Thursday, February 11, 2010

What Happens When Ebook Customers Choose Their Own Price?

One of the pricing options authors and publishers can select at Smashwords is "Reader Sets the Price." The reader pays on the honor system. They can take the book for free, or they can select a price of $.99 or higher.

It's a chance for authors to eliminate price as a barrier in their never-ending campaign to reach readers.

We've offered this pricing option since we launched Smashwords two years ago (Hey, today's our two year birthday!). Internally, we always thought of it as Radiohead pricing, since our inspiration for this model was the band Radiohead who bravely offered their album "In Rainbows" under this pricing model in late 2007.

At the time, Radiohead had recently unshackled their careers from the control of their record company, and the pricing scheme probably amounted to an equal mix of experimentation, pre-album publicity stunt to drive paid concert attendance and physical CD and vinyl sales, a gift to their fans, and also a big F* You to the record companies.

Radiohead never revealed hard data on the percentage of people who paid or the average price paid, though the album did go on to top the charts in the U.K., U.S. and elsewhere.

As I mentioned yesterday in my post about the most popular ebook formats, earlier this week we did some number crunching to expose some of the data Radiohead never shared.

We looked at a small sample of 353 recent "purchases" under this pricing option at Smashwords. Of the 353 purchases, 299 customers selected to take the book for free and 54 paid money.

Next, we looked at the breakdown of the voluntary payments. The payments ranged from the lowest minimum of $.99 to a high of $12.42. The average price paid was $3.20, and the median price (for you statistic geeks out there) was $3.20. As you can see from the chart, the distribution of payment amounts was fairly even.

Interestingly, when we compute the average yield per book "purchased," including the zero dollar purchases, it averages out to $.49 per customer.

Not captured in this data is any other ancillary benefit received by the author/publisher. Possible author benefits might include:

  • customer goodwill
  • purchases of print versions
  • free author and book publicity from satisfied readers on blogs and social networks
  • increased fan base to which to market other titles by the same author/publisher
I neither encourage or discourage our authors to use the Radiohead model. As I'll discuss this weekend in my Ebook Revolution session with Dan Poynter at The San Francisco Writer's Conference, there's no one-size-fits-all pricing strategy for ebooks. Your choice of pricing really depends on your objective as an author, and also your subject matter. Are you looking to maximize readership or revenues, or do you want to do both?

High prices tend to discourage readership by reducing affordability. Lower prices expand the available market. Free eliminates price as a barrier. And the Radiohead model offers a middle ground by trusting the customer to decide.

The other bit of research I'll share at the conference is a small study where we sought to discover the magic price at which an author might expect to maximize earnings. Is the price $1.00 or $25.00, or somewhere in between? Or might there be multiple magic price points? This will be the topic of my next post.

And as a final note on our two-year birthday, I want to extend my sincere thanks to Smashwords authors, publishers, readers and everyone else in this wonderful business of publishing who honor us every day with their trust and support.


Aleksandr Voinov said...

Dear Mark,

happy birthday, and thanks for the breakdown - very interesting. That fits with my own experiences.

Just a note - I received some feedback from 2 people saying they were "petrified" having to choose their own price and didn't want to overpay or be "cheapskates". But my sample is 32 people, so much smaller than yours. :)

Aleksandr Voinov

Anonymous said...

The Radiohead 'experiment' was more a very clever marketing stunt than an attempt to redefine a business model.

The band used 'free' to drive sales of physical format product, which was a special edition box set including vinyl records of all things. Cost? 100 quid.

Trent Reznor has also successfully used free to drive physical format sales. But these are established, *very* well known recording artists.

I have argued for some time that free is not a viable business model. Thanks for compiling the stats; they're important.

And happy birthday Smashwords!

Henry Baum said...

Every time someone pays for the book via You Set the Price it restores my faith in humanity. I'm totally fine with people downloading it for free - that's the point - but it's nice when people pay something when they don't have to. Says a lot. My best take is $5.00.

kittent said...

I have to say that if books are offered for free, most of the time I download them (and will eventually read them). But when someone says, please pay what you think this is worth, I pay. If there is a suggested price for a book (.99, 2.50, etc.) I think that it is right to pay that price.

I like ebooks that are 9.99, but if the ebook costs more, and I really want it, I will pay for it.

Also, I freaking hate bad formats and books that are hard to access. I have totally given up on certain sites because of the hoops you have to jump though.

Gybe the sailor said...

Ahoy Mark,

Great feedback.

The question that can't be answered is how many of those who downloaded without paying read the book?

I've seen a lot of people who will take something that is free yet for which they have no use.

If someone downloads, but doesn't read, has the author lost anything?

Happy birthday,

Dennis K. Biby
Molokai Reef - Gybe Sails Hawaii

Oswald Bastable said...

OK- I will give it a try!

JP Glutting said...

Very interesting. The next time you look at these numbers, would you also look at the number of purchases? While the author clearly gets less money for the average download here, it would be good to see if the total number of downloads increases, and by how much. Thanks!

Anonymous said...


Great series of data based posts!

One question I had was how does this compare with the average $ price sitewide.

As in when you take the paid for downloads and the free downloads what is the average price for all downloads.

Is the honour system encouraging a higher average? I doubt it, but it would be nice to check.

All the best,

Shayne Parkinson said...

Happy birthday, Smashwords! Hmm, I've just realised that in three weeks' time it'll be the first anniversary of my joining the site. What a year it's been!

Anonymous said...

Ebook Gratuit
Really nice, it is full of knowledge. i like it very much. thank you.

Sr2665 said...

Dear Mark,

Can you tell me how this option could be selected in Smashwords ?

I was struggling to understand how to do it.



Anonymous said...

There needs to be the option to go back an pay after you have read it.

I picked zero because I did't know if it would be good or not and figured i could go back an buy it again with a payment if I liked it.

Unknown said...

A suggestion if you are not sure if you will like a "Choose your own price" book. Choose a low price or zero then read the book. If you really like it then purchase another as a gift to a friend at an appropriate price. Also be sure to write a review. I know as an author I am pleased to get an additional reader (who probably would not have purchased it otherwise) and a nice review is always appreciated.