The most difficult step for allonymbooks in the process of independently publishing our novels has not been the writing, the editing, nor even going up to Kindle-reading strangers on the Tube and telling them about allonymbooks. It has been choosing the price at which to sell the novels.
Pricing of e-books is frequently in the news, from the lawsuit against Apple and leading publishers for colluding over prices, to the consequences of the RandomHouse/Penguin merger. There has been much speculation about what effect these factors might have on the market, and much continued grumbling among the readership about pricing of e-books in relation to their printed counterparts. As Waterstones are going to discover now they have engaged in the Kindle market, the business model is not only different, it has also been blown open by the wealth of independently published material now in circulation.
So here are some questions to consider. And probably precious few answers.
How much is too much?
An e-book is generally expected to cost less than its printed counterpart because it doesn’t require the physical resources of printing, distribution and retail handling, but the index of prices for print-published e-books has been broad and highly erratic. Some of that is caused by the pricing algorithms used by Amazon and Barnes and Noble, as articulately explained by Alex Marshall in a piece for Bloomberg. Some of that is also caused by print publishers themselves, who are clearly extremely uncertain about how much to discount the print price by. They can choose to fix the Amazon e-book price in a way that they cannot control the retailer print price, but it is frequently observed that Kindle versions of print-published books are often surprisingly expensive.
So what figure seems reasonable to pay? Let’s consider Hilary Mantel’s latest Booker Prize winning novel, Bringing Up the Bodies. On Amazon (UK) it is currently priced as follows: Print List Price £20.00; Kindle e-book price £9.99. The print list price is presumably based on the standard retail price of the hardback. £9.99 seems reasonable in relation to that, until you read on and discover that Amazon are selling the hardback for £8.86, and the paperback at a pre-order price of £6.89. £9.99 for the e-book now looks very expensive, a price set by the publisher.
Here is a contrasting tale. About a year ago, the author behind allonymbooks had the second of a pair of romance novels published by a large international publishing house, simultaneously in print and Kindle form. The Kindle form was priced at 99p for about six months, massively outselling its print companion (RRP £7.99) and reasonably outselling the earlier novel of the pair, priced at £1.99 on Kindle. After six months both e-books were repriced by the publisher to £3.99, and sales have returned to normal levels for this sort of unremarkable (if beautifully written!) mid-list genre book. But that raises another question. Or rather two…
How does price relate to worth? Or more specifically, how does the book’s price relate to the author’s sense of worth?
So if an e-book should be priced lower because it doesn’t require physical resources, how do we estimate worth, particularly for novels that have no print counterpart? Romance novelist Jackie Barbosa tells a very familiar tale of pricing agony on her blog. Pitching her first novel at $2.99, she lowered and lowered the price eventually to nothing to try to entice the buyers whom she feltshould be reading the book. All the while, she felt she was increasingly devaluing her work, the quality of the book, and the quality and quantity of effort she had put into writing it. Eventually however, as she notes, lowering the price “made me more money than I was making when I stubbornly stuck to my guns about the book’s worth. Making it cheaper didn’t make devalue the book–it made it accessible and visible.”
Does that mean that price doesn’t really relate to worth at all in this context? That if we are being brutally honest, it should only actually relate to sales?
The luxury of experience
The first allonymbooks blog observed that “a well-priced book is a natural enticement in any form, making it feel like less of a luxury and more of a chocolate bar.” In the current austere economic climate, have books become luxuries because, with the exception of educational books, they aren’t necessities? Does the lack of tangible substance make an e-book feel even less of a worthwhile investment than a print book? Yet, to put value on an experience rather than a thing has always been more difficult, and perhaps that is where the real challenge in pricing comes. Theoretically I could put a price on the effort I have put into writing a novel. I suppose a rough calculation (based on the number of hours it takes from plotting to publication, multiplied by the hourly rate typical for my day job, and divided by the minimum possible number of readers I hope for) could give me a figure I could live with, intellectually at least.
But the experiment being tried at allonymbooks is closer to an experiential evaluation. The idea that a reader would sit down to read our books for the same enjoyment as that gained, let’s say, from slowly savouring a half pound bar of Cadbury’s milk chocolate is what ultimately drove the initial pricing model. And just as some people prefer dark chocolate or crisps, and others don’t even taste the food as it goes down, so this ‘sum’ might also be flawed. Interestingly, feedback so far indicates that readers believe our prices could acceptably be raised to at least £2.99 without either exceeding the expected pricing of an indie-published novel, or leaving the reader feeling robbed by a reading experience that didn’t represent good value for money.
Nonetheless, rather than chasing the market by price, allonymbooks is going to try for now to build its market by other means. And to accept that price, cost and worth are no more fixed than the quality of each person’s reading experience.