In less than five months time, I’ll be taking a year away from dayjobbery and seeing how close I can get to generating a full time freelance writing career. For the next five months I’ve the luxury of preparation time, trying to figure out how to make it work and putting some things in place that will pay off down the line (maybe). Then, at the end of September, I’ll take the leap, put all of this into practice, and see if I’m right about any of it. You can browse previous entries here.
What is a book worth?
Seriously, you tell me. In real life terms, hard cash, what is a book worth to a reader?
Before digital publishing, the price of a book was defined by several real world costs. The cost of paper and ink. The cost of running those things through a book binding machine. The cost of distribution. The cost of paying staff at a publishing house to edit and layout the book, and the cost of giving a cut of profits to the retailer. A small margin on top to pay the writer and generate a small profit for the publisher. Real world things that can be priced and added up to make a cover price for the book itself. It’s interesting, and slightly depressing, to note that the smallest part of that equation is paying the writer. The value of a book might be £7.99, but the value of the story inside it was never considered a significant part of the equation. Pennies really, for the one thing the whole transaction rests on.
Digital publishing has exposed the fallacy of this. There is no paper. There is no ink. No book binding machine has been employed. Distribution is practically free. The retailer cut is still there, but it’s much smaller. If you’re publishing yourself, the cost of a cover, layout, and good editing is affordable. After publication there are a few months when, if your book is selling a modest amount, the profits are paying back those early costs. After that you hopefully break even, and then much of the money being made is going to the writer. Suddenly, the price of the book is all about the value of the story. That’s what readers are paying for. It’s a complete reversal of how things were. The cover price no longer represents the ownership of paper. Instead, it represents the cost of storytelling.
What that cost actually is has been the subject if much debate. Big publishers still price high. In some cases, they price almost the same for an ebook as they do the paperback or hardback, at least on release. Readers aren’t stupid. They grumble about this, and they’re not wrong to do so. They have already paid for their Kindle (other devices are available), they can see perfectly well that there is no paper or ink involved, they might not have a detailed knowledge of book distribution but that doesn’t mean they’re ignorant of the fact that buying a book online and having it download in a second means that the publisher isn’t paying for a lot of the things that make up the cost of the paperback. They might not know what an ebook should cost, but they have a pretty intuitive understanding of what it shouldn’t.
But is a novel I spent weeks and months writing really only worth pennies to the reader, which is what I would have taken per sale under the old system? I hope it’s apparent that this isn’t the case.
The problem is that after those start-up costs are recovered, and the book breaks even, the question changes. It’s no longer what price paper? Or what price distribution?
It’s what price art?
What is the real world value of me telling you a story? This is difficult in all sorts of ways, because in the absence of ongoing real world costs, it’s a question of perceived value. What a reader is willing to pay is all about the value they perceive. It’s the same with all art, and it’s hard to define. What one person thinks is too much, another will think is a bargain. Stories are things that work on a personal level, different for every reader, and that defines their value differently for each person who reads them.
So how do I turn something unquantifiable into a cover price for an ebook?
If you’ve browsed ebooks online, you’ll know that many novels are priced at $2.99. That’s become a norm, but only because Amazon says so. When I self-publish with Amazon they’ll give me 70% of the cover price every time a book sells – but only if the book is priced at $2.99 or more. Any less, and the author’s cut drops to 35%. Now, 35% is excellent, still a jaw-dropping slice of the pie for authors used to the tiny fraction they would have expected per sale of a paperback in a book shop ten years ago, but if you want to make this writing gig a living then you’re going to be heavily in favour of 70%. And really, $2.99 for a whole novel? Readers are fine paying that. It’s cheap.
Which is why it’s the default option for authors. The cheapest price point they can be at on the higher royalty rate. We’re nervous of pricing higher because everybody else is selling for $2.99 – we don’t want to look like the expensive option if a reader is looking at two books and has to decide which one to buy.
This is a false worry though, because books are different. I genuinely don’t believe readers buy books based on cost comparison. They buy based on want. When I see a book I want, I don’t compare it with others based on the cover price, because those others are not the book I want. They’re different stories. I want this story. I might wonder what format I’m going to buy it in. Is this a story I want to read on my Kindle, or is it a book I want to pay extra to have a shelf copy of? Price might come into that. I have never looked at the price of a book and not bought it because a completely different book by a completely different author was cheaper.
When I publish Craven Place later this year, you will either want to buy and read it or you will not. How much another book costs won’t have anything to do with whether you want to this one.
So, what price art? As I mentioned above, there are some prices that are too high. However, I think that some prices are too low too.
Last week, I raised the cover price of the ebook editions of Thy Fearful Symmetry and Cuckoo. Not by much – I’ve jumped from $2.99 to $3.99 in the US, with an equivalent hike elsewhere in the world (up to £2.49 in the UK from the previous £1.99). Still cheap, but no longer the cheapest. When Craven Place is released, it will also have a cover price of $3.99.
I’ll be watching what happens very carefully indeed, because this would be a dreadful thing to be wrong about. At the moment, I can’t really tell. Over the last fortnight sales have been really slow. All I can say, and it reassures me slightly, is that they haven’t changed. That trickle of sales didn’t vanish when the cover prices went up. They stayed the same. Hopefully that means that readers don’t care, because the price is still within what they consider to be perfectly reasonable. That would be good, because in terms of trying to make a living at this the small adjustment makes a bigger difference to my income than you might imagine.
As ever, I’m interested in what you think. What’s too much? What’s too little? Does the above make sense to you, or am I barking up the wrong tree? Remember, I’m no expert at all this. I’m sort of making it up as I go along, albeit after reading as much on how this side of publishing works as I can possibly absorb.