[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?
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.