Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cheap Reads

The publishing business appears to be evolving at light-speed. But some things NEVER change.

I’ve been grousing on Facebook about readers who willingly shell out $3 for a single cup of coffee but refuse to pay more than a buck for a novel. Case study: Darcie Chan has sold more than 400,000 copies of THE MILL RIVER RECLUSE, her first novel, after self-publishing it as an e-book. But because she has priced it at 99 cents, she has netted “only” about $130,000.

To stimulate sales, “cutting the retail price to 99 cents from an initial $2.99 was critical,” reported THE WEEK magazine of December 23, 2011.

Three dollars was an entirely reasonable price to charge for a 300-page novel. A bargain, in fact. But sales didn’t really take off until Darcie lowered the price to a buck—practically giving it away.


Another writer who found market forces arrayed against him was Lewis Carroll. In his Preface to the 1896 Edition of Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Carroll wrote:
“I take this opportunity of announcing that the Nursery ‘Alice,’ hitherto priced at four shillings, net, is now to be had on the same terms as the ordinary shilling picture-books—although I feel sure that it is, in every quality (except the text itself, in which I am not qualified to pronounce), greatly superior to them. Four shillings was a perfectly reasonable price to charge, considering the very heavy initial outlay I had incurred; still, as the Public have practically said, ‘We will not give more than a shilling for a picture-book, however artistically got-up,’ I am content to reckon my outlay on the book as so much dead loss, and, rather than let the little ones, for whom it was written, go without it, I am selling it at a price which is, to me, much the same thing as giving it away.”
Lewis Carroll, Christmas 1896

In this regard, at least, NOTHING has changed in the book business. Writers and “the Public” can't seem to agree on the true value of our work.

I’m standing my ground for now, keeping the price of my WATERSPELL e-books at $2.99 each — which is a perfectly reasonable price to charge, considering my heavy investment of time and energy, and the cash I've laid out to get to this point. But as Darcie Chan said in an interview: “I did that [cut the price of her book] to encourage people to give it a chance. I saw it as an investment in my future as a writer.”

Is this what the future holds? Dollar books?


If publishing is meant to use the music business as a model, then we need to be comparing apples with apples, not with oranges. A single tune can be bought for $1. The fan who wants the whole “album” or CD will thus pay $10 to download 10 songs.

The analogous approach for books, therefore, would be 99 cents per chapter. That would set the price of my 22-chapter, 400-page novels at about $21.75 — a list price that was once considered perfectly reasonable for long, complex, literary novels.

Of course I wouldn’t dream of charging that much for an e-book. But is $2.99 also too much, in the eyes of today’s bargain-hunting reader?

I shouldn’t think so. A novel, after all, lasts a lot longer than a three-minute song … or a $3 cup of coffee.


  1. For simplicity's sake, lets assume a three minute song bought for $1 and a 60,000 word novel bought for $3. A slightly faster than average reader (which provably describes most people who read for pleasure) can do 20,000 words per hour, so for $3 they've bought 3 hours of entertainment. The song has to be listened to 60 times to equal the $/minute of a single readthrough of the novel. This is before considering that listening to music is no longer an exclusive activity, making the track simultaneously more versatile and less valuable (assuming that $/minute of entertainment is the goal).

    I think that $3-6 is a reasonable price for an e-book, but I don't think that $1 per track of music is. The reason the music industry is happy with selling music this way is because they're making more money this way than they were 5 years ago. The average money they're charging per track is very similar, and they no longer have to spend as much money on distribution.

    Many publishers charge the same amount for e-books ($8-15) as they do for mass market paperbacks, which is ridiculous to me. Not knowing exact costs, half price doesn't seem like an unreasonable expectation for an e-book. As we've seen with online music sales though, people are plenty willing to pay the same amount of money for less product (lower sound quality, no backups, no booklet, intrusive DRM).

    I agree that it's unwise for someone to charge $1 for their book, but not in the general sense. It's self-sabotage, but not, in my opinion, something that will change the general expectations of consumers. That said, I actually wouldn't mind buying a more serialized story in $1 installments, assuming that each installment was at least 10,000 words. The analog that comes to mind is TV and movies.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  2. Thanks for your comments! I agree completely that publishers charging the same for e-books as for paperbacks is ridiculous. The big publishers are desperately trying to "protect paper." They think that overcharging for e-books will encourage readers to just buy the paperback, if there's little or no difference in the price.

    What the Big Houses don't seem to understand is that many readers now actually PREFER to read e-books. I find it physically easier to read on my Nook. The Nook is smaller and lighter, I can enlarge the type to a comfortable size, and I don't have to "break the back" of a paperback to get at the words that run too close to the spine.

    Trying to "protect paper" is a losing strategy. Readers who prefer e-books won't cave in and buy the paperback edition. They'll just surf away and buy a more reasonably priced e-book.

    Which brings us to the question: What IS a reasonable price for an e-book? I agree that $3-$6 is a good range for a well-crafted, professionally edited book.

    I'm hoping the market will self-segregate into tiers: poorly written, unedited books at the 99-cent price-point; higher quality work at $2.99 and above. Eventually (I hope) readers will realize that they get what they pay for.

    I love your idea of serializing a story in 10,000-word installments, priced at $1 each. If I do that with "WATERSPELL Book 3: The Wisewoman," I'll have 10 or 11 installments, for a grand total of $10 or $11 for the complete book. Sounds great to me! LOL

    For simplicity's sake, though, I'll probably sell it for $2.99, same as the others in the trilogy.

    In the interest of full disclosure, as a reader of e-books I find that I have become more price-sensitive. Where once I'd gladly pay $5 for an e-book and think I was getting a bargain, now I favor the "under $4" titles. Through the lens of my own tendencies, I can see how cheap books have altered the mindset of the book-buying public.

    Well, this e-publishing revolution is in its early stages. How it all develops is something we writers and readers will be watching closely. It's an exciting time to be in the book biz!

    Thanks again for your comments. I'm guessing you're in the music business? Re: "As we've seen with online music sales though, people are plenty willing to pay the same amount of money for less product (lower sound quality, no backups, no booklet, intrusive DRM)."

    I am among the few who still prefer my music on CD. I want the booklet (what we used to call "liner notes" -- yes, I remember vinyl!) and I want to hear the songs as a set, in the order in which the musician(s) chose to present them on the CD.

    However, I don't like paying $14.99 for a CD. The Internet has conditioned us all to demand that our entertainment be cheap or free.