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.

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?

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?

Lessons from Kickstarter Part 1: Don’t go off half-cocked

(I’m writing a bit more often over on Chocolate and Vodka at the moment, so thought I’d cross-post the highlights here)

The last 18 months has taught me a lot about Kickstarter and putting together my own self-publishing project. This is the first of a series of blog posts in which I’ll go through what I’ve learnt, partly in case it’s of interest to anyone else but also to codify it in my own head so that, hopefully, I won’t make the same mistakes again. So, herewith Part 1!

If there was one overarching lesson that I’ve learnt doing Argleton, one thing that I really wish I’d thought of 18 months ago, it would be this:

Don’t go off half-cocked

Whilst there’s some truth to the idea that ignorance is bliss and that if I’d known what I was taking on I perhaps wouldn’t have done so, I think there’s more truth in the idea that I would have saved myself a lot of pain if I’d planned things better. Instead I bouncily assumed that it couldn’t possibly be that much work and that I’d have the whole thing done by the end of the summer. In 2010. Whoops.

So here are a few thoughts on how to make sure you’re fully prepared before you launch your Kickstarter project.

1. Finish as much of your project as possible
I naïvely thought that I could finish writing and editing Argleton whilst the Kickstarter fundraiser was underway, but promoting the campaign took more effort than I had anticipated, leaving me not much time to write. This had serious knock-on effects: Because I didn’t know how long the story was going to be, I couldn’t get accurate quotes for printing and so my rewards were priced by roughly guessing. I’ll go into budgeting issues in another post, but suffice it to say that guessing is a Very Bad Idea.

Another impact of having not finished up as much as I could was that it lengthened the time between people pledging support and my delivering my book to them. My ‘deadline’ for sending out the books just kept slipping and whilst most people were very patient, a couple sent me rather sharp messages questioning my commitment. I have to say that stung, but I could have avoided it if I hadn’t gone off half-cocked.

I should have had the book finished, critiqued, edited, typeset and converted into multiple digital formats, with all my rewards properly designed and fulfilment planned before I even considered launching my Kickstarter project.

2. Understand how much of your project remains
You can’t always finish everything up front. Had I hired someone to design my cover, for example, I would not have been in a position to do that until the Kickstarter money came in. That’s fair enough, but make sure that you know exactly what tasks are outstanding, how you are going to complete them and how long they are going to take. This allows you to be up front with your supporters about what’s left to do and how long they’ll have to wait for the finished thing.

3. Complete the design and prototyping of your rewards
Another really time-consuming part of the project was designing and prototyping my rewards, the books. Whilst they were easy to describe in text, they turned out to be difficult to turn into a reality. I learnt that I am not a natural graphic designer and that my ideas about what would work as a cover in print and in silk were very difficult for me to realise. The silk cover in particular went through about nine prototypes all together.

Had I gone through that process before launching my Kickstarter project, I would have learnt early on that I needed the help of a designer and I could have worked that into the project costs. I also would have realised how difficult the silk cover would turn out to be to actually make and just how long each one would take. I might still have gone ahead, but it would have been with eyes open.

4. Get your suppliers lined up
This is important not just for budgeting, but also to save you time when it comes to getting everything done and sent out. The first printer I looked at turned out to be incapable of doing the job in the way that I wanted: They didn’t have experience making books and didn’t have the right kind of binding technique which meant that when you opened the book, the pages fell out. Not really the result I was aiming for.

Finding a new printer, briefing them, and going through more prototypes was time consuming and set me back by months. In the end Oldacres did an amazing job, and I will be using them again on my next project so the relationship I formed with them is important, but I could have got there sooner. (Especially as they were actually the first recommendation I had had. :/ )

5. Understand your incompetencies
Obviously, I like to think I’m a half-decent writer, so the task of finishing and editing the story was easily doable. I’m also quite good at typesetting, having done that professionally in a different incarnation. But what I hadn’t really banked on was the fact that I’m a shit graphic designer and an even worse puzzle writer.

Not only did my weaknesses slow the project down (I’m still finishing of the puzzle, for example), they also made everything unnecessarily difficult. Had I looked at the puzzle before I launched, I would have realised how much effort it was going to be and might even have questioned whether it was even needed. In retrospect, I think the inclusion of the puzzle or geogame was more a statement of my own lack of confidence than a genuine contribution to the project.

6. Understand your dependencies
I hate to say it, but I should have Gantt-charted the project and thought hard about what was dependent on what. I wasn’t always clear on what could be done in parallel and what had to be done in order, and so I often defaulted to doing things in serial, thus delaying the project further. Partly that was a psychological thing: It felt easier to deal with one set of related problems at a time, rather than trying to solve issues on multiple fronts simultaneously. There’s no doubt at all that drastically slowed me down.

Had I sat down and worked out my dependencies, I would have been able to prioritise my to do list better. I would also have known when I needed to make educated assumptions, and what I would have to find out in order for those assumptions to hold water.

One good example is calculating postage. I hadn’t finished the story, so didn’t know how long it was, so didn’t know how many pages it would be, so couldn’t figure out the weight or find the packaging and so couldn’t make even a vaguely informed calculation as to the likely cost of postage. As it was, it cost a lot more than I had anticipated, as did the printing come to think of it, and I was lucky that I had raised more than I needed so didn’t actually lose money.

7. Don’t overcomplicate things
As I mentioned above, the geogame in the end turned out to be more of a gimmick that I hoped would get people interested rather than integral to the storytelling. Whilst I have done my best to produce something that is enjoyable, the fact that it has only now reached the testing stage shows just how difficult I have found it. I could have done without it and, if I had, I don’t think the project would have suffered at all.

Whilst most of the rest of the Argleton project was relatively simple, if time consuming, I did apply this rule to what was going to be my next project – a story told through the medium of a newspaper, complete with fictional character profiles, classifieds and sports page. I still love the idea, but during the planning process I realised that it was actually a very complicated project that would require collaboration with a number of people. I’m not ready to do that yet, although I will definitely be keeping that on my list of projects to look into when I’ve got a better flow of money coming in from my ebooks.

My aim in all of this is to produce a small but growing body of work, both electronic and in various physical media, which can give me an income. To this end I need to ensure that future projects are doable in a much, much shorter timespan than Argleton. Taking two years to do a novelette is not sustainable, so future projects will be much, much simpler and will hopefully complete more quickly.

Next time: How to think about your rewards.