book was really a reflection of its quality, Franzen would be charging hundreds of pounds for his titles and Kay Burley would have to pay us to read hers.

There’s so much more to selling e-books – whether you’re publishing someone else’s or your own – than how much the books cost. A low price can certainly help sell books, but it doesn’t equal guaranteed sales. Far from it. All you need to do to confirm this is to pay a visit to the Kindle store. Every minute of every day thousands of people are self-publishing their e-books on there and setting their price at 99c (or, according to Snide Blog Comment-Leaver, 10p), and most of them will barely manage to sell a handful of copies, if they sell any at all.

I wish it were that easy, but it’s not.

Find out more about Catherine's books here: Mousetrapped: A Year and A Bit in Orlando, Florida, Backpacked: A Reluctant Trip Across Central America or Results Not Typical: A Novel. Or visit her blog:



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