A Reader’s Look Behind the Curtain Re: eBook Pricing and KU

by Kassandra Lamb

There’s been a lot of buzz lately amongst my fellow writers about free books and the broader issue of creatives (people who create things for other’s pleasure and entertainment) being expected to work for free for the sake of “exposure.”

I wanted to chime in, but didn’t want to just repeat what has already been said (to see what has already been said, check out editor/writer Marcy Kennedy’s post on the subject and romance writer, Ruth Ann Nordin’s post as well).

image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain

image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain

So I decided to strive to explain to readers why ebooks end up priced as they are.

Free books are meant to be SAMPLES for the reader to get a taste of the author’s writing. One should not expect to make a steady diet off of them. When a grocery store is giving away samples of a new type of cracker, you wouldn’t stand there and expect the store employee to keep handing you crackers until you’re full. So isn’t it equally rude to expect an author to continue to fork over freebies of the books they worked long and hard to produce?

99 cents is a sale price for books. Authors, just like any other business people, sometimes run sales to attract new customers and reward their loyal ones. Getting a book–that an author spent hours a day for several months producing–for just $0.99 should be cause for celebration. It’s comparable to finding a $50 silk blouse on sale for $5.

Kindle Unlimited is a bargain for the avid reader; but it can cause authors to lose money. What readers often don’t know is that being in KU requires exclusivity with Amazon. We are not allowed to sell, nor even give away our books anywhere else if we sign them up for Kindle Unlimited. I sell almost as many books on Apple’s iBooks as I do on Amazon. Why would I give up that income so KU subscribers can get my books for free?

So by all means, join Kindle Unlimited if you’re an avid reader, but also expect to pay for books by some of your favorite authors, who for a variety of reasons are not willing to be exclusively on Amazon. One of those reasons may be that they’re good enough and well-established enough that they no longer need to be in Kindle Unlimited to get exposure to new readers. (I’m not saying that authors in KU aren’t good writers, mind you! I know several excellent authors who prefer to have all their eggs in the Amazon basket for the benefits received from KDP Select.)

IllTimedEntanglements rev 2015

It took four tries with this book to come up with a cover I really liked.

The overhead of ebooks is low compared to printed books, but it’s still significant. Readers are quick to criticize (as they should!) an ebook that is poorly edited or that has formatting glitches. And they won’t buy one that doesn’t have an eye-catching, well-designed cover. All those things cost money: editing runs around $1,000-2,000 for a full-length novel, formatting around $100-250, and a good cover from $250-500. So it takes, on average, $2,000 to produce a good-quality ebook. Depending on the market and the retailer, the indie author will average $2.00 per book in royalties off of a book priced at $2.99 to $3.99 (the most common price points for indie authors). Which means they will have to sell 1,000 books before they have recouped their out-of-pocket expenses.

Authors have to spend money on promotions in order to give away those freebies and sell those $0.99 books, that will hopefully lead to sales of their regularly-priced books. This is true of traditionally-published authors as well as indies, unless the author is already well-established as a bestseller. So more out-of-pocket expenses for the author.

Indie presses and indie authors are a good bargain for readers. Because we don’t have the overhead of a big organization like major publishers do, we can keep our prices down, especially on ebooks. The average price of an indie-produced novel is $3.99.

“But I’ve read a lot of indie books that were drivel,” you might say. So have I. I’ve also read some traditionally published books in recent years that made me cringe. Traditional publishers are no longer providing the gate-keeping function they once did. They are all about what will sell, not what is good writing.

And traditionally-published ebooks are notoriously overpriced. Often they’re as much or more than the paperbacks. Readers may think this means those ebooks are a better quality read.

No, that’s not the reason at all. Publishers do this in the misguided belief that this will keep the ebooks from cutting into their paperback and hard cover sales. My guess is that it just loses them a lot of ebook sales. It certainly does in my case. I’m not paying $12.99 plus for an ebook; not when I know as an indie press owner and author that those ebooks cost very little in overhead to produce.

You can buy three misterio press ebooks for that amount, with change left over.

People devalue something they got cheap or for free. Sadly the abundance of free and cheap books has led people to unwittingly (it’s human nature, after all) devalue authors’ efforts. The number of hours that go into producing a high-quality read are so high that nobody I know has ever successfully counted them. We’re talking a minimum of three months for a full-time author to produce a polished novella or novel. Most take six months to a year.

And yet authors periodically get emails and comments in reviews saying our books are overpriced. Often these comments are coming from readers who have otherwise given a positive review. They LIKED the book, but don’t understand why they should pay more than $0.99 for it. (And some even complain about $0.99 books.)

Ironically, this devaluing of cheap books has led other readers to believe that anything priced under $4 or $5 is not well-written. When I first heard about this trend, I did an experiment. I raised the price of my full-length novels from $2.99 to $3.99. Sure enough, my sales improved, and not just the money, which was obviously higher, but the actual number of books sold.

Writers need to eat, too! (photo of Polish Christmas Eve dinner by Przykuta CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Common)

Writers need to eat, too!  (photo of Polish Christmas Eve dinner by Przykuta CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Common)

Writers need to make money on writing or they won’t be able to keep writing. Everybody needs to pay their bills and buy groceries, so if writers aren’t able to do this with money from their books, they have to get another job. And that job will drastically cut into their writing time. It might even mean they stop writing completely. So if you want your favorite writers to keep writing, buy their books.

Dear readers, please understand that books are our products, ones that we have neglected our families and lost sleep and sweated blood to produce. We’re happy to give you a free taste now and then, but if you like it, please do buy the meal! So we can pay our mortgages and put food on our own tables.

Thank you for listening, and I’d love to hear from you. What’s your take on all this?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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  • Reply
    Prudence MacLeod
    March 15, 2016 at 10:45 am

    Well said. I truly wish there was a way to get every reader to read this post.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      March 15, 2016 at 11:51 am

      Thanks, Prudence. I wish there was too. Hopefully the WANAs will help spread the word.

  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    March 15, 2016 at 10:58 am

    Terrific post, Kass! You’ve laid it out quite clearly.

    Another issue about KU that negatively impacts authors, besides exclusivity: KU pays authors per pages read, out of a single “pot” of money that is capped (this month it’s $12 million). Every author in KU gets paid out of that community kitty, so you can imagine that the more pages read in KU collectively, from all the books in the program, the lower the per-page payment will be. According to Selena Kitt (a romance writer whose books are in KU), last month Amazon was paying $.0041 per page. For a 300 page book (assuming the reader reads the entire book), that’s a total of $1.23. But if a reader buys a 300 page book of mine (I’m not in the program) priced at $3.99, I receive a $2.59 royalty. That’s more than twice the royalty.

    I know that there are supposed to be “exposure” benefits to an author being in the KU program, so that conceivably more books are borrowed and more pages are read, but if nearly every author joins KU, how much “exposure” or boost in algorithms are you going to get? And the money is still coming out of the same collective fund.

    Here’s the article from Selena Kitt, by the way: http://selenakitt.com/blog/scamazon-amazon-kindle-unlimited-scammers-netting-millions/

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      March 15, 2016 at 11:56 am

      Thanks for bringing that up. And you also have stated it quite clearly, Kathy. With the original Prime borrows, at least we got paid about the same for a borrow as we did for a sale. With KU, not so much.

  • Reply
    Shannon Esposito
    March 15, 2016 at 11:40 am

    When I spoke to an Amazon representative at a conference, they said KU is best used by putting your backlist stuff in it, not your new or best selling books. And with all the controversy coming to light about Amazon not even being able to really tell how many pages someone has read…yet, paying writers per page read. This is going to get interesting.

    • Reply
      K.B. Owen
      March 15, 2016 at 1:11 pm

      Shannon, that’s another disturbing part of KU – they don’t really know how many pages someone is reading, though they are paying authors per page read. There are scammers out there with TOC in the back (Amazon’s trying to get them to change that), and clickbait links in the front of a book that takes the reader to the last page of the book. Presto! The entire book has been “read.”

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    March 15, 2016 at 11:58 am

    Yes, it is getting interesting, Shannon. And that’s a disturbing comment from the Amazon rep. So we’re supposed to put our old stuff that isn’t really selling all that well up on KU? That’s hardly giving KU subscribers their money’s worth, is it?

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    March 15, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    Hmm, testing the “participate in this conversation” button.

  • Reply
    March 15, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    Thanks for the insight of the publishing world. If I like an author, I’m a completest and try to get everything they’ve written, depending of course on the price. Of course I love it when I can get it on special for $0.99 but I also realize that won’t happen with every book. And I support Authors getting paid for what they do. I appreciate the opportunity to be a proofreader for a few. And if I couldn’t be a proofreader, I’d be preordering to get the best price.

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    March 15, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    Thanks for chiming in, Dwayne. You’re our favorite kind of reader! 😀

    And yes, the preorder option has made it so much easier to give our loyal readers like you a discount on new releases!

  • Reply
    Kirsten Weiss
    March 16, 2016 at 8:44 pm

    Apparently scammers are now working the Amazon KU system by putting click bait on the front page, “eg., click here for a chance to win a free kindle!” and it takes the reader to the last page. So Amazon “sees” the book, which might be 300 pages of garbage, was read all the way through, and the scammers get paid for millions of pages no one actually read.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      March 16, 2016 at 8:51 pm

      Yes, I’ve been reading about that recently. Could be why the payouts have been so low recently for legitimate authors.

  • Reply
    Writers – Value Yourself and Your Work - Marcy Kennedy
    March 21, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    […] a writer, this post isn’t for you. Instead please read Kassandra Lamb’s excellent post A Reader’s Look Behind the Curtain Re: eBook Pricing and Kindle Unlimited. She talks about what readers, rather than writers, need to know about the issue at […]

  • Reply
    Marcy Kennedy
    March 21, 2016 at 2:52 pm

    Excellent post! I’ve added a link to it in mine because my post was speaking to authors. This one provides the perfect complement for readers.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      March 21, 2016 at 4:00 pm

      Cool! Thanks, Marcy!!

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