Thursday, June 25, 2015

What will you pay for books?

As an author, I'm always trying to grow my readership, and hope new readers of one book will buy the other and look forward to my next release. But as a newer author currently writing in perhaps not the most popular sub-genre, medievals, getting my books out there can be time consuming and costly.

What do you think the average self-published author earns a year (across all genres, not just romance)? Digital Book World says the median is $500-999 per year. Other sites, such as The Write Life, take a rosier view...but you have to pay attention to the source of the statistics and which books are this case, 200,000 best-sellers.

I'm very fortunate to have exceeded $999 since my first book released January 14, 2015 (my second released April 14). However, despite my love of writing, I'm debating whether the time and effort are worth the rewards. Given the expenses of self-publishing (such as great editor(s), competitive cover(s), and any promotion or marketing), even earning back what you spent can be a challenge. And the sad reality is that many--probably most--authors will never get compensated for the hours they invested in creating each book.

Why? In my opinion, there are two key reasons:
1) The proliferation of online self-published books of all levels of quality plus many authors' large backlists.

As of this writing, how many romances do you think are available for Kindle? 288,798. And 30,710 of those were released in the last 9 days.

2) The recent market devaluation of the cost of books in general.

Remember the days when you had to travel to an actual bookstore and shell out anywhere from $5.99 to $7.99 plus tax for a paperback? Now you can hop online and instantly download e-books...for free, a mere $.99, or from $1.99-4.99.

One site,, reports that in April, 2015,  the average price of romance Top 100 best sellers was $2.99. When you upload your book to Kindle Direct Press, Amazon presents a bell curve showing the price at which you have the best chance of selling the most books. 

Most of us love a good sale and enjoy saving money. But many readers now feel even $2.99 is too much to pay for thousands of words the author labored over. Thanks to the proliferation of bargain and/or free book e-newsletters such as BookBub (the hardest to get your book accepted into, even at a cost of hundreds of dollars depending on your book's genre), Bargain Booksy, and Choosy Bookworm to name just a few, readers can have access to dozens of free or discounted books every single day.

And there's Kindle Owners' Lending Library, via Amazon Prime, which allows members to download many books for free. Authors decide whether or not to place their books in the program, and get paid from a global pool of Amazon's money each month. This is great, because of course authors get nothing for books taken out from traditional libraries. But for authors of novel-length books, the payment is usually less than they'd receive from an actual sale. And Amazon announced changes to the KOLL program starting in July, when payouts will be based on how many pages each KU/KOLL reader reads. 
Here's The Authors' Guild's take on the changes. There are dozens of posts claiming this will be a good or a bad thing for authors.

It's great to have the opportunity to try a new author or a different sub-genre than you usually read for free or a low cost. But too much free, whether it's temporary or permafree, IMO, devalues books in general and raises expectations of more free stuff. Will readers go and buy that new author's next book, or wait for it to go on sale, too?

What do you think about book prices? 


Lily Bishop said...

Personally, I think the worse thing to happen to prices is the boxed bundle of ten (or more!) books for 99 cents. I know why authors do it, but why should readers pay even 99 cents for one book when they can get ten for that? I read A LOT, and I've stopped supporting them at all. To me it weakens the industry. I wish Amazon would increase their surcharges so much for delivery of those big files that they would be forced above 99 cents, but I doubt that's going to happen.

As a reader, I rarely buy anything shorter than 100 pages, and I refuse to pay 2.99 for shorts. I will pay 2.99 for a full-length if the plot looks interesting. I will occasionally pay 3.99 if it's a trope/plot line that I love love love, but I will very rarely pay higher. Those are my rules because I may buy 10-20 books a month.

As a writer, I rarely price below 2.99 unless I am paying for advertising and having a sale, and then it's usually only on the first in the series. My highest is 3.99. The royalty rate combined with the lower cost kills authors at 99 cents, unless they have a countdown deal and get the 70% rate. I just tried my first free promotion on a select book, and I wasn't impressed. I tried releasing my book to select, but I'm not sure I will do it again, especially with the new payment rules. I wouldn't mind select so much if it weren't exclusive.

Anyway, those are my two cents.

Ruth Kaufman said...

Hi Lily,

Thank you for your thoughts.

Yes, the bundles/box sets are another pricing angle. I'm actually participating in a 4-book set going on pre-order July 1st with three other medieval authors.

Good for you for pricing at 3.99. I hope it works.


Kelly McClymer said...

Interesting discussion. I do wince, though, when people talk about the proliferation of low cost books. Does no one remember the proliferation of used books that cost 50 cents, and where readers could swap an armful of books for another armful? Authors (and publishers) didn't get paid *anything* for those, past the initial book sale. Many bestselling authors have been faced with the backhanded compliment of being offered a sack full of used books to autograph.

Used books are still for sale today, of course, as are remaindered hardbacks that cost $5 or under. Reselling books that the original buyers no longer want seems like a better idea to me (a book lover whose house bulges at the seams with books) than pulping them. But still....*every* 99 cents electronic sale makes an author 30 cents.

The real question, in my opinion, is whether more authors can have a living-wage-producing career under the new system than under the old. So far, the answer to that seems to be yes. The indie authors I know who are making a living wage are productive (2-3 books a year at least), and business-savvy. Most are not bestselling authors, and have not hit any lists. They're just good business owners. There is no short cut to running a successful small business. You need to do the work. And there are no guarantees, ever -- in traditional publishing, or in indie publishing. I know traditional authors who have had to pay back advances on books they already written and turned in, because the publisher changed directions after a contract was signed.

All small business owners learn that you need to work at the business for a few years before it can support you (unless you're really, really, lucky). I would think authors are already primed for that mindset, given that we write entire novels before we can hope to get paid, just because we believe in the story so much.

Ruth Kaufman said...


Great perspective. I, too, know indie authors who are doing well...most of them are prolific and/or came from a traditionally published background.

The thing about used books is that the author got paid, at least, for the original sale. I'm feeling pressure from what I read and what I see to reduce my initial price.

What becomes of the author who can only produce one book a year...which until recently was the standard for many authors? Or should authors wait until they have several books and/or novellas to release, as I keep hearing, every 90 days?


Kelly McClymer said...

Ruth, I'm sorry you're feeling pressured to reduce your price and to release often when that's not your style.

A price should only be reduced to accomplish a goal: 1) reach out to more readers who don't know your work yet (as in a sale); 2) to make more profit (this seems counterproductive, but economists have a price/volume chart they use to show why pricing a book at $2.99 may make you more money overall than pricing at $6.99).

An author should only write as fast as she can, while maintaining quality. And that's true whether she writes for a traditional publisher or herself.

Just for baseline, a typical midlist YA advance is $10,000 per book (generally paid in thirds, signing/delivery/acceptance). No royalties are paid until the advance is paid back, and the book itself is usually not published for two years after the offer is made, sometimes longer. Romance/mystery paperbacks pay smaller advances usually, and smaller royalties to the author (usually 6 - 8%, so a $7.99 book would pay about 50 cents to the author...making those used book sales *really* sting :-)

A writer would need to write/sell several books to have a living wage. That's not really all that different from an indie author who writes a book and makes $800 a month. I know many indie-only authors who were able to do that, although I do think it has gotten harder in the last year or two.

I suspect sometimes people get confused about price v sale price. Your price is what you think your book is worth (i.e. the value). Your sale price is what you use to tempt some people to give your book a try (even bestsellers go on sale). Giveaways work the same way (although I would only suggest doing a giveaway in exchange for reviews if you only have one book).

If you want a traditional career, you need to be clear what you want. If you want to be a bestseller (great advances, great publisher support, great editor, great sales), you need to hold out for a bestseller contract advances have been plummeting, but I'm sure we're talking over $50,000 per book). If you take a smaller advance, you have to realize that the publisher is saying "Meh. Maybe you'll stand out. We're not willing to gamble too much to find out." And that means you will not be sold into as many bookstores as the bestsellers are, and you will not be sent on a signing tour, and you will not get special placement on the "hot deal" tables at B&N.

Once you accept your publisher's offer, you no longer have control. If things go wrong, you are helpless to fix them. And your publisher will blame you for any and all failures.

I'd rather have smaller, steadier money. I'd rather run a career where I worry about pleasing my readers and doing what makes them (and me) happy. I'd rather be the one responsible, soup to nuts.

Sorry to go on and on about this. I think it is the artist in our souls that wishes we could have fairy godpublishers for our books. But not too many of us can find one of those.

Ruth Kaufman said...


Thank you for all of your thoughts.

I'm familiar with how traditional publishing works. I may be in the minority these days, but I still wanted a TP contract rather than having to SP. I was and am willing to relinquish a lot of control to have an editor currently hired by a publisher who loves my writing and wants to work with me and pay me rather than having to hire a freelancer and work with a cover designer....all of which take money and time from writing new pages.

And, to me, having a TP's name on the spine still carries a lot of weight. Certainly more than my name at the moment or whatever publisher name I make up....


Stephanie Queen said...

I don't think pricing is devaluing books. I think the pricing reflects the supply and demand, and as you stated in your first point, there is a proliferation of books out there. This is due partly because many more people are publishing via self-publishing platforms, but also because there is an infinite shelf life for e-books. None of the older books need ever disappear from the shelf to make room for the new ones like in the brick&mortar books stores.

Overall, I think it's a good thing. In the short run, it's a difficult market for authors to make a living. Ultimately this will slow down the influx of books, but not by much. It will be up to individual authors to decide how much effort they want to put into their promotion/discoverability. If you work at keeping your books visible and yourself visible to readers via ads, promotion, social media, in person, etc., then an author can grow readership. If an author merely writes a book and puts it out there--and that includes self-publishing and small presses, and even to some extent the large publishers, then discoverability will be a problem. (I think even large publishers expect most of their authors to do the lions share of promotional activity.)

This commitment and level of effort will ultimately separate the serious professional writers who want to make a living from those who are not as concerned about making a living and enjoy writing and whatever sales/readers they get with the lower level of promotional effort they are willing to put in.

I've observed over the years, aside from a very rare lightning bolt of luck, that it has always taken an enormous amount of effort and commitment for a writer to make a living--to be a professional published author. And that was just to get the books written. Now the commitment and effort required is doubled--writers need to make an enormous commitment and effort to market/promote their books also.
And for self-published, the effort required is tripled because they are entrepreneur publishers as well as writers and promoters.
It's a wonder more writers aren't re-thinking their goals like you suggested, Ruth!
But not everyone needs to make a killing. Plenty of authors are happy to make back their investment and maybe a little extra for the pleasure of the writing and the accomplishment of their goal to publish.
Personally, I'm committed to being a professional earning-a-living author entrepreneur. And luckily, I love it! I enjoy every aspect of it from writing, to promotion to strategy of the business decisions and even the accounting/finances. All the challenges have me energized--luckily, because I'll need all the energy I can get!

Thanks for your thoughtful post, Ruth.
Stephanie Queen

Grace Burrowes said...

The publishing industry is a challenging place to be, no matter where you get on the merry-go-round. Subscription services seem to me to have caused the worst erosion in reader perception of what a good read should cost, and once KU went live, most authors reported a drop in sales across the board from which we haven't rebounded.

If subscriptions services were limited to titles three years and older, maybe they would do less damage, and authors and publishers would still control decisions regarding how and when to use price promotion, while readers would still have a low-cost reading alternative.

Point of correction, however: KU is not exclusively an opt-in, "authors decide" program. To populate its list, Amazon simply stole titles from a number of small presses, and when the publishers protested, Amazon's response was essentially, "so sue us!" Amazon supposedly pays this group as if each borrow is a buy, but there's no way to double check the record keeping, no compensation for having lost control of the product's distribution chain. The only way out is to leave Amazon entirely which no small press can afford to do.

The Amazon brand that readers love, that has made ease of buying into a science, has another side. They know every page you read, every scene you re-read, where you stop reading, what time of day you read, for how long you read, what words you look up, which lines you highlight. This is spun as "learning how we can improve your reading experience," but in the KU program, you can't shut off the snooping, and that really, really bothers me.

And yes, my titles distributed (over my and my publisher's objection) through KU have been the ones most heavily pirated (forget trading used books), which is a whole 'nother lament.

Ruth Kaufman said...

Hi Grace,

I agree that the subscription services are a major factor in eroding reader perception of costs and like your idea about making them for titles 3+ years only. Yet I wonder if more readers would buy, say, my latest release if they couldn't simply borrow it. If even $2.99 is off-putting for a reader to try a newer author, I'd rather have the borrows. At least I'm earning something while more readers are exposed to my book(s).

When I said KU was opt-in, I was speaking only from the self-publishing perspective, where Amazon gives you an option to join KU as you register each book.

Amazon's 1984-ish approach to tracking readers is creepy. Stealing titles is worse. As you say, what are small presses and SP authors to do?

I wasn't aware of pirating via KU. I'll investigate whether anyone has pirated mine...but perhaps that's something that plagues only very popular authors like you!

Ruth Kaufman said...

Hi Stephanie,

Thanks for your positive approach! It's great that the challenges energize you.

At the moment, they're de-energizing me...I hope that feeling passes. I think I'm taking some comments I've received too much to heart/too personally, including from a reader asking if I have other books I could gift her.


Lynn Crain said...

I read this whole discussion with interest. I have a totally different paradigm than most. I base what I sell my books for totally on word count. I also look at the page count/word count when purchasing most books as well.

The reason I do that is because when I first started writing I was trying to break into the short story market that pays by the word. Normally it's anywhere from a half cent up to ten cents a word depending upon the market.

When I started the self-publishing, I came up with a spread sheet with a variety of cost-per-book values, word count and break-even points. Then I would take the cost based upon word count and immediately know just how many copies I would have to sell to make back the cost to produce the book. I would also include advertising in my production numbers.

Most of my stories will be $0.99 for a short period of time but unless it is a short story, it will not stay there. I only do freebies to a select few and I've never gotten the downloads that others have because I can't afford, nor have I been able to get into, places like BookBub. I have been able to get into Bargain Booksy with a new release and will advertise there again because I had a decent bump.

Frankly, in today's publishing climate, it's my opinion that you need to be a hybrid author to make a great living. So far, I've done the small press and the self-publishing, both of which I will do more of in the future. I also have an agent who will be shopping around a series starting in July. Hopefully, I'll get a NYC contract as well.

Now whether it dilutes the market with all the free or inexpensive ebooks, isn't for me to say. Everyone has their own personal opinion and I do have mine. However, no matter what our opinion may be it is the epublishing world we live in and unless we figure out how to live with it, even if we don't use it, we're going to be miserable. We just need to find a way that we can rise above the cheaper priced books with our books and stay there. And some of those books are very, very good. So there is definitely stiff competition out there for us.

Thanks, Ruth, for a very interesting take on pricing.

Ruth Kaufman said...

Thank you, Lynn, for providing a different approach. I've seen some articles agreeing that hybrids in general make the most.

Congrats on the agent, and fingers crossed for NYC.