Beyond $0.99: New tips on ebook price promotions

The days when a single Kindle Daily Deal could catapult an unknown book up the New York Times bestseller list are probably behind us now. And big publishers are experimenting more and more with price promotions, so that a super-low price on a self-published ebook isn’t enough to help it stand apart. So as more and more and more ebooks are published, how have the mechanics of price promotions changed?

I moderated a panel on this topic at the Digital Book World conference last month. I learned a ton in interviews with my panelists and we weren’t able to get to all of it during the conference. Here are some of their most intriguing points and lessons learned.

It’s all about the shopping cart

The “cart” is an obvious feature of online shopping — but hasn’t always been a huge part of shopping for ebooks. If you’re reading on an e-reader, for example, you might be buying books one at a time. But Kobo learned the value of the cart at the end of the last year, when it added the ability for customers to buy several books simultaneously. In December the company ran a 3-for-2 ebook promotion for the first time, with great success.

“It was a price promotion, but it was really interesting because of what people were buying,” Nathan Maharaj, head of bookselling at Kobo, told me. “People were loading up on full-price ebooks, then often taking one that was already promotionally priced and dropping that in their basket, and that was the one they got free” — for example, buying a $14.99 ebook, a $15.99 ebook and a $2.99 ebook, with the $2.99 free. It wasn’t a “fight over how low can you go. This was completely different.” The promotion seemed to appeal to a different kind of customer — those who “haven’t been playing the cheap game very much.”

Email is still key

All of my panelists agreed that email works and is still perhaps the best way to notify customers about deals. In fact, that’s the business model of BookBub, a free daily email newsletter that alerts readers to books on sale across different categories. BookBub now has more than four million subscribers and CEO Josh Schanker was on the panel.

Publishers are now starting to get into the direct-to-consumer game with deals newsletters of their own. Digital publisher Open Road launched its newsletter Early Bird Books last year, which is sent to subscribers every weekday; Open Road chief marketing officer Rachel Chou said it’s been immensely successful, and seeing the deals that readers are especially interested in might guide future publishing decisions.

“Even in this age of Inbox by Gmail, email works,” Kobo’s Maharaj said. “It is by far the best way to get the word out about a promotion.”

A selection of recent BookBub deals.
A selection of recent BookBub deals.

Nonfiction is hard, but keep trying

Ebook price promotions are largely geared toward readers of fiction. “We’ve had some miserable luck with nonfiction” price promotions, Maharaj said. “My hunch is the nonfiction reader is differently oriented toward their reading material. Price is less interesting to them than, ‘Is this information I need now? Is this how I rule the dinner party? Do I need to master these concepts?’ … There’s a shift in emphasis in how the customer values it, but that’s a wild guess.”

At the same time, ebook price promotions are also less common for nonfiction. “If that’s your preferred area, it’s not a really good investment of your time to pay attention to things like daily deals and price promotions [because] the good stuff tends not to come up too frequently,” Maharaj noted.

Schanker echoed that the bulk of ebook daily deals up to now have skewed toward genre fiction (romance, science fiction and so on), but “more and more, our demographic is becoming younger and skewing more male. Nonfiction is an area that is a little bit more gender-balanced, in general … We’re seeing interest now from more and more publishers who don’t have any genre publications at all.”

Think beyond individual titles

BookBub’s Schanker said that price promotions tend to be especially effective for books in a series. A book on sale can be used “as a marketing device for the author or for another book.” Giving away the first book in a series works well, as does giving away a previous book by an author when that author is coming out with a new book. One publisher who worked with BookBub gave away the first book in a series free; it was downloaded more than 100,000 times — and in that same month, more than 15,000 people bought the second book in the series at full price.