Why $2.99 Doesn’t Devalue Your Work

There seems to be a certain camp in the writing and publishing worlds that feels like selling a novel at $2.99 is somehow devaluing that novel, and novels in general. The idea seems to be that readers will refuse to pay more than $2.99 for novels eventually, and that will somehow topple the publishing industry.

But no one is asking whether readers should pay more than $2.99 for most books. We’ve just accepted that paperbacks are priced at $8.99-$16 and that hardcover books are priced at $20-$30. And so we feel like ebooks should be priced somewhere along that line, too. But does anyone know why a mass market paperback is priced at $9? Or a trade paperback at $16? Or why a hardcover book is $25?

In the 1960s, a paperback book might cost anywhere from 25¢ up to around $.75 or so depending on the length, publisher, genre, author, and specific year (you can find evidence of these prices by looking at old book covers from that era). Now, a lot of these books were shorter than what we’re used to these days, coming in at around 150-200 pages. They were “pocket books”, in their truest sense: they would fit in your pocket.

So, if we look at a book that was 50¢ in 1965, and adjust the price for inflation, we’re looking at a book that would be $3.59 in 2011. (A 25¢ book would be $1.80, a 75¢ book would be $5.39 in the same year.) So your average mass-market paperback would be $3.59, and some books would be as low as $1.80. Now, outside of a used book store, I haven’t seen prices that low in my lifetime (at least not that I remember).

Even if we consider the length to be double on modern novels, that still means we should be seeing books that are only $4 on shelves, and some ranging up as high as $11 or so. But just about every mass market paperback I see is $9-$12. Trade paperbacks (which weren’t really around in the 60s) run as high as $20. So while books are longer than they were in the 60s (the shortest modern novels are usually around 300 pages), we’ve set a new baseline price. We expect to pay at least $9 for a new paperback.

And so a lot of people think that selling an ebook for $2.99 is devaluing books in general. People look at that price and think the author doesn’t view themselves as “worth” a higher price. But lets break down the numbers:

First of all, if I sell a novel at $2.99 on Amazon, I’m going to earn roughly 70% of the cover price: $2.07 or so after Amazon deducts their delivery fee. Now, if I have a book published through a legacy publisher and the mass market paperback is selling for $9, if I’m lucky I’ll make 10% of that: $.90. So I’m already making more than twice as much with the $2.99 ebook. Even if I’m splitting that royalty with an ebook publisher, I’m still probably making more money.

Second of all, you eliminate a lot of expenses with ebooks. Covers are less expensive for a couple of reasons: 1) I don’t have to buy high resolution print-ready artwork which is often significantly more expensive than web-sized artwork; 2) I don’t have to design a spine or back cover, just the front. Both of those mean a cost savings. Something a lot of publishers don’t want to admit. I also don’t have printing or storage costs. For many books, this probably runs somewhere around $2, between printing, shipping, and storage in a warehouse somewhere (plus the labor to deal with all those books). And the production process is often faster, too, because there are no print proofs, no print galleys, etc. Everything is done digitally, which means there’s a ton of room for workflow improvements (whether publishers are actually taking advantage of that is another story).

Third of all, you eliminate the gigantic time lags that are inherent to any print publishing schedule. Everything can be done quickly, files sent instantly, etc. And so it’s possible to publish more books in less time for less cost. That’s a big savings.

So let’s say that the above adds up to a $3 savings per book (which I think is being conservative, though if anyone has any hard data about these things, let me know and I’ll revise), which now puts the paperback as only twice as expensive as the ebook, while I’m still earning more than twice the royalty.

But here’s the big thing that most people overlook: at $2.99, more people are reading more books. At $2.99, a book is an impulse purchase. We don’t have to plan for it, or budget for it. We can just buy it if it looks like it might interest us. Even when I’m broke, I can usually spare $2.99 for a book. It’s cheaper than a movie ticket (cheaper than a movie rental, even, in some places). It’s definitely cheaper than going out to dinner. And it provides hours of entertainment. The best part is that I can buy an ebook and then keep it on my phone and read it whenever and wherever I want. (As an aside, if you’re looking for a phone that makes a great ebook reader, the Droid X2 is fantastic for that, even if it’s lacking in other areas. It even remains readable in direct sunlight, much like epaper.)

As authors, we need to think about the long-term relationship we have with readers. If books keep getting more expensive, they’re going to be viewed as a luxury item by many. And that’s not what I want my books to be. I want them to be practical, to be read, and to be accessible to pretty much anyone who wants to read them. I’d rather have 1,000 readers at $.99 than 100 at $10, even though in the short term the $10 readers will earn me more money. And I’d much rather have 1,000 readers at $2.99.

I was talking with a friend on Facebook who was lamenting the size and price of new paperbacks. She said that she missed the days of small paperbacks that could fit in your pocket and be read in an afternoon. And I agree. I like a book that I can read in an afternoon. Sure, longer books are great sometimes, too. But what’s wrong with a book that’s light and fun and a page-turner? The answer was that those books aren’t as profitable for big publishers. They need the longer books to justify the much higher prices. $2.99 changes that. $2.99 is a great price for shorter books, for page-turners, and for books that are meant to be read in an afternoon.

I only charge $.99 for my novellas. They’re all around 20,000-30,000 words long (which would work out to around 60-90 pages if they were printed). I feel like that’s a very fair price for what they are. And besides, my novella series is meant to gain attention for my work. I’m writing them to share with people, and to get fans. At $.99, more people are willing to take a chance. Sure, some people just “collect” $.99 ebooks and never read them, but I have my own collection of books I’ve picked up at a discount that I have yet to read. What’s wrong with that?

At some point I may increase the price of the books, but for now I’m comfortable with $.99. And sometimes I feel like that makes other authors out there look down at my work, as if I’ve somehow shit in their corn flakes (that might be a little crude, but have you seen the way some of these people talk about $.99 ebooks and their authors?)

The point is that low cost ebooks make it easier to get people to try reading. At $.99 to $2.99, a teenager who’s on a very limited budget can afford to buy a book a week. A single parent can afford to buy a book a week. I like the idea that someone can buy my book rather than a cup of coffee one day (and I’m not talking about Starbucks, either). I like the idea that my books are accessible to pretty much everyone. And I like the fact that I’m building a readership who will hopefully stick by me as I write longer works and charge more. Some will, and some won’t. But offering a $.99 “intro” is a great way for them to try me out and decide whether I’m worth more to them. It’s kind of like there are certain authors whose books I sometimes read, but I only buy them used, because I don’t have an unlimited budget for books and there are other authors who are “worth” more to me. But I would completely buy their books as ebooks if they were priced lower than the paperbacks.

For me, I’d rather have ebooks be priced lower and sell more, and entice more people to read, than keep raising the prices and drive more people to view reading as a luxury. Other people feel differently about it, and that’s fine. But for me, I’m going to price as low as I think I should for a book, rather than as high as I think I can.

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3 thoughts on “Why $2.99 Doesn’t Devalue Your Work

  1. I agree with you. I’ve written one novel, published by Zumaya. It took 6 years from acceptance to publication, and publication more or less coincided with the advent of Amazon’s self publishing service. It’s for sale as an e-book at $6.99. Readers pass on an unknown author at that price. However, Zumaya are proposing a special soon at $2.99 for a week. I wonder if they are testing the waters. Even if I promote madly and readers become aware of my novel’s existence, I am sure the $6.99 price will be a deal breaker.

  2. Honestly, 99 cents is an amateur move. No offense to you but it just sounds like you’re just following off of what Amanda Hocking YEARS ago. The whole 99 cent thing has been glutted because so many, many, many “writers” are out there doing the same thing & giving the same reasons for doing so. There are some gems-though not many- but mostly the 99 cent books are just poorly written dross. Storylines don’t make much sense, shoddy character development, poor grammar and editing, ect are traits that make up a large portion of 99 cent material.

    I also notice that 99 cent ebook writers NEVER talk about content, 100% of them just go on and on and on about PRICING. What’s wrong with improving your content offerings? Add more bonus features to your ebook as to add value to it & convince people the book is WORTH more than $2.99 (and certainly more than 99 cents)?

    And those “poor teens” you spoke of : poor them. Are those the same “teens” who had $40 to spend on Twilight Saga Book 4 : Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer? Are those the same “teens” who had $20 to spend on a Dark Tower book by Stephen King? Or $15 on Marked (House of Night series)? Are these the same poor teens you are speaking of here? Make no mistake : these teens are not poor. They might not be rich but they are not poor. Besides, I’m wondering if they are to poor to afford more than 99 cents or $2, how how did their families come up with the money for the ereading device in the first place? Poor means you don’t have an ereading device; I should know because I don’t have one myself because I AM POOR!

    It’s strange for me as a writer to read comments from ebook consumers saying they can’t afford over 99 cents or $2 for an ebook. Get out the violens. Poor babies. So sad. They “can’t afford” 99 cents for their $150 Kindles. It’s all so sad. It breaks my heart. Really it does. Are you with me on this? Are you feeling me? I mean, I thought I had it bad that I couldn’t even “afford” a luxury like a Kindle Fire, but these people can’t afford more than $3 for an ebook luxury! I have to blog about this. I was going to blog about children in Africa that don’t have $3 for food but these “poor babies” you mentioned in your post are really pulling my heartstrings.

    • Wow, I’m sensing a lot of anger here over…I’m not quite sure what.

      Here’s the thing: When I see a book for $.99, or $1.99, or $2.99, I don’t have to think about whether to purchase it or not. I check out the sample, and if I like it, I buy it. I can’t say the same thing for an ebook that’s priced at $7.99 or $9.99, or even $4.99. At $2.99 for a novel, I can afford to buy an entire series at once, whereas at $9.99, I can’t just buy 4 or 5 books at once. I have to be very careful about how much I spend on entertainment each month. And honestly, I’d rather buy five books at $.99-$2.99 than one at $9.99.

      Also, an ereader isn’t necessary to read ebooks. I use my phone (Droid X2) as my primary ereader, and there are free apps to read books on your PC or Mac. Considering a lot of schools are now providing junior high and high school kids with iPads or laptops, even “poor” kids have access to books in these formats. And who says that if they do have an ereader, they didn’t receive it as a gift? Maybe a grandparent or other relative bought it for them. The fact that they have an ereader doesn’t necessarily mean they or their parents have money. Maybe they saved up babysitting money for months to afford it.

      Anything I can do to get people to read my books is worth trying, in my opinion. I want readers. Eventually, I hope the money will follow. But if $.99 means that 10 people read my book rather than 2, then I can live with that. I know my books are good, and they’ll speak for themselves if I can get people to give them a chance. That’s where low prices come in.

      BTW, I’ve read a TON of great books that are priced at $.99-$2.99. Maybe you’re just not looking in the right places…

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