But my book is worth more than that

Today I’d like to talk about what price to put on your book.  Or my book, if you don’t have one.  Or some other writer’s book if we don’t want to talk about my books either.

Pricing, though.  Let’s have that conversation.

Here are a couple of points I would like to make before taking the shallow dive into this pool.  Both of these points are things that should be self-evident, yet apparently are not.

  1. The cost of a book should be the amount of money someone is willing to pay to obtain a copy of it
  2. Money isn’t real

To the second point, consider that money has no static value on this planet.  It’s something we invented to replace the barter system, because it’s easier to pay for things with an agreed-upon currency than it is to pay for things with a chicken and a garden-fresh cucumber.  Money only has value because we decide it does and, collectively, we decide how much value it has.

To the first point, everything we pay for with the money we’ve invented has a value based entirely on this: what is someone else willing to pay for it?

The price of anything in a free marketplace is a price negotiated between two parties: the buyer and the seller.  And like any good negotiation, the best price is one that neither party wants but both parties can agree is acceptable.  Or, to borrow from my handbook on parenting (note: I do not have a handbook on parenting) it’s impossible to keep two children equally happy, but you can make sure they are equally unhappy.

I used the words ‘free marketplace’ above.  I’d like to draw a distinction here between that and what we’ll call a monopolistic marketplace.  (Monopolistic is probably the wrong word, but I’m not an economist.)  In this context a monopolistic marketplace would be one where a single party or small handful of parties working in concert (we can call that a ‘cartel’ if we want) exerts total control over the market in question.

In this scenario, the price isn’t a negotiation between buyer and seller.  The price is dictated entirely by the seller, and if the buyer doesn’t like it, the buyer can freely elect to go to hell.

This is how publishing worked before the ebook/self-publishing revolution took away the one thing publishers had: near-complete control over the product.  They had “monopolistic” control over the entire industry, and they didn’t lose it until Amazon turned ebook publishing (and thus self-publishing) into a viable way to reach readers directly.

The publishers—along with groups like Authors United and the Authors Guild, both of whom are apparently engaged in some kind of long-game performance art—somehow think it makes sense to call Amazon the monopoly in this situation.  Best guess, their legal departments are using the “I am rubber and you are glue” precedent.  Otherwise, this makes zero sense.

Let’s get back to pricing, and to the title of this article.

“But my book is worth more than that” is something I’ve heard from a lot of writers over the past few years.  There are a couple of different permutations.

Version One: I am a traditionally published author and if you are complaining about the price the publisher set for my books you don’t understand that you are paying for more than just the words, you’re paying for the editors, the cover designer, the marketing department, and so on.  There is a whole team behind the production of this product, and they all need to be compensated for this work.

I don’t really dispute anything in this argument, but let’s be clear about what’s actually being said here.  What’s being said is, my publisher is not nimble enough to survive in this environment.

If that team of however-many-people can only continue to be compensated in a marketplace that no longer exists, that isn’t the marketplace’s problem.

Version Two: I am an indie author and/or a self-published author, and I worked a long time on this book and my words are worth more than [pick a small number].  I can’t respect myself if I don’t charge at least [pick a larger number] for a copy.

I understand completely.  Writing for publication is a process that’s difficult, time-consuming, and—if you’re lucky—ends with the creation of a beautiful thing.  But let’s not get too full of ourselves.

Writers want to be read, and writers want to be paid.  If you think you need to price your books at a point higher than the market allows because you can’t imagine selling your masterpiece (and it could be a masterpiece, I’m not judging) for any less, you’re not going to accomplish either of these goals: nobody will read it because of the price, and because nobody will read it, you’re not going to get paid.

Again, the cost of a book should be the amount of money someone is willing to pay for it.

Cost isn’t a statement of value, and money isn’t real.

But what is that amount of money, in actual dollars?

Well, I can’t answer that.  There are arguments to be made for every price point from “free” and upward.

(Aside: keep in mind that “free” has value.  If you talk to someone who has bought into the Trad Pub/Authors United/Authors Guild double-reverse puppet show, the current marketplace is a hellscape of free and super-cheap books that are devaluing the written word so much we’ll soon be speaking gibberish and tearing down society with a Kindle and a femur bone.  It isn’t true.  Free is a valid price point to attract readers, and the marketplace is doing just fine.)

You will learn quickly, though, that Amazon rewards books priced between $2.99-$9.99 (by offering a 70% royalty cut instead of 35%) and that every genre has its own price tolerance.

The example I always give is that when I started out in self-publishing, it was with novellas, and I priced them at $0.99, on advice from another author.  But the books didn’t sell, until one day when I raised the price to $2.99, and then they did.

The reason: the sci-fi/fantasy genre rewards a $2.99 price point, while the genre of the person whose advice I was taking—romance—rewards the lower price point.  Why?  Well that’s a longer article, but the genres have different markets and different reader expectations and habits.

Basically, every author has to figure out for him/herself what price gives them the best combination of units-moved and return-per-unit, and sometimes that number has to change with the expectations of the market.

What’s important to remember is that price isn’t a statement about the quality of your work or how you value it.  This idea is something left over from the old way of publishing.  It has no place in this market.

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  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt on May 2, 2016 at 6:54 am

    Restaurant A sells Chinese food. It is usually quite good, and the setting is lovely. Restaurant B sells Chinese food, too. It is usually good, but the ambiance is a little less fancy, you can get a coupon, and it’s a couple of bucks cheaper. And Restaurant C sells Chinese food, but it is clear that they don’t change the oil in their deep fryer often enough – the food tends to be heavier, oil-soaked.

    I go to Restaurant A for special occasions. However, I usually go to Restaurant B, because, after all, it’s just Chinese food, but the quality is important to me. Restaurant C is for people with no taste.

    The trick is not to be the cheapest, but to be perceived as good value compared to the more expensive alternatives.

    I have one novel out. I constantly get told I’m pricing too high compared to indie Romances. But it’s NOT an indie Romance; and the traditionally published mainstream novels I believe are my competition in story and writing are priced higher than mine.

    It IS a deliberate strategy – I don’t know how it will work out. And I need to figure out better ways to advertise to the people I think are my audience. But advertising a cheap price to people who aren’t doesn’t seem a very good plan.

    • Gene Doucette on May 2, 2016 at 7:36 am

      it’s difficult to use pricing effectively with only one book out, too. Half of the value in lowering the price of one book is to attract attention to other books… the ‘loss leader’ approach.

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt on May 2, 2016 at 8:09 am

        Exactly – and my speed of producing books – one every fifteen years so far – doesn’t lead to using that approach. Fortunately, the second one in the trilogy should take less than five – and I’m hoping for better (I’m slow, and they take a great deal of planning).

        I have one more ace in the hole, an expensive one, which I’m set up to use in July.

        I might have gone traditional (ie, submitted to an agent to start that long process) IF I had any realistic hopes of one taking on a book that is, well, different. I’m pretty sure I would have gotten a lot of, “I can’t sell this, but I like it. Send us your next book.” There are some things which you just KNOW.

        But I still think there might be a niche within the indie world for me – or that I might sneak into the traditional mainstream novel contingent – because the very hard part is done: you can buy Pride’s Children at Amazon. And when I lure someone into reading it, I get very nice reviews.

        I just wish I weren’t out on the wings of so many bell curves. Or rather, that I was more effective in USING them.

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