Are #Indies Getting Clobbered by Big Name E-book Discounts?


Are Indies Getting Clobbered by Big Name E-book Discounts?

I think we are. And, it’s a great time to be a reader and shopping for e-books!

Yep, tiny and skinny and it bothers me.

Yep, tiny and skinny and it bothers me.

The DOJ price-fixing case with Apple and the Big 5 publishers was settled awhile ago, but September was when Amazon began really discounting big name books. I get several email lists of discounted books daily in my inbox, and I’ve been agog to see big names like Janet Evanovich, Louise Perry, Michael Connelly, Patricia Cornwell and most recently, Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch, one of the Best Books of 2013, going for 2.99 or less.

I’ve bought more books than ever. More books than I should—but who can resist stockpiling these gems for a rainy reading day? I got the entire Game of Thrones set for around fifteen dollars! *goggle* If there’s ever a Zombie Apocalypse, I’ll be holed up in my bunker with all my ebook treasures, reading until the battery runs out!

Many of these have been older titles, but in preparing for Christmas, Barnes and Noble and Amazon seem to be pulling out all the stops and there’s no book whose price they won’t slash.

And in September, my sales went to half of what they’d been. They’ve stayed at half what they’d been in spite of doing active marketing, ads on Kirkus Reviews, giveaways, promos in those same lists I get in my email inbox, and launching two new books.

It’s like being the wimpy kid at the beach in that old commercial from the comics, getting sand kicked in your eye. Cheaper pricing was our advantage as indies.

I predicted this would happen in this blog post. In fact I’m surprised it took this long to happen. I’ve been asking around to other indies and they’re reporting similar dismal sales. So what can we do?

I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing, and diversify. Here are some ideas to try:

  • Strengthen relationships with loyal readers. Loyal readers are awesome. They will buy and promote you through word of mouth no matter how cheap Janet Evanovich gets (though they may buy her too!)
  •  Develop a separate email list for loyal readers with access to special promos, contests, and fun opportunity.
  • Interact with your readers. I am asking more questions of readers on Facebook and Twitter, getting their ideas for Hawaii foods and activities to use in the next books. Everyone wants to know their opinion matters, and will buy the book to see how you used their input!
  • Reach out to new readers by trying new genres. I am known for mysteries, but I just did a romance which is getting great reviews so far, and a literary suspense which I think is my best book. I also just finished my memoir.
  • Go hybrid. I’m still shopping projects to traditional publishing with my agent: the Lei Crime Series for TV/Film, a YA novel Island Fire, and now my memoir Children of Paradise. I also plan continue self-publishing my mysteries and other books as fast as I can write them. By casting a wider net, I hope to be able to keep up with the changing market.
  • Expand into the print market. This is the riskiest thing (financially) I’ve taken on in attempts to compete with the Big Names. Unsound, my literary suspense, got a great review on Kirkus and it’s a standalone. I repriced it to bookstore standards with 55% to retailer and returnability enabled, and entered in the IndieReader catalog of recommended books, and advertised in Kirkus Reviews. I also paid extra to be featured in all Ingram’s book catalogs that go to retailers. EEEEEK! If a bookstore buys that book and doesn’t sell it and wants to return it, I’ll be out around six dollars a copy. But I think the book’s solid, and beautiful, and a great read—and if readers see it, they’ll buy it, even for 13.99.

What do you think indie authors can do to compete with the big dogs? 

48 Responses to “Are #Indies Getting Clobbered by Big Name E-book Discounts?”

  1. Viv

    Oh I have been hit badly this year too. I can’t say I am glad it’s not just me but part of me feels reassured by your post. I think that publishers will eventually go back to over-pricing the big names, because there’s just no legs in virtually giving work away.
    I think that building an audience is probably the very best plan possible.

    • toby

      Yeah after asking around I went out on a limb to speculate we’re all being hit. We’re all insecure and wondering if its just us, but bigger forces are at work!

  2. Greta

    Phew. Glad to know it wasn’t just me. My sales nose dived soon after I went self-pubbed and September was terrible. That’s why I’ve tried a blog tour, hoping to gain some new readers. I can’t add anything to your list of suggestions. Building an audience is the only thing we can do.

    However, the big publishers aren’t discounting everything. Jack McDevitt’s latest (hard SF for those who don’t know his name) was priced at c$16. Errrr – no thanks. Maybe that’s contractual and will balance out. I hope so.

  3. John Holt

    A very interesting article. Certainly the last three or four months my sales have slowed dwindled. Despite the fact that (in my opinion anyway) my prices are not high. At one time giving away ebooks free on Amazon KDP Select did have an impact on sales once the book was back on sale. That no longer happens. There are, sadly, only two ways your books will sell (assuming they are any good to start with that is). One way is through recommendation from friends, family, previous purchasers; and second by advertising. People will not purchase your book unless they have heard of you. Regrettably paid advertising is out of the average Indie authors reach, so there has to be another way – blogs, twitter, facebook, local newspaper, business cards. And if anyone can think of anything else please spread it around.

    • Toby Neal

      Yes, John, that seems to be the case. I don’t know what the answer is except to keep writing the next book and building relationships with readers!

    • Jamie

      I would say that paid advertising is NOT out the reach of us self-published/indie writers.

      We may not be able to afford huge fancy campaigns with TV ads and billboards, but anyone can afford a Facebook ad or two to find new readers, to keep your titles in front of fans and promote your work. I can and do spend a buck or two a day and get thousands of impressions (number of clicks depend on how much I am willing to pay), but I do notice a surge in sales after my campaigns end. In fact, I’m running a couple right now for the whooping cost of $3/day for 10 days. Say you book is set in Boise (or Fairbanks or Jacksonville or wherever) – you can target your ad to find readers in that area who might be interested in your book because of its location 9I know I have found readers in the city my works are set in (Edmonton).

      Twitter also recently added something similar to let you promote your work as well – I haven’t checked it out yet, but after some research I might try that too.

      Will it work for everyone? Maybe, maybe not.

      But who here can’t afford $5 for a five day campaign to test it out? If gets you just two sales, it breaks even. If it gets you a couple dedicated readers, it’s worth its weight in gold.

      • toby

        Great idea Jamie, thanks for sharing! I do advertising every month and am always looking for the most effective places.

  4. Linda Ballou

    People will pay for what they want if they see the value. I sell my print books at events. People don’t balk at a fair price for something they really want to read. I don’t think giving your work away generates a sense of value. It does provide more readers and hopefully more reviews.
    The big box stores are a bad bet for Indies. They will only keep your book on the shelf for 30 days and then you get to pay for the returns. I only put my books in Indie stores on consignment….
    Keep trucking. I hope you are not in this for the money and receive joy from sharing your work! There a lot easier ways to make money. Cheers Linda

    • Toby Neal

      This is a very good point, and why relationship with readers are so important. Loyal readers will buy your book if it never goes on sale!

  5. JLOakley

    I think it’s important to have your book in book form. For that, my novel was picked up by libraries in WA and Oregon and now Idaho. And selected as an 2013 Everybody Reads. I was squired by librarians all over the Palouse and Lewis and Clark Valley for a week, meant book clubs, readers from many communities who were all reading the novel. I’ve never had outstanding sales. Always modest, but there was a jump when the novel was selected. I’ve gained readers who spread the word and are waiting for the prequel which I really, really hope will be out by Christmas. Sales are steady. I enjoy giving talks on the background to the novel and meeting families whose fathers and grandfathers were in the CCCs. I write non-fiction pieces such as memoir essays which have been published (paid for it too) and non-fiction historical articles which were also paid for. I love writing historical fiction and that’s what keeps me going.

  6. Bob Mayer

    It’s competition. Frankly, indies are clobbering each other more than big names. The unspoken reality is that the gold rush is over, the fight for discoverability is on, and we’re fighting each other. The free, the .99 eBook, and the latest– the collection of 10 or so bestselling authors for .99.

    The bottom line is I don’t control what anyone else does. So I can’t worry about it. I control what I do.

    • toby

      Well said, Bob, and of course I’m aware of your awesome support, writing, and promotion of the indie community. Thanks for popping in to share that pithy comment, I had not quite thought of it that way.

  7. Stéphane Amiot

    When talking about discounts on ebooks from major publishers, you should not forget that the agency model is not dead: according to the publishers’ boilerplate agreements, discounts on digital list prices cannot exceed 30%. So eBooks ca be dramatically discounted only if digital list prices are lowered temporarily or permanently by the publishers themselves. Retailers are not the only ones to be blamed.

  8. Michelle Louring

    I have nearly given up on making actual sales, but I guess I’m not the only one suffering at the moment. But on the bright side, losing interest in promoting and checking my book sales every hour has given me a lot more time to write!
    It does make me feel a tiny bit better knowing it might not be my work that sucks, though.

    • toby

      Michelle, the two things we authors all know work: write the best book you can, and build your relationship with readers so they will buy it no matter what else is on sale. We just have to press on!

  9. Tommy Raiko

    Thanks for this information (which I came to from a link on the comicsworthreading site.) It’s very interesting, and stuff I haven’t really considered. On the topic of ebook authors diversifying, can I ask: are your ebooks only available on Kindle? When I read ebooks, I do so on a nook, but I can’t find your books on their store.

    I understand that Kindle has got to be by far the biggest market for ebooks, but especially if your sales are declining there, is it worth an ebook author making their books available in those other stores, so that whatever readers who eread on nooks or kobos or itunes or whatever else also have access?

    Anyway…thanks for the post. Very interesting food for thought.

    • toby

      Hi Tommy,
      Until my most recent title, Somewhere on Maui, my ebooks were exclusive to Kindle which has been great for sales! As part of my diversification plan though, my new book is across ALL platforms, Nook, Scribd, iBookstore, etc. We’ll see how that goes!

      • Tommy Raiko

        Good to know! Somewhere in Maui sounds intriguing. When it is available on nook (I’m not seeing it in the store yet) will you post a link? I’ll keep an eye out for it, but I don’t want to miss it.

        • toby

          Thanks TOmmy, I will send you an email when I see it’s on the site! Just got confirmation from the distribution company that they’re beginning to put it out.

  10. M T McGuire

    If it helps, I went to a convention in June this year and had bumper sales that month. July, I sold none, August, none, September, none, October, thank you thank you to the one person in the States who bought one of my books, November was OK, I sold 4 which is more like my original levels. However the fact is, I sold 40 books the month I launched my first book and since then I’ve been selling less and less and less each month and working harder and harder and harder to achieve those sales.

    The fact is, we’re all skint and authors love books but are quite busy writing them so have less time to read and the only audience I have access to on line is other authors. They are great for encouragement, support, chats, advice… but not for selling books.

    I have always had my books in print too and I have always sold more ‘out of my handbag’ so to speak than I’ve ever sold on line. I was late to the party so by the time I started, in 2010, just saying you wrote was enough to get you blackballed from pretty much any online forum about books. The fact is, in real life if someone asks me what I do I’m allowed to say, if they ask about my books, I’m allowed to tell them. The ban on links and mentions does make selling a book tricky; the elephant in the room. So I go to book clubs, I visit my local library and when I have a complete story arc in the public domain (I’m currently writing a trilogy) I will try spreading my net to similar organisations further afield. I’m with the main wholesalers even though my book is print on demand, so in theory, I should be able to get it into any brick and mortar bookstore without any trouble.

    I could try to get a deal or an agent but I live in Britain and I write humorous science fiction fantasy… with a few romantic bits (the odd snog, characters falling in love, that kind of thing). It is, as my one friend in publishing says, ‘a very hard sell’. Fantasy and sci-fi are also derided among the trad publishers and agents here, too, despite our having a rich heritage of that kind of work. Being good isn’t enough, you can’t really write that stuff nowadays unless you’re already famous for it, or already famous for something else.

    So, I now think that the most constructive thing to do is finish the trilogy I’m writing, accept it’s a white elephant in bookshop, real paper book terms, and start on something different and more to the point shorter, with the right price to length ratio and then sell it through book stores, and appearances and anything else I can think of. It will be hard but it can’t be any more dispiriting than trying to flog books for a song on line.

    As far as online sales are concerned, all I can do is hang in and hope everyone else gives up before I do.



    • toby

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful share, it’s so interesting to compare notes from across The Big Pond! Though sorry to hear things have been challenging, I agree June was a great month for me too. Things didn’t really fall off the tracks until September and all the crazy discounting I’ve seen then, and since. Keep going! What else are we gonna do, right?

  11. Russell Blake

    The market is saturated with books. Indies have literally created an ocean of books in addition to the countless trad pub has put out there over the years. And yet, every year, in this impossible world, numerous new names burst onto the scene and become stars. This year, Holly Ward, Elle Casey, Melissa Foster (not new, but new to romance) have hit the lists and are selling like hotcakes. Last year, Hugh Howey, Colleen Hoover, and someone named EL James. The point being that it’s always been and will always be competitive, and there will always be, and will always continue to be, breakout authors who hit the spotlight in spite of, rather than because of, the long odds.

    Readers want the new shiny thing. That’s why anyone buys new books. If not, there are a hundred lifetimes of books already published, if not available free, at low cost. And yet that’s not how most folks buy books. It’s exactly like music, or film. There are countless songs, countless movies. Every year, a few hit big. Most don’t.

    Expect it to get more competitive. Anyone who thinks that being in the book selling business is easy has another thing coming. It’s hyper-competitive, 99% of all titles won’t sell worth spit, and everyone’s vying for the same readers. And just because you sold well yesterday doesn’t mean you’ll sell beans tomorrow. It’s a game that requires constant reinvention, selling to readers who are fickle and have short attention spans. That’s reality. Always has been. The best strategy is to put out high-quality work at regular intervals, and to remain relevant in the minds of your readers. And create a voice that’s unique, that readers have to come to you to get.

    I look at my sales from this time last year to this year, and I’m still higher in both income and units – actually, in units, about double. I want to say that this year I’ll have sold well over a quarter million books. Last year, 100K. Year before, maybe 1500. But no guarantees that next year I won’t be back looking at that 100K like it was a gift from heaven. You just have to roll with it, and keep producing the best work you can while paying attention to shifts in the market.

    • toby

      Yes, Russell, overall I’m having a great year too, but I think the future is going to be a lot tougher and will separate the “career writers” from the one-hit-wonders. I love your summary of the situation!

  12. Holli

    Wow, this is really scary. It seems so unfair to me that big name authors, who have already achieved the sales and audience that indie authors dream of, are trying to compete on the same level. (I realize it’s the publishing companies lowering the prices, but still.) I’m not self-published, but it’s frightening to hear it’s getting even more difficult to make a living at it.

  13. Libbie Hawker

    Great post, Toby! We’ve been discussing it over on Kboards. I think lots of different factors have played into a slowdown for indies.

    The traditional releases of the big-name authors’ newest releases always happens around this time of year.

    Kristine Kathryn Rusch recently blogged about how Cyber Monday (which has become Cyber Week) outdid Black Friday this year for the first time ever, in terms of sales — which indicates to my layman’s brain that consumers in general are VERY focused on purchasing gifts for others right now, or may be focusing even their personal entertainment/self-pampering budgets on all the gadgets and higher-end items for sale at such steep discounts, which has cut into their budgets or habits of buying ebooks for themselves.

    Traditional publishers’ prices for big new releases were lower than ever before, so there is some price competition going on there, too.

    And as Bob Mayer pointed out, we’re also competing with each other! There are lots of great books to choose from, and standing out from the crowd is now more important than ever.

    Price was a reliable stander-outer device in the past, but since the DOJ vs. Apple And Friends lawsuit, it won’t be anymore. So the landscape of the business is shifting yet again, and we’ve all got to think fast and be creative and try all kinds of new, untried things in order to keep our sales healthy. Really, there’s nothing unusual about that. It happens in all growing industries, and the publishing industry has been so stagnant for so long that we’ll see crazy and tumultuous growth until it finds an even keel again.

    I suspect that after Christmas things will pick back up again for most of us. Readers still want good books, and if you’ve built up even a small following, those people still want to read your books. They may be budgeting differently right now, or may be distracted by shiny sales, but they still want your books and will buy them again, if you keep offering them.

    I do think this is a great time for innovative thinkers to try out new, untested means of promotion. Old ways of doing things won’t remain viable forever, in bookselling or in any other business. One of the best things about being an indie is the freedom to be quick and innovative and to take some risks when the moment seems right. So we should all be thankful that even though it’s not the most sunshiny moment for any of us sales-wise, at least we get to be the people on the cutting edge who figure out how to turn it around and save the day!


    • toby

      Wonderful, thoughtful comment, Libby, thanks for weighing in on what has become a very interesting discussion!

  14. Alan Petersen

    Hi Toby,

    I found your excellent blog post while frantically searching for a reason why my daily sales have dropped like a rock in the last few weeks. It’s like a switch was turned off, yet, I hadn’t made any changes, and my ebook still pops on top of Amazon search results for my top search terms, so I was bit befuddled as to why the sudden change.

    Your post has opened my eyes (Bob Mayer’s comment was also very interesting) as to what might be at play.

    Thanks for starting this discussion and I feel your sales pain. 🙂

    • toby

      Thank you Alan for popping in to comment, interesting times we live in. Nothing to do but press on!

  15. Marie Force

    As always, I agree with Bob and pay very little attention to the “larger forces” at work around me. I focus almost all of my energy and creativity on the next book and the one after that and so on. I found it interesting that it took several thousand fewer first-week sales for my new release to hit the top 10 of the NYT ebook list in November than it did with a book in the same series released in July. I take that to mean that sales were distributed over more books that week than they had been in July, but it’s hard to say for sure what the true reason was behind those results. I suspect it’s time of year, belt-tightening for the holidays and more new books to choose from by name authors. Head down, hands on keys, keep doing what you do. Like Bob said so well, that’s the only thing we can control so put all the focus there and wait it out. This is my fourth Christmas season as an indie-published author, and it’s always down in November and December, and it always picks up again right after Christmas.

    • toby

      Thanks so much for the encouraging words and for the amazing news about your NYT times list! So appreciate you popping in to share your experience and confirm Bob’s approach.
      Much aloha!

  16. sheila quigley

    Hello, I stumbled upon this site and so pleased I did. I am a trad published and an indie published so guess that makes me a hybrid. I was wondering what was happening to sales as they have more than halved this past two months. So thank you I now no why.

  17. Cathryn Cade


    I’m a big fan of your Lei Crimes series. Thanks so much for writing Lei, a tough, vulnerable heroine who is so real I swear I could meet her on a trip to Hawaii.

    Just to reassure some of your readers who are newbies, I’m self-pubbing a new sci fi rom series, and having a fabulous run with Book 2. The readers are there, and they’re buying.

    Not all my books, sadly. I have a Hawaiian contemp para series of which I’m very proud languishing on the shelves. I don’t get it, who doesn’t wanna be transported to da islands?

    Maybe as it gets colder, they’ll buy Hawaiian. We can hope.

    Cathryn Cade

    • toby

      So glad you popped in to say hi on the blog, great to meet you this way and I’ll be sure to check out your books!

  18. Suzanne White

    Thanks for all the wisdom and fair warning. Of all the elements mentioned above, I must say (after 15 years of experience selling my books in digital form online) that my most significant leap in sales happened after I joined Facebook. I am over 70. People all over the world had been reading my books for eons. But they didn’t know they could actually talk to me. Once the word got out, I was avalanched with messages and questions and expressions of affection from my readers on Facebook. I now have 7000 friends and fans there. And they have friends and their friends have friends. About three times a week I talk to them all about my books. This week, for example, my new book is #1 on 2 Amazon best seller lists. So I boast about that and post screen shots and ask them if they want free books in exchange for reviews. The rest of the time, I talk about my life. Being in Paris. Then in Provence. Then in Italy. Then in California and Argentina. I wrote little snippets about a funny man I met on a plane or a silly woman who made me laugh in a supermarket queue in Silicon Valley. I tell them when I have the flu and if my carpal tunnel is acting up. This casual banter is like a combo blog/marketing tool. And it works. My sales figures are wonky the way yours are acc to the season. But each time I write a new book, my fans buy them. Why? Because I talk to them. I cozy up to them. I show them that I truly love them for reading me and for remembering a character in one of my first books in 1978. I strongly advice this strategy. No matter how shy you are or how reserved or lost in your thoughts, talk to your people. Seduce them. Make them fall in love. Compliment them on how furry their cat is or how handsome their young son. Post exorbitant videos and jokes and statements of your political leanings. Tell them if you wear night gowns or prefer pajamas. If they change their profile photo, tell them you like it – or don’t. Be the chosen close friend of your readers. They will not only buy your books, they will buy them as gifts for friends and they will read any and everything you ever write because they are hooked.

    My motto? “I like to count my readers among my friends.” Cheers, Suzanne White

    • toby

      Suzanne, WONDERFUL advice to any writer starting out using social media, and how lucky for you to already have built a fan base. I love your comment and greatly appreciate you sharing your mana’o, as we call wisdom in Hawaii. Aloha!

  19. Lilian Darcy

    Another strategy I think we’re going to see more of in the future is like-minded authors banding together to form their own author-friendly publishing houses or co-ops, such as or (Disclosure : I’m one of Tule’s founding authors.) Shared costs and labor, easy cross-promotional and more frequent new releases to increase discoverability… There really is strength in numbers with these kinds of ventures, in so many ways.

    • toby

      Wonderful, I’m interested in this kind of strengthening and cross pollination, and I agree. Off to check out your site!