Here are five questions for you. Answer fast. No need to write them down:
1) What is your favourite beer/wine/fizzy drink?
2) What toothpaste do you use?
3) How do you choose what films to watch?
4) If you could eat out tonight (at your own expense) where would you go?
5) What does the price of a book tell you?
Got the answers? Good, because today I want to talk about authors as brands. Not about your ‘social media strategy’ or how you wear your hair at book signings. No, I want to talk about what messages you want to send out about your work to people who might want to buy it.
I’m neither a publisher nor a book marketeer, but I do know something about brand management. Once upon a time I used to do it for a living.
What brands have in common is that they aim to stand out in some way. We call it product differentiation: They make your clothes softer, your shave closer, provide greater protection for your baby’s delicate bottom cheeks against the evil of poo. They bring health to your teeth and the appearance of health to your hair. It takes fewer sheets to wipe up a spill, or indeed to, well, wipe. In this way you are better served by the products, your life is made more comfortable or pleasurable in some way. This does not just happen because the TV commercial tells you so, but because a lot of clever people have been working hard for a long time in order to try and make it that way. It is product differentiation that leads you to be able to answer questions 1-4 above with anything other than “I don’t care, whatever is cheapest.” Did any of you say that, by the way?
Delivering product differentiation comes at a cost, of course. Cost of materials, research, packaging design, advertising and marketing costs, paying the sales people who ensure it’s available to buy wherever you shop, etc. etc. Which is why you’ll not find these products at, say…99 cents.
In the world of publishing, how do books differentiate themselves?
- Author credentials (she’s always really funny/moving, he’s famous, her books are always page-turners…)
- Publishing house credentials
- Literary prize endorsements
- Word of mouth
- Retailer credentials?
You tell me. What’s clear is that differentiation is an evolving strategy. It’s a busy market, competition is fierce. You have to keep improving, keep innovating, keep surprising and delighting the people who buy what you have to sell. This is a GOOD THING. And in that way you have the right to sell your product – your books – and for a decent price, in a world where choice has gone crazy.
I’m interested by choice. In developed economies it overwhelms us at every turn. People think they like choice, but in reality they don’t, not so much. Choice is complicated. Packed supermarket shelves are stressful and time consuming. Shopping where you have the choice between apples, oranges and peaches is far less stressful than a choice of a hundred different fruits. And when consumers are faced with a choice where they don’t have the information – or time – to decide, they tend to use price as a measure of quality.
There is an implied value in certain prices. If you see a packet of sausages on sale for 50 cents and another on sale for 4.00€, and you’ve never heard of the manufacturers, chances are you will make a leap of logic as to which will have the more quality ingredients. Which will taste the best. Which will not only satisfy your hunger but also nourish you. In general:
- Very low price = utter rubbish. Does not work, falls to bits.
- Low price = low quality. The thing works. Often sells in bulk.
- Mid price range = mid quality. Mass market. Nice. Towards the bottom end of this range are cheap brands, towards the top end are pricier ones.
- High Price = high quality. It’s durable, or niche, luxurious or has a monopoly on the market.
- Very high price = status symbol.
So what did you answer to question number 5? What does the price of a book tell you about the book and/or the author?
As with any market, I think it’s clear that there is room for a broad spectrum of prices. OK, I took a pop at 99 cent novels earlier, but I imagine there are many people who simply can’t afford full price books. A 99c e-book could be an affordable way to satisfy a thirst for reading. I would like here to mention libraries, but fear that is for a different post.
I will mention J.A. Konrath, though. He sells his ebooks at $2.99 (about 2€), which he has identified as the sweet spot between low pricing and high volume of sales. He’s a smart guy – that strategy is really working for him. However he recommends that all authors self-publish and keep pricing below $3.00 for e-books. He acknowledges that not every self-published author will earn the revenues he does, but that if you choose any other way to take your brand to market you are effectively losing money. Is he, in effect, advocating the collapse of differentiated pricing for books? Or that some authors should sell their novels at 50 cents a pop?
There is (usually) a massive amount of effort goes into writing a book. Effort and time. How much time? What is it worth to you? Would you say you put in a year’s work? Half a year? And on top of that are there costs such as editing, copy editing, cover design, sales effort, marketing effort… how can that all be represented in such a diminutive price tag?
The other problem that I have with Konrath’s model is the assumption that there is a market out there for most unpublished authors to make an average writer’s income.
The thing is, the global market for books is estimated at 80 billion euros and is not expected to grow significantly:
“On aggregate, it looks likely that the €80 billion number will remain relatively stable, as lower e-book prices are compensated for by increased purchases on the part of book buyers as they adopt more tablets and reading devices.”
So the pie, in terms of money, is not actually getting bigger. Which means thousands more authors get a little slice of the pie, but there’s only the same amount of pie to go round. So in the end we all earn less for our efforts.
That is BAD.
One last word about *promotions*.
There’s a big difference between pitching your books at a permanently low price, and running price promotions. A promotion can do a number of things: Get people to try you out, boost your sales (a lot in the short run, a little in the long run), tactically swamp the market with your product in order to push out competition…99 cent promotions – go wild! Use them wisely, reap the rewards.
But I still feel strongly that a permanently low price for high quality writing sends out all the wrong messages. I have been wracking my brains trying to find an example of a successful product or service launch – in any market – that chose the strategy of a permanently low price point for a high quality product. So far I am really struggling. Can anyone help me out?
*£12.99 is the RRP of The Night Rainbow in hardback. I hope, when the time comes, you’ll consider that it’s worth it.