John Locke, Market Research and E-Book Pricing

I am a pretty hardcore reader. There probably has not been a week in the past 40 years when I have not bought a book. Many weeks I have bought far more. I think the most I have ever bought in one day was 45 but those were truly exceptional circumstances. At conventions I can easily buy 10-20 in a day. When I was a kid if I did not have enough pocket money to buy a book, I would spend my dinner money on them instead. When I was a student and a heavy smoker it once came down to a choice between a packet of cigarettes and a book and I bought the book. (Only my fellow 40-60 a day nicotine addicts will realise exactly how hardcore a reader that makes me.) I bring this up for a reason.

The publishing industry is not famous for the amount of market research it does but the little of it I can remember tends to suggest that the market is divided into two categories; the vast majority who buy ten or less books per year, and the hardcore who buy a lot more. The numbers that I can recall for this category run from 5-10% of the general population. In any case, I belong to the smaller group. I am guessing most people who buy Kindles do too– I mean who else would buy a dedicated reading device. They might not buy as many books as I do, but I am willing to bet they buy a lot, lot more than 10 books a year.

Checking my stats I see that I have averaged buying just over one book a week for the Kindle since I acquired it over a year ago. I’ve actually bought more print books in the same period but the balance is changing.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the pricing of ebooks, about whether readers are price sensitive and so on. Rather than blow wads of cash I don’t have on a huge marketing survey whose results would be vague anyway, I’ve decided to survey the one reader whose buying decisions and purchasing patterns I can be absolutely certain of: me. I don’t claim that I represent anything like the total market of Kindle readers but I suspect I resemble a fair part of it and an important one, given how many books I buy.

Has pricing affected my decisions about buying e-books?

Not really. I have bought ebooks costing more than £15, mostly on technical subjects that interest me where a paper book would be considerably more expensive– I am talking about things like the Ubuntu Linux Bible here. For fiction I have a simple policy. I will not pay hardback prices for an ebook. There is a level of greed and stupidity involved on the part of a publisher there that offends me and I will not do anything to support it. Beyond that, in general, if I want a book I buy it. I have even gone so far as paying more for an ebook than I would for a paperback equivalent on Amazon because I wanted that book right now. Other than my stated rule, I have never NOT bought a book by an author I liked because of price.

In all of my ebook buying I can think of only one example where I have been truly price sensitive. Amazon held a summer sale where a bunch of fantasy novels by well known authors from traditional publishers were discounted to 99p. I bought the ones that looked interesting because hey, at that price, why not? Books for the price of a candy bar, what’s not to love?

So far I have only read Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I enjoyed it and I know I will buy the second in the series at some point in the not too distant future. Do I care how much book 2 costs? No. As long as the pricing isn’t utterly daft I will buy it. Obviously I would prefer to pay less but since I like the series I will still buy at anything up to the paperback equivalent price, maybe even a little more.

This was very definitely a situation where the price affected my initial purchase of a book by an author I did not know. The book was in a genre I like but in which I have been burned often and often before by full price books. I tried Empire in Black and Gold. I liked it enough to buy into the idea of the series. If the publisher was using this book as a loss-leader to get me interested, it worked.

The only other possible pricing scenario I can imagine that would affect my buying decision about Tchaikovsky’s work now is this: I would buy the next book in the series instantly if it was on sale for 99p because it would be a bargain. Other than that contingency arising, it is on my list of books to be bought at some point within the next few months.

John Locke, of How I Sold a Million E-Books in Five Months fame, came in for a lot of criticism for pricing all his books at 99 cents. Lots of people think that he left a lot of money on the table by not pricing the first book in his series at 99 cents and the rest much higher. Given what I have just said, those people are probably right about that aspect of the thing. If I had bought the first book at 99 cents and liked it, I would cheerfully have paid 2.99 for the next one and Locke would have earned 6 times the money.

I think this misses the point. If John Locke’s goal was to make the maximum amount of money possible, he certainly made a mistake. If his goal was to sell the maximum number of ebooks in the shortest possible time while generating the maximum publicity, thus turning himself for a while into probably the most talked-about new author in the United States, his plan was an excellent one. John Locke appears to be a very, very smart man.

What do you think his goal was?



2 Replies to “John Locke, Market Research and E-Book Pricing”

  1. So, what were the exceptional circumstances that led to the 45-book purchase? Was it an “entire annotated Western literary canon for new ebook reader” kind of situation?

    1. I was 14 years old in a huge London bookshop for the very first time with what seemed to me a huge wad of cash. I came from a town where there was no real bookshop only a John Menzies and some paperback racks in the local newsagents. I bought every single work of Edgar Rice Burroughs I could find and that was a lot, a bunch of the Sphere Conan’s, all the Brak the Barbarian, a bunch of early Moorcock fantasies and a whole lot more. I filled a military issue duffel bag with books. It kept me reading for a bit.

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