pocket watch and book

The True Price of a Book

Self-published authors often see advice about pricing their books — not too cheap, not too expensive, as though there’s a Goldilocks price for an ebook. I’ve seen 2.99 to 4.99 recommended as ebook pricing “sweet spots.”

Authors sometimes wonder how potential buyers can be so reluctant to part with the few bucks they charge for their ebooks. It’s only $2.99! You can’t buy a cup of coffee for that. What’s the problem?

I suspect the amount of currency isn’t the real problem. The problem is that paying for a book commits one to reading it. Reading takes time. And time is priceless.

The real price of a book is the reader’s time.

We all know the process a potential book buyer goes through — Hmm, nice cover. Cool title. What’s it about? Sounds kinda interesting, but… Do I really want to read this? I already have 20 books waiting… Only 2.99. Well, maybe… someday.

“Someday,” meaning never. Another sale gets away.

Free books, on the other hand, are snapped up eagerly. Because they don’t involve a financial transaction, maybe they don’t register as time commitments? Some say free books are rarely read. But what about when the “price” is your email address? Are totally free books read more or less than those exchanged for contact info? Has anyone compared the two?

Recently, I read that a potential customer needs to be alerted to a product many times before they feel a need for it, as though an inherent resistance needs to be worn down. I don’t know about that — if a book’s cover, title, and description don’t appeal to me, repeated sights of it are irritating rather than inviting.

Maybe when a potential buyer is teetering on the brink, the sight of one more promo of the book creates the “Oh all right, I’ll buy it!” moment.

Advertising is a huge business, involving clever people with backgrounds in psychology and brain science. Some indie authors may decide to pay attention to these fields, but it’s unlikely that many have the resources to make practical use of such research.

So what’s an author to do?

If the reader’s time is the real price, one answer may be to write books that go down easy — quick reads with lots of action and stripped-down prose. Fifty thousand words priced at 0.99 may be more appealing than 100K words at any price. Especially if a glance at the first few pages shows multi-syllabic words woven into long, elaborate sentences.

I should have written this post before I wrote my books.

SWCF 2019

Nevertheless, all those long books are available for FREE. Only until 11:59 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on January 1st, 2020. And only at the Smashwords store. Click HERE.

Image by Tentes from Pixabay


  1. I sell my ebooks for $2.77. Are they worth it? No. That’s why I don’t actively peddle them. They’re great stories, for sure. But the writing is sub-par. I’m half proud, half embarrassed of them.

    When I finally do write something worthy of the time it takes to consume it — of those whose opinions I value — I’ll push and push it. But it won’t be for the money. I can’t see how anyone who writes and publishes independently can propose to write for a living. Are you independently wealthy? Retired? A trust-fund baby? A bank-robber?

    I’ve picked up loads of cheap and free indies. None of them have led me past the first chapter. They are all sub-par, just like my own. And yes, it is time that I refuse to waste on sub-par reading. It’s a quandary, I’ll admit: refusing the read the brothers of the very shlock I write and sell.

    Someday, though. Someday…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Very few writers, indie or trad pubbed, make enough money from their writing to live on. Most have some other source of income. Indies actually spend money (editors, cover image designers, advertising) on their writing/publishing efforts. I don’t spend much or make much, but that’s okay. (And no, I’m not a bank robber.)
      I’ve acquired some free/cheap indie-published ebooks that were a pleasure to read. And some that weren’t.
      It’s good for a writer to have high standards and low expectations.
      Thanks for your thoughts on this!

      Liked by 3 people

    2. I have read a lot of very rubbishy traditionally published books. Some famous authors who write series give me a series feeling of “I’ve read this before”. There are lots of excellent Indie books and writers out there so I find you sweeping comment above a bit strange. I am a notable reader. I read a huge amount of classic books and I have written tutorials on them so I think I can comment about the worthiness of books. Many Indie authors publish independently because they value the freedom of writing what they want and not to the limited formula advocated by the traditional publishing houses.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. Hear, hear.
        I’ve written about the lit.agent/traditional pub racket and even if I could get “discovered” I’d still think to publish indie simply for the ideology. I write to write, to persist my ideas and stories, and would care to do so with the most excellent writing I can muster. So far that’s not the case. But I hope it to be someday. However, because I can publish sub-par work, others feel they can too. And so we have a flood of bad work out there. It’s become like diamond mining, don’t you think? Hunting fruitlessly through tons of gravel in hopes of plucking that singular glistening stone?

        Liked by 4 people

        1. Okay, so you’re not testing the quality of your writing against the standards of the trad publishing industry. I agree that circumventing those gatekeepers has resulted in a flood of books that would never have been published otherwise. As you say, it’s harder to find the gems (however one defines them!) but they are out there. Book bloggers and other “influencers” are to some extent the new gatekeepers, but maybe each of us has to identify trustworthy readers among our acquaintances and follow up their recommendations. It is messy, though.

          Liked by 4 people

          1. Great points.

            I was thinking that something like RuthlessReaders might be worthwhile to invent and popularize. An Indie-only review site where only the highest quality indie title are given five stars. A cadre of trusted readers would read works and collaborate on a grade.
            I’d equate it to GoodReads, but that site has failed to provide proper title guidance — everything is rated 3.8 to 4.5 — useless.

            Liked by 3 people

            1. GoodReads has other problems too. I suspect the middling ratings may be because many people don’t bother finishing books they don’t like and therefore don’t rate rate them. Then there’s the “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything” school of thought.

              Liked by 3 people

        2. I agree that there is both good and bad work out there. A lot of Indie authors go to great lengths to edit and proof read their books, but, as you say, the ideas also need to be good. Getting books perfect is really hard, I find errors in every single book I read. Good luck with your writing goals for this year.

          Liked by 4 people

  2. A most interesting article, Audrey. Having read recently that the Bronte sisters paid to publish their poetry book and then only sold one copy and that Emily Bronte also paid to have Wuthering Heights published, not to mention the numerous rejections by publishers suffered by Dr Seuss, Stephen King, JK Rowling and many others, I agree that writing is not something it is easy to make a living from. Writing is a passion. Happy New Year.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I think you’re right, Audrey. I have a modest, personal, monthly budget I spend on fun stuff or doodads (or chocolate), so I have the spending money to buy a couple of books each month. But the time commitment, that does make me hesitate on a purchase. My TBR is pretty long!

    Liked by 4 people

  4. It amazes me what traditional publishers charge for ebooks. It’s just kind of ridiculous, and millions of readers continue to pay those prices. But when it comes to an indie book, it seems they’re unwilling to do anything other than demand it for free, or maybe pay .99 for it. Having read some truly horrible indie books, I can appreciate that. But there are also truly horrible traditionally published books. Traditional publishers don’t have a monopoly on quality. Indie publishers don’t have a monopoly on crap. I have read plenty of quality indie books over the years.

    Pricing is an interesting issue, but what I’ve learned is that the only people who will pay “full price” for one of my books are the people who know me. And the only way to promote ebooks seems to be to agree to a discount. I put “full price” in quotes because my full price is still a fraction of what traditional publishers are charging for ebooks.

    It’s a frustrating cycle for an indie author.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I think many indies have fallen into the error of trying to duplicate the trad pub industry in miniature. Traditional publishers, especially the big ones, use teams of editors, book designers and marketers. Some indies can afford to hire similar expertise, but for most it’s unaffordable. We’re engaged in a different kind of publishing. Our main focus (as Anonymole has stated) must be the quality of our writing. If we can’t publish our perfected work with the same sizzle as the Big 5 or even the Middle-Sized 500 (or whatever), that’s another issue. And we don’t have to judge ourselves by how many books we sell (or don’t sell) or how much we earn. (That said, though, it would be gratifying to expand one’s readership from minuscule to merely small.)

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Yes. I’d like a larger audience. I’d like to be able to say that I make some money at this. Would I love to write a bestseller? Sure. But that’s not generally going to happen in the indie world. Just an audience that grows a bit and a little pocket change.

        Liked by 3 people

  5. Sage advice Audrey,
    As you know I ‘ve retailed mine at 0.99 £/$..and done the free book promotion interludes. hoping to excite lots of interest…. Oh well,
    It is an interesting point about reader’s time….
    As I sit here congratulating myself over the completion of the first draft of 200,000+ word Vol III, by the end of 2019 I am left thinking….’should this be Vol III & Vol IV?’…… Not being Brandon Sanderson for instance, maybe I should slim them down…..Maybe I should start all over again and turn the whole project into lots of little(ish) books?
    Oh,the joy of writing!…..and then (ah me) the hard graft of getting folk to buy them…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Those are two completely different (if related) efforts. Better to write well and market poorly than the other way around.
      As for long books, when I find an author whose writing I like, I’m delighted to see they’ve published long books. I know I can settle in for a while with a good reading experience — sort of like the extra large box of chocolates.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. Your last line cracked me up. I try to price between 2.99 and 4.99 and I don’t notice that much difference in sales. I do notice that repeat “exposure” does result in sales, but it has to be creative and engaging. I’ll often pass up on a book (and you’re right about time being a factor); then I’ll see it again and again, and I’ll pick it up. Who knows how all this works. I’m waiting for a marketing guru to take it off my hands. Lol.
    Happy New Year, Audrey. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Writers should be able to make their sales pitches creative and engaging, as you say, but of course that takes our energies away from creating new works. And there is definitely an element of luck and magic (brain science notwithstanding). Thanks for your thoughts, Diana, and Happy New Year!

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Yeah, yeah, quick reads with stripped-down prose. That’s not me, either, as you know, Audrey. And as for your free books, I’ve already read ’em! And I definitely recommend them!
    I just finished a month-long 99cent sale on 6 of my books. I sold four. I’ve had some sales in the past where I didn’t sell a single one, so I’m happy. I think the small uptick is because of my presence in the Twitter writers’ community. I normally sell my books for $2.99. I know that, personally, I resent having to pay more than $5.00 for an ebook, because I consider it to be like buying a piece of air that can disappear in a heartbeat.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I don’t make books available for free as much as I used to — only on the site-wide Smashwords sales. There is a huge difference in uptake between 50% off and free — I’m seeing it right now with my 24 hour free settings. I hope the books are read, and even for a few reviews. That’s the real reward, not cash. And you’re right — more than $5 is too much to pay for an ebook, especially Kindle books which can be yanked back by Amazon (or so I’ve heard). Rather than pay what the big publishers charge for ebooks, I’d rather pay a little more and get the printed version.

      Liked by 3 people

  8. You slipped this post past me! Looking in every Sunday morning is one of my rituals. Anyways, it is a topic that interests me.

    Back in 2015, when I published my first book, I decided to make readership my priority over revenue. I have since publish six books, all wide and all free — as long as Amazon price matches. Because I can publish them for no out of pocket expenses, save paper copies to my beta readers, which is covered by the odd foreign and paperback sale, I haven’t lost any money doing so. And well, since, my books are too old fashioned to be mainstream fare, no amount of money and effort to promote them would likely move the sales needle much, if at all. Judging form my sales when and where Amazon isn’t price matching, I may have left a $100 on the table, but in return, that $100 bought me a thousand times more readers than even a $.99 price point would have likely brought in. And since my review to sales ratio on Amazon is within the 1 for 100-200 sales for non-free books, I believe people are reading them at a similar rate.

    I know that most writers view writing and indie publishing differently than I. There is a certain professional status in being able to sell books for folding money. I guess I must have been standing behind the door when ambition was being handed out, since I am quite content to share my stories rather than sell them. I post my “sales” results on my blog, for the curious.

    I hope 2020 is a great year for you and all your readers!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Chuck. I share some of your views on self-publishing and I think I also missed out on ambition. It is reassuring when some total stranger pays a couple of bucks for one of my books and even more when they take the trouble to review it. I picked up another of yours recently, by the way. Wishing you a great 2020 too! And I do have a post scheduled for Sunday.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. This is a terrific blog post. Thought-provoking. Personal. Not too long. And it inspired great comments, too! I agree with you that “Reading takes time. And time is priceless…The real price of a book is the reader’s time.” I feel that way about my blog posts. I am always grateful and gently amazed that anyone devotes a minute or two of their precious time to reading/listening to one of my blog posts. In the music world, the digital revolution of the last decade+ has hugely lowered income streams from recorded music — since it can be found for free in so many places online, who wants to pay anything for it? I’ve made peace with the fact that I make money almost all of my money from live performances (at clubs, libraries, retirement communities, coffee houses, memory cafes, etc.) and share almost all of the music I record as a labor of love in hopes that it might influence someone else’s day in a modestly positive way. Onward and upward!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much! I’m pleased that this post sparked some good discussion-type comments. I have to admit, I don’t always take the time to listen to music or view videos that are part of blog posts, but I’m glad I listened to your version of Skylark. And I like your attitude toward how your creative offerings are received. Indie authors have to go through a similar process. I think real success is when one is happy with what one has achieved, apart from fame or monetary earnings.

      Liked by 1 person

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