99 Cents

by wjw on June 4, 2015

to_glory_ariseMy 99-cent sale of To Glory Arise ended a few days ago, and was a success.  It reached #21 on Barnes & Noble, and #52 on Amazon . . . though, as is normal with these kind of promotions, it retained those numbers for less than a day.  Because action-adventure sells better than SF, To Glory Arise sold better than any of my science fiction, though not as well as The Rift, which is my biggest seller and still going strong.

But though the numbers were good (for my work, anyway), the follow-through was problematical.  The sales for the rest of the series jumped a bit, but not brilliantly.  In fact it seems that less than 1% of those who bought the sale book bothered to buy any others in the series.  These numbers seem on the money for the rest of my sales.

What this tells me is that there is a very large audience who will buy ebooks if they cost 99 cents or less, but will not buy books at the regular price (which in my case is $4.99, hardly enough to break anyone’s bank).  And that tells me that the readers’ only conditions for purchase is that it be in the right category, and very cheap or free.

Now I don’t know how many of the sale books were actually read.  I’ve been known to pick up books at a sale and not read them for years, if ever.  (For that matter, I’ve been known not to read a book I bought at full price.)  And I suspect that books bought at 99 cents aren’t particularly valued by the purchasers, and may just be tucked away for a rainy day.  Or collected, perhaps by people who just want to own the maximum number of ebooks and don’t necessarily want to read them.

On the other hand, the purchasers may be people who just devour ebooks, one after another, like popcorn, and not care so much whether they’re actually any good.  

Does anyone know any of these people?  Because if I figured out who they are and what they want, maybe I could shamelessly flatter them into buying more of my books, maybe at the regular price where I can actually make a living.

Or not.  Still, I find it worth noting that there’s this whole category of reader that didn’t exist before, created entirely by online discounting.  Their reading experience must be very different from anything that existed prior to ebooks, reading massively but choosing the books without any criteria but price.  After all, books in every category go on sale every day for 99 cents or less— and some self-published authors price their books at 99 cents from the git-go— so if you don’t want to pay more for your reading material, you won’t have to.

I wonder if these readers insist on a radical discount for any of their other purchases.  Do they buy only day-old bread?  Do they shop exclusively at used-clothing stores?  Do they buy the cheapest, smallest pre-owned cars?

I’m guessing they don’t.

But of course we should be grateful that they read at all.  And I am beyond grateful that they choose to read me, in however deeply discounted a condition.

I’ll be planning my next sale soon.

kat June 4, 2015 at 7:55 am

I’m one of the folk who picked this one up… but I haven’t read it yet, because book backlog. It does seem to be a buying pattern of mine to buy the first book in a series cheap (or free), then when I read it, if I like it, I go grab the rest of the series. The trouble is that between the frequency of these first-book-series sales, my own lack of time, and my general tendency to forget books on my hard drive (Calibre is helping with this though), it can be months or years before I get around to that read. I never thought how frustrating that must be for people looking at their sales figures. 🙂

I also don’t know how typical I am, because yes, as it happens, I shop exclusively at thrift stores or mark-down outlets for clothes and until the current car I bought junkers (it’s still used, mind you. It’s just a lot newer and more expensive than my usual. The second car, which I guess I’ll be nursing another year or two out of, is a hand-me-down 1992 Grand Caravan which Will Not Die.) I’m actually more likely to buy full price on books and music than anything else, (even if I do grab sales when I see ’em), because I know so many artists and writers.

I’m trying to get out of the Amazon mentality though. Those markdowns on new items have a price, and just because I can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s a price I want to pay.

-dsr- June 4, 2015 at 8:04 am

Let me propose heresy.

Assumptions: there are people who buy books at 99c, who will not but the same books at any higher price. These people are also largely indifferent to the author’s name as an indicator of quality, style, etc.

Since you own the rights to the books, and can change the titles, and can use a pseudonym legally:

You could create one or several pseudos, retitle and re-cover all your books for each pseudo, and sell them to the 99c market.

Even better, each pseudo can be in a different genre. Romance, mystery, thriller, SF, erotica… Misleading a reader by popping it into a wrong category is the shaky part of the system, but it comes down to an opinion anyway: is Aristoi a romance, a thriller, a mystery, a space opera? Yes, all of these, and even erotica if your tastes run that way.

Mark Wise June 4, 2015 at 8:32 am

Or the sale book could be down a bit in people’s TBR queues, and they might be planning to buy the rest if they like the first one. Purely hypothetically, of course. *koff* *koff*

mearsk June 4, 2015 at 9:51 am

I’m wary of books that are priced at $.99. The price suggests to me that they’re self published, and in my experience, self-published books are poorly edited. Now if it’s a promotional price from a publishing house, I might get it if the description is interesting. But mostly, I have no problem paying full price if I know the author or I saw some good reviews on it.

bkd69 June 4, 2015 at 10:34 am

Trying to read way too much into that 99 cent purchase decision. Of course, that’s what writers do…read way too much into a thing, then write about what sprouts above the compost.

Thing is, at 99 cents, it’s an impulse buy, right there in the checkout lane, so there’s any number of reasons why it got picked up. Though the closer analogy is probably the secondhand bookstore.

I did this very thing with Patrick O’Brian. People have said he was good, that the Aubreu/Maturin books were excellent, and they were correct, so I bought Master and Commander when it was on sale, read it and enjoyed it, but not so much that the rest of the books made it into my full price queue. Oddly enough, David Drakes Aubrey/Maturin homage, his RCN series does. Which is the opposite of the relationship I have with Frazier’s Flashman, and the Warhammer 40k Caiaphas Kane books. I contradict myself. I contain multitudes.

I find the same thing happens across media. I enjoy Harry Potter sufficiently to watch the movies, but can’t really be arsed with the books. Ditto for Game of Thrones.

Another reason I’ve picked up books at 99 cents, though I may well be a minority, is for completeness. I bought Sandman Slim in paperback, bought later books digitally, then bought the first to complete the set. Ditto for The Colour of Magic, owned the paperback, bought the ebook on sale.

I’ve always viewed the secondhand bookshop as the source for authors you’ve heard about and want to try, though not necessarily want to do the full run of, and the 99 cent ebook fits in that same space for me, for the most part.

Jason Larke June 4, 2015 at 12:12 pm

I will buy books at most any price point, but a term-limited sale will get me to buy that book right now instead of later. Since my backlog of books I’d like to buy is in the triple digits now, jumping a book to the head of the queue basically means you increase your share of my book-buying budget, but you may or may not increase your net revenue from me. If it’s a book I was going to buy anyway, it might mean you make 99 cents now and not $8 next month, or it might mean you make 99 cents now vs $8 someday maybe but probably never.

Bruce Arthurs June 4, 2015 at 6:03 pm

I’m reminded of the old meme of the stereotypical Harlequin reader: Inexpensive (financial incentive); sharing a common plot progression (no good surprises, but no unpleasant ones either – dependability/predictability incentive); usually short in length (time-saving incentive). Basically, literary popcorn (with no butter or salt).

Personally, I buy rather a lot of 99¢ ebooks, particularly if it’s an author I’ve never read before. For those new authors, I’ll also tend to check out reader reviews on Amazon or Goodreads before I purchase. (Part of that is seeing how well-written the reviews are. If someone who’s able to write a competent, thoughtful review likes a book, I’ll have more trust that I won’t feel disappointed in the actual book. The star-ratings, though, are completely useless; even the worst-written books tend to get mostly 4 or 5 stars.)

The most recent 99¢ book I bought, yesterday, is THE YANKS ARE STARVING, an interesting-sounding and well-reviewed story about the Bonus March on Washington in the 1930’s. I’ve been eyeing it for a while, and previously entered a couple of Goodreads giveaways for it. When I saw it offered for 99¢, I went ahead and bought it.

For established authors, I tend to buy backlist titles, or new titles on a promotional sale, when they’re offered at $1.99. I think the most I’ve paid for an ebook was just under $6 for a 3-in-1 Octavia Butler omnibus. (For a single book, I think I paid $3.99 for some guy’s novella called INVESTMENTS.)

My gut feeling is that, as an established and well-regarded writer, you’d probably get best results in the long-term with a $1.99 minimum price. There’s a certain stigma connected with the 99¢ price, i.e., “This book is only worth 99¢.” The slightly higher price is still a bargain, but gets more respect.

You might want to set the first book in a series, like TO GLORY ARISE, at that $1.99 price point permanently; still cheap enough to catch a lot of casual readers, some of whom will go on to buy and read further volumes. (Readers with a particular interest in seafaring adventures would, I think, be almost as willing to pay $1.99 as 99¢.)

Phil Koop June 5, 2015 at 2:07 pm

I am not particularly price-sensitive – I feel vaguely guilty when I buy one of your back-catalogue books @4.99. About the price of a Starbucks coffee! (Or in my case, about the price of my morning mocha at Lindt.) Since I happily (OK, reluctantly) subscribe to our local opera, it would be absurd to cavil about e-book prices. (Since every opera is a dinner-date with my wife, each costs me around $500 for, let’s say, about 5 hours of entertainment.)

But in fact price does influence my decisions more than I like to think. For instance, the first of your books I ever read was Implied Spaces; I checked it out because it got a mention from Brad DeLong. Amazon’s read-a-sample feature works well for many books, but that one has big shift whereby all is not quite as it seems in the early going (admittedly there are some pretty broad hints about this.) That was a good thing, but one not captured in the sample. At $4.99, I thought what the heck.

I am also one of those people who bought Rift @ 99 cents; the reason I didn’t buy it earlier at full price is that it isn’t just my favourite genre. And in fact, I’ve only read a small fraction of it so far. I’ll probably finish it eventually, but I only read it when I have nothing else queued up.

I didn’t buy To Glory Arise, but that was just because I didn’t get around to it. On a different week, I might have done so, and since I enjoyed the Patrick O’Brian and C.S. Forester novels, I might have liked yours too. But even so, I probably would not have read it yet, since I am in the middle of a couple other books. And after I read and enjoyed it it would still have taken a while for me to get around to buying the other books in the series. And I would have done so one at a time, not all at once.

My point is that I don’t think you should expect an early and dramatic increase in sales to the rest of the series. You haven’t said enough here to persuade me that your loss-leader was a failure.

Foxessa June 7, 2015 at 3:08 pm

These are people who will spend huge amounts on the best food and drink, but who won’t pay for music or movies either, though they consume that like they consume their beer.

Foxessa June 7, 2015 at 3:14 pm


I buy a fair number of expensive books and I always read them, i.e. research, scholarship, etc.

I receive huge numbers of books written by friends or by other people in our fields of work.

I buy novels less and less, and of those I do buy, such as just recently, Uprooted, I often do not finish, losing interest around 1/3 – 1/2 through.

I do read some books online because that’s the only way they’re available via academic library arrangements, and I need the information asap.

I ‘ve never purchased 99¢ books or a digital version of a book of any kind.

wjw June 8, 2015 at 12:27 am

No one should feel the least bit guilty of buying my work at a mere $4.99. My share of that $4.99 is bigger than my share of a $30.00 hardback.

And no one should feel guilty over buying my books for 99 cents. If I didn’t want to sell them at that price, I wouldn’t mark them down. Those 99-cent sales produce a respectable chunk of my income.

Still, I found it a bit sad that so few of the 99-cent sales seem to lead to further sales, so I hypothesized that there might be this 99-cent book buying culture. Which, if it exists at all, is not a culture that any of you seem to belong to, whether you buy 99-cent books or not.

It is likely, as bkd69 pointed out, that I am overanalyzing this.

I’ve tried, BTW, to have the first book of a series at a bargain price, but sales always level off after a while, so there seems to be little point to it. I’d rather sell a single copy at $4.99 than three copies at 99 cents, especially if the three copies don’t lead to further sales, which they generally don’t.

michaelkat June 15, 2015 at 1:35 pm

I did buy and read “To Glory Arise” and enjoyed it. Paying $4.99 for the next in the series makes sense to me, but which book comes next? The included “Brig of War” sample captured my interest. Is this the second or third book in the series? Title changes also makes this a bit confusing.

wjw June 15, 2015 at 3:03 pm

Yeah, sorry about that.

The original order of publication differs from internal chronology. According to the internal chronology, the order is:

To Glory Arise
Brig of War
The Tern Schooner
The Macedonian
Cat Island

Though you can swap the order of the Tern Schooner and Macedonian if you want to continue Favian’s story from where I left off.

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