Thursday, May 9, 2013

Book Prices and Comparative Value

Mother's Day is coming up, so - like a good son - I recently went in search of an appropriate gift, along with a nice card.  In addition, I've got numerous relatives (cousins, nieces, nephews, etc.) graduating from various institutions this month.  Thus, it occurred to me to get all of the shopping for everyone out of the way at once.

Following that train of thought, I found myself in the greeting card aisle of my local drugstore, casually perusing the various cards-for-all-occasions on display.  After making my selections and heading to the checkout counter, I offhandedly flipped one of the cards over to see how much it cost...and almost had a heart attack!

$6.99!!!  For a card

Talk about sticker shock!  Granted it was nice, but it's essentially a folded piece of paper with a couple of sappy, sentimental lines of text.  For that they want $6.99?  You could get both of my books for less than that!  (Admittedly, at  $2.99 and $3.99 they're only a penny less, but you see my point.)  In fact, the cheapest card I had picked up was actually $2.99.

Maybe I just haven't been paying attention lately.  I can remember when you could get a nice card for 99 cents.  Then I recall prices slowly creeping up:  $1.39... $1.79... $1.99... $2.25...  I just don't know when they took this monstrous leap such that they now cost more than books.  (I'm assuming that Hallmark and the other greeting card companies know that the public is going to buy cards for occasions such as Mother's Day, and that some portion of the population is going to wait until the last minute.  If all the "cheap" cards are gone at that point - i.e., those in the $2.99 range - then the buyer has no choice but to get the expensive card.)

Book prices, of course, is a hotly debated topic among indie authors.  It's hard to find that sweet spot whereby readers will take a chance on you as an unknown, but at the same time you earn enough to make you feel...relevant (for lack of a better term) - like you can not only make a living at writing but that you're actually good at it. 

If you're publishing on Kindle, there's certainly a powerful argument for keeping your price as cheap as possible, which usually means $.99.  After all, you'll still earn a 35% commission (show me another business that will pay you that rate!), and - as almost everyone knows - it makes your book an easy impulse buy, such that you'll probably reach more readers.  If I remember correctly, John Locke (author of the Donovan Creed novels) achieved tremendous success with this approach and still advocates it.

On the flip side, if you charge at least $2.99, you get a whopping 70% commission.  In other words, you have to sell almost six times as many books at $.99 to earn the same amount of money.  It's certainly not impossible, but that's a lot of ground to make up.  In addition, there's a significant amount of backlash now with respect to books priced at $.99.  Basically, the book-buying public has come to assume that a book in that price range, by an unknown author, is probably an indie novel and not worth the price of entry.

In the case of my book "Sensation," I labored long and hard over what the price should be.  I was initially tempted to offer it at $.99, based on the fact that I'm a new author and I'd like to build a fan base.  I figured that I would offer the sequel (which I'm working on now) at a more equitable $3.99.  However, I looked at a couple of other books in the superhero genre, and found most were priced at $2.99+.  For instance, Jim Bernheimer's Confession's of a D-List Supervillain costs $2.99.  Marion G. Harmon began by offering the first novel in his Wearing the Cape series at $.99, but quickly raised the price to $2.99; today all the books in that series are priced at $7.99 on Kindle.

I'm not attempting to compare myself to those guys, but rather trying to convey what I feel the market is for books in this genre.  By comparison, take a peek at the list of the bestselling comic books for January 2013 (compiled by Comichron) located here.  Looking at this list, you can see, for example, that an issue of the Bionic Woman - priced at $3.99 and ranked at #294 on the list - sold almost 4,400 copies that month!  (And I don't mean to imply anything bad about Bionic Woman; I'm just trying to suggest what the fiscal temperament is for those interested in comics and superheroes.)  Based on what I've observed, I think $3.99 is a fair and reasonable price that readers of this genre would be willing to pay.  (Not to mention the fact that Mrs. Wonderful (my wife) offered her unsolicited opinion on the subject:  "You are not selling this book for 99 cents!" And that pretty much brought an end to the debate about price on my part.)

As to "Warden," the mental exercise was much the same, with me coming to the conclusion that $2.99 was an appropriate price for this entry in the teen/young adult genre of horror, fantasy, magic and science fiction. (And again, the Boss Lady reviewed my work and would place her stamp of approval on nothing less than $2.99.)

In retrospect, I think that the prices for most ebooks - not strictly my own - are not only fair but actually cheap in comparison to other consumer goods - Exhibit A being the greeting cards I mentioned at the beginning of this post.  But you can find this type of thing in various sectors, like the price of gas: people think that gasoline is expensive, but other products like soda and coffe are exorbitant in comparsion.  By way of example, imagine you can buy a 12-ounce Coke for 50 cents.  At that rate, Coke costs roughly $5 per gallon, but people happily pay that and more when they go out and eat lunch every day.  Likewise with coffee. 

Basically, at 3 to 4 bucks a pop, I think most ebooks represent extraordinary entertainment value.  You'll pay twice that to go see a movie that you end up hating and not think anything of the cost (not to mention the $20 you spend on concessions).  Thus, I don't even think there should be a debate about books in that price range, or even a little higher.

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