Ella Joy Olsen
(The Psychology Behind Books Sold Cheap)
I started thinking about the pricing of books about four months before my debut novel was due to be published. It started with a conversation at a party when my friend’s father cornered me, so he could speak without others overhearing.
Him (in a conspiratorial whisper): So…you know…I pre-ordered your book.
Me (enthusiastically nodding): Great!
Him: Today I got an email telling me the price has been reduced so they returned the difference.
Me: That’s lucky!
Him (with a sympathetic hand on my shoulder): So I guess it’s not selling well?
Me (stuttering): I don’t know. It’s not even published yet. I think it’s just this game publishers play. I don’t think it means anything.
Him (disbelieving eyebrows and apologetic shrugged shoulders): Well, don’t worry. I’m still excited.
Me (wilting smile): So am I.
That same day at my computer, my Facebook feed was spinning like a slot machine. No less than three of my writer friends had posted a cute meme advertising that their book was on sale for $1.99 and they hoped for shares or likes so the world would know.
I shared the posts, honestly praising the ones I’d read and loved and letting my acquaintances know an awesome book sold at this price was a great opportunity. I’ll also admit that I bought a few more to add to my ever-expanding virtual stack. But the whole time, I was torn. I subscribe to BookBub and Riffle, and I’ve fallen prey to many a good deal (too many a good deal). I’ve purchased well beyond my ability to read. My Kindle is bloated with cheap books, most of them fantastic, many of which I’ll never begin.
It got me thinking about the psychology of sales pricing. I’m an admitted sales rack shopper. The picked-over sales rack at the back of my favorite store is the best place to find an awesome deal, and I always beeline it for that corner. But what if everything in the store is on sale, even before it becomes shelf-worn? Or what happens when I know full-priced items will go on sale almost immediately after being placed on the rack? Of course, I would never buy an item at full price. Think about Old Navy. I don’t buy anything full tag in that store, because I know that, in two short days, my desired item will be 40% off. By continually lowering their prices, Old Navy has diminished the value of everything they sell.
Is that what’s being done to our books?
Since there’s no scarcity of sale-priced books, especially with the ever expanding array of self-published titles dumped into the marketplace, there’s flagging demand for anything not on sale. To counteract the trend, publishing houses play with the pricing, bouncing it up and down. But will you ever pay full price for an e-book? Not if you’re a savvy reader.
I have to wonder, is there a point at which the price becomes so low, or the item goes on sale so quickly, that it sends poor signals to the customer? That this book is barely worth paying for? I’m going to say yes. Here’s an example from recent personal experience. There was this book, which shall remain nameless, because we’ve all seen it on Book Movement, in pop-culture magazines, everywhere. Let’s just say it was one of those books the publishers thought would fly. I took the bait. I wanted to read it. I put it on my Want to Read shelf so I wouldn’t forget it, but I also knew I wouldn’t buy it until I was ready to read. Then, not even a month after publication, I received a notice from Goodreads (aka Amazon) that the electronic copy was on a one-day sale. My eagerly anticipated read was only $4.99. My first thought was not, “Yahoo!” with my finger already pressing the Buy button. No, my immediate reaction was, “This is on sale already? Maybe it’s not as good as they’ve made it out to be.”
Here’s the real question: Did I buy it? No. Not even for $4.99. Because a book isn’t like a new shirt. There’s a time commitment involved when you buy a book. This price drop said to me, too cheap, too soon. Something is wrong. Even at $4.99 I wasn’t going to invest nine hours of my time.
In my post today I hope to spark a conversation. So please comment! I’m not telling you I know the right or the wrong, but I’m hoping the topic will make you think. I have my opinion and I’ve polled some of the savviest writers I know to get their take on this subject.
The question I want you all to ponder is this: In an effort to get our books into the hands of readers, are we diminishing our worth in their eyes?
I’m not even going to mention the mere pocketful of nickels earned by any author whose book is sold for $1.99, though it should not be forgotten. If the publisher lowers the price, the net royalty is much lower, which reduces the author’s ability to earn out their advance; or it further reduces their paycheck. But that’s a topic for another day.
Now let’s look at the pros column. There are some compelling reasons, some real benefits, to selling books cheap. I asked some of my fellow authors their take on the benefits of bouncing prices and here are some of their answers:
- Lower prices are a quick way to get onto a bestseller list, which is something you can continue to promote. Bestseller once, bestseller always, which says “This book is worthwhile.”
- Getting the book to as many humans as possible. Maybe not every person who buys your book will read it. Maybe it will be lost forever on their Kindle. But a percentage of them will. Then, if the book is good enough, they’ll recommend it to their book club, who will recommend it to their mom. And so on! Word of mouth is the only way to truly break out. Here’s a quick example – not about a price break, but I think it still applies – The Nightingale. Before publication, the publisher dumped well over 200 books into early readers’ hands (for free). Now if those readers didn’t like it, it would have sunk right there. But they did! They recommended it widely. And The Nightingale is still flying. These days, people are still buying it, despite the full price tag.
- Price drops are a legitimate way to talk about your own book. We authors spend a bunch of time self-promoting, to the point where we get a little sick of ourselves. But a price break (or a giveaway) is a reason to put the megaphone back to your lips and holler again. One more chance to get your cover in front of an audience. I liken this to election-year yard signs. You may know nothing about so-and-so running for School Board, but if his name rings a bell when you’re standing in the polling booth, aren’t you more likely to vote for him?
- If the book is priced so low the reader has nothing to lose and they buy it, and you wouldn’t have had those sales without the price drop, then it’s better than nothing.
- A price reduction for the first book in a series, or a book by an author you like, creates buzz for their newest title. Low pricing on the first book(s) may entice readers to buy the next on release date, for full price.
Pros aside, I still think we have a problem here. Because I like to work my way to the bottom of something that’s bothering me, to find a solution, I asked myself, “What can be done?” My first thought (don’t laugh): Unionize. Change the industry. Demand fair wages for hours worked and quality products delivered. In order to pay those wages, our work must be priced above $1.99. But that, obviously, is not a solution. Publishing is an open marketplace, full of self-pub platforms, and an overabundance of books. Every sales chain is up for grabs. The industry itself is still trying to come to terms with the upheaval. After much brainstorming, I must confess I still don’t know the answer. And most of the time I feel like I’m simply along for the ride.
So will I play the game? When my book goes on sale for $1.99, will I scream it from the mountaintops and hope for sales? Yes, I will. However, despite the darling meme I create and post on social media, I’m not actually psyched my hard work is being tossed about like it’s worth next to nothing – especially if the price break seems premature or not well-timed to promote my next book.
How do you feel? Is there a solution? Do we need a solution? Leave a comment and let me know!
Ella Joy Olsen was born, raised, and currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah – a charming town tucked against the massive Rocky Mountains. Most at home in the world of the written word, Ella spent nearly a decade on the Board of Directors for the Salt Lake City Public Library System (and four decades browsing the stacks). She is the mom of three kids ranging from pre-teen to edge-of-the-nest teen, the mama of two dogs, and the wife of one patient husband.
Though she’s crazy about words, Ella is also practical, so she graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in Finance. After years spent typing boring stuff, Ella eagerly gave up her corner cubicle and started writing fiction. She has also lived in Seattle, Washington & Savannah, Georgia.
ROOT, PETAL, THORN (September 2016/Kensington) is her debut novel. And coming in September 2017 – WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS.