The Nameless Horror

Price, Insanity And The Race To The Bottom

I’ve been terribly quiet recently (working and/or installing a shower), but here’s my two cents (which at 35% means only 0.7 cents of it are mine, but hey) on ebooks, value and pricing. Specifically as it applies to you and I, knocking our shit out for people to buy via Kindle and Nook and LCD equipped penguin and whatever the kids read on these days. If you’re not, incidentally, into economics or maths, this post is probably going to be very dull. And if you find discussion of money vulgar, you’re going to hate this. Sorry.

When I release the first Cregan novella into the wild next week or thereabouts, I’ll be doing so at the $2.99 mark. Why so?

  1. Three bucks is about the price of a single issue comic. And while a comic has to pay artist, writer, letterer (maybe), inker and colourer (maybe), and editor, and I don’t, the amount of storytelling space in a 24-ish pages of comic is a fair bit smaller than that of a 20,000 word novella. The overall amount of contributed work feels like the same (as, I should say, a reader of comics; fucked if I know how much work actually goes into them). That’s my real-world peg mark, and it seems reasonable to me, but it’s by far not the most important thing. I mention it first to clear it out of the way.

  2. I’m aware that you may have more flex going through a 3rd party (Smashwords et al.), but if you go direct to Amazon, you have a fixed bottom price of 99 cents. Anything you start off down at that end has nowhere else to go. You give up all downward wriggle room. This seems crazy.

  3. Most importantly, I’d certainly say the thing is worth three bucks. It’s a decent amount of reading entertainment, but it’s not a full day’s eyeballing. By comparison, in the Starbucks in which I’m writing this, a tall (Starbucks-speak for their smallest listed size; I believe such a thing as a “short” exists, but you have to ask for it) latte will cost you £2.15. That’s the exact exchange rate price of that $2.99 book.

    The same price for both a mass-produced commodity consumed by the tonne in minutes, and a thing I hand-carved over a period of a couple of months of blood, sweat and tears. Tell me I’m wildly over-pricing myself here. Go on. I’ll wait. No? The thing’s sure as fuck worth more than a dollar.

Someone - and I apologise for losing the link - said a few months ago that writers trying to make cash self publishing (and this is self-publishing; the whole “indie” thing really ticks me off) need to stop thinking first in terms of sales numbers, and start thinking first in terms of income. The two, obviously, are connected, but there’s a tendency to factor things the other way round and think “how can I hit the #1 mark on the Kindle charts?”

Maths time. I can write - in theory, at least - six of these a year. The rough equivalent of my Headline deal in terms of annual income after my agent’s percentage is ~£9k (about $13.5k in your crazy colonial moon currency). This is not, obviously, a fortune (though there are foreign rights etc. on top of that), but in part because my outgoings are very low, and in part because Future Wife also works, this is a tight but liveable wage.

At ~£1.50 income per $2.99 book sold (70% of £2.15), I would need to sell 6,000 per year to earn £9k. Six books a year, that’s 1,000 copies, conveniently fitting the “you only need 1,000 true fans to earn a living” model I’ve seen touted in other media. But because that’s six books a year, every year (the reality of which is highly optimistic since I’ll be working on actual writing for print and having a new baby as well, but hey, shut up), each, in theory, needs to sell 1,000 across its entire marketable life, in total. Since we can’t budget for an entire life in something that will be around forever, let’s go very cautious and say “over three years”. That’s 333 of each book per year and I get to eat and pay the bills. Not an unrealistic aim, even if that number’s likely to be somewhat optimistic in reality, at least to start with.

OK. So. Everyone knows people sell more at 99 cents (about £0.71 here). It’s a Widely Believed Fact! And true, I don’t doubt. Here are my problems with this budget pricing, and they’re big ones.

  1. At Amazon rates, you have to sell seven times as many copies to make the same income. The chances of that actually happening are laughably, laughably small. Hilariously so.

  2. Even if you’re with some wonderful third party (that you’ve had to pay up front for the privilege, but hey, let’s not get into that) who give you 70% or 80% or even 100% of your cover price, unless what you’re selling is extremely short (I put HBJC up at that because it’s a short story), you are massively devaluing your own work, and especially if what you’re flogging is an 80k word novel. You’re basically tossing it straight into the bargain bin because no one would want it otherwise. “Buy this, it’s cheap!” rather than “Buy this, it’s good!”

    You’re pandering to a dangerous kind of hysteria that sees the stuff that we produce as a commodity with almost no inherent value. Any kind of industry that drives its prices down as close to zero as it can get, and which has no other revenue stream at all, dies on its arse. How long do you think superstores would stay in business if all they had were their loss leaders on the shelves?

  3. But wait, you cry. What about building readership? Eh? Eh? Mr Fucking Clever Clogs, you forgot that. People will take a punt on an ultra-cheap book, and then they’ll come back for the others. Bullshit, I say. What? Three bucks is too much of a risk? For what section of the book-reading public? I’ll reiterate: this is the same as the cost of a cup of coffee. And of so many of those cheap smartphone apps you and I purchase like candy. Neither of which are exactly boutique luxuries forcing their sellers into penury and an early grave because the majority of people can’t afford to fritter away their hard-earned on them.

    OK. You’ll pick up more sales. You will. But I take exception to the idea that this will give you readership, because it’s a basically cast-iron solid fact that the more they buy, the less people actually get round to reading everything they have. Hell, it’s hard enough with paperbacks. The number one gripe regular ebook buyers I know have is that they pick up stuff on a whim - because it’s very, very easy, especially if you own one of the actual devices and not just the software (as far as I know, anyway; I just have the software, but everyone I know who’s bought a Kindle or other ereader has splurged on stuff, wowed by the ease of it all) - and end up with a TBR list a mile long that they will never, ever get through because there will always be stuff that they do know and do want to read coming out.

    Hell, I read on my phone (I do a lot of waiting at bus stops these days, and it’s a device I have on me all the time), and I’ve bought three books (FWIW, two of Simon Logan’s collections and Nick Mamatas’s ‘Move Under Ground’) and I have a sample of fourth by a mate. I’ve had them for a couple of months at least, and I have managed to read one of these and start on a second. Someone going nuts on 99 cent ebooks? They’ll have a huge stack of the things, and the chances of them actually reading yours, out of those they do get round to, are small.

    You will not build a readership because no one reads that fast, except voracious book lovers who you probably wouldn’t have to sell yourself to at bargain bucket prices in order to entice. The occasional promotion might help, but fuck it, you might as well give a load of the things away rather than whore yourself out at the bum end of the market in the hope that more people will like you for it.

We’re not, ultimately, a production line operation. We are individual craftspeople, producing bespoke and highly individualised items. Even the closest we get to factory-produced goods - the “co-written” Pattersons of this world - are more akin to a small workshop than a mechanised industrial operation. We should take pride and have confidence in what we do. 99 cents for a book you’ve poured heart and soul into? Jesus, have some self respect. You’re good people, y’know.

The value of what we produce, and the effort we put into it, should be mirrored in the prices we charge. (And yes, I’m aware that most of the shit clogging Amazon’s KDP offerings isn’t worth 9 cents let alone 99, but let’s stick to the good stuff here.)

Taking part in the race to the bottom is an exercise in cannibalising our own industry to the benefit of no one. Apart from giants like Amazon, who happily claim 65 cents from every unread ebook they’ve done nothing to produce and have to do almost nothing to stock, even as those who actually put the work in on them go to the wall.

Don’t get sucked in.

Digression: I am aware that print publishing has batshit economics (sale or return? And then paying the stores who can give your goods back to put them out on display? What the ever-living fuck? Selling stuff at a loss to supermarkets in the chase for numbers? Bringing out the overpriced chunky version before you’ve enticed people in with the reasonably-priced regular version? Really?). And I’m also aware that there have been some exceedingly strange pricing decisions made by publishers with their ebooks, though these are getting fewer.

In print, I would, for the record, bring out the paperback and ebook first - and they’re reasonably priced for what they are and what they give you - with the ebook being a shade under the cost of the paperback (knock the extra material and labour costs off, and there’s your price).

I would stop offering stuff on sale or return, because it’s insane (and I hope those terms don’t get offered to warehouse operations like Amazon and the Book Depository, because it makes even less sense there).

I would copy the DVD business and bring out your hardback, expensive, boxed, lovely special edition six months after the paperback, filled with as much extra side material and bonus goodies as the author and the publisher can come up with, and I would price it as a collectors’ item. Only the real completist fans need buy such things anyway.

And I would think about doing package digital editions of them too - the ebook, the extras, video interviews, images, whatever you can cram into them. So long as doing so didn’t devalue the collector-ness of your hardcopy special editions.

Then I would ride away into the sunset, having saved publishing from itself.

On a dinosaur.