The hidden costs of the $0.99 ebook
There has been a lot of debate about whether self-publishing is killing the book industry, whether bad books are driving out good books, and whether self-published books are diminishing respect for books overall. I can see why these issues generate so much heat and controversy, especially among authors and industry watchers. But I think these are the wrong conversations to have. Because there will always be a lot of bad books. There will always be competition and cannibalizing among different sectors of a market. And there will never be as much respect for books as authors and devoted readers would like. We can live with all that. What we can’t live with is an equilibrium that drives out the very players who are providing us with quality product.
As I write this, the top-selling Kindle book in the romance category costs $0.99. That same book is in the Top 10 list for all Kindle books. 4 of the top 10 Erotica Kindle books are $0.99, and in the gay and lesbian bestseller list, 4 of the 10 books are available to borrow for free (or purchase at the still quite low price of $2.99).
Right now, both readers and authors have more options than ever before. Readers can find traditionally published, small-press, and self-published books at every price point, and authors can ignore traditional publishing’s barriers and self-publish as widely or narrowly as they choose. But as with every major upheaval, there are tradeoffs. What are the tradeoffs that come with the new $0.99 price point?
The $0.99 (and even the $2.99) price points are not unmixed blessings, even for readers. Price is just one component of the cost of buying and reading a book, and the proliferation of low-cost and free books shapes short- and long-term patterns in the supply of and demand for fiction.
(1) The $0.99 price becomes a reference point or “anchor.” Jane has written about anchoring before. As purchasers, we become used to certain price points as “normal.” If $0.99 or even $2.99 is the new normal, then $4.99 and up start to look expensive. That happened at the upper end of the ebook range when the Big 6 fixed prices at $6.99 and $7.99. Some of us paid the higher prices, but others found new books to read. If you’re used to paying $0.99 or $2.99, then even $5.60 may strike you as too much. Never mind that the price reflects a discount from the list price; you know you can read something else for a lot less. This shift to a lower price point might have the long-term effect of encouraging publishers to take more chances and produce a wider variety of fiction. But it might also result in an emphasis on quantity and a reduced attention to quality, if authors, publishers, and readers all privilege the dollar amount over other considerations.
(2) Buying and reading a book involves both time and money. The $0.99 book in the Top 10 is over 300 pages long, which means that if I read the entire book, I’m spending three or four hours not doing something else. If I enjoy the experience then I’ve spent my time well. But if I don’t, that’s a few hours that I could have spent doing something that I would have liked better. So when I think about reading a free or almost-free book, I need to factor in not just the money I’m spending, but the opportunity cost of my time. But often, we as readers ignore the opportunity costs because the price point is transparent and alluring.
(3) Many good, popular authors cannot make a living selling their books at $0.99, or even $2.99. If you’re writing thrillers, YA, erotic or historical romance, or certain sub-genres of SFF, you can sell a lot of copies, as John Locke, Amanda Hocking, and others have shown. But if you’re writing non-UK-set historical romance, or straight contemporary, or m/m, your readership is much smaller. A popular m/m writer is lucky to sell in the thousands, whereas a popular writer in a widely read genre will sell tens or even hundreds of thousands. From a reader’s point of view, they’re all books and authors competing on the same playing field, i.e., the reader’s interest. But the long-term consequence of expecting small-market books to be priced the same as large-market books is likely to be that authors who want to make a living at their writing will leave the genre, either to do something else or to write books that sell more widely. It’s true that niche genres like m/m have gained a bigger and more broad-based readership over the last few years. But they still have a long way to go before more than a handful of authors can be full time m/m writers. And for all we readers talk about wanting non-Regency historical romance, it doesn’t sell as well as the standard model. It just doesn’t.
(4) Readers know from experience that higher prices do not necessarily mean higher quality. But lower prices often mean lower quality, because the author justifies cheaper (or non-existent) content editing, proofreading, and cover costs as acceptable given the low price. And readers reinforce this tradeoff when they accept proofreading and grammar mistakes (let alone continuity and character development) in cheaper books. If you look at reviews here at DA for inexpensive romances, you’ll regularly see discussions about the bad editing, but readers buy and praise the books anyway. This is a marked change, I think, from a few years ago, when small presses that charged mainstream prices were harshly criticized for grammar and copyedit mistakes. The more that flawed $0.99 books are positively reviewed and recommended, the more some authors will believe they don’t need to clean up their typos, grammar, homophone errors, and incorrect word choices to sell well. And some of them will be right, because their books hit enough readers’ sweet spots in spite of the many flaws. There are flawed books that are great reads, and polished books that die on the page. It’s entirely understandable when a reader prefers the former to the latter.
- Caveat: There are some beautifully produced books that have low price points; I’ve reviewed quite a few here myself. But these are sufficiently unusual that they are remarked upon, and readers can’t predictably or easily find them. I can name well-produced, low-priced or free books in all the genres I read, but there are far more weighing down the other side of the ledger. I was about to write that there are more well-produced books in high-volume markets, but then I remembered that there are authors in low-volume markets whose self-published books are first-rate. I doubt they recoup the money and effort they invest, but I’m immensely grateful that they respect themselves and their readership so much.
I’m not arguing that books should never be priced at $0.99. Loss leaders can be effective ways of generating interest in new authors, introducing new readers to older series, or introducing a new venture for an author (e.g., a new series or a new story in a different genre). There is no question that authors who pursue such a strategy based on their specific markets and goals can leverage a low-priced or free book to their advantage. The problem arises when the free and $0.99 books become the norm rather than the strategic exception, because the need to produce at volume can override the desire to produce a high-quality product.
For me, the big questions revolve around whether good, well-reviewed books can generate enough sales and revenue to allow a subset of authors to be full-time, professional writers. In the old regime, blockbusters (however disrespected some of them were), helped subsidize midlist and small-readership authors. Now more and more authors have to subsidize themselves. There are plenty of very good part-time authors out there (as there always have been). But I cannot believe that moving to a model where almost every author has to have a day job or a patron is good for our literary culture. When we not only expect authors to produce imaginative and interesting work, but also to package it in a high-quality, error-free product, and we expect that they do all this in their “extra” time, we’re asking too much.
I’m not saying that readers should subsidize authors. But I do think as readers, we should care about our genres. And I worry that the race to the bottom, in both price and craft, may both drive out the good authors we have now and discourage new authors who could be really good from entering the market at all.