An experiment from major authors including Neil Gaiman and Cory Doctorow, which allows readers to pay the price of their choice for a collection of ebooks, has shattered all expectations, racking up sales of more than $1.1m (£700,000) in under two weeks.
The Humble ebook Bundle – an extension to ebooks of an experiment in pricing from Humble Bundle which has already been applied to music and games – went live on 9 October – offering customers a selection of novels and comics by award-winning science fiction and fantasy writers including Gaiman, Doctorow, Lauren Beukes, Paolo Bacigalupi, John Scalzi and Kelly Link. The packages is “DRM-free”, which means readers are not restricted in how many times they download or copy the ebooks.
Although, if sold separately, the collection of books would cost $157, readers are allowed to choose the price they want to pay for the bundle. They can also choose how they want to split their payment: between the authors, a selection of charities, and organiser Humble Bundle itself.
So far, 80,625 bundles of books have been sold, for an average price of $14.18 (if readers pay more than the average, extra content is unlocked). The promotion closes later today, and as of this morning had pulled in $1,143,151.85, with one user paying a whopping $1,238 for the 13 books.
Beukes, whose Arthur C Clarke award-winning novel Zoo City was part of the bundle, said she initially just saw the concept as “a grand, crazy experiment that might get the book out to some new readers”.
“I didn’t realise there would be over 75,000 of them spending more than a million dollars in two weeks on books! As John Scalzi pointed out, this is New York Times bestseller-level sales. And for a lesser-known author like me it’s meant that it’s eclipsed all my sales on Zoo City to date in two weeks. Two weeks! The response has been gobsmacking and humbling and amazing,” she said. “Allowing people to control how much they want to pay and how they want to split the payment between charity, the authors and a tip for Humble, with extra content if you pay more than the average is just freaking ingenious. It’s about respecting and rewarding the readers. People feel like they’re getting a great deal and helping good causes.”
Nebula winner Paolo Bacigalupi, whose short story collection Pump Six and Other Stories was in the Humble Bundle, agreed. “To me, Humble Bundle looked like an interesting low-risk experiment to see how people might value ebooks, and how they behave with a variable pricing model. I had a positive experience in the past where one of my publishers simply gave away DRM-free ebooks for the io9 book club – and that increased our traditional sales thanks to the publicity exposure. Humble Bundle seemed like it might have that potential, but with the added benefit that it introduced an actual sales and revenue opportunity as well. Obviously, I had no idea that this would be as successful as it has been,” he said.
Humble Bundle is now planning future ebook bundles. Its business development director Robert Martinez said the last two weeks’ experiment had made an impact on the ebooks scene “that cannot be ignored”.
“The reception to this ebook bundle has been outstanding and we couldn’t be more thrilled. The average price that customers are choosing to pay for this bundle is unprecedented at over $14. This is, by far, the highest average we have ever experienced for a pay-what-you-want promotion, and we believe it is a great indication for the future of ebooks and Humble Bundle,” he said.
Martinez believes that the “pay-what-you-want mechanic” only works because Humble Bundle is transparent about where the money is going.
“By allowing a consumer to decide exactly where their money goes (and how much), then suddenly they are in the controlling position. This, in essence, is why we believe our model works,” he said. “Once we transparently empower the customer to judge the value of the promotion (and those involved), we suddenly create a relationship that makes it much more likely for them to want to reciprocate in kind.”