What is Your Work Worth?

There's an interesting article here on why Zoe Winters upped her self-published e-book prices from 99 cents to $4.95. The bottom line (though you should read the whole thing) was she felt the low price attracted readers she didn't want--readers who expected low-or-no prices, and who weren't really the kind of loyal fanbase that grow a career.

Personally I think this is a smart move, but there's been some debate. The arguments seem to be of two general camps: (1) Don't you want to sell as many copies as possible? (2) Don't you want to get your work to as many readers as possible? Both sound reasonable, but let's take a closer look.

Makes sense, right? The more copies you sell, the more money you make. Well, anyone who's taken a HS economics course can tell you that's not exactly true. By that logic, you should sell your books for a penny apiece (or free!), but you'd have to sell 500 copies just to buy a Happy Meal. If you managed to sell 10,000 copies a month, it might cover your electric bill. It is easier to sell more copies at lower prices, but there is a point below which it's not worth doing.

Zoe mentions this in the article:
When I sold 6,500 ebooks in June 2010, that was around $2,300. Well, most people can’t live on that, especially after you take out Uncle Sam’s cut.

I’m not saying that everybody or even most indies will be able to make a living anyway, but if it’s your goal, 99 cents might not be the way to go. You only have to sell 677 ebooks in a month to make that same $2,300 if you are selling at $4.95. . . . the math just doesn’t favor 99 cent ebooks for anyone hoping to make a living.

But what if your goal isn't money? What if you want to reach readers? What if you want to build that ever-elusive platform, so you can sell more books later?

It reminds me a lot of a debate about a year ago when John Scalzi blasted a magazine for paying fiction writers 1/5 of a cent per word. A lot of people felt like he was shutting down "the little guy's markets." As though aspiring writers needed low-or-no-pay markets to break in, work our way up, and build us a platform.

Scalzi's response (paraphrased): If your work is good, then it's worth good money. If your work isn't good, then giving it away for cheap isn't going to make it better, nor will anybody notice.

In the original article, Zoe noted that the 99-cent buyers were largely people looking for bargains, or who hoarded books intending to read them "later." These buyers placed as much value on the books as they had paid for them. Because they paid little, they also paid little attention. These are not readers who will remember you, who will watch for your latest novel in the Kindle store, who will tell their friends they have to pick up your book.

But what if they do? What if your book is so good it rivals Dan Brown and J.A. Konrath, regardless of the price? If that's the case, why the heck are you selling it for 99 cents?! Seriously, if your work is that good, isn't it worth more than that?

I'm assuming, of course, that what matters to you is earning a living. If you write for the love of writing, then sell for whatever the heck you want.* Otherwise, you have to ask yourself what your work is worth to you. There may be a point at which 99 cents makes economic sense, but I'm not sure.

It takes me a year or more to finish a novel. If people don't want them (and so far, they haven't), I'd rather figure out why and get better, not spend my time promoting a mediocre work for a couple hundred bucks. My opinion: if $4.95 a book isn't selling very much, write better, not cheaper. Don't settle. Your time is worth more than you think.

* Though if you write just for the love of it, why are you selling at all?


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I just finished Scalzi's article (really like that guy and his blog), and this is an interesting (and timely!) debate.

One thing I don't think has really been addressed (although I didn't read all of the zillion comments) is the idea that prices is elastic. You can charge more or less for a thing depending on it's perceived value at the moment to the market.

Writers starting out are different than established writers. An established author's current novels are different than her backlist. Kindle is different than paperbook. They all have different perceived values, and even different markets.


It makes sense to me that a new author would be discounted, but not necessarily to 99cents (Amanda Hocking not withstanding). A reader has to be induced to take a chance on a new author, either through marketing, word of mouth, a lower price, or all three. But there is also the perception of value - if the price is too low, the work is devalued. I have an issue with prices being too HIGH for first time authors (I'm thinking of myself here), because I might take a chance on them, but it's harder to induce people over the $9.99 price point.

At the other end, established authors may want to put their out-of-print backlist up on amazon for $4.95 and I won't think any less of them as writers. And I might snap up their work.

99 cents is an impulse buy (see Apps). Do I want people to buy my book on impulse? YES. But the only way those people will keep coming around is if they are my target audience (also if my book is good). Will I cast a wider net to find that audience at 99cent? Maybe. There's no way for me to find out, because my publisher sets the price. But I can see experimenting around with pricing, just to see what happens.

If you're setting your own prices (as shown above), you can change them if it's not working for you. Especially given the wild changes going on right now, I don't see anything wrong with experimenting to see what works.

Aurora Smith said...

Im going to go look. I am about three months away from publishing my book. Thanks. :)

Dan Holloway said...

I remember the Scalzi debate. I may have commented. Probably hot-headedly. I disagreed so strongly with what he had to say.

I write alternative urban fiction and poetry of the kind you'd probably need locking up if you thought it would make you a living, so my perspective may be different, but here *is* that perspective.

$4.95. Great. Yes, you're book's great. Yes, to pay $4.95 for it someone will be making a commitment of the kind that is necessary for a fanbase - but how do you get person number 1 to even look at that sample? OK, the answer to that *is* straightforward - you need a pre-existing platform. Your ebook needs to be the culmination of a process not the start of one.

Personally I don't care much about numbers - of readers, pounds, or copies. I care about making a difference, shaking literature as an art form out of its place firmly at the bottom of the arts pile, getting people who wouldn't normally read because there's nothing that appeals to them to do so. Which means finding them, wherever they are.

A large part of the problem with that is that ebooks and paperbacks and questions of price are only marginally relevant at all - the sales and pricing issue has all the feel and all the sound of a debate we should care deeply about - but actually it's pretty much irrelevant, and as such even getting drawn into it is something of a timesuck, and a huge white elephant.

Heidi W said...

I guess I'm a hoarder...which is news to me.

I struggle with the argument that people who by 99-cent books are hoarders who won't become loyal readers. I rarely spend much on the first book I read by any given author. I spend my 99-cents or, if it is available, check it out at the library. If the book isn't available for cheap (or free!) I'll usually pass over it for something else because there are so many wonderful books to choose from.

If I like the first book--then I'll pay money for the second in order to support that author.

Maybe I'm a cheapskate, but I average reading 40ish books per year--and that adds up.

Claudie A. said...

I haven't been keeping with much of the debate, but the idea that selling novels at .99$ devalues the work resonates with me. I understand wanting to reach out. I think Susan makes a very good point about *starting* with lower-priced novels.

But when you think about it... people will pay 12$ to see a movie at the theatre (once). They can pay hundreds for a piece of art, or 20 to 100 for a copy. They'll spend 15$ on a disk.

Are our novels really worth so little compared to the other art forms that we'd sell them at .99$ ?

Heidi brings up free (or nearly) free books as samples. I agree, .99$ is a superb way to discover new authors and get to know them. But Susan said it: prices are elastic and it's possible to give one novel at a low price (or free) and have the rest at a more reasonable cost.

Matthew MacNish said...

I know there are people out there getting rich selling their self published e-books for cheap, but I would never do it.

This is no judgement on any of those people, because I haven't read their books, and I bet they're great, but for me that's not what it's about.

I want to get published traditionally, because I want to tell great stories. IMHO a great story is best represented, and presented to readers, if it has the resources of a publishing house full of experienced professionals behind it.

If I don't have what it take to accomplish that, I'm not sure I want to be published.

Myrna Foster said...

I agree.

This is also why I don't submit my poetry to the kind of magazines that pay $2 for a poem. I'd have to sell thirteen poems to make as much as HIGHLIGHTS pays me for one, and presentation is so important with children's poetry. HIGHLIGHTS works with fantastic artists. I know that my one poem will be read in homes and classrooms all over the world. Who reads those other magazines anyway?

Adam Heine said...

So first of all, I apologize if I sounded judgmental of people who either buy books for 99 cents or sell them for that much. I probably was judging those folks, but that isn't fair to you guys. Sorry.

There is an argument to be made for selling one book cheap to get readers interested. (I got into Martin's Song of Ice and Fire because they sold the first book for $3.99). Like Susan said, prices are elastic. But I think you should choose carefully which book--if all your books are 99 cents, are you now trying to hook new readers, or are you just selling all your work for less than it's worth?

(And honestly, if the idea is to get new readers hooked and/or give them a sample, wouldn't a free sample work better than 99 cents?)

Heidi, I'm so sorry if you felt I was bagging on you for buying cheap. There's nothing wrong with looking for bargains. And the "hoarders" Zoe mentions don't read her books or become loyal readers. If you do either for the authors you buy, then you're not the "hoarder" she's talking about.

dolorah said...

I'm not self/inde pubbed but I'll respond as a reader:

I resemble the "impulse buy" remarks. I've bought several e-books at .99 because the synopsis or something immediately appealed to me. I don't have a lot of time to read books, or research if they will appeal to me. I've found that most e-books (I'll talk just Kindle, that's what I buy on now) that sell at that price do not have a sample preview. So, spending .99 on a book I may not like - or may hoard for months/years - is no risk.

I like the free sample chapters. Sometimes its only one, sometimes three. But by the time I finish the sample, I'll either buy the whole book (don't mind the $4.99) or move on to another sample. The .99 price really doesn't make a difference at that point.

My opinion on this debate, as both a reader and a writer, is to sell the novel at a reasonable price. $5 or $6 is reasonable, especially if a free sample was offered.

If I paid a little more for the novel, I'm also more likely to post a review of what I liked about it.


Heidi W said...

Adam--No need to apologize. I didn't take it personally. I was focused on the discussion.

Maybe because it is because I buy cheap books, but I'd be happy to sell a book for 99 cents. I don't think it devalues the work at all. It's just a price. It is irrelevant really. The value of my work is personal to me and has nothing to do with a price point. I love sharing what I do, so if it sells for 25 cents or fifty dollars--so what?

I don't think we should ever focus on outside influences to determine the value of our work. Prices, reviews, marketing--none of that is why I write. It is all just a cloud that surround the center, and center is my passion and desire to tell stories. The value is in telling those stories and isn't changed because of a price point or anything other outside influence.

Hepius said...

I am in the final steps of preparing my book for indie publishing. (Wow, independent publishing sounds way better than self-publishing.)

I am definitely going with a $4.95 Kindle price. I think $.99 is just too cheap for all of the effort that went into the work. I also think the demand for books is inelastic, meaning the lower price will not be made up for in greater sales numbers.

I plan on charging around $10 for the trade paperback version. I have less flexibility there due to printing and shipping costs.

Adam Heine said...

I agree, Matt, indie publishing does sound a lot cooler than self-publishing :-) I know if it were me, I'd consider going a little lower than $4.95, but not much (and not to $0.99). Also I'd make prolific spreadsheets of everything so I could try and learn something.

Whatever you do, good luck with your launch!

Deniz Bevan said...

Thanks for starting this great discussion, Adam. I hadn't thought of book prices in these terms before but what you're saying makes sense. One book at 99 cents to get readers interested, or during a giveaway, and the rest at tiered prices... It's interesting to consider the implications - if I ever decide to go the self-publishing route.

Off the Top of My Head said...

This is all very interesting to me, as well as timely. I write military mysteries and have a publisher interested. My books will go put first as ebooks and if any sales develp, will go into print.

It is an ongoing series with five books complete. The acquisitions editor said it would be nice if they had something shorter than a full length novel to give away as a sample. I have two short stories and a novella. They are 10,000, 24,000 and 48,000 words respectively. He suggested we put them up as ebooks, shortest one for free, the middle-sized one at $1.99 and the novella at $4.99. Is there anyone out there who has any advice or even an opinion that would like to comment? Thanks in advance for the opportunity to post.

Adam Heine said...

Congratulations, Off the Top! I wish I had good advice for you, though I have zero to no experience. But what about putting excerpts of the books themselves online as a sample, like with Amazon's Look Inside feature?

Jim said...

Thanks for that bit of advice, Adam, appreciate it. And I think your blog is an excellent source for writers. I'm going to post your URL to my writer's group. And where is that magnificent picture on your background? It reminds me of the cliffs on the Isle of Man, UK. But I imagine it is Thailand?
Later, JIm

Adam Heine said...

Wow, thanks, Jim! The background isn't Thailand. It was one of the Blogger template options, which makes it semi-unoriginal (though maybe I should use my own picture).

They're the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.