Does a book's price hint at its quality?

bargain books
Bargain books?




I’m not talking about a collector’s item first edition.

One of the fascinating issues about the current state of publishing is how to set the price point for an ebook. If we take free books out of the equation, we see ebooks priced from $0.99 to about $9.99.

Are books on the high end of the spectrum ten times better than those on the low end? Does paying top dollar for an ebook ensure that the reader is buying the cream of the crop?  Or is the high price just a ripoff? Are there cheap books that rival expensive ones in quality?

I discussed this last night in a Google Plus hangout with three fine independent writers: Christina Carson, Bert Carson and Caleb Pirtle. Christina pointed out that there is a long-standing feeling in some quarters that a rock bottom price is a sign of an inferior product.

You can’t buy a new seven series BMW for $1,500.  Are ebooks any different?  Shouldn’t a $9.99 price tag on an ebook denote it as a Bimmer of a book? Isn’t pricing an ebook at $0.99 a clear indication that it is a Yugo?

Other factors muddy the waters in this debate. There is a school of thought that says the way for an unknown author to break in is for her to offer her book at $0.99. Maybe this was true a year or two ago when $0.99 pricing began a trend and propelled some pioneer indie writers into fantastic sales numbers.

But if $0.99 has become the benchmark price for new indie writers, how does that price help any author to separate himself from the pack? All it does is devalue indie books and reinforce the notion that a good book comes attached to a higher price.

Prices of ebooks from big publishing houses remain much higher than prices of indie ebooks. This is so that the big houses can protect the even higher prices of their paper books.  It has nothing to do with the cost of producing the ebooks.

If you price a Yugo like a seven series BMW, does that make it a BMW?

The energy of the indie movement will find its way to the middle ground. This will mean price points for many ebooks from $2.99 to $6.99 with $0.99 books relegated to the bargain bin, and $9.99 ebook pricing viewed as little  more than arrogant elitism clung to by the big houses.

But we still have the unresolved question of quality. If the three-tiered structure I have outlined above comes to pass, then people will expect a $9.99 book to be a BMW.  If it turns out to be a cheap imitation of the real thing, people will abandon the author and feel cheated.

In the middle tier, people will expect quality books from writers whose names haven’t made headlines yet. If they find such books, they will realize that they can buy a fine book for $3.99. When this happens, they will become fans of the author and not mind paying $3.99 or $4.99 for her next book. And they will wonder why they paid $9.99 for books that were not nearly so good.

The third tier will be ebooks priced below $2.99. Readers will bring very low expectations to these books.  If the book is a piece of trash, they will stop reading it and mark the author off their list once and for all. If they stumble upon a diamond, they will look for other books by the same author.  If that author begins to build her reputation on the book, she will hope to join tier two with her next release.

So, what do you think?  Is the price of a book an indication of its quality and value?  What should a good book be worth?

(Stephen Woodfin’s legal thriller LAST ONE CHOSEN is priced at $2.99 on the Kindle store.)



, , , ,

  • David L Atkinson

    I believe that you have raised a very important point Stephen. I am in a bit of quandary as to what to price my books at and as I’m not in this business to make money per se I could choose any price. However, that is not to say that I wouldn’t like to be paid for my efforts and I have tried $0.99 and a free weekend so far without success which could mean that I’m a bad writer! I don’t feel that I’m bad and I know that I’m improving I have had some great feedback from the few people who have bought paperback versions of my books which is wonderful to receive. I think it is breaking through that ceiling into the real book selling market that is so difficult. My next strategy will be to pre-warn potential customers that the price for ‘I Have To Get It Right’ is going to rise to $2.99 and see how that works.
    Your blog is reassuring in one respect and that is there doesn’t seem to be a correct answer!

    • David, I think you are exactly right. There isn’t a firm answer to the question, and we are all in a period of experimentation. To be sure, as indie writers we want people to get our books in their hands and see for themselves if the writing touches them and entertains them. But I am not convinced that the difference between $0.99 and $2.99 is what makes some books sell while others languish. The price point issue will remain front and center for a while, but I believe it will settle into standard slots in the next year or so.

      Also, I realize that writing is one of those things that is so personal to the author that it sometimes seems as if the work is done in isolation and remains there. Don’t let the learning curve discourage you. Just keep writing and working hard at the craft. Good things will come to those who wait.



  • Pamela Hegarty

    So far, I’ve kept to the 2.99 price point for my thriller, The Seventh Stone. It is currently on two Amazon top 100 best seller lists for Action and Adventure. I don’t know if the .99 price will skyrocket it up to the top, or imply that it has less value. For now, I’m not fixing what isn’t broken.

    • Pamela, I agree. I know we all want to see our books on those lists and if they make a list, we want to see them move up higher. But there is also the fact that in the digital world a book remains “new” for a much greater time than it did under the paper model. I think we need to give a book sometime to see what it will do at a particular price then adjust if need be.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

  • Maryann

    This is such a hot topic right now among authors and on a number of author-groups. I don’t know what the pricing answer is. I have tried the 99cents for my suspense novel, then put it free for a time, then put it back to $2.99. So far, I have not seen that any of those changes have affected sales, but I can see an effect on reviews when the book was free or only 99cents. Reviewers rated the book low if they were upset with Amazon for some reason, or they took me to task saying the storyline was not believable, even though I have a notice on the product description that the novel is based on a true story. In these low-rated reviews, nothing was said about the quality of the writing. Other reviews have addressed craft elements, some more favorably than others, and that is okay. But at least I was being judged on my ability to write, not someone’s disappointment with something outside my control.

    So perhaps that does mean that readers who are really interested in reading a good book, and not just grabbing something from the bargain bin, do value a higher priced book. For myself, I have found some gems in the bargain basement, and only rarely will spend more than five dollars for an e-book.

    • Maryann. I really appreciate your sharing this. It is a really hot topic and one every indie author is grappling with. The connection between pricing and reviews is intriguing. On the one hand you would think that if someone pays $0.99 for a book, he should not have high expectations about its quality. On the other hand, there may be those reviewers who think they can take a cheap shot (pardon the pun) at an inexpensive book. Plus if the reviewer brings a bias toward cheap books with him, he may not have the objectivity necessary to write a fair review. Likewise, if he pays top dollar for a book, he may expect a great deal from it and be more easily disappointed if it doesn’t seem to be up to par. Another issue is that a casual reader may hesitate to write a scathing review of a book by an established author, but have no such qualms about unloading on an indie.

      I agree with you that I would seldom buy an ebook priced above $5. I just don’t see how to justify a price higher than that when there are so many fine books available at lower prices.

  • My publisher seems to be getting the message. My novel which was released last June was priced at $6.99; my latest release (in February) was priced at $5.99. Still too much for an e-book, IMO!

    • Paula, I think publishers have been slow to respond to the ebook market. For them, if they are used to paper books priced at $14.99 or above, $6.99 or $5.99 seems cheap. But the reality of the market is that 2.99-4.99 is the target price range for all sorts of good books. I believe readers have learned this, and if they have to make a close call between two books, price will carry the day. That’s why it is so important to make the right pricing decision, and why this discussion is so crucial.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. SW

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Whether we like it or not, our culture has taught us that you get what you pay for. So it is with book prices. A 99 cent book may be just as good as on that costs $3.99, but I’ll take my chance on the higher priced version. No reason other than gut instincts because neither price will break me. This is a blog that tackles a critical subject head on. It’s something all book writers and readers need to think about. Thanks for shining the spotlight exactly where it belongs to be.

  • Christina Carson

    I grew up with dime novels, or at least my parents’ left over one,s and though they were a reasonable price at the time, history came to see the term as synonymous with trashy. I think Caleb is correct. We’ve been taught to evaluate on price point, and “free” isn’t nearly as rewarding a “purchase” as finding a good deal.

    • Christina, I agree. The first issue is whether free or $0.99 is a real price point. The next question is where the market will settle out on price for indie books. No one knows where that will be yet, but I believe the really mainline books will slot in somewhere in that 2.99-5.99 range and eventually the TP books will have to settle there, too, in order to compete in the market.

  • Sorry I missed that discussion on Google+ — this is an important topic. While I don’t think price necessarily indicates quality, I do think the glut of books priced at 99 cents is a problem. My concern, as a writer, is that the proliferation of free e-books and cheap books devalues the worth of a single book. Here’s a link to a piece I wrote for — ‘What’s Your Writing Worth?’ P.S. Since writing it, I reduced the price of my book to $2.99.

    • Deborah, thanks for stopping by to comment. I read your article and can see that we are struggling with many of the same issues. As of today (March 27, 2012), I see free books as quite different from $0.99 ones. Free is a marketing tool, whereas 99 cents is a pricing strategy. I have come to the point where I can see the value of free days for books on KDP, but I am still resisting the 99 cent price point for the reasons both you and I have discussed in our blogs. I believe that 2.99 to 4.99 or so will become a default price range for indie books, except for the bargain basement ones. But as Yogi Berra said: “Predicting is hard. Especially about the future.” Regards, SW

Related Posts