A book is a unique and precious product. One of a kind. Not like breakfast cereal or toothpaste or light bulbs at the super market. These items are manufactured by the millions and sold over and over again. When you run out of Wheaties, you buy another box and it’s exactly like the one you just finished and the one you bought a year ago.
When I buy a book and read it, I don’t go back next week and buy another copy of the same book. It’s a unique and individual product that I ingest into my mind where it resides as part of my psyche, my life experience. If I like it, then I will probably buy and read another unique and individual book by the same author.
As for Wheaties, I doubt if I will ever look back on that singular bowl of cereal I ate several weeks ago as a unique and memorable moment in my life.
If you haven’t already guessed, this blog is about the promotion and pricing of indie books. Recently my friend Claude Nougat posted a blog entitled ‘A Writer’s Life: Can Blogging Help You Sell Books?’
It brought up a number of issues I’ve been mulling over for some time.
I’m not so sure that blogging or social media in general generates book sales. I’ve made lots of friends on various social media sites and groups, and I enjoy interacting with them, sharing info, discussing issues, and I believe there is certainly value in belonging to a community of fellow writers. But from a sales point of view, too much time and effort, too little results.
I hear often that the reason ebook sales are generally less than what we all wish they were is because the market is over-saturated. That’s a factor, sure, but I think the bigger problem is under-valuation. In other words, the perceived value of the product being sold is . . . cheap.
I’m afraid indie authors/publishers shot themselves in the foot on this one, then lament the results of their action.
Books are not breakfast cereal.
Why then do so many indie authors sell their books as if they were checkout counter trinkets, pricing them at 99 cents or, worse, even giving them away as if they were a promotion item at a store? Retailers put new products on sale, or give away free samples, to induce customers to try it so that if they like it, they’ll want to buy more – at the regular price – for years to come. The exact same product, month after month, year after year.
But if you sell a book at a bargain price, that’s it. You’re not going to have customers coming back over and over to buy it again. It’s done. A one time deal.
It’s different to some extent if you have a number of books available, especially in a series. Since I don’t, I’ll leave it to someone who does to discuss book pricing and promotion in that arena. But I think certain marketing principals still apply, chief among them: Perceived Value.
I first learned about perceived value early in my career. I was primarily a film editor at the time in Atlanta, a fairly large market. I was frustrated because I knew my work was good but I wasn’t able to crack the big accounts. Through a series of circumstances an A-list editor on a TV spot for the State of Georgia had to drop out and recommended me for the job. This was with a major ad agency and the account exec was also an A-lister. We worked very well together and the resulting spot was a success. Since she was a ‘player’ in the biz, she was surprised she hadn’t heard of me before. I explained my dilemma and she immediately nailed the problem. “You’re not charging enough.”
“It’s called perceived value,” she explained. “Most people believe you get what you pay for. You’re pricing yourself at a rate that says you must not be very good. I’ve worked with some of the best editors in New York and your work is as good as theirs, so you should charge a rate that says you are. Then you’ll start getting the kind of clients you want.”
It was like a bucket of ice water in my face. At first I was afraid to do it because I knew I’d lose my regular clients who couldn’t afford the higher rate. But finally I bit the bullet and doubled my rate. Guess what? It worked. Suddenly I was the hottest ticket in town and was raking in big fees.
How does perceived value apply to indie publishing?
When a book is priced at .99 cents it says to the potential buyer it must not be very good, trivial, like that trinket at the checkout counter. If it was good, it would cost the same as any other good book (when I say book, I mean a full length novel). When the book is given away for nothing, then the old business adage comes into play:
“When you give somebody something for nothing, that’s exactly what they think it’s worth.”
I’ve written a book entitled Unthinkable Consequences, a romantic thriller, and am fairly new to the indie publishing world. I started by trying to follow established or recommended practices by the indie publishing ‘gurus’.
To little effect.
I started my book at $4.99. I was told that it should be priced at $3.99 since that was the new ‘standard’ price. Or I should sell it for 99 cents to create ‘awareness.’ I did go to $3.99 and engaged heavily and daily in all the social media programs for indie authors.
No effect on my sales.
I even tried a couple of promo sales for which I paid a small fee. These required that for the duration of the sale I had to price my book at 99 cents. Yes, I did get a substantial bump in number of units sold, but since I was only getting 35 cents royalty per sale, and after deducting the promotion fee, the increase in income was negligible.
Sure, it made my numbers look better. Briefly. But that was short-lived. My actual sales remained about what they were before the promotions. Smoke and mirrors.
My book has been priced at $5.99 since my last promotion about a month ago. By pricing it at $5.99 I’m saying that Unthinkable Consequences is a professional top-quality ebook and that $5.99 is a fair price for a professional top-quality ebook. Again, perceived value.
I participate only occasionally in social media, just enough to keep up with what my writer friends are doing and to occasionally put in my two cents worth, like now. The result: my units-sold has slowly but steadily increased, plus I get a bigger royalty payment per sale.
What do I attribute this to? I think Aretha Franklin had it right: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. I’m saying I’m a pro writer and my book is a pro piece of work. I’m saying I expect respect. And that starts with paying a respectful price for my work.
This doesn’t mean that my book is flying off the Amazon shelf. But it’s on par with other indie writers who are considered successful. And I’m making more per unit sold. Am I satisfied with that? Not at all. To quote an old saying: “I’m in it to win it.”
When my wife and business partner Marsha Roberts and I decided to do a legitimate play, “Letters From the Front,” outside of the conventional theater world, we were in effect the theater equivalent of an indie publisher. We bankrolled it out of our own back pocket. I wrote the script and directed, and Marsha produced.
The play itself was successful. But it was a financial disaster. In fact, we didn’t turn a profit until after 3 years of touring. Yes, I said ‘years’. The show continued to be profitable for the remainder of the 15 year run.
My point is that once Marsha and I commit to a project, we stick with it, do whatever has to be done to make it financially successful. We have no illusion that it will happen quickly. If you’ve got the power, resources, and funds of a major publisher, agency, etc. behind you, things may progress faster. We don’t and never have, and we’ve been in business long enough to know that for our books to really take off, professional marketing will need to occur. That will take money, of course, and we’re not there yet. In the meantime, we’ll be experimenting with other types of merchandising techniques until we find something that at least gives us a toehold.
Will social media be part of it? Maybe. We’ll continue to explore the possibilities. But the biggest problem with social media is that it’s primarily social. That’s the way it was designed from the git-go, not as a sales network.
Anybody who has run their own business knows that one of the tried and true paths to problem solving is called POE: Process of Elimination. You start with lots of possibilities, try them one by one, and eliminate the ones that don’t work – no matter how badly you’d like them to. Eventually all that’s left is the solution(s) that actually works.
It’s a journey. But one thing we’ve all proven by deciding to be writers is that we’re not afraid of taking journeys. I just don’t want to spend my journey counting cows.
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I hope you will let me hear your thoughts on the matter.