Thoughts On The 99 Cent Pricing Debate

Twice now I have explicitly told my publisher no 99 cent pricing. My book is worth more. And I don’t say it with arrogance. My book is not a self-published book. 4 editors worked on it. Two independent editors I paid before it sold at considerable cost and two at the publisher. I don’t want people lumping it in with the non-vetted crap that’s out there. While there are good books at .99, there’s also a ton of junk. My book is higher quality and we need to distinguish it. But at the same time, I’m still pretty unknown and new and people don’t know my work. They won’t pay the $9.99 or $16.99 major trade houses want for ebooks (which to me is asking a bit much even) so we’re at $3.99. We will do a one week $.99 sale to launch the new year but I feel comfortable with my position. And I think it’s dangerous to all of us in publishing who are professionals to allow our work to become devalued to the point where $.99 is the norm (if it hasn’t happened already) because that makes it really hard to make a living.

To me it smacks of a certain desperation. “Oh it’s working for some people. I can’t compete if I don’t do it.” But that’s ridiculous. There are plenty of proven cases of authors making money on ebooks at much higher prices. The harder reality is you have to sell a lot of books at $.99 with publishers or others taking a cut to make a decent living. You really have to have multiple successful books. And can you sustain that long term is a much more important question.  Seriously. Tobias Buckell and others have done surveys and studiesshowing that books do sell at higher price points. In fact, Buckell convinced me $4.99 is a really good price point for novels. Mainstream publishers still can’t afford to price books that low but for those small presses and others who can, it’s not asking a whole lot. It’s close to half the price of a mass market paperback. We are, after all, talking about hours, months, years of someone’s labor most of the time. If you’re not spending that kind of time writing books, you’re in a different category and may well be writing stuff of the quality deserving of this low price point but most of of us labor hard and long through many drafts to get our work done and sell it and that has value. And people do consider price, quality of cover art, reputation, etc. when making buying decisions. I don’t feel uncomfortable at all with saying my work is of a certain quality and the price reflects that.

It worries me that we are letting the wrong motives control pricing. The music industry did that while fighting Napster and resisting ITunes and lost the battle. If we are more reasonable from the start but yet all work together to set fair prices, not greedy ones but fair ones, we will all be better off in the long run. And in the long run, we won’t lose sales. The market won’t go away. Trust me. If all people could find at $.99 was books of a lower quality or a few on special sales, they would jump to buy our $4.99 novels. It would not be an issue. They would not hesitate. People want to know they got something of value, even for $.99 and they prefer to be pleased rather than disappointed with what they get. If every author, self-published or not, priced books in the same range, the market would follow. There might be some resistance at first but people would get over it. And the people resisting are not the ones who really value your work anyway. Not the people you want to have controlling the cost of your labor. It’s really important to think about it.

Are we driving ourselves out of business if we let this pattern continue? Is it really worth it to have a sales boost now when you can never afford to live the real dream of writing full time? To me, it absolutely is not. And so I eschew such pricing schemes. If my book sells slower, which it is, so be it. My novel has gotten great reviews and some pretty high praise. I have yet to hear from a single person who read it and didn’t enjoy it. That is value. Doesn’t make me Mark Twain. Doesn’t make me an expert but I do feel professional. I am not Joe Blow offering you whatever rolled off my fingers into the keyboard that day. Neither are many authors who’ve surrender to this and I think that’s sad. It’s why we all really need to think about what’s going on and where we want to go with it and what it means.  I wonder how many of those $.99 wonders are getting long term repeat business. How many are selling crap and having buyers never return? There’s also a little thing called value by association. It happens in real estate. People perceive a neighboring property to be of lower value and low and behold your property value decreases. The same thing happens with book pricing, believe me.

Another issue. Publishers are more and more counting on writers to do the legwork of promotion. I have spent 16 times my advance (which was admittedly a token) promoting my debut novel. The results are worth it: I got Honorable Mention on B&N Book Club’s Best SF Of 2011 and listed on Suvudu a few times, etc. But I will have a hard time recouping that, a fact I used to my advantage in negotiating my contract. Meanwhile, my publisher had authors lining up to sign with them because of the publicity I generated. So I bought them value. At 99 cents, I would be screwed at ever hoping to recover it. And that is becoming more a norm. Things like Cons, book fairs, etc. which you need to do to get out and meet readers, often don’t pay your way unless you’re invited and an elite pick. You pay those out of pocket and they are expensive. And then there’s the independent editors I hired before selling my novel whom I used to help me whip it into shape. Those don’t come cheap either. Add to that other costs of writing, time, etc. and it’s quite an investment. If we continue to underprice our labor and our costs, we will bankrupt ourselves.

In any case, I continue to be vehemently opposed to this model. I wish more people came alongside me on it, because I think a book which has been professionally edited and vetted by knowledgeable people has more value than a book someone did alone at home and threw on the market. I don’t appreciate it when I get a book that is not professional quality–filled with typos, bad prose, bad plotting, bad characterization, etc. I feel cheated. And I never want my readers to feel that way. It doesn’t mean my work is perfect or that there isn’t plenty of room to grow. It just means I am approaching it with a concern for delivering the best I can with people who help me achieve it. And that costs money to do. And it deserves to have a certain price. Period.

That’s my take on the whole phenomenon. For what it’s worth…

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.‎

4 5-star & 11 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $3.99 Kindle or Nook $14.99 tpb