The Prodigal Hour, Still Sorta On Sale, or: Further Thoughts on E-book Pricing

After debuting at $2.99 and having a 99-cent pre-/post-9/11 sale, The Prodigal Hour is now on sale for $4.99 at Amazon.

Now that Kindle’s Direct Publishing platform has allowed so many authors to bypass both literary agents and corporations’ acquisitions editors in favor of connecting directly with readers, many conventions long simply rotely accepted are being questioned.

One is pricing.

In a corporate-type situation, it’s not difficult to determine pricing. Probably due to a confluence of complicated factors too boring to really contemplate, we all know about how much a trade paperback costs: usually between $12.99 and $14.99, right? I think that’s about the upper limit. Hardcovers are, what, $27-ish? Maybe $30?

(Which prompts a question: who pays full price for a hardcover? Don’t all hardcovers [and most trade paperbacks, nowadays] come with some discount or other? Back when I was a proud carrier of a Barnes & Noble card Members Receive An Extra 10% Off books already discounted by 30% or more.)

A story: I grew up reading Stephen King and Dean Koontz, John Saul and John Grisham. I started reading adult novels during the 90s, and I read mass market paperbacks. They were small and convenient, and my folks had several in their personal library in the family living room. I liked the size and the shape of those books, and I remember that they were what I tended to buy–sometimes at the local drug store, sometimes at the local mall (we didn’t have Barnes & Noble in South Jersey back then, just Waldenbooks and, later, B. Dalton). The price was right; they were usually $5.99.

Another story: milk was, like, $1.79 per gallon.

I remember I noticed when all those small, convenient paperbacks, en masse, went up by a dollar in price. Well, now, wait: I don’t remember that moment, but I remember that feeling, because I was pissed. I must have been in my teens. Every penny counted. And I swear they went from $5.99 to $6.99 nearly overnight, and it was really only a dollar but I was working for minimum wage (back when it was $6.50 per hour) part time in a hardware store. Between school and track and work I managed 20 hours or so per week . . .

Point was, all those pennies counted.

Point is, pennies always count, don’t they?

Now we have ebooks, readable on any screen you have. A lot of people lament that only 1 in 5 bajillion people own an e-reader. Which always makes me wonder if they know how digital reading works; digital reading is about platforms, not devices. A lot of people I meet have long ago downloaded nook and Kindle and iBooks on their Android or iOS smartphones. I asked around, and I literally don’t know a single person who hasn’t used Kindle in some way, whether on their personal computers, smartphones, or ereading devices. For several people I know, the Kindle app was the very first one they installed on their shiny new iPads.

Then again, a lot of people also complain they need paper, which I suppose is fine until you look around at the environment and the economy and you consider how much printing 1000 copies of a 90,000-word novel costs.

I’ve also seen people note that they spend $14 for a 2-hour movie in IMax 3-D, so they’re totally willing to spend more than ten dollars on an e-book, which I guess includes hours more entertainment depending on your reading speed.

All these people are, I think, missing the point.

Not that I know what the point is.

But whenever I consider choices as a writer, I fall back on my experiences as a reader. That’s sort of how I always work as a writer. The books I write are the stories I feel the need to tell because nobody else has in the way I’ve wanted to read.

Which is what I consider when deciding on pricing.

I don’t hold with the “I paid $473 to see Rush Hour 7 in IMax Surround Smell” because it’s such an obviously false analogy; if you’re going to compare books to movies, you have to compare the reading experience to the appropriate cinematic experience, and that’s more comparable to DVD. And I guess people can still continue to correlate the two, but Blockbuster is out of business and DVDs are $6.99 at Best Buy and Netflix is suddenly streaming while spinning off its DVD service, and I think it’s ultimately silly. Reading a novel isn’t like going to the movies; there’s no parking, no popcorn, and most of all, no projection, no giant screen, no surround sound. Going to the movies is an event of destination; reading a novel more like carrying a destination around with you. There’s no set start time, no set reading time. You watch a movie in two hours; you read a novel in two or ten or twenty or ultimately discard it.

Which is another point I think of: how often do you set aside novels never to finish? And how often do you walk out of a movie? I’ve walked out of precisely one (Shoot ‘Em Up), and slept through another I no longer remember the title of.

The truth of the matter is that price is less about value than it is about market. I don’t care how much some critic says any given masterpiece is worth; if there’s no one actually willing to pay that price, then it will not sell. I was watching an episode of HGTV’s Property Virgins the other night, and a couple asked after if a price between what they wanted to pay and what the seller wanted to make was fair, and the realtor (I think rightly) corrected them by noting that they weren’t dealing with highs and lows; they were dealing with “fair market value,” and right at that moment, the market (those two buyers) had determined what they would be willing to pay for the house, and that was the fair market value of it; the seller might choose not to sell, but that didn’t make the house worth more than someone was willing to pay. It just set the price of the house beyond fair market value.

So what do I want to pay for an ebook? I think more than $5 is too much. Now, that’s just my opinion, and I’m sure myriad acquisitions editors and corporate publishers would argue it. And truthfully, the success of $9.99 e-books on Amazon and nook and the iBookstore indicate that some people think ten dollars is a fair price to pay for them. Heck, if you browse the New York Times Bestsellers in the Kindle store, it seems like not a single one is priced lower than $9.99. I think that’s positively egregious. $19.99 for an ebook is heinous.

Which means I won’t be reading any New York Times bestsellers anytime soon. Though the Penn Jillette book looks interesting. Then again, when this is the fiction section, am I really missing out on anything? Seems like every other book is by James Patterson, and I don’t begrudge Patterson but I’ve never once been able to read one of his books.

At the bottom end of the pricing scale we have the 99c price point, which is as much about marketing and promotion as it is about value; the low-low price is one of the single greatest marketing strategies in the independent author’s arsenal, and the reason John Locke and Amanda Hocking received the attention they did was that price combined with offering an incredible number of work on Kindle. Independent authors don’t have the marketing muscle corporations have, nor the corporate/conglomerate synergy, and they probably can’t compete with corporations in the Times or on the radio or in the news (I’d say “on the page,” but the idea that independent novels are inherently of lesser quality than those “vetted” by interns and salesman is demonstrably false), but they can compete in the most important place in the world: readers’ wallets.

And I think that might be a good strategy in the short term but less so in terms of long-term viability. I think it might attract/entice new readers, and it might sell a decent amount of books, but the question I wonder is whether it gets those books read; I’ve noticed people sometimes stock up on 99c books but then never really get around to them, simply adding them to the end of an already nearing-infinite to-be-read list. At 99c, authors create a disposable purchase, one that readers barely have to give any thought to, but on the other hand, do disposable purchases create disposable experiences? Does a 99c price psychologically create a mindset that lends credence to the idea that a book is “valuable,” for whatever that means? A lot of authors set a 99c price because they’re “concerned only with getting their work out there” and “getting attention for the next book in the series.”

I think it’s a good price for promotions and discounts but not as a long-term strategy. Writing books isn’t, for me, about attracting new readers yesterday; it’s about creating a body of work I’m proud of and which will continue to build an audience over the years.

It’s a long game, in other words, and I don’t see 99 cents as a long game. More like a sprint.

I think $4.99 is a good price for a good ebook. I remember when I used to shop at Barnes & Noble, I stuck mainly to the Bargain section, and rarely spent more than $5 on hardcovers; seeing $7.99 or more made me stop to consider the purchase, and I put the book back nearly every time.

But that’s with the caveat that there’s no real “good” or “right” price for an ebook, especially considering that digital stories come in myriad different lengths. I think $4.99 is a good price for a novel or for long non-fiction–we can no longer really say “book-length non-fiction”–but I think the best strategy is to offer multiple different works in multiple different formats at multiple different prices. This is why I’m keeping short work at 99c–I think a short story lends itself well to that format, which feels almost like a music single. Similarly, I’ve always thought of Meets Girl as smaller and more “indie” than The Prodigal Hour; the latter is my summer blockbuster, the former the smaller drama.

As usual, you can find all the books right here.

I think the real truth of the matter is that pricing will continue to fluctuate, but they’re ultimately not up to publishers to decide. They’re up to readers’ wallets. Readers’ wallets are not infallible with regard to quality–Twilight is evidence enough of that–but what real use is writing a book nobody has read? If the point of writing is to communicate (and I think it is), part of that communication is considering the audience and its needs. If readers need inexpensive e-books, they’ll find them. There are plenty out there without plunking down $20 for a book that will sit in perpetuity on readers’ to-be-read lists.

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