Traditional vs. Self-Publishing . . . or How to Price your Ebooks and Paperbacks Part Two

Adron J. Smitley
9 min readJun 3, 2023

This advice is for the average fiction author self-publishing through Amazon KDP; nonfiction buyers are less price-sensitive because of the content involved and what they might learn from it.

I needed to update book prices on my website because of Amazon KDP’s new paperback price hike policy (**see below) and happened to take a gander at a previous article I wrote not so long ago about how to properly price your ebooks and paperbacks, and it got me thinking after quickly rereading it.

So let me Dr. Phil this ‘article update’ since I proved pretty damn long-winded in the first article while vomiting tons of various statistics and figures all over the place that might have left some of you just as confused going out the door as you were coming in because I never gave a definitive answer.

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and rub some dirt on it, shall we?

Traditional Publishing:

A traditionally published author receives 5–20% royalties on print books, and 25% on ebooks. On average, traditional publishing houses pay authors $1.25 per copy sold. The average word count for full length adult fiction in traditional publishing is 70,000 to 120,000 words, depending upon the specific genre. The average traditionally published book sells 3,000 copies over the course of its lifetime.

Self-Publishing:

Amazon KDP pays its self-published authors 60% royalties on paperbacks, 70% on ebooks priced $2.99 to $9.99, and 35% on ebooks priced under $2.99 or over $9.99.

Don’t buy into the hype rampant on YouTube about “How to earn $10,000+ per month selling your books my way on Amazon!” because those scam artists make most of their money from YouTube, are only baiting you into clicking on their videos because to them more views equals more money, and they spend a large amount of their YouTube earnings on expensive book promotions and advertising that most of us don’t possess the means to fund in order to finagle the sales results as ‘proof’ of their claims just so you’ll watch more of their videos while contributing to their revenue. The cold, hard fact is: 90% of self-published books sell less than 100 copies, and 20% of self-published authors report making no income from their books.

So what to do?

First, don’t get discouraged. Real authors write for the love of writing, not because of some get-rich-quick scheme.

Next, base the price of your paperback novel on the price of its ebook, meaning if you profit $3 per ebook sold then adjust its paperback equivalent so that it also profits around $3 per sale. These prices won’t typically be an exact match, so find the ebook profit per sale first then choose the over/under profit per sale closest to that number for its paperback equivalent. Just remember to keep both prices ending in 99 or 95 because these are the two top-selling prices of the market, so adjust accordingly. Also remember that most of your profits will come from ebook sales over paperback sales, and this discrepancy is only growing.

According to years of personal experience, hours of fondling Google’s naughty little search engine, Smashwords, successful authors like James Scott Bell, and plenty of other sources too many to name, the optimum price range for fiction ebooks is $2.99 to $4.99, depending upon genre and length. This is because the order of top-selling ebook prices on Amazon is:

1. $3.99

2. $2.99

3. $0.99

4. $4.99

5. $5.99

6. $1.99

7. $6.99

8. $7.99, $8.99, and $9.99 (these three have the same sales rate)

*the drop in ebook sales numbers from $3.99 to $5.99 is over half, and the drop in sales numbers from $5.99 to $7/8/9.99 is by half again.

Clearly the magic sweet spot is $3.99 for maximum sales, an affordable yet competitive price, and a decent author profit.

Though obviously genre, word count, either fiction or nonfiction, and author brand recognition all factor into this, but we’re talking the law of averages here.

The average word count for full length adult fiction in traditional publishing is 90,000 words.

The average word count for full length narrative nonfiction in traditional publishing is 75,000 words.

The average word count for full length prescriptive nonfiction in traditional publishing is 60,000 words.

Statistically, the ‘sweet spot’ for full length fiction (action & adventure, sci fi & fantasy, mystery & suspense . . . etc) is $3.99.

The ‘sweet spot’ for full length narrative nonfiction (memoirs, essays, auto/biographies . . . etc) is $5.99.

The ‘sweet spot’ for full length prescriptive nonfiction (business and finance, health and wellness, educational how-to’s . . . etc) is $7.99+.

This is because Amazon KDP’s ‘sweet spot’ for all ebooks is $2.99 to $9.99 in order to earn that tasty 70% royalty; anything priced above or below, even by a single penny, and your royalty rate drops to 35% (and don’t even get me started on Amazon’s 40% royalty Expanded Distribution option, which is a complete waste of time while earning you little if any money).

Fiction sells based on genre.

Narrative nonfiction sells based on theme.

Prescriptive nonfiction sells based on purpose.

All three depend upon the particular reader’s interests.

Fiction sells for less because most people read a novel only once or twice before giving it away, storing it on a bookshelf to gather dust, or deleting it from their digital reading device to make room for other books.

Narrative nonfiction sells for a little more because most people are interested in their favorite celebrity’s life story, or they can emotionally relate to your battle with overcoming cancer, your triumphant struggle against suicide or religious awakening.

Prescriptive nonfiction sells for a lot more because most people are seeking to learn something new, as well these books are often referenced over and again throughout the years because of what they have to teach.

As to self-publishing fiction prices and profits . . . factor in the average expected word count of your genre then base the paperback price on its ebook profit per sale.

If you’ve written an ‘average-length’ novel in your genre, pick $3.99 for its ebook price then adjust its paperback profit per sale to its ebook profit per sale.

If you’ve written a ‘below average-length’ novel in your genre, pick $2.99 for its ebook price then adjust its paperback price accordingly.

If you’ve written an ‘above average-length’ novel in your genre, pick $4.99 for its ebook price then adjust its paperback price accordingly.

Anything less ($0.99) should be reserved for loss leaders (the first book in a series that already has several novels released), promotional sales, or short stories.

Anything more ($5.99+) should be reserved for doorstopper novels (200,000+ words), and nonfiction books.

Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

No fuss or muss, no headache or hassle.

But again, remember that other things such as genre and author brand recognition factor into this. For example, romance tends to sell at a lower average price, whereas erotica tends to sell at a higher average price, just like most fantasy novels are expected to have a higher than average word count for normal prices.

As to author brand recognition . . . if it’s your first novel and you’re a complete unknown then choose a lower than average price to get your book into as many readers’ hands as possible so they’ll return for future novels. If you’ve been at it a couple of years with several novels out and have a growing readership then price your books to the average. And if you’re a well-known author with an established fanbase and a large catalog of published works then you can risk pricing your books higher than average.

Point being: stay humble and don’t be greedy; also, use your head and stop overthinking it because it’s not rocket science.

So why not just base all of your prices on traditional publishing profits?

Because traditionally published authors and their publishing houses have to split the profits of a book (which ranges on average from $1 to $4 per copy sold), and you also have to factor in house editors, PR teams, author brand recognition and all that snaz. Whereas self-published authors typically do all of the work themselves, which is why they deserve to profit more per sale.

There are plenty of free options available when it comes to cover design and interior layout (such as Midjourney, and Canva; both have paid options too and are well worth the cost), proper manuscript/document formatting, and when it comes to editing it is well advised that you should learn how to do this yourself instead of paying an expensive copyeditor (whom typically charges $10+ per printed page, double-spaced and with 1-inch margins) because knowing how to edit your novel will only improve your writing, which leads to less future editing while saving you money.

If you’re a real author then you’re not looking to get rich quick off of publishing one or two books as if writing is some kind of lottery, otherwise you’re in this business for all the wrong reasons. Instead you should focus on consistently releasing great content while establishing a loyal readership with a growing catalog of books, because authorship isn’t a sprint but a lifelong marathon.

And since the average traditionally published author earns $1.25 per book sold, you’re already earning more than them even if you price your fiction ebook lower at $2.99, which typically profits you around $2 per sale depending on the file size.

**If you don’t know by now (then this is a wake-up call), Amazon KDP has changed its printing policies so that all of its self-published authors are taking a huge cut to their paperback profits come June 20th 2023. Depending on the size of your books, this could mean as much as a 38% profit reduction per paperback sale.

Yup.

You read that right.

38% profit reduction per paperback sale.

That’s for the 8.5 x 11 inchers though, and the royalty cut reduces a little for the smaller trim size of your book (pretty much every book sized 6 x 9 and over is going to have a higher minimum manufacturing cost to print, and the larger the book the larger the cost).

I took Amazon’s ‘bulk update’ option to make things easier, but news flash: you will still have to go back and manually adjust all of the prices of all of your paperback books because that bulk-update will leave their prices all wonky and often much too high compared to the previous price.

Fact is, you’re going to have to bite the bullet and accept that you will earn less money from your paperback sales from now on than you did before. Either that or charge your potential readers a lot more, which is never a good idea and only leaves a sour taste in their mouth.

Anywho . . .

So why the minimum manufacturing cost price hike all of a sudden?

I’m guessing it’s the combination of Amazon’s hefty loss of billions of moolah on their failed Rings of Power woke-show alongside the flood of low-content books (journals, diaries, coloring books . . . etc) over the previous years that a plethora of scam-baiting YouTubers espouse as their get-rich-quick scheme.

Regardless, this is Amazon KDP’s new industry standard for all of its authors. Either deal with the heat or get out of the kitchen.

ADRONJSMITLEY.BLOGSPOT.COM

The (not so) legendary journeys of Yor the Mighty!: Unepic Origins: a whimsical farce of fantasy adventure, heroic hijinks and mythical monsters
The Big Book of Plots: 1,000 Clever Plot Hooks, Twists, and Story Prompts for Writers (Awesome Plots Galore Series 1)
101 Premade Plots to Steal!: Fantasy (Awesome Plots Galore Series Book 2)
the Soothsayer Novella Series (35 book series)
Stomping Kittens: a Punching Babies sequel (Write Club Series)

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Adron J. Smitley

Blog for writers on everything plot, character, and story structure architecture at: adronjsmitley.blogspot.com