Novel Journey 9: In which the author figures out his pricing so he can publish

Tartarus Falls Cover

Tartarus Falls

“Father, tell me a story?” asks Isaiah, moments before an alien craft smashes into the jungle near his isolated Nigerian village. Inside is the shattered body of a man.

With his orbital city hiding in the rubble of a devastating war, Samara falls 35,000km to escape from the space-based prison of Tartarus. Struggling to heal, and hunted by a brutal warlord in a ruthless land, Samara searches for a way home to the woman he loves.

And, in the darkness, waits the simmering fury at the heart of Tartarus.

I read a very good argument as to why we do need elite publishers and celebrity writers.

Publishers, like Hachette, serve to keep ebook prices high; $10 or more per book. Self-publishers aim low; 99c to $2.99 with another cluster at about $4.50.

Many successful self-publishers (and Amazon) claim that ebooks should be cheap or, like Spotify, part of a rented service. Successful writers – and the publishers who represent and market them – know that readers are fairly insensitive to certain types of thing.

After all, you probably spent more on coffee today than you spent on books all month.

It is this price differential that allows new writers to be discovered. The price sets your expectations and, if you’re getting a book for less than $5, you’re probably going in prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

Which is to say that I don’t begrudge the column inches dedicated to reviews for established authors, or their advances, or the high prices they command.

We unknown, bottom-dwellers are prepared to make do with scraps if it means we will be read.

The average novel sells about 250 copies. At these low prices, that means you’d be lucky to earn $1,000 out of something that may have taken years to write.

Why price at all? Why not simply give it away?

Matthew Butterick, writer of Butterick’s Practical Typography, didn’t only release his magnum opus for free, he also developed and released the software for doing so for free. He then invited readers to donate.

After 12 months he presented a review: “I estimate that about one in 650 readers has supported the book with a payment or purchase.”

I track usage with Google Analytics. Assuming it’s accurate, it claims that about 650,000 readers visited the site in the first 12 months. I got 321 payments totaling $3676. About 230 were $10 or less.

That’s god-awful conversion.

And my experience from starting my consulting business 20 years ago is that starting at an unrealistically low price in the hopes that customers will later “allow” you to increase it as some sort of reward is hopelessly naïve.

In “Freakonomics” Steven Levitt has references to “honesty boxes” and voluntary payments and shows research where the average is about 5-10% of people making a payment and everyone else grabbing chocolates for free. Online, that ratio plummets to far less than 1%.

So free (including 99c) is out. It does not convert.

Where does that leave me? Trying something new.

I wrote the entire publication platform just to implement one weird idea.

A person can read the first 60% of my novel but, from chapter four, each chapter they read (without paying) adds 20p to the price they will eventually pay for the full book. The price starts at £2.99 and runs up to £9.89. Still cheaper than an established novelist, but certainly way more expensive than the average ebook.

Each page has a buy-button on the bottom and reflects the current price. The “next” button carefully states the cost increase for not buying and reading further. If a reader drops out before the “free” end they lose nothing. The further they read, the greater their uncertainty will cost them.

I honestly have no idea how this will be received, but it is something new. It went live this past Monday, so still very early days to give any feedback.

If you’re interested, the site is and I’ve made the software open source on Github at

Categories: Arts/Literature

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4 replies »

  1. as an author myself, you’ve contrived this experiment in the cruelest way possible to yourself. not sure i’d have the courage to try this.

  2. Possibly, but the average person who buys anonymously probably isn’t even going to know that the option to read that far exists (or that the cost rises if they do so) … and, unlike most book promotion websites, mine actually allows you to buy it rather than simply steering you to Amazon.