Guest Blog: Pricing Books, By Steve Umstead


Today’s blog post is from fellow author and friend Steve Umstead, creator of the Evan Gabriel series. The topic? The conundrums an author goes through in pricing his or her books. I think this one’s very illuminating, both for readers who wonder why the heck the prices for books vary so much, and for authors who are grappling with this pesky problem.

Let’s read what Steve has to say:


Author Steve Umstead

One of the best things about being a self-published author is determining my own price for my books.

One of the worst things about being a self-published author is determining my own price for my books.

Same statement, one word changed, with a massive difference in meaning. And both statements are absolutely true. Pricing is one of the best weapons in the marketing arsenal we have against the big name authors and publishers, yet pricing is still such a crapshoot, it’s been causing angst in the community for as long as I can remember. Why?

No. One. Knows. The. Sweet. Spot.

Simple as that. Here are some theories I’ve seen bandied about (always wanted to use that term…) along with my thoughts on each:

THEORY: Price as low as you can; because you’re new and no one knows you, you have to go low to draw the interest of readers.

ME: I hate this one. I strongly believe there is a price vs quality consideration that buyers take into account when making a purchase, and that holds true for cars, houses, coffee, and ebooks. If the price is too low, the buyer (reader) may expect poor quality, and may avoid the purchase (likewise – if they’ve bought at $.99 and read a piece of crap, they stay away from that price point in the future). And buyers who invest more in a product will invest more time/effort in using (reading) it. The perception of higher price is higher quality (yes, the Kia can get you to work just like that Lexus, but the perceived — and possibly real — quality difference is there). To me, low price implies cheap, low quality, bargain bin products, a category I don’t want my books in, whether readers “know who I am” or not. A reader who really wants to read a book will pay for it; I don’t see $.99 as the magic answer to beat the Stephen Kings and James Pattersons of the world when readers make their choice.

THEORY: Give your book away for free to gain readers and receive reviews.

ME: Ooh, don’t get me started on KDP Select. I wasn’t in favor of it from day one, and in the past few months the “benefits” of that program have essentially collapsed. No more huge sales bump when coming off free. But back to free in general: My strong opinion is authors with only one book should avoid free like the plague. Why? The vast majority of the giveaways (don’t you dare call them sales…) are picked up by freebie scoopers (my term), and the vast majority of them are never read. If I sell (for a cost!) 1,000 books and receive 20 reviews, that’s fantastic. Give away 1,000 copies? A book may garner one review, if it’s lucky. So why do it? I have no idea… I cringe when I see an author’s sole work being given away for free. Use free as another weapon in the arsenal, as a lead-in to other works. Not works down the road, works now – if you have one book out and the next is a year away, those freebie scoopers won’t remember you…

THEORY: A book should cost more than a cup of coffee, since it lasts longer and can provide more enjoyment.

ME: Okay, I’m with Dean Wesley Smith on this… to a point. A book should be worth more than a disposable commodity, even a gourmet one. But that’s not necessarily how the market sees it, as the market hasn’t yet been trained to see it that way. Everyone knows a large latte at Starbucks will cost them close to five bucks. But everyone also knows there are thousands upon thousands of books, even full length novels, that cost less than a third of that. Did Starbucks have a hard time from day one convincing coffee drinkers to shell out $5 instead of the $2 at Dunkin Donuts down the street? Probably. But eventually they did, and eventually (hopefully) as the market dictates higher prices, ebook readers will expect it.

THEORY: A book should be priced based on the effort and time put into it, almost like an hourly wage.

ME: Meh – this does have some validity, as everyone wants to be paid for their work, but one of the basic tenets of free market economics is this: A product is worth what the market will bear – not a penny more or penny less. One can say a book should be worth $10 because of the time spent writing it, but if the market says books that length/genre/rating/etc are worth $3, that $10 won’t fly. Hopefully we’re seeing the market turning in a positive direction, but it’s not as simple as charging what we think it’s worth based on production costs. Perhaps Picasso spent 40 hours on creating a masterpiece that ends up being worth $80 million – is his rate $2 million per hour? No, and neither should an author say “I spent 160 hours in writing this, and I should charge $10 for each one, so I can make…[crazy math here]. Don’t forget, an ebook will be on the ‘shelves’ in perpetuity for that one-time production of it.

THEORY: Price your book at $2.99 at the most, since that’s as low as you can go and still receive the higher 70% royalty.

ME: Not bad, not bad… but my personal opinion is that readers have gotten savvy to what’s out there, and the $.99 and $2.99 price points have become the de facto pricing for self-published authors. And let’s face it, the self-published industry still somewhat has a stigma about it of poor quality. So pricing a book at one of those two points tells a potential reader the author is self-published. Stand out from the crowd.

THEORY: Pricing is rising, and the book distributors are weighing higher priced books heavier than lower.

ME: Now we’re on to something. Edward Robertson (www.edwardwrobertson.com) did a very good analysis of Amazon’s ranking system in relation to book pricing over several months, and his conclusion is that the low priced and free books aren’t weighted nearly as much as higher priced (sorry, KDP Select – another nail in the coffin). This makes a great deal of sense. Amazon is a business, and a very smart one at that. I’d put their algorithms up against Google’s any day of the week. They want to make money, so they want higher priced (and more popular) books to show up more often in searches. Perhaps they’ve seen the light that cheap/free isn’t making any long term money or reader loyalty.

So what does this all boil down to? I have the magic answer, the great secret, the end-all, be-all, right here:

I. HAVE. NO. IDEA.

The market is a fickle thing, and changes direction on a dime or whim. But maybe the real key is this:

One of the best things about being a self-published author is determining my own price for my books.

Change your price. Raise it. Lower it. Make it end in .33. Make it based on the day of the week. Combine two books into one volume and offer a discount. Have a weekend sale. Throw the spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks. It’s the best tool we have in the arsenal.


Thanks, Steve!

I’m in agreement with most of what Steve has to say. After going through the pricing exercise a number of times myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s not necessarily any one “right” price for a book. It might vary, given the circumstances, and Steve’s admonition to authors to experiment with the price is, in my opinion, the smart thing to do.

As for freebies, KDP Select was great at the beginning. I’ll happily admit that I took full advantage of it when it first came out, and it largely saved me from having to go back to my day job last winter (2011) after my books sales took a steep nosedive last fall (if you’ll pardon the pun). Unfortunately, as Steve pointed out, the benefits of having a book in KDP Select have waned. Some folks are still having good luck with the program, which requires the electronic version of a book be published exclusively on Amazon for 90 days at a time, but after my sales began picking up on Barnes & Noble and KDP Selects returns dwindled to zip, I bailed out of it.

But I have found a great use for freebies: hooking readers into a series. Hey, why not? It’s great for readers, because they get one or two entire books for free as a trial run, and if they like it they’re much more likely to go on and buy the other books. I’ve sold a lot more books that way than selling all the books for a given price, even with the first book at $0.99 (which also gets into what Steve noted about perceived quality based on price). And you can offer books for free in various ways without being constrained by exclusive programs like Amazon’s KDP Select.

So, authors and readers, any comments on Steve’s notions? Let’s cook up some spaghetti and toss at him to see if it’ll stick!


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10 thoughts on “Guest Blog: Pricing Books, By Steve Umstead

  • Steve Umstead

    Thanks, Michael, appreciate the opportunity to spew on your site! Sorry for the mess…

    I completely agree with the freebie as a sales tool to lead in to others. My beef was with a single book being offered for free, with no other works available by that author. Sad to see…

    ~Steve

    • Michael Hicks Post author

      FOOD FIGHT! Ha. I’m still on the fence about single book authors putting their book out for free. I think the argument can be made that if they can get it to enough readers, the next book(s), which would be for $$, may very well percolate upward in the rankings much faster. I think a lot of it simply depends on the long-term strategy the author has; some don’t have a strategy beyond getting book #1 published – I certainly didn’t when I started out. But if I knew then what I know now, I suspect I would have done a number of things differently…

  • Charles H

    Good article for me as a reader to understand what authors are dealing with. There are two things I wish were available for ebooks.

    First, a flag on amazon or where ever which notes if a book has been edited, and if so, was it done by a professional or not. I’ve seen a lot of $0 ebooks that are badly in need of such, and it would make me feel better about paying actual money for a book that sounds interesting but I have no track record with that author (after all, sure $1-2 is cheap, but I have limited free time and access to tons of free stuff, such as all of Magnum P.I. on Netflix, 50+ classical novels I haven’t read but always wanted to, free copies of books I’ve read but wouldn’t mind reading again, several stacks of paper books to read, 96 episodes of Monty Python on DVD, etc, etc). Of course, I suspect professional editing is expensive, so it might be the same as offering the book for free to a new author, but I suspect new authors can look for new editors to keep this cost down, or offer a cut of sales, etc.

    Second, would be some way to have a centralized tracker (website/database using emails/tweets/IMs/etc) to flag when authors put out new books, with some mechanism to easily add an author after finishing one of their ebooks. I will not remember in 6 months that I really liked your book and be looking all that time for when your next book comes out. That is reserved for the authors I have read a lot of books by or I happen to see their new book and its in a series I’ve read and the description jogs my memory. Far better would be the ability to auto-track new books from authors I tag because I really liked their book. This would be very helpful to newer authors, because it guarantees that whoever likes their first book will have a chance to buy the next one. I’ve paid to get books 2 and 3 because I’ve loved book 1 two-three times now in the last 4-5 months (when I began to read a lot more $0 ebooks), but that was an in the moment on the spot incidence, i.e. end of book 1 triggered buying book 2, etc, and without a new book sadly I may never remember to check for new books. I try to sign up for newsletters like this one, but it is haphazard at best.

    As to pricing, maybe you can borrow a method from another industry. With high computing systems, sometimes you can buy a full stocked server but only pay for the CPUs, memory and storage you actually use. Which is to say, perhaps I could get chapters 1-2 for free, the rest of the first half of the novel costs $1, and the second half costs $2. Or less, maybe a new author does free/$0.50/$1.50. That allows me to decide if I’m interested for free, get an extra nibble for cheap and then pony up once I’m hooked.

  • john

    Lots to think about here. As a writer about to finally enter the electronic self-publishing world (I only recently figured out how indoor plumbing works), this is a question I’ve been struggling with. Good to see your comments on the perception of quality at different price points.

    And by the way, CLAIMING MOON will be released on Kindle Aug. 1, and elsewhere soon thereafter (sorry, couldn’t resist).

  • john

    Good stuff, definitely food for thought as I am finally about to step into the world of e-publishing. I’ve been struggling over this very issue, and I’m glad to see someone else talk about the idea of the perception of quality vs. price point.

    And I can’t resist, with an open forum…CLAIMING MOON, my debut novel, will be available Aug. 1 on Kindle!

  • Jamie

    I agree with the freebie thing in regards to getting readers hooked on a series…after all, it worked on me! 🙂

    I will often pick up a freebie or .99 book when looking for new authors to read.; you never know what you will find. (Hicks, Dalglish, et al)

    Thanks for posting this!

  • Diane Kelly

    Wow, great post! Pricing is such an issue, and I don’t know what the answer is. My e-book sales definitely went up when my publisher lowered the price, but should a book be priced so much lower than a movie ticket? Not sure about that since the entertainment value of a book often lasts longer.

  • Craig Brummer

    Hi Michael,
    Thanks for putting such great information on your site, both about what you’ve done and sharing informaton such as this post from Steve Umstead. I like that you allowed a conflicting point of view to be posted. As someone soon (April 1st) to publish his first book I find your information on these post, I’ve read most of them, very helpful. For the initial period of my book, prior to book 2 coming out maybe a year later, I will probably go with Steve’s approach but may switch once I have a second book and test the free approach. I have read the all the “In Her Name” books, Season of the Harvest and the Path to Self-Publishing. I greatly enjoy your wrting and found your book on publishing to be very informative. I just downloaded Steve’s Gabreil: Zero Point (currently free) to try his story telling as I had not come across his work before. On a separate note, thanks for the information on DeviantArt.com; I did hire an artist from there to do my bookcover, she’s working on it now.
    Cheers,

  • john foley

    Seems to my I should sell my nonfiction book at around the $16.99 level at least. This is what the competition charges, but they are not self published. If I sold for even $5.99 I’d have to sell THREE times as many books and how am I going to do that? I have a quality product and am going to do LOTS of marketing and value that most other books like mine don’t have.

    • Michael Hicks Post author

      Well, keep in mind that the pricing as I refer to it is primarily for novels. Nonfiction books, particularly those in the “how to” genre, are an entirely different matter, and one on which I don’t feel comfortable commenting, as I don’t have any experience in that particular realm.