On Book Pricing

Image of a kindle readerAssume that you are considering purchasing a novel in a genre you already really like but written by a new author you’ve never read. How much of a factor in your final decision would the cover price be?

Frankly one thing I dislike about self-publishing is having to set the cover prices of my books. For my upcoming detective novel, Come What May, I had to face that earlier than with my previous books.

For the first time ever I have made a book available for preorders. My primary book distributor recommended it and sold me on the idea on the basis that preorders enable more effective advance book marketing.

The eBook version of Come What May is now available for preorder at Barnes & Noble.com and Kobo. It will also be available for preorder at Apple iBooks. Because the time frame for preorders differs at Amazon from the other outlets mentioned, it will likely be sometime in July before the book can be preordered there.

For the curious, you can see the listing for Come What May at Barnes & Noble here and at Kobo here.

If you have read this far and have assumed this post is going to be a pitch for you to preorder my book, you can relax now. I only mentioned the book being available for preorder as an introduction to the topic I actually want to discuss today, pricing an eBook. Who knows? You might find it interesting.

Setting the cover price for a book isn’t as simple or straightforward a decision as someone might assume who has never self-published a book. It’s isn’t just about price but value, two very different things. A great many books have been written on how to price an eBook. In fact if you Google a phrase like “how to price your eBook novel” the search will return about 192 million results.

Authors have different goals when they set out to write and publish a book. For the purposes of this post I’ll focus on just the two most common goals:

  1. To maximize income from book sales.
  2. To maximize the number of people who read the book.

Candidly, writing is one of those things I’d do whether I ever made any money from it or not. While I like money as much as the next person and making a little extra is always quite nice, I don’t for example depend on book royalties to put a roof over my head or food on the table. Suffice to say that earning royalties from book sales, while of course always welcome, is not my primary objective.

I’m definitely in the “to maximize the number of people who read the book” camp as far as my primary goal for this book. An author’s goal behind writing and publishing a book is one of the factors to be considered in pricing the book. Someone who hopes to derive substantial income from book sales, all other things being equal, is going to set a higher price for a book than someone like me who is seeking to build an audience, not just for this book but the ones that will come after since Come What May is the debut novel in a new series I have planned.

A self-published author can conceivably set a price for his or her eBook at anywhere between zero and infinity. I’ve seen eBooks with cover prices set as low as ninety-nine cents and as high as $75. Truthfully, I’ve never purchased an eBook with a price at either of those extremes. I suppose the reason is I’ve doubted that a quality book worth reading could be had as less than a dollar and can’t really imagine any eBook being worth $75.

I could of course give my book away for free in the hopes of maximizing the number of people who might download and read it. But setting the price at zero might very well gain fewer readers than putting a price on it which of course wouldn’t satisfy my goal. People in our culture often equate price, at least to some degree, with quality and value. Plenty of people might assume that a book being given away free is probably not very good and not worth their time to read. Many people do in fact consider just about anything offered to them free as having no value at all.

A good illustration of the preceding principle is a joke I heard in a comedy routine once. The comedian said he replaced his old refrigerator with a bigger, newer model. He placed his old refrigerator at the curb with a sign on it that read “working refrigerator free for hauling away.” He said the refrigerator remained at the curb for weeks. No one had shown the slightest interest in it.

The comedian said he wasn’t out to make any money on the old refrigerator, he just wanted to get it hauled away, hopefully by someone who could get some use out of it. So he got an idea. He replaced the original sign with one that read “working refrigerator $50.” He said that he woke up the following morning after changing the sign and looked out. The refrigerator was gone! Someone had stolen it during the night! Evidently someone decided the old refrigerator had some value after all.

I’d actually be perfectly happy to sell copies of my book for ninety-nine cents, if I could feel confident that more people would read it than if I set the price higher. That of course would satisfy my primary goal, maximizing the number of readers. But there is of course no way to predict how many people might buy and read the book if it was priced at ninety-nine cents in comparison to how many might buy and read it if I set the cover price a bit higher. As a first novel or at least in this case my first novel in a new genre, there is no historical pricing point data on which to base a decision about the cover price.

With this first detective/mystery novel I haven’t any reputation or credibility with my target audience. I lack a body of work on which readers might form opinions as to my competency as a writer and my skill as story teller. On the opposite end of the spectrum, consider my favorite crime fiction author. He has written 41 novels and in my opinion they are all uniformly good. He has lots of fans who enjoy reading his novels and his books carry the imprint of a well-known and respected publishing house. I think I paid $10.99 each for the electronic versions of his two most recent books and probably an average of $9.99 per eBook over the years I’ve been reading him. Obviously, I’m not going to command a price like that for my first crime fiction novel or even for the next several books in the series I’m beginning.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that there is a significant difference in the price of a hard cover book and the electronic version of the same book. That’s another factor in setting cover prices. Again using my favorite crime fiction author as an example, I paid $10.99 for the eBook version of his most recent novel but the list price for the hard cover edition on the date the book was released was $28.95. Part of that of course is the difference in production costs. There are substantial costs involved in printing and distributing a hard cover book while the costs involved in producing an electronic book are very modest in comparison. That however is only part of the reason behind the price difference.

If you think about, when you purchase an eBook you aren’t really purchasing a book at all because you never own it. Instead you’re purchasing a license that entitles you to download and read a book. You can sell an actual book or even donate it to the library when you’ve finished reading it. But until relatively recently you couldn’t even loan an eBook to a friend once you finished reading it much less resell one. Even though under some conditions you can loan electronic books to friends today, it still isn’t nearly as straightforward a proposition as simply handing your friend the copy of a book. That is the real reason for the significant price difference between physical books and virtual ones and also a factor is setting the cover price for an eBook.

What really keeps a self-published author up at night is hoping he or she won’t miss hitting the sweet spot when it comes to pricing his or her book. Price it too low and many people will assume it must be awful and not work reading. Most people won’t knowingly pay even a $1 for a book they think is bad. Price it too high and many people will be unwilling to buy and read it because they won’t believe the book has enough value to justify the price. A price that is too high might also price some potential readers out of the market simply because they don’t have unlimited disposable income to spend on books. The elusive best price then lies somewhere in between too low and too high.

As you can see now unless you already knew it before reading this post, setting the cover price for a book isn’t as simple as you might think at first blush. There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of factors to consider. Along with selling a book you also must sell a buyer on the idea the book has a value and a value that is commensurate with the price. When reduced to the lowest common denominator, a book like most everything else consumers buy is really worth what someone is willing to pay for it. That’s the real value of the book from a purely economic perspective.

For any of my readers who may be considering reading Come What May, I do hope you will consider visiting my official author’s website, While there you can opt in to receive my free monthly newsletter by email if you wish. It’s not really a great commitment since if you choose to subscribe to the newsletter but change your mind later you can of course cancel at any time. I mention this because in connection with the release of my book in October, my newsletter subscribers will receive an exclusive special offer to purchase the eBook version of my novel at a price substantially below the cover price. There is also a contest in the works where some subscribers will win the chance to receive the eBook absolutely free.

My Approach to Writing a Detective Novel

Image of Raymond Chandler
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Most contemporary authors I expect are influenced by writers of the past. Without a doubt, the author I have been most influenced by is the legendary crime novelist Raymond Chandler (1888-1959), known for his influential detective novels like The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye.

Chandler didn’t invent the detective novel but arguably he certainly transformed hard-boiled detective fiction. Even though he wrote only seven novels in his lifetime, Chandler is perhaps second only to Dashiell Hammett as the most important writer in the genre. I think a 1945 article published in The Atlantic magazine says it best. “To the writing of his detective stories Raymond Chandler brings the experience and the skepticism of a newspaper reporter, the narrative gifts of a born storyteller, and a mastery of pungent American dialogue.”

To influence means to have an important effect on someone or something. If someone influences someone else, they are changing a person or thing in an indirect but important way. That is what I speak of when I say that Chandler influences me as a writer.

That doesn’t mean of course that I strive to copy his writing style. I’m working on establishing my own. In addition Chandler lived in a different era. If you read a Chandler novel today you will find the language quite dated because our language is in a constant state of change. Words and manners of speaking popular in Chandler’s day are out of fashion and antiquated by modern standards of usage. But I do try to emulate Chandler’s philosophies in writing crime fiction. Chandler made that very easy to do by leaving behind his ten commandments for writing a detective novel:

1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.

2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.

3. It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.

4. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.

5. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.

6. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.

7. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.

8. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.

9. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law…. If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.

10. It must be honest with the reader.

(Source: “Raymond Chandler.” Open Culture. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2015)

I realize that readers have limited dollars to spend on books as well as limited time in which to read. Understandably book buyers want assurance that a book they are considering purchasing is a quality book worth their hard-earned money and time. Obviously a new or unknown author in this genre has no reputation and thus little credibility with those who enjoy crime fiction novels.

I feel one of the best ways to build credibility with potential readers is give them some insight into my philosophies and approach to writing. If you enjoy a good detective novel and decide to give me a chance by reading Come What May, you can be sure I have kept Chandler’s ten commandments firmly in my mind while writing it. My goal is that those who read it will consider it both money and time well spent.