15 December 2013 by Published in: Uncategorized 35 comments

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.

Why?

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.

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Comments

  1. robert
    Sun 15th Dec 2013 at 11:05 pm

    well said, blake!

    Reply
  2. robert
    Sun 15th Dec 2013 at 11:06 pm

    … or, ah, mr. blake! ;-)

    Reply
  3. Sun 15th Dec 2013 at 11:11 pm

    I also have a ton of books on my kindle. Some I read right after I buy them (wink) and some I plan to read someday soon. In my quest to find a female author that I will hopefully love, I bought The Eternal Wonder by Pearl Buck when it was on sale recently. She won the Nobel prize for literature so I have high hopes she will knock my socks off. Fingers crossed.
    I have a question regarding price. First novel I sell for $2.99 and second novel that just came out is also at $2.99. When is the right time to increase to $3.99? After the fourth or fifth novel when you have a decent readership?

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 15th Dec 2013 at 11:22 pm

      That’s a tough one. It differs for every author. Only one way to find out, though…

      Reply
  4. Mon 16th Dec 2013 at 1:45 am

    Best to you, Russell. Once again, your wisdom, how you go about this writing life, makes for interesting and curious reading. Will always be a fan. Merry Christmas from me and the mutts.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 16th Dec 2013 at 11:35 am

      Merry Xmas right back at you and the pooches.

      Reply
  5. Mimi Strong
    Mon 16th Dec 2013 at 3:25 am

    Write good books? Hang on, I’ll just jot that down. ;-)

    What about a beefy man with tattoos on the cover, clinching a delicate flower of a young woman? I’ve just purchased 989 such photos from Russia for the 989 “books” of 12 pages each that I was planning to publish next year. ;-)

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 16th Dec 2013 at 11:35 am

      Actually, the sad thing is that’s not a terrible short term business plan. Sigh…

      Reply
      • Mimi Strong  –  Mon 16th Dec 2013 at 2:40 pm

        I know. I feel like a sucker, releasing a 98,000 word novel that’s got most of the words spelled right, for less than 4 bucks. :-)

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Mon 16th Dec 2013 at 3:08 pm

          Fortunately, being able to spell, or even string together coherent sentences, isn’t a requisite to being a bestseller these days.

          One might say that’s part of my business plan…

          Reply
  6. Mon 16th Dec 2013 at 6:47 am

    Thanks for ruining the next tactic jackass! Consistently write good books? Nice. Now I have to give that up too?

    Seriously (rare for me), this is a refreshing post. I think this is a core, non-negotiable factor for success, new or continued. The yearly fads have been great, yielding plenty of money, but when the flavor of the year fades, you’re left with your writing and the readership that connects with it. Nothing else. If you don’t have that, BookBub Select/Prime might make you a few bucks in 2014, but you’ll find yourself back where you started. Scratching your head and wondering why your books aren’t selling.

    Your books would have risen without these gimmicks, because of your work ethic and commitment to quality…I’ll throw talent in there so I don’t get scratched from the Christmas card list ;)

    To 2014, the year of publishing more books.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 16th Dec 2013 at 11:37 am

      Yup. Fads are great for increasing discoverability, but after the sound and fury’s finished, what we’re left with are the words. My belief is that if you want a career, versus a giddy roller coaster of a ride for a few months, the work’s got to be there. Otherwise the crowd moves on to the next shiny thing, and it ain’t you.

      Reply
  7. andy holloman
    Mon 16th Dec 2013 at 8:21 am

    rock on….. may you live in interesting times…. i love what is happening……isn’t it funny that folks can now analyze trends in self pub…. u rock

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 16th Dec 2013 at 11:38 am

      Yup, we do indeed. And they’re getting more interesting by the day…

      Reply
  8. Mon 16th Dec 2013 at 11:46 am

    As you said it so well, price is irrelevant when it comes to a good author/book. When I enjoy more than two books of an author, I buy everything that this author publishes. Best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a great New Year

    Reply
  9. Mon 16th Dec 2013 at 5:34 pm

    My favorite line from this, pertaining to high/low priced books and what readers are willing to pay:

    “For a reason: their time is far more valuable than a measly buck here or there. As is mine.”

    Reply
  10. Mon 16th Dec 2013 at 10:22 pm

    I’ve tried all the tactics that most people have tried, and none has worked for me. Like most people, I also have a ton of free books on my kindle that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet. The market is so saturated with free books, it’s gotten overwhelming. I think many of us indies have shot ourselves in the foot with the amount of free content we release, and wonder why none of our other stuff is selling. We are practically training readers to wait until our stuff eventually goes free.

    I’d like to see a new business trend in self-publishing for 2014. Maybe one of us will end up starting it :)

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 16th Dec 2013 at 10:58 pm

      I feel your pain. The problem is that you can do everything right, and the odds still completely suck. That’s just the business. Everyone’s journey is different.

      I hear you on free. But there’s a method to my madness on perma-free, just as there’s a method to my madness in never doing free promos on my other books. I saw a trend where readers were waiting for my follow-on titles to go free, so I posted a blog about a year ago, and said, never again. And I never did after that. It had served its purpose. Time to git along. Move to something new.

      Reply
  11. Tue 17th Dec 2013 at 3:40 am

    Great post, Russell, especially as regards the declining role of 99¢, Select, and perma-free. However, what differentiates those gimmicks from quality writing is the gimmicks can, by themselves, increase visibility and allow the writer to reach a wider audience. Writing quality books and pressing “Upload” merely assures the writer a virtually invisible slot in the vast sea of indies, where he/she might easily remain buried.

    Don’t you think another gimmick is likely to be dreamed up by some enterprising individual?

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 17th Dec 2013 at 11:51 am

      Of course, gimmicks will be innovated by trailblazers. Nothing wrong with gimmicks. I’ve used them to great effect. And they’re fine to the extent they increase discoverability. The problem becomes obvious, though, when everyone knows and understands the gimmick, and it fades in efficacy. That’s what we’ve seen with every one thus far.

      Getting visibility is the single biggest challenge modern authors face, bar none.

      Reply
  12. Tue 17th Dec 2013 at 5:09 am

    I’m about a week or two from releasing my first ‘real’ novel (one that I’m going to ask readers to pay for, and more than the typical $.99 of previous shorts/novellas).

    I’ve been wrestling with what the price should be for about four months as it has gone through multiple rounds of editing. Since I believe in it, I have decided to charge $4.99.

    I have no idea if it will sell. I’m pretty sure it will, but you know, the whole ‘no one’s a bigger critic than the author’ sort of thing. And not that anything I’ve published isn’t worth reading, I believe it is, but I just don’t really believe it was worth charging readers for. I used my previous works to at least get my name on some reader minds, and my books on their ereaders.

    So I’ll definitely be joining this 2014 plan. As a reader, I tend to read books I’ve paid for before anything free (unless it is a freebie from an author I already enjoy). Also as a reader, I have no problems paying $5+ for a quality book.

    I’m liking this trend that authors are starting to move back toward, believing their work is valuable, and that if quality rules, then $5-$10 can be a sign of quality in an oversaturated market.

    (of course just because a book has a $5+ price tag doesn’t make it quality, but it shows me that the author is either looking for a quick buck on foolish customers, or truly believes in their own ability to crank out quality stories)

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 17th Dec 2013 at 11:53 am

      Books are worth what readers are willing to pay for them, nothing more. There’s no intrinsic value to them, unfortunately. What creates value is the story, and the author’s voice. Whether $4.99 is nosebleed pricing, or a bargain, will be determined by readers. Which is as it should be. I’ve got no problem with that at all.

      Reply
      • Kim Cano  –  Tue 17th Dec 2013 at 12:06 pm

        The number one thing that gets me buying another book from an author, whether I’ve gotten the first book free or took a chance and paid for it, is the author’s voice. If I like it I will buy again and price is a non issue. If I don’t connect with it I wont buy again. Sadly, there are very few authors I do buy from on a repeat basis. And for me there seems no rhyme or reason to the authors I connect with. Sometimes it’s great writing, sometimes it’s popcorn stuff. But if I had an emotional experience while reading their work, I’ll be clicking the buy button when their next book comes out.

        Reply
  13. Wed 18th Dec 2013 at 11:42 am

    I believe that is true to an extent but for 2014 I’m shifting my focus. Good writing is key, but interacting with readers is also important.

    With 56 titles out, I don’t have to hit many lists. I just need to sell consistently across the board.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 18th Dec 2013 at 12:07 pm

      Funny you should say that, Bob. I’m making the same shift. Next year I’m slowing my production to 4 novels under the Russell Blake name, and focusing more on Facebook and Twitter and the like. I’ve been remiss this year, and for me, interacting with my audience is one of the joys of being indie. Back in the early days, I interacted constantly, but had to rein it in to focus on production.

      Then again, we’re sort of in a different place with substantial backlists. A good place, to be sure.

      The game’s always changing, that’s the only constant.

      Reply
  14. Wed 18th Dec 2013 at 3:30 pm

    GREAT observations, Russell. I agree entirely, and I’ve been saying these things to fellow writers for a long time now.

    My only trouble is OCD perfectionism, which has really slowed down my output. I got lucky and hit a home run with the first. I’m finishing the second and hope it sells even half as well. But my new goal is to crank up my frequency of output…at least as much as my psyche permits. Thanks for your comments and for your sterling example.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 18th Dec 2013 at 4:06 pm

      I totally understand the OCD thing, as that’s why I have to stay in the story for 12-14 hours a day when I’m writing first draft. Anything that distracts me pulls me out of the story, and it suffers for it, even if it’s outlined. I completely get how physics professors could be wandering around unaware of their zippers being open or that they’re wearing their bathrobes. The more cerebral we are, the more we live in our heads. I’ve tried writing in 4 or 6 hour blocks, and the result isn’t as good as when I’m totally immersed in the story.

      But once it’s done, and I’ve turned second and third draft, I let go. My memory and production is such that by the time I get it back from the editors, I can hardly even remember what I wrote, because by then I’ve already moved on and am plotting or writing another novel. So I’ve very first in, first out. But we all work differently…

      Reply
  15. Wed 18th Dec 2013 at 8:46 pm

    Here’s another tip, stop putting your book price in your social media messages.

    We’ve done extensive A/B testing with our trad pub book deals and the indie authors we advertise. If you write your book’s hook with no price, the reader that is interested in the book HAS to click to see more. When you post” 99 CENTS!!! A thriller like no other! 2 rival rogue agents are really SISTERS!” you’ve given the reader all the information they need to skip your listing.

    I’ve said a thousand times, no one buys a book JUST because it’s 99 cents or $1.99 or $4.99. First and foremost they have to want to READ the book, then the issue of how much does it cost decides if they one click buy it, wait list it, or walk away.

    Reply
  16. Wed 18th Dec 2013 at 8:56 pm

    I’ve implemented so many of these strategies over the 13 months I’ve been publishing, and something you said really hits the target:

    The innovative strategies work *until they aren’t innovative*. People complain that $.99 doesn’t work for them — but it was effective in 2010. Or free doesn’t work for them — but it was very effective in 2011/early 2012. Bookbub was great at the beginning — but less effective as 2013 winds down. And so on.

    The trick, IMO, is to put out work *your readers want*, make sure you have independent means for connecting with readers (your own email list, FB/Twitter/etc.), publish frequently, and when it comes to discoverability and marketing, read. Read, read, read on forums, blogs, industry sites, etc. Find the patterns *as* they emerge and capitalize on them.

    Or, even better: create the patterns.

    I went from nothing — zero mailing list, zero backlist, no capital, no following in November 2012 and in June 2013 one of my books hit USA Today — and in September 2013 one hit the NYT eBook fiction list. I know I’ve sold more than 250,000 books in 13 months (working on stats now as I play catchup on business/data matters after having a whirlwind 6 months). It *can* be done, but it can’t be done playing catch-up on the targeted writing or on detecting patterns to apply to discoverability techniques. Those have to be priorities #1 and #2 if you want sales.

    Keep on writing and posting, Russell. It’s always fabulous to read your insights.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 18th Dec 2013 at 9:05 pm

      Congrats on the fabulous numbers.

      Yes, every year there are breakout authors who defy gravity and find an audience. H.M. Ward’s one such example. 3 million books sold. Couldn’t get arrested two years ago when she first started publishing. One year ago, switched genres to romance/NA romance, and boom.

      Her facebook page has an amusing letter from the largest literary agency in the country asking her if she’d consider representation.

      My how the time flies and the times change. She turned down a deal from several major publishers about six months ago. I remember because she told everyone that it was the hardest decision of her life. And then she made in a month from her new title what the publisher had offered to buy it. Turns out their prediction that she needed them to get anywhere wasn’t so accurate.

      Next year there will be others. I think Elle Casey’s on the brink, as is Melissa Foster with her romance novels. There are certainly others. But the one thing that Holly, Elle and Melissa has in common with me is that they work really, really long hours, as in 12 hour days a lot of the time, and are never resting on their laurels. That’s the new face of publishing, from the trenches. And it’s heartening, because the new breed that’s succeeding are doing it on their terms. As have you.

      Congrats, again. It took me 30 months to hit 400K sold. You’ll make me look like a piker by end of next year.

      Reply
      • Julia Kent  –  Tue 24th Dec 2013 at 10:36 am

        Hi Russell — thanks. And I hear you on the long hours. I’ve never had a job/career that is so fulfilling and sooooo tiring. As I told someone recently, I’ve somehow become a CEO who writes on the side. 2014 is about being a writer again, one who hands off a lot of business to others who are better at that, though when it comes to detecting patterns as they emerge and jumping on them to be at the vanguard, I can’t delegate that. ;)

        You sell at a much higher price point and your volume is amazing. Those are both goals of mine for 2014 as well — so keep trailblazing.

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Tue 24th Dec 2013 at 7:47 pm

          Thanks, Jula. I think you’re always better off understanding what your time is worth and delegating the lower value tasks to others. My most valuable time is my writing time, and anything that interferes with it gets farmed out.

          Good luck with your 2014. I’ve been very fortunate, and am humbled by how well the work’s been received.

          Reply
  17. Fri 20th Dec 2013 at 11:33 am

    Thanks for the great posts, Mr. Blake. I learn a lot from them, so I do!

    Do you share where you get your editing and covers done, or is it a secret?

    Literarily yours…

    Reply
  18. Wed 05th Feb 2014 at 5:35 pm

    Depressing in one sense, hopeful in another. Whichever way you want to look at it, excellent article, Russell. Thanks for the post! Will be sharing it.

    Reply

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