Cheaper, Cheaper

The arguments go on — is charging $.99 for your work a clever marketing technique or is it a way to dig yourself into the bargain basement. I wasn’t planning to come back to the subject because it’s been so well-flogged in so many places, but reading the following quote gave me a lot to think about. It was in response to a discussion on the blog of a well-known writer from whom I’ve learned a lot, but don’t always agree with. The commenter was outraged by some one-star reviews.

“…Those idiots considered $2.99 for a 5000-word short story to be a rip-off and that pisses me off because I think charging 99-cents is a rip-off for me. Given that the short story ebook market is a small market as it is, I’d rather put up with the occasional 1-star reviewer asshole who rips me for selling my work for a fair price than to half-assed give my work away in charging 99-cents. If those readers don’t think I’m worthy of earning more than 35-cents on a short story then they can go purchase all the 99-cent novels that their heart desires until those particular authors get tired of being the best-selling authors still working at Wal*Mart.”

I don’t know who this person is, but the question of whether a 5k story is worth three bucks depends very largely on your name recognition. An established author with a devoted fan base can charge that much and make his readers happy. But for most of us more obscure writers trying to build a fan base, that price is probably suicidal. Like it or not, people do make judgments about price/value. Five thousands words is a very short read, probably 15 to 20 minutes or less for the average reader. That makes it a pretty damned expensive read in terms of what the reader gains. As a general rule, that length isn’t going to allow for much substance, which is what gives the story its value.

Aside from perceived value, that price can become a problem for the writer. If you start out with such a short story at such a high price, where do you go from there? Do you charge exactly the same for all your stories, regardless of length? If so, readers can say they’re being cheated by having to pay the same amount for the shortest stories.

$2.99 has become the de facto sweet spot for first novels, and for novellas. It doesn’t hit the pocket-book too hard, and can provide a satisfying read. It’s also widely accepted that charging less for anything shorter than novel-length gives the author wiggle room to see what price point works best. Once you set a base of $2.99, you’ve destroyed that wiggle room, because moving higher for your novel means that you may be pricing yourself out of the market. And you have to keep in mind that most of this doesn’t apply to authors with a big fan base. That’s why people will shell out $25.00 for a hard cover edition. What applies to the established and popular author doesn’t apply to those of us just starting out.

This may be moving into snark territory, but there’s a couple more points to make. It doesn’t make sense to say that you’re entitled to more than $.35 for your hard work. If you were only going to sell one copy, I can see it. But a story that’s priced attractively is going to sell a lot more copies than one that’s priced according to what the writer thinks he’s worth. Another way to look at it is that it’s the book that’s being offered and judged, and your ego has nothing to do with it.

Last, the commenter goes from whinging over his short story to making an illogical and baseless jump. He assumes that everyone who prefers to pay $.99 for a short story will also buy novels only at that price. Apples and oranges.

By the way, unless you’re a master story teller, yes, your $2.99 story is a ripoff. But I wouldn’t pay that much for it, in the first place.

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13 thoughts on “Cheaper, Cheaper

  1. You mean, you wouldn’t pay that much for a short story? I agree. That’s a bit much for something that will take far less than an hour to read. Good post. Lots to think about.

    1. There aren’t many short stories I’d pay even $.99 for, but that’s because I don’t really care much for shorts. It’s very rare to read a short that doesn’t leave me with the feeling that I could have spent my time better — even if it was free. I prefer depth and complexity (as I’ve said ad nauseum) and it’s almost impossible to get that in a very short story. But it wasn’t appropriate to bring in my own preferences.

  2. I totally agree! For me, when I see self-published works, it all comes down to length and story. However, if the story is interesting I’ll buy anything. I also do my extra research and look into how much effort was put into the story, such as looking at the book cover itself, searching and reading author’s blogs, and whether or not the writer hired editors or not. Sometimes, I may have to just take a risk and go for it.

    I’ve seen some short stories go from $.99 to $3.99… however, I could never pay $2.99 for just 50-100 pages. To me, that’s a rip-off! Especially, if it’s a series of ebooks. I like reading a full story like 300-700 pages, not one book that’s been cut into a short series. I understand a lot of authors can’t afford to have their ebooks as paperbacks, but still…I feel cheated buying a series of uncompleted short ebooks stories when they can just put all the books together and call it a full length novel.

    1. That’s a different issue, of course — chopping up something long in order to milk it. But I agree. I’ve only read the first installment of Wool, by Hugh Howey, but from what’s been said about it, the installments do work as a legitimate serial. Serialization used to be very popular, and the internet is the perfect place to revive it, but there’s a right and a wrong way to do it.

  3. I would resent paying 2.99 for a short story. It would be better perhaps to put at least two or three short stories together and sell them as a collection – even for 3.99, so that the reader would feel they were getting something substantial for their money.
    I don’t see what is wrong with offering a novella for .99 or for free, especially if you have full-length novels you want to sell. To me, it seems like a good way of getting people to try you out and if they like you, be motivated to pay more for your longer work.

    1. I think there are probably a lot of writers who don’t have any sense of what the market is doing or what impression they’re giving readers by pricing the way they do. $.99 is being increasingly viewed as a limited marketing device, but not as a way to price all your work. You don’t want to give the impression that it isn’t good enough for you to place a fair value on it. At the other end, you can give the impression that everything you write is going to be very expensive. It’s even worse if you only have one published item. How is anyone supposed to evaluate an overpriced short story in relation to your future work?

  4. Genre makes a difference too. Erotica – which is largely a short-story market – tends to be priced higher-per-wordage, as do juvenile novels (which would often be considered novellas if they were sold to adults).

    1. I should have mentioned that, of course. Every story about how some writer came out of nowhere to start selling thousands of books is about erotica and/or romance. That’s why I really really hate those “How I sold three gazillion books and how you can do the same” articles. No, you can’t, not unless you’re writing in a very popular genre. Sure, there are one offs in other genres, but they’re comparatively rare.

  5. “Every story about how some writer came out of nowhere to start selling thousands of books is about erotica and/or romance.”

    Romance and thrillers (don’t forget John Locke and J. A. Konrath) have long had a hold over the bestseller list, so it’s no surprise that they dominate e-book sales. I agree with you that one needs to take genre into account when evaluating the possibility of future success, but in any case, I think it’s unwise to gamble that one will hit it big. What is the real surprise is people making a living by selling *small* amounts of e-books. I find those stories far more encouraging.

    1. There are certainly enough bloggers and other writers who are trying to get that idea across — that you can earn decent money if if never hit the “big time.” The other day I ran into a statement about how if you didn’t do things the “right” way, you’d never get into any top 100 list. Well, how damned many people is there room for on that kind of list? The formula that’s going to work best for writers who aren’t focused on best sellerdom is to write the next novel. I saw somewhere that the potential takeoff point is ten novels. And of course, that’s another generalization. I’m sure there are writers with a ton of books that never take off, for one reason or another.

  6. I don’t think there are any surefire methods of success, just methods that tend to work better than others. (I’m trying for the “get as many e-books published as possible” method myself.) Hoping one will be the next Amanda Hocking? Even Amanda Hocking wouldn’t recommend that.

    I was reading Arrian’s Discourses of Epictetus last night and was amused when I ran across a passage:

    “I am subject to hindrance and compulsion only in matters which lie out of my power to win. . . . We [should] act very much as if we were on a voyage. What can I do? I can choose out the helmsman, the sailors, the day, the moment. Then a storm arises. What do I care? I have fulfilled my task: another has now to act, the helmsman.”

    I was amused because I immediately thought of this passage by DWS: “When submitting books or stories to editors, you can’t control what they think of your book, if they have an opening in their list, if their sales department didn’t get on board, if they just bought something like it six months earlier. But you can control the number of editors you mail the book to. You can control the number of chances your story or book has to sell.”

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