Low E-book Pricing: The Compensation Problem

23 Jul

[UPDATE: In light of Sockpuppetgate, I feel I should point out that this post is not about that, and concede that indeed, the reported verbal abuse at the event mentioned below might not have had anything to do with the price of anyone’s e-books but with an admission of faking online personas to help sell one’s book. Please keep in mind that this post is NOT about sock puppetry, although I will say it’s a ridiculous and unethical practice that I don’t condone.]

If you haven’t already heard, there was a bit of an incident at the Harrogate Crime Festival last week. During a panel discussion called Wanted for Murder: The E-book (for anyone surprised at what happened, shouldn’t that title have been your first clue?) bestselling crime writers Mark Billingham and Laura Lippman, seated in the audience, got into a bit of a heated debate with the panelists, one of whom was mega-selling cheap e-book author Stephen Leather.

There were accusations that authors who sold their e-books cheaply were devaluing books in general by selling theirs for less than “half the price of a cup of tea.” At one point Leather was even called a “tosser” which is kind of disappointing for a room full of what we presume must have been thinking bookish types—disappointing in the sense that someone resorted to that sort of scabby teenage boy behavior, but also that “tosser” was the best they could come up with.

I mean, really?

You can read about what happened here.

Now personally I think that it’s very easy to say books are being devalued by cheap e-books when you’re a New York Times bestselling author (if you’re a nobody with no credibility, e.g. me, you have to sell your books cheaply in order to win readers), and the only people adversely affected by this—if anyone is—are the Six-Figure Advance Gang who might not be getting such large deals anymore, and actually I’d guess that more authors than ever, both traditionally published and self-published, are earning money from their writing in this new publishing world, and earning more of it, and anyway why are we all worried when it’s extremely unlikely that the purchaser of every 99c Stephen Leather release is buying them instead of the one £25 Michael Connelly hardback he used to buy before? Can’t we see that it’s far more likely he either never bought that £25 hardback, or he’s still buying it too?

(Or at least paying £10 for the e-book, which is perfectly reasonable.)

But I’m not getting into all that. It’s Monday, and there isn’t enough coffee in the world. What I want to talk about this morning is this exchange which reportedly took place during Harrogate’s heated debate.

Stephen Leather, talking about how even though his e-books are priced very low he still makes more money than he would under the terms of a traditional deal, said, “I will spend four days writing a 7,000 word short story and sell it online for 70p. That’s 20p for me.”

His fellow panelist, Ursula Mackenzie, then said, “So you’re happy to work for 5p a day?”—which apparently got a good laugh.

But Ursula couldn’t have it got it more wrong. She, like many self-published authors yet to come to their senses, seems to be suffering from what I call The Compensation Problem, or expecting each individual reader to compensate the writer for all the work that’s gone into the book.

It doesn’t work like that.

If Leather spends four days writing a short story and sells one copy of it for 70p, yes, he’s working for 5p a day. But unless the world stops turning on its axis or something, Leather won’t just sell one. He’ll sell thousands.

Lets say 10,000 in the first twelve months, for sake of argument, which is a very conservative estimate for him. At the end of the first year, his rate per day for the four days he spent writing that short story goes up to £500.

I’ll say that again.

If Leather spends four days writing a short story and sells it for 70p (therefore making 20p from each sale), by the time he reaches 10,000 copies sold which, being Leather and charging 70p, he could easily do, he’s being paid £500 a day to write short stories.

(And does anyone else feel like they’re back in school doing maths problems?!)

Furthermore, e-books never go out of print. So assuming that the short story continues to sell at the same rate, after two years, Leathers short-story-writing day rate goes up to £1,000. After five years, it’s £2,500. Get to ten years or 100,000 copies, and Leather’s short-story-writing day rate is a staggering £5,000.

That’s about €6,100 or $7,800. To write. Per day.

(To say nothing of the fact that this is a short story, something Leather’s publishers couldn’t feasibly sell in print at the same price, or at any price that would make producing a physical book a good idea.)

Now personally I don’t think anyone should be releasing anything they only spent four days writing, and I doubt I’ll ever charge anything less than $2.99 for my full-length books. But the point is that the money you earn from your writing is not a question of how much you make from individual sales of your work. It’s about how much that work makes in the long run, over time. And this is what you should consider when you price your book.

Time and time again self-publishers tell me they’re going to charge $9.99 for their book. “I don’t care what anyone says,” they say. “I spent a year writing this book and the reader will spend seven or eight hours reading it. It’s worth $9.99.”

Well yes, it might be worth $9.99, but it’s not going to sell at $9.99. I wish it would, but it just won’t. At least not as well as it would at a lower price. Self-publishers have to price their e-books low because we’re competing with books that have a lot more going for them (credibility, validation from publishing experts, expensive cover designs, etc.) than ours do. We do it so in the future we can charge more.

Free and discounted books is not confined to the self-publishing world, or even e-books. Quercus famously distributed free copies of the The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo to Tube passengers in London, in the hope that (a) seeing several of your fellow commuters reading a book might pique your interest in it and (b) those who received the first in the trilogy would go on to read the second and third installments. Obviously, it worked. I started reading Jo Nesbo because Waterstones offered it to me for half-price when I spent over a certain amount on other books. I got it purely because it was cheap. I bought all his other books because I was hooked.

Of course e-books do this on a much larger scale, but I’m not Jo Nesbo and I don’t have the backing of a publishing house. I have to do whatever I can to get people to read my books in the hope that, in the near future, they’ll want to buy them. And from what I’ve seen, free and discounted e-book do work in terms of bringing in new readers.

As for “I spent a year writing it”, you can’t expect each individual reader to pay you for the work that went into writing the book. If we did, books would cost as much as cars. If I said, right, I’m happy to write for $50 a day and I spent eight months working five days a week on a novel, that novel would have to cost at least $8,000, and that’s only my cut. Instead you should think about how much that time you spent writing the book will be worth to you in the long run.

Plus, we’ve never priced books in relation to how many hours entertainment they’re going to give us—two hours in the cinema sets me back €9.50, but a paperback that takes me seven or eight hours to read is the same price—so why start now?

And remember when everyone told us that there was no money in writing?

I think the self-published author has to price their books to sell. If you’re just out of the gate with no reviews, no platforms and no proof that your book is anything other than typing, that’s probably less than half the price of a cup of tea. Once you’ve been around for a while, you can charge more. You should always charge as much as you can, i.e. the highest price at which your book continues to sell at a rate you’re happy with, but for self-published authors, that’s usually less than $5. Sometimes a lot less.

This is not because we’re out to devalue books. This is because we love books, and we want to spend our lives writing them.

As I read about what happened at Harrogate, I felt a bit sick. I love books, I love authors and I love writing. I’d be devastated if something I was doing was contributing to the downfall of the part of the world I love the most. But charging less than a latte for my books has meant that I get to be an author and that I get to spend the majority of my time writing.

If it’s any consolation, I spend a huge chunk of my earnings on books. Real, physical books, sold in stores and mostly, I buy them in hardback. Think of it like my own person carbon credit system.

If we want something to complain about in relation to book-pricing, why not start with the fact that out of the €25 hardback book I bought yesterday, the author, the person who spent a year or more writing it, the person who created it from scratch, the person without whom it wouldn’t exist, only got something like €3.75.

Isn’t that a bigger problem?

The Obligatory Talking About Money Footnote:

Yes, I’m talking about making money from your writing. I know, how terribly uncouth of me. Cue someone leaving a comment about how all they want to do is write, and tell stories, and slow-dance with their characters in a ballroom of creativity, and how they don’t care if they never receive a penny for it and how they’d still do it even if no one else ever read it. That’s fine for you, but I’m interested in being a professional writer, i.e. a person who makes a living as a writer, because I love it so much I want to do it all the time. And as unromantic and all as this is, I need to earn money from it in order for that to happen.

74 Responses to “Low E-book Pricing: The Compensation Problem”

  1. Experienced Tutors July 23, 2012 at 08:46 #

    A well though-out and reasoned post. Can’t fault your logic and hope that you are able to charge a ‘decent’ price to make a ‘decent’ living. Good luck.

  2. Vividhunter July 23, 2012 at 08:58 #

    Pricing is such a tricky thing, but I agree with all your points. Also when you think about a movie ticket for $10, what a tiny percentage of that movie’s budget it is, it’s obvious that most business models, including traditional publishing, work on this idea.

    Reading the article about the interview, there were a few disingenuous comments like the working for 5p one and I think it’s because publishers are concerned about their model dying out, despite there still being a big audience of physical book readers.

  3. barbarahenderson July 23, 2012 at 09:16 #

    Well said, Catherine. I do wish there didn’t have to be any kind of ‘them-and-us’ between traditionally and self-published authors. If the publishing world is going through a tricky time, sniping at each other doesn’t help. Many traditionally published authors are now also self-publishing and setting their prices low. There is no shame in it and as you say, often it makes pure hard economic sense too.

  4. Suzie Tullett July 23, 2012 at 09:32 #

    I really enjoyed reading this, Catherine, and wholeheartedly agree with all your points. For those starting out in their careers, pricing lower to begin with is a way to build a readership and for those well into their careers, it’s a nice way of saying ‘thank you’ x

  5. Helen July 23, 2012 at 09:32 #

    Fantastic article – thanks Catherine. I’m close to finishing my third novel and after many (some encouraging) rejections from agents and seeing the market moving towards independent publishing, I will be doing exactly that for all three of my novels at the end of the year. It may not suit everyone, but I see great advantages not only in being able to pay myself more than a traditional publisher would pay me on each unit, but also having control over cover, editing etc. My background is in IT Sales so talking about money comes as easy as breathing – I find myself in a situation now where I can work three days a week to fund myself to write for four – but my eye’s firmly on what I’d need to do to write for five days a week and have a couple off, and what that means in terms of income from writing. One thing that does slightly baffle me about this debate is that as part of my publishing strategy I plan to work with Lightning Source (or CreateSpace) to take hardback and paperback editions of my books for market too using the print on demand model. Sure, they’ll probably be more expensive than the e-editions to the readers, but most people get there’s a cost associated with the materials and printing. This isn’t then for me a debate on eBooks versus pBooks, it’s a debate about taking control and publishing independently if the traditional publishing route isn’t working or, even perhaps, desired. For me it’s about being entrepreneurial and taking a proactive and practical approach to making writing my profession.

  6. Mark Swain July 23, 2012 at 09:51 #

    My friend, who runs a major Waterstones store, is not in any way against self-publishing. In fact he encouraged me to go this route. However, when we first discussed the possibility of me self-publishing, he took me around his store. He has been a bookseller for a long time and is highly respected in the business. Somewhat surprisingly he seemed to be able to walk around his large store, pointing out self published books just from seeing the spine on the shelf – at a distance. I asked him how he did this. “You can just tell from the cover,” he said.

    My point here is that we self-publishers know that one way to get our books rolling is to price it low. The advantage with e-book publishing is that the costs can be minimal. It is like a service business – essentially we are being paid for our time and this doesn’t physically cost us anything. So countless Self-publishers are able to burn the midnight oil, bash out a book and get it onto Amazon KDP or Smashwords quickly. They are then able to get it rolling by pricing it very cheaply or free. The problem is that by avoiding the costs involved in hiring a good cover designer, copy editor, layout editor, marketing advisor, etc etc. they end up with a book that is not all it could be. This is what devalues literature, not pricing short stories at 70p!

    As you (Catherine) say in your self-printed book and your blogs, it is naive for any of us to think we can do it all ourself. If you want your book / stories to succeed, spend a bit and make sure it’s as good as it can be. I did and I’m very glad now I did. It’s been out 4 weeks and Waterstones have just said they want to put it on their core list (goes into all their stores in UK & Ireland), wahey! http://longroadhardlessons.blogspot.co.uk. Thanks for your advice Catherine.

    And this is the crux of it: Catherine’s point about long term revenues is well made. The problem for most traditional authors (unlike us self-publishers), is that they have never had to develop any significant marketing or finance skills. They rely on their publisher or their agent to do that, and as we know their focus is on making sure they get a decent share for themselves. Some of these traditional published authors are wising up (according to my friend as Waterstones, and what I hear at dinner parties / down the pub). An increasing number are going it alone on new projects. The lesson then for those critics (self-gratifiers would at least have been a more literary term than tossers), is “if you can’t beat us, join us.”

    • catherineryanhoward July 23, 2012 at 10:04 #

      Excellent points, Mark. I think maybe you’re right about trad authors thinking very differently to self-pubs re: pricing etc. because the trads aren’t solely responsible for selling their books. And what a helpful friend you have! :-)

  7. elskenewman July 23, 2012 at 10:15 #

    Great post, and I love your footnote, I too want to make a living out of writing, why should we not, it’s a skill like any other. You wouldn’t expect a plumber to sort out your toilet for the love of it……

  8. Shanghaijin July 23, 2012 at 10:15 #

    AS a book worm I do appreciate the cheapness of e-books. I will usually buy a book if I love it and want to have my kids discover it one day in the trunk after they come back from my funeral (note: I don’t have kids). I must admit that I haven’t gone out on a limb and bought anything (other than 0.99c books) that are not distributed by an established publishing house.

    I believe the only advantage of a book that has gone through the traditional publication process is that it has been vetted. I have no idea if something that costs $0.99 off amazon is any good, and if I’m going to invest 10 hours reading it then I’m going to want some assurances. The problem with online reviews is that there’s no guarantee they’re not just written by the author’s friend or associate, or worse, the author themselves.

    If authors could all write like Truman Capote, then we’d have no problems; but as it is 95% of authors write slush (autonomy anyone?), they haven’t put insufficient thought and effort into their handiwork. But the bigger question is, do the editors and publishing houses really deserve the lion’s share of a book’s fruit just because they read the slush? Is there not a better way?

    • alltentoes July 23, 2012 at 10:33 #

      Very well put. Although I think it’s worth emphasising that there is plenty of slush out there (‘I had a baby once’ type books by celeb’s) produced by big publishing houses. We must also remember that the publishing world is in a current state of major flux (read ‘crisis’ or at least ‘turmoil’). Everything is changing and will take some time to find a new resting point. Logically the ‘quality’ issue will sort itself out once the buying public realise that not all self-published books are the same in terms of quality and neither are they with books from the major publishing houses. 50 shades of Grey…what tosh!

    • Russell Phillips July 23, 2012 at 11:11 #

      I believe the only advantage of a book that has gone through the traditional publication process is that it has been vetted.
      While I don’t disagree with this statement, I will add what the publisher wants (and vets for) isn’t the same as what I want. The publisher wants books that will sell, I want books that I will enjoy. Unfortunately, the two don’t always coincide.

      The first self-published book I ever read was very well researched (something that is important to me, but I understand may be less important to others), far better than some traditionally published books that I’ve read. There may be an argument for saying that a greater percentage of traditionally published books will be better researched, better edited, etc, but I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that it isn’t necessarily so.

  9. Karin Cox July 23, 2012 at 10:29 #

    Personally, I think it is disgraceful to heckle a panelist, and it smacks of fear from the trade-published quarter. Has the $9.99 paperback ever devalued the $30 hardback, after all? Did DVDs devalue the experience of going to the cinema? It’s a pointless argument.

    • alltentoes July 23, 2012 at 11:48 #

      Exactly; panic is well and truly setting in. Personally I find a crisis usually ends with a significant improvement. I look forward to more eruptions of panic and a revolution resulting eventually in something better for us all.

    • David Quantick August 4, 2012 at 10:41 #

      Specifically, Stephen Leather was called a “tosser” when he said he saw pirated versions of his books as “publicity.” Which, oddly, annoyed a roomful of writers.

  10. davidgaughran July 23, 2012 at 10:47 #

    I definitely want to slow-dance with one of my characters, but, that aside, you make some excellent points here.

    I’m not sure how a price (or lack of it) can devalue anything. All the classics of literature seem to survive being free in libraries. The respective works of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Austen can be bought – new – in many bookstores for a pound or two. I don’t see their names being struck from the canon any time soon.

    Personally, I can’t understand the emotion that can surround pricing. If your goal is to maximize income, you should experiment to find the price that achieves that. It might be 99c, but it might be $4.99 or higher.

    And anyway, I think you nailed the key issue here:

    “If we want something to complain about in relation to book-pricing, why not start with the fact that out of the €25 hardback book I bought yesterday, the author, the person who spent a year or more writing it, the person who created it from scratch, the person without whom it wouldn’t exist, only got something like €3.75.

    Isn’t that a bigger problem?”

    Damn right it is.

    • alltentoes July 23, 2012 at 11:57 #

      I am currently reading your Valparaiso novel David. The $1.odd that I paid for it seems very reasonable given how much I am enjoying it. If it had been $9.99 I wouldn’t have taken a chance on it. What pleases me though is that you are getting a significant percentage of my payment and that this seems fair. I’m hoping the buying public come to see it that way in the same way that many of us now boycot businesses we believe to be unfair or unethical.
      Incidentally my daughter is hoping that the resignation of Rupert Murdoch from his UK directorships might encourage me to stop boycotting Sky TV.

      • davidgaughran July 23, 2012 at 12:06 #

        Thanks alltentoes, I’m glad you’re enjoying it. I normally price full-length work at $4.99 – which allows me to run limited-time sales at $2.99 or 99c when things are a little slower. The strategy seems to be working reasonably well. Aside from that, I like to give people a chance to get my work cheaply (or for free) now and then, especially with the current economic situation.

        I should also point out that the UK market is developing in almost the exact same way the US market did. Around a year ago, US customers seemed to be much more price-sensitive, and pricing your work cheaply seemed to be a sure-fire way to get readers. As the market has matured there (or, perhaps, as different demographics of readers switched to digital), self-publishers seem to be experimenting with higher prices – and doing very well too.

        I suspect the UK market will follow suit. And, for all this worry that we are “conditioning” readers to expect free or cheap books, I don’t think we are doing that at all. Rather, I think we are training them to expect books to be of a variable price – much like a flight – something that will allow everyone to have a little more flexibility with pricing.

  11. littletash July 23, 2012 at 12:09 #

    This is really interesting and has got me thinking. I don’t think anyone can complain that authors are doing what they have to to get read and make money. Those in traditional publishing seem to be spending far too much time at the moment criticising what’s going on around them rather than trying to adapt to it. :(

  12. Shah Wharton July 23, 2012 at 12:13 #

    I did the whole – oh its free, I’ll try it – most of which was rubbish. But that was then, couple of years ago now I guess. Now I know there are a lot of authors who charge more, but still do occasionally/strategic offers. I think I thought at first that because there was nothing physically in my hand, it should be cheap or free. How deluded? It’s only the same principle as moving from a record to am MP3 download – we’ll pay 99c for a song or 7.99-9.99 for an album of songs and feel okay about it. I imagine it takes time and money to produce music, just as it does a movie, TV programme, book – downloaded or on hard-copy. I think anything up to $6.99 is reasonable for an e-book. Anymore than that, I wait for the inevitable offer. :)

    • davidgaughran July 23, 2012 at 12:27 #

      I think comparisons with music are tricky because an album (and indeed a single) will often get listened to multiple times, whereas books tend to get “consumed” once, and then that’s it. With that logic, I suppose you could say a single provides more value than a book :)

  13. susankayequinn July 23, 2012 at 13:38 #

    This is sheer brilliance and neatly encapsulates all the arguments I’ve been making on this subject with various parties over the last few months. Thank you! Off to tweet!

  14. hkollef July 23, 2012 at 13:47 #

    Great insights, as per usual. Thanks for reminding me why, exactly, I’m putting my books out there for less than 3$. Might have to print this out and use it as a ‘handout’ for nosy relatives!

  15. Laura Roberts (@originaloflaura) July 23, 2012 at 14:17 #

    Wow! I had no idea that Stephen Leather was involved in this imbroglio when I added him to my Sunday freebies list yesterday. But this definitely makes me want to a) check out his stuff and b) switch to his short story publishing model. Sure, writing a story in 4 days and sending it straight to publication is pretty quick, but if it’s less than a dollar to try it out and see if you like it, then why not? I definitely think that writers need to try whatever they can to sell their books. If it works, keep it. If it doesn’t, throw it away. That’s really the only sensible advice, isn’t it?

  16. Katriena Knights (@crazywritinfool) July 23, 2012 at 14:26 #

    >>I don’t think anyone should be releasing anything they only spent four days writing

    This seems like an unfair generalization. After all, we’re talking about a short story. Say it’s 4-5,000 words. I write about 1,000 words/hour, so that’s four hours dedicated to a first draft. Say I take the same amount of time to revise/rewrite/etc., which is pretty generous. That’s 8 hours of work. So more like one full work day. Spread that out over four days to give it some resting time and that seems more than generous for a short story. Give me, personally, another hour or two to dictate and clean up the dictation, since I write everything by hand (for reasons…), and you’re still talking only 10 actual work hours for a short story of reasonable length. So I’m not sure why spending four days writing a short story is being equated to giving the work short shrift.

    • catherineryanhoward July 23, 2012 at 15:00 #

      Because I think if you’re asking someone to pay money for a book of any length, it should’ve been through a longer process than that. What about leaving the work alone so you can “forget” it before you come back and revise it? What about copyediting and proofreading? I don’t write short stories so I don’t know, and I’m sure Leather has his own processes so maybe it’s enough time for him, but it seems very rushed to me. Writing time is different to polishing-to-a-standard-whereby-you-can-put-a-price-tag-on-it time, in my opinion.

      But that’s not the point of this post and I was merely stating that I don’t think self-publishing should be such a quick process, whatever the content.

      • notesonvellum July 23, 2012 at 15:13 #

        He obviously knows his process, you know yours, and I know mine. Saying one process is “better” than another is about the same as saying one pricing strategy is “better” than another. Much like you shouldn’t assume a story is “bad” because it’s priced at a certain level, I don’t think you should assume a story is “bad” because it took the author less time to write than it might have taken another author. So yeah, it kind of is relevant to your overall point.

        I’ve sold stories that took me four days to write, stories that have taken two days, and stories that have taken months or weeks or longer, and the amount of time it took my editor to work through them was pretty much the same across the board. The quality is probably a toss-up among the bunch–I wouldn’t say any are better than others, but some just took longer to get where I wanted them.

      • greengeekgirl July 24, 2012 at 23:46 #

        To be fair, he might have meant four days *only* writing, not counting the editing work in his day count–or he might have spent only part of that four days writing and the rest proofing and editing. I don’t know that it’s quite right to make a quality judgment based off of that little bit of information.

        I do agree wholly with the point behind your post, though.

  17. Lauren Clark (@LaurenClark_Bks) July 23, 2012 at 14:50 #

    For me, it’s all about balance. Making books affordable enough for almost everyone to purchase, giving away ebooks in moderation, and making a decent profit.

    Indie publishing does mean independent. If you are your own boss, no one else can tell you how to price a book (they can try, of course…). In the end, though, the READER decides whether or not to buy the novel or short story and the READER decides whether he or she has found value in the said book or short story for the money.

  18. jnduncan July 23, 2012 at 15:11 #

    Personally, I’m not adverse to selling self-published books cheaply. I wouldn’t go to the point of the $1 book, because regardless of what I’d make from it, I still believe the content is worth more than that. This is assuming of course, that the proper work went into it. What bothered me the most about Leather’s debate with the other folk, was what he said about editing/copy-editing. The notion that some writers are good enough that they don’t need heavy editing/copy-editing and that an author with a large enough fan base can just rely on readers to do the proof-reading for them?

    I scratched my head over that one. Really? WTF is that about? How lazy a writer do you have to be to foist off proofing onto your reader base? He can crank out and publish a short story in five days. Well, if you don’t bother to do a damn thing to it other than run it through spell check before hitting the publish button, I suppose that’s true. I’d say there likely isn’t a writer out there who can crank out a 10k story in a few days and throw it out there for readers, and make the claim that it’s the best product they can put out there. Is he saying the books are cheap so readers shouldn’t expect more? That they should be expecting there to be errors they can report back to the author on so he can fix them for later editions?

    Uhm, no. Don’t do that. I wouldn’t buy one of his books knowing this. It’s rather disrespectful of the reader in my opinion. A story shouldn’t be put out there unless it’s the best you can possibly make it, and more often than not, that requires investing a bit in professional services that 99% of authors just don’t have the skill set for. The problem is, as I see it anyway, is that too many writers have this mentality of “it’s cheap so it doesn’t have to be perfect.” While I’m not saying it has to be error free, all writers should be doing their damnedest to make it as close to that as they can. I don’t care how great a story is, if the thing is riddled with typos and grammar issues that could’ve been easily dealt with with a little time and money, then I don’t want to read it. And as harsh as it may sound, if you can’t invest the time and money in getting this done, don’t publish it.

    • catherineryanhoward July 23, 2012 at 15:21 #

      I totally agree with you and have said as much in previous posts. Editing, proof reading etc. is a profession, something that requires training and/or experience, and it can’t be done by your average reader. Certainly no reader should be expected to pay for the privilege. I work with editors and yet I’m *still* trying to find a way to perfect the books right out of the gate; I can’t imagine the state they’d be in if I attempted it myself. When you put a price tag on your book it becomes a product and as I’ve said in the past, if you were bringing a product to the market, you’d make sure it worked first. For books, that’s a professional polish. You have to be willing to invest. If you’re not, you can’t expect readers to buy.

    • greengeekgirl July 24, 2012 at 23:52 #

      I think this is the key to what people call the self-publishing “stigma.” Authors who aren’t as savvy will release their books with little-to-no polishing, thinking that they’ll get feedback from reviewers and buyers; I always tell people that, as a book blogger, it should be showroom-ready by the time it gets to me for a review. If it’s not, I wouldn’t waste my time reading it or recommending it to others.

  19. Bill Kitson July 23, 2012 at 15:15 #

    Well thought out and logical argument, Catherine. I think that not only the “mega star” authors but also their agents and the big publishing houses are scared of the e book revolution, because they can’t control the market as they used to do. Not only are they unable to influence the buying habits of readers to the same degree, but the nature of the Amazon (and other web-based platforms) means they are unable to compete in price with a self-published author and still retain a profit after paying the writer and his agent.

    • greengeekgirl July 24, 2012 at 23:53 #

      I’m interested to see what comes of Paulo Coelho’s 99 cent ebook sale experiment.

  20. liziwrites July 23, 2012 at 15:27 #

    I thought your article was great. You pointed out that too many people have the impatient attitude that their first sale should make up for their labor in writing the book. I personally love reading and love writing, I generally read a 700 page fiction book per day (not counting non-fiction during the day) and I whole-heatedly believe in supporting authors I love. I can tell you that NOTHING disappoints me more than seeing one of my favorite best-selling authors putting their 8th in a series hardbacks out for $19.99 (I’m across the pond ;)) and then their e-book online for $21.99. A new writer with something to prove will keep me on the edge of my seat for usually $2.99 the first book and up from there, usually capping at $6.99–and I can handle that for a 3 or even 5 book series, because I read A LOT. Then I get the self-righteous bragging right of saying I support indie authors like myself! Just kidding about that last bit. Point being, I will buy the new installment hardback because I love the series, but after I finish it I will go back to downloading reads from up-and-commers because a) if the author really cares it will be a good book, b) I love it when my fans support me and I want to do the same for others with both buying their books, leaving reviews and helpful insights and c) they’re reasonably priced so I can read 50 books a week and still feed my kids :)

  21. KW July 23, 2012 at 17:43 #

    It’s an old lament. A new business model comes along to threaten an old industry, and the folks in the old industry scream, “It’s not fair! Someone must STOP these people from competing with us!”

    • Christy July 24, 2012 at 09:00 #

      You hear the exact same thing from photographers ;)

  22. Janny July 23, 2012 at 19:30 #

    Love it! Oh, and…just plain black is fine, piping hot, and plenty strong. :-)

  23. jimrada July 23, 2012 at 19:39 #

    Very interesting post. I think it’s interesting that someone of Laura Lippman’s caliber would complain about cheap e-books when 1) Hardcovers rarely sell at the cover price. You can get them for big discounts at a Wal-Mart and warehouse store, which only helps increase the sales numbers for the book. 2) Book club sales are traditionally half off retail and 3) Paperbacks sales are a discounted version of the hardback.

    It’s all about finding the marketing strategy that works for you in the electronic world and I think that most e-published authors are more involved with that and understand what works and doesn’t than NYT bestsellers.

  24. L. Palmer July 23, 2012 at 20:00 #

    It’s a tricky in any art-field to balance the Art and the Business side. As a writer, I’m a dreamer. As a business person, I want to look at the dollars and cents of the effort and how to get others to invest their time. Selling e-books at a low price seems a good place to start. I think it’s like the intern/gopher job of the publishing industry, the grunt work that’s done until enough a following is developed.
    It also comes down to the fact that selling something for $1 is a much higher income than pricing something for $10 and having no one buy it.

    Really enjoyed this post. Gives me some good food for thought as I work on building my own writing career.

  25. susieklein July 23, 2012 at 20:19 #

    So refreshing to finally read someone who is willing to do the money talk! I love to write but I also love and require an income. If I can do both, awesome! Thanks for this information.

  26. Steven Ramirez July 23, 2012 at 20:55 #

    Catherine, this is an excellent post. I am forced to wonder if most of the complaining is coming from authors who aren’t making any money. Thanks so much for the insight.

    • Claire Ridgway July 23, 2012 at 21:08 #

      A wonderful post and one I’ve shared – thanks, Catherine. An author I know told me that she thought it was ‘sad’ that I had to sell my books for $2.99 and therefore make nothing (in her opinion) and was even more shocked when I offered one of my books free on Amazon for a couple of days. She just couldn’t get her head round the fact that I’d be making more a book, at $2.99, than many authors who had signed with traditional publishers. It’s awful that Leather was branded “a tosser” for taking control of his writing and publishing.

  27. Elliot July 23, 2012 at 21:23 #

    Excellent post. It is a changing model and some people still want it to be an elitist one. We all have to change and learn, and if you want to earn a living from it, compete as well. Good points.

  28. JB Rowley July 23, 2012 at 21:43 #

    Champion post, Catherine.

    Breaking into a market with low prices and freebies is a traditional marketing strategy. Those who bleat about it are simply exposing their fears.

    Your point about getting to be an author resonates with me. I have done more writing in the past four months, since I published my first ebook, than I have done in my life (that’s quite a few years but I won’t be specific about that). Knowing that what I write has the potential to reach millions of readers and that what I write will be published are powerful motivating factors. I am sure many writers feel the same way. That can only be beneficial: for writers, for readers, for publishing. JB :-)

  29. char July 23, 2012 at 21:45 #

    That’s a sad thing that happened. I love cheap books, because I can purchase more of them now than before. It only took a few times paying over $20 for a published book that sorely disappointed me to turn me off from paying full price for any book. I mostly check them out from libraries, but with cheap ebooks, I’ve gone back to buying (because I don’t get as angry if I finish a book that disappoints and I’m only out a couple bucks).

  30. supermomanonymous July 23, 2012 at 21:46 #

    Catherine, I enjoy following your blog. Several of my friends self-publish and I hope to do so soon as well. I reviewed your post on my blog. I hope you like it. http://coffeepower.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/so-you-want-to-be-a-writer-huh/

  31. Dianne Greenlay July 23, 2012 at 22:29 #

    Wonderful post. I especially loved your point about a book’s longevity in making its author money. Also, thanks for pointing out the difference between what a book is WORTH and what it will SELL for. As we all know, until an author has made a name and has a following, the attraction must be (besides a great story and fabulous cover), an appealing introductory price. And, in my opinion, ALL ebooks should be substantially lower than what we have been used to paying for paper books simply because the production costs are substantially less. To keep the prices the same would be to gouge our customer, the reader, in an unethical way.

  32. idiosyncratic eye July 23, 2012 at 22:35 #

    The numbers lost me but this was a cracking good post, very thought provoking. :)

  33. Debbie Young July 23, 2012 at 22:47 #

    Brilliant post, Catherine. I think your point about e-books never going out of print is especially good – I’ve never heard anyone make that one before. I love the empowerment given to would-be authors by the new self-publishing technology, and I think any established traditional print author who objects is a heel. Go, indies!

  34. Casper Bogart July 23, 2012 at 23:58 #

    Actually, Mr. Leather has it about right. A pro can very easily turn out a short story in four days, polished to a professional standard. That’s not an unreasonable timeline.

    Thank you for this post. It’s clear that you “get it.” Ebooks have a very long shelf life.

  35. avwalters July 24, 2012 at 07:53 #

    It’s a conundrum, I start my ebooks out free and then, after a month or so, I price them just high enough that they won’t get mixed up with the porn on smashwords. The first one won an award, but I can’t see it translating into higher sales. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m not in favor of other authors criticizing new writers for their pricing policies. This is a tough journey, no matter which path you take. My only problem with your post is, well, I’m in the States and I don’t know what a tosser is.

    • Bill Kitson July 24, 2012 at 08:10 #

      The word is synonymous with “wanker” if that helps…It certainly isn’t a compliment!

  36. ljclayton July 24, 2012 at 11:23 #

    You’ve convinced me.

  37. Candy Korman July 24, 2012 at 14:42 #

    Wow… I’ve priced my ebooks at a bargain rates just to entice some interest. It’s way too easy for writers of standing, with best sellers and a major publisher behind them, to charge a lot for an electronic file, but honestly…. It’s crazy for them to think that devalues their work. It’s like apples and oranges. Or maybe my little ebooks are exotic fruits that need to make a reputation before anyone wants them? I can’t charge 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12 dollars. I have to sell low, or not sell at all.

  38. Tahlia Newland July 24, 2012 at 23:58 #

    Short stories at 99c work well for me, but lowering the price of my collection of short stories or my novella doesn’t change the number of sales, so I’m keeping them at $1.99 & $2.99 respectively. I think that 99c is too low for full length works, though some do have to set them there to sell them. I figure that I have a range of prices & the occaisonal freebee which covers all options. Like you, I wouldn’t want to set my full length works lower than $2.99 except for short promos.

    As for taking money away from the established system. I doubt that. I read very few books before I got my ereader. I simply couldn’t afford them. Now I spend much more on books because I get lots of books for the same money.

  39. Poppy Herrin July 25, 2012 at 01:32 #

    Excellent post! The way I see it, no matter what the price or how it is published (self or traditional), good writing is good writing.

  40. lovelylici1986 July 25, 2012 at 21:16 #

    Great post. I’m with you. Gotta do what you gotta do ’til you can do better! And I love the footnote. I laughed out loud at the part about slow dancing with characters in a ballroom of creativity.

  41. Shannon @ Duolit July 26, 2012 at 19:37 #

    Catherine, as always your commentary is right on the nose and so valuable to us indie author folks! I don’t see setting a low price on your book as undervaluing it, provided that it’s part of your long term strategy to either build your fan base or sell books by the truckload. To make a living in this business you 1. Can’t do it on one book and 2. MUST have a long term strategy for building a fanbase. That’s why a lot of indie authors seem to gravitate toward a series where your marketing can overlap and a low barrier to entry funnels readers into buying more books down the road.

    I’m also with Lauren Clark on our right as indie authors to set our prices as we please. I changed the price of my paperback with Lightning Source the other day and got a testy message requiring me to provide justification for a 30% decrease in the price and then adding in a caveat that they could veto my price change. I was a little incensed about that — as long as I’m covering their print costs, they shouldn’t have any input in my pricing strategy! Hrrumph!

  42. colinewalther July 27, 2012 at 16:46 #

    Excellent post, very well written.

  43. Christian Frey July 29, 2012 at 00:05 #

    Haven’t read all the recent comments (61? wow!) but I do think this bit from Passive Guy is more than relevant, and a great argument against pricing too high: http://www.thepassivevoice.com/07/2012/how-a-traditional-publisher-could-harm-a-writers-career/

  44. Melinda Williams July 31, 2012 at 16:12 #

    Thank you for such an inspiring and information packed post. It’s much appreciated by writers who are seriously considering self-publishing!

    • Paul Rix [aka Timothy Pilgrim] August 7, 2012 at 00:56 #

      All very interesting, I’m as indie minded as they come. My first effort was published with the help of Authors OnLine back in 2003 and I got called a lot worse than ‘tosser’ by people from the mainstream world! Others, like the late, and lovely Beryl Bainbridge were very helpful and supportive.
      As for the cheap ebook point, I had rather foolishly discounted the idea until recently. As a marketing ploy, hopefully to get people giving my work a try we brought out ‘Ro’my first book on Kindle @ 77p [$1], the idea being people reading it would try my new one.
      Well, it worked to a point, in as much as ‘Ro’ sold several copies and got some great reviews, but as yet ‘The Undefended Land’ has sold very few, inspite of being £1.35p [about $2]for what would have been a 500 page trade paper back.This was a follow up from my previous book, which sold alright for a ‘nobody’ like me and had really good reviews. The only thing I can come up with for my very modest sales over the years is because I have no idea on how to use the internet to my advantage! I am certainly not a ‘great’ writer, never will be, but I can spin a yarn as well as anyone.
      Guess I’ll just keep plugging away, when the inspiration strikes and keep my small but loyal group of fans happy, I hope.
      Great article, many excellent replies.
      All the best Paul Rix [oldgeezer]

  45. wendy August 7, 2012 at 02:17 #

    I’ve bought more books since I got an eReader than before (when I almost always borrowed from libraries). For a couple of reasons, firstly I don’t have the space to keep many fiction books, and I tend to keep books I buy. Secondly, for $2-$5 I’ll take a punt on an unknown author just as I have in remaindered bookshops. If I don’t like it enough to finish it and quit reading (rare but happens) I won’t feel like I just burned $20 that I can’t afford to throw away.

  46. Barb August 7, 2012 at 08:04 #

    And the reader can usually download a sample of the book before buying it. So the combo of low price and a “taste” of the plot and voice give newbies a great chance to gain footing with a reader. Nice post.

  47. tobiasosir September 6, 2012 at 17:58 #

    Reblogged this on Anything But Falafels and commented:
    This is an excellent article about the pricing of eBooks, and how writers are expected to make money. The thinking is that “print” authors, their books being more expensive, are being pushed out of the market by eBooks authors who can price at a few dollars or less. And honestly, why buy a $30 hardcover when you could buy a $0.99 eBook of similar quality? It’s not an easy question ,and it generates some controversy…but Catherine Ryan Howard writes it much better than I could, so read on after the jump!

  48. smnystoriak May 29, 2013 at 02:20 #

    Thanks for posting this. I was just thinking about these points earlier today, so your comments couldn’t have been more timely.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  5. Blogs for self-publishers July 29 – August 4, 2012 — The Book Designer - August 5, 2012

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  6. Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, August 5, 2012 « cochisewriters - August 6, 2012

    […] writing on Catherine, Caffeinated (via Joel Friedlander’s (@JFbookman) blog), about Low E-book Pricing: The Compensation Problem. The post has to do with what the right price for an e-book is and what authors should be thinking […]

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    […] these are not questions I have answers to. Catherine, Caffeinated has a great post on why Indie authors need to price low, even though she also wrote the post above […]

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    […] Ryan Howard (@cathryanhoward)on Catherine, Caffeinated Low E-book Pricing: The Compensation Problem “The point is that the money you earn from your writing is not a question of how much you […]

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