“Here Be Dragons” was a phrase written at the edge of old maps, indicating the point where the known world ended. In many ways, that’s the region in which e-book promotions are currently dabbling - in the area beyond the known world.
Not that that should stop any intrepid explorer - or storyteller searching for more audience. However, the e-book world as we know it today is - like those old maps - unlikely to be telling the full story, not yet.
Until digital accounts for the majority of genre fiction sales (>70%), we won’t have any reliable feel for how our audience as a whole is going to behave, and simply extrapolating from current audience behavior is fraught with risk - it might work, it might not.
Until the majority of genre fiction paying customers (>70%) switch to digital - and that’s a different point to the above - our audience is unlikely to demonstrate predictably stable, reliable behavior, even as reliable as such pattterns usually are, because we are talking about a massive group of individuals.
Extrapolating from the present audience is essentially hoping that the woolly mammoth group of readers, those still determinedly and stubbornly reading in print, is going to behave in exactly the same manner as the early adopters reading on their iPhones. They might, but it’s more likely that they will not. And sizewise the mammoth group still dominate our available audience.
All that said, of course we’re going to try various promotions. And it must be stated that promotions don’t need to work for the audience en masse, but simply for a sufficient subset to generate a viable result.
I’ve picked only three promotional gambits to discuss, but the possibilities are as endless as authors’ imaginations.
a) permanently lowering the price of backlist - something I am sure we are going to see a lot more of from already established authors selfpublishing backlist. There are four points I’d like to throw out there for consideration in terms of how our audience might view this:
- there is no “back” in “backlist” in e-books - it’s all simply “list.” A book that was first published 15 years ago is a “new” book to a reader who has never seen it before. The digital reader sees a range of books on the virtual shelf - all they care about is that those books are available for purchase, not the date when they were first print published. So is age a suitable parameter on which to discount works?
- if this is being done to determine sweet spot price for the author’s works, is it too early (see the last post) to be doing this without risking unnecessarily lowering the value of the author’s works permanently? And permanent pricing is probably not the way to do sweet spot experimenting anyway, so I would be assuming this is not the motivation in this case.
- is the author intending to send a message to the audience that the author considers these works of lesser value than more recent works? (we’re talking about permanent lower pricing of older works, not time-limited sales)
- will lowering the permanent price of the author’s older works while trying to maintain a higher price for more recent releases be an impossible line to walk? Why won’t readers simply wait for the price of works to fall? Especially if, to the audience, there is no obvious difference between the older/lower priced and newer/higher priced works.
The above are questions each author needs to be comfortable answering, at least to themselves, when lowering the price of older works. I know where I currently stand on this, but I expect authors to differ, very likely widely.
b) temporary promotional pricing - “sales” price, time-limited. This can be and is being effectively used in a multitude of ways - too many to go into. My only concern regarding this is how difficult it’s going to be to gain visibility for any given “sale” when every author is doing at least one of these at any given time.
I know there are sites springing up listing the digital “sales of the week” - I suspect that having effective digital catalog(s) of sales offers is going to be a key development going forward. Without readers finding or being directed to such catalogs, the efficacy of sales will decrease as our ecosystem further develops and the sales arena gets increasingly crowded.
Beyond that hurdle, however, this seems one of the tried and true, and most easy to implement promotional pricing tools in any author’s locker.
c) e-specials - short works released in digital only at low prices. These are not the same as loss-leaders (full length works offered at minimal price), but are shorter works appropriately priced. e.g. novellas @ 1.99.
To me this is another very viable avenue of reaching new audience at permanently lower prices - this doesn’t rely on sales, but will always be there. It’s something that cannot be done in print, and is to me one of the primary attractions of the digital world. However, there’s one caveat which currrently limits the ability of established authors with significant print audiences to dabble in this arena - they can’t publish any shorter work that connects directly with an ongoing series without risking the wrath of the woolly mammoth. And a happily reading woolly mammoth is still very important to many established authors.
But established authors are still free to publish new and different works as digital only. I’m about to do so with my short story in the Royal Weddings collection (April 5th; 1.99). That story is not connected to any of my series. Similar in tone, period and place, yes, and typical of my work as far as that was possible (you cannot write a 20 page love scene in a short story, not even one that runs to 13K words), so the The Wedding Planner short story is a reasonable introduction to Stephanie Laurens’s storytelling - and I’m sure the other two shorts bundled with it - from Loretta Chase and Gaelen Foley - are likewise good introductions to their works.
Which brings me to a few wider points for consideration on the subject of digital promotional pricing:
- major established authors with large print audiences are more limited in what they can, at this point in time, do, so those who don’t fall into that category should consider the period from now until more of the print audience shifts as a window of opportunity for actively trialing and testing and seeing what works to increase their audience. You’ll have clearer air and bluer skies now than you will have later.
- things will change when the major genre fiction authors shift to digitally dominant publishing - do not for one moment doubt that. The sheer weight of their numbers guarantees that. But exactly how things will change is presently anyone’s guess, and I certainly do not claim to know.
I’m going to wrap up this limited examination of promotional pricing in our digital world with one observation: Ultimately, the point with any promotion is to entice new readers to try an author’s work - but the result of the promotion is not measured by the number who bought the promoted volume, but by the increased number who buy the author’s next work.
A Few Reflections of a more General Nature:
Authors are not interchangeable, at least not after a market matures. History (mystery series in 1940 to 70s; Harlequin category lines 70s to present) shows that as a genre fiction audience matures (in the sense of a maturing market), the audience buys by author (performer), not price, as they do for any entertainment product (why do you think MIRA and HQN exist?). But especially when a readership is in its emerging stages, then low price/interchangeable authors does work.
Price and the established reader - most established readers have a list of authors whose works they buy. They are have little if any interest in seeking new authors because they don’t have time to spare - they spend all their reading time with the books of authors they have already decided they want to read.
When established readers do raise their gaze and look for new authors to try, they are more likely to be swayed by word of mouth, not price. Price is something established readers distrust - low price is not going to compensate them for time lost reading a poor work.
Time - and their imaginations - is what readers bring to the equation when they read a genre fiction work. They have to put in the time and imagination to unlock and absorb the experience the work offers. Reading a book has a cost to readers that is not influenced by the price of the work.
Do not ever make the reader who has paid full price for your book feel like a dummy because she paid full price.
Someone (Selena Kitt, I think) said that she still values a Louis Vuitton purse even if she bought it at half-price at a sale. Naturally, one would. But if Louis Vuitton purses were routinely offered for half-price 6 months after their release, available at one click the world over, would very many still buy at full price?
As a 20-yr veteran of this business, my future lies in the hands of my established readers, and I will never forget that. I will never undermine my relationship with my established readers to race after a few “new” readers - I’d have to be daft.
Regarding the so-called “tipping point” - there’s clearly going to be more than one. We’ve already passed at least two. I believe our transition will not travel along a single smooth gradient, with e-book readership steadily and predictably increasing, but will instead be a series of plateaus, with the next rapid digital increase brought about by the next of a set of dominos, each of which has to ultimately fall, actually falling.
My prediction for the next tipping point’s cause - the next domino to fall - is a severe contraction in the availability of print titles in wholesale outlets, or the appearance of very low price or free e-readers. Or both those dominos could fall concurrently, possibly even connected by cause and effect.
Ultimately, however, it’s whatever finally gets the attention of the woolly mammoth enough to make it raise its head, scent the wind, and then lumber across to the daffodil patch and start to appreciate the new and various blooms that will herald the end of the transition and the final shift into our digitally-dominated future. And not immediately, but sometime after that we can expect to be able to discern long-term reliable patterns in e-book reader behavior.
(R)evolution is about transformation of an exisiting ecosystem brought about in this instance by the introduction of new technology. It is not about setting up a de novo system starting from scratch. We are currently in a transition from the old to the new, and there are groups who exist only in the new as well as groups who are still fimly in the old. The (r)evolution is progressing, but we need to strive for balance through the transitional phase, because we don’t want to disenchant the old by only catering for the new.
Free books, devaluing works, DRM and protecting works, effective promotion, the services publishers might offer authors - I had all these topics on my blog posts’ list, but over the last seven posts I came to realize that the experience of each individual author with, and therefore their opinions on and decisions about, such subjects, will necessarily be dictated by that author’s career. So opinions and experience will necessarily vary widely - and there may not be, and need not be, any true common ground.
As Nathan Lowell frequently says: Your mileage might vary. I’d go one step further - each author’s mileage is all but guaranteed to vary in our new digitally dominated world.
There may never be a time when one-size-fits all, not even of one-size-might-fit-some, in this brave new world of ours. And that’s by no means a bad thing.
That’s my current view, and I’m sure a lot of you have different views, but those are the elements of my thinking to date.
And that’s it from me…
I started this blog when I had time, energy, and a desire to work through all the issues we’ve touched on over the last 7 weeks. Posting on the topics forced me to research aspects I never would have otherwise, and I hope you’ve enjoyed going on this journey with me. But now life and writing have caught up with me, and I no longer have the time or energy to do justice to further exploration of, and speculation about, our ever-evolving ecosystem. I remain hugely excited by the possibilities opening up before all authors and readers, and will be watching with interest to see how we all survive, and just what our ecosystem eventually looks like once all the tremors and upheavals subside.
I will leave the blog in place (it’s the internet, after all) so it’ll still be here if anyone refers to it. If the posts and comments help any other inhabitant of our ecosystem to cope with this sometimes scary, often frustrating, shift to digital, that’ll just be cream.
Or in publishing lingo, value-added.
Protect your creativity, write well - and don’t forget to nurture those daffodils.
CAVEAT: Nothing posted on this blog, or in its comments, should involve commercially sensitive information. Contracted authors please exercise due diligence in your comments.
All blog posts by the author should be viewed as personal opinion and postulation. Said opinions will alter to reflect changing facts.