How much is a book 'worth'? Ponder that. Notice I didn't ask you how much a book should cost. 'Worth' is a relative term and means different things to different people. A book that changes how you think, that stirs you on a deeply emotional level, that carries you away from the stress of daily life and lets you relax for awhile, or that teaches you something valuable isn't something you can put a sticker price on.
An easier question would probably be: How much would you pay for a book? How much for a hardback vs. a paperback? How much for an e-book? Would you pay more for your favorite author? What about a debut author or one you've never heard of before? What about a reference book that provides valuable information? How much for a non-fiction book that you'll use on a regular basis vs. a fiction book that you'll devour in a few days and never look at again? Ah, maybe those questions aren't so easy to answer either.
Recently, I read A Dog's Purpose by Bruce Cameron. I loved it. I was moved to tears. It encapsulated, from the dog's point of view, what a dog lives for and made me, as a human, think twice about what they must surely feel in regards to us bipeds. Since then I pat my dogs on the head more often and say, "You're such a good dog" in that gushy, high-pitched tone that you talk to babies in. I've recommended to others several times. It's a rarity for me, being on a practically non-existent budget, to buy a hardback book when it first comes out. But I did that for this one. Generally, I'll wait until A) the local library gets it or B) I can buy the paperback (better yet if it's used and dirt cheap).
This isn't because I don't value the author's time. Quite the opposite is true. As a writer myself, I don't believe you can put any price on the endless hours of writing, revising, proofing and researching a book - not to mention, the angst of sending out query letters to agents, waiting to hear back from editors, wondering if anyone, anyone at all, will buy your book and even when they do whether they truly enjoyed it or would classify it as landfill material.
Since we can now agree that a book's worth is a relative term, let's get back to the question of price.
So is $25 too much for a hardback book? Does $8-15 sound about right for a paperback? $10 or less for an e-book, because after all the bookstore didn't have to ship it in, stock it on their shelves and there's isn't the cost of paper involved. If you see an e-book for 99 cents, do you assume it's garbage and you wouldn't touch it with a barge pole? Or do you judge each book individually and then buy it as long as it's within your budget, whether under a dollar or ten times as much? Since the library doesn't charge for books (unless, like me, you tend to keep them too long and have to pay overdue fines), does that fact that it's free to you make you think less of it? I doubt it.
On several online discussion forums, the topic of e-book pricing frequently comes up, particularly for indie authors. Ever since Amazon.com established $2.99 as the baseline for giving authors 70% and anything from .99 to $2.98 as only earning 35%, the $2.99 tag has become the norm for most books by indie authors. This is still quite a bargain when you consider that the majority of e-books put out by traditional publishers fetch quite a bit more - anywhere from $7.99-12.99 and up.
Why then are indies pricing themselves so cheaply? Doesn't that devalue not only their work, but yank the bottom out of e-book prices and threaten to bring the whole system tumbling down? Will writers ever be able to earn a living at writing again??? Well, truth is, most of them don't make a living at writing anyway. And, I don't know about the lot of you, but when items are cheaper, I tend to buy more of them, whereas if they are out of my budget to begin with, I don't buy them at all. Example: If long-sleeved T-shirts are $20 apiece, I may think that's too much and not buy one at all. If they're only $12 each, wow, suddenly it's a bargain and I buy 2 of them, shelling out 24 bucks. Get my point?
Many indie authors cringe at the thought of offering one of their books for a bargain basement price like 99 cents. I did, too, until recently, when I went ahead and dropped the price of the Kindle version of Isabeau down to just that. Why? Simple. Because I want more people to read it. Believe me, if folks were shoving each other out of the way to buy my books, I'd charge what the traditional publishers do. That would be beyond cool. My husband could retire from his present job and go find something fun to do, like play golf every day. I could send my kids to their choice of Ivy League colleges, fix my driveway, replace the old mini-van . . .
Okay, reality check. Established authors have a built-in demand for their books. Debut authors do not. Indie authors have an even rougher road. But . . . it's not an impassable one.
I don't have a marketing budget or the luxury of shelf placement at Target and Wal-Mart. If I do pay for a $10-35 ad somewhere - and there are places I can do that - that means that money comes out of my grocery shopping. Or gets added onto my already mounting credit card bill. One thing I do have is control over what price I charge for the book. If I can entice someone to try my book, then if they like it enough they'll let others know about it or come back to buy the next one at $2.99 or more. Many indie authors with multiple books have at least one that they offer at 99 cents to serve as an introductory price to readers. They build a following that way.
The greatest challenge for indie authors is gaining visibility. Readers have to know that your book exists before they ever have the option of buying it. Often, I'll see the argument that if a book is priced at 99 cents, it gets lumped together on that line 'Customers who bought Cheap Book A, also bought Cheap Book B.' etc. where Book B is in a totally different genre. Yes, ideally, it is better if your book is grouped with similar books. But if you're not selling enough in the first place to show up anywhere, isn't that a moot point? Isn't it better if your book at least shows up somewhere? After all, not all readers read exclusively in one genre. My own tastes are quite varied.
My husband and I have bred Australian Shepherds for over 20 years (bear with me, there's a point to this). Early on when we were nobodies, we practically gave away puppies or dogs, that we could have charged thousands of dollars for, to people who didn't have lots of money but who we knew would train, trial and campaign the dog. We did it because we knew that upfront loss would pay off in the long run - and it did, tenfold. The more dogs we got into actively showing and trialing homes, the more good advertisement it meant for us. Over the years, demand increased to the point where many times I didn't have enough puppies to go around. (Hey, they poop a lot and I can only raise so many at a time.) We gave up short-term gain for a long-term goal.
It is up to the indie author to decide what to charge for their e-books. If your book sells well at $2.99, by all means keep it there. If you can sell it for more, more power to you. But if you're looking far down the road, at building a career, then you need to find ways to get your book into more hands.
Happy reading and writing,
(P.S. Later this week I'll have a guest post on a primer to e-publishing for indie authors by Ruth Francisco, author of The Pigtailed Heart, Amsterdam 2012 and other great books.)