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One Art, Please. I Have 99 cents.
no
catvalente
So haikujaguar  posted Novelr's post about 99 cent ebooks. She's in favor. I'm not, but that's going to get obvious. I'll just continue the dialogue here because it's too much to go into on Twitter.

Novelr gathers links about the inevitability of 99-cent e-books. I think they're right on this one. Songs are 99 cents. Why are novels $15? (Please don't tell me that songs don't take as long as novels to write. Some novels are written in a week; some songs take years. It's all art.)

Whoa. Let's back that truck up.

Here's the thing--the argument here is not that novels are somehow higher art than music--no one makes that argument. And a 3 minute song with pro mastering and recording probably takes a lot longer than people think, likely as long as it takes fast writers to create a novel. Not the point--the hours that go into something are not printed on the label.

The point is that the unit value of "song" is not the same as the unit value of "novel." The comparison is more song ==> short story or song ==> chapter, and album ==> novel.

Go on iTunes. Most albums? Are still about $10-$15.

A song is a part of a whole. A novel is a whole. They do not equate. Sure, there are singles, but most people still put out albums, not 14 singles all in a row. It takes three minutes on average to listen to a song. It takes hours, and often days or weeks, to read and enjoy a novel. The entertainment output is enormous. It takes longer to read a novel than to play some video games--and if you want to talk about price gouging, let's break out my XBox, shall we? Now, of course, one listens to songs more than once, and so you might end up with several hours worth of pleasure out of a single song. Many people also read novels more than once, and you can never tell when you click the buy button if this book/song will be one you love forever and read/listen to over and over, or one you get bored with and forget about after a week.

Ultimately, I'm a little tired of people telling me my work isn't worth very much. That we should accept Apple--APPLE--price points without hesitation or consideration, that all units are the same units, all art is the same art. Obviously, sculpture, paintings, murals, and jewelry should also all cost 99 cents each. Actors should only get paid 99 cents per performance. Dancers should only get 99 cents per dance. Architects should get 99 cents per building. Concerts should also charge 99 cents admission. It's all art--the units are all interchangeable, and should all be tied to iTunes pricing.

This is madness, to me.

Because of the 99 cents model on iTunes (and piracy), most musicians who are not the Black Eyed Peas or some such have moved to a donations model to support themselves and continue to make albums. Writers do this too--we all have tip jars, but far fewer people throw in because writing in general gets a bit shat upon as an art form. (And the fact that it takes longer to consume means many people just download a file and never look at it again. Don't think your piracy figures equate to actual readers.) Anyone can do it, obviously. They're all greedy hacks. That's why Amazon users figure ebooks should be free. You're not doing anything special, how dare you ask for money for it? That's like begging.

Do I think ebooks are priced too high? Probably. I think the price should be more like a mass market paperback--which is not 99 cents, you'll notice.

You pay 5.99 for a mocha, dude. Why would you not pay it for a book?

Moreover, why would anyone insist that everyone charge the same for their books, that the "market" settle out to conform to Apple's idea of pricing circa 2001? What that's actually saying is: no one should make more than a little bit of money from writing. It's a hobby, not a job anyone needs to be compensated for. You need that skilled barista to make your fancy mocha, but a writer? Unless the idea is that publishers would still pay advances as they do now, but only charge 99 cents for the ebooks. Which does not compute. Or that publishers should vanish altogether, which point we have already discussed ad nauseam. Of course even at 99 cents, some people will be successful, but that number will be even smaller than it is now.

No one benefits from a field that is bled dry of talent and especially risk-taking talent so that downloads can be brought down to 99 cents. I am not cool with this, and you shouldn't be either. I will happily overpay for every ebook if it means writers get to eat and feed their families. I overpay for shit all the time without making righteous judgments about what it "should" cost in some impossibly ideal world where everyone has insurance and no one is hungry and everything in the entire universe costs 99 cents.

Love what you've written here.

Books, classes, knowledge in general is underpriced from some of our points of view because we see its value, but we are for various reasons in the minority here.

Any bag of bones with 46 chromosomes can drink a mocha. That we accept, as a whole species, as a human culture, our having almost totally congealed into bonehead monoculture, is I think always going to be one of those things that's (by definition) invisible to most people, and painfully, dolefully ironic to some.

Part of why writing, and other forward-thinking constructions, are underpriced is because the people who make them care (maybe too much) about the people we're making them for. Manufacturers of mochas aren't willing to sell themselves short in favor of some overriding, principled objective..because they have none. Writers, other artists, are willing to do this, precisely because they believe, in a sense larger than economics, in the value of what they're doing.

To me it seems like it's always going to be a pearls-before-swine situation, and more that way the more similar, mentally, all consumers are to each other.

Thank you for your post. It's got me thinking, and it's got me a little bit angry. =)

Matthew Temple

I find that I will happily download a free ebook (though I may never get around to reading it) or buy one priced in the $5-12 range. But the ones priced at $1.99? It's like seeing the bad photoshop job and lousy font choice on a self-published book on the shelf, most of the time. Unless it looks utterly fascinating, I'm not even going to download the free sample part, because a price that low makes me assume it didn't get professional editing and layout work, so why waste my time?

Maybe I'd feel differently if I had less money. But if I had less money, I'd probably be getting my books more often from the library and less often onto my Kindle, at that.

I buy so many more ebooks than I used to buy deadtree books. (Tho I was the kid who always ordered more books than I could carry from the monthly book club at school.) But I will NOT pay the same price for an ebook as a new release hardcover. Deadtree books have individual costs for production. Ebooks can be duplicated endlessly and effortlessly once created.
$5 for an ebook is painless, I'll spend it without much thought. Anything less is a deal. Under $3 and I'll buy an ebook I know nothing about but that it has an interesting blurb. Less than a dollar and I'll buy just cos the cover looks neat. On the other side of it, I have to have heard good reviews or liked other books by the author before I'm willing to spend $7 or $8 on an ebook, and if an ebook costs more than that, it's almost certainly not worth it to me.

Yes. My thoughts exactly.

I'm all for the tip jar, too. One reason is that I really hate to see ebooks priced higher than the same book in print. I know the publisher is doing that and I refuse to play the game. Thing is, I'm not buying the print book either. I have no more shelves in my house. So I check the book out from library. But I want to support the author. So, show me the tip jar.

I want writers to have the time and leisure to write great books.

There are already a lot of so-so books in the world, and some of them are enoyable, but I want *great* books to read. I want writers to be able to take the time the book needs - a year, two years including research and polishing. I want them to be able to exercise their craft to the full, stretch their abilities, make the book even better.

A writer who not only has a dayjob but needs to do the promotion and the publishing or is pushed to put out two books a year because that works better or the publisher when their natural speed is slower is *not* going to write their best work; and each book is going to be just a little worse than it needs to be.

The 99c market is the pulp market (are we surprised that, in times of depression and economic uncertainty, it's back?) - people buy stuff cheaply, enjoy it or not, don't feel overly annoyed when it doesn't live up to expectations. And maybe we need that market, too, but that doesn't mean that _every_ book should aim for that market.

There is the theory that we value something based no on the thing itself, but on the price we have paid for it -- in experience, time, or currency. I have always wondered how much that plays into the digital model.

I know that now I have access to 99 cent songs, I certainly buy a lot more of them than I did 15 dollar albums. But at the same time, I *do* value them less-- I buy out of a need to consume, as there is little consequence to my consumption. I don't have to worry about the physical space it eats up, or the toll it is taking on the planet, etc. it is an instant gratification thing that I can afford to do-- have a bad day? Get a song.

It's funny, though . . . that same instant gratification effect has had a noticeable impact on my attention space. I read much less these days, just because I don't have the attention for it. There is so much else I could be doing, buying, looking at.

I don't know if that's a good thing for artists, or bad in the long run. I see and experience and give my money and time to so much more, but it impacts me so much less, and in turn, I am less inclined to spend lots of money on something that does little to impact me.


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(Deleted comment)
Wow does that logic - actually the lack thereof - piss me off. It's the same kind of thing I went through in the early 90's with my fledgling record label. Why should I pay for quality when I can steal it for free or get it cheap? Garbage in, garbage out. Maybe it;s because I'm reading "Pattern Recognition" right now but it makes my fears that the only thing we will shell out lagre amounts for in the future will be expensive electronics and mass produced goods a bit too real.

You mentioned a problem with cheap/free ebooks being that people will download them and never look at them again. Of course I'm just a single example, but I personally have a policy of reading books before I buy them-- otherwise I wouldn't have room to walk in my room or sleep in my bed because of all the books, and my bookshelves are already overflowing. I definitely read, and recommend to others, books I obtain on ebook that I couldn't get at the local library, and definitely bought them if I enjoyed them.

Also, this may be something that you've already answered before, but what form of purchase benefits you, the author, the most? Purchase from a publisher's website, purchase from amazon, ebook purchase, paper copy, donation to library, or what?

Buying from a brick and mortar store tends to benefit the most, since we still need them to order our books and they're ordering less and less. But as this stuff develops that will change.

Do you mean you read the whole book before you buy it? How does that work without piracy?

It's the one price notion that is bothering me

(Anonymous)
One of the things that seems to be missing from the discussion is that physical books don't have "a" price. There are many. When I want to read a physical book, I have lots of choices, with time/convenience tradeoffs. When I hear a new book by a favored author is coming out, I can order the hardcover, buy at a local store (especially if there is a reading), decide to wait for the trade paperback, put myself on the waiting list at the local library, put it on the mental list to grab when I do a speed-read pickup at the library, buy for my mother and read when she's done.... And so on.

The current single price model for an e-reader book doesn't reflect that. It's just random and arbitrary. If it were a book edited and vetted by a major publisher, $12 to $15 during the hardcover era, $8-10 if while in trade paperback, mass market books at parity or a dollar or two below, I'd have a chance to make choices.

What I'm doing now is downloading the Kindle samples and making purchasing decisions based on my reading experience of the first chapter. Sometimes it's to buy the hardcover because I know I'll want to keep it. Sometimes it's buy the Kindle version. Sometimes it's ugh, how did I ever decide to download this?

And comparing the cost of 50s pulp versus 10s ebooks misses some important distinctions. There was a robust market for 50s pulp, which made enough money for writers, publishers, distributors and cover artists to support themselves. The question now should be, what percentage of "successful" writers, should be able to support themselves financially with their writing. The notion that only superstars make any money really doesn't help. The 99 cent price point may be the right one for completely self-produced fiction, but it does appear to currently preclude anything where multiple people are getting paid.

Re: It's the one price notion that is bothering me

There was a robust market for 50s pulp, which made enough money for writers, publishers, distributors and cover artists to support themselves.

Clearly not, as just like today, some publishers and distributors went under, some writers wrote tons of hack work to keep the pots boiling or just dropped out of the field, etc.

It's a rather fundamental part of the errors being made here—there's an assumption that either "today" or in some time in the past, publishing worked and was "sustainable" because everyone made money to support themselves. This was never the case, not even for a single year, in any genre. Losers always outnumbered winners in publishing, even during times of pretty radical expansion, such as during the Golden Age of magazines, or during the paperback revolution, or when trade paperbacks were rolled out thirty years ago.

Grah, I had a comment here that I was in the process of editing down to the 4,300 character limit (that's always a good sign) when Chrome crashed. I suppose I'll try to be more concise this time.

I think cheap e-books are inevitable because they're going to clean up. Not necessarily 99 cents... the song-to-book analogy falls apart on every level. I think the market has a place for a 99 cent story, but that's too much to charge an individual person for a short story and not enough for a modern-length novel. I think we're going to see a huge revival of the novella. That's my prediction.

But e-book novels need to become cheaper than mass market paperbacks. I wouldn't feel so sanguine about paying $5.99 for a mocha if I'd already invested $200 in a Nocha or ChaMo in order to drink it, and let's be honest: if e-books were sold for $5.99 that would already be a discount over mass market paperbacks. I still mentally price bucks as being $5.99 when I'm putting them in my basket at the book store, but $7.99 is the cheapest I see regularly and I end up paying up to $9.99. This is for big publishers with high print runs, not small presses that don't have the economy of scale going for them.

An $8-10 e-book is primarily going to appeal to people who would already have considered purchasing the physical book and who doesn't see a downside to e-readers. Even people who use them often feel that they're getting less for their money when they don't have something massy and tangible. I see so many upsides to e-books for me personally that I'm perfectly willing to pay the same price I would have paid for a physical book... at this point in my life, I'd rather have more e-books than more physical books. I can't hold a book at a comfortable reading distance for as long as I can hold a Kindle, physically. But "people who lack the upper body strength to read a standard-sized novel" is a kind of specialized market.

"People willing to pay mass market paperback prices for e-books" is a larger audience than that, but it's not going to be huge.

But let's talk about the economic size, because it's true that it's not good for authors to make less money and it's not good for readers or (in long term) the industry if authors can't make money. And it's true that the work we do is valuable and that our art has value.

But when you're defending the value of your labor, the price you ought to be comparing to determine the "value" of your work isn't the sticker price the public pays, it's the price you pay the publisher for the service of bringing the book to market.

Assume that 100% of the profits of your work naturally belongs to you to begin with. Why not? It's your work. The publisher could have got another author to write something else, but no one else could have made your book.

This isn't a "publishers are ripping you off/publishers are unnecessary" rant. Because it's a matter of what the market will bear, and publishers do have expenses to pay.

Now here's the rub: they have a lot fewer expenses in an e-book. E-book royalties tend to be higher percents than trad pub royalties, but they're not nearly high enough. How can you tell? Publishers have higher profit margins. Why? They've done nothing else to earn it. They're doing less work, and keeping more of the money that naturally belongs to you.

There's a woman named Amanda Hocking who's in the news right now. She self-publishes eBooks for a buck or three using Amazon's 70% royalty rate. I don't want to be all rude with the money questions, but do you get $2.10 in your pocket when someone buys a paperback book of yours? If you don't, then could you turn around say that Hocking's art is being undervalued?

I assume she's paying editors and typesetters and artists and such, but she's only got to pay those people for their services once instead of forking over the lion's share of her book's value to someone else indefinitely for arranging those services.

To sum up: e-books are overpriced. Authors are underpaid. Both of these things are going to need to change for the e-book market to reach its full potential, and authors stand to benefit from both.

But 'people who lack the upper body strength to read a standard-sized novel' is a kind of specialized market.

… but there are a lot of us out there. In my case my reading-disability is not upper body strength but manual pain (hands/wrists/fingers) and I can manage to hold my Sony Reader Pocket (small like the new kindles) for a while or lean it on my pillow (or read on my mac) but can only hold a paperback for a minute or two and a hardback? Never.

So, for me personally, eBooks and web-fiction enable me to read fiction. At all. As someone who used to devour more than one paperback per day as a kid (and usually adult/non-kids' fiction at that) I finally feel like I am coming home.

As to price, as someone who is an undischarged bankrupt on benefits and DLA (the UK equivalent of unemployment and disability/SSI/SSDI etc.) free would be great but I know you authors need to eat and so I tip (crowdfunding FTW) when I can and buy as many eBooks as I can.

Just my 2p.

Edited at 2011-03-23 01:51 pm (UTC)

an idea

(Anonymous)
how is this for a crazy proposal- screw Apple-
that's the simple end of it, the more mind boggling is this: a service where you pay, say, a monthly fee- that lets you be an early subscriber to content- that would be made available for a limited time at the .99 price, but after that time the general public would pay the (modest) rate of 5.99-9.99 per book
the trick with this is the subscribers are paying for the privilege of 'paying less', only the kicker is the monthly rate +cost per book helps to keep anyone from going broke, and if it's done right pays for the whole shebang- you'd need someone to work the numbers to get the right monthly cost where people *would* pay for the early subscriber privilege- give it some thought though
and I'm just saying screw Apple because they are making it bad for some of the rest of us already (my being a digital asset creator, and being told my creations should only cost people .99)

forgot to click the radio button so my openID thing would work 0.o
durrrrrrr...

There's a good argument for the 99 cent novel that basically goes "you will sell 20 99 cent books for every 10 dollar book that gets sold, doubling profits overall". The gaming industry is all over that model now with so-called "app pricing".

We shall see if it works, but so far, it looks like it will.

(Deleted comment)
Some of us indie publishers are actually trying that, with serialized novels, etc. Problem is, some novels simply don't lend themselves to that, so you're going to have a mix of formats/distribution models on that.

And you have to figure out how to get people to come to your site and buy your book, because you can't load that sucker onto Amazon chapter-by-chapter, as things stand now. And discoverability is HARD, yo.

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