Amazon’s Latest Experiments in Pricing

I love Amazon, because they are always experimenting.

Here are two experiments I ran across yesterday as I was browsing their website.

The first offer was an additional discount that is applied at checkout.  I hadn’t seen this on Amazon before. On this discounted listing, The Only Thing‘s price decreases 83 cents, representing another 3% off the price of the book. The offer appear to encourage customers to put things in their shopping cart. The amount is also odd, not seeming to be connected with the retail price or the discounted price.


The second offer was even more interesting. After I saw the offer above, I wanted to see if I could find a similar offer on another book. I assumed the offer would be made on other books that sold well, so I went to the bestseller lists and looked at business books.

The #1 title on the Amazon business bestseller list is a book called Bluefishing. Even more interesting is that the audio edition of Bluefishing holds the top slot right now. I wasn’t interested in the audiobook. I shutdown my Audible account a couple of months ago because I couldn’t listen fast enough to use all my credits, so I clicked over to the Kindle edition. I saw immediately two things I hadn’t seen before.

First, they were pushing this title on Kindle and specifically with a 25% credit toward other Kindle books in the “Great on Kindle” program. Second, I noticed that I had $1.00 in ebook credits. I had never seen that before.


I was interested in the Great on Kindle program, so I clicked on the Learn More link.


The copy was selling pretty standard benefits for ebooks – save where you left off, start reading now, adjust the font, text-to-speech integration, etc.

The primary benefit is the credits (which expire after 60 days), so I clicked through to see other ebooks where in the program.  There is page dedicated to the Great on Kindle offer.  The books were divided into six broad categories that you could page through. I would guess there are 100 to 150 books total across the whole program based on the duplication across categories.



This offer is pretty interesting, if you know a little history about book publishing.  In 2010, Amazon and the major book publishers engaged in some heated negotiations about the way ebooks would be sold. Publishers wanted to take control of ebook pricing, because they felt that Amazon had been abusing their power as the largest ebook retailer and forcing prices down. As retailer, Amazon wanted to continue to keep that power and felt that lower prices were better for customers. The flash point came when Amazon removed all of Macmillan’s books from their website for almost a week.  When the dust settled, publishers won the concession of being able to set prices for ebooks (and that turned into a huge anti-trust lawsuit between Apple with the major book publishers and the federal government, but we’ll save that for another day).

After publishers wrestled back control of pricing, the data showed pretty conclusively  that prices increases.  Amazon consistently offered pricing at $9.99 and lower for ebooks.  Looking through the Great on Kindle titles, you can see pricing at $11.99, $13.99 and even $14.99 for ebooks (and there are some titles priced lower than that too).

Without the power to do it directly, Amazon is lowering prices by offering in-store credits to use on future purchases.  The offer isn’t as direct as a lower selling price, but it lets them test if the indirect route to a lower price helps sell more ebooks.


The Rights You Sell Matter


The Expanse, a show in its third season on the SyFy Channel, was cancelled last week by the network. It’s the classic story of a show that everyone appears to love but the ratings aren’t showing it. In the case of The Expanse, this is a particular problem.

The deal that Syfy has with Alcon Entertainment, the production company behind the show, is very narrow. Syfy only has the rights for first run, linear viewing in the U.S. The channel success depends on viewers watching the show on Wednesday at 9PM ET. That is a tough deal in the still growing world of time-shifting, streaming and devices.

After the announced cancellation, the internet kicked into high gear with a #savethexpanse campaign with twitter campaign and online petitions. A group even hired an airplane to fly passed the Amazon Studio headquarters with a banner saying “Save The Expanse.” Their efforts paid off to a certain degree with the May 16th episode of the series drawing the highest live ratings in two years.  And Amazon appears to be in serious talks to revive the show for a fourth season.

The book publishing lesson from this story is to pay close attention to all the rights associated with your book.  Pay attention to digital rights, audio rights and dramatic rights, who is selling and how they can be used.

I read an author account last week where they talked about O’Reilly building sponsorship deals for the use of books with marketing programs. Clever.

Audio rights used to be a forgotten clause in many contracts. Now, book publishers won’t sign a new title without audio rights being a part of the deal. On my trip to New York in January, I heard the story that Tim Ferris ended up publishing with HMH because it was the only publisher that would do a deal and let him keep the audio rights.

And dramatic rights can be leveraged interesting ways.  Parts Unlimited is the ficitional company in IT Revolution’s The Phoenix Project. Check out the Parts Unlimited Github repo.  This is a working ecommerce site that was built by Microsoft for Visual Studio training purposes.  There is also a functional MRP system.  This deal was done with a simple IP agreement that allowed them the ability to use characters, plots and settings.  In exchange, IT Revolution obtained amazing exposure with a huge developer community and a key set of readers.

The Promise


I got a new catalog from The Great Courses yesterday in the mail.

What struck me was the main header on each page wasn’t the title of the course.

They were statements like these:

  • Learn How to Cook from an Expert Chef at The Culinary Institute of America
  • Forever Change the Way You Listen to Music with This Brilliant, Critically Acclaimed Course
  • Discover the Secrets of Good Nutrition
  • Improve Your Writing by Rediscovering the Lost Art of Crafting Sentences
  • Gain New Tactical and Strategic Chess Insight

These are all amazing promises for what the courses are going to deliver. They all focus on touching the felt need of the customer and what will get them to buy. Theses lines of copy remind me of subtitles on books and the kind of promises we are trying to offer.

The verbs they are using are particular too. Learn. Discover. Improve. Gain.  Each action points at the changed person you will be after taking the course.

To create enough variety across the whole catalog, they used other words in other ads but sometimes missed being active and urgent.  “Encounter the Rich Variety of Yoga Traditions…” “Comprehend the Rules of the Universe.” These statements feel more passive.

Positioning and selling books have a similar challenge. Take time to think hard about the language you are using. For The Great Courses, they understand they are selling learning and discovery. The marketers at the company are doing a good job portraying that in their ads.

The wonderful follow-up question is…does this style of copy sell courses?

P.S. I bought one 🙂

Amazon Books: A Second Visit with Friends

In March, my friend Robyn and I started a meet-up in Portland for book publishing professionals. There is a great mix of folks in town who work in all different nooks and niches of the industry. Some of us know each other, but we rarely have a reason to get together and talk shop. We’re hoping to solve that.

This weekend, our group took a field trip to Amazon Books at Washington Square, just outside Portland.  This store was the second store to open. They now have over 15 stores open and almost 50 pop-up locations around the country. We made the trip because many in the group hadn’t visited one of the Amazon stores yet.

I wrote about my visits to stores in 2017, so I don’t want to repeat too much of that review but let me share some of the group’s observations from the visit:

  • There was a generally agreed upon feeling that it felt like “a showroom for books”. All of the big books in all of the categories were represented. If you had a popular series like Game of Thrones, all the books were there in their signature face out, cover view on the shelf.
  • A more cynical way to describe the store would be as “a place for people who don’t read”. It was be hard to go wrong with the selection they have in the store.
  • The opposite side of that is that you didn’t feel like you were going to find new or edgy or out of the way titles that book nerds would be on the look out for.
  • The selection in the store is 100% determined by headquarters. One of the bookcase descriptions said they used customer ratings, pre-orders, sales and popularity on Goodreads. Another bookcase was a selection of books that has been read on the Kindle in three day or less.
  • Every book has a placard with the title, author name and a customer review from Amazon.  A few didn’t like them on every book. A few of us observed that with the books face out, we were much more likely just to pick up the book rather than read the signage for each book.
  • A favorite transposition from the online to the physical was the “If you like this, you might like that…”. There were a number of bookcases through out the store stocked in that configuration.
  • Two people in the group bought books in the store.  With an Prime membership, you get the same price as the online store.  If you used a credit card stored in your Amazon account, they auto-magically looked up your Prime eligibility.
  • At the checkout, there was a upsell offer for either 30 days free of Amazon Music or two free audiobooks at Audible.
  • It appears they sell alot of Prime memberships in the store with people wanting to get the discount at checkout and then use all the other benefits that come with it.
  • The electronics section with Alexa, Kindle and Fire takes up about 20% of the store but not many people were interacting with the devices.

The store was fun to explore with like minded folks. Glad we did it.

Making Books

I had lunch yesterday with a writer in Portland who works with authors.

Davia is great. She thinks big. She tries to draw out the best from the author and what will most help the readers. It was easy to talk shop for two and a half hours over chicken kebabs. The conversation centered around three projects and each existed across the range of feasibility.

The first project was ill defined. There was no one sentence description. Neither of us could get a sense of what would fix the problem. We spent the most time talking about this one and made the least progress.

The second project was promising but it also existed in this fuzzy realm. This author could write any of several books but none of ideas reflected who they were. We later exchanged emails on a concept they all had in common. It felt like the right book, but it was the one that was going to take craft and care to write.

The third was already done. The topic was timely. Demand would only grow over time. The author had credibility. The only question was how fast could it be written.

Books are a strange amalgam of author, idea and zeitgeist. Three months from now all of these books could be in different places, better or worse. It makes the work infinitely interesting and equally frustrating at times.