(Pricing strategies have changed somewhat since this article was written. See Update #3 below).
In July, I stumbled on an amazing fact. One of the biggest U.S. publishers, Simon and Schuster (S&S), has been aggressively discounting its ebooks. Here is generally what I have noticed so far:
- The sales last for one week, starting on Tuesday morning and finishing on Monday midnight.
- Every week, S&S picks about 5-10 percent of titles older than two years old and prices them at 99 cents. After the sale expires, the price returns to its usual price of $12.00 or so.
- I’ve only checked these prices on Amazon.com, but I assume that the sales are only taking place on the US Amazon.com store. I could be mistaken.
- If S&S carries several titles by a single author, typically only one ebook title will be discounted per week.
- S&S rarely or never publicizes these sales, even in its S&S newsletters. Occasionally I have seen a promotion on bookbub or another ebook newsletter.
- For one of the weeks, S&S priced a lot of its never-selling ebooks for free. During that crazy week, you could obtain items like a campaign memoir by Howard Dean for $0. Actually, though, several other respectable titles were downloadable for free as well.
NOTE: The deals mentioned in this article apparently are generally only available to customers at the Amazon.com store . You can’t find them if you are surfing at amazon.uk, amazon.fr or amazon.ca.
I’ve recently become aware that these same deals are available on Kobo (Here’s some help about how to browse through Kobo’s S&S inventory).
Something about Simon and Schuster’s Catalog
- The catalog features lots of novels and story collections by young writers. A good number have some connection to New York. With a few exceptions, I didn’t see many older titles or prize winners except a Doris Lessing story collection.
- They publish a lot of popular history titles, especially U.S. history. Most aren’t prestige academic titles, but have received good reviews. Also, I have noticed a lot of “journalistic scientific history” titles like Soul Made Flesh: Discovery of the Brain and How It changed the World by Carl Zimmer.
- They publish a lot of topical/current event titles. (For example, the latest Omarosa title is from S&S’s Gallery imprint — but it won’t be discounted).
- Some of the nonfiction titles are crassly commercial. Self-help, medical guides, etc.
- S&S offers a lot of free samplers which are clearly indicated. The first page of search results on Amazon.com may start with these freebies, but eventually you get to the 99 cent titles.
- I didn’t explore much of the poetry titles, but I did notice that the annual Best American Poetry anthologies are being discounted. Over the last 4 weeks, I’ve managed to snag most of the volumes (except the 2 most recent) for 99 cents each.
- To my delight, S&S has been publishing some Chinese authors (both classic and contemporary) on its Atria imprint. Fan Wu, Xu Xiaobin, Lu Nei, Lu Xun. So far I’ve resisted to buy the essay collections by Chinese blogger Han Han, but I might eventually succumb.
- On the literature side, they publish a lot of public domain titles for 99 cents. You can get most of these same titles from Gutenberg; they can get in the way of browsing titles. To S&S’s credit, the covers for the public domain titles are pretty easy to tell apart from the more recent commercial titles
- Although I haven’t spent a lot of time on the sci fi titles, I have found some gems and good anthologies.
- Most annoyingly, none of the Simon & Schuster ebook titles are lendable. That means you can’t share titles with friends or borrow a copy from a third party lending site like Lendle.
- On the wonderful side, on Amazon.com you can buy multiple copies of an ebook and then give it to various friends and family for their birthdays. (As long as they live in the U.S and have an Amazon.com account, you’ll be fine).
Browsing through Amazon.com
Amazon.com can be hard to browse through, so pay attention. If you just want to get the links to each category, I will give them at the end, but I want to explain how to get there first.
- On the dropdown box on the Search box, select Kindle Store and then type Simon Schuster (no quotations, leave out the ampersand).
- On the left sidebar (below the Search box), click on Kindle eBooks (Do not click Kindle Short Reads). A new list of category of options will appear below. Important — If you perform the next step before this one, sometimes you will see only about 1/3 of ebook categories. Order is important.
(UPDATE: Because of the quirkiness of the Amazon.com site, you need to browse first to the desired category and later change the Sort by option. I am correcting the directions somewhat to prevent the category options from messing up on you).
Now you need to browse through the categories on left. First and most importantly, click See more,
After you click that, you will suddenly open a magic portal and reveal all kinds of literary wonders. Even more amazing, when you click any one of these categories, more subcategories will appear. (Isn’t it ridiculous that Amazon hasn’t figured out how to make it easier to browse through this stuff?)
I’ll let you do your own browsing, but here are some of the more interesting categories:
Political Science — (apparently it shows more recent current events titles than the previous one).
Some of these even have sub-sub categories. By the way, to go up a level, simply click the more general category above the current one.
Change the Sort By Option
After you have found the correct category, you need to change the sort method.
By default, “Featured” is the sort method, which causes some pricey titles to appear on top. Once you choose Low to High as the sort order, it will generally remember this preference throughout your session. Choosing the 2×2 box (when it is selected, it will be colored orange, as you see above), allows you to browse through a large number of titles more easily.
Finally, On the Sort by dropdown on the top right (under “Orders”), select Sort by Price: Low to High. Also, there are icons to change the view from horizontal rows to the 2×2 box of squares.
After you do this, you will see a view of the lowest priced S&S ebooks for that category.
Very Important Tip: Ignore the Top and Bottom Rows!
You can browse through dozens — if not hundreds — of titles fairly quickly if you have configured everything correctly. Sometimes a category won’t contain many titles — maybe you will need to browse through a broader category to find interesting stuff. Sometimes, the public domain titles clutter the first page of search results, so you may have to advance to Page 2 or 3 of search results to find some good stuff.
When you are browsing through a gallery of ebook covers in the search results on the Amazon site, you will notice that the top and bottom rows will often contain “normal priced” ebooks. For example, even though you are sorting by price from LOW to HIGH, the items on the top row will often have very expensive prices!
I’m guessing that publishers (and maybe even Simon & Schuster) are paying for the privilege to have preferential product placement through Amazon Marketing Service. Or else, Amazon must have some algorithm to throw out premium goods whenever a consumer is browsing through search results.
The key thing is that when you are browsing through pages of search results, you need to look to the second row at least in order to see if you are viewing a list of titles by price.
Creating Price Alerts on Ereaderiq
What if you find a title too late after the sale has ended? Or what if you want to be notified when another title by the same author has been discounted?
You can use a price alert system like ereaderiq to notify you when it goes to a lower price again. Ereaderiq is a free service which you need an account for. Also, ereaderiq will show the price history for an ebook — giving you an idea about how often the price will be discounted. When the target price has been reached, ereaderiq will send you an email.
Please note two things. First, ereaderiq can be used to notify you about price drops from any ebook publisher (not just S&S). Second, you can set an author alert to notify you about any price drops.
Let’s take an example. S&S publishes many titles by Susan Perabo (a great author). At the moment, one title, Broken Places (which I read and highly recommend) is selling for 99 cents. All the rest are $10 and above.
Here is what the ereaderiq page for this ebook looks like after you have set an alert for it:
Ereaderiq also provides a price graph. You can set the scale of it — here’s what it looks like over a one year period. As we see, the ebook has been discounted to 99 cents for a one week period twice during the summer.
This price graph can give you an idea about how regularly this title is being discounted.
Pricing Trends for the Future
This is wonderful news that S&S is pricing their ebooks so aggressively. How long will they continue doing this? Who knows?
As an ebook publisher myself, I know you need to lower the price to draw attention to ebooks and perhaps attract reviews. It’s a way to pump up sales for older titles which a publisher doesn’t have time or resources to promote.
Ever since I realized what Simon & Schuster was doing, I started doing global searches for other Big 5 publishers — Random House, Penguin, FSG, Knopf, Harper Row. I haven’t really found that other publishers are doing cyclical sales. They are just leaving prices at 9-10 dollars and wishing for the best. Actually, it’s hard to do global searches by publisher on Amazon. (I almost wonder if Random House or Knopf has been paying Amazon NOT to allow this sort of browsing to take place).
Actually the trend now is for publishers to coordinate price drops with some of the ebook deal newsletters like EarlyBird Books, Bookbub, Booksy, Bookgorilla, Fussy Librarian, Ereader News Today, ereaderiq, Bookperk and Bookriot. What’s so strange/delightful about this S&S discounting is that they don’t seem to be promoting their sale prices at all (Update: Looks like they promoted 3 titles today on Bookgorilla). Even S&S’s own ebook newsletter doesn’t mention these sales!
The problem is that established book publishers are reluctant to cannibalize print sales with ultra-low ebook prices (That’s one reason that the To Kill a Mockingbird ebook sells and The Great Gatsby sells for 12.99 ). They’d prefer that consumers not become too cozy with the 99 cent price point.
But what is the optimal price point? Also, is it better to give it an artificially high list price to discount later or leave it at a relatively stable price? How willing are consumers to tolerate the uncertainty of constantly changing prices on ebooks?
Some Personal Recommendations
Finally, let me throw out a few 99 titles which look like great buys. Keep in mind that the price can change. But if they do, you can set a price drop alert on ereaderiq to be notified. Update: Most titles in this section no longer are priced at 99 cents, but if sale prices are being rotated, you can assume that at some date the prices will go down again. Depending on when you read this piece, the price may have since changed to 99 cents.
Finally, I have some good news to report. According to one or two people, the Amazon sales are appearing in other ebook stores as well. Confirmed on Barnes and Noble so far.
Latest Titles on Sale (as of September 11, 2018)
- Various titles on political philosophy by John Ralston Saul: Saul is a Canadian philosopher who started writing in the 1990s with Voltaire’s Bastards and Unconscious Civilization. Since that time he has written other titles.
- Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life by Daniel Dennett
- Perfection of the Paper Clip: Curious Tales of Invention, Accidental Genius and Stationery Obsession by James Ward
- Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe by Mario Livio. Also, see Why: What Makes Us Curious by the same author.
- American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson
Ebooks Previously on Sale
Depending on the day you check, some of these titles will be on sale as well.
- Anything by Susan Perabo
- Soil (expired!)by Jamie Konegay
- Art of Seeing by Cammie McGovern
- Muse in the Machine: Computerizing the Poetry of Human Thought (expired!) by David Gelernter
- Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present. (expired!) Edited by David Lehman
- 2 titles by Christian Bauman: Voodoo Lounge and Ice Beneath You
- Gods of Aberdeen by Micah Nathan
- Wide Blue Yonder by Jean Thompson
- 2 titles by Sara Lewis: Second Draft of my Life, Best of Good
- Carrying the Body by Dawn Raffel
- Massimo Gramellini : Sweet Dreams
- Rest of Us by Jessica Lott
- Some fringey titles by well-known authors: Something to Tell You: by Hanif Kureisha, Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life by Ann Beattie
- Collected Stories by Reynolds Price
- This is Your Brain on Sex by Kayt Sukl.
- All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Domance Kelly
- For the Love of Physics by Walter Lewin
- Here’s Looking at Euclid by Alex Bellos
- I hate to see that evening sun go down: Stories by William Gay
- Interrogation: Novel By J.M.G. Clezio (Nobel winner)
- Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe by Robert Gottfried. (Sorry, a ghoulish fascination of mine!)
- Episodic Career by Farai Chideya. Career Advice
- No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusation, False Witness, and Other Terrors of Our Times (expired!) By Dorothy Rabinowitz. This expose about the false accusations of sexual abuse won the author a Pulitzer prize in 2001
- Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives by Elizabeth Benedict
- My Last Continent: A Novel by Midge Raymond
- Lear: Great Image of Authority by Harold Bloom
- The Bigness of the World by Lori Ostlund, an extremely well-received short story collection.
- Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir by Robert Jay Lifton. Harvard psychiatrist writes about interviewing political prisoners and Hiroshima victims.
- How We Know What Isn’t So: Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life by Thomas Gilovich
- On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation by Alexandra Horowitz. Horowitz is a famous animal psychologist, and I’ve read one other (brilliant) book she wrote about dog consciousness.
- Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics by Stephen Coss
- Philosopher and the Druids: A Journey Among the Ancient Celts by Philip Freeman
- Favorites: A Novel — Mary Yukari Waters. Extremely beautiful writing about a Japanese-born American who returns to Japan after a long absence.
- Various ebooks by Ann Proulx , Ivan Doig and Chuck Klosterman . Note: be sure to ignore the Klosterman ebook shorts (which just contain a single essay) and look for full ebooks like Eating the Dinosaur which is on sale now.
- Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes. Novel
- Authentic Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics by Annping Chin. A biography
- Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes
- Hippocrates’ Shadow: Secrets from the House of Medicine By David Newman. Profound analysis of medicine and the inability of normal medicine to get to the bottom of many ailments. I admit, that I grow weary of highly touted books by doctors that present dumbed-down medical knowledge for the general reader, but this book is eye-opening and helps to understand how hard it is to be a doctor. For the record, the doctor served prison time for drugging and sexually abusing 1 or more patients. Still a brilliant book though.
- Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind by Marvin Minsky. (He’s a god of artificial intelligence)
- New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and their Families by Colm Toibin. Toibin has several ebooks which periodically go on sale.
- Loss of Leon Meed: A novel by Josh Emmons
- Fiction by Eric Puchner. All are high quality, and usually 1 title is on sale on any given week.
- Frolic of his Own by William Gaddis. Long-winded novel about squabbling attorneys which is very famous. Somewhat slow though.
- Mother who Stayed by Laura Furman. Brooklyn author now living in Texas.
- Barefoot Dogs by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho. Award winning novella about a kidnapping in Mexico.
- Feet of Clay: Power and Charisma of Gurus by Anthony Storr
- Shadow Catchers: A Novel by Marianne Wiggins.
- Thank you, Goodnight: A novel by Andy Abramowitz. Humor novel about a musician who has one pop music hit and has since moved into a comfortable corporate job.
- History of a Suicide: My sister’s unfinished life by Jill Bialosky.
- Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro
- 52McGs. The best obituaries from the legendary NYT reporter Robert McG Thomas by Robert McG. Thomas.
- Trouble with Truth By Edna Robinson. Humorous Coming of Age story from the 1940s-1950s which wasn’t published until very recently.
- Fierce Discontent: Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America 1980-1920 by Michael McGerr
- Speak Softly, She Can Wear by Pam Lewis. Psychological story about two misfit high school girls who set off to lose their virginity.
- And Yet…: Essays by Christopher Hitchens
Update #1. Once again, it’s important to emphasize that these deals apply only to customers of the Amazon.com website. One or two commenters have noted that the sales are available on other ebook stores like iTunes, Google, Barnes and Noble. Still, it might only be for US customers. Also, I’ve been experimenting with various methods to search for low-cost ebooks from other publishers. That will probably go in a later post.
Update #2. I have learned from a well-informed source that it is possible to do non-standard searches on the Amazon site by manipulating the URL rather than trying to use the website’s search interface. This might expose some more “hidden” low prices. I’ll do some research into that and report back. Also, if you’re into ebook deal newsletters, you have many to choose from, but my fave is bookgorilla which offers a lot of interesting indie titles. Keep in mind that with most ebook deal newsletters, authors pay for a mention, but bookgorilla includes a lot more titles by indie authors without deep advertising budgets.
Update #3. I’ve noticed some changes in S&S’s pricing strategy. The number of 99 cent titles has been curtailed (except in history and nonfiction perhaps). After it’s been priced temporarily for for 99 cents, it returns to list price. The next time it’s up for a sale, the price is 1.99 (most commonly), 2.99 or 3.99. Some items, if they don’t sell well at all, are selling for 99 cents for two weeks or more. Also, Sometimes ebooks are mistakenly priced at 99 cents. For example, when John Ralston Saul’s titles were on sale, I noticed that one of the titles was immediately repriced to a normal price after a day. My guess is that S&S wants to limit 99 cent sales to 1 title per author (and then vary the titles from week to week). This has happened several times, so it’s worth clicking on a list of other ebooks by that author.