The Case of the Icky Readers

Nathan Bransford generated some interesting comments last week about the value of 99-cent readers. The initial conversation revolved around an interview with Zoe Winters, an eBook author. The article, “Does Lowballing Attract the Wrong Kind of Reader?”, sent chills down my spine just reading the title. The wrong kind of reader? What, exactly, is that? It seems like a business complaining about “the wrong kind of customer” or “the wrong kind of venture capitalist.” But maybe she has a point? It’s worth exploring, right?

No, not really.

The Quality of the Customer

The thrust of the argument is that “quality” of a customer is more important than “quantity.” Let’s briefly touch on the assumption that someone who would purchase a $37 eBook, a price-point that interviewer Jennifer Mattern seems to advocate, is “higher quality” than a reader who buy at 99-cents. The idea is that buying a book at a high price instills reader loyalty, whereas a lowball price does not. That’s absurd on its face. How many times has a high price made you more likely to buy something else from the same company or author? How many computer manufacturers, for instance, try to shoot for the highest price possible out of the idea that if consumers pay too little, they won’t be likely to buy from that company again? Nobody, of course. If, out of some case of temporary insanity, I pay $37 for your eBook, it better damn well be one of the best books I’ve ever read, or I’m exceedingly unlikely to purchase any of your future works. On the other hand, price your book at $.99, and not only will I be more likely to buy it, I’ll be a lot more likely to give it the benefit of the doubt, see the potential, overlook the flaws and try your next book.

I have a feeling that Ms. Winters and Ms. Mattern agree with my logic up to now. “Of course a higher price doesn’t instill loyalty. It weeds out those readers who aren’t loyal!” Ms. Winters even says:

I think the readers I attract now are truly interested in MY work, and not just a bargain. I feel like the readers I’m attracting are the types of readers who are going to be passionate about the work and tell other people.”

This, to put it simply, is a fallacy. Math averse should look away right now. Let’s call X the set of readers that will read a book at a $9 price point. Let’s call Y the set of readers that will read a book at a $.99 price point. I’ll use some of Ms. Mattern’s noncontroversial assumptions that the readers in Y are, on average, more loyal (and thus more desirable) than the readers in X. This is certainly true; if you’re selling your book at a bottom-of-the-barrel price, you’r certainly going to attract a certain readership that is voracious in reading, and don’t really care who or what they consume as long as it’s cheap. 

However, where I believe Ms. Mattern’s and Ms. Winter’s argument breaks down is in the assumption that X is not a part of Y. The assumption is that all those loyal readers somehow won’t be there if you sell your book for cheap. That’s false logic. A low price point doesn’t scare away loyal reader, or if it does, that has failed to be proven to me. Ms. Winters muses that a low price creates some sort of psychological idea that the book is going to suck, which is not the way it works in any other creative medium, so I’m not sure why anyone would think it would be the case here. Instead, the likely truth is that X is a subset of Y. Y has all those crazy, unloyal, finicky readers, sure, but it has all the same loyal readers as X. If your only concern is having “the right kind” of readers, I see no reason why a higher price point would help you achieve this goal.

So 99-cents is the way to go?

Not necessarily. What my post shouldn’t be construed as is an economic suggestion one way or another. The interview itself shies away from the examples of 99-cent millionaires, instead focusing on how such successes are rare. Ms. Winters says:

“I think almost no one can make a solid living with 99 cent ebooks because you have to have huge volume for that. When I sold 6,500 ebooks in June 2010, that was around $2,300. Well, most people can’t live on that, especially after you take out Uncle Sam’s cut.”

And that is a completely fair statement. Maybe most authors can’t make a living at that price point. If that’s the case, raise your prices to $2.99. Or $4.99. Or $37.99. The idea that 99-cent eBooks exert a downward pressure on all prices is a similarly valid one, but that’s not a worry that individual authors have control of. Regardless of how you price your books, there will be authors that sell for 99-cents. Hell, there will be authors that give their works away for free, and not all of these works are “low-quality.” Some people just care more for readership than money. That is their right, and it’s pointless to think that the entire marketplace is controlled by how you price your books. 

One of the strawmen that gets thrown around, sometimes, is that people like me (sometimes referred to as ‘Freevangelists’) think everything should be free, and an author shouldn’t deserve to make money. Nothing could be further from the truth. I think great artists deserve to be compensated, and I would love a world where talented authors could be guaranteed a living. But that is beside the point. 

The argument from ‘Freevangelists’ is not that free or low-price is always ideal, but that it’s sometimes ideal. If you can make $1,000,000 selling eBooks at 99-cents, but you only make $500,000 selling eBooks at $2.99, should you raise your prices simply because 99-cents “devalues your work?” Of course not! It’s silly! I’m absolutely not saying that 99-cents is an ideal price, or that all authors should aim for that. Each author and publisher is going to need to make economic decisions based on their individual situation. That’s part of running a successful business. What I’m saying is that discounting a certain price point because of it makes you feel icky is wrong, both from an economic view, and from the view of respecting your fans, regardless of how much cash they shell out. A fan is a fan. A reader is a reader. Cherish them.

One Reply to “The Case of the Icky Readers”

  1. good ideas especially these days when people find e-books on mobile devices. I can guarantee you there isn't a book out there I'd pay $30 for to have a digital copy of given the inherent unpredictability of the medium.

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