Making Sense Of Ninety-Nine Cents

Feel free to check out yesterday’s related post — 25 Things You Should Know About Self-Publishing.

Some writers can’t hack talking about price point. They void their bowels and a throbbing vein atop their forehead ruptures and spurts a jet-line of blood before they fall down to the ground, writhing as if covered with biting lizards. I get it, I do. Writers want to write; writers don’t want to think about price point.

That said, self-publishers are tasked with different work than writers, for they are — well, c’mon, do I need to say it? Shit, it’s right there in the name. Self-publishers. Thus we need to discuss it.

You may be saying, Ah, here then is another screed against the implementation of the $0.99 price point for novels, and you’re either ready to high-five me or break a vodka bottle over my head.

This will not be that post.

It can’t be. I have a book out right now for ninety-nine cents (“250 Things You Should Know About Writing“). My hypocrisy would no know bounds if I sat here, charged that price for one of my books, but then cast a handful of sand into your eyes for doing the very same thing.

No, this post is about how to use the $0.99 price point to your advantage. If you’re someone who’s business savvy, then this lesson will be a lesson you learned in like, kindergarten. I’m not saying anything revolutionary here. But, if you’re just a regular ol’ writer like me, you very possibly have the business sense of a Styrofoam cup filled with dead ants. Thus, hopefully you’ll get some value out of this.

If not, feel free to break a vodka bottle over my head. For giggles.

Caveats, Cuidado, Warning, Disclaimer, Etc.

This is all straight-up opinion. Evidence is mostly anedcotal. Be advised to not take my words as gospel but rather, to take them as a little savory info-nugget on which you may chew. Nom, nom, nom.

Spit or swallow. Your call.

Do: Conceive Of A Strategy

Going into the pricing of your e-book, have a strategy. Any strategy. Let ninety-nine cents be part of your strategy. I’ve seen a lot of folks start to shake out their own “pricing trees,” and mine fall roughly in line with that — something under 20,000 words might go for a buck, a collection or novella might go for $2.99, a novel might go for $4.99, etc. Ponder this going in.

How can you use the $0.99 price point to your advantage? Where could it fail you?

Do Not: Just Price Everything At A Dollar

The only place you should find everything for a dollar is, in fact, a Dollar Store. And even there, you’ll find shit for two dollars or five dollars at a dollar store. I consider this to be an epic deception, which is why whenever I encounter this I drive my car through the front of the establishment, then open my trunk and loose upon them a squadron of starving squirrels. Just to punish their callous lying-faced lies.

The other thing about dollar stores is, it’s not name-brand stuff. You don’t get a box of Froot Loops there. You get a box of, like, Frut Hoops. Or Fruit Schmoops. Or some other generic rip-off featuring cereal made in a Chinese sweat-shop by cigarette-addicted eight-year-olds. Point being, you don’t go to the dollar store to procure quality. You go there because you’re hungry for cheap-ass value.

Now, that being said, if you’re at the grocery store and you see a product you like on sale for a dollar — boom. That’s a deal. You snatch that up because you just got quality at a cut price.

That’s a psychology you can and should mine in terms of pricing e-books at $0.99. If you price everything you have at a buck, then you’re the equivalent of a dollar store. “Cheap-ass wordsmithy,” you’re barking from atop your soapbox. “A hot fresh bucket of words! All made by North Korean children with arthritic fingers! Nope, it’s not as good as Stephen King or even Dean Koontz, but fuck it! It’s a dollar!”

And then you do a little jig.

Because everybody likes jigs.

Ah, but: price one thing at a buck and you’ve created a steal. A deal. A gateway drug.

Pricing everything at a dollar sends up a signal and that signal tells me that you don’t value your work all that much. Further, it suggests to me that you don’t want anybody else to value it, either.

Do: Use It As An Enticement Price And Loss Leader

Like I said: price one thing at a buck? Boom. Steal and deal. Gateway drug.

These days, the word count out there for sale is forming a hard gluttonous knot of mouse bones and burger grease in the arteries of the system — every day, more and more fatty narrative cholesterol globs onto the clot and it grows bigger and more unwieldy. It’s hard to distinguish yourself in that field, hard to further get people to take a risk on your work. A low price point for a single book offers an entry. Maybe it’s an entry into your whole catalog or just the entry point to a single series, but it signals that, hey, this is a safe path. Walk this way, and if you like what you see, I’ve got more stuff to show you.

The ninety-nine cent price point serves as a loss leader. Meaning, you ultimately take a loss on the product to get people in the door. And yes, it is likely going to be a loss; I know there exists a perception that any money earned from fiction is somehow just icing on the cake. It’s not. Not unless the production of said fiction took no more effort than popping a squat in the woods. Writing fiction takes time and effort. And caffeine. And liquor! You should be paid commensurate with your effort, which is why most books at that bottom-line price will never earn out, so let it be part of a strategy to earn out with your other offerings.

Do Not: Think That It Is The Best Price For Earning Out

Like I said: don’t expect to earn out with ninety-nine cents.

Let’s do some quick math. I’ve done similar math before but it bears repeating, even though math burns my fingers as if I were typing on a keyboard made of melty gooey volcano magma.

(For the record, we will now refer to lava as “earthjaculate.” Please update any and all salient records.)

Here’s the math.

Let’s say you want to earn $35,000 a year as a writer. Not an epic salary but not poverty level, either.

If you were to price everything you’re selling at ninety-nine cents, here’s what happens: you need to sell approximately 117,000 copies of your work over the course of one year’s time.

Is that doable? Sure. I see some authors doing it, and to them I tip my hat and clink my glass and kiss them on the mouth and implant my alien egg-babies into their trachea. Uhh. Ignore that last part.

That doesn’t mean it’s likely. Or easy.

Now, let’s do some more math. I have a book out there, as noted, at a dollar. I frequently float in the top 5/10,000 sold with this book, and am often in the Top 10 list of writing books at Amazon.

To stay at that rank, I sell an average of 18 copies per day, or ~6550 per year, making me just shy of $2000 in a year. Not bad, you think, and it isn’t — of course, it presumes my sales will remain steady after only a month of sales, but I’m always a fan of big glorious assumptions, so let’s be optimistic and assume that it’ll maintain that level. To make my $35k/annual, I’d need to have 17 equivalent products out in the same year, all earning at an equal level. That’s a lot of fucking books, you ask me.

Maybe you don’t blink at that number. Some self-published authors emerge out of darkness and can offer a massive churn-and-burn catalog of work, and with that approach this becomes more feasible.

Thing is, that book of mine is around 20,000 words. A novel is easily three times that in length, and if we’re assuming the average advance on a traditionally published novel is $5000 and we assume you’ll never earn beyond your advance, then you would need to sell around 17,000 copies (or ~1400 per month) in a year to make that same amount of money. Again, not impossible, but tricky.

Consider instead a novel priced at $2.99, which only needs to sell around 200 copies a month to earn that same level by the end of a year. Seems doable, does it not? At least, seems likelier. At $4.99, the novel needs to sell 120 a month to earn out by the end of a year. Consider a diverse catalog at a number of price points.

Do: Work The Short-Term Promotion

The ninety-nine cent price point should be a scalpel, not a hammer — it is an instrument of precision. One move is to use that price point as a temporary sales driver — maybe you intro your e-book at that price or do an occasional markdown in order to move some units and get some converts. Converts who might leave you reviews or at least recommend the book to others. Converts who might leave you gift baskets of fruit-flavored sexual lubricants and vibrating heretical idols upon your doorstep.

CONVERTS WHO WILL KILL IN YOUR NAME.

A writer can dream.

Oh, and I can also use the cheaper e-book as an incentive upon procuring the more expensive e-book — like last week’s promo where I gave away a free 250 Things to those who nabbed COAFPM.

Do Not: Equate Sales With Readers

Quick point, but worth noting: a lot of self-publishers refer to those who procure their works as “readers.” It’d be super-delightful if this were true, but it’s not. Some are just buyers — and, in my experience, the cheaper the book, the more buyers (who aren’t readers) you’ll have. This isn’t a bad thing, exactly — I’m not going to tell you how or when you should read my garbage. Use your Kindle as a doorstop. Fine by me.

That said, readers are better than buyers. Readers will do what is intended of your work, which is for the work to — drum roll please — get read. Readers also have the chance to become fans, and fans will buy all your stuff, tell other people about you, and generally be a happy part of your penmonkey ecosystem.

Ninety-nine cents may earn you a lot of buyers, but it does not guarantee those people will be readers. I have a pile of $0.99 books sitting on my Kindle. I bought ’em. I ain’t read ’em. And, frankly, I’m in no rush to. I wish I could say differently, but I’ve got other books I spent more coin on, and for some reason I equate more coin with greater value and so I wanna consume those first. (Same way I’d be likelier to eat an expensive cookie over a cheap generic-brand cookie. The assumption, correct or no, that the higher cost means higher quality means higher deliciousness factor. Why would I be fast to eat the cheap cookie?)

Do: Sell Direct

The $0.99 price point becomes more valuable financially when you’re selling direct. If I sell a copy of 250 Things at Amazon, I make $0.30. At B&N, I make $0.40. When I sell the PDF directly, I get $0.65.

And my direct sales hover at around 20% of my total sales.

I continue to wonder why most self-published authors fail to offer a direct option.

Summation

The ninety-nine cent price point works for certain things. It puts your book out there and it creates an opportunity for readers to get to know you and your work at an un-regrettable value point.

It doesn’t work (IMHO, YMMV, ASAP, NASA, LOL, etc) as a single blanket price point for all your work — especially if “all your work” comprises e-books of larger word count (like, say, novels). While I recognize that word count is not directly attached to quality, as a freelance writer I’m conditioned to expect that higher word counts tend to necessitate higher pay-outs to make the time, effort and size of the material worthwhile in terms of the writer’s own compensation.

Let’s hear your thoughts. How’s this all sit with you, writers, readers, self-pubbers? Accepting dissenting opinions and evidence now — don’t let this post be the end-all be-all of discussion.