How a publisher can get me to buy more books

by Chris Walters of BooksprungI’ve spent too many days this summer visiting this page on Amazon’s Kindle store, waiting for the price of the latest book from Charles Stross to drop to $9.99 (as of the date of this post, it’s $11.99). Clearly, it’s not going to happen until the publisher feels it’s notched as many $12 purchases as it can from eager fans who aren’t as price-conscious as I am.

But wait a minute! I too am an eager fan, and because of this pricing issue, I ended up reading the book for free. I’m still a fan but now I’m no longer a potential customer. The publisher lost the author an easy sale.

I bring this up not to post yet another gripe about agency pricing, but to suggest an alternative strategy, one that might help the publisher and author earn more money but that would also benefit casual fans like me.

Sometimes I get the sense that publishers think I’m looking at all formats at the same time, then making a decision about which one to buy. But that’s not the case at all; I’d say this is a more accurate profile of me as a book consumer:

  • I buy >95% of my books digitally now, and save my print purchases for special items (e.g. art books, gifts, out of print and used).
  • I’m never a superfan, hardcover collector, and general fan at the same time for the same title/author, so it’s unlikely the publisher can force me into a higher spending bracket by limiting purchasing options.
  • When I decide to pay more than $10 for an ebook, it’s usually for emotional reasons, not simply because it’s a new release; scarcity has a weaker influence on me in the digital space.
  • Publicity, marketing, and the social aspect of reading all help build up a desire in me to purchase a book as soon as it comes out, not in six months. However, due to the points listed above, I’m generally unwilling to pay a 20-40% “new release” premium for an ebook.

I think the publisher missed out on two things by pricing the book at $12. First, by not lowering the price to that magical $9.99, it lost at least one sale from an eager fan who was more than willing to buy the book immediately. That argument about cheap ebook prices eating into hardcover sales doesn’t apply to me, because I would have never bought the hardcover in the first place no matter what it cost–this isn’t the sort of book I want as an heirloom or physical object.

Second, I don’t think the publisher maximized its potential revenue from those superfans who can’t wait to read an author’s latest book, and who aren’t nearly as price sensitive as casual fans like me. I know from reading the author’s blog that he had a draft of this book turned in nearly a year ago, well before the original deadline, and that subsequently the publishing date for this title was pushed up by several months. This seems an easy win for the publisher: offer exclusive early access to the latest title in a series for a premium price. Instead, Penguin only priced the ebook $2 higher than “normal” Kindle prices and stuck with a traditional release window. I think superfans would have been willing to pay far more for immediate access–especially if the book wasn’t available anywhere else at the time.

Based simply on my own buying behaviors, here’s how I’d sell books these days:

First, I’d collect all those high-value sales up front by releasing an “exclusive preview” ebook edition for $20 or more before the hardcover comes out. I might include a special preface from the author, or deleted chapters, or editor’s notes–something to give it the stink of premium and further entice superfans.

I’d release the hardcover next, at least a month after that exclusive preview edition, at standard hardcover prices. I’d make sure it looks nice and is well made, because the people who buy this are buying it for its physical qualities as much as for what’s printed on its pages.

At the same time, I’d release the standard ebook at that magical $9.99 price point that makes readers like me hit the “Buy now with 1-Click” button without hesitation. I’d skip that $12-14 price point; it makes the publisher look greedy (yes, I know, publishers hate it when customers think that way, but it’s How Things Work), and it drives away easy sales from readers like me. That exclusive ebook edition would have already captured the superfans’ dollars, and casual fans would never buy the hardcover anyway.

Adding a $2 “new release tax” to an ebook just kills the sale–and in 2010, you’re not only losing customers to libraries but also to pirated versions of those ebooks. I checked: yes, the title in question is already available in pirated format as well as library format. It takes nearly the same amount of time to download a pirated copy as it does to buy a legitimate copy, which I think drastically reduces the ability of a publisher to use scarcity to force hardcover/”new release ebook” sales. Ebooks in general really wreak havoc on that whole scarcity thing.

Maybe I don’t fit the average consumer profile, I don’t know. But I do know that if publishers offered more targeted price points at the right time in the release cycle, they’d get me to spend a lot more on books.

4 Comments on How a publisher can get me to buy more books

  1. While I’m not an e-book reader, I do think your idea is extremely smart. I think the publishers can definitely make a good profit off releasing the “sneak peak” at a higher cost, and the actual release at the lower cost (and then, of course, the hardcover equivalent). Good thinking!

  2. Publishers don’t (usually) sit on a completed book, so the ebook edition can’t be magically available months before the print. A few weeks should be possible in many cases, but that time between the author turning in his typescript and the book appearing is actually spent working on the book!

    Ebook pricing is certainly a vexed (and vexing) issue – but then print pricing is hardly easy. It’s just that all the arguments in that area have been worn smooth by time.

    • They do sometimes sit on books. There’s one title that I’ve been waiting for since last November that isn’t scheduled until next November.

  3. Having been someone who was part of the planning/pricing for years, I started reading your piece with skepticism. But by the time I finished, I totally agree with your plan. It can be done with some scheduling. Not a big change. The big change is to get publishers to experiment with this new model. Enjoyed your post.

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