March 31, 2015

Ebook pricing: hitting the sales sweet spot

By Alex Cortes

Let’s talk about sales. After all is said and done, every self-published author must face the dreaded question: “How should I price my book?” With an ebook, the answer becomes even more difficult to determine. Traditionally published ebooks cost next to nothing to produce, yet are often as expensive as print copies.  Add to the equation that self-published ebooks are at times handed out for free, and authors become even more confused at which price point to choose.

We decided to ask a few professionals in the ebook world to share their pricing strategies.

We queried:

  • Mark Coker, CEO of Smashwords, an ebook self-publishing and distribution platform founded in 2008 and now the world’s largest distributor of indie ebooks;
  • Judith Briles, a publishing consultant for self-publishing authors (The Book Shepherd) with decades of experience;
  • Joel Friedlander, whose The Book Designer blog is aimed at providing practical advice to help “build” better self-published books. Friedlander is also the author of “The Self-Publisher’s Companion” and co-author of “The Self-Publisher’s Ultimate Resource Guide.”

 Here’s what they had to say:

Q: Do you think self-published ebooks should be priced differently than traditionally published ebooks?

MC: No. (But) I think most traditionally produced books are priced too high. If readers are given the choice of two books of equal quality, and one is $3.99 and the other is $9.99, the $9.99 book faces an extreme disadvantage. There’s a glut of high-quality, low-priced books, which means high prices will become increasingly untenable to all but the biggest, most established authors.

JB: No. But with that said, the ebooks should be presented professionally—not look like they are simply copied and pasted in. I want to see the same integrity of design that a print book has. No exceptions.

JF: No, because pricing is a marketing decision and should not have anything to do with who published the book or how it was published. This is particularly true for ebooks, where production considerations don’t even enter the equation.

Q: What factors should be considered when deciding how to price an ebook (genre, length, etc.)?

MC: (Coker notes that, rather than price, perhaps a more important decision is the book’s length.) Regardless of price, we’ve found that in the last three years of our surveys, readers have shown a strong preference for longer books. Our top 50 bestsellers each year typically average 100,000 words or more, and there’s strong evidence that as word count drops, average sales drop. Given that the sales distribution curve is a power curve, which means each incremental increase in sales rank leads to an exponential increase in sales, it means that any factor that can disadvantage a book, such as lower word count, will have an outsize deleterious effect on the book’s overall sales. This means that it’s generally not wise, for example, for an author of a complete 100,000-word novel to try to split it into two 50,000-word parts.

I should note that it’s dangerous to talk generalities here. Our data is based on averages. I’d encourage authors to use these numbers above as starting points, and then experiment from there.

JB: (Authors should consider) genre, length, and copyright date. When it comes to pricing, authors need to see what the competition is going for: Similar copyright years and size of book will come into play. Fiction will most likely be in the $3.99 to $5.99 range. Nonfiction will be in the higher ranges. If there is a blitz-type of promotion that is going to build traction, then  special pricing can be used for a short period of time.

JF: All pricing decisions should be made within the context of the market you are attempting to reach. So yes, genre and length can become factors if they represent real price differences already in your market. If you can “niche it down” to smaller segments of the market that accurately reflect your intended audience, that’s even better.

Q: As a new self-published author, is it more important to focus on getting readers (by pricing the book very low or free) or a good return on sales?

MC: It’s more important to build readership early on, because readers can become fans, and fans can become superfans. Superfans drive word of mouth. They’re your evangelists. You build superfans by earning the awareness and trust of readers. To build trust, you must be read so the reader can decide if you deserve their trust and loyalty.

Low prices make it easier for readers to take a chance on an unknown author. Free is the price that works best for generating downloads and readership.

Even authors who’ve only written one book can benefit from running free promotions. By pricing your book at free, it’s a great way to build your first reviews at all the major retailers. Once the reviews are established you can change the book to a price.

Indie authors thrive in a competitive marketplace where readers reward authors who publish high quality at low prices. This allows indies to build larger fan bases more quickly, and indies are earning 100% of the net whereas traditionally published authors are only earning 25% of their net sales. This massive disparity of the net means that an indie priced at $3.99 will earn $2.40 to $2.80 for each unit sold. In order for a traditionally published ebook author to earn $2.40, their book would need to be priced at retail at over $13. Now you see why indie ebook authors are able to underprice, out-sell and out-earn traditionally published ebook authors.

If the author writes a series, the first book in the series should be priced at free, and then book two should carry a price. We see strong evidence that authors who have free series starters earn more overall on their series than authors who don’t have free series starters.

JB: If a book is priced low, it should only be done to grab attention as in a special introductory offer, then raised to what the “norm” is in the genre. Otherwise, it’s a kiss of death for a book. Low price correlates with low value to most people.

JF: Fiction authors should concentrate almost exclusively on building readership if they are just starting out. The biggest obstacle for new fiction writers is obscurity, and they should do what they can to overcome it. That means finding a lot of “eyeballs” to focus on their work. Quite different for nonfiction authors who can much more easily locate and target the likely audience for their books. So while getting readers is important, they (nonfiction authors) should be focused on sales much earlier in the process.

Q: What’s the best price point for a self-published ebook? And why?

 MC: We’ve found that for full-length fiction, $2.99 to $3.99 is the sweet spot for our bestselling indie authors, and some of these are stepping their prices up to $4.99 once they have a large readership established. Although $.99 is a good price for generating unit sales, it’s a poor price to generate earnings. For the last two years we’ve found that prices $1.99 and below earn authors, on average, about 60% less than other prices.

We have found that many nonfiction authors are pricing their books like fiction, and this is a mistake. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive but we found that overall average earnings for nonfiction authors increased as they increased prices, which is the approximate opposite of what happens when fiction authors raise prices over $3.99. So for full-length nonfiction, indie ebooks should probably be priced at $5.99 to $9.99.

JB: The sweet spot for fiction right now is $3.99, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best price for the book. Fiction tends to sell for less than nonfiction. Until Amazon breaks out of its model of paying 35% below $2.99 and above $9.99, anything in between gets a 70% payout.

The recommended strategy would be to start at $1.99 if you are trying to net in a huge number of buyers in a promo type of blitz, and then raise the price to $2.99 or $3.99 later on. I would price nonfiction above $5.99, depending on what the rest of the genre is doing.

JF: I have no idea. What book? Aimed at what audience? What are they accustomed to paying for comparable books? Does the book offer something unique, new, innovative, or necessary? You’ll need to answer all these questions before setting a price on your ebook.

BlueInk Review offers credible and unbiased reviews of self-published books exclusively. Visit us at If you’d like to receive more blogs like this, straight to your inbox, sign up here.

Alex Cortes is a recent graduate of the University of Denver, with a BA in strategic communications. She is BlueInk’s spring intern.




3 thoughts on “Ebook pricing: hitting the sales sweet spot

  1. Thank you for the awesome information. It will be of great use to me when i sell my books on my website

  2. Thank you for the valuable information. It will certainly help me in pricing my book as a new comer to the self publishing stage

  3. Patti Thorn says:

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