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 Kindlehttp://amzn.to/pnxaNm or Nook http://bit.ly/ni9OFh $14.99 tpb http://bit.ly/qIJCkS.

16 thoughts on “Thoughts On The 99 Cent Pricing Debate

  1. I think there is another factor here, Bryan, one that you and maybe many others are missing.

    The entire model of how things are priced is changing, across all spectra of our consumer culture. Things like ebooks are really just a big, and obvious example.

    But the real canary in this coal mine has already sang, and that’s airline seats.

    1. No, I’m aware of how things are changing. Entertainment like music, which I discussed, gets devalued while other things go up. The airline prices are ridiculous and it’s because they have a terrible business model with too much overhead from ridiculous salaries and bonuses as much as anything. Jet fuel does play a part, yes. But realistically, they overpay their executives even when those people do a bad job and consumers pay the price for it. I am a huge critic of the airline model and have been for a long time and I include many other businesses so dominated by unions and executive overpricing as well in my criticisms. But I think it’s a bit of a different animal than the ebook/publishing situation.

      1. It is a different situation, but I think Dynamic Pricing is something that is only going to increase.

        The way we shop and buy things has changed radically in the last ten years and the next 5 are only going to be more so.

        Already, in some situations, Amazon charges different customers different prices for the same item, did you know that?

        1. I had heard that. Not aware if I’ve been a “victim” of it. I do use Amazon a lot, or have in the past. That’s really not cool, if you ask me. And yes, the trend of Dynamic Pricing is definitely here to stay and on the rise. It will be around a while. I do think that we as providers have a responsibility and some power to control the way our product is handled, at least as an industry, if we work together. And that’s really what I’m trying to suggest here.

          1. This is entirely true.

            I want you, as a writer, to be able to write more books instead of giving it up as uneconomical and we wind up with a plague of Kardashian exposes on book store shelves, virtual and physical.

  2. I’m glad my publisher doesn’t subscribe to the 99 cents theory. $2.99 is the lowest they will go. Things are shifting though, and I admit I’m one of those who won’t pay over ten bucks for an eBook.
    And I’ve always said the airlines are ignorant. We’re losing money because less people are flying so let’s raise the prices – and then even less fly so they have to raise the prices again. That makes no sense to me!

    1. I feel about airline business model and the same is true of car manufacturers and some other union dominated industries, the same way I do about ObamaCare. We are not controlling the costs which make it so expensive. In healthcare, that’s drug company and medical supplier overinflating of their own stock. Until we do that, until airlines control labor costs by not OVERPAYING, we are not even doing more than suturing the wound. And that’s just going to prolong the problem. With ebook pricing, we have the chance to avoid falling into that trap.

  3. You know, I think you have to look at each situation on its own. There have been Great books at .99 where there authors sold hundreds of thousands of books and went on to sign with major publishers. And there have been awful books put out by poor writers and sold as .99 for anyone unwise enough to buy.

    In some cases a lesser known author may use the .99 cent price point as marketing tool to give themselves name exposure to readers who may otherwise never know who they are.

    In the end I prefer eBooks to be a little higher; it is difficult for 99% of authors to make any sort of living selling at the .99 cent model. As far as Bryan’s book The Worker Prince goes, I think its underpriced at 3.99 and would love to see it at 4.99.

    That being said we shouldn’t turn our backs on the benefits of a .99 cent books. I read alot of them and have read some great ones. (Check out Rebecca Minor’s Windrider Saga). Instead let’s judge each situation separately and let the cards fall where they may.

    1. Great in theory but not the way the market works, Tim. People in this country suffer from misplaced entitlement syndrome. Once you set an expectation, they hold it dear and fight like hell to keep it. If $.99 becomes the primary expectation, it will be demanded. Other factors won’t play into it. And that’s my point. While quality plays into it, greed overrides all and if we allow people to expect that they can get anything at that price, they will come to insist upon it and protest against anyone who does it differently. It’s dangerous.

  4. I think up and coming novelists are in a really tough position. For me, reading a novel is such an investment of time, that it’s hard for me to take a chance on an unknown author. I want a publisher and other well known authors to get behind a new author.

    I think as a musician, it’s a little easier because people can click the “play” button on my website and decide in 30 seconds if they like what I’m doing or not. I can then give away a song for their e-mail address, so I can continue to engage with them after the initial contact. They may decide that what I’m doing is valuable enough to buy an album or deluxe item at a later time. Either way the barrier to entry is less for a musician.

    Best of luck!

    1. What kind of big names, though, John? I have Brenda Cooper, Maurice Broaddus and Jason Sanford plus Jaleta Clegg, Grace Bridges, Saladin Ahmed and David Lee Summers and a quote from Redstone. What would it take? Orson Scott Card? Kevin J. Anderson?

      1. Hey Bryan,

        I wasn’t referring to your novel. 🙂

        I was making the point that I think the biggest challenge that authors face is getting readers to invest their time in their work. Even more so than money.

        I get tons of books sent to me each month. I have lots of beautiful looking books from the major publishers, with great blurbs by big name authors that I still don’t read. Not because I don’t want to, but because I don’t have enough time.

        For me, money isn’t the issue. I’m most likely to read a book by an author that I have some sort of relationship with. I think the best thing that an author can do is to try and build relationships with potential readers. Kind of like you have Bryan. 🙂

        1. Okay. I wasn’t assuming you necessarily meant my novel but I used mine as an example for you to clarify your point. Wanted to be sure I understood you. Thanks, John.

  5. I’ve noticed plenty of authors offer their book for free or very little for a day or a week in hopes that people like myself who read two or three books a week will quickly read it and review it in places like Amazon and GoodReads. I’ve found some great books that way and then gone on to spend $3-8 per book for everything else they have written and read them all. Kindle readers look at the book reviews before even downloading a sample so giving away a few books hoping for reviews can work for you. Then you can raise the price to something you feel good about and can live with.

    1. Sure. Short term pricing deals I have no issue with. But there is a culture developing where ebook readers seem to think they are entitled to 99 cent ebooks. They give authors bad reviews over ebook pricing–which authors usually don’t control unless they self-publish–and they adamantly refuse to spend more. And that’s really bad for authors financially. I also think it devalues their work. As it is, few authors can afford to write full time. But the way it’s going, many will wonder if they should even bother at all because the time vs. the return may diminish too much.

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