How much for the liddle book?
Or the mathematics of selling your literary children for a living.
There may be authors out there to whom writing is just a job, and the book or story, once done, is no more than any other production line item. But for the vast majority of us, those words are precious. So precious and perfect in our eyes that it is hard to accept edits at times, but that is another subject. We value them, want them to flourish, want them to be read and enjoyed.
And then we sell them.
So: how much for liddle book?
“Let the free market decide!” I hear the chorus.
Now, that’d be a great idea… if there was one.
Let’s just take a moment to consider what a free market is and how it works, and why. Take swords, which are useful, desirable objects in some societies. In a free market, swordsmiths sell willingly to willing buyers. The swordsmith will sell for what the buyer is prepared to pay. If there are lots of swordsmiths, with more swords than customers, the price dives, and swordsmiths go broke or go do something else. In the nature of things there will then be somewhat more customers than swords. So the price will rise, which means that would-be or ex-swordsmiths get into the business, and the number of swords rises… and after a while it more or less stabilizes at a level which allows the average swordsmith to earn enough to live on to the point where he would not be better off making plowshares. It gets a bit more complex because not all swords are alike, and for any industry to thrive in a free market, even new entrants have to earn enough to live on ramen and in leaky attics while they learn their trade, but in a nutshell, that’s it. Great swordsmiths survive the downturns, because their swords are in demand, even when demand exceeds supply, and the system gets rid of the less successful. Gradually, the swords made improve, because the system gives wide opportunity… and keeps the best on merit. Supply balances more or less with demand, and long term average price is set by the point at which the creator/grower can make a living doing that.
The minute it becomes ‘swordsmithing is an honorable trade, brings pride and honor and power to me and my family, I love doing it more than anything else’ and family, partner, the second job or the state provide so that Joe-the-swordsmith can go on producing swords even when supply exceeds demand, and the price is too low to pay for materials and to live on… the free market is in the toilet. Joe has just screwed it for everyone. The price of swords then has nothing to do with the free market, and neither does the price of books. And it is lose-lose equations for swordsmiths and sword-buyers. The good swordsmith who doesn’t have the supportive rich family/trust fund/ spouse/state dole system… can’t survive in an environment where Joe-the-Swordsmith can sell swords for less than he can live on. And no matter how good they are, Fred-newbie can’t really survive without the same. So the sword business is taken over by those who can get subsidized. Yes, a handful of really good swordsmiths do emerge who produce great blades, but the average sword is worse quality, and a huge number of great swordsmiths never even get started. And when it comes to war the customers find they’ve lost big time… In fact a lot take to axes or guns instead, which doesn’t help swordsmithing business one bit.
Most of this holds good for writing (except we added middlemen in). Let’s take a few figures to start working out what in a real free market without that subsidy, your words are worth. Now I believe the average author produces around a book a year. More or less 100K words. Exceptions like Sarah can do much more. I have slowed down – battle fatigue — and now do more or less 1K a day on average (actually it bobs around, from 5K to 0 when editing or researching), and now I do take days off. But let’s work on that 100K figure, figure that they’re in general not working more than 8 hours a day and 250 days a year. Yes, I would dream of those work conditions, and so would Sarah, and a number of authors who make superhuman efforts, but it is where 90% of the people calling themselves authors today are. The poverty line $11344 (not that these figures are absolutes and that someone in urban California has the same costs as someone in rural Texas – but merely as a point of calculation.) So they’d have to be earning – or charging 11.4 cents a word not be in absolute poverty. That’s a pretty tough life, so working on federal minimum wage (which yes, I know doesn’t apply universally) they’d need to earn 15 cents a word. Or if they lived in Australia like me where Cost of Living reflects a much higher wages average, and AU $17.50 is the minimum wage – 35 cents a word for the writer to not need some kind of subsidy (either from a second job or spouse, or the dole) to make those bare minimums. In effect that subsidy with books has gone to publishing and retail, as they have been able to swell their margins and costs on the back of it. It has not necessarily ‘saved’ the consumer a cent.
Advances for new authors tend to be, on average 3-5K. They will rarely earn out, and we don’t know if this is real or not. It could be. Of course there are the darlings that picked up and given huge advances and all the bells and whistles – and they too are subsidized, but by publishers (who bleed it from that second job Joe-5K-advance has to hold down, and the readers who pay more.) But that means they’re earning 5 cents a word at best. Oddly that is what Baen are paying for shorts from the likes of me.
But you’re an independent author. What has the price of word-slaves got to do with you? You’re putting your work up on Amazon, where hopefully, it will do well for you. But what to price it at? You can’t go lower than 99 cents, and if you price it lower than $2.99 – 65% of the sale price goes to Amazon – which is still a lot better than you got from your traditional publisher. Over $2.99, you get 70%
Or in figures – just under 35 cents on the cheapest or $2.09 as the cheapest high rate.
Or to assume you’re still writing 100K words – and selling 20 5K word shorts… on which you make 35 cents each – you need to sell 1620 copies of each story to make that.
Trust me on this – 10 copies of each story a month isn’t bad. It does peak and tail off, but you could see that in 13 and half years. Which means if you keep this up year after year for 14 years – living on heaven knows what in the meanwhile, would have the current average author earning the poverty level. After that you start to creep up.
From the free-market point of view, the 99 cent short is promo tool. If 100 K worth of shorts is to get you to an annual poverty level wage in 5 years (which is pretty big ask for most people to survive) – you need to make 94 cents a story, or charge $2.70 a short. At which point you might as well add another 29 cents, and you’d get to poverty line a lot faster (2. 26 years) – if you can still sell 10 copies a month of each story.
Experience says you’d have to keep adding stories, as the old ones sell less.
Oh and the equation for novels is different, as you may sell more copies, but NOT if you hope realize the same per word – You’d have to charge $26.85 a book – hardcover rates for an e-book.
Of course that is one way around of looking at it. The other is my preferred approach: what is a book worth to the reader? What is a short worth to a reader? Now here is one take on that – I’ve excised the name but it was from Bolg, PI: Away with the Fairies… where the reviewer was kind enough to give the novella 2 stars because of the price…
$2.99 for 60 pages? January 18, 2013
I enjoy this author but not at this cost. I have noticed several HB authors that think a short story is worth real money. Is 60 pages a novella? There are a lot of competent complete books at this price range and my money will go to them.
Or to quote another of the same reviewer –
I am reading the series because the price point is right. It is a page turner and does a fair job of setting life as it really was but the authors ability to create complete and deep charaters is limited
Now obviously this is someone deciding on price-point what he is prepared to read. He’s buying cheap swords IMO.
Hmm. Now a coffee – depending on where you buy it, and how good it is – you’re going to be lucky to get away with $1.35 and you could pay $5 and think you’re being ripped unless it very good. And it lasts at best 10 minutes you have some caffeine buzz which may last you an hour, and some urine which usually not much value. Any short (3-5K words) that last longer than a cup of coffee, and leaves you feeling good for as long, and can be enjoyed again later – unlike the urine, is surely worth at least as much?
A novella – in this case 20K words – is surely worth a little more?
And then a novel – I’ve had this ‘valued’ at two comparative points – a movie ticket or a couple of beers (presumably in a bar) – that was back when books averaged 50-60K words – and a paperback was literally competing for beer money. Maybe badly edited amateurish novels are best compared to bottle-store takeaways and $2 is a fair price point, and probably a comparable entertainment value. It seems like it would have to be a short novel or at least 4 beers to take the same time and possibly pleasure, if less diuretic effect, to me. So I’d vote for at least $4 for a cheap takeaway 60K book by a name I knew, if not one I loved. But a ‘bar price’ … well doesn’t that depend on the quality of the beer and the quality of the bar? Very like books IMO, which would probably have me price a novel at $6.00 – just to say this is not rubbish beer… reading. Of course if you want to get p*ssed cheap for entertainment and don’t care what it tastes like or what the place is like, it won’t have much appeal, and can I recommend the homebrew? Some of it is good. Some may make you puke on your boots… the same as some books.
Movies – hey, I did see one once. Really. I believe $7.40 is the US average. Is it worth more than a book to you?
So what is your take – what is a price point that will support authors, and be acceptable to readers? And just how much can we afford to give the middleman?