Jul 7, 2011

eBook eConomics: Free-Ninety-Nine

Not good, skiffy fans.

Well, not really. More like good for us, bad for our collective fiscal solvency. Apparently, publishers have finally figured out that if you give people like me (and probably you) the option to click a button and receive an eBook for the price of a Katy Perry song or two, the results tend to be somewhat predictable. Unlike two consecutive blog posts invoking She Who Kisses Girls and Likes It. Who saw that coming?

Let's take a look at three different publishers who have been pummeling my purse money satchel recently (and the slightly different striking methods they use to do so). Also, it's worth noting that I'm a Kindler, not a Nookie, so apologies in advance if the mentioned deals don't translate to your preferred device. Blame divergent formats and DRM. I always blame DRM ever since they canceled Firefly. Don't tell them I told you.


First in my eBook eXplorations (tIred oF tHis yEt?), is Orbit, a publisher whose 2011 slate is so good it violates that statutes of four nations, seven states, a single Canadian province, and a handful of ancient city-states (apparently along with the laws of physics). And the best part? They seem to be willing to spread the love around by offering a different deal every month through their "Orbital Drop" Program, mostly in the form of discounted and bundled backlist books. It's one newsletter you won't regret signing up for.

But Orbit isn't just focusing on their back catalog. In addition to this month's deal [3 of Gail Carriger's eclectic Parasol Protectorate novels for 9.99], Orbit is willing to part with two of this year's biggest books for less than a penny a page. Ten bucks will get you over 1 kilopage of Daniel Abraham goodness with the double eBook edition of The Dragon's Path and Leviathan Wakes. Even better, people who bought the eBook edition back in March received Leviathan Wakes three months before the rest of us. An advance edition premium for eBooks could be interesting, although I don't see it working in the long run.

All things considered, Orbit's strategy seems to be centered around limited time offers on bundles with the intention on introducing you to a few new series with the hopes you'll stick around for later volumes. I don't know what the audience overlap is between The Dragon's Path (fantasy) and Leviathan Wakes (SF space opera) but you can be sure FREE will help blur the lines a little more. And while Orbit does have some below double dollar deals [Kevin J. Anderson's The Edge of the World for $1.99 (Kindle Only)], they don't seem too eager to get into a price war with their bundle deals still pricing out between  $3.33 and $5.00 a book.

Night Shade Books

Night Shade Books is also in on the fun, albeit in a slightly different way. A large portion of Night Shade's output is anthology based - either with themed anthologies from John Joseph Adams, "Best of" anthologies from Jonathan Strahan and Ellen Datlow, or their eclectic Eclipse series, also from Strahan. They've got a problem though; anthologies don't have the same backlist appeal their novelular (it's a word, trust me) counterparts command. While I don't have the numbers to back it up, I think it's safe to assume most anthologies don't demand multiple printings. Particularly "Best of" books which are going to cannibalize their own sales year after year.  

Enter the eBook.

Unlikely their corporeal counterparts, their is little to no cost in producing an eBook "print run" of an infinite number of copies. Each book might not sell a lot of copies during its twilight years but what it does sell is sure to be almost pure profit. When you combine the two (infinite supply and high profit margins) you've got a fantastic formula for lowering prices to generate demand. Which is exactly what NSB is doing.

The latest volume of Eclipse might cost you $7.99 but the first volume is a down right affordable $2.99. And like the cosmic crack dealer they are, you better believe they are hoping to hook you on that first taste. I'm not sure what the driver is for dropping the price point (end of the print run? 3 years old?) but we can all be glad it's there.

In addition to their anthology business, Night Shade also makes a point of using eBook promotions to expose some of their newer authors to the hungry masses [at least for some eBook readers]. Recently, Brad P. Beaulieu's The Winds of Khalakovo and Will McIntosh's Soft Apocalypse were given away for free for Nook users as part of Barnes and Nobles' Free Friday Program. While one can argue that those downloads mean fewer sales, there's no denying that 77,229 extra copies of The Winds of Khalakovo in the wild will generate a lot of interest in a format that can't be easily lent to other readers. Not to mention the boost it should give to the second volume. 

Here is a sample of a few of Night Shade Books' more attractive deals. Sadly the free Nook giveaways have since ended.


As Tim O'Reilly so aptly put it "the problem isn't piracy, it's obscurity", a motto which Pyr Books really took to heart. Like NSB, they know all about the power of selling something for free-ninety-nine. In fact they make a point of it, hoping to make up the difference when you return to finish one of their many multi-volume series (at full price). It's a great strategy and one more publishers should pursue, particularly those that typically traffic in long epics. Extended series have enough barriers to entry as it is, they don't need you counting your pennies before you jump into a ten book tale. Speaking of jumping in, you can try Kay Kenyon's Bright of the Sky or Joel Shepherd's Sasha right now for no risk.

If I published eBooks, once a series went to three books, I would give the first volume away for free (or close enough to not matter). No exceptions. And then watch my backlist sales climb as the new readership returns to the characters they've become invested in. Assume you've got 5 books in a series for $5 a pop - would you rather sell 0 books for $0 or 5 for $20?

Here's some of the goodness Pyr's got going for it at the moment.

Bright of the Sky: The Entire and the Rose, Book 1 - Kay Kenyon - FREE
Sasha: A Trial of Blood and Steel, Book 1 - Joel Shepherd - FREE
Empire in Black and Gold: Shadows of the Apt, Book 1 - Adrian Tchaikovsky - $1.99

[Side Note:  Empire in Black and Gold costs $9.59 on the Nook! And Bright of the Sky isn't available. Are you kidding me?]

Now at this point, I'm sure you're thinking that I've finally lost it - that I'm nothing more than a glorified publicity machine for "Big Book." Don't worry, I haven't sold out, I'm just completely selfish. Every book that I can help sell is another step toward convincing publishers that $1.99 is a price point that works. Which is good for me all of us. And by "all of us," I mean readers.

Authors, publishers, and distributors? Not so much.

So get to it, my expendable minions much appreciated readers. Are there any other publishers up to sales shenanigans? And what's this I hear about 99p eBooks across the pond?


  1. It's worth pointing out that you can get most (if not all) Night Shade Books titles on http://www.webscription.net/ for $6 each (and bundled even cheaper), almost always cheaper than amazon. And, the files are DRM free and usable on ANY eReader.

  2. This may very well not help your wallet.

    Don't forget Orbit's original short eFiction, novelettes and novellas by authors they already work with.

    I also like the trend of authors tossing short fiction from their back catalog into the eBook mix. Do a kindle search for Tim Pratt or Tobias Buckell for some examples.

    I like that Angry Robot titles $4.79 on the kindle instead of the standard $7.99. It's nice seeing an exception to the $0 discount for eBooks of Mass Market Paperbacks ...

  3. But you're not suggesting that all ebooks should be $1.99 all the time I hope? Cos those of us who aren't bestsellers also like food and shelter on a regular basis...

    Am in support of the reduced prices to develop readerships etc, and especially the using of book 1 to entice readers on to the rest of the series, although in my case neither's possible as I'm told there's a corporate policy preventing anything like that, which is vexing.

  4. @tomlloyd - Well as a reader I wouldn't mind seeing 1.99 eBooks. But I am cognizant that doing so would effective WalMart authors into, well, shopping at WalMart.

    In truth I'd like to see eBooks use a tiered pricing model. If a book is produced in Hardcover, it should be a little bit pricier but never more that 14.99 (some would say 9.99). TPB books should never be more than 9.99. Once a book goes to MMPB I think that number goes down to 7.99 (preferably 4.99 or less).

    Then possibly on a yearly basis, books should gradually drop ($1.00 per year) to settle at a fixed final price of 1.99 or 2.99 or something similar. I'm not sure what effect that would have on frontlist sales though. My assumption would be not much.

    And as I stated earlier, if I was a genre publisher, once my series had entered the third or fourth book, I would make the first book available for free or at a significantly discounted rate. Getting people to read that first book is infinitely more important getting the full value for it.

    But I'm looking at it from the perspective of the reader and the publisher. I don't know what would work best for the author. Probably using a publisher for your first series to build a brand and then possibly exploring publishing the eBooks yourself. Or eBook rights revert to the author after 5 years so they can "self-publish" the eBook and get a higher cut of the long-tail sales.

  5. Well, $1.99 would mean those not a best-seller would be likely working at WalMart to pay the bills! I'm a mid-list and have worked myself into the position of being employed only part-time, which is a massive boon and involved a couple of years really stretching my brain and life beforehand. To then go back to full time would kill my productivity.

    On the long tail side of things, I'm sure royalties will be changing again in the next few years, moving to a rising rate based either on sales or income from the ebook edition. There are costs that the publisher needs to earn back in addition to the advance, but I doubt we're too far from working that out so once an ebooks doing well the author gets a significantly higher percentage of receipts.

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  8. Publishers are telling readers that the physical book isn't worth anything and that the entire value is in the story.Except when a writer's cut of a book's cover price is determined. Then the value of the story is minimal.As you said, that's another matter.While the view that the story is the entire value of a book is flattering to the writer,that's not the way that readers see it.To readers, e-book cost nothing to produce. Publishers know that isn't true.Writers know it too. But try to convince the general public of that. As far as readers are concerned,the incremental cost to produce more copies of an e-book is zero.So the readers expect an eBook to be priced less than a physical book. The real costs have nothing to do with it. Design and Graphics

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