I had an interesting short discussion tonight, the topic of which was where the hell the world is going. Specifically, where the world of books/publishing is going.

A major concern for many authors is the free & .99 book phenomenon. One person advanced the idea that the whole pricing model will wind up being free (or almost free) for all content, essentially shutting out most authors who hope to make a livable income writing. Ultimately, if you can’t get paid to write, many will bow out, leaving only those who write for passion publishing their work. And of course, not paying for things like editing and covers, because there’s no way to recoup the investment.


Another wag chimed in that the future is likely to be ads on kindle, or some other mechanism whereby authors can get paid for creating decent work. I suspect that will be closer to the truth. Or at least, I hope it will. Looking at the glut of demo tapes parading as “free” content from every musician with a sampler and shareware editing software, and seeing how robust the music business continues to be a decade after all was supposed to be lost because of CD purchases going the way of the Constitution, I tend to think we’ll adapt. Amazon isn’t going to want to be in the book biz long term to give it away for free. Even if that has been the short term effect on the indie publishing business of their KDP program.

I think we’re all seeing, as authors, the impact of KDP making free an option for everyone with an ebook. Which has created a glut. Ditto for the marketing guidance that one should price one’s wares at .99 – it’s interesting that even the pundits espousing the wisdom of .99 are now struggling to make decent sales at the $2.99 point, having lived in a .99 purgatory for long enough, it would seem.

I’ve played with pricing. I think there’s a place on a book introduction for a short time to price at .99. How long is more art than science – and even then, I believe only until you’ve established a reputation as being worth more. I was at #165 in total paid kindle sales with The Geronimo Breach for a few giddy days in January at .99 as a cheapskate promotion. When I raised the price, sales dropped off. Now, I realize there are many factors that could have affected sales besides pricing. Other offerings hitting. Saturation of those interested in giving me a whirl that week. A belief I suck harder than a Hoover. Whatever. Next time around, maybe I’ll keep my .99 book on an intro or a special for a few weeks, rather than a few days. We live and learn. I don’t think it’s going to much affect my overall trajectory. King of Swords, I went out with at $4.99. Sales are decent and trending higher. My $3.99 roster are selling well, if not briskly.

I’ll try .99 again in a while, maybe on Geronimo, or with another book. Maybe The Voynich Cypher when I release around first week of March, although I’m inclined to price it at $4.99 right out of the gate. I’ll be asking a lot of opinions before I do. But I will state that I’m disinclined to offer all my books on a rotating basis for free, or .99.

The market, ultimately, will decide what my books, and yours, are worth. It’s a weighing machine, that pesky market is. A product is worth whatever the market will pay for it. No more, no less. You can create liquidity (sales) by lowering the price, but if you want to maintain brand integrity, price wars are a lousy way to go. It’s best to just know what the product is really worth, and not try to get more, or less, for any length of time, as that will establish what the market perceives your brand as being worth. It’s either cheap crap, or overpriced. You won’t be able to please everyone. But if you have a good sense what other similar books are selling for in the same genre at the same level of writing and production/editing/cover, you should know what yours is worth.

My caution is if you are selling it for .99 when the “real” authors are at $4 or $5 or higher, you need to rethink what you’re doing, because you might be digging a hole you can never get out of, and tarnishing our work out of the gate.

One thing I do believe is that there’s value for mainstream readers in having a filtering mechanism to sort through all the dross and find quality books. It’s no secret that many free or cheap books are lousy, or marginal. People are generally surprised when they aren’t. I believe there will ultimately be a value proposition someone will pay for to find the decent, so they don’t have to sort through 100 duds to find a winner. What that mechanism is, I’m not sure. It’s not going to be Big 6 traditional publishing houses trying to get $12.99 for something that is presumably reasonably edited, and may also suck. There’s value in the filter, but for many, not THAT much value. Somewhere, my hunch says in the $5 range, there may be a middle ground. I don’t pretend to know. Or maybe the business will go to the ad driven model, where advertisers pay to be in your book based on the demand. Whatever it is, there will be a mechanism whereby authors of merit get paid. It’s just the intermediaries that will make a lot less. At least, that would be my hope.

Having said that, I do think that free is here to stay, until Amazon pulls the plug on it. At some point they’ll look at their overall book sales declining versus whatever they hoped to make off KDP, and some bright lad will figure out that it’s not a good direction. Or maybe not. I have two titles for free at the moment, purely as promotional loss leaders, and ironically, neither in KDP – the philosophy behind my free titles being that if you try my work, a substantial portion of you will not mind parting with the cost of a cup of coffee for more of it. So far that’s working, but I’m not sure how I’d feel if I only had one or two titles. I’d probably be railing against the free thing. Maybe not.

I waffle on all this quite a bit. For a while, I believed that all content would eventually get to the .99 point, as in the music model created by Apple. But that ignores that a song is 3 minutes of entertainment, whereas a novel is many hours. So maybe not. Maybe most readers won’t find it burdensome to pay $3-$5 or whatever for an author whose work they like and trust. I’m quite sure there will always exist a segment that won’t pay for anything, and believes that everything should be free – except of course, whatever it is they do for a living. They howl like spanked dogs if you propose they work for free – it’s just everyone else that should. That segment will always exist, as it has with music – but I note that Eminem isn’t quitting and getting a day gig as a result of all the free demos masquerading as finished product.

So what do you think? What’s going to happen? Are we going to be living in a world of free content, where the real talents fold up their tents and sell real estate instead of books? Or will there be an alternative mechanism to monetize the work, just as there is now an alternative delivery system to dead trees for pages? I tend to think the latter. Or maybe that’s just hope.

What do you think? What will the future look like?


Update Two: At the end of day three of my Twitter moratorium, sales are basically unchanged, as is the trend. Blog traffic, however, has dropped by 40%, signalling that Twitter is an effective way to market it. Also, I’ve gotten a number of e-mails and messages from folks who chimed in to point out that they’d have never heard of me if not for Twitter, thus it works, or did on them. Therefore, I think it’s valid to resume tweeting, but at a reduced rate. How’s that for waffling? Didn’t affect sales, did affect blog traffic, unknown on how much it affected would-be buyers – that’s the sales growth part of the curve. How many more people would have bought? I mean, I can assume none, but that assumes a static market, which it ain’t. So my approach will be akin to some people’s approach to prayer: can’t hurt. There are no atheists on Amazon.

Update: Two days into my Twitter holiday, my sales are basically flat with where they were with dozens of promotional tweets per day a week before. I’ll give it one more day, and if still flat, will be scaling back my Twitter presence to some product specific promotional tweets, a few review reprises, and mostly just me shooting the breeze with whatever comes to mind whenever I have a break. Nude ice dancing and clown warfare included. Interesting, as I would have expected a huge drop off. But reality is that  Sunday, the last day of 50+ tweets per day effort, was down from Sunday a week before by 10%. Monday was off by 13%, and Tuesday was up by 4%. Which tells me what everyone else has been saying is likely correct – social media saturation is ultimately meaningless, and perhaps accounts for 10% of sales, once you’re established. After three days of it (assuming similar results manana) I think it’s safe to say that I don’t need to live on Twitter. There’s no point. That should be freeing for those of us who have been doing so. That’s all for now.




  1. Sun 12th Feb 2012 at 5:22 pm

    I think there will always be readers who will buy the next book by the author they love regardless of cost – and that includes indie authors. Think of all the folks who rush out to buy the newest hardback for $26-ish. Or the latest paperback for a tenner. Personally, I think ebooks should cost a fair chunk less than the paperback. Oddly, many ebooks by the big names cost MORE. And yet readers buy them. Go figure.

    Comparatively, $5 and under for a well-written, edited, and formatted ebook is a steal. Gaining those devoted readers is the challenge. Star-ratings and word of mouth will help we indies get the word out about which books are worth the cost, and which are dross.

    Do free and 99cents have a place? Certainly. Very few products go through the lifecycle without some sort of price-based promotion. But I can’t see ebooks ending up free or priced at 99cents across the board. Five bucks or under? Sure.

    The thought of monetizing book content irks me, but it could happen. Perhaps with buyers having the option to pay a tad bit more to opt out of the advertised version.

    As always, Blake, thought provoking. But I do miss the clowns.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 13th Feb 2012 at 12:37 am

      I actually like the idea of book ads as the mechanism to be paid, although obviously the small author gets f’d in the a, as always, because their books aren’t nearly as in demand. That said, the world has never been fair.

      I wish the clowns would miss me. Just once.

  2. yoon
    Sun 12th Feb 2012 at 10:15 pm

    Do authors still make money when Amazon or B&N offer it for free? I’ve been curious about that.

    I’m obsessed with kindle free downloads. I check the top 100 list everyday to see anything came up with a large number of ratings with ave. rating of at least 4 stars. But I do still buy books at their full price a few times a month (times are tough), but only from the authors I already know about, or recommended by friends, or have good reviews.

    I do buy books at full price from the authors of free books I liked. Having read all kinds of free to $3.99 books, I must say the odds that I would not absolutely hate the book to the point of getting angry are slim. So I generally stay away from $0.99 to $3.99 books unless they are on some special limited time promotion. By sticking to only free books by authors I’m not familiar with, only thing I’d waste is my time but not money if I hate them (not that I’m happy about my wasted time).

    I think you are on the right track. Get people hooked on you with free books and they’ll buy your books, I think. I vote for the initial price $4.99 for your next book.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 13th Feb 2012 at 12:35 am

      Short answer on free? Depends. If someone gets it free on KDP, yes, assuming it’s as a prime member. If as one of the author’s free days, no, it’s free.

      I’ll probably go out at .99 for a week or so, maybe two, then up from there. Rewards loyal early adopters. I’m not greedy. But I want my loyal fans to get it at below cost – which given what I spend on editing and covers, .99 is.

  3. Sun 12th Feb 2012 at 10:53 pm

    I don’t read free books, unless they’re gifts (or “limited time promotions”, of course)

    For eBooks, this pricing structure will serve forever.
    $0.99 for a short story
    $2.99 for a short book (a ‘novella’)
    $4.99 for a book/story collection
    (this is on the algorithm that if 2000 people buy the ebook, I’ve made $100/hr writing it.)

    Print is different, but figure out whatever price will earn you $2 per book. Print sells more anyways.

    I suppose I could get fancy and make ‘New Releases’ books $6.99 for the first year, to pay for the cover art, then lower them to $4.99.

    But, I see no need to worry. Just write more.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 13th Feb 2012 at 12:33 am

      Agreed on all counts. Whether the market does, and continues to, remains to be seen. Although I think going out cheap on the first few months and inching up is a better strategy. I’ll try that on Voynich. As always, mileage may vary.

      • David Barron  –  Mon 13th Feb 2012 at 3:45 am

        I just don’t like ‘raising prices’. It makes me feel like a twit, and it’s not something one can use as an excuse to advertise.

  4. Tony mirarchi
    Mon 13th Feb 2012 at 7:22 pm

    An unread author has nothing but the satisfaction of actually completing a publishable work. The free route, at least, gives one hope that readers will see the work and, if they like and appreciate the content, will look for future works they may be willing to pay for. It offers hope in a very difficult environment.
    Also remember that Amazon is selling kindles while the content is free.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 13th Feb 2012 at 7:38 pm

      Agreed on all counts. It’s why I put some of my work out there for free. The next few years will be interesting to watch. To see where prices settle, as well as to see what alternative revenue systems come into play.

  5. reinharden
    Tue 14th Feb 2012 at 12:22 pm

    As I’m awash in an ocean of free books with 4+ star reviews, I’m wading the seas of the free books to discover new authors.

    As a previous reader of a given author, I’m happy to pay up to $2.99 for an author that I’ve come to enjoy via their free books (especially as I understand that $2.99 is the inflection point for the author getting 70% of my money).

    But where $2.99 is a thoughtless and frictionless purchase, at $4.99, I start thinking about it. Unfortunately as soon as I start to think about it, it becomes a task. And the task is immediately deferred because there are always more pressing tasks than reading enough reviews to decide whether or not a given book is worth $4.99.

    Eventually, I might return to purchase the $4.99 book, but more likely it’ll be swept away by the tides…


    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 14th Feb 2012 at 12:36 pm

      It’s interesting, because I haven’t seen any difference in sales between $2.99 and $4.99. Same rough number of units per day at either price point. Logic would dictate that pricing higher would reduce volumes, but that’s not what happens. Which is odd.

      I think I’ll stick Geronimo at $2.99 for a bit and see if it does anything at all with the rankings.

      My problem, as a reader, is that for every book I like that’s free, I have to wade through a lot, and I mean a lot, to find it. That stops being worth my time. As an example, I have 15 or so books on my kindle right now. Every day there are hundreds or thousands of more free ones available, yet I don’t download them. Why? Because I don’t have the time to read them, so my limited bandwidth will go for books I know to be good. The truth is I don’t even have the time to read the free ones I have. I’m just now getting to books I was given in Sept.

      I think the battle will again become how to rise above the tide, and not become lost in it. It seems that pricing can serve as a reasonable proxy for quality, at least on a first stab.

      • David Barron  –  Wed 15th Feb 2012 at 10:39 pm

        The best available market research (from Publisher’s Marketplace et al) informs me that <$5 is a low-resistance book purchase for a plurality of likely (USA & Western European [& Japan?]) customers, if it's convenient (read: eBooks, on Amazon).

        [I can't find the link to the research, and I apologize, but there've been several studies.]

        For other customers, esp. in Asia/Middle East, $4.99 is less frictionless, but still accessible. I'd like to down-price my books at $2.99 for those markets.

        • Russell Blake  –  Wed 15th Feb 2012 at 11:20 pm

          Interesting. So perhaps $4.99 is the sweet spot for the US. Then again, a few friends of mine have been having remarkable success at the $5.99 and $6.99 point, so who knows anymore? I think it’s like everything else. As your brand strengthens, it can command more, assuming the quality is there. I think guys that went out at .99 have a really hard time convincing the mass of consumers that their work is now worth $4.99, so I’m leery of that except as a promotional tool.

          Thanks for the input. Always a pleasure.

  6. Tue 14th Feb 2012 at 5:52 pm

    I’ve been an indie for a few short months after years of traditional publishing. My road less traveled took many detours. But I have to say that so far, despite the learning curve, both my traditional path and the indie path have served me well. Traditional publishing taught me the process of getting a book ready for readers, passing through developmental editing, copy editing, line editing and proofreading. Preparing the sales copy, the cover design, promotional material. Setting up book appearances, writing articles, library talks, conferences, and so on. All of these experiences — after I’d learned the craft of writing — have served me well as an indie so far. And that education was expensive. Thus, I’m unwilling to sell my work at 99 cents or even at $1.99. Paradoxically, I’m fine with giving the books away for promotional purposes as a part of a plan to increase readership. To me, “free” as a strategy, is completely different from “cheap” as a price point for all the hard work that goes into writing a book. But I have no crystal ball. I certainly haven’t sold as many books as John Locke or Amanda Hocking. Yet.

    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 14th Feb 2012 at 6:15 pm

      You know, I suppose if I tossed off something I felt was a quick, easy, “beach” read, meaning that it required little from me other than contriving a formulaic plot and then sticking cardboard characters into it, with every third line of dialogue a wisecrack and no words longer than “Candy,” I could see charging .99 for it. Some of the books out there I’ve seen at that price point are barely 50K words of sophomoric effort. So is that worth more than .99? Some would argue it isn’t even worth that. Trust me, I’ve generated those, but I’d rather pitch them in the trash than sell them. That being the case, I won’t sell 100K words of well-crafted thriller that has a lot of detail and work into it for a buck. Whether it takes me a month or a year to write, I invest a lot into editing, line editing, proofreading and covers. At a .35 effective commission per unit, I’d have to sell many thousands of books just to break even. So at that point I’m working for the artist, and my editing team, and my hours and effort and ideas are free. No thanks.

      And yes, paradoxically I too have no problem giving away the work for promotional purposes. Loss leaders work. That’s why I do it. I’ve been publishing now for 8 months, and January’s sales were about what I was hoping to see by the end of the year, 2012. Feb is nicely strong as well. So all I can say is that something is working, because folks are buying the books, and most aren’t threatening to burn me in effigy. Yet. That’s always positive…

  7. Wed 15th Feb 2012 at 12:40 pm

    Let me throw this in another direction. If you look at the number of free software applications available you would think that nobody would ever have to buy a piece of software before. And yet, people do.
    Because you find software that does something better than a free app. That has more features, less features, more reliability, a better interface or just a plain damn better looking desktop icon. Yes, I’m a visual snob and I’ve deleted free software that did an adequate job but that had iffy desktop icon.
    If you look at small software companies like 37Signals what you find is that they stand uncompromisingly for something and because of that they stand out. In writing however there is too much of the same old same oh. Blame it on genre readers, blame it lack of exposure on your part as a writer but if you write fantasy and there is a dragon and a guy with a long shiny knife why should I care, I already have twenty excellent books (with cool covers) covering that on my shelf.
    Writers need to get entrepreneurial and start thinking about innovating writing, story, genre, the concept of the book, service, add on freebies, and just plain kick-ass coolness. Once you get to move there pricing is not a question of 99 cents versus free or nobody respects my art but a genuine offer of value exchange where the price is no factor at all.
    Because hell you would pay for that because that is just so freaking awesome.
    The 99 cents versus free debate is a mediocrity debate. Come on, who wants to be more average and insignificant? Apparently too many people.

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 15th Feb 2012 at 2:14 pm

      I believe you’re largely correct – it is a mediocrity debate. But longer term, the real question is whether it shapes buyer behavior and expectations. Of the very few negative reviews I’ve gotten, all have been on free offerings, and virtually all have been by whiners complaining that the free offering wasn’t long enough, or that they had to buy the other two books in the series to finish the story – because they feel that everything should be free. And I’ve had a couple from people who are clearly not the sharpest tools in the drawer, who didn’t understand what an excerpt was. So here’s my take: Free gets you exposure, but the exposure is largely to people for whom paying for a book is considered unnecessary, or who are not in my target demographic, to put it kindly. If someone thinks I’m a brilliant writer, but is going to wait until my other titles go free because they’re of the opinion I should work for free, that’s not who I’m targeting, although praise is always nice. I’m targeting book readers who hopefully don’t mind paying for something they can’t get anywhere else. That’s my value proposition, in a nutshell. A specific voice, perspective and style that is different than your average bear. Whether that is worth paying for is debatable. Thankfully, thousands don’t seem to have a problem with it every month, so there’s hope.

      I think of free as fishing. I give away 1000 books. Fewer than 500 will ever read them. Probably considerably fewer. Of those, some will think I suck a bag of d#cks. Others will be very writerly, and dislike my voice or technique or approach to story. Still others won’t like me for my choice of topics, or the grittiness, or language or violence. But some will. Those folks are who I’m writing my books for. The people who expect more, and reward it when they find something that delivers more for them. Right now I think I’m fighting a battle of simple recognition – but I believe time will help with that. As an example, my sales in January were 4X higher than Dec, which was 4X higher than Oct. So far Feb is tracking to be less than Jan, but not that much less, and I’ve been told Feb stinks for a host of reasons, most notably that everyone is digesting their kindle downloads from end of Dec and January.

      By the end of this year I plan to have released 6 to 8 more novels, roughly doubling my paid thriller SKUs. One would think that would at least double my sales. I’ve been told that’s way low – that if any of the books gets traction, I could see a 4X or better bump by year end, Jan over Jan. I don’t count the free downloads. I only count the paids – and frankly, I don’t count the .99 downloads either, as those are close enough to free as to be free to those downloading, unless they’re living in a box under a bridge. I’m in this for the long haul, and I believe firmly that five years from now, a lot more folks will be familiar with my work than are now, and that many of those won’t mind paying $5 or so to be entertained for 10 or more hours in a manner nobody else does for them. That’s the bet. It’s also why I am constantly upgrading and tuning my covers – I just did a rework of all the thrillers, and probably will do a whole new cover series in the summer for all of them, except Voynich, which kicks ass.

      It will be interesting to watch, that’s for sure. Either way.

  8. Wed 15th Feb 2012 at 12:51 pm

    Howdy, Cap’n.

    I’m addressing your statements from this article and the previous one about Twitter.

    This is what I know: learning about social media has not helped me become a better writer. It has sapped my drive to write in many ways. However…when I look at this period in my personal growth I’m happy to find that I’m meeting people through social media that have contributed positively to said period. That may be all it ever is, but I’m fine with that. Although my drive to write has decreased, the writing I do-do is so much better than it was a year ago and I attribute that to the higher standards of writing, yours included, that I’ve been exposed to through social media. So, Twitter may not sell any books for me, but it will enable me to encourage my creative growth. I’m more interested in building a network of great people.

    The future? I still firmly believe that good product gets paid for. Epublishing allowed millions of books that should have never been written to be published, but I think it was a mad rush towards something new and shiny that has created this glut of “free” and .99 stuff and I’m betting that the graph will level out and leave the “serious” writers standing.

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 15th Feb 2012 at 2:15 pm

      Agreed on all counts. Although I’d say you were missed. But that’s just me sucking up.

  9. Wed 15th Feb 2012 at 12:57 pm


    By the way, I was off Twitter for almost two weeks when I relocated and recharged and guess what?

    Nobody noticed. I still got followed by new people every day and I didn’t lose any followers. Now, I’m not selling anything, but you’d think it would matter…

    Went against everything I’ve been told about Twitter.

    You and few others missed me, but that’s it. And that’s fine by me.

  10. Thu 16th Feb 2012 at 11:57 am

    In reference to your Future Shock blog people will always pay what is asked if they see the value, be it $.99 or $9.99. I have sold only one book and have given away over 3000. In the larger scheme of life it is a small feat. To me it is a book that I wrote that someone wanted to read and was willng to pay what I asked for it. With seven billion people on the planet there will be a few more willing to buy one, also. Will Twitter help me sell more? I don’t know. I hope that all of us working together some of us will sell a few. Some of our writings may just hyperventilate, because they suck so bad. We just have to keep writing.


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