By Lori L. Lake
Nathan Bransford recently wrote a timely and insightful piece called “99 Cent E-Books and the Tragedy of the Commons” in which he responds to the latest news about e-book pricing.
In addition, Jeffrey Trachetenberg has an informative article called “Cheapest E-Books Upend the Charts: 99-Cent Titles From Unknown Authors Put New Pressure on Big Publishers”. The title says it all.
Many fellow writers and colleagues have fallen into a frenzy of excitement about the prospect of getting rich (or, in the alternative, at least finally making a living) with their writing. Self-pubbed Amanda Hocking’s name is bandied about. People are telling anecdotes about authors making thousands of dollars in mere days. At long last, maybe all of those years of toil will pay off!
The much-discussed dialogue between Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler is also cited as further evidence that authors may finally receive their due. All over the place I’m hearing writers saying that all you have to do is write a book, get it online, and voilá -- instant presto money!
The problem with extrapolating the Konrath/Eisler situation to a general author’s circumstances is that those guys have made names for themselves. They’ve already built huge fan bases to rely upon and have the stature to continue to gain more notoriety. Many small press and midlist authors have cultivated fan bases as well, but there’s only so much room for blockbuster authors. A writer friend of mine once said that for pop fiction, the public can’t recall more “Big Apostles” than 12 or 13 – and she argued that the number may be lower than that since most of us can’t remember all the apostles names either.
If a writer has a dedicated group of readers and libraries regularly purchasing his or her works, then putting out her or his own e-books can certainly bring in some revenue. But I would argue that little by little, the marketplace is flooding. A tremendous number of fiction backlists are popping up steadily online, and new books are being uploaded daily (some would say frantically). The more e-books that become available, the smaller the pie gets for everyone. I know, I know, the reports are telling us that people are buying more books than ever. But that always happens when someone gets a new toy. Once the market becomes saturated with e-readers, the sales will normalize.
At some point, quality is really going to start to matter. A lot of authors are getting away with substandard editing and formatting. That won’t last much longer. (See the Jacqueline Howett meltdown for a good example of how readers are starting to fight back: http://booksandpals.blogspot.com/2011/03/greek-seaman-jacqueline-howett.html).
But the vast majority of writers – certainly almost all of the ones aspiring to the mainstream (like many of those on the SinC Yahoo listserv, for instance) – do not have the luxury of a rabid following. They can post their books all they want on Amazon and other sites, but nobody’s going to find them on page 473. Having been with a publisher or having found a niche is a HUGE advantage.
Whether you have a name or not, I would argue that charging 99 cents or even $2.99 for a full-length novel is a wretched, stupid idea. If we do the math, you can see what I mean. I’ll just use my own work as an example.
It typically takes me about 300 hours to write a complete first draft. Add another 100 hours of my own revising and editing, then another 30-50 hours for working with the editor and proofing, and I’m up to, let’s guesstimate, 440 hours. (I’m not even going to count research and the time I spend dithering and fretting and all that. And of course, this doesn’t include e-book creation time with formatting/uploading/testing, cover creation, marketing and promotions, etc., or doing all the administrative work that a publisher used to do.)
Anyway, 440 hours x $30/hour means I need to make about $13,200 selling The Novel as an e-book or I may as well go back to government work. (And I need to make AT LEAST $30/hr because the government is going to tax me out of over 40% of it!)
I’ll use Amazon as an example because they have some of the best rates for writers publishing their own work – 70% for $2.99 to 9.99 price points and 35% for .99 to 2.98. Applying their price points, here are some calculations for how many units I must sell to make $30/hour for the work I did on the book:
• I have to make 37,714 sales if the e-book sells at 99 cents.
• I have to make 18,857 sales if the e-book sells at 1.99.
• I have to make 6,316 sales if the e-book sells at 2.99.
• I have to make 4,204 sales if the e-book sells at 4.49.
• I have to make 2,699 sales if the e-book sells at 6.99.
• I have to make 2,223 sales if the e-book sells at 8.49.
• I have to make 1,889 sales if the e-book sells at 9.99.
I share those numbers to illustrate how ridiculous – or perhaps I should say, damaging – a .99 cent price point is. How can the average non-blockbuster author make ends meet? And my needs are probably a lot lower than those of authors like Joe and Barry. They can probably sell 37,714 e-books easily, I suppose – but the rest of us I’m not so sure about. I know I’m a long way off from that. I happen to write in the niche of lesbian fiction, and for many gay/lesbian authors, we have a dedicated audience of GLBT people, along with some open-minded mainstream readers, but we get little promotional support. We’re often lost completely in the enormous and busy marketplace of mainstream works. 37,714 books would be a dream that few niche and/or self-pubbed authors could achieve.
To be continued...
Lori L. Lake is the author of six novels, two short story collections and is the editor of two anthologies. Her most recent book, Like Lovers Do, was released on May 10. For more information, see www.lorillake.com.