A good post at the Huffington Post about the 99 cent price point.
Let’s look at the dollars and cents of the 99-cent price point for independent authors. If an author is self-published through Amazon KDP, he or she earns 34 cents per 99-cent book sold. Not only do authors put time and energy into their writing, there are other associated costs to publishing a quality book, including cover artists ($125-3000), editors ($800-5000), marketing, etc. If you add up the average cover cost of $350, average editing job of $1400, then divide by 34 cents, the author would have to sell 5,134 books just to break even, and that’s nearly impossible without an additional amount for advertising. This would also assume that the author receives no income for actually writing the book. Most independent authors will sell less than 100 copies of their ebooks.
What about the author published through a small press? For that author, that 34 cents in earnings is reduced to roughly 12 cents per book.
Traditional publishers cannot even begin to price books at 99-cents, as they have far too much overhead to do so. In addition, how can a publisher sell a hardback book for $26 if the ebook version is 99 cents?
I often hear readers say, “Look how many books they sell. [Authors] earn enough money.” An author published through a small press that sells 100,000 ebooks at 99 cents, earns an annual salary of $12,000. To earn $40,000 per year, that author would have to sell 333,333 books per year. According to the recent Wall Street Journal article, there are only 30 authors have sold over 100,000 copies of their books (I am proud to be included in this number, and lucky that not all of my books were priced at $.99), and only a dozen have sold over 200,000.
That last piece is very important. Though self-publishing is booming as an idea, there are relatively few major sellers. In fact, there are fewer major sellers than there are in traditional publishing. So it’s amazing that they’ve done this, but they’re also an incredible anomaly.
Still, 200,000 books isn’t really the threshold. If you’ve sold 20,000 books you’re doing great, and the Kindle has seriously opened up the world for a many writers. The tally for 20,000 books at .99 is around $7000. That’s better than some advances.
What’s missing from the argument is what readers expect from a 99 cent book. It’s pretty evident in the first wave of Kindle sales that Kindle owners are mostly readers of commercial books. So if they’re buying a 99 cent book, they might be in the market for a “cheap” read. The Kindle is the new dime-store novel emporium. This isn’t true across the board – The Mill River Recluse comes to mind – but a writer like John Locke is a pulp writer. Literally, if people are more invested in the price of a book, they may be more invested in the book itself.
I’ve been seeing the word “Boring” on reviews on Amazon for books I like (including my own). Boring may be the new word for “literary” among Kindle owners. It may not be in a writer’s interest to charge 99 cents for a book if it’s not purely plot-driven and requires more of an investment of time. Those types of reviews can hurt sales overall.
It’s a tough balance because though it seems like the ebook industry is booming, there is a limited market for readers (this is for non-fiction, which tend to sell better):
Combine the explosion of books published with the declining total sales and you get shrinking sales of each new title. According to Nielsen BookScan – which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books (including Amazon.com) – only 282 million books were sold in 2009 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined (Publishers Weekly, January 11, 2010). The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.
So writers may have no choice but to lower the price – especially when they’re not just competing with other 99 cent books, but free books as well. One of the biggest arguments for writers releasing new books – rather than spend all their time marketing old ones – is to experiment with pricing. You never know which book is going to take off at which price point. But if you have a few $2.99 books and one 99 cent book, this can drive sales of that one book, as opposed to one book being on its own.
As much as writers would like to value their work higher – there’s also value in being read. There’s even value in getting a bad review. At least it inspired a reaction. A book which has “The best book I’ve ever read” and “The worst book I’ve ever read” may actually spark interest with some readers. We all love our own books, and know the hours of sweat and toil that went into writing it, but you’re just not that valuable to a reader who’s never heard of you. And so long as so many other writers are pricing their books at 99 cents, there’s really not much you can do about it except match the price, even if your personal philosophy screams against it.
My own books:
The American Book of the Dead – $1.99
North of Sunset – $.99
The Golden Calf (not self-published, out of my control) – $3.99
The American Book of the Dead sells the best. But this has as much to do with the content (dystopian, rather than Hollywood novels for the other ones) as price. I’ll soon be releasing The American Book Part II at $.99 and an old novel I’m currently revising at $2.99.
In short (and this isn’t entirely helpful): everyone’s going to have a different experience with pricing.