A slice of cake is comparable in worth to a Frappuccino. A can of Pepsi costs the same as a can of Coke. One pair of underwear is about the same as a pair of socks, but your 100,000-word novel costs the same as a pack of gum, maybe less. How do struggling authors manage to earn a living by selling their work so cheap?

First: Sell your book for as much as you like. That right will always be yours, obviously. But if you’re the type who’d like to tell others how to price theirs, maybe you should read ahead before you pour the hate on those who are selling books for a buck.

First rule for the author looking to earn money: Make it easy for your consumer to choose you over the competition. Second rule: Don’t worry about the way it’s always been done, worry about how it’ll be done tomorrow.

If you’re a self-publishing author competing against Random House, it’s probably not a good idea to price your books

Random House has things you don't. Like a tower.

close to theirs. Face it, they have quite a few things you don’t. (Things that contribute to the cost of the stuff they sell, by the way.) You see, self-publishing authors often make the mistake of attributing aesthetic value to market value, and these things are as incompatible as Charlie Sheen and professionalism. Sure, a great work of fiction should be worth more than a buck. It should be worth more than a pack of gum or a pair of underpants. The trouble is: the word “should” doesn’t stand up to market realities. It never will, so scrap it now.

So you’re an author who wants to make a living selling books. The 99-cent eBook has ruined your life? Well, crying about it isn’t going to change the world, so let’s see if it isn’t better to position ourselves as leaders and earn a living
at the same time.

Consider what qualities give something its market value. In other words, a book is something you can hold and put on the shelf. An eBook isn’t. They’re two different products. The eBook gets downloaded through cyberspace, like a song, or an album. It is intrinsically less tangible, and now you’re thinking like a business person. If you want to sell your book for more money, then sell it in formats you can charge more for. (In print, or as audio CD, for instance.) It
costs more money to produce that way, but your price will be correctly aligned in the marketplace.

The poster boy for unprofessional.

Another reservation authors have with the 99-cent eBook is the perception of its quality. How can anyone see a 99-cent book as something of high quality? It’s a good question, and one I don’t claim to have the answer to — but let me turn the question on its head: What did you pay for a book that changed your life? Now what is that book worth to you? Do you see the problem? Ascribing a price based on a book’s content or impact is totally arbitrary. (By the way, the Bible changed a lot of people’s lives and that book is free.)

Also, there is the question of length in eBooks. How can a 100,000 word novel be sold at the same price as a 20,000 word novel? Another great question. This one gets a surprising twist. As consumers we are given to believe that more of something is better. So if you’re getting more of something, you should pay more, right? Well, not necessarily. Some business models conclude that brevity has greater intrinsic value. If you can write a 100,000 word novel in 20,000 words — why wouldn’t you? It takes less time to write, and it takes less time to read. You’ve heard the expression “Time is money?” The author writing novellas on a mass production schedule and with a shrewd sense of marketing could make a killing with the 99-cent eBook. Perhaps your single novel is already divided into three Acts? Did you ever think to sell it that way?

Authors are conditioned to think about writing in print-publishing terms. In print publishing it was cost ineffective

Get a bigger bang for your eBuck.

to produce small books, so the market adapted accordingly. We dream up epic stories told across multiple books, in
part because we get caught up in the world we’ve created, but also because we understand that once a reader has invested the time and energy to get familiar with our characters, they’ll want to revisit old friends later. Their connection with our shared friends is what puts food on the table. But with eBooks, you can chop that giant behemoth up into much smaller books and get a lot more mileage because the book is published at the same cost. You get a bigger bang for your buck. Your eBuck.

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9 thoughts on “The 99-Cent eBook

  1. This is all so foreign to me. How does someone who just has something to say get their words out there. The Z to A in May is the first thing I have ever written and I am HOOKED! I would love for someone to pay me .99 for the right to read something I’ve written…heck, I’m thrilled when strangers read and comment on my blog. Where does one turn to learn the ropes here?

  2. Brilliant, erudite, well reasoned argument applying business head to an ’emotive’ subject.

    I sell my e-book ‘The Forest of Adventures’ for 99c, not becuase I think it is of low value(I spent three years slavishly researching, editing and rewriting) but becuase it’s no use sticking to higher ideals when your work isn’t getting onto the market and finding a readership.

    Yes, of course I would love to be able to give up the day job and dedicate myself to writing – I’m a long way off that on the 99c track BUT I have discovered something more rewarding than financial reward, and that is a loyal and dedicated readership who buy everything I publish. As a result of this, my sales are snowballing month on month.

    I did try to do my bit and put up the price of my e-book to $2.99 and sales literally stopped over night. It does irritate that at 99c my book gains me 30c but at the end of the day it’s 30c more towards living the dream.

    1. Thanks for the kind words.

      re. “Living the dream.” I think one reason this is such a hot topic is that people who are trying to break into the industry are prepared to do whatever it takes. People who are already “in” the industry are feeling the crunch, and would like to blame those at “the bottom” clamboring to get in and ascend. It’s hitting everyone’s pocket books in one way or another.

  3. Very interesting. I am not opposed to pricing my work at .99. If selling it that cheap might mean I can gain new fans and people who are interested in my work than so be it. I think in order to make money publishing you have to have people reading your work and if that requires you to swallow the pride a little bit then so be it.

  4. I think .99 is a great price to gain readers…once you have established yourself as a writer with many fans, it is easier to ask for more money knowing they will buy it. Most writers do not put all of their books at .99, it is usually the first book of a series, to get people hooked.

  5. My problem with $0.99 is that I have a short story that’s $0.99. You really can’t price it lower than that. So when I have a novel that will be 8-9 times longer I have a problem selling it for the same price. I think that’s confusing to the reader too, making my short look overpriced (which it’s not – in fact at $0.99 its still under priced). I’m planning on charging more and doing a lot of sales and events and discounts and coupons and such. The $0.99 price can happen, you just have to engage around getting it, kind of like MegaBus and their $1 bus ticket, the other seats are cheap but there is always that coveted $1 spot!

    Who knows if it will work. Maybe I’ll buckle to the market, but I hope there’s some value to my thinking!

  6. @Cynthia & Liz Shultze and Katie, why don’t you 3 just go and panhandle on the street together. The bums out there could show you how to really make a killing bumbing change out there, since they already earn more than 35 cents. And all they do is sit out on the sidewalk and drink!

    I’m serious. As a bum how he makes so much bank out there (and compared to you 3, he IS making bank off of his craft of boozing it up and begging).

    Or better yet, get in touch with author James Frey (A Million Little Pieces). He’s got a packaging company called Full Fathom 5, where you give him your ideas for a movie, write the script and give him full credit, and he’ll pay you a flat fee of $25 for your efforts. Hey, you don’t care if you don’t get paid for your work anyway. And 25 is better than $1 (oh, I’m sorry, I meant 99 cents. You’re not even making a dollar. Oops, I did it again! I meant 35 cents).

    Go here and post your ‘work’ up for free:
    http://www.worthyofpublishing.com

    THAT’S where you need to be, not on Amazon.com . Amazon is trying to run a business & make money. Writers there are trying to earn a living. They don’t need 3 more people waving free offerings and depressing the market-place. It’s depressed enough without you. It’s getting to the point now where writers can seriously no longer make a living.

    David, there should be a group effort on the part of self published authors to raise the floor to $2.99. Forget about 99 cents. That should be off the table. Apple had musicians on 99 cent for the iTunes, Android has game developers on 99 cents filling up the Android Market, and Amazon has writers on 99 cents with Kindle.

    Don’t any of you see what’s happening at all? These companies are selling DEVICES, not content. They are USING you. ALL of you. To provide the content to make their devices more attractive to consumers. What good would Kindle be without book content? That $300-$400 price tag would fall away fast without books on it. Same with iTunes. It’s worthless without that music content, and Android would be half as valuable without all the “apps” Android consumers keep gushing & bragging about. It’s the CONTENT that’s really selling these devices. Anyone who argues that point is foolish IMO. Yeah, some cheap Kindle customers may try to argue with that point but that’s because they want cheap & free content, so they’ll fight to the death to keep prices deflated. If they have a $300 Kindle, they can afford to pay more for an ebook. If they have an iPod they can AFFORD to pay a decent price for music. They can take on ebook writers, or game developers, or musicians, but they can’t take everybody on all together. If the entertainment creators stopped producing, that would be the biggest message of all.

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