Year Zero eBook (briefly) at 99¢ – and Thoughts on Free vs. Cheap vs. Pricey

Random House is pricing my first novel like an MP3 single. And as the founder of the company that built the Rhapsody music service, I’m thrilled.  The reason is that I love writing fiction.  But building a big audience for self-published books would require ghoulish levels of social media stamina that I lack (proof: this is only my third blog post in fourteen months).  This means that if I want to reach readers – and I do – I need the backing & support of a publisher.  Make that a solvent publisher.

So hats off to Random House for testing out pricing tactics that some would view as kamikaze lunacy.  They released the paperback edition of my novel (Year Zero) just six month ago.  And for at least a few days, their eBook will undersell it by 93% (as Amazon conveniently calculates on its Kindle page).  Not that Random House was counting on my paperback sales to make its quarter.  But they’ve been experimenting relentlessly with pricing for at least a year now, and not just with small fry like me.

Being reliant on publisher solvency, I’m delighted – because this is the only way to survive when the time-honored rules of your industry are collapsing or rewriting themselves all around you.  You experiment. You learn. You adapt. You don’t do what the music industry did when faced with its digital bogeyman – and whine, litigate, and deny.

I had a front-row seat to that horror show back when we were building Rhapsody. And having watched the American music industry bleed out half of its revenues over ten years, I sure don’t want publishing to do the same.   Because if my own novel to is be believed (and to be perfectly clear – IT IS NOT), it’s precisely these sorts of shenanigans that can DESTROY THE EARTH ITSELF (for a brief explanation, you can watch Year Zero’s animated trailer, three paragraphs below).

A convenient fiction that still makes the rounds blames music’s gruesome decade on Napster-abetted piracy.  This is like saying that the outsiders commonly called Barbarians caused Rome’s collapse.  Rome conquered the Samnites, Carthage, Hellenist empires, and countless other well-oiled foes. But Rome ultimately fell because it reacted to the Barbarian threat in wholly self-destructive ways – not because the mere existence of Barbarians magically doomed history’s greatest empire.

Piracy was the Barbarian horde to the music industry’s Rome (and I won’t say who played Caligula – although Vivend/Universal’s Jean Marie Messier sure had an ego on him).  Piracy wasn’t lethal in and of itself.  But it could be (and was) exceptionally dangerous if dealt with clumsily.  Entire books have been written about the major music labels’ boo-boo’s in the age of file sharing.  But to me, the uber-blunder was their dogged refusal to sell digital products on any terms, or at any price, throughout the Internet’s formative years.

To put this in context, recall that downloading constituted the umpteenth format in recorded music’s 125-year history.  And during that time, nothing – not waxen cylinders, LP’s, 8-tracks, cassettes, or CD’s – generated more immediate desire amongst music lovers.  Despite this, the major labels embargoed their catalogs from downloading for almost half a decade after Napster’s rise (and here comes that trailer.  The essay continues beneath it…)

And so the music-loving public went from acute excitement over the new format, to acute confusion over its absence from any legitimate store.  And from there it was a short jaunt to a prohibition mindset.  One that basically said, this stuff is fabulous, it is illegal, and that is insane.  And I am therefore not a criminal for desiring it.  So over five years, literally hundreds of millions of people grew comfortable – on every level – with piracy.

By the time the labels grudgingly started licensing their catalogs, they had given illicit file sharing a massive head start.  Habits die hard, and free is an especially easy price to acclimate to.  And so the paid-for online music industry will struggle for many more years to overcome the enormous beachhead that the major labels granted to file sharing.  The lesson here is not that digital piracy automatically dooms content industries.  The lesson is that you should never, ever give piracy a five-year monopoly on awesomeness – as I argued in this piece in the Wall Street Journal.

I’ll barely make a dime from Random House’s rock-bottom pricing experiment with my novel.  But in a digitizing industry, the only way forward is to embrace the chaos.  Bold experiments are teaching publishers a lot about price elasticity, “windowing” (what the studios do in marching films from theaters, to DVD’s, to broadcast, etc.) and more.  And publishing is thriving several years after eBooks went mainstream – in stark contrast to the music industry’s fate.

For years, we pleaded with the major labels to at least experiment with selling downloads for 99¢ a song.  We were always told that this would “devalue” music.  As if the only way to properly honor that one Chumbawumba song (yes, it was that long ago…) was to charge $15.99 to get it glued to eleven other songs in a full-length CD.   Wrong.  What truly devalued music was requiring the downloading public to pirate it rather than purchase it for five long years.

If after reading all this you’re interested in a 357-page yarn about a vast alien civilization that’s so into American pop music that it accidentally commits the biggest copyright violation since the Big Bang (thereby bankrupting the entire universe), for at least the next couple of days, US-based readers can grab the eBook for 99¢ at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, BAM, eBooks,  Google Play, diesel, iTunes/iBookstore, Kobo, or Sony.




35 Responses to “Year Zero eBook (briefly) at 99¢ – and Thoughts on Free vs. Cheap vs. Pricey”

  1. Peter

    Awesome! Bought a copy for both the Kindle and iBooks. (I’m poor, so I hadn’t bought it yet).

  2. Geoffrey Kidd

    I’ve been all eBooks all the time for over ten years. I was underwhelmed by the pricing on the electronic edition of this book when it came out. I think $0.99 is low, but I’m not going to turn down a bargain. Any place to donate the other $4 I’d freely pay?

  3. Manabi

    I won a free copy pre-release from you, but I bought an eBook copy at 99¢ just to support Random House trying out lower pricing!

    Still hoping you’ll write another book soon, Year Zero was hilarious and a lot of fun. I read it a second time this year I enjoyed it so much. 🙂

  4. Jeff

    What a great idea. I bought the book and downloaded the ebook (bundling would be another grand experiment) but would love to pay for this to support the idea. Unfortunately I do not live in the US. There’s another windmill to tilt at 🙂

  5. Andrew

    A great idea, and I’d like to buy it just to support the concept, but is it only $0.99 in the US?

    Using an Australian IP address, I get:

    EUR 8.99 on iTunes
    US$10.44 on Amazon

    If RH are going to test pricing, they should make it global….

    • Rob Reid

      Howdy Andrew – Yes I should have mentioned this (much) more prominently (I slipped in the US-only-ness, barely, in the last sentence…) – sorry! And I AGREE with you – I don’t understand why they wouldn’t make this world wide 🙁

      • Felix

        I’ve been thinking of buying your book since I saw your hilarious TED talk, and just came here from boingboing all excited… alas, no 0.99 cent deal for Switzerland either… 🙁 might still get it at the regular price (although, $12 suddenly appears a lot less attractive in comparison… 😉 )
        For something where distribution is free, I don’t understand why any business would limit themselves to a mere 300 million customers if they could have >6 billion customers. Another win for piracy – get it anywhere, any time, not a continent away or 6 months later…

      • Andrew

        Turned on my VPN, got the 99 cent price. Seller gets 99c, VPN provider gets $5.

  6. Riot.Jane

    Found this blog and purchased the Kindle version because of the TechDirt write-up on this pricing experiment. I’d had the paper version on my list but hadn’t purchased (I usually cannot justify $15 for a book I can’t lend, sell, or give away). Excited to read it, and would like to know how this experiment with YOUR book works out for you financially, as an author.

  7. Chris

    Also here via Techdirt – and since I actually remember…I bought the Kindle version. Sounds like a fun book.

  8. David Gervais

    The .99 book is 12.99 at Sony Canada, but up at Sony US. The only way I was able to get the US ‘version’ was to go through the customer support phone line.

  9. David Gervais

    “I’ll barely make a dime from Random House’s rock-bottom pricing experiment…”
    But you did make a dime more than you were getting from me before, and now I know who you are and search books by your name.

    Also, although they have a lot of room for improvement, I have found Smashwords to be a great place for author discovery. I have observed authors running their own pricing tests there as well.

    • Rob Reid

      Good points, DG … and agreed, it’s all about readership & discovery 🙂

  10. Craig

    What does this have to do with digital piracy? Were they hemorrhaging sales due to illegal downloads? If they were satisfied with current sales at $12.99, would they have reduced the price to 99 cents? Are they not hoping, it will increase awareness/word of mouth, so they can make more money when they bump it back to $12.99?

    What’s creative or original or “bold” about RH’s “strategy”? Self-published books are routinely offered in a free window, to garner reviews, so it will generate sales when they bump it to $2.99? How is RH any different than any other aircraft carrier in a highly consolidated industry clinging to power & market share? Do they pass along the very low production costs of e-books to the consumer? Or do they still try to cling to nearly the same price point as a physical book?

  11. Kyran

    Hey Rob, just thought I’d drop you a line.

    I was REALLY excited to hear you were on TWIT this week. Normally I listen to TWIT, but this week I had to download the video!!!

    THEN I was even more excited to hear that Year Zero was a 99 cent eBook. Because I bought the audio book and LOVED IT. Long story short, I was going to grab a copy for myself and buy a few friends copies (since I’m a cheap skate and I know they would love this book!)

    But 🙁 it doesn’t seem that your book is available for 99 cents in Canada….

    I wanted it on kindle, then checked iTunes… both say 99 cents in the American version but no love for Canada.

    Just thought I’d give you the heads up! Because this is one of my favourite books!!!

    • Rob Reid

      Hey Kyran – Thanks for the kind words! And I should have mentioned MUCH earlier in TWiT the fact that this is “largely, but not entirely US-only” (for lack of a better way of putting it). I mentioned it toward the very end of the episode, but given that it was the LONGEST TWiT EVER (or close to it!) that wasn’t the right way to go about it. People have been able to buy it in some countries (for instance, see below), but to my own disappointment most of the world is being offered the normal price…

  12. John

    Just a heads up that the 0.99 Amazon worked for me here in Australia. After the discussion on TWiT this morning I was expecting failure. Happy Days! It’s on my

    I don’t have a kindle device, but it’s now on my Nexus 7 pending some reading time.

  13. Kyle

    Users often turn to piracy when the item they want to pay for is not available in their region.

    I want to be a paying customer, but in Canada I’m locked into the $12.99 price tag. Knowing that Year Zero is available at $0.99 elsewhere, but not on Kindle or Kobo in Canada, my preferred stores, I’d sooner not purchase the book. Random House is losing a sale.

    But I guess that is all part of the experiment. Best of luck, Rob. I’m happy to see publishers start to take baby steps in the right direction.

  14. Tabitha the Pabkins

    I think this was a smart move. The move people you have that have read and reviewed your book – the more word of mouth you will get…then more people will search out the book and buy it themselves. Someone is much more likely to buy a book that has a thousand reviews than one that has a 100. Why because people want to go with what everyone else is picking up. Just the way the monster works.

  15. Amanda

    I just bought it! It’s been on my to-read shelf since SDCC 2012 but with a deal like this I couldn’t pass it up.

  16. Vikarti Anatra

    And what non-USA based readers should do? ESPECIALLY given blog post content about music industry’s behaviour? (p.s. I bought it for 5.12 US$ on Kindle Store some time ago (thx to goodreads) but now it’s still 5.12)

  17. M. Sid Kelly

    Well, I’m glad the experiment ran when it did. I ran my own 99-cent ‘experiment’ at the same time using one of the same promo services. So I had a sales peak at the same time, and our books ended up on each other’s Amazon ‘customers also bought’ lists. I’m not sure that it helps your sales to show up on my page, but I sure like having my book seen with Year Zero. Now I guess I should read it… Sid


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