January 7, 2014

Ebooks: What We Buy vs. What We Read

Pile of books with text: What We Buy vs. What We Read

Between the rise of self-publishing and the agency pricing settlement, the industry is struggling with how to price ebooks. Before the settlement, many self-published authors enjoyed the attention they received at the low end of the pricing scale. On the other hand, many traditionally published authors bemoaned the high prices their publishers set for their ebooks, which were often higher than the paperback price.

Now traditional publishers are experimenting with lower ebook prices and competing with self-published authors in the bargain bins. According to the Dear Author site:

“Digital BookWorld keeps track of the average price of a bestseller and at the end of August, the average price had reached an all time low of $6.33.  According to a May report by Mark Coker at Smashwords, two of the most popular price points are 99c and $2.99.

No one knows how prices will settle out. But one thing authors don’t talk about as much is how pricing strategies might change depending on their goals.

Does Price Affect Whether We Read a Book?

I have way more books than I’ll ever be able to read. My to-be-read pile of physical books has taken over one end of my desk, and my to-be-read pile of ebooks stands at 250+ and counting.

Yet I keep buying more books. Why? Well, obviously because I’m compulsive about buying books I want. *smile* But also because I keep finding new books that interest me.

However, just because a book interests me enough to buy it doesn’t mean I’ll drop everything and read it right away. By the time I get around to selecting the next book to read, it’s likely I’ve forgotten about books I picked up a couple of days previously.

So how do I decide which book to read next? I don’t have a system. I just skim through my list until one catches my eye.

Usually the things that catch my eye are the same things that justify me paying more for a book. Perhaps I know the author or have heard a recommendation or it’s been buzzed about online.

So in my case, I’m more likely to read the more expensive books. I had a reason for purchasing them, and that means I probably have a reason to read them.

I wonder, is that the norm? And if so, should that fact affect the choices we make when pricing our books?

One-Time Sale vs. Repeat Customers

Many authors price on the low end because they figure no one will be willing to try them if their books are too expensive. That’s a valid concern, especially for untested self-published authors who need reader momentum before they can prove themselves via reviews and buzz.

But does that lower price come with side effects? Maybe a lower price causes less interest, such as setting lower expectations. Or maybe a lower price merely reflects less interest, such as buying a book only if/when it’s cheap or on sale. Or maybe it’s a combination.

Regardless, if a lower price means less interest, millions of ebooks could be languishing on ereaders and might never be read. If those books are never read, those readers are less likely to purchase the author’s other books.

In other words, I wonder if there’s a sweet spot in pricing where readers are willing to buy an untested author and are more likely to read the story. To the polls!

Pricing Poll: Where Are Your Price Points?

I put together a few polls for us to compare notes. I’m asking people to share their thoughts on:

  • Is there a price that’s too cheap, creating low expectations?
  • Is there a price that’s more likely to lead only to a one-time sale?
  • Is there a price that will create more interest in reading?
  • Is there a price that applies only to books we expect to love, reflecting our interest?
  • Is there a price that’s too expensive, no matter what?

(Note: Polls are now closed and the results are listed in this post about author income and ebook prices.)

How do you decide which book to read next? Do ebook prices affect whether you read a book? Do you think higher prices reflect or create higher interest (or a combination of both)? Should authors worry about whether their books are read? Or should they worry only about making that first sale?

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Comments — What do you think?

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I’m like you, in that the more I pay for an e-book, the sooner I’ll read it. There are a few exceptions—authors I buy more to support them than to read them—but usually those are authors I, um, edited or beta-read or something.

I’ve paid $10.99 for a novel before, but it was a deliberation for me. It was a book I wanted very badly, immediately, and I actually cut corners on some other parts of my budget to be able to get it. (And the only reason I decided to go ahead and get it was that I knew I’d want to reread at least sections of the story, more than once.)

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Good point about how lower prices make books look more “crappy” and “cheap in quality.” Books that are free or at a very low price will tempt me to buy them, but they would look unprofessional too. I think higher prices both reflect and create higher interest. And in my opinion, it’s more important for an author to get readers than to make money, but that’s because I personally care more about “getting the story message/ characters out there” (spreading the ideas) than about making money. My day job will take care of the latter, haha. How I decide what to read next: 1) during the school semester, as I told you, I tend to read literary classics—novels with a slower pace, because modern novels are too addictive and I feel a compulsion to finish them asap, lol. Not at all good if I want to focus on getting good grades. Otherwise: 2) If a friend is VERY insistent that I read a certain book or series, I would probably prioritize this book or series as in I’ll read it (them) right after I’m done with my current book or series. 3) Recommendations on the front and back of the book may attract me depending on what kinds of things these recommendations say. For instance, I was attracted by the reviews on Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed because they talked about love between brothers and sisters. I dig stories about sibling love. Lol. 4) Similarly, what is in the…  — Read More »


I have a very hard time paying more than $3 for an ebook. I have two books I’m slated to review in February, and when I went to pre-order them (because I haven’t been able to get my hands on advance copies) I pre-ordered the cheaper one (which was around $6) and placed a hold on the other one at the library (this one was $11). I like the $.99 and free books, and I’ve found a bunch of them that have led me to read others by that author or pick up the rest of the series, but I’ve also found the longer they stay on sale like that (because these are usually self-pubbed authors) it’s often because the author forgot to increase the price 😛 And I think higher prices actually drive readers away – we’ve become so used to the lower prices from self-pubbed authors and digital-first publishers that we’d balk at paying $7 for an ebook. I’ve been known to wait until I’ve gotten a gift card to Amazon or until the next book in the series is released (since they often lower prices in anticipation). An author would have to be on my auto-buy list for me to want to pay more than $3 or $4 for an ebook…and that list currently consists of two authors (I now own every single book by those two authors, something that rarely happens for me). Here’s something else I’ve noticed: YA ebooks from major publishers tend to be…  — Read More »

Taurean Watkins

Jami, For me, price isn’t the main factor, but it IS a factor, as a lot of my favorite authors, select books, or certain series aren’t in my library network, so I have to buy a lot of what I read, in terms of authors I know, love, and/or follow. When it comes to discovering new authors, for my personal sanity I have to go on a book by book basis, and I think this can be hard for authors to sort through more than lay readers. Even if we’re not talking about supporting authors we (personally) know, and on that point, I only buy a friend’s book if it’s something I’m genuinely interested in. But if I beta-read that book and know it’s well done but not my preference, I’ll always recommend it to those who love that kind of book, this way I’m giving word of mouth to the book, without the “Integrity Issues” you’ve blogged about at length before, Jami. I don’t buy much fiction in ebook format as my personal preference is print, but if I book I’m interested in is ONLY available as an ebook, I have things I look for. I’m starting to experiment with ebooks (From an author standpoint) and debate often about pricing. I don’t want to alienate readers if I price it too high (10+ USD), but I do get there can be issues with pricing too low because it can be perceived as “Cheap in a BAD way…” That said,…  — Read More »

Felipe Adan Lerma

hi jami, interesting set of poll questions

i answered best i could, but price is almost always over-ridden for me, low or high end, if it’s something i really want, either because of the subject or the author

i’m also wondering what changes, if any, new subscription services like oyster and scribd might do to the landscape

i do believe these netflix like services will work, but exactly how, i’m not sure; i’m dipping into them though to see and, honestly, hope all the various ways of reaching an audience with our creative work continues to work well for both the artist and recipient

thanks again, best wishes for all of us 🙂


I started the polls but realised I’d have the same comment for each one.

I know a lot of indie authors and read a lot of indie stories, and I’m aware of the strategies behind their pricing decisions, so, the lower end of the pricing structure isn’t an issue for me. I decide what I’ll read by other criteria. (reviews, reading the first few pages/chapters, etc)

The higher end of the scale is a different matter. There are far too many great stories out there for anyone to read in one lifetime anyway, so if I had to choose between two books I liked equally and one was priced at $4.99 and the other at $6.99 or higher, I’d buy the $4.99 one.

Print copies are a different matter. If I love a story I’ll probably buy a print copy after I’ve read (and already bought) the ebook, so wouldn’t be prepared to pay ‘full’ price there either. – which brings in book ‘bundling’ into the picture. Like movies are starting to do. Buy your cinema ticket and DVD/blu-ray/digital download at the same time.

That being said, I’d probably mortgage my soul for a signed box set of the Harry Potter books or Song of Ice and Fire. (if GRRM ever finishes it!) … or everything in the Honor Harrington Universe … or …


Just like you, I have way too many ebooks right now. Mostly free ones I’ve collected just to see other samples of writing. So at the moment, I will only spend money if a book is from an author I already like.

marilyn forsyth
marilyn forsyth

Very interesting post and poll, Jami. Made me reflect on my spending habits re. ‘physical’ books versus e-books. I have to admit I resent paying more than $10 for an e-book as I just know it will sit on my kindle until I finally find the time to read it (no matter who wrote it). After reading it I usually delete it, or if I really liked it, buy it in ‘real’ book form. My keepers are all physical books – those, I don’t mind paying whatever I must for.


While i won’t buy a book that I feel is overpriced I’ve never considered a low price as a mark of crapitude. If I did I’d never use the library. I know this is often put forward as a danger (that readers will be put off by free price-point) mostly I’ve found it posited by authors with a vested interest.

Free books may well be crap, but the same could be true of a book that’s 19.99 and a bestseller. There’s a lot of crap in the top ten books and it’s very popular crap. There is no correlation between price and quality with art, even if some people are convinced there is.

I’m not saying free books won’t be crap, they may well be. They might also be great. My point is you can’t predict quality based on price point.

Moody Writing

Julie Musil

Great topic, Jami! I have mixed emotions about this. My sons usually want to read ebooks by known authors, just because they’ve heard good buzz about them. And they read on two different types of devices. So I’ve bought double copies of each Maze Runner stories at about $9 each. Ouch! But on the opposite spectrum, I read book one of WOOL because it was free. I’d heard such great things about it and thought heck, it’s free. Loved it. Bought the Omnibus. Got my son hooked on it. I think it boils down to word of mouth!


Hi Jami,
Before buying, I always look inside and read the opening sample of a story by an author I don’t know, no matter the price. I’ve gotten picky with my time and my money. With ebooks, I go the bottom of my downloads and start with that one, no matter the genre. I’m getting to the point of using my new clothes rule for my books, have to get rid of something to make room for the new thing. I use my wish list like a lay-a-way. It does make me feel like I have some control.


Ebook prices are tricky for me, but I am a thrifty person, even when it comes to reading. I like ebooks but if the choices is between a $15 ebook and a used print copy for $5.99, I’m going with the less expensive option. There are exceptions but I generally go with the option that lets me buy MORE books. I’m not opposed to a free or cheap book. I usually check out the synopsis and the sample and if I’m not hooked by the first page, I pass. I’ve found some gems in the free stacks… a lot of times I’ll see a book offered for free because the author’s like… 10th book is about to release, so they’ll put their first release on sale to draw new readers in… I’m a total sucker then, because then I’ll buy that author’s entire back log.

How to choose what’s next? I read a lot of pre-publication books for NetGalley and Edelweiss. I like to read and have a review up on or before the book release date so I keep a calendar that pretty much dictates when I need to have a book read. In between, I really skip thru my TBR and see what looks good, check recommends from friends or book blogs. I might try that Book Jar idea I saw on Book Riot.

Rhenna Morgan

Loved this post. And you GOTTA teach me how to do the poll thingy.


[…] time, we talked about our reading habits and whether the price of an ebook affects its ranking in our to-be-read pile. (If you haven’t answered the polls with your answers to that question yet, please check out […]


[…] Petrocelli says that writers gain nothing from ebook subscription services, while Jami Gold talks ebooks: what we buy vs. what we read (includes a […]


[…] P.P.P.S. If you haven’t answered my poll questions about your ebook buying and reading habits, please check out that post. […]


Great, thought-provoking post! So for me, and as a few posters have said already, lots of things override me decision to purchase an e-book. But when it comes to price, a higher price won’t put me off as long as I know it’s worth it, and the publishing company isn’t intentionally gouging. So “worth it” for me is the 4.99 – 8.99 bracket. Above 9.99, and I think it’s a gouge. It’s an e-book with zero overhead other than the cost of the first copy, and it galls me to pay hard-cover prices. Honestly, I think e-readers should be rewarded for making the lives of publishers easier. As for the free books, I have noticed myself checking out many more authors that offer a free book, then staying to read the rest of their titles or books in a series, than I originally thought I would have. It’s a marketing tool that I’m completely on board for. I don’t at all associate quality of writing with the price. Instead I see it as writers taking a bigger risk to put their works in the hands of the readers to get them to read more. Does that make sense? When a writer offers a free book, I see them as being more personally involved and connecting with the reader (me) than the standard publishing business model would be. Regardless of the whether they are independently publishing or not. I see it as a choice the author must have made, and therefore…  — Read More »

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