Being a Better Writer: Pricing and Publishing Options for Ebooks

Hello readers! First, apologies for the lateness of this post, first of all. I got my day started a bit later than I expected to. Second, thank you new readers for all the new reviews I’ve picked up in recent weeks! They’ve been wonderful to see popping up, and with impressive regularity as well! As always, thank you for sharing your thoughts on my work, as there exists a whole spectrum of people out there who find new works to read based on reviews and ratings. The more there are, the easier it is for those people to make their decision.

Granted, my reviews being massively positive certainly doesn’t hurt. Colony is absolutely spreading as a must-read Sci-Fi in a lot of circles, from the sound of it!

So, a big thank you to everyone leaving reviews and telling their friends about Colony and my other works. Their popularity continues to grow!

All right, back-slapping part of this post ever. Let’s talk writing. Or in today’s case, publishing. Because today we’re talking about the final topic on Topic List #14, and it’s a contentious one.

Yes, you read that properly: Book Pricing can be contentious, and no, I just don’t mean with readers (thought that’s certainly true). It’s a dicey topic among authors as well. Just this last LTUE I ended up participating in a somewhat heated debate over book pricing and what would or “would not” work. It never moved past the stage of debate, but heated it was, with one author declaring to another that they had effectively destroyed their own career over their prices … even though the numbers didn’t support that.

What I’m getting at here is that no matter what I write, even trying to show the various
“styles” of publication pricing that are out there right now, someone is likely going to show up, read it, and think “Well that’s all wrong!” And perhaps even comment with their own opinions and thoughts on the matter about why one is right or wrong.

Why? Because publishing is basically a straight-up stormy sea right now, with everyone clinging to their own raft or boat to ride out the waves as the entire industry undergoes a lot of change. Sands, Simon and Schuster is up for sale, and could cease to exist, being the first of the big publishers to collapse (they’re up for sale as their parent company, Viacom, doesn’t see print as an area they wish to be involved in, and S&S has been delivering steady losses now for three decades).

So yes, there are a lot of conflicting opinions out there about book pricing and availability because the market right now has never been in such upheaval. So today, we’re going to talk about a couple of the different approaches there are to pricing your book and figuring out a cost.

Now, two words of caution before we begin: This is something you should could be considering even before your book is done. Why? Because some of these options will affect how your book is written. So you should at least have in the back of your mind a basic idea of “That’s what I’d like to go for” because deciding after the book is written, edited, etc, may make for a lot of changes. Changes to the level of “complete rewrite” in order to have a functioning product.

Second, this will not cover everything or every approach. Publishing right now is in such a flux that it’d be impossible for me to cover every approach, so don’t take what’s offered here as a the “only ways” to price and publish a book. For all I know there’s a young author out there who’s about to release a book in an entirely new way that’ll hit this list like a broadside wave out of the storm. But I can give you the methods of pricing and publication that I’m familiar with.

So, with that all in mind, let’s look at some various approaches to pricing and publishing your book.

The Serial Format

Right, I’m going to start with an older publishing model (at least in ebook terms) that boomed about fifteen years ago but now may be on its way out: The Serial Format.

Basically, the idea is this. You write one book. Maybe it’s mega-long, maybe it’s not. But you write one big story. Then you chop it up into pieces, the “episodes” of your serial, and sell them bit by bit. One comes out each month, or half-month, like clockwork, and your readers always have a new book to buy.

In other words, you take a novel that’s 120,000 words long, and you chop it into three pieces roughly 40,000 words long. You restructure each portion so that you’ve got a mini rise-middle-fall in each book, and then you sell each one as a piece, and at a very low price … just not low enough that you’d make less or equal to if you sold it as one whole book; the idea here is to make a little more.

Okay, first a little bit of why before we get into the pricing. This option is attractive for a lot of authors for two reasons: The first is that it is the more lucrative option (or at least was, but more on that in a minute). Second is that it allows an author to maintain a steady “presence” in front of their readers. After all, if they can write 120,000 words every, say, four months (that’s only 30,000 words a month, well within range for most authors), and get into a good rhythm with their editing and publishing, then they can have a “new book” coming out almost each month. Which means that they have a very good chance of appearing in the “new release” window as often as possible.

Nearly free advertising, in other words. Since many people do browse “new” sections to find new content, this approach means that their book will often be in emails about new releases, on front pages of “here’s what’s new” etc. Basically it ensures that there will always be something in front of the reader saying “I’m new and cool, buy me now!”

But there’s that first option to consider as well: This is, or at least was (it’s up for debate these days) the more lucrative option for many authors. Those early ebook sellers that made millions? Many of them used the serial approach because it appeared cheaper while in the long run making them more money.

Here’s why: Locking readers into a series meant that many wouldn’t do the math. At least, not right away. So what you’d see with these serial books was that they’d sell for a dollar or so less than other non-serial books. Whatever the average was, someone looking to use this publishing method would find it, then drop the price of their “episodes” accordingly.

They could even go a step further and “tier” the pricing. This was extremely common in the early days of the ebook rush (but less common now, and I’ll get into that in a moment). Someone would take this 120,000 word book in three parts and make the first part free. Anyone could read it at no cost. The second part would be a dollar or two less than the average “full book,” as would the third part.

If you do the math there, you can see why this was lucrative. The “book” would appear cheaper at first, with a free first entry and then two slightly cheaper entries. But by the time a reader had bought all three, they would have actually paid more than the regular book it was being compared to.

To demonstrate, say a “normal” ebook at the time, non-serial, was $5. The serial in three parts would come at the following prices: Free, $3, $4. For a total of $7. Both are the same size in the end (barring some padding to cut the serial into proper pieces). But one makes the author a bit more.

Now, this does come with some drawbacks. The first and most notable being that authors who publish in this manner do not benefit from Kindle Unlimited very well. From what I’ve gathered speaking to authors still publishing using this method, they tend to see very low returns from KU, as KU bases its pay on a per-page read basis, and a serials divided nature means that it sees a massive drop in revenue compared to simply sales.

**Note that it wasn’t always so. Back in the day KU paid on completion of a book, not on pages read, and that lead to serials proliferating even further, seeing one book split into as many as ten or fifteen. Naturally Amazon closed that loophole quickly.**

So basically, if this is the option you’re going for, you’ll need to know several things: How many pieces you can cut your book into, the “average” price of comparable books you’ll want to undercut, and how to “scale” those prices so that you make more overall.

Additionally, you’ll need to be aware that you’re sacrificing Kindle Unlimited or other similar subscription services (there’s got to be another out there) in favor of direct sales being your only viable market. You will be hunting serial readers here, and serial readers solely.

You also are going to be limited in the prices you can charge. Not only will selling a book in this way temper your market (IE your audience will expect certain prices for good or ill), but you also may find that you’re limited in your price range by royalty restrictions.

In other words, if this is the approach you want to use, you’ll need to do your research and preparation up front.

On the other hand, you’ll always have something new coming out once you settle into a groove, and there are dedicated serial readers out there that love this kind of content.

Now, a caution on this: As I said above, this method may be on its way out, or at least to reduced numbers, and is certainly far less common than it once was. The reason being that readers aren’t fools, and over time a lot of readers who weren’t fans of the serial market realized that this is what they were buying into, and at high cost. And when they discovered that, some reacted accordingly. It’s not uncommon to find old serial series on say, Amazon, that show a trend over the course of the their lifetime reviews: The early free books began with lots of very high ratings. The first ones that came at a price have slightly lower reviews. The ending books? They bounce between very high reviews from readers that like the serial format … and low reviews from readers that have realized they’ve spent anywhere from $3-$15 more on a “single book” and are extremely unhappy with that discovery.

Furthermore, I’ve seen some of that moving toward new books from those authors as well, where the freebie for a new series hits and sees middling reviews from people who acknowledge that they already know they’re going to have to both wait and shell out more than a normal book would cost to see the ending, and warning people away.

Eventually, readers will figure it out, and I’ve heard grumbling from authors using this method that things might be a bit “unstable” (though often they blame it on other elements) and that they’re not sure what the future will bring. That said, authors using the serial approach seem to zealously defend it, so if you end up in a conversation with someone who’s publishing this way, don’t be surprised when they tell you that this is the only way to publish a book, the only way to make money, and if you take any other approach you’re hurting the industry as a whole (yes, I’ve been told this multiple times by several different serial authors, actually).

Now, because it’s decreasing at the moment does that mean it will vanish? Of course not. Fans of serial releases are still a market. And this approach does have it’s upsides, even if it balances out so that the cost ends up roughly equivalent at some point in the future. That free advertising of something coming out every month, remember?

Undercut the Market Format

All right, let’s talk about another option that’s pretty popular, and if I’m honest, slightly misnamed (though for a while it wasn’t): the Undercut the Market format.

Where Serial releases a new title every month, Undercut doesn’t do that. Instead, Undercut takes a book as a whole, single release, and then sells it lower than the competition.

Or at least, did. Prices had to stop falling at some point, but a lot of new entries will still use this approach. Get two, three books out there a year (basically the same output as a serial, but in whole releases rather than chunks). Price them low, with the idea that you’ll make up the loss in volume.

This approach is why you see debute novels starting at something like $2-3 on Amazon. You really can’t go much lower and still even have a prayer of breaking even, so you go as low as you can hoping that readers will be drawn in by “Hey, it’s only $3” a give it a shot. A lot of them.

Granted, there’s a who ecosystem of books in this price range. So they’re not really “undercutting” the market. At least, no anymore. Back with ebooks were new and the publishers hadn’t caught on to how much it would change things yet, though, “undercut” was the name of the game. Trad Pub backlog available starting at $6? Bring your new book out at $5 to undercut that price and get new readers to click on yours rather than the more expensive Trade option.

Granted, as trade prices have hit $10-$15 levels and ebooks following this model found themselves battling their own fellows, prices couldn’t drop forever. But I call it the “Undercut” approach because that’s what it grew out of.

Basically, if you’re in this zone, your books are going to be $3-$5. Probably until inflation climbs high enough that a bunch collectively “rebel” and adjust prices. But this is what a lot of people call the “normal ebook market.” And a lot of successful indie authors sell in this range. The catch here being you need volume, and it’ll take a while to build a base. But most people who publish an independent ebook are going to start in this range (and often stay there).

Not that there’s anything wrong with it! This is home to a good chunk of the ebook market and with good reason: It’s low priced enough that people will take chances even if the book is an unknown or maybe might not have the best reviews. It’s also low priced enough that most people won’t feel too put out if a title doesn’t deliver.

Here, you can be in Kindle Unlimited without any worries, as a KU read isn’t going to lose you much revenue over a sale, but come out about equal. You have options to play with your price in the range, and you can come out with a decent number of books per year.

Where this doesn’t work is with larger titles. If you’re selling larger books, it’ll be hard to get a large library going in this manner and work your way up to breaking even. A book that takes three times as much work as its competitors but sells for the same price is going to mean that the creator is basically being outpaced by releases 3 to 1. With a corresponding payout being that much lower.

So you are restricted to the size of your books. No big ones here, as these authors need to keep the supply coming so that you have a sizable library available. However, if writing a 80,000 word novel in three months and publishing three of those a year sounds appealing to you, this is the angle you’ll probably want.

Now, it does have some other drawbacks. Backlog, or the process whereby you drop the prices of your older books as new ones come out, has some restrictions. Because books in this range tend to start so low, the options for cutting the price much further than launch price tend to be limited at best before the royalty shrinks to so little it isn’t worth it. In other words, if you launch at $3, dropping lower becomes far less likely.

But since most of the library is already priced at backlog pricing (and undercutting the Trad Pub backlog), this is still a comfortable spot to be.

High Quality Content, Higher Price

Right, most of you regulars probably can guess where I fall simply by seeing the title of this “range” but I’ll confirm that yes, this is where my own books rest.

Additionally, this is probably the rarest pricing option before you move out of indie books (unless you’re a hybrid who can afford to keep their independent work near Trad Pub prices). As for why, well … it’s the most expensive, and that tends to be seen as dicey gamble by a lot of authors.

Basically, this is anything in the $6-10 range of pricing. It’s not a Trad pub ($10+), but it’s not the classic Undercut or Serial either. If anything, a good name for this one would be “Luxury” though it doesn’t entirely fit (partially because Trad Pub already uses that for their own).

Okay, so why would you put your books in this range compared to the Undercut market? Simply put, this range is for titles that are gold and they know it. Either in quality or  quantity (or preferably both), this is an entry where you want the readers to know that yes, they are paying more than the standard Undercut (but still less than serial), but they are absolutely going to get their money’s worth.

In other words, you’re going to need to put a lot of work into each book. The cover needs to be legitimately high-quality, probably from a professional artist and designer. You need to have gone over it with editing passes and multiple editors, probably not just one. You need your books to shine.

Then you have to be patient, because this higher price means that your start is going to be slow by comparison. Readers take a higher risk with your higher price, so you need time for reviews, backlog, and word of mouth to say “Yes, buy this book, and you will not be disappointed.”

And until that slow momentum builds, you’re going to have to really work at getting things up to speed.

Basically, this is an ebook level that’s cheaper in price than 90s’ paperbacks (see this post for a bit on the math behind that) but makes up for it by taking advantage of lowered modern publication costs.

It also comes with some advantages. For example, here you can write large books. Epics. Yet still have them be worth your time and investment. Here, also, Kindle Unlimited (or any comparable service) is perfectly reasonable (in fact, if you’re writing large books, you can make more off of a KU read than a sale, which is always nice).

You also have more flexibility with pricing and backlog. You can start at $6 new, for example, and drop down to $3 later without affecting any royalty restrictions from a place like Amazon, for example. You gain the rewards of having a backlog that can compete with Undercut approach pricing, one they cannot compete with by cutting further.

These are strong strengths, yes, but bear in mind they come with some severe challenges to overcome, namely the slow starting momentum and expectations. And if you don’t deliver the quality people expect at this price, well … You may never recover to gain any momentum of sales or reputation. You have to come out strong, and then keep delivering.

However, I personally see more new authors taking aim at this approach, so it certainly seems to be on the rise.

Wrap Up

Okay, closing comments. Obviously these aren’t the end-all. Some people hybridize. We didn’t talk about Trad Pub at all in comparison. Or Audiobooks (the new boomtown). We  might have even missed a more esoteric pricing option that’s new or just hasn’t come across my view yet. But quite frankly, this post is large enough as is.

In any case, as you finish up your writing projects and start looking at publication pricing, hopefully this post gives you a few ideas about how to approach things. This post isn’t meant as an end-all, but rather to show some of the options you have. Royalty rates, size, costs, and the like are all things you will need to consider (and do the math on) before launching yourself out there.

Good luck. Now get writing!

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3 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Pricing and Publishing Options for Ebooks

  1. Writers aren’t widgets. It does make a difference whose book you’re reading – for the right readers.

    Popular authors on Amazon laugh all the way to the bank – and are not universally loved; many people do NOT like their books, and seem to have no qualm about saying so publicly.

    I’m very slow. In addition to chronic illness, I put a lot of work into each scene – and the editing. You can’t get my book inexpensively (so I recommend KU for readers on a budget).

    I also have several places where readers who will consider writing a review (I don’t nag) can get an electronic version that is virtually identical with the published ebook; but I like to vet those people – having books at low prices means a lot of people try – and then TRASH. Not my thing.


    • The public has shifted away from it. Most readers caught on that they’d be paying more in the long run for a book that could have been one volume. Plus at any ‘step’ or entry along the way readers may drop it, cutting income down even further.

      It was once the way to make the mad money, but its seen losses in the last few years as readers who prefer not to read serial novels have moved toward more familiar options.

      I hope that is what you were referring to.


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