99 centsers

Why You Won't Find My eBooks In the Bargain Basement by J.C. Hutchins


Since every other windbag author has blown a few thousand words on this topic, I reckon I oughta chime in about ebooks, pricing and value.

To be clear: Right now, I don't have much skin in the ebook game. My thriller, 7th Son: Descent, was released in e-formats by St. Martin's Griffin back in 2009. I'm a couple thousand bucks away from earning out my low five-figure advance. Ebook sales have made a positive and meaningful impact on 7th Son's bottom line.

Thanks mostly to the Kindle's debut back in 2007, the ebook marketplace has exploded in popularity, and swelled with content. Particularly empowering is the unfolding revolution in which creators can now become entrepreneurs by self-publishing their works in e-formats. They can even set the price for these ebooks.

I absolutely support this empowerment. My five-year history as an independent / freelance creator, and my consistent vociferous and monetary support of my indie colleagues should eliminate any doubt of this.

That said, I've become increasingly concerned about authors selling their ebooks at rock-bottom prices. I'm not concerned about the widely-discussed (and, according to critics, destructive and unsustainable) "race to the bottom" pricing trend; ebooks for a buck set bad precedents, pundits say. I'm also unconcerned about indies moving aggressively into marketplaces once traditionally dominated by mega-corps. Stick it to the The Man, I say. Hell, stick it in and break it off. The Man has it comin'.

No, my concern is philosophical. Authors who sell their novels at ultra-low prices (such as 99 cents) use this pricing as a differentiator to attract new customers with a nigh-zero-risk proposition. 99 cents is practically free, after all. I spent years offering similar nigh-zero-risk propositions to consumers by releasing my content as Free online audiobooks.

I admire the at-a-glance savvy of the 99-cent strategy, but fear these creators wildly undervalue the worth of their work -- and the ultra-low price undervalues the work's worth in the eyes of the consumer.

Put another way: The only 99 cent ebooks I buy are from creator friends, because I know them personally and want to see them succeed. Beyond that caveat, I don't buy 99 cent books because I reckon they're probably shit. I don't buy $3 books for the same reason. Their (very often) inarguably shitty covers, and (very often) inarguably shittily-written product descriptions and synopses provide further reasons not to buy. Very few novelists are accomplished graphic designers and marketeers, yet most playing in the self-publishing ebook space seem to think they are. Regrettably.

But I digress.

The point: I associate price with quality. I unashamedly judge books by their covers. You'd be a fool to think I'm the only one, or that this mindset is abnormal. It isn't.

I have no doubt these bargain basement authors -- let's call them the 99 Centsers -- sell plenty of ebooks. But I wonder how many sales they've lost from customers like me: normal folk who rationally associate price with quality, and who would've happily spent $10 for the same product. (Provided it was packaged with the panache worthy of a monetary transaction.)

99 Centsers also often insist it's the consumer hive-mind that should define pricing, not the entrepreneur: The marketplace decides pricing. I get the fleeting wisdom of that, despite the inconvertible fact that consumers presently support thousands of authors/publishers who sell books for $10 or more. Shoppers can't pass up deals, the 99 Centsers probably say. Ten dollars is simply too much to pay for an ebook.

What self-defeating, prideless bullshit. Shame on creators who believe this insulting myth. And if there are ebook shoppers who actually believe $10 is too rich for their Kindle-and-PC-owning, very likely broadband-Internet-and-premium-cable-subscribing blood, shame on them too.

For your consideration: The federal minimum wage is presently $7.25 an hour. Yet with this anemic pay, it requires less than two hours of effort, at today's minimum wage, to earn enough cash to buy a $10 ebook ... a product that will provide many more hours of engagement to read and complete. That is, in fact, a great value. If the book makes an emotional impact, hell, ten clams is a frickin' steal.

Since it's fair to assume the average ebook consumer earns at least the federal hourly minimum wage (and likely more), $10 is a more-than-fair ebook price for both consumer and creator.

Your work is worth far more than a buck, 99 Centsers. You may never believe it -- and I truthfully don't care if I convince you; it's not my career -- but I believe in my bones that it's true. Indeed, 99 Centsers don't, in fact, make a solid buck off their sales. The online retailer through which they distribute takes a cut before authors get their cash.

Finally, I want to briefly return to the topic of consumer and author expectations, and the exchange of currency for goods. At its simplest, if you're selling your ebook, you must be doing so because you have the nerve -- the wonderful, absolutely awesome, flipping-the-bird-at-the-odds nerve -- that your work is worthy of a stranger's time and money.

By god, it had better be. Because the very act of offering your work for purchase proclaims that you believe your work is worthy to compete against the likes of Dan Brown, Anne Rice, Brad Meltzer and anyone else's book coming out of New York City. And that means you've busted a heroic amount of ass to write, edit, polish (and repeatedly rewrite, re-edit and re-polish) that novel until it shines bold and bright. Hell, you've worked harder than those mainstream novelists because you wrote the thing, edited it, packaged it and promoted it, all out of pocket ... for no advance pay. You've assumed a shit-ton of risk.

And you're going to sell that book -- a book you soulfully believe stands up against the work of fellow pros, and worthy of a stranger's money (for why else would you sell it?) -- for a pitiful 99 cents a pop? Or an equally woeful three bucks a pop? My heart aches that so many creative people willfully sell themselves so short.

Folks who disagree with my perspective will delight in learning that I have no statistical data to support my claims about ebooks, pricing and value. I happily admit that I didn't birddog those numbers at all. For me, this isn't a debate or a discussion -- it's a declaration. I am genuinely unconcerned about crunching numbers and being numerically "right" about this. I am, however, deeply concerned about being philosophically and ethically right for me, and for my own creative and entrepreneurial path.

I am especially concerned because I'll publish ebooks of my own fiction later this year. I'll ship two novels -- 7th Son: Deceit and 7th Son: Destruction -- and at least one short story anthology -- 7th Son: 7 Days -- and at least one novella. I'll price novels at $9.99, anthologies and novellas between $4.99 and $2.99, and short stories at 99 cents. Why? Because I'm confident in my abilities, and believe any content I have the nerve to sell will deliver entertainment value that transcends these low prices.

And just as the 99 Centsers have a true believer's zeal for their pricing strategies, I'll very likely be equally unwavering in my own. I'll sleep soundly knowing I'm charging a fair price for my work. I won't bat an eye at whining shoppers who claim they can't afford a $10 ebook, for I'll know they are very likely lying, and probably don't value creative effort. If I can dictate my price, I can also dictate the quality of my customer. There is immeasurable value in that; ask any entrepreneur.

Call me creaky and slow-witted, but I simply wouldn't be proud to sell my stories for less than they're worth. From where I sit, that's an unnecessary compromise that would degrade the perceived quality of my work, and my reputation as an author.

I've worked too hard building both to sell them for a buck.