So over on FB a fellow author was essentially calling out trade publishers for how they price ebooks. And they’re not the only person who has ever done that. It happens on a fairly frequent basis that someone questions why trade publishers price ebooks so high.
Usually, the argument that’s made is that it doesn’t cost all that much to put out an ebook. There’s no paper or ink or printing process that needs to happen. So the marginal cost of an ebook is negligible.
But what those arguments all fail to account for is that people are willing to pay that much for those books. Lots of people. Right now The Midnight Line by Lee Child is $14.99 in ebook. It’s ranked number 2 in the Kindle US store. That means somewhere around six or seven thousand people were willing to pay that for that book today. And it’s a book that’ll be in the top of the charts for a while so that many people are going to be paying that much for that book each day for weeks.
What benefit is there to the publisher to drop that price? It won’t improve the book’s rank on Amazon. It’s already #2. Where else can it go?
Well, the argument goes, they’ll get more readers if they drop the price. Okay. True.
But they won’t make more money. And ultimately they may capture all of those readers. The problem with a lot of the “price lower” arguments are that they fail to account for long-term pricing strategies like price-pulsing
Let’s walk through some numbers to show you what I’m talking about.
First, we need a set of assumptions. For our fictitious book let’s assume that there are 12,250 people willing to buy this book. 5000 of those people will only buy the book if it’s available at 99 cents. 2500 will buy it for $2.99 or less. 1000 will buy it for $3.99 or less. Another 1000 will buy it for $4.99 or less. 750 each will buy it at $5.99 or $6.99 or less. 1,250 will buy it for $7.99 or less. 750 will pay $8.99 or less. 250 will pay $9.99 or less.
(I did this in Excel. It’s the chart on the left below. That third column is the cumulative number of customers who’d be willing to pay that price. So everyone would pay 99 cents, but only 250 would pay $9.99.)
Let’s start with the ideal world scenario where we somehow manage to sell our book to every buyer at the maximum price they’re willing to pay. We capture the 99 centers at their price, but also get the $9.99 buyers at their price.
In that scenario, we sell 12,250 copies of the book and we gross $42,127.50. But you have to account for the Amazon cut, so we net $27,756.75.
That’s the ideal scenario. It doesn’t happen, because we have to list our book for sale at one price and even if we change prices over time (as we’ll discuss in a minute) there’s no way to ensure that the customers who are willing to spend $9.99 only see our book when it’s at that price. So in reality we’ll end up with a customer who would’ve paid $9.99 paying $4.99 or even 99 cents depending on when they see the book.
Now, a lot of times the argument is made that you should maximum your sales by pricing low. So 99 cents. That captures the most possible customers. You get all 12,250 customers at that price, no doubts about it. So what do you earn with that approach? You gross $12,127.50, but you net $4,244.63. Same number of sales. But because you priced for the lowest-paying customer, you earn $23,500 less than the ideal scenario.
Of course, as we mentioned, the ideal scenario isn’t likely anyway. So let’s compare the 99 cent approach to another alternative, pricing at $4.99. That captures anyone willing to pay $4.99 to $9.99 but loses anyone who would only pay less than $4.99. Instead of 12,250 sales you only get 3,750. But those 3,750 gross you $18,712.50 and net you $13,098.75. So you lose 70% of your potential customers but you make three times as much.
Now, what about the final option? Price-pulsing. You list at $4.99, so you’re giving away some potential income there, and then, after you’ve captured those buyers, you drop the price to 99 cents to capture the bargain hunters. Under this approach you sell all 12,250 copies. You do worse than the ideal scenario (because your highest price paid is $4.99) but better than the other two scenarios (because you’re capturing some of the higher-paying market by initially pricing at $4.99 as well as the lower-paying market by dropping the price to 99 cents). In this approach, you gross $27,127.50 and you net $16,044.
So, really, price pulsing is the best approach if you’re willing to be patient about when you capture your buyers.
And for trade publishers with established authors who aren’t struggling for visibility, pricing really high initially and then slowly lowering prices over time is the most profit-maximizing decision. That’s the approach that’s most likely to allow them to stay in business long-term and pay all those salaries and overhead costs and find new undiscovered authors who aren’t established and cant command those prices.
Does that mean self-publishers should price that high? No. There are other factors at play when you’re not Lee Child. Key among those Amazon’s algos that reward early success and seem to have a support level that means that ranking high early means better long-term performance. But it does mean that if you’ve chosen to always price at 99 cents that you’re leaving a lot of money on the table.