The answer ‘whatever someone will pay for it’ is as true for liberty or access to a toilet or price of books.
The former many people have paid everything they had for. It was that priceless to them. It’s the latter I’m writing about however, and the answer is ‘not much’ a lot of the time.
That’s a depressing answer, when you’ve put months or years into writing a book.
Look –it’s one of those variable answers depending who the answer comes from, and just who wrote the book – and how keen they are to get their hands on it. But the answer – compared to the rate pay per hour for your labor – must be well under South East Asian Sweat shop rates. And the skills required are possibly higher. (I’ll go with possibly).
Let’s put it this way: that paperback copy of yours of SHADOW OF LION – 270 odd thousand words, tons of research… took me 5 months of seven day weeks and 16 hour days: I got 16 cents for that. You were one of the hardcore fans who bought DRAGON’S RING in hardback? I got $2.20 for that.
But of course… it’s not just one book that sells. You’re selling the same bit of work over and over. Well, hopefully you are. That’s the theory anyway. And one should think of the number hours the reader takes to consume the product not hours you took to write it… Oh. I’m still sweat-shop labor.
Look, there is no doubt about it: most readers don’t put a high value on books. The sooner authors and indeed the whole publishing industry stop deluding themselves otherwise, the sooner and easier we can get on with making a living from this. And yes, the fact that people write for other reasons, many of which come down to ‘making the author happy for reasons outside of the Benjamin’ (be it vanity, preaching a message, status, or getting recognition in awards to let you teach in fine arts courses) really doesn’t help – not authors trying to make a living or readers looking for great reads – but it’s a fact of our profession, that trad publishing has taken advantage of – to their short term gain and long term disaster.
The key, obviously, is 1) volume. 2)getting a decent share of what as many willing buyers as possible will pay for it. The most decent share is 100%. If you’re not going to get that, as close as you can to it.
Now the big problem with being a writer is not dissimilar to any other enterprise – an amazing number of rent-seekers would like you to work really hard so they can do well. A lot of people seem to misunderstand the term ‘rent-seeker’. It’s only marginally connected with property ownership and even tangential to capitalism. Actually, many government employees and socialists are ‘rent-seekers. To explain Rent-seeking in simple terms. There is a river. Local farmers use the river to transport food to town to sell. A powerful individual (let’s call him the Baron) sets up two towers on either side of the river, and spans a chain between them. The farmers now must pay the Baron a toll to have the chain lowered to move their boats past to the sell their goods in the town. That’s just about pure rent seeking, as the Baron added no value, and just added cost.
Most rent-seeking of course isn’t ‘pure’. There’s a crumb –or more — of value, for the ‘rent’. Your publisher – for the rent they seek provides possibly editorial and proofreading services, a cover, maybe even publicity as well as access to the ‘river’ (the places where your books can go to be sold). Amazon provides storage of e-book, retail payment collection, and a retail display space. A bookstore provides retail display, and payment collection… And each of them charges as much as they believe the market will bear. And in many ways they control their toll chain across the river.
Now you can go around their toll chains. It’s not free either, or easy or effective.
But a large part of what they’re promising is the potential of volume – which effectively you’re swapping for giving them a greater share of the earnings from your hard work. After all, 100% of nothing is still nothing, and 4% of $330 000 (using examples from Shadow) is a long way short of 100%, but a lot better 100% of nothing.
But it does mean that — if you’re in this as a commercial exercise – the sales volume (and other services) you’re paying ‘rent’ for has to make it worthwhile. You can do your own sums on this – it does depend a lot on the time it takes you to produce a book as well. This is why: when people ask (and they do) if they should try trad publishing, or accept a trad publishing offer my first question is ‘how many copies could you sell without them?’ Some of us can actually sell quite a lot. Many of us can’t. The second question is ‘how many copies can they sell to people you can’t sell to (by for instance having copies in bookstores or sold via their mailing list.)
Seriously, unless the advance (which they WILL push hard enough to recover) is large, odds are you will be gaining… but probably far less than you hope, in reader numbers, and quite possibly losing financially, compared to self-pub. Trust me on this, unless you’re very lucky the ‘other services’ editing, proofs and covers, for most noobs, amount to a lick and a promise. Your vanity or self-confidence may take a boost. You may enjoy seeing it in a book-store. You have to put a value on that.
In practical terms I’ve got some name recognition. I’m too lazy and inept to launch books properly. And I still come out about quits – I earn at least my advance – which on the last trad book they say I haven’t (I.e. in volume their add is tepid). Now…
Maybe I could have made more money. Maybe not. But I decided my book wasn’t worth very much – which may have convinced some readers it wasn’t very much – and people who would have bought it on name recognition and $9.99 price tag, shied from a $4.99 price tag. Or maybe enough extra readers would have bought at $3.99 to have me end up with more money. Personally, I LIKE to price low, and hope to sell more. I’m competing not as an essential but for the beer money. (And yes, for some that beer is essential, just as for others the book is essential – but for most, not so.)
So what are your thoughts? What’s a fair price you would pay for a book? Does it vary between authors? Does a price drop from 4.99 to 3.99 change your mind? If not, where do you change your mind?