I’m a software developer who runs Scribophile, an online writing group for serious writers, Writerfolio, an online writing portfolio service for freelancers, and Standard Ebooks, an open source project that produces liberated ebooks for the true book lover.

The results from our pay-what-you-want ebook pricing experiment are in

DRM and pay-what-you-want pricing

Not too long ago I announced a project my artist friend and I were working on: an exclusively-illustrated, DRM-free ebook edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. We wanted to make an ebook that we ourselves would love to own: hand-crafted with attention to detail, beautifully illustrated, and most importantly, free from restrictive DRM.

Releasing a DRM-free ebook gives some authors the shivers, because the assumption is that readers will share those ebooks amongst themselves and leave the author out in the cold financially. But we didn’t think that readers would always prefer to share rather than buy. We have more faith in our readers than that—and besides, we knew that sharing of books and files is a great way to build publicity and to gain new lifetime customers for books we might create in the future.

So we decided to try an experiment. It went something like this: For the first week the ebook was available, we’d offer it on a pay-what-you want basis. We set a suggested price of $5, and people had the option of entering their own price—including $0, which meant they could download the book for free. After all, if people were just going to share a DRM-free ebook, then who would volunteer to pay anything for it?

Given the option, would readers always pick free, leaving us poor and penniless? Or would people pay what we suggested, or more, or less?

I really didn’t know what to expect. If you had asked, I’d have said that 75% of people would have paid nothing, and the rest would have paid less than our suggested $5. Fortunately, our payment provider, Gumroad, has an option of pay-what-you-want pricing, so setting all this up was a snap.

The results are in…

…and they’re much better than we expected!

All in all, these are very interesting—and very encouraging—results. There’s no doubt in my mind that offering a DRM-free ebook was a great idea, and likewise there’s no doubt that this experiment was a great idea.

In the meantime, we’ve fixed the price for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to $2.99, which is lower than the average people offered to pay, and much lower than the cost of a paperback book. We decided to set it that low because there’s already a lot of versions of Alice in major ebookstores, so price is something we have to compete on.

(Update: this ebook is no longer available for sale.) We’ve also put it up for sale on the Amazon Kindle Store, the Kobo Store, and very soon, the iBooks store. But if you’re going to buy it, please buy it directly from our website—that way we get 100% of the revenue, versus a measly (and frankly pretty insulting) 35% from Amazon and co.

If you have a spare minute and you enjoyed our ebook, we’d also appreciate it if you left a review at Amazon or Kobo. That’d go a long way towards supporting your fellow book creators.

(You might be wondering why we’re not listed on B&N. It turns out that B&N aggregates reviews for books that have various versions, and it displays those reviews on every version’s sales page. That meant that when we posted our version of Alice, it prominently featured over 1,000 reviews for other versions of Alice—and many of them, including the top ones, were bad reviews for other publishers’ versions. After numerous emails to B&N went unanswered, we decided we’d rather not list there at all than be listed with bad reviews from other people’s books. If anyone from B&N is reading this: Amazon is eating your lunch, and bad author relations isn’t going to help your situation any.)

More ebooks to come

We also have a new project in progress: a retelling of Grimm’s fairy tales illustrated by fourteen different artists. We’re not quite sure how we’re going to price that project. Doing another pay-what-you-want scheme is possibility; or, we might offer it at a fixed price, with the option to download for free for the poor and credit-card-less. It’s still up in the air, but whatever we decide to do, rest assured we’ll share the results with you.

Thanks for all your support!


  1. Adeline Gale

    Wonderful news. I look forward to seeing what is done with Grimms Fairy Tales.


  2. Annielaural leFaye

    Have you seen James Altucher’s experiment where he offered (for the first three months his book was available on line) to repay each person who bought his book the amount they paid if they contacted him and proved that they read his book either by writing a review in one of several sites or by discussing the book with him in an email?

    It’s just another approach that I also found interesting and thought you, too, might find interesting.


  3. Danoquette

    It reminds me of the way Radiohead sold Hail to the Thief, I did pay 10GBP to download their work while never would have paid that to iTunes.

  4. Warren Smith

    I found the job you and the artist did on creating the ebook outstanding. Great job.