Prices have never been lower. Even big name new releases are being deeply discounted for the holidays, creating an environment for many authors where it’s a choice between the new Grisham, or their novel – not a tough one for readers, really.
Every day there are more blogs and articles decrying the sorry state of affairs that was unleashed when the DOJ mandated an end to price fixing. The good news being that it’s never been a better time to be a reader, as content, and I mean quality content, is being blown out like bargain basement discards.
That’s not so good for publishers, whose margins will be hit, and is especially bad news for indie authors, for whom pricing was the preferred weapon in their limited arsenal.
And I think it’s awesome.
All of it. Why? Because any mook can sell on price. It’s the first thing beginning sales people learn: selling on price is the easiest thing in the world, presuming there’s any market at all for the product, and the discount’s meaningful.
When I first started eying self-publishing, it was 2010, and selling based on price was the rage. Amanda Hocking and John Locke were seeing 200, 300, 400K units shifted in a relatively short time, largely based on their .99 price.
But a funny thing happened by the time I decided to jump in mid-2011. Already, selling books at .99 wasn’t working as it had the prior year. There was an increasing perception that .99 equated to junk. And if you put your work in that pricing tier, you were basically declaring it to be sub-par crap to an increasingly skeptical audience. There were exceptions to this rule, but frankly, readers caught on pretty quick, and as the novelty of being able to buy a book for .99 wore off, so did the tactic as an effective marketing practice. By the end of 2011, .99 was deader than Elvis.
Then along came free. Amazon’s Select program enabled authors to give away their books for free for 5 days, in exchange for exclusivity. The floodgates of downloads opened as shoppers raced to get theirs. Imagine…being able to get as many books as you wanted, at NO COST!
Which also started waning within six months, as Amazon began neutering the algorithms and free runs no longer had the post-sales bounce they had in December, 2011. I should know. I used the Select freebies as well as anyone ever did – I was running a new promo about every 10 days or so, and with my growing backlist, I could do it without repeating myself and saturating a title’s market. I went from literally dismal sales to stellar in one year. Woohoo! I was a contendah!
And then a funny thing happened. The novelty of free started fading, and it yielded lower and lower results as readers figured out they’d downloaded enough books to last ten lifetimes – most of which they would never get around to reading. I know. I’ve got probably 150 titles on my kindle, aside from the maybe 40 I still have to read from authors who sent me work I committed to looking at – and which I’m about a year behind on, now, because I suck. Point being I’m not an outlier – everyone I talk to has the same kindle cloggage.
And so free stopped being very viable. Enter perma-free, wherein you put the first book in a series free, hoping to gain visibility, give the reader a taste of your work, and lure them into purchasing the rest of the series. Which worked brilliantly. Especially when coupled with an ad in Bookbub.
Only that’s so 2013. Just as 2012 was the year of free, and 2011 was the year of .99, and 2010 was the year of, “holy crap, books don’t cost $15 any more!”
Now we’re seeing the perma-free strategy being adopted by most prolific authors, thousands of titles to choose from, and so…it’s losing effectiveness.
Because as the market matures, readers are becoming more selective. They’ve grown to understand that their most valuable commodity isn’t a few bucks, or a few MB of memory space – it’s their time.
And when you finally realize that time’s precious, and that books aren’t fungible – some are much better than others – you don’t waste your time with anything that doesn’t resonate with you, and doesn’t have the traits you demand out of a book. For me, that means a distinctive voice, quality editing, a compelling story, and an overall professional package.
I’ve long resisted the notion that I should reduce prices in an attempt to gain visibility (aside from the occasional sale). At <$5 for my backlist, prices are already reasonable. I’ve heard arguments that I could attract more readers if I lowered my backlist to $3.99, or $2.99, or .99, but guess what? Been there, done that, and I don’t. Apparently those interested in reading my work don’t really care whether it’s .99 or $4.99, and frankly, they seem much more willing to read it sooner if they spend a few more bucks on it. For a reason: their time is far more valuable than a measly buck here or there. As is mine.
Don’t get me wrong. When I see a James Lee Burke drop in price, I buy it. I just picked up a James Rollins title (I’ve never read him, but have heard good things) for $3. I resisted doing the same with Grisham because, frankly, last couple of books weren’t my cuppa, even though the man can write. So I’m as price-sensitive as the next. But if I’m looking for something to read, I also don’t mind paying $10 for something good. It’s just not that big a deal. Just as I’m willing to pay $15 for a great burger if that’s what I’ve been craving. There’s an exchange of value, and I’m okay with it. My needs are met, and the money we’re talking ain’t going to change lives. Nobody’s going to go without heat this winter or starve because of an extra $5 spent on an ebook, at least not in my neck of the woods.
I believe that trying to gain visibility using price, except in a very narrow, time-limited promotional sense, is a fool’s errand moving into 2014. That’s over. Indies no longer have an advantage. Not when you can get Grisham for $2.99 if you’re nimble.
So now indies must compete, as I’ve been counseling everyone who will listen for the last two years, on quality. We must find our audience the old fashioned way: by writing compelling books that resonate with readers and are noteworthy enough so they want to tell their friends.
We’re in a maturing market, and with a mature market, comes hardship as well as opportunity. Every year, new authors hit big. Every year names we’ve never heard of are on the bestseller’s lists. Lately, I’ve been noticing that those who are doing well are those who work extremely hard, and put out a high volume of quality content. Not content that literature professors will be comparing to Golding 30 years from now, but rather, content that’s connecting with their target readers, and that’s good enough to make the grade. Authors like Bella Andre, Holly Ward, Elle Casey, Melissa Foster are hitting the lists, not due to some freak lottery win, but rather because they put in long hours writing and marketing, and put out books at very regular intervals – some, literally monthly. That’s heartening, because it tells me that work and talent can converge and improve the odds of success in a business that’s harder than hell to make it in.
Where do we go from here? Or maybe, more importantly, how should newbie authors, or authors who aren’t quite there yet, proceed? My counsel is the same as it was 30 months ago, when I began publishing: read quality authors, work your ass off, publish with regularity, develop your own voice and style that nobody can replicate, make yourself essential to your readership, and put quality ahead of all other concerns when creating your product – your books.
I believe that quality and hard work will be increasingly important differentiators as the market matures. Which is good for everyone, because in a meritocracy where the reader is the ultimate arbiter, authors must raise the bar and deliver real value, and so, ideally, the best will prosper. Those who can continually up their game will have a much better shot at a career than those hoping for a miraculous hit.
If you look at my strategy, now with 25 novels out by year end, it’s never been dependent upon scoring a home run. If it happens, cool. But my approach has always been one of base hits or doubles. No home runs required. And I eat my own cooking. I publish regularly, ensure the work’s as good as I can make it, invest in covers, pro editing, proofing and formatting, and hold my readership in high regard. They’re smart, discerning, and deserve a top flight outing every time.
I think that’s going to be the new paradigm. Gimmicks won’t carry the day anymore. It will come down to the writing, even in genre fiction.
Which is as it should be.