The role of belief in ebook pricing and what to do about it

(Cross posted from Chocolate and Vodka. Please comment there!)

So yes, I know it’s nearly Christmas Eve and I know I should be turning my brain off, but this blog post about ebook pricing by Declan Burke came across my radar today on Twitter (and yes I know I should have turned Twitter off too) and I couldn’t not reply.

Declan writes about his experiences with pricing the ebook version of his novel, Eightball, which he says started off at $1.99 and ended up at $7.99. He also briefly mentions the different pricing structures from publishers, and discusses the attitudes of some readers who appear to think that all culture should be free.

But the main bit of Declan’s post that caught my eye was his discussion of cost and value:

The other odd thing, from a personal point of view, is exemplified by the drop-off in sales for EIGHTBALL BOOGIE once its price started to go up. The e-book fan (or anyone with even the vaguest grasp of economics) will very probably be screaming right now at the screen a variation on, ‘It’s the economy, stooopid.’

I understand that. I really do. But from my point of view, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE is the same book regardless of whether it’s $1.99 or $7.99: it’s not a quarter as interesting, or funny, or thrilling, at the cheaper price, and it doesn’t come in at 25,000 words rather than 85,000 words.

It’s not my place, by the way, to say that EIGHTBALL is interesting, funny or thrilling. I’m just saying that whatever qualities the book had at the $1.99 price, those qualities remain the same regardless of whether I charge $7.99 or give the book away for free.

I suppose my central concern, when it all boils down, is that fans of e-books are confusing cost and value. That’s not to say that very good books aren’t being sold for $1.99, or $0.99, or even being given away free. But it’s patently self-limiting for a reader to impose an arbitrary price of (say) $4.99 on a book, and state that he or she refuses to pay any more, regardless of the quality of that book.

Unfortunately, I fear that Declan confuses inherent value with market worth, and the two are very different indeed. As writers, we would all like to think that our work has inherent value. The blood, sweat and tears that we leaked all over the page should, we tell ourselves, be valued by others as much as it is by us.

But the price that the public is willing to pay has little to do with any sense of inherent value; it is directed by what price the market will support. When it come to deciding what price we put on our ebooks, it is not sufficient to think about our concept of inherent value. We would all love our ebooks to sell by the shedload at a nice, high price. (And if we’re famous, they might well!) But for most of us, we should instead be striving to understand which price will maximise our profits. If we sell thousands at £1.79, is that going to bring in more profit than if we sell hundreds at £5.99?

And this is where almost every single blog post and news article I’ve seen on the subject falls flat on its face. The horrible, uncomfortable, inconvenient truth is that for independent ebook sellers and small publishers, we have no clue whatsoever as to what price will maximise profits. We just do not have the data. We have a few anecdotes from both ends of the spectrum, from the “I sold $millions” so the “I sold sweet FA”, and a very little from the middle where people are selling “enough”, for whatever value of enough they care to assign.

What we don’t have is what the big publishers have: Numbers. It’s impossible to compare the sales of a handful of books at different prices and draw any meaningful conclusions, because the books are not equivalent goods. My novelette Argleton is not equivalent to anyone else’s book because it’s not a perfect substitute.

If you’re in the market for a hammer, one is pretty much a perfect substitute for another. If I buy a hammer from Shop A, I am not going to buy a hammer from Shop B. But books are not substitutable goods. If someone buys Argleton, that doesn’t mean that they then don’t have any interest in buying Eightball.

Even comparing sales of the same title over time is more complex than saying “It sold a lot at $1.99 but nothing much at $7.99”, because market conditions change. It’s only in the large-scale aggregate that the numbers starts to provide genuine information. And sadly, that kind of data isn’t available to the likes of independent and small publishers.

So what do we fall back on? Belief.

I believe that my biggest problem right now is that not enough people know about my writing. My sole purpose is to introduce as many people as feasibly possible to Argleton in the hope that they will like it and be interested in my future work. That means that I believe that giving away Argleton for free is in my best interests.

But I also ideologically believe that free goods do not necessarily cannibalise the sales of the same goods offered commercially. We have some interesting data from people like Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig and Tom Reynolds that even if they don’t increase sales, CC-licenced copies of books do no harm to sales either. For them.

Of course, things could be different for other authors or other genres but again, the truth is that we simply don’t have enough data to say one way or the other.

Additionally, I believe that me giving away my books free has no impact on what someone is willing to pay for Eightball, or any other book, because the two are not substitutes. I’ve heard the argument that authors who give away their books are undermining authors who sell their books, but I’ve not seen a jot of evidence, or even logical reasoning, to support that point. The book market is not a zero-sum game.

And I disagree with Declan over the idea that giving away books is a “race to the bottom”.

For now it seems that many authors are happily collaborating in a race to the bottom on price. The mantra is very much quantity over quality, to the extent that many writers, in a desperate bid to get noticed and put one foot on the bottom rung of the slippery ladder, are now giving away their books for free.

There’s a certain kind of logic to this, although it only exists inside the e-publishing bubble, which appears determined to eat itself. Because once you give away one book for free, the expectation is that all your books will come at no cost, an expectation that derives from an entirely understandable mentality that runs, ‘Well, if you don’t value your work, why should I?’

I’m a teeny tiny sample, but by this logic no one should buy the Kindle version of Argleton, but they are. By this logic, no one should ever buy any of Cory Doctorow’s books, but they do. And also, by this logic, no one should ever give good, honestly earnt money to a nobody writer on the promise of delivery of a book, which could be fundamentally shite, and with absolutely no guarantee that they are going to get what they paid for and then, knowing all that, actually pay more than the book itself is worth. And yet, they have.

Our beliefs are sculpted by our experiences and our ideologies. My experiences appear to show me that giving books away whist also selling them, and tapping into an amazing community of generous supporters to achieve the publication of a physical book not only works, it is profitable. My belief is that people will happily pay for books that they like and that those who pull the “culture should be free” line out of their arse are the same people who would not have bought my book anyway, so there’s simply no sale lost.

But, just like Declan, I lack hard data.

This, sadly, means that rather than eating our own young, independent authors and small publishers are doomed to chase our tails, cherry picking the case studies to fit our ideologies and rejecting the points of view of those who disagree with us.

There is only one cure to this: Independents need to have a standard set of data that we all regularly submit to one big database which we can then pull reports from. We need, collectively, to share what numbers we each have, because that’s the only way we’re going to get the kind of scale we need to turn anecdotes into data. And data is the only way we’re going to get meaningful insights into how book buyers really behave.

We can’t afford to fanny about getting all ideological and relying on our beliefs to determine our business strategies. My biggest worry about my current strategy is that I could be horribly, hideously wrong, but I have absolutely no way of testing my hypothesis on my own. If I am wrong, then I will change my strategy immediately, because I’m not interested in proving myself right. I’m interested in creating a new career for myself where I get to live comfortably and make up stories for a living.

The best Christmas present you can give a new author: An Amazon review

(Cross posted from Chocolate and Vodka.)

Last month there was a great blog post by Anne Allen about how important Amazon reviews are to new authors:

[…] Amazon reviews, which were only mildly significant three years ago, now have a make-or-break impact on an author’s sales.

When you’re buying an ebook, there’s no helpful bookstore clerk to tell you what might be appropriate for your nine-year old niece, or if there are any new cozy mysteries you might enjoy, or whether the new Janet Evanovich is up to her usual standards.

Instead, you check reader reviews and Amazon’s “also bought” suggestions. These are all generated by consumers, which gives the ordinary reader immense power.

The post then goes through some really good guidelines for people who might want to leave an Amazon review for an author they like. It’s well worth a read, even if you’re familiar with Amazon, because Anne gives a very clear idea of how the whole review system works.

I didn’t quite understand the power of Amazon reviews until I started publishing in the Kindle stores. I have books available now in six stores:

The only store in which I have any reviews so far is the UK store and sales in that are way ahead of every other store, even the US store. Now admittedly there are potential language issues in the French, German, Spanish and Italian stores, as the buyers there might not be so interested in an English language book. But that shouldn’t be the case with the US and, in fact, the majority of my Kickstarter supporters were from the US so in theory I should have a good showing there. But so far, I do not.

I think this is down to reviews. I have three good reviews so far on Amazon UK, none in the US. It’s a shame that reviews don’t cross-pollinate stores, but there we go.

So if you’re feeling generous this festive season and you have read a book by a new author that you liked, it would be a wonderful thing for them if you took 10 minutes to write even a short review, or just give a star rating. Four and five star ratings are particularly useful as Anne explains:

Anything less than 4 stars means “NOT RECOMMENDED.” Don’t expect an author to be pleased with 2 or 3 stars, no matter how much you rave in the text. Those stars are the primary way a book is judged. Without a 4 or 5 star rating, a book doesn’t get picked up in the Amazon algorithms for things like “also bought” suggestions. Giving 1 or 2 stars to a book that doesn’t have many reviews is taking money out of the author’s pocket, so don’t do it unless you really think the author should take up a new line of work.

If a friend asks you to review something you found amateurish, or wasn’t your cup of tea, just tell her you don’t feel you can review it. That happens all the time and we appreciate it.

On the other hand, a 4-star review that recommends the book even though you have a few reservations, will earn you eternal gratitude from the author.

In fact, 4-star reviews can often be the most helpful. If a reader sees something like, “I loved this mystery, but the humor is pretty farcical. If you’re looking for a standard whodunit, this isn’t it,” or “this is awfully intellectual for something called chick lit.” Those offer honest information to buyers, without telling them not to buy.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be giving 1-3 star reviews. I’m just saying that on Amazon (not all review sites) 3-Stars is usually taken as a negative rating. If you intend to be positive, then 4 stars will better convey that sentiment.

This was certainly something I hadn’t really thought about in detail before reading Anne’s post.

So if you have a favourite author who’s either just starting out or hovering around in the midlist, why not take a few moments over the Christmas holidays and leave them a review?

Kindle sales stats: a paucity of information

(Another cross-post from Chocolate and Vodka.)

As a newbie to self-publishing, I find myself transported back a decade to the time when I was so obsessed with my blog traffic stats that I made a spreadsheet and noted down what events caused spikes in traffic. After a while I lost interest in the numbers, but now I’m back to tracking thems, although the patterns are very familiar to me and rarely am I surprised by what I see.

I’m also now obsessing over my Kindle sales statistics. And yes, I have a spreadsheet which notes both sales through the Kindle store and free downloads from here. If you’re curious, to the end of November I had given away 6140 downloads of Argleton and sold 27 ebooks via the Kindle store, netting me a royalty of approximately £30. Well, we’ve all got to start somewhere.

But where it’s relatively simple for me to track downloads and traffic to this site, tracking my Kindle sales is a laborious process. Amazon’s stats pages are… well I can’t use the word “designed” because that would imply that some thought had gone into them, and it’s clear that’s not the case.

As you can see from this screenshot, you don’t get much information. This is the page for the UK shop. If I want to see reports from the other shops, I have to pick from the dropdown list. And if I want to look at last month’s sales, I have to click that link. Very tedious. Kindle Direct Publishing: My Reports

Worse, if I don’t keep a spreadsheet of my monthly sales, I lose access to that data as Amazon only gives me this month and last month’s. And there appears to be no way to go back further than that prior month.

Now then, if I want to see my royalties, then I can see those not monthly, but weekly for the past six weeks. Eh? Why give me sales by month and then royalties by the week for only the past six weeks? Kindle Direct Publishing: My Reports

Now, if I don’t grab this data, I can at least go do that third link down and download monthly spreadsheets from the previous 12 months. Except this is what those spreadsheets look like:


It’s a complete mess. I’d have to spend so much time doing basic spreadsheet cleaning before being able to process this in any way, it’s just not funny. Imagine if I was selling lots of different books: The spreadsheet would become unworkable.

Nowhere does Amazon give you an at-a-glance summary of your sales, or graphs showing how you’re doing over time, or an easy way to download properly formatted raw data. Is it really that hard to take a bunch of numbers, generated preferably in real time, and present them in a usable, sensible way?

What’s also frustrating is that I have absolutely no context for my buyers. Where are they coming to Amazon from? Are they finding me here on this blog and then clicking through to Amazon? Searching for me or Argleton on Amazon itself? Coming from some other site? Finding me from some other page on Amazon, eg recommendations on another book?

Amazon knows, but it won’t tell me. And without that information I can only see half the picture. I don’t know how to direct my promo efforts. Should I be blogging more here? Should I focus on pimping to book bloggers? Should I be Tweeting more? Facebooking? I have no clue, and I will never find out.

It’s great that new authors like me can sell our books without having to find a traditional publisher (not that I’d turn one down if it made sense!), but Amazon could do a much, much better job of providing stats. Surely it’s in their interests to do so, as the more successful I am as an author, the more money they make off me?

Sadly I hold out precisely no hope whatsoever of useful change, so I’ll just have to keep checking back every month and writing the numbers down in my spreadsheet. What a nerd, eh?

Will Apple’s obstinacy become self-defeating?

Apple’s attitude towards app approval for iTunes has been strange, to say the least. Stories abound of ?seemingly innocent applications being rejected for obscure reasons or, indeed, no real reason at all.

The latest example of their arbitrariness is the rejection of Time’s subscription-based magazine app for Sports Illustrated, “where consumers would download the magazines via Apple’s iTunes, but would pay Time Inc. directly”. As All Things Digital says, this could turn out to be a big problem for publishers, who not only want the predictability of subscribers, but also want the data.

Just a few days ago, the US Copyright Office ruled that jailbreaking your iPhone or iPad “?will no longer violate federal copyright law”. It may still void your Apple warranty, but it’s not going to land you in any more trouble than that.

In April, Apple released iPhone OS4 and with it came the news that developers would not be allowed to programme apps in anything other than C, C++, or Objective-C.

Let’s put three and three together, shall we? Apple is rejecting apps without much logic or clarity to their decisions. The publishing industry have been drooling over the iPad as a possible industry saver (which is likely bullshit, but let’s just run with it for a second) and have poured a fair amount of effort and money into their iPad strategy. Developers are getting frustrated that they can’t develop whatever they want for the iPad, using whichever language they want.

How long is it going to be before we see an app store for jailbroken devices which will bypass iTunes altogether? The publishers have an interest in such a move. So do developers. And as an end user, would you like to be able to decide what you install on your phone and what you don’t?

Personally, I’d like to have a better browser than Safari, which hardly plugs in to any other services (Twitter, Instapaper, Delicious, etc.) at all, but I can’t because Apple doesn’t allow apps that reproduce functionality provided by their own software. I’d also like to have any magazine subscriptions I take out be a relationship between me and the publisher, without Apple holding on to my data like an information-obsessed middleman. (As a bonus, I’d also like a more sensible music management application: iTunes is the worst music organiser and player I’ve ever had the misfortune to be forced to use.)

Me, I give it a year before we see a jailbroken app store and a whole new ecosystem growing up.