How much should an ebook cost

In a recent post on a Facebook group, someone complained about paying 99c for a book that was advertised for sale, then finding it only had 185 pages. “I don’t think I should have to pay more than that for 185 pages,” she said.

I was a bit taken aback. 185 pages. That’s around 50,000 words, maybe more.

The discussion ranged widely and came to no conclusions, but it sent me back to the perennial question we self-published writers need to solve on their own. What price is a good price for an ebook?

(Note: all the prices below are in US dollars)

Average price for an indie published book

Author earnings says that indie books averaged $3.87 in May.

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This is an increase of 5% in the past 15 months. By contrast, ebooks on Amazon from big-5 publishers have increased in price from $8.29 to $9.53.

Average price for a bestseller

According to Digital Book World, the average price for a bestseller in the first week of April was $6.14, and it’s been hovering around $6 for some time. Most of these are by big name authors, and traditionally published. When you buy a big name author, you know exactly what you’re going to get. When you buy a book from one of the big name publishers, you can assume a certain level of copy editing and professional publications values.

Indie books might be well written and professionally published, or they might not. It’s up to readers to decide whether they’re willing to pay 50% more for a ‘name’.

So what is a fair price for 50,000 words?

Third Scribe has written an interesting article on book pricing. They’ve based their assessment on 50,000 words (the same figure, I’ll remind you, as our Facebook friend’s 99c book). I’m not going to quote at length, but here’s the summary table – and it doesn’t include the cost of all the stuff that goes in behind, such as websites, newsletters, accountants, and so on.

Tallying these up…

Editing: $1,200
Cover Art: $400
Formatting: $100
Promotion: $400
Grand total: $2,100 ($12,100 if you count the author’s time).

That is a real, no bullshit, actual, honest to God cost of what it takes to produce a quality book in the digital age.

How many books does an author sell?

It’s hard to get the figures, but best estimates seem to be that 50 to 100 sales in the first year is average, and 250 sales in the lifetime of the book is pretty good.

And remember that, for books sold on Amazon, the author gets 35c of the list price of a book priced under $2.99.

To make back those basic costs – not your time, just your production expenses – at a cover price of 99c, you’d need to sell 6,000 books. That’s 24 times the average.

So people cut corners. They skip the editor and do their own cover art. Which impacts quality and disappoints readers. That’s not a path I’m prepared to go down.

How do readers feel about price?

Of course, the costs to the supplier are not the only factor. We’ve also got to consider demand.

Dear Author posted an interesting assessment of how readers feel about price. The quotes below summarise their views. Click on the link to see the whole thing.

1)  99c = I’ll buy you but I’m in no hurry to read you.  There’s no question that 99c will result in sales but how many people are reading it?

2) $1.99 is a dead zone.

3) $2.99 – $4.99 is the “I’ll try you even though I’m unsure whether I’ll love it.”  I think this is the discovery price range.

4) $5.00 to $7.99 is the “I’ve read you before and enjoyed what I’ve read.”  This price range is reserved for authors you’ve enjoyed in the past and figure you’ll be entertained for a few hours.

5) $8.99 and up is the “I’ve read you before and I love you.” At this price, you are foregoing purchasing at least one other book, if not more.

And Mark Coker of Smashwords has the figures to show that a 99c book may sell more copies, but a book priced between $3 and $3.99 will generate more income.

I have no conclusions

I don’t know the answer. I’m learning as I go, and trying new things. I’ve given away one book, a novella of 24,000 words, to show my writing style to prospective readers. I’ve priced a long novel at $3.49. And I’m thinking of putting A Baron for Becky – a long novella of nearly 50,000 words – on the market at $2.49. (It is currently for preorder at 99c.)

One lesson I did take from the discussion is to be very clear about labelling. So I’m going to change my book descriptions to say how long the books are. Beyond that, it’s all experimentation.

 

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39 thoughts on “How much should an ebook cost

  1. People are always looking for the best deals and bargains when it comes to e-books. It’s an ultra competitive market and I know it can be overwhelming and confusing! I thought I would recommend a website that really seems to be giving back to the author as well as the reader. It’s called Openbooks.com and the reader can pay what they think the book is worth. I know you might think that people would really take advantage of this and spend as little as possible but you would be surprised. Open Books also gives authors 70% of the sales (publishers usually only give about 10%). It’s a great way to support authors and find new books. I hope you will check it out! I can’t recommend it enough

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    • Thanks for the useful information, Rob. Yes, quite a bit of discussion and more visits than any other post I’ve put up in the nine months I’ve been going.

  4. I am right in the middle of setting the price for my first and second novels to be released 10/6/15.
    This post and ensuing conversation have been so helpful.
    Thanks!

  5. The fact that people gripe in a review about the book length is kinda dumb. I’m one of those people that looks at book length versus price, but I do it before I buy. Those 99 cent books that are no more than 100 pages (or even under 20) make me think the pricing isn’t worth it. BUT, I also am just not a fan of shorter fiction pieces. It may be a fantastic story in few pages, but I can’t get past my bias.

    When I look at the pricing of eBooks, I usually won’t buy unless it’s under $5, but that’s not a hard rule. Something can catch my eye and I’ll spend much more. But, the reason why I think some books are overpriced comes down to what it used to cost to buy a paperback in a bookstore. Physical books have extra costs associated with them – printing and related supplies, storage, overestimating how the book will perform and having too many copies made, etc. With a digital book, you avoid all that overhead. Once you put in the seed money for book one, books two and beyond don’t really accrue any extra expense. Paperback, you’ll still have to fund the printing, storage, etc with each copy. EBook, the cost of producing multiple is the same as making just once. Hopefully I’ve explained that clearly (what I mean to say doesn’t always translate from my head very well). I get that these are pricey to make, but when I see a book selling for almost the same amount in paperback and eBook, it hurts my brain. Just illogical.

    Then you have the big name publishers, who probably are more responsible for my way of thinking, that decide to sell the eBook version along with hardback and price them roughly the same. An author I used to love reading had that happening, and I get that it’s not like he can control what publishing charges, but I’ve lost interest in reading his work. I refuse to pay $15+ for a digital edition. Seeing paperbacks being resold online and seeing them be less than the eBook, I won’t purchase. I’ve seen books being listed in new condition cost less that the eBook, which is crazy to me. I don’t buy physical copies anymore, so I just stare for a bit and move on. Mostly, I now use my library for digital borrowing to get around it. Iffy looking practices on their part make me more wary of indie pricing, too.

    If I know the author’s quality of work, I’m likely to pay more. The other big factor for me is the reader interaction. I want to support authors who seem like genuinely good people in love with the work. I want to see that they appreciate the readers. It’s a big part of why I prefer buying indie – it just feels like the bigger names are apathetic. But it unfortunately opens up the opportunity for mean spirited behavior. If I see that going on or it happens to me, I will not buy from that person in the future.

    Long winded, but I wanted to give the other side of things a mention. I like your idea of listing length in the description, but a heads up? I remember seeing an author a while back talking about one review she’d received. The reader left a negative review because she didn’t like the percentage of pages devoted to promoting other books. So if you list page count, list the page count solely for the story. Make it harder for them to leave those reviews when it’s very clearly listed.

  6. I cringe when I hear authors selling their books for $0.99 or even free. I am technically a self-published author, because after my first book, I decided I could do as good a job, and created my own publishing company. It’s all legal and all, business license and all. The first two books of my fantasy series cost me about $1200 per book. I have Hardcover, Paperback, and ebook versions…I sell my ebooks for $7.99. Why? because I make the same profit on my ebooks as I make on my paperbacks. Do people complain? Sometimes…and then they give me a 4-star rating, so I guess they don’t mind the $7.99 price on ebooks.

  7. I’m so glad I’ve read these comments. There *are* people out there who expect to pay a fair price for a good book. But when all you hear is “Books are too expensive! All books should be cheap!”, you start to believe it. (And yes, I know the so-called justification for low pricing is to make a list and get some visibility. I have my doubts about that strategy, but that’s another topic.)

    Enough is enough. As Elizabeth Ann West says, you have to pay the costs of publishing. Maybe some people don’t care about having their books earn enough to pay for themselves. But there are those of us that do.

    • I care about being able to write full-time. I spend eight to nine hours a day on commercial writing, five days a week, and sometimes more. If I earned enough from my fiction to give up the commercial writing, I would have time to write more, time to do more research, time to do more reading.

  8. I ran a book deal site for 3 years with a partner and I think most discussions on pricing in regards to what other authors are doing is a waste of effort. There’s no such thing as a book that is too expensive. Either the book won’t sell, or the book is selling and therefore, there is an audience that wants that book at that price.

    I think indies too often price themselves in the bargain range on new releases because early on in the indie revolution that was a genuine short-cut to the bestseller ranks and higher visibility. That was back when there was less than 1 million titles in the Kindle Store. There are now over 4 million.

    Back in 2011, I had an Amazon top 100 author tell me that being new, I needed to price my book at 99 cents to “pay my dues.” Why? I wrote a novel that had taken me 6 months to finish and ready for production. I had costs as a publisher. And it turned out, my situation was similar to Rose’s. Only when I put the price BACK at $3.99 like I had it, I sold more and I made WAY more. I made enough that I could afford to publish again.

    That’s the other thing that is missing in these discussions, once you pay back the costs of publishing one book, you then have to also make enough to cover the costs of the next book. Etc. You do have to pay back whatever seed money you started with, otherwise you are always operating at a loss.

    I don’t think pricing on page count is wise either. Readers want a good story. That’s it. Tell a good story in 600 pages that kept them riveted or 60 pages, it’s the experience they are paying for. And just as there are readers who will say “I won’t buy anything over $5” I can tell you I was and am a reader who rarely pays LESS than $5 for a book. But that’s because when I am sitting down to read, I don’t want to take the time to find a book of great quality in the bargain range of pricing, I just want to get a book I know will satisfy my personal tastes of story structure, pacing, and themes and believe that’s more likely to happen at the higher price points. I suppose that makes me a book snob? 😉 But I know many, many readers out there like that. When we buy a book, we buy a book, and we expect books to cost more than a deluxe hamburger at a fast food chain.

    All authors and publishers are unique. And genres and subgenres are more variables to consider. I would tell everyone to test a bunch of price points and watch your results. Your audience will let you know what’s the best price to be at. 🙂

  9. I’ve seen this article pop up on my facebook feed a few times in the last two days. Great post! I don’t mean to say that I don’t take reviews seriously, I do. But the number of people who review versus the number who buy is a small minority. If I’m getting sales- you see that by the sales ranking where people immediately judge if you’re worth the price in a few seconds based off the cover and maybe the sample read- then that’s what I gauge by. I can’t really afford to listen to naysayers about price. In the end if I’m within the market standard for returns then I feel comfortable with my prices. It’s ok, I don’t need everyone to love me. I don’t need everyone to read me. But for those that do put out the money, I’m committed to giving them a top-notch story. I do label if it’s a novel or novella, the seller lists the page count (usually knocking off a considerable amount if you only have the digital copy up). If the reader decides to purchase, I think they forfeit the right to complain given the price.

    I’ll add that I did feel shamed into cutting the price on a novella from 2.99 ot 99 cents from other AUTHORS’ remarks. I did the math. I was selling more, definitely. But when a friend convinced me to change the price back I made three times as much and only had half the sales. And I haven’t had a single angry review about it. Again, I don’t need *everyone* to buy. I’m not bargain quality and I don’t sell at a bargain price, except sales. I may also be in a different position as all my stories are also available for free on various password protected sites. If they want the unedited version for free, they can have it.

    • All excellent points, Rose. And ‘I don’t need everyone to love me’ should be on a tee-shirt or lapel button that every novice author gets as soon as they put their writing foot out the door! (Not that anyone gives us stuff. Advice; lots of advice. But not stuff.)

    • Rose, I’m with you. I price by length, and I know my quality is good because strangers have told me so. But I still get flak from writers, and 1* reviews from readers who think I charge too much. I know how hard I work, and I know my work is good, and I won’t permanently lower my prices just because a certain vocal minority wants everything (good story, long, well-written, well-edited, well-formatted and a dynamite cover) for 99 cents, or even better, free. I don’t think anyone should. In my book description, I give the length, and what type of story (I write sweet romance, so if they want sex, they can go elsewhere). If someone doesn’t read the description, or the preview, that’s their fault. I have nothing against limited time sales. Sales can help bring in new readers. But authors can’t be slaves to the expectations of the naysayers out there. I think most readers are reasonable, and we have to remember that when we price our books. As I keep saying, whatever your price, someone will complain.

      • A good story, well-written, well-edited, and well-formatted are minimum standard for a published novel, no matter how you price it. Length is subjective. I’d rather read two regular-length books than one really long one most of the time, but that’s me. For a novel, I don’t think I should pay 50% more for 50% more pages, because often they don’t add value. A novel is a novel. I pay more for author name. Cover is marketing. It’s up to the author whether they insist on dynamite. But a cover where you can clearly see how the individual images were photo-shopped together–that’s nasty (cross that out–lazy). 1* reviews for price are nasty unless you’re well above the competition with no justification. Some people find something to complain about no matter what. They’ll complain about the premise, even if it was clear when they bought the book! Some complain about the steamy scenes, some complain there were none. If we can learn something as an author from low-star reviews, that’s good. If the reviewer wasted their time making a point, that’s their problem, not yours. I’m savvy to that when I read reviews, and I hope most people are the same.

      • If someone gives you a one-star review on the basis of price, you can ask Amazon to delete the review, using the Report Abuse button below the review. Comments about price are outside Amazon’s Reviewing Guidelines, because price is subject to change.

        A one-star review because your book didn’t have enough sex in it is a good review, because that will attract those readers who don’t want sex in their romance.

        The thing with pricing is that different authors have different strategies. There are some good reasons for making a book free or 99 cents. But “because everyone else is” is not a good reason.

      • Indeed. I have a permafree book, a novella, so that people can try my writing before they buy. I put my new releases on at 99c during the preorder period. But both of these were strategic decisions based on the information I had at the time.

    • I don’t think $2.99 is unreasonable for a novella, and I’m cheap! Frankly, I don’t know why any author-publisher would price outside of the 70% range, except during a promotion or for one of those 12-page novels (what were they thinking?). Your experience echos what Mark Coker said about sales versus income with $.99 versus $3-3.99, and it doesn’t surprise me.

      The list above on reader attitudes to pricing–I mess with the averages.

      I’ve read lots of $.99 Regency Romances, and to me, about half are a good value for the price, one-quarter are worth a lot more, and one-quarter are duds. But duds are in every price range. The most poorly-edited novel I ever read continues to sell for $4.99 Kindle and a whopping $16.95 paperback, and has an average of 4 stars, and it’s her only novel.

      I’ve never looked at seller rank to buy. It’s not indicative of the novel, it’s indicative of the market that day, in the category the seller chose, which may or may not be one I usually read in. A good novel can drop just because a glut of new ones hit the market.

      I’ve always had a $5 top level and almost never buy a book that’s under 4 stars and under 20 reviews, except for authors I love, and then, sometimes I mentally complain or delay purchase. I think the best thing is to look at your direct competitors–same genre, length, author name recognition, stand-alone or dependent, etc.–then price similarly.

  10. Excellent post. I don’t mind paying more for e-books, but being an author myself, funds are limited! Most of the e-books I buy do fall in the $2 – $5 range, and that’s fine for me to pay as a reader. I do wonder if some authors and publishers are pricing themselves too high for the average reader. I know I would be more likely to take a chance on a new author if I felt like the book was something I could easily afford. But as you say, for the cheapest e-books, we’re only getting pennies. I don’t know if there’s a good answer, unfortunately, but I do agree that it’s shocking how much of the profit the retailers get to keep, particularly for digital files. It doesn’t help that piracy is so common and that entertainment is getting cheaper across the board — you can get a whole month of Netflix or Hulu for $8 now. I don’t think many people understand how we get paid (or don’t).

    • I decided on keeping my price under $4 because that is my own sticking point – the point beyond which I’m reluctant to buy, and will wait and hover till a book is on special. I write, therefore I am poor. 🙂

  11. I know quite a few authors who spend under $100 per novel as their own publisher. Many do a good job of it: they have a knack with art, a friend who could be an editor if they changed jobs, learned layout from a book, are constantly learning what makes a novel good, proofread their book to death, write complex plots with conflict and conclusions, and utilize social media and networking to sell their books. (On the latter, some are shy and don’t market their books to the level the quality of book deserves.)

    But just as many (maybe more!) indie authors have campy home-made covers from free clip art, typos galore (a polite way of saying poor grammar and punctuation), formatting errors, weak plots, inconsistencies, no ending, etc. As a result, they can pump out books at an astounding rate. Their promotion is also social media and networking, and they email freebies and ask for “fair” Amazon reviews in exchange. Who’s gonna get a bad review from that? Low odds, that’s for sure. If they were my publisher, I’d go elsewhere next time and it would be a live-and-learn anecdote.

    Some of these low-overhead, low-quality, high-volume authors even have the gall to price a novella like a novel from a known author. But they get sales, so they mock those who work hard to put out a quality product and price it at that well-researched sweet spot of $3.99. I’ve become jaded, and it’s affected my ability to write and edit.

    • It is frustrating. We hope for wiser readers, who will pick and choose. And who will use the 10% sampling available from the major eretailers to decide whether to buy.

    • I completely understand how you feel, Suzan. But you’re not alone. I think most authors have that one ‘enemy’ (shall we call them that?) with the book that’s doing better than their own, even though they’re in the same genre and were released at the same time, and yet, when you read it, you can’t see how they’re getting so many 5* reviews. And the cover! Shall I say, OMG! Why? Why are people buying this?! It’s easy to feel discouraged by pricing wars, evil troll reviewers, lack of sales, or even comparing sales and ratings. I’ve been there. In fact, I’m there a few times a week before I pick myself up and get writing again. But I can see from your comments that you, unlike so many other authors (probably even including me), have great grammar and punctuation. So that alone is a damn good reason to stay in the game! We need more authors that know where to put a comma! And that don’t overuse exclamation marks!!!!!!!

      I have been in the ups and downs of pricing confusion. I did the .99c thing back in ‘the day’, when low-priced books sold better than those priced at $2. But these days, that is a dangerous game. I find that when you price low, people give you no respect. You get reviews that say, ‘Pretty good for a cheap/free book.’ Up your price and those same people will say, ‘Great book!’ I tried the $1.99, $2.99, $3.99 and even the $4.99. And I can tell you, in the paranormal romance genre, $3.99 sells less but you make a lot more, and you get the respect you deserve. That’s my experience. Price lower than that and the subsequent books in the series don’t seem to sell as well either, most likely because the readers aren’t actually reading the first book they downloaded.

      And don’t even get me started on readers demanding that us high-end authors deliver subsequent books within a month or two of the first. This is just like the aviation industry, where good pilots lost their jobs because newbies would work for free to get their hours up (this happened to my husband. We live in Australia). What happens here is that low-end self-pubbed authors churn out these 185 page novels (which I personally call novellas, but that’s just me. Not judging anyone else), or even less pages (if we’re talking about my #1 arch enemy), and they skip the editing, maybe have great covers, price low and release one every month! How do they have the time to plot out a great story in a month?! But, alas, because of this, us high-endies (yes, I made that word up) are expected to do the same or we get readers telling us they won’t bother reading our work because we take too long. Minority, yes, but this can be damaging all the same. And look at that, I said don’t get me started, and yet I got myself started. Ha ha ha.

      Anyway, great post, Jude. It’s been fun coming on and reading all the comments from other authors, too. In fact, it’s been a long time since I’ve had a little publishing rant. That felt good. I think I’m cleansed now.

  12. I think it is shameful how much money the book selling sites keep! The author is the one doing all the work to write, design and promote, I don’t understand why the sites keep so much of the profit! I feel like the authors are getting a bad rap for pricing too high. When they only make a fraction of the $2.49 price, you can’t expect authors to keep writing when they can’t live on what they make! And Jude, I never buy songs so I have more money for books! 🙂
    I do get angry when an eBook is 5.99 and the paperback is 6.00. But I will pay for a book I really want to read no matter if I’ve read that author or not. I think I go by subject and the blurb more often than not.

    • Even so, self-publishers get more from the eretailers than authors do through the traditional publishers. I understand that publishers offer cover and editing services, and that indie publishers have to do all that themselves. But the value of what they offer is less than it was before all of their services could be purchased elsewhere or duplicated by a co-operative of writers helping one another.

  13. I used to think that ebooks should be cheaper until I saw a post on the time and expenses involved for the author. I do stll have concerns if the ebook is more than a print version – that just doesn’t make sense to me. It now comes down to- if I like the author I will pay the price, if it is an unknown author, I will wait for sales. I do have Kindle Unlimited, which allows me to try new authors, but if I really like the book once I’ve read it and know I will enjoy rereading it, I purchase it.

  14. Jude, I just recently didn’t buy an ebook since it cost between £7 and £8 (that’s £ not $). It wasn’t just the principle of paying that money – I could get the same item second hand in paperback including postage for under £3. Now this book was a recommendation so I was getting it on spec, but I would have been willing to pay a bit more that £3 in order to support the author’s work. But over twice the price?
    That I think is the factor which just adding up the cost of production doesn’t consider – what is the market likely to bear? What other things can you buy for £3… £7 and so on. In a hypothetical world without 2nd hand paperbacks then I guess major publishers will be tempted to push up prices, unfettered by this constraint, but at a guess that could either simply quash demand or else lead to increased piracy.

    • I’m not worried about squashing supply – since writers write because they have to. But I am worried about the impact on quality if the cost of production is in no way reflected in the price. But, yes, pricing a book higher than the cost of the paperback makes no sense to me.

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  16. Pricing has been on my mind as well. It seems now that there are “unlimited” book services like Kindle Unlimited where readers can pay a set monthly fee and read as many books as they like, it is increasingly difficult to get readers to pay a decent price for ebooks.
    I have come to similar conclusions as you about what I need to do moving forward. (We are thinking eerily similar thoughts!) I reduced the price of my 120,000 word novel to $3.49. I’ve written a 154 page novella (clearly labeled a novella), and priced it to pre-order for .99, with full price after release to be $2.99. I am currently writing a few novella as a prequel to my first novel which I will make available for free.
    And yet, nothing is free when it comes to creating these books. We pay substantially with our time and money to create these works, even the novellas. As much as we, the authors, worry about making money on our investment, we really do want our books to be read. Most of us are willing to make less just to ensure our books don’t find themselves dropped in an abyss far away from reader’s eyes.
    Pricing is a tricky thing and the market keeps changing and reinventing itself. I try to stay optimistic that somehow I’ll find my niche and be able to keep rolling with the tides.

  17. Jude, re your pricing your novella at $2.49: If you’re going to price at $2.49, put it up to $2.99. $2.49 is 35% royalty, $2.99 is 50% royalty. That’s a huge difference for an extra 50 cents. If someone can pay $2.49, they can kick in another 50 cents. Whatever price you set, someone will scream.

      • I’ve gotten flak on my pricing and length, too. I get very angry, but I’m not going to lower my prices just because one person, or several, doesn’t like them. People have awful fits over a few cents. That’s their problem.

      • People who will cheerfully pay a dollar for a single 3 minute song, blink about paying a couple of dollars for several hours reading? What’s with that?

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