One of the publishing questions kindled by Amazon's Kindle reader and the general growth in eBook sales is whether selling eBooks hurts the sales of print books. There have been anecdotal reports from Jeff Bezos down to myself suggesting that the opposite may be true, but I'm still working on the numbers. In the meantime, my current experience trying to sell an experimental ebook about mortgage math makes me wonder if it works the other way around in some case. I've received a couple questions lately from aspiring eBook publishers asking if publishing a print edition is necessary to demonstrate legitimacy for the paid download version. The jury is still out, but here are a few of my experiences.
A little over a year ago when I got back into the eBook business, I started by publishing the eBook version of my latest title nine weeks BEFORE I published the printed version. I sold 113 downloads during the nine weeks before the printed book was available, and 109 downloads during the following 9 weeks, when the printed book was available. Of course, those 9 week periods aren't equivalent because selling in April and May isn't equal to selling in June and July, but there certainly wasn't a striking difference. I also compared the first six weeks of eBook sales from 2008 when there was no printed edition available to the exact period this year, when the print book and the eBook are well established, and the download sales are actually up, 75 copies in 2009 vs 64 copies in 2008. Of course, you can argue that year over year comparisons are just as flawed, due to the economy, etc, but again, for this particular title it looks like the introduction of a printed book had no impact on the eBook sales.
Now let's take a look at the other side. A year ago last week I published an updated eBook version of my oldest Foner Books title, which has been in print since 2002. Over the course of the year, the eBook has sold 274 downloads. In the corresponding period from 2007/2008 (before the eBook was available), the print book sold roughly 1,200 copies, while in the 2008/2009 period with the eBook available, the printed book sold roughly 1,000 copies. So at first glance, it would appear that the eBook sales came largely at the expense of the print sales. But here are a few caveats. First, the print sales in the first four months of this years are actually up year-over-year, by nearly 20%. So a good part of the difference may be due to the fact that this business title did poorly during the long period of financial uncertainty last year. It's also worth noting that the eBook version is more profitable than the printed version.
But now we get to the case of my experimental book about mortgage math and the idea of legitimacy. I started offering this title for sale last month as a stand-alone ebook. On a little over 300 order page views, the eBook sold a total of 3 downloads, or a 1% sell through. That's far and away the worst sell-through I've seen for an eBook download on my site, not to mention that there were no print sales taking away potential eBook buyers. I have three main candidates to explain the difference, the first two being that there isn't a printed version of the eBook to lend legitimacy to it and the second being that people interested in mortgage math aren't looking for a short book on the subject.
I saved the best explanation for last, which is that it's priced too cheaply. Since the eBook is only 40 odd pages, I initially set the price at $3.95, because that's what I'd be happy paying for it as a customer. After a week with only two sales, I tried dropping the price to $1.95, offering a money back guaranty, and finally trying 99 cents with the tag line, "download the eBook for a song." No sale. In fact, I didn't sell another copy until I raised the price to $4.95 two days ago! So it may be that a low price raises a red flag with potential customers, leading them to think it must be a scam or a pirated book, while a higher price actually encourages sales. As much as I'd like to experiment with pricing further, I don't want to sell the eBook for more than $4.95 because that's about the limit of what I'd be happy paying for it myself based on page count.
Strange as it may sound, I've paid $25 or $50 for books and been perfectly happy with the purchase if the book contained one fact or procedure that I actually used, even if it didn't occupy a full page. Would I have been happy paying $25 or $50 for just that page? I'm afraid not, I don't have that kind of executive mindset. I want some weight for my money, even if it's just electrons.