Wednesday, September 21, 2011
The Price is Wrong
PublishAmerica’s royalty checks – or lack thereof – went out at the start of September, and most writers received a reality check as a result. While their shocked and disillusioned reactions are painful even to witness, they’re also predictable. Without exception, PublishAmerica’s books are priced so highly that they’re not likely to sell except to the author's family and friends. Some Kindle ebooks are priced at well over $20 (after the author has paid $49 for the book to be uploaded to the Kindle).
That made me think of book pricing in general, though.
Writers can directly control the prices of their books only when self-publishing, and even then a self-publishing service such as CreateSpace won’t take a loss on a book, so there's a minimum price which needs to be set. There’s more flexibility with ebooks, though. Self-published ebooks tend to be between $0.99 and $2.99 on the Kindle, and some are even offered for free.
There’s some debate about this – does a cost of $0.99 devalue the book and scream “self-published”? A number of readers will still take a chance on any book which costs only a dollar, so would that make up for the readers who’ll automatically avoid it? I’m not sure what to think about this, perhaps because I don’t have an ereader of any kind, and I generally don’t take chances on print books unless they’re free.
Still, if I were selling a self-published ebook I’d probably go for $1.99 no matter how long the book was. That seems like a safe compromise.
In general, readers won’t pay more than $5 for an ebook unless the author is a household name. And even if they do pay $10 or more, which some publishers charge, they won’t enjoy it. Many one-star reviews for highly-priced ebooks on Amazon are complaints about the price rather than about the quality of the book.
That’s self-publishing. What about trade publishing?
The longer the book, the more the publisher needs to charge, and there’s a threshold above which readers won’t go. Usually that’s around $30 for a hardback, $10 for a mass market paperback and so on. Even Susanna Clarke’s debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, an 800-page doorstopper in hardcover, sells for $27.95 – and was backed up by an "imaginative (and aggressive) marketing campaign" from Bloomsbury.
Too high and the reading public simply won't buy. Too low and there won't be much reward for the writer's hard work, unless the sheer number of copies sold makes up for that. It's a balancing act.
Finally, editor Anna Genoese wrote a great article on how publishers determine profit and loss – and how a book can fail to make the former. Check it out. I especially like the article because it blows a hole in the myth that if your book doesn’t earn out, you have to return the advance.