Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ebooks bought, never read

By Steve Weddle

I tend to disagree with Dave White out of sheer reflex. I find it saves times if I’m not certain of my position on a given topic. So when Dave started arguing last week that 99-cent ebooks are great because they provide many new readers, my immediate response was to argue with him. Which turned out to be the right decision.

A few months ago, on Twitter, a few of us were trying to figure out what the ratio is for ebooks bought to  ebooks read and how that ratio varies depending on price. (I dislike the term “price point” because I think the word “point” in that usage is unnecessary.)

I have, as of this writing, 482 file in my Kindle archive. That does not count the books that people have sent me – ARCs, drafts, etc.

From discussing this with folks, the answer seems to be that the ratio of ebooks bought to ebooks bought and then read is much higher as the price of the book increases.

If you want to make your own graphs and charts, I’ll wait.

Let’s take the example of the couch on the curb.

My friends Alice and Jake were trying to get rid of a couch. They put it on the curb for the trash folks to pick up, but it was too big. After a week or so, Jake put a sign on the couch that said “For Sale: $50.” The couch was gone by morning. Here endeth the anecdote.

You put a price on something, you create perceived value.

I’ve been in sales and I can tell you, buyers want value more than they want cheap. Do you ever wonder why the TV commercials for mail-order junk finish by telling you to order now and you’ll get an extra set of Super Sonic Ear Pokers for just a dollar more? Because they’ve already shown you the value of the Ear Pokers. They’re $19.99. Heck, maybe the second set is free. (Just pay separate shipping and handling.)

They’ve created the perceived value.

If you saw Super Sonic Ear Pokers in a box outside the grocery story with a sign that said “Free,” how inclined would you be to try out a pair?

Let’s take a look at the argument Dave was making yesterday: “If a book is priced inexpensively, more people are going to buy it.”

Say we’re able to sell books in two parallel universes. Everything is equal, except on Earth One the debut novel Building Romance by Ima Noob is $14 on Kindle, while on Earth Two the same novel is 99 cents.

Will more people purchase the book on Earth One or Earth Two? My guess is that more people would purchase the book for 99 cents than for $14. Where I disagree with Dave’s argument is here: I think the percentage of people who bought the book and read the book will be greater on Earth One.

In the past month or two, I’ve purchased a couple dozen ebooks for 99 cents or free. I’ve purchased two ebooks for $14. I’ve read both of the $14 ebooks. I have read seven of the others.

For me, a 99-cent ebook is usually a purchase of impulse or support. Hey, my pal Ima Noob has  a new book out. It’s 99 cents. One-click that sucker. I’ll read it when I get around to it.

Of course, this isn’t how I purchase all the 99-centers. For example, Chris F. Holm’s 8 Pounds was a 99-cent purchase. As a new author on the Kindle, his idea was to grab new readers. And that’s exactly what happened. Soon enough, he inked a deal with Angry Robot for his next two novels.

And there are bytes and bytes of 99-centers I’ve bought and read right away—just not most of them.
The argument for the 99-cent price of an ebook is that an author is likely to attract more “casual readers” than if the book were priced at, say, $5.99.

If you want a casual reader, then maybe this is the way to go.

But go to WalMart tonight. Look at the big cardboard box of $4.99 DVDs in the middle of the aisle. People dig through there looking for a bargain, not a good movie.

Read the Amazon reviews of 99-cent books. “This one was only 99 cents, so I thought I’d try it. Totally worth it.”

As Dave said yesterday: “I know this because people who don't worry about following writers and just bought a Kindle come to me asking for suggestions for 99 cent authors.”

They’re looking for a bargain. They care about the purchase, not the read.

For many – not all, but many -- as soon as that click is done, so is their interest. What they wanted was a cheap book. They’ve gotten it.

Many of them won’t read it.

But let’s consider those who do read it – who picked up the book because it was cheap.

The addition question to ask is “What does that reader do next?”

Does that reader hunt down your $12.99 ebook and purchase it, sending you $10 in the process? Or does the reader who found your bargain book scroll through the “Customers who bought this item also bought this item” section for another “good deal”?

Let’s be clear here: I’ve read many, many fantastic authors through free or 99-cent ebooks. Edward Grainger. Chris Holm. Neil Smith. Al Guthrie. Dani Amore. Malachi Stone. Victor Gischler. Nigel Bird. Josh Stallings. Ray Banks. On and on and on. Even our own Dave White and Sandra Ruttan. John McFetridge. Far too many to name.

You want to sell your book for 99 cents or $14.99, what the hell do I care?

If you have six books in a series and want to price the first one at 99 cents to get folks interested, more power to you.

When you offer folks a bargain price for your ebook, you’ll get folks who are looking for bargains. Not all of these folks care about a good book.

But maybe some of them will find a 99-cent bargain, read it, fall in love, and buy up everything that author has.

And I understand the thought that giving away your work or charging an “impulse-buy” price for it means more people will download your book. I’m just not convinced that most of those people will then read it.

You want people to download your book, charge 99 cents.

If you want people to value your book, then write something amazing.


Nigel Bird said...

'If you want people to value your book, then write something amazing.'

That's where I'm aiming, Steve. This is really interesting and makes complete sense.

I don't think it's entirely new, though. My shelves are bursting with books - two and three thick all round the house, not including the recycled car-bootful sent off last year. They're also full of 99c books from charity (thrift) shops, ebay, amazon, jumble sales, house-clearance...I've read many because I'm a reader. There may be a fifth in the TBR pile and half of those I'll maybe never get to (shouldn't have bought them, but couldn't resist the price). My ratio of unread is higher on the Kindle, so I'm going to see what I can do about that - maybe resolve to read things before buying more.

I still love the 99c bargains.

Today's purchase, in case you're interested, was by Paul Bishop, one of his boxing series. It cost $3ish and I'm definitely day.


Unknown said...

Great stuff - and certainly making me think. I've got around 40 books on my kindle and I've read about 4 of them. Not a good percentage. Still prefer the paper, me.

Dana King said...

Maybe I'm not a typical reader/writer, or maybe I'm just cheap, but I don't spend $10 or more on a book unless I've already decided I'm going to read it. I may make that decision standing in the bookstore, but I never drop ten or more bucks on a space filler for my bookshelves. That's doesn't mean I'll finish the book, but it will get a chance.

I've never downloaded a free book. The only time I would is if it was a promotion from a writer I already knew, or wanted to try. 99 cents is less than a buck, and falls into the "just about free" category for me.

Three bucks sounds about right for experimentation. I want the author to have placed a little value on his work, and on my time.

Gerald So said...

As I commented on Dave's post, I haven't bought many ebooks yet, but if I bought an ebook for $14, I'd want to read it because I spent more money on it and had higher expectations of it in turn. However, I don't know if--after reading the book--I'd still think it were worth $14. My perception of the book's value after reading it would determine whether I bought the author's next book.

Thomas Pluck said...

I agree that with unknown authors, the 99c lure (and now the free lure) get me to snag a book, but I am no more likely to read a more expensive one. I bought Gomorrah, and a few others at $5-$14 and they're lingering on the Nook alongside the freebies.
I priced the Lost Children charity anthology at $2.99 because I wanted a buck to go to each charity, with every sale. We would have to sell 600% more 99c books to match the royalties at $2.99, and in THIS case it is all about the Benjamins. I might price a collection of previously published stories at 99c to get readers... once I have something bigger like a novel to grab them with.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I have bought books at all prices and not read them. What I do do is try every one. The ebook ones and the print ones. If the first few pages don't grab me, I probably will never finish it. The books I am most likely to read first are ones from the library that have a due date and a bunch of holds on them. Those I prioritize. Can't break the habits of a lifetime now.

Chris said...

Okay, by day I'm a scientist, so I like statistics. (Note: that is not, strictly speaking, true. No one likes statistics. But I, and other science-nerds like me, value them, because statistics are smarter than we are.)

I agree with a lot of what Steve's saying here (thanks for the mention, by the way), but I think the argument/meme floating around that cost drives interest falls apart a couple of different ways.

Way the first: the relationship between price and read-ratio is correlative, not causative. Like if your uncle tells you, "Whenever I sleep with my shoes on, I wake up with a headache." His shoes don't cause his headache; the dude's just prone to passing out drunk. You read more expensive stuff first/most because you wanted those books more to begin with. I suspect if someone were to give you a $25 hardcover you'd been hankering to read as a birthday gift, you'd be $25-likely to read it, not free-likely to read it. And charging more for a book by an unknown, untested author likely won't increase the likelihood a given paying customer would read it. Unless, of course, interest is built through blurbs, marketing, and other hype -- again, cultivating want on the part of the customer.

Way the second: there's a difference between efficiency and net result. Say a $25 book is read 90% of the time, and a $0.99 book is read 20% of the time. Clearly, the $25 book has a higher read-efficiency. But if the $25 book sells 100 copies, and the $0.99 sells 10,000, you're talking 90 readers of the former and 2,000 readers of the latter. $0.99 may be low-efficiency, but still post higher returns. The trick is to find the sweet spot for what you want to accomplish, be that netting the most readers, or making the most money. And those two goals may well not be accomplished by the same price.

None of what I said above is an argument for one particular price. I've charged $0.99 for a short collection; my debut novel is listed on Amazon at $7.99 (paperback) and $4.99 (ebook.) What I am saying is the digital revolution has, like it or not, turned all writers who avail themselves of it into unwitting entrepreneurs. We, like all business-folk, need to learn how to figure out what our stuff's worth.

Steve Weddle said...

Great points.

I think I'm probably not the only who has come home with a paper sack of a dozen used books, only to read one or two.

Or a book fair, where you get a stack of books with the little black marker along the bottom of the pages.

And I agree that a 99c price for a "new" author to get the work out is a good idea. I think it's probably a better idea if you can get three or more books out, charge 99c for the first and more for the others. Like when your older brother stopped by your sixth-grade playground and gave all the kids a joint for free. Then the next one was five bucks.

I think the idea that we value the higher priced books is a good one, too. Like Chris says, you're going to drop $15 on a book you want to read -- THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME or VOLT or whatever -- and you're invested in that one. You wanted to read it, so you're going to buy it whether it's $4 or $14.

I'm not sure what else Chris said, because them fancy talking words made me sleepy.

What I'm asking is this: You want people to read your books? You want people to buy your books? You want to make money? You want to gain readership? You want to move up the line on Kindle sales?

If you want your ebook downloaded by many people, offer it for free or 99c.

If you want to make money, that's another argument.

You get 30 cents or so for every 99c book you sell on Kindle.

You get $4.19 for each book you sell at $5.99. (By the way, it might be worth considering selling your books for an off-price, such as $5.07, to increase their stand-out-ness.)

Essentially, you have to sell at a 14:1 pace to make the same money at 99c that you make at $5.99. Of course, you also have to consider whether as many folks will pay $5.99 as will pay 99c. So you'll have to consider whether you can sell 14 books at 99c or one book at $5.99. Prices and participation may vary, of course.

Again, the way to get readers is to write a great book.

If you're trying to get your book downloaded, free or cheap is clearly the way to go.

And if you think more downloads means more readers, then that's a way to consider.

But if your argument is "I don't care about the money -- I just want the readers" then why don't you just post your writing on your website to begin with? Or give it away in a free pdf download?

If you don't care about the money, then why are you charging money for your book?

Dan_Luft said...

Now why the hell would I want to spend much money on an unknown author when I can get a book by Anthony Neil Smith,Victor Gischler or Allan Guthrie for $.99? Or I can get a book by Lawrence block or James Reasoner for $2.99.

There's a word for a young author who edits and publishes his own work and then charges too much: poet.

Anke Wehner said...

I think Chris is spot on with his point, "You read more expensive stuff first/most because you wanted those books more to begin with."

I might pay $14 for the latest book by one of my favourite authors, but I can't imagine paying that much for a book by an author I have not read before.

The more a book costs, the more I must want to read it to pay the asking price. A 99 cents book I might pick up without sampling if the blurb and cover sound interesting enough, a $2,99 book needs either a sample that makes me want to read the rest, or having heard something good about it somewhere, a $4,99 book I need a reliable recommendation from someone I know or multiple good reviews. Before getting my ereader I did give authors a try for mass market paperback prices, but if it turned out I did not like the book, I could at least pass it on. I can't do that with an ebook, so if I dislike it, what I paid for it is essentially money thrown out of the window, so I'm leery about paying much more than $5 for an untried-by-me author.

I think getting something to read cheaply or for free is a normal way to discover a new author in print books. You borrow a book from a library, or a friend hands you a book saying "here, I think you'll like that", or you find a cheap used book somewhere.
99 cents ebooks fit that niche.

Jason Dennis said...

If a book isn't worth $5, why the fuck would I read it? I spent $5 on a hamburger today I think I can spend five fucking bucks on a book I want.

Thom Henderson said...

I have owned a kindle for two years and have never bought a book for my kindle. There are so many free books out there and if there is a book I want that is not for free there is always a share group all you have to do it look at a search engine and put the title of the book and the format and you get a thousand places to download the book from for free.
The paying for books has sailed. No one pays for books. This entire argument is pointless.
Ninetynine cents or ninetynine dollars doesn't matter.
And if I can't get it online I can always get it from the library.
And if I can't get it from the library I can always borrow it off a friend who has it.
There is no absolutely no reason to pay for a book anymore when you have so many options for getting them for free.
Ninetynine cents? HA! Try free.

Unknown said...

I choose to price my self-published novel, Death Wish: Book I (The Vamp Saga) at $4.79 and have had plenty of people purchase it. The people I have spoken to who have purchased it are reading it and that is the point.

I love to write and have been since I was a little girl. However, having a nice cover and getting my novel edited by a professional wasn't cheap. I am producing a high quality work and I want my price to reflect that.

The last thing I want are people professing my novel was a waste of time, not sufficiently plotted out or a huge letdown. I worked very hard on this book and I believe the price reflects this.

It takes a long time to build up a readership and I am willing to take the time to build up a substantial readership based on quality books, not throwaway crap which was an impulse buy but sadly, never gets read.

Great article by the way. ;-)

LK Watts said...

You make some very good points here. I'm a new author with a 99c book to try and get myself noticed a bit more. But I don't think I'll be pricing my other books at 99c when they come out. Some people say the cheaper the price the more bad reviews you'll receive because you're getting more readers who are outside your target audience.

Sundown said...

"But I don't think I'll be pricing my other books at 99c when they come out. Some people say the cheaper the price the more bad reviews you'll receive because you're getting more readers who are outside your target audience."

This is just so VERY true. If only you knew. And it's not just in ebooks, it's with all types of business. Customers who pay the least are the hardest to satisfy. I speak from experience owning a couple of businesses selling different things. Also I used to sell as a vendor through Amazon years ago, ironically (not ebooks). As soon as I cut my price in half, I got my first 1 star review. A woman shot me a FURIOUS email that the product didn't work. She was so angry she scared me. Then she raced to the Amazon review section armed with her 1 star review.

Ok, frankly, Amazon has got some nasty customers. I've been reading the reviews they leave for various authors and their forums where their "customers" hang out and talk. After reading everything they have to say amonst each other, and with my own experiences (and reading their reviews), I'd just as soon avoid Amazon altogether. It's not worth it. They can shove their 99 cent customers where the sun won't shine.

Anonymous said...

@ Anke Whener (sp?),

The problem that I see with the 99 cent ebooks and free ebooks is that people reading them seem to expect full quality, well-edited material, and so on. They seem to expect the same level of quality for 99 cents as they would if they'd spent $14 or $25.

It always surprises me when people read some free ebooks and then complain about editing, storyline, this, that,and the other. Well, what did they expect for free or 99 cents? Alice Walker? Stephen King? Personally, I wouldn't buy a work of fiction for 99 cents. If only gas were 99 cents, or a carton of milk, or a candy bar. I can't get ANYTHING for 99 cents so why would I trust fiction to be good at that price?

I mean, McDonald's sells burgers for 99 cents but those aren't Whoppers or Quarter Pounders with cheese. You get the minimum for that price. And you can't get a large coffee for 99 cent there, either. I feel like people who want these 99 cent ebooks expect the Quarter Pounder when what they'e really paying for is the minimum (mild editing, a few typos, plain storyline).

In my mind, they need to keep things in perspective and remember they're not paying anything. If they're this price sensitive they may need to invest in a library card or get a second job, or write their own ebooks and read them. Then everybody will be happy.