Who's Afraid of Very Cheap Books? Publishing

CheapthrillsA common meme in publishing is that cheap books are destroying the world or literature, and that low prices are undermining the viability of publishing or writers’ ability to make a living.

I’ve long thought this position is nonsense – a narrative which plays on misplaced fears of change and a confusion of price and value, which is also based on flawed assumptions and analog, zero-sum thinking.

And, if anything, the opposite is true.

Why So Cheap?

Self-publishers are fond of 99c pricing for a number of reasons. It’s the lowest price you can set at Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo without making your book free, and it has an obvious impulse buy appeal to readers. This price point is particularly popular for the first in a series or a limited-time sale in conjunction with an ad spot, but some have used it more aggressively.

I launched my latest novel Mercenary at 99c (logic here) but plan to raise it to $4.99 this week. Authors like Joanna Penn went further and kept that launch price for several months (reasoning here, stunning results here). And, of course, lots of writers like Amanda Hocking built enormous readerships with perma-cheap pricing.

The obvious downside of such an approach is a financial one. Amazon pays 35% royalties, instead of 70%, at prices below $2.99. Apple pays 70% on 99c books (curious how Amazon gets charged with encouraging a race to the bottom, rather than Apple) but the iBookstore simply doesn’t shift books in the same quantity – and particularly not for self-publishers.

As such, 99c is no magic bullet. The royalty rate disparity creates a very real chance that it can backfire in financial terms, particularly these days when more authors experiment with pricing. However, critics of aggressively cheap pricing don’t tend to center on results for the author, but rather the effect on the market as a whole.

In Praise of Cheap Books

I take issue with the viewpoint that releasing books at 99c is somehow unfair, or that it devalues books, or harms the long-term health of the industry, or the viability of writing as a profession. In no particular order:

1. 99c doesn’t devalue books. How could it? Readers love cheap books! Do libraries devalue books? What about cheap paperback classics? Second-hand bookstores? Friends sharing books? All of these things encourage reading. Books reducing in price is a wonderful phenomenon that should be encouraged and celebrated. Unless you want reading to be a minority sport for the (shrinking) middle class.

2. A writer has a duty to herself and no one else. She shouldn’t have to make decisions for the good of the “industry.” What does Penguin Random House care for the average writer? Does it care if its decisions impact upon the ability of self-publishers to earn a living? Hell, no. Cheap pricing is a wonderful tool when used correctly and can greatly expand an author’s readership (and income).

3. Cheap books expand the pool of readers which safeguards the industry’s long-term health and makes writing as a profession more viable as a result. Self-publishers don’t have to pay for office blocks, printers, binding, storage, distribution. In a digital world, there are fewer up-front costs and far less ongoing costs. Why shouldn’t we pass on some of those savings? Let’s not forget that readers have been screwed by higher prices from large publishers since the consolidation wave of the 1990s.

4. Self-publishers’ pricing isn’t that cheap if you take a historical view. As this great post from Ed Robertson shows, indies’ e-book pricing is more-or-less in line with historical paperback prices. The industry veered away from that historically consistent pricing during consolidation. Who is holding the line against discounting the most? Who was willing to break the law to fix the price of books? Who is trying to turn a business dispute over percentages into a hysterical, emotional battle for the future of books? Those very same companies. Writers need to be smarter about recognizing when one viewpoint is subject to a huge media push, and why. And they need to realize their interests – even if they are traditionally published – don’t always align with publishers, especially on a topic like pricing.

5. Beware analog thinking, this isn’t a zero sum game. If I make $500 more by employing a certain strategy, I’m not taking $500 out of another writer’s pocket. If a reader waiting for my latest release (who was willing to pay $4.99) suddenly gets it for 99c, they now have $4 more to spend on books. So maybe they’ll end up buying two or three instead of one. Also, while I might leave money on the table this week, the strategy is to maximize sales by getting more of my disparate list/platform to try my historical fiction. If it works, I’ll have expanded my readership and made money. If it doesn’t… the worst that will happen is I’ll make a little less money, but still expand my readership somewhat and make existing readers happy. But however it works out for me personally I don’t see it having much effect on anyone else, other than somewhat increasing the amount of books my readers can afford.

6. “What if it’s successful and everyone starts launching books at 99c?” Again, this is analog thinking. This development would be wonderful for writers. Readers would swamp our mailing lists knowing that all self-publishers now launch at 99c. This would allow authors to build very powerful platforms, independent of any publisher or retailer.

7. If you make a decision which is pro-reader, you won’t go too far wrong. There’s a lot that’s confusing about the pricing issue, and publishing in general, but if you default towards treating readers with respect and making decisions which favor them – rather than trying to squeeze them for every last penny – then you won’t go wildly astray.

Worrying about the “industry” is pointless because the industry doesn’t care about you. But I don’t share those fears anyway. Books have proved remarkably robust over the last few hundred years and I don’t see how changes which are positive for the two most critical actors (writers and readers) pose a threat. If any threat or competition does exist – which may well be overstated – it comes from other forms of media and entertainment.

Creating and consuming stories is central to how we interact with the world. Aside from storytelling forms like music, novels, stand-up comedy, movies, and television, we seek out narratives in other areas all the time, like politics, news, and even sports. Stories can entertain, teach, amuse, disturb, and befuddle, and we will always be consumers of stories… and will always need creators of stories.

Many argue that books are in a real fight for attention and consumer dollars against other, flashier forms of entertainment. Popular movies have a powerful water-cooler effect that even top-selling authors rarely benefit from. Virtually everyone has a television in their home and access to endless amounts of free programming – some of it of astounding quality. There’s more free reading material and entertainment on the Internet than a whole army of people could get through. And even game studios are encroaching on books’ turf, especially with the engaging, interactive narratives like The Walking Dead.

But even if the threat is as serious as some think, isn’t this all the more reason to make books cheap?

Maybe Expensive Books Are Destroying Literature

If publishers had their way, prices would be a hell of a lot higher. When the agency model was forced on Amazon through collusion, prices of bestsellers from large publishers jumped overnight. In short, when publishers have control of pricing, books get more expensive.

Some publishers like Kensington CEO Stephen Zacharius have openly fantasized about self-publishers being removed from retailers, or at least segregated away from traditionally published books. This, of course, would remove all that pesky price competition which has been instrumental in self-publishers grabbing a huge chunk of the market.

Cheap books don’t devalue literature. What devalues literature is letting it wither on the vine. Old classics wouldn’t be as widely read if you could only get them for $7.99. Cheap (and free) pricing keeps their work alive.

High prices do the opposite and letting great backlist books flounder is tragic. Often when recommending a traditionally published book to a friend, I check the ranking on Amazon out of curiosity. Invariably, the book is around $10, despite being out for several years, and selling poorly.

What about new voices? Readers are going to be even more reluctant to pay high prices for completely unknown authors. They aren’t willing to pay a premium because the publisher is Simon & Schuster, but because the book is written by Stephen King. Debut authors miss out on truckloads of new readers because they are $10.99 instead of $4.99.

The numbers bear this out too. The latest Author Earnings Report was perhaps the most fascinating, but got drowned out by hysterical reports over which large corporation is going to make slightly more from e-book transactions. Hold the front page!

The real headline is that self-publishing is breaking more new authors than The Big 5. We’re doing it with, in part, aggressive pricing strategies. But the massively increased royalty rates from retailers like Amazon mean that more of us are making a living from this than ever before too.

Hooray for cheap books!

* * *

mercenaryIf you would like to help me destroy literature, my new historical novel – Mercenary – is now available from Amazon, B&N, Kobo and Smashwords for just 99c, and you can add it on Goodreads here. The price goes up soon, so don’t delay. The blurb:

Lee Christmas gets drunk and falls asleep at the throttle of his locomotive, plowing straight into an oncoming train. Blacklisted from the railroad and his marriage in tatters, he flees New Orleans on a steamer bound for the tropics.

In Honduras, he begins a quiet new life. But trouble has a way of finding Christmas. With unrest sweeping the countryside, he’s kidnapped by bandits. Soon, he finds himself taking sides in an all-out civil war–as leader of the rebellion.

MERCENARY is the story of the USA’s most famous soldier of fortune: the hard-drinking drifter who changed the fate of a nation.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Smashwords $4.99 $0.99

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time he spends outside. He writes fiction under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.