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Beyond $0.99: New tips on ebook price promotions

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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.

4 Responses to “Beyond $0.99: New tips on ebook price promotions”

  1. Ernie Zelinski

    First, I agree that email is still very effective, much more effective than a lot of other promotions. I notice that Amazon seems to promote one of my books a lot with their email promotions to readers.

    As a writer of nonfiction, I stay away from discount pricing. My ebooks may be discounted from my stated prices but this is because Amazon forces the price down due to the fact they also discount the print editions substantially. Their contract has something in it that states an ebook must sell for less than the print edition.

    I won’t participate in either Kindle Unlimited or Kindle Select. I also refuse to price any of my ebooks below $5.97 unless it is a book of quotations.

    Plain and simple, offering my books for free or 99 cents or even $2.99 would cheapen what I have to offer.

    Marketing guru Seth Godin called the strategy of low ball pricing:
    “Clawing Yourself to the Bottom.”

    Seth stated:

    “Trading in your standards in order to gain short-term attention or profit isn’t as easy as it looks. Once-great media brands that now traffic in cheesecake and quick clicks didn’t get there by mistake. Respected brands that rushed to deliver low price at all costs had to figure out which corners to cut, and fooled themselves into thinking they could get away with it forever. As the bottom gets more and more crowded, it’s harder than ever to be more short-sighted than everyone else. If you’re going to need to work that hard at it, might as well put the effort into racing to the top instead.”

    Indeed, clawing your way to the bottom costs you the chance to make a decent living.
    It also costs you your reputation. In short, when your book doesn’t measure up, the answer may be to charge a lot less for it and loan it out through subscription services. If you have a great book, however, the answer is to charge a lot more for it than the substandard competition charges for theirs. Fact is, people who appreciate quality are willing to pay for it.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 275,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

  2. Interesting about the important use of Email. Anyone who thinks email is dead does not understand that it is part of underlying network and it will never die as no one owns it, unlike the modern communication systems. Long live email.

  3. Michael W. Perry

    If I am like most readers, even a $0.99 price is a deterrence when author is an unknown. If he proves a bust, I feel almost as bad wasting that 99 cents as I would if I’d spent more. That’s one reason why price-cutting has only a limited impact.

    I’m taking a different tack. I’m moving toward writing a series of related ebooks with varying prices including free. Some will be about topics I care about enough to want to get their message out to as wide an audience as possible. Nurse Mentors, for instance, will suggest changes that could improve nursing care in hospitals by creating free-agent nurses who operate outside a hospital’s usual political and administrative structure. The book will be free to give it the largest possible audience. I know from experience just how important what it says could be.

    But those who read it will also hear about My Nights with Leukemia. Its audience is much more limited. I wrote it to explain to nursing students and nurses contemplating a change in career what it was like to work nights caring for children with cancer. The audience is far more limited than that for Nurse Mentors, but reading the latter will earn me a hearing from those who’ll be interested in the former, which still sells for a modest $2.99. If they appreciate my direct ‘this is the way it is’ approach in Nurse Mentors, they’ll appreciate that same approach in My Nights with Leukemia as well as Hospital Gowns and Other Embarrassments.

  4. This is a big problem indeed. I am also facing the brunt of strangely wierd pricing errors. Some websites are out there to sell few pages long e-books for around a thousand bucks’ price. This is killing self-publishing. Your weblog post has been extremely useful and contextual. Please continue with your research.