Writer. Adventurer. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a series of steampunk novels and short stories.

The Price of Literature (A Rant)

I keep tripping over this question about the price of e-books. I stumble over it in blog posts, it sneaks up behind me and shouts BOO during podcasts, and I’m pretty sure it stole my popcorn at the movie theater last night.

It is an important question, both for traditional publishers and the indie crowd as well as for readers. I read 2-3 books per week, and at certain price points ($9.99/book) it would exceed what I spend on lunch during the work week ($25.00). Recently, I have become more conscious of my buying behavior and have a few thoughts on the below.

Marketing Considerations

In the last 30 days, I saw three books I really wanted to buy. Two were traditionally published, one was indie published. However, all the books were priced at $9.99. I didn’t buy them. This made me realize that I have a limit on what I am willing to spend, even on a coveted title. I explore further below:

If everything was equal, would I buy a $0.99 book over a more expensively priced product? Yes.
What if there was a book by an author I liked that was slightly more, maybe $2.99 or less, would I be willing to buy that book instead? Yes.
What if it was by an author I didn’t know? Maybe.
What would be the most that I would be willing to spend to take a risk? Probably $2.99, but maybe $4.99 if someone I trusted gave it a great review.
What is the most I would ever spend on a fiction e-book? $7.99. I can’t imagine spending more than what a paperback cost me in the 1990s.
What is the most I would spend for a non-fiction book (with minimal pictures)? $12.99
A heavily-pictured book I would prefer to have hardcopy. Everything else, e-books.

Photography by Rebeca Saray

Photography by Rebeca Saray

How do I decide on a book? Cover, title, blurb, reviews. I trust the author or publisher to sell the book to me. I don’t lean too heavily on Amazon or Goodreads rankings and reviews. I know the tricks of the trade. Working the system doesn’t mean that I’ll like your book, only that I was more likely to discover it.

I haven’t done a survey, but I suppose that readers like me, and especially the super readers that average a book per day, are cost-conscious about our e-book buying habits. A casual reader who reads less than five books per year does not have the same financial considerations. I could probably have a drug habit that cost less than my book habit if I didn’t keep a handle on it. If I could read three pretty-darn-good books at $2.99 or one amazing book at $9.99, which one would I choose. I want more bang for my buck, so I will choose the low-cost, high-volume option.

Creative Content Considerations

Do people work ungodly hard in order to tell the best story possible? Yes, they do, and they create amazing new gateways to experiences I could never dream of on my own. I am so happy that the internet allows us to share our creations with more people than ever before. It is immediate and shareable, as well as becoming more global every day.

Does a low e-book price devalue the quality of my work? No, it doesn’t. Price is a consideration of the market, not a judgment of the quality of the work. A low price does not guarantee a poor quality product any more than a high price guarantees me a satisfying experience. If price could be correlated with quality, I would charge a million dollars for my books and they would therefore be the highest quality possible.

Photograph by Rebeca Saray

Photograph by Rebeca Saray

The act of creation should not be undervalued, and a wonderful story is equally as moving as a beautiful song or engaging work of art. Writing is a form of art, but that doesn’t mean that art is expensive, or that it isn’t everywhere in our lives. By comparison, fashion is a form of art, all the way from your gold-toed socks to red-soled high heels. How many pairs of socks are sold compared to the number of couture shoes? Because the socks are cheap, are they less artful than the shoes? What about if I compare these items to $5-for-$25 panties that come in an array of colors and styles, from bikini to briefs, from tiger print to tighty whities, and some with bows or naughty bits of lace? Those are certainly creative and artful, but still much cheaper than the designer heels. I would not devalue the creativity in a pair of underwear just because it is $5.00, and my spouse certainly appreciates the artwork.

I truly hope the industry changes to allow more hardworking authors to opportunity to earn a living from work they love. However, the world does not owe anyone a living. Businesses are out there to make a profit. Employees are out there to earn a wage. The indie crowd is juggling both sides. The sad truth is that everyone has to sink or swim through hard work, talent, and luck.

Moral Considerations

Can we put a price on our literature, our heritage, our lifeline to posterity? Um, yeah. Storytelling has existed since the beginning of civilization. It will continue long after I’m dust and bones. Is it likely that the form will change over time? It has already gone from oral to handwritten to print to digital. I’m sure that something else that I can’t imagine will come after this.

Photograph by Rebeca Saray

Photograph by Rebeca Saray

Culture changes, literature changes. Trying to protect it will alter it just as surely as leaving it out in the rain. Make sure you wipe it down before it tracks in muddy footprints.

I like books, a lot. I think that libraries are important and that literacy should be guaranteed by our educational system. We are lucky to live in a time where information is accessible and communication is affordable. However, treating books, digital or otherwise, as something more than entertainment or educational product purchased with disposable income is inaccurate and potentially dangerous, especially if you are staking your livelihood on it.

Writers create entertainment products. They are marketed as commodities. Price points appeal to different types of customers. Writing is an act of creation, but selling books is a matter of business marketing.

What are your thoughts on the prices of books, and specifically e-books sold on Amazon?

6 comments on “The Price of Literature (A Rant)

  1. Cirsova
    March 4, 2015

    Ironically, literature is cheap. It’s modern pulp stuff mostly for funzies that’s expensive. Homer, Chaucer, and Melville don’t have to eat or pay bills, but folks today do.

    For me, I think I’ll always have a problem with ebook prices that are greater than what I’d shell out for a hard-back at a second hand store or library sale. In a way, digital is the new pulp: cheap and disposable. Like an old and yellow pocket paperback sci-fi novel potentially molding in a box in my parents attic, an ebook, once read, tends to get lost in the digital clutter. In both cases, out of sight, out of mind. The problem with the pricing of ebooks is, unlike physical print where you have ultra-cheap mass-market editions as an alternative to the pricier nice hardback or mid-priced trade paperbacks, the only difference between a $3 ebook and $10 ebook is how much it costs.

    As I said, authors have to eat, but the consumers want the best value, because at the end of the day, they have to eat too. Until the market can figure out a way to add real value beyond the written content, there’s going to be a push against premium priced e-content.

  2. anevergreen
    March 4, 2015

    I think that $9.99 is a fair price for a newly released e-book (for example, a traditionally published book that is only available in hardcover). Once a book reaches the point where it would be put into mass market paperback (which is around $7.99 for most of the books I buy), then it should be lower, probably around $5.99 or less. And I think most publishers do lower the prices. Looking at a series I read by Roc, the book that came out today is $10.99, the one that’s a year old is $7.59, and the one that is two years old is $5.99. Seems fair to me.

    That said, I care more about the length/quality of the book than perhaps others do. I would feel more ripped off buying a 200-page e-book that marketed itself as equal to the ~400 page books I read, even if it was a little cheaper. Or a $2.99 book that sucked.

    I buy very very few self-published books though, as they are so much of a gamble and my time is more important to me than the money. I expect traditionally published books to cost more since a lot more was spent producing them, regardless of if they are digital.

    What actually bothers me much more are the indie/self-published paperbacks that cost $14.95, and I’m reluctant to buy those unless I think I’ll get them autographed or have some other compelling reason. I realize they probably don’t have a lot of choice in the matter, but I feel like I’m paying *more* for an *inferior* product (vs. a mass market paperback).

  3. Steph H. Barker
    March 5, 2015

    Great to hear someone else, other than me, agree that low price doesn’t automatically make the reader believe it’s low quality. I very much agree with authors putting the first book in a series free and then charging for the others.

    • sbjamestheauthor
      March 11, 2015

      I also agree with you about this issue. I hardly ever buy $9.99 ebooks because they are too expensive for the quality of the book. I also have a book set permanently free to act as the introduction to my series. I do not view this as “devaluing ” my art, I view it as a means to get someone to look at my art.

  4. River
    March 23, 2015

    Reblogged this on Strike A Spark and commented:
    The question, it seems to me, is how much is art worth? (And yes, I include writing in “art.) Is it the work itself that is important when considering price? Or is a digital copy worth less simply because it has no substance and is more easily accessible?

    In this age of digital works, it seems that the latter is not necessarily the case. It’s not that a digital copy is worth less, it’s that it costs less to produce compared to a physical copy, and is also less shareable than a physical copy. (Or at least, I don’t really think of loaning out an e-book like I do my other books.) It’s also that we’re moving towards a new model, one that takes full advantage of the digital platform instead of simply trying to mimic the physical world, one that involves lower price points as part of a larger process.

    TL;DR Go read this if you produce, consume, or are interested in digital literature and other art forms. It’s food for thought.

  5. Przemek Kucia
    March 29, 2015

    To act as the devils advocate – “low cost books don’t mean low quality” is true both in this industry and in our little circle of book geeks. To a lot of people it is still that well marketed (big overhead) and beautifully published (again) book is actually better/more valuable than brilliant low cost e-book. Those people a) think in terms of other industries (low cost = shit capital and work) and b) they feel premium when they pay premium.

    As for power users it is a matter of conscious buying, books are not heavily marketed towards them/us and maybe that is my point… I don’t know, but that sounds reasonable :D – maybe there is an open window opportunity in how to target and market indie published book :)

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Posting Schedule for 2014-15

Monday through Friday I will be posting about writing as business and craft, the science of creativity, all things steampunk, and progress on The Dreamless City.

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About the Author

Tracy Cembor attempts to juggle a preschooler and a baby, a full-time job, random geekery, and the writing life. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a steampunk urban fantasy novel. Come join the adventure.
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