Last week Patrick Rothfuss and DAW Books released Wise Man’s Fear. The hardcover went for $29.95 in U.S. currency, though you can get it from Amazon for $17.47. Their Kindle edition is $14.99.
In two weeks John Scalzi and Tor Books will release Fuzzy Nation. The hardcover will run you about $24.99, though you can pre-order it from Amazon for $14.10 – or pre-order the Kindle edition for $11.99.
What bothers you about this pricing scheme?
A) Some major authors are demanding significantly more per e-book than smaller writers can. With the wealth of 99-cent titles, charging more than ten dollars for something they don’t even have to print looks greedy.
B) Price cutting by the likes of Amazon and Wal-Mart are moves smaller book stores cannot possibly match. It will contribute to an industry with fewer lit-devoted retailers and where many authors get paid even less per book than they used to. After its competition is broken down, nothing will prevent Amazon from hiking their royalty fees, thereby screwing over the authors that are self-publishing with them.
C) All those 99’s are deliberate lies. $11.99 is actually twelve bucks and we all know it.
I’m probably the only one who immediately jumps to C. It’s a deceptive mathematical practice invented by think-tanks to dupe you out of way more money than just a penny or dollar.
Many people stop at A. Zoe Winters earned an onslaught of complaints for “putting a price” on her readers when she dared suggest charging less than $3.99 cheated many writers. There is a frustrating hoarder-class of readers who only want things that cost a dollar or less. They are the extreme reaction to an inexpensive market.
I endorse Rothfuss and Scalzi charging so much for e-editions. Cheap shouldn’t be the standard for our industry. However unfair people may call the pricing schemes, Rothfuss hit #1 on the New York Times Bestseller’s List in that first week. What his class of author charges makes up the price ceiling for the industry. His $14.99 gets divided more ways than the profits of a typical 99-cent Smashwords release, but that’s not the salient point. This is the most that my work is allowed to cost.
That ceiling has multiple affects. It makes less expensive e-books look alternately like bargains or cheap trash. Of course, the glut of bad prose in the 99-cent region is just as responsible for the trash aura, and if you’re self-publishing at this price range, you’re doing it to capitalize on a low barrier for purchase. Whatever word-of-mouth and word-of-Twitter you can muster work better with impulse-buy pricing. The higher price of a Rothfuss or Scalzi book serves as a buffer, because none of us will compete well going dollar-for-dollar against the titans. Charging the same does not give you the same level of hype. Even if you’re better than they are, they bring a fandom with wild expectations and exaggerated reactions. You, as the breakout writer who only charged $2.99, aren’t held to the same unfair standard, and have a better chance of winning audiences over. It's the loss leader strategy that looks better the higher top authors charge.
Smart authors play with their pricing. If two hundred copies move at five bucks a pop, how many might move at four? Or three? But you can only charge that in this publishing world. If Stephen King’s next 1,000-page Kindle edition lands at $2.99, good luck charging more for your 300-page novel. Now James Patterson, Stephanie Meyer and the inevitable next Harry Potter book are impulse buys.
It’s only in our publishing world, where known authors can charge $15 on every Nook and Kindle, that you can safely float up to $4.99. At $4.99 your novel grosses five times the profit of the 99-cent bargain, while only costing about one third of your most powerful literary competition. That looks more reasonable to a reader in this marketplace. And you’re free to descend further and perhaps take off at 99-cents. We have the millionaire success stories, and I have nothing against selling at that price, or dipping there for a temporary sale to spark more interest. But for many writers it will be two hundred sales at one buck or five, and two hundred copies at five bucks a pop adds up to a doctor’s visit for your daughter.
The reader demand for cheap e-books is more interesting when contrasted to other reader actions. Contrast our debate with a recent Rutgers University controversy. The university paid Reality TV star Snooki $32,000 to speak, while paying famous author Toni Morrison $30,000. There was massive outrage that the writer wasn’t getting more money. If you were angered that someone from Jersey Shore got more than a hardworking author, then ask yourself: do you only buy books that are priced low and thereby send less money to the author?
Again, I chose C. My objection was that both were going to make more off of one talk than most authors will from book sales this year. You might be surprised how few writers, even bestsellers, make $30,000 in a good year.
Since January I have been working on one novel. I’ve pushed myself so hard that I’ve become physically sick from it at least three times. It will be two more months before the rough draft is complete, at which point I’ll have to edit strenuously to get it into first draft state. Then I’ll beg the smartest people I know to give me a few rounds of criticism, and I’ll tabulate the results for several rounds of revision and polish. If I’m lucky, the fourth draft will be the final, complete sometime around winter. I want you to know that I am earnestly racking myself to make this book worth your time. When I edit the day’s words, I’m thinking about the time you’ll have reading them. Whether you’ll pay five bucks, or one, or take out of a library – that’s not on my mind. That’s honestly why it disturbs me when I come up from my writing hole and read derision for authors who manage to make a good living.
If you sincerely believe the fruits of my labors will only ever be worth reading for $0.99, then I question what our relationship is. Maybe this novel will be self-published. In November, my market strategy may show that 99-cents is an optimal price (God willing, I’ll have the integrity to charge an honest $1.00). But if I get a big break with the Big Six, I’ll be relieved that everyone involved can make a profit from our pricing. And if I don’t get that break, I’ll still be glad that the market has room for a story that costs five bucks. That niche can only exist because there is a high standard of value from the market leaders.