Tilting at Windmills: Pricing eBook Collections

John PhythyonGuest Post
by John R. Phythyon, Jr.

I’m tilting at windmills here. I know I am. This whole post is really pointless, because whether I’m right or wrong, things aren’t going to change.

But I’m a writer, so I figure I have literary precedent to get up on my figurative charger. Cervantes bequeathed it to me.

Today’s quixotic quest is eBook pricing. Specifically, I’m concerned with a recent trend I’ve noticed in omnibuses (omnibi?). Like most of us, I subscribe to discount lists – BookBub, E-Reader News Today, Pixel of Ink, etc. I try to comb through them on a regular basis, so I can see what’s being accepted and maybe pick up a book or two on the off-chance I’ll find time to read for pleasure.

Practically every day in at least one of my discount books newsletters, I see an ad for a collected series. A trilogy or longer series is offered in omnibus eBook format for a special price. And the thing is that special price is often as low as 99 cents. Sometimes, it’s as high as $2.99 or (gasp!) $3.99, but that’s pretty rare.

I can’t help but wonder how much harm we’re doing to ourselves and the market.

I’m a series writer myself, and I just don’t get the whole omnibus thing. If you can get three books for $2.99, why would you pay $2.99 (or more) to buy them individually? Doesn’t collecting the whole series into one volume, or even multiple volumes, kill sales of individual books? If it does, isn’t that a bad idea, since it reduces your potential income?

I know boxed sets are a tradition in the publishing industry. When I was in sixth grade, I got all seven volumes of The Chronicles of Narnia in a nice collection. I’m sure it cost less than buying each book individually, but it priced well enough that the production costs of it were covered. It was worth it to the publisher to release them that way.

Is the same true of eBooks? Distribution costs are minimal. One of the advantages of the digital revolution is that there is a high profit ratio – production costs are low while royalty percentages are high.

So why, if you’re a series writer, do you want to give that away? If a reader likes one book, he or she is likely to buy the next in the series. Why rob yourself of additional sales?

Worse, if you do feel collecting a series into one volume is a good idea, why would you charge less for the whole thing than the price of one book? Even for only a week on a Kindle Countdown deal, this seems to me to be an exercise in killing your own sales.

Here’s the really sinister part of this practice: We’re training the market. We’re teaching readers they shouldn’t pay full price for a book – even when full price is five bucks or less. Worse, we’re teaching them they shouldn’t pay more than three or four dollars, and they should expect to get more than one book when they purchase.

I have seen collections of as many as seven, 10, and even 12 books going for 99 cents on BookBub. It seems that, now, 99 cents is too much for an eBook. For a dollar you should get at least three and preferably more.

And this is hurting authors. If we teach consumers that our product is so cheap they should expect to pay next to nothing for it, they will stop buying unless that is the price they are offered. Suddenly, this digital revolution, which originally was a boon for authors, will be killing us. We won’t be able to make a sustainable living writing and publishing books.

I know I’m tilting at windmills. My complaining in a guest post on Indies Unlimited about other authors torpedoing book prices isn’t going to change the way we all handle it. The trend is the trend, and people will keep following it.

But we need to think about this. We need to talk about what we’re doing. We need to consider this trend of pricing everything at 99 cents no matter how much content there is, and we need to wonder about the consequences.

Because we all dream of writing paying our bills. It may be quixotic to say so, but we need to change our thinking on pricing collections if we want that dream to cease being impossible.

John R. Phythyon, Jr. is the author of the Wolf Dasher series (among other things), which marries James Bond super-spy action to a traditional fantasy setting of elves and magic. The third installment, Roses Are White, just went on sale on April 29. He has no plans at this time to collect them into a single volume. Connect with John on his website and his Amazon Author Page.

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20 thoughts on “Tilting at Windmills: Pricing eBook Collections”

  1. I see your point and tend to agree. But I think the die had already been cast before the omnibus trend. There are so many free and .99 e-books available that I think it has become and expectation, an assumption on the part of the buyer that it should be that way. Which is why most of are starving. 🙁

  2. No John, you’re not tilting at windmills. Yes, we undercut and stab ourselves by lowering the price to .99 cents. After spending three years working at a trilogy, plus the five years I spend researching the fact, and the expenses publishing it, I can’t see giving it away for a dollar. It reminds me of the sales and coupons the public is used to. They won’t buy products any longer unless it’s on sale.

    1. I totally agree with you Lilian. My use of the phrase, “tilting at windmills,” is confined to the idea that complaining about it is unlikely to change things. Here’s hoping I’m wrong about that part of it.

  3. Apparently, the authors who are in the .99 omnibi of 9-12-100 books are trying to garner USA today bestseller (or NYTBS) status so they can use it in their promotions. “USA Bestseller!!!!” Lay down and grovel, you who have not attained!!!! Yes, it leads to certain expectations, and no, I don’t agree with it, but why complain? It’s already a trend. An interesting trend, in my view. Soon, a review in whatever magazine or even the NYTBS list is going to be worth less than a latte (hey–I’m from Seattle–lay off 🙂 ). Meh. The sky is falling, etc. We are now in the midst of exceptional times and who the heck knows what’s good or bad? I’m just going to sit back and watch. And probably make a lotta mistakes. We all will. It’ll be interesting to see what sticks.

    Stay tuned.

  4. Unfortunately, as Yvonne said, the die has been cast. Readers expect cheap ebooks and there is no remedy for this until the practice of free and 99 cent books is no longer the norm.

  5. Markets are funny things. It’s very common for items that are functionally the same to sell for very different prices. These can range from things like airline tickets or hotel rooms – where there’s little or no marginal cost difference between an empty room/seat and a filled one so any revenue is worth taking – to things like haircuts ($12 at Great Clips vs. $50+ at a private salon) and generic vs. name brand cereal. Ebooks and collections of ebooks cut across these examples – marginal costs for more data are minimal, most indie authors are unknown, i.e., have low brand recognition, and as a corollary may be perceived as lower quality. Lowering price is a proven strategy to combat those issues, but in addition to impacting profit or setting expectations, price also implies quality. If you discount too often or too deeply you may damage your brand. Is breaking out worth the effort, perhaps for some.

    1. Yes! A small but growing number of indie presses are beginning to realise what the biggies knew all along. You *can* price too cheaply, and damage your brand in the process. While there are undoubtedly a lot of very good books going free or at 99c, there is a good reason why a lot are priced like that, and readers are slowly beginning to wise up to this. I know of a lot of Kindle addicts who actively avoid 99c books precisely because they are starting to get a, shall we say, ‘reputation’. I would be very wary of pricing my work into that category for any reason other than a very tightly-focussed, limited, marketting push.

    2. While I think you are right about the fluid natures of markets, I’m not sure the examples you provide are a fair comparison to eBook collections and the downward pressure of pricing on them.

      In the generic vs. name brand situation, there is a perceived value by some consumers to buying the name brand even if there is no functional difference between it and the generic. In books, the perceived value is the same as the actual value — more books for less money is a better deal.

      With a haircut, there is a difference in quality between work from a discount chain and a private salon. You get better work at the private place, and you pay accordingly. That’s once again not the same for books versus collections. The content is the same. You just get more for less in the collection.

      I do understand the appeal of collecting multiples volumes into a single tome — both from a publishing and a purchasing perspective. What I don’t get is pricing the collection lower than a single book.

  6. As someone who’s contemplating a 99-cent countdown deal for her own 5-book omnibus…. 😀

    I dunno. I wonder whether the audience for boxed sets is different than the one for individual novels. That was the contention of the guest poster on David Gaughran’s blog a week or so ago.

    And I’m mindful that free was supposed to sound the death knell for indies. Then it was the 99-cent book that was going to do us all in. And we’re all still here. 😉 So I expect we’ll all survive this, too — and hey, if a 99-cent omnibus will boost my sales numbers, I’m willing to give it a try. 🙂

  7. I’m with you in sentiment. I can’t, at this point in my life, see selling an omnibus for 99 cents.

    But, I’m not everyone. I only have two books out, but if I had 10 books out, might I consider selling the first trilogy I wrote 6 year earlier for 99 cents to spur interest in my work and get people to buy more of my newer books? Maybe. Or might I be a person like the type DV Berkom suggested, who wants that NYT bestseller attached to my name? Possibly. Right now, I’m neither, but as circumstances change, my views could change.

    I think all authors have to look at a sales strategy that works for them.

    I know this is going to sound like a weird comparison, but I think authors are becoming more like politicians. How so? Well, polls show that most people dislike politicians, yet when these same people are asked about their own local representatives, they tend to have a more favorable view of them than they do of all politicians. In terms of authors, I think the downward price push may be getting readers to generally think they can get away with paying 99 cents to get the generic book (like the generic politician in poll questions), but readers will pay much more (maybe $4.99) for their own favorite authors (the equivalent of the local politician in polls). The downward pricing trend creates difficulty getting noticed and earning money (as there’s a lot of stuff at that price point), but once you find fans, they automatically assign more value to your work than they do the other dreck that’s fighting for their attention.

    Just my two cents.

  8. Well! Happy Days. Folks, when I see a rant like tilting at windmills, I go have a look on Amazon at the author’s books–count the reviews and look at the stats on KND ebook tracker. Here’s the skinny: If an author doesn’t promote–the author doesn’t sell at any price. The titles just collect cyberdust instead of stardust. I just wrote blog about going FREE and 99 cent promotions here: http://enovelauthorsatwork.com/authors-spew-vitriol-at-free-books/.
    The inference is that authors who put books free or 99 cents whether boxed sets or otherwise are taking sales away from priced books. It doesn’t! An author can promote priced books as easily as a FREE or discounted title–but they ain’t doing it! I invest in my books. Yes, I do. Editors polish my mss. I buy covers from well-known designers and I pay to have my titles properly formatted. My title Finding Home just came off of a free promo. 97,278 readers downloaded the title. Within five days of going back to priced at $2.99, another 1000 readers bought or borrowed the book. In addition, my other titles–all priced between 99 cents and $4.99 have logged sales. Here’s another fact. My FREE promotion did not stop any reader from buying books in the thousands on Amazon Best Seller TOP 100 Paid. eBook Goldfinch has been on the Best Seller list for 207 days priced at $7.50 with 7,550 Reviews. That’s your competition and mine. NOT a free or 99 cent boxed set. I download FREE and 99 cents books and more costly titles off the bestseller lists, too. I luvvv our ebook industry. And honey! I ain’t apologizing for how I price and promote my titles or how I spend my $$$ for books. This old gal ain’t never et STUPID for breakfast.
    Jackie Weger

    1. Jackie, I think you’ve misread me. I use free and 99-cent promotions myself. In fact, I just ran a free event for the book in my series at the beginning of April to spark interest prior to releasing the latest book this week. I have NO problem with loss-leaders to generate sales down the road. That is a very effective means of promotion.

      But I do worry that putting seven or ten books on sale for 99 cents total is a bad idea. How many more books do you have in your catalog after that? Maybe someone with a deep backlist can do it, but if not I don’t see the longtail benefit.

      Anyway, as I note in the blog, my bringing this up isn’t going to change anything. Trends are what they are. But if we’re talking about it, authors are at least considering all sides of the issue before making their decision. At least in theory. 😉

      1. How to promote and price one’s book is author choice. I’m fine with it. If an author boxes a few titles or ten and sells them and earns a few dollars, I say: Good for the author! I just don’t get why I should be concerned about how another indie author markets his or her books. I can hit a yard sale and buy a dozen books for two bucks or less. The author doesn’t earn five cents on that. Used book vendors sell my back list on Amazon for more postage than my priced books. I don’t get royalties on those third party vendor sales, either. Every single title in my backlist is pirated. I cannot see any value in trying to dissuade an author from selling boxed sets.It is none of my business. Folks buy beer by the case, don’t they? And six packs of Coca Cola? Same thing.
        Jackie Weger

  9. As I get closer to finishing the third book in the Gatespace Trilogy, I have the omnibus edition in the back of my mind. The first two volumes are priced at $3.99, and that is what I expect the third volume will be as well. I don’t see ever pricing the omnibus at .99. I agree with you, John. A bit of a discount, yes, but I would say $9.99 or perhaps even $10.99. .99? Hardly.

    1. A word to the wise, Alan: anything over $9.99 puts you outside of Amazon’s 70% royalty rate. 🙂

      I had my omnibus priced at $9.99 to start with. It didn’t begin to sell ’til I dropped the price to $4.99, which is a buck per book.

  10. First of all, thank you John. As a rookie with only one book so far, I’ve found the whole e-book pricing thing a bit of puzzle. I don’t read e-books myself, so it’s foreign territory to me. Your post and the comments have given me a lot to think about. Once again, I’m coming late to the discussion, but here’s my take:

    Regardless of whether my book or subsequent volumes ever make money, I don’t ever see myself joining the race for the bottom. It took me several years to produce The Spark. I don’t want to devalue it in my own or anyone else’s eyes by giving it away for free or nearly so. My initial price was $4.99. Consequently, I’ve sold only a few dozen e-books. (That and perhaps my complete ineptitude at web promotion). This week I reduced it to $3.99. I’ll see if that makes any difference. Granted, I’m in a bit of a unique position, I make a comfortable living as a fire department Captain. I don’t need my books to make money. In fact the losses got me a rather nice tax refund this year.

    If and when I get the second volume of the planned trilogy out, I’ll think about a 99 cent promo for the first book to see if that leads to anything. I don’t ever see selling all three for 99 cents.

    I do agree with Jackie about investing in your books. I’m proud of the story I wrote. I didn’t want the book to look like a kindergarten project in either print or digital format. I gladly paid for professional copy editing, cover and interior design, e-book conversion and website design. I take pride in my own appearance. The same goes for my book.

  11. There is nothing harmful about this, certainly not “sinister”. There are a lot of ways a blowout omnibus can serve the writer. I am talking to an author about putting out a collection of her stuff that now sells for 99 cents, with a couple of more slapped in it, put the whole thing at $2.99.
    I am considering two different projects that include at least three of my books. There are a LOT of reasons to do that. Another way to move a bunch of shorter stuff up into the 70% category, garner new interest, promote other books… etc, etc. There is a reason why people do this. Many of the indie writers who started doing like Scott Peterson and Joe Konrath, made killings on it a few years back.
    Nothing you do “harms other writers”. Nothing they do harms you.

    1. It’s well not to approach this stuff with some preconceived notion of what your book should cost. As only one of myriad examples, I saw a book promoted here recently. The paperback is selling pretty well, with an excellent amazon ranking. But the ebook is absurdly over-priced, and guess what–7 digit ranking. Thus totally reversing the usual pattern by which writers earn more on ebooks than paper.

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