/ Technology

99p ebooks – proof publishers are wrong on prices

Computer mouse plugged into books

With ebook best seller lists dominated by books costing less than £1, surely it’s about time publishers realised that artificially high prices aren’t the answer?

The American self-publishing author John Locke sells his ebook novels for 99 cents on Amazon.com. Since January he’s sold 350,000 books, pocketing 35 cents per book sold. That’s $122,500 dollars of income in less than three months.

When another self-publisher, Joe Konrath, reduced the price of his book from $2.99 to $0.99 his sales went from 40 books per day to 620, increasing his revenue by five times in the process.

It’s a similar story in the UK – as I write this, six of the top 10 Kindle books are priced at £1 or less. It’s not just self-publishers; some big-name publishers have caught the bug too. What better way to get people hooked on a new series than selling at a knock-down price?

Levelling the playing field

Pricing books this way makes them a commodity. £1 is a trifling amount, so little it’s easy to take a punt on a book that sounds good and has okay reviews. The more the book sells, and the more positive reader reviews, the more powerful the argument becomes.

For an aspiring writer it’s gold dust. There’s no need to pester publishers for paltry rewards – just go straight to the customer. Customers, meanwhile, risk little in their purchases, especially as there’s no cast-iron guarantee you’ll enjoy an ebook priced £7.99 as opposed to £1.

High prices are self-defeating

While 99p ebooks are great news for self-publishers, it doesn’t say much for the future of quality literature.

If you can write three, four or more books a year, such tactics are easy to understand. But writing a biography requires endless interviews and research, and not all novels are produced in a fury of writing – some require extensive research to get the details right. The longer a book takes to write, the less this commodity pricing is feasible.

Still, the success of 99p ebooks proves publishers’ ebook price fixing doesn’t work. Readers know that £7.99 for an ebook is just plain greed, whereas £1 or less is too tempting to ignore. By setting their prices so high, publishers make a future of 99p ebooks more likely, not less.

Do you think ebooks as cheap as 99p are a good idea, or will it damage the quality of the books we read?


There are still a few traditionalists out there who, like me, enjoy holding a b o o k and turning the p a g e s. I can’t imagine a library full of Kindles either. While doing research I have five or more books open at the same time to check references and select quotations. A visit to a real bookshop is a treat, but, of course, physically producing a book costs more than duplicating a million or so E. copies. There has been price fixing in the past but, like CDs, the relative price of a good read is a lot less than it was. What else can you get for the price of a paper back? Those who invest in an electronic reader, should expect economy of scale to be passed on, provided the person who wrote the book is as well compensated for his work as if he were traditionally published. For a few years yet, there will be two sets or purchasers: page turners and screen flippers. The former will probably not be jealous of the latter if their content is cheaper so long as the author isn’t squeezed in the middle.

There are many independent and respected bodies out there who consider the books that are published, and review them. Cult (Potter) status apart, first class writing will shine through because people want to read it. Look at the bins full of cheap DVD’s and CD’s in Supermarkets that probably end up in the skip even when offered at £1 a go. Bad books won’t survive either what ever the price.

I agree – I’m a b o o k lover.- I can drop them – sit on them – and read them. My other problem is I like to re-read them after a few years. Unless e-books can be stored outside of the reader – I would be a reluctant e-book reader though I do have a few free classics that I can read on a computer that I downloaded. But nothing beats an interesting book at bed-time.and I can fall asleep reading it without any problems of battery life and fragility of an ebook reader or small screen. Ebay and Amazon do sell very cheap s/h real books at around £1.- rather than the £6 to £10 in a high street book shop.

I have around 3000 real books – all that I enjoyed reading the first time – so I always have a book to re-read

Simon says:
14 March 2011

This isn’t an article about whether you prefer books or e-books, it’s about e-book pricing.

In my view cheap e-books are a good idea, or at least appropriately priced ones. Even if the price were set around £2 or £3 for some titles it would still be tempting, but once you start asking for more than the price of the hardcopy it’s just ridiculous. As can be seen from the above, an author can still make a good profit from a low-priced e-book, and consumers aren’t silly enough to throw money at publishers for nothing. If publishers actually want to sell their books in e-book format, they need to catch up and start pricing them appropriately.

Good point Simon. This conversation is about ebook pricing.

At present, most people are more concerned about the pros and cons of ebooks compared with paper versions. The price of ebooks will have an effect on the future availability of printed books, so it is very important.

Jack W Perry says:
14 March 2011

I believe 99 cent eBooks are definitely a smart way to go for many publishers (and individuals). I understand the reasons traditional publishers want to hold onto a $14.99 eBook price. But that is old-school thinking and out of step with the realities of today. I think eBook pricing will continue to drop as more publishers start to understand pricing.

One question re: the John Locke example at the onset of your post — doesn’t he get 65-70% of the revenue. So he would get 65-70 cents per sale not 35. This doubles his income to over $250,000.

Anonymous says:
15 March 2011

Pardon me but I’m a bit confused – some of the prices above are in $GBP and others are in £USD such as the one used in this example. Do you know if there’s a consistency in Amazon and which percentage rate authors get for books priced either £0.99 or £2.99 ?

Many thanks,


Joanna Aislinn says:
15 March 2011

Wow. Who would have thought books priced at up to $3 US would make an author more $ than a beautifully put together paperback? Yet, readers seem to be happy and more and more writers are in a place to get their work into the hands of readers looking to read. Isn’t THAT why most of us who write started doing so in the first place?

Joanna Aislinn

[Message from Mods: Hello Joanna, we’ve just removed the URLs as it didn’t add to your comment. Thanks.]

15 March 2011

Well – we think “artificially high” prices isn’t necessarily a true reflection. In many cases the 99p ebooks are self published so a significant slice goes to the author (as it should). Publishers do provide other services and so have other overheads to cover so a higher price can be justified as that revenue needs to be split. 99p may perhaps under value the effort that goes into a book – but if authors wish to pitch at 99p it’s a free world.

One thing about the internet is its democratising power and it has allowed otherwise unpublished authors to by pass the traditional gatekeepers – this is good. Ebooks also spread or defray some of the risks in traditional publishing – investing in large print runs of un proven authors is a risk and so some of the royalty models reflect this.

We believe that the advent of ebooks will challenge the model of publishing and will change some of the traditional revenue sharing models. We will try to be in the vanguard of that.

Alan Norton says:
15 March 2011

I use both eBooks and “real” books. The benefit of eBooks is the portability, being able to carry the reader when travelling with many books on it (+ music tracks) or just having something small when I am waiting on shopping trips.

But I will not buy eBooks at £8 – £15 each (although I have bought a few that are available at £3 approx), and so I have been tempted to look at eBay where it is possible to buy discs with 000’s of books for a few pounds. Clearly, these are illegal copies, and give no benefit to authors. But the legal cost of 20 – 30 books is large by comparison, let alone 00’s.

My music collection of 000’s of tracks contains very few copied from friends, and that is the route I would prefer. eBooks at 99p would keep me on that route. Contemporary fiction eBooks at current prices will drive me away from it.

I hope that the book industry test the 99p price, to see if there are sufficient people like me who will spend £20 on eBooks, as long as we feel we get good value. And eBooks at £10 each does not feel good value to me.

paul says:
15 March 2011

I have hundreds of books, but because of lack of space and environmental concerns i also use an i pad to read with, there are advantages to each medium.
To the publisher there is a huge financial saving in e books – raw materials, printing, distribution, storage and disposal of excess stock are all eliminated – but these savings must be passed on to the consumer.
The publishing industry has only to look at the head in the sand attitude of the music industry, where realistically priced down loads would have killed off most of the illegal competition – at 10 pence a track i would have bought loads at 79 pence forget it !
i buy CDs and books from charity shops and only download cheap (under £3.00) books for the i pad.

Authors and publishers have a perfect right to sell books in any form for what the market will bear.
We should leave this to supply and demand; if products are priced too high we should vote with our wallets.

I agree with the supply and demand pricing strategy.
As long as there is reasonable competition then let the market decide on pricing; as with any new technology it will take time for this to happen.

Be very careful. It is quite wrong, Andrew V, to make the generalisation that ‘authors get 65-70%’. Self-publishing authors might but no publisher would pay an author that sort of royalty. So any calculations based on this can only generate a wrong impression of what authors make from e-versions of their books and they aren’t useful. The supply and demand argument put later is the right one. Authors and publishers will charge what they need to stay in livelihood/business. If it doesn’t sell at that price they must try something else. Same as wages in the workplace – we don’t work for free, only for what we can get.

Eddie Reynolds says:
8 April 2011

Lets face it, in less than 20 years traditional books will be collectors pieces, as we are razing forests to the ground far faster than they can ever grow, so wood will become very scarce once China and India start to build for their populations.
I bought an Amazon Kindle recently and I am totally hooked on the convenience alone.
As a Wilbur Smith fan, I got his new release for £5.17 downloaded in about 40 seconds instead of the bookshop price of £18.99. As for the ‘touchy feely’ of a proper hardback, who cares, as it’s the printed word I am interested in, not hugging a tree. Even Harry Potter is planned for the Kindle, so authors will be queuing up to offer discounted ebook versions which will have a dramatic effect on the bookstores. Remember the Hollywood film makers saying in 1929, that talking pictures will never take off!
The new technology like ebooks is unstoppable – when did you last buy a spool for the camera?

Marc says:
31 July 2011

The issue with the agency pricing is evident when it comes to back-catalogue editions or ‘classics’ that are often unavailable in shops or only available in second hand stores. A second-hand book garners absolutely no revenue for the publishers whatsoever so why do they insist on pricing books which are available at next to nothing at current paperback prices? The book market survived the secondary market (resell or pass on) with no problems so why milk the ebook market? I have seen the ‘we still have costs’ excuse trotted out many times and easily refuted http://www.evilgeniuschronicles.org/wordpress/2011/01/12/ebook-pricing-vs-revenue/

So I hope that the OFT actually shows some teeth in this investigation and stop the publishers milking ebook fans