Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How Much Should a Book Cost?

As this and last week saw five of the six largest publishers adopt the agency pricing model, we have to ask the question, “How much should a book cost?” This is akin to asking, “How long is a piece of string?”

But in all seriousness, how much should a book cost? What is considered a fair price? Similarly, how much should a car cost? Should a Mercedes sedan cost the same as a Toyota sedan, and should a Chevy cost the same as a Ford?

In just one year, we have seen a massive shift by authors from traditional publishing to self-publishing, or ‘indie’ publishing. But why should this be? Why this sudden shift in something that has been the norm for hundreds of years? The answer is always the same; our old friend, money. Or, in this case, profit (royalties).

Publishing has taken a turn, and now, instead of seeing paltry royalties for their works, authors are enjoying royalties as high as 70 or even 80 percent under the agency pricing model, as opposed to the usual 15 to 20 percent under traditional publishers, who have always taken the lion’s share of published books.
Not any more.
Now authors are reaping the benefits of their work by bypassing traditional publishers and doing it themselves. These days it is relatively simple to self-publish a book. All any writer needs is a modicum of technical expertise and access to an online publisher such as Smashwords, who will convert their manuscript into an acceptable format that digital readers (Kindle, NookBook) can understand, and then distribute it to the main online bookstores such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.

The writer need supply only a manuscript, some cover artwork, and a description of the book, together with a price that they feel is fair. And this is where the problem lies.
What is considered a ‘fair’ price for a book? And what, these days, constitutes a ‘book’? An 80,000-word piece of prose I think most people would consider a book. But what about short stories – the forbear of the ‘novel? Is a 500 or 5000 word short story also a book? How about three pages of personal poetry? If all three appear in digital format, they are considered as ‘ebooks’, and are therefore also considered as ‘books.
The problem lies not in the higher pricing of books, but in the lower pricing. In order to be competitive, most writers make available their works at between $0.99 and $2.99, with an average price (according to Smashwords) of $3.41. However, unless you are a well-known and established author, an asking price of $3.41 for anything other than a full-length novel is not likely to be met by consumers.

Readers have now come to expect not only free ebooks, but ebooks in the $0.99 - $2.99 range. Only the latest ‘top-sellers’ can demand a $3.41 price tag; a far cry from not so long ago, when upwards of $15.00 was the norm for a novel.
Although authors under the agency pricing model are free to price their own works at any price they like (which the distributor will not discount unless price-matching), there is a limit to this price, inasmuch as $0.99 is the lowest price that can be set at online distributors.
So it is fair to see a full-length, 300-page novel priced at $0.99, right alongside a 5-page short story also priced at $0.99? You can’t blame the author for this. The minimum price they are allowed to set (and at Amazon, writers must set a price), is $0.99. Other than this, writers are forced to use a lower price, which is free.

Nobody can make a living writing by giving away their work, but, by the same token, if they specialize in short stories, then a $0.99 price tag seems disproportionate when compared to a $0.99 novel, or 500 words of ‘personal poetry’.
There is no way around this unless the distributors include a word count in the book’s description so that potential buyers are aware of the length of the book they’re considering buying. The file size is useless in determining word count as the book may contain images, which boosts the file size. The only true way to determine if you are downloading a short story, a novel, or two pages of personal poetry is by a word count.

I have started including a word count at the bottom of the description of all my publications, but this is often stripped off by the distributor when they upload it for purchase. The onus here lies with the author to specify what their book is, i.e. a novel, a short story, or something else. But, as writers are often given a mere 400 characters for their book’s description, few want to waste these precious characters in explaining what the ebook actually is.
Amazon has started including a page count beside ebook metadata, but, what page size are they referring to?
8”x11”? 5.25” x 8”? Who knows?
So their page count is quite useless unless they specify the actual page size in use. A 10-page 8”x11” piece equates to 20 pages on 5.25”x8” paper.
This is just another dilemma in the new ebook world that needs a solution. I wait with bated breath to see how this one will be solved. And it will be solved. For now, though, you’re just going to have to take your chances. You can’t demand a refund on an ebook because it was shorter than you expected. Neither should you leave reviews of any book about it being too short, either, as just accentuates your own ignorance.
It’s swings and roundabouts. Would you rather pay $0.99 for an excellent, 5000 word short story, or the same price for 80,000 words of complete, mind-melting drivel?
It has very much become a case of, “Know the author, know the book.”
But . . . don’t some authors write both novels and short stories?

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