When I first started buying my own books some twenty plus years ago, I had very little money. My favorite authors were starting to come out in hardcover (Julie Garwood, for example) and unless I wanted to wait to be the 80th person at the library to read the book, I had to fork over $22.00 or more which, at the time, was a lot of money for me. It basically meant I wasn’t going to be able to buy another book or maybe even eat anything but ramen and macaroni for the month.
Most of the time, however, I bought my books used at the Half Price Bookstore or some other used bookstore that sold romances for $0.10 or $0.25. And when I bought the hardcover, I knew that I was sacrificing at least four other reads for that one book.
As I got older, I was able to buy more books but my reading habit got to be really pricey so I instituted a book budget of no more than X amount of dollars to be spent a month. Because I read three to five books a week, I was only able to purchase about eight titles a month new and the rest would have to be library lends or used book store purchases. During the heydey of chick lit, I was really struggling!
Price has always been a big thing for me when it comes to books and from what I’ve heard from industry professionals, mass market purchasers are very price sensitive. Most romance readers are mass market purchasers although the new readers coming in to the market after Fifty Shades are probably not.
There’s an interesting concept called anchoring. Anchoring is the tendency of humans to rely on the first piece of information offered. In economic terms, anchoring means that the first price a consumer encounters for widget A is likely the price that the consumer believes she should always pay for widget A. (Widget is an official economic term. No lie.)
When the ebook market was doubling every three months in the period between 2011 and 2013, experts told publishers that if they could raise the ebook price, the anchor for those incoming customers would be different (read: higher) than the existing prices set by Amazon. The agency price model was designed to raise the anchoring price and to some extent, I think that they were successful for the high end books.
The problem was that while the traditional publishers were trying to elevate prices on the high end of the spectrum, self publishers were attempting to grow their own market share and doing it with largely lower priced goods. For established hardcover authors and other genres that are hardcover heavy like thrillers, literature and science fiction, the inroads made by self publishers on the low end were not significant. But for romance, where the most price sensitive purchasers were, the lowered indie prices presented a perfectly acceptable substitute. (In economic terms, a substitute is a good that the consumer purchases in place of a higher priced good. A complementary good is what an ebook reader would be to an ebook)
Part of the reason that romance readers were so resistant to the higher priced Agency goods were that ebooks have lower value. There’s no resale (used bookstore); there’s no trade (paperbackswap); there’s no lend (friend to friend). The reduced utility of the ebook decreased the value. That’s another anchor to the digital reader.
Other anchors include encountering lower value goods meaning that the early digital books were rife with scan errors. Random House was one of the worst offenders of scanning, converting, but not proofing the end result in its rush to push out legitimate digital editions of their backlist. Pirates were providing better, more professionally produced editions. And early self published books also were rife with terrible covers, hideous grammar, and bad storytelling.
Overall, the digital book had an anchor to the reader of having less value. (Value is different than price, but can be related. Economic value is what a consumer is willing to forego in other goods. So in my hardcover terms, I valued certain authors enough to forego other goods).
While price may be fluctuating at the higher ends for non substitutable goods, it’s settling at the $0-$4.99 range for many romance readers. A non substitutable good is an auto buy author who you buy at any price. Nalini Singh and Meljean Brook are to non substitutable authors for me. JR Ward or Nora Roberts are non substitutable authors for other readers. Most authors to readers are NOT non substitutable. Meaning that a reader will wait for the price to decline or obtain the book through a lend/trade in order to read.
This is the long way of saying that books in excess of $5.99 or so become problematic in ways that lower priced books are not. I recently purchased Elle Aycart’s Deep Down. At $7.99, this book requires a reader to forego at least one, if not more, other book. John Locke famously said that when he priced his books at $.99, other books had to be ten times better to beat him out. You certainly see this played out in the reviews at Amazon where reviewers/readers will say that for a 99c read, they were willing overlook editing issues or that at $3.99 the book was three stars, but may have been 4 stars if it was $.99.
When I recommended this book via email to a couple of reader friends, both emailed me back with exclamations over the cost which made me re-evaluate my recommendation. I provided more detailed thoughts and some caveats when I replied.
To some extent the base value of a romance book has become $3.99 for me. A higher price and I’m wondering why the author thinks her work is so much better than every one else. And yes, I know that Elle Aycart publishes with LooseId and it’s LooseId’s practice to price everything high. The same with Ellora’s Cave and a few of the m/m publishers. But even knowing that, my gut reaction is to question whether this book is twice as good as a book priced at $3.99 or 6 times as good as the $.99 book.
When I read a book I enjoyed that I got on sale or I paid only $.99 for, I think part of the high at the end isn’t just book related. There’s the “good deal” feeling that is intertwined with the “good book” feeling.
Objectively I know I shouldn’t take price into consideration but I remember when I would recommend a trade paperback book and wincing about the cost. In my reviews, I try to provide enough information for a reader to decide for herself if the book is for her, but I know that a recommendation from any reader friend (and not just me although I assume I’m some of you folks’ reader friend) carries weight.
Ultimately my question is this. Does price affect how you feel about a book? Are you likely to rate a book higher if you paid less for it than if you paid more for it? Would it affect whether you recommended a book?