I read with interest Roxane Gay’s piece a couple of weeks ago at HTMLGIANT called “Taking No For An Answer: Some New Thoughts on Self-Publishing.” I can understand her motivation for writing such a piece, and I’m generally sympathetic with her opinion, namely, that despite the success of Amanda Hocking and the like via self-publishing, there is much writing that shouldn’t see the light of day. As a self-published novelist since 2003 and a consultant to those who pursue self-publishing, I say the same to writers all the time.
I disagree with other points in her piece, and I feel compelled to highlight one aspect of it that is particularly unsound. Gay writes: “There is also the matter of price which seems a little out of control for self publishers. Particularly where e-books are concerned, many self published writers are basically giving their writing away for $.99-$2.99….The $.99 price point is a terrible, terrible idea and it sets a terrible, terrible precedent….If you have to basically give your writing away, what does that tell you?…If I cannot sell my books at a [m]ore reasonable $8-$10 price point, perhaps the market is telling me something about my writing. Humbling? Perhaps.”
Gay implies that the prices of books are necessitated by the quality of prose therein. This is almost never the case. Buyers rarely determine the price they’re willing to spend on a book by the quality of the writing. (They should, but they don’t.)
How do buyers decide the amount they’re willing to spend on a book? There are lots of factors, but there’s one very important factor that many writers don’t understand: the easier a type of book is to reproduce, the less a buyer is willing to spend on it. By and large if buyers feel a work is, for one reason or another, less rare, they pay less.
Is this fair to the writer of fine prose? Of course not. Is it fair, in terms of the writing, that Jane Austen’s novels are largely available for free as ebooks while anything Sarah Palin writes is worth 25 dollars in hardcover the day it comes out? No, but there it is. Selling your ebook for 99 cents does not–to me and to most people–speak to the quality of its writing. It speaks to the medium being purchased and the way we as buyers perceive that medium.
Let’s look at an example in the visual art world, where the differences between media are more obvious. Think of the famous di Vinci painting Mona Lisa. The original Mona Lisa, which is in the Louvre in Paris, is worth millions of dollars. A poster of the same painting in the Louvre museum store goes for maybe 20 dollars, and a digital version of the same image can be had for nothing. Why is this? There are many reasons, but primarily it’s because the painting in the museum is un-reproducible (there will never be another original Mona Lisa). The poster, however, is reproducible at many places, like a printing company, so its value is seen as less than the original (push a button and you can have 1000 such posters in a few hours). A digital version of the painting is pretty much free to anyone willing to “steal” it from the internet, (which I did).
The same principles apply to books, if a little less obviously. Rarely is the “original” of a book for sale, although maybe it should be. (“You can own the final manuscript of Freedom that Jonathan Franzen sent to his agent upon completion. Click the ebay link below.”) I think the famous Kerouac scroll of On the Road changed hands in recent years. These items would go for big bucks, much more than a manufactured copy of the book. A new hardback–which buyers often think of as collector’s editions–generally goes for more than a new trade paperback, which goes for more than a new mass market paperback. Each step down the chain conjures less perceived value from the buyer, so the buyer pays less. (I know there are other factors at work–like the fact that a mass market paperback usually comes out well after the hardback version–but I still contend the perceived value is less the further one travels down this chain.)
What does this mean for ebooks, a medium that, in some forms, can be mass produced simply by sending a version of it in an email to your friends? The outlook is not rosy for the price of ebooks. Consumers–even the ones who like ebooks–seem to be reluctant to think of them as “actual books.” I don’t believe this is because self-published writers are selling their books for 99 cents (although that can’t help). I believe it’s because the ebook version of a book is seen by most buyers as having less value than the print version. It’s digital, a medium they can copy from the internet, paste into a Word document, and voila, they “own” that work. All for free. That perception is difficult to fight.
And maybe that perception will change. Maybe in the future parents will pass down their Kindles to their oldest living offspring, making their ebook collection a sort of heirloom, and one protected from damage by fire or flood. That might be the best argument for the $9.99-14.99 price point many in publishing seem to want. Maybe there are two ebook markets developing, one exclusively for your ereader ($9.99) and one .pdf-like version (99 cents) for anyone brave enough to tackle the work on a computer. Maybe they’re the trade and mass market paperbacks of the digital age!
As writers in 2011, we could rage against the 99 cent price point all we want, but I believe we’d be chasing windmills. I think the more likely way we’ll see more return for our work in the digital age is by getting a lot more people–people who aren’t necessarily our ideal readers–to buy a copy of our book.
Take Amanda Hocking (everyone’s favorite example of everything these days). Amanda has sold 500,000 copies of her ebooks. Let’s think about those buyers. How many of those people do you think will actually read her ebooks? 90 percent? 50? 30? 10? I don’t know, but I’m guessing not every person who bought an Amanda Hocking ebook will read it. I’m also guessing that, at that price point, this read-through percentage is less–perhaps much less–than what it would have been had these people bought print versions of her books. I bet a lot of people were excited about a rising internet star and bought her ebook to see what the fuss was about. I also bet some of those readers are genuinely fond of her work–good for them, good for Amanda–but the brunt of her income may have come from people who won’t read much of her work. They wanted it in a moment, and bought it, and maybe perused it, but perhaps quickly moved on to something else.
This is not some kind of slight of Hocking–who by all accounts is pretty down-to-earth about her success–but a realistic assessment of how something bought for a dollar might be treated by its owners. The price point is so cheap they probably wouldn’t bother trying to steal it, or hit up a friend who owns it. Seen in this light, it’s nothing short of a great business move by Hocking. She got her books to her real readers at a very cheap price, and made customers out of thousands–maybe hundreds of thousands–of folks who had to see what the big deal was. I don’t think Hocking planned this, but now that she’s done it, we can try to do the same.
When I started writing, I didn’t expect this to be the market for my books. I suspect Gay feels the same. Still, the new way has its advantages. Think of the above as the Hocking Model for selling your work. Maybe it will lead to more writers making a livelihood from their writing. And if it does, they can thank a self-published writer for showing them the way.