We are in the throes of the shopping season. Stress and tension are everywhere, from the aisles where tired, overstimulated children cry to the checkouts where overwhelmed parents, counting their pennies, feel the sick thump of what if I forgot someone or what if I can’t afford what Little Spawn wants? It’s just as bad online, too, and the usual “Should I have run a holiday sale, what price points are good, things are ordered and I have to stand in long queues to ship them” discussions are afoot on author loops and social media.
This year I’m also seeing a lot of discussions about ebooks. Specifically, the question “Should I lower my ebook prices in the new year?” has been asked at least five times (and counting!) on different loops and in different social media I’m privy to.
I’ve typed some shorter answers, but I figured why scatter them all over the map when I can put them all in one place?
So. Generally, my TL;DR answer is “…no.”
You already know my thoughts on the convenience of ebooks (without concomitant protections against theft) leading to massive entitlement and piracy. The convenience has YET another unpleasant aspect, made monstrous by Amazon’s business practices.
The race to the bottom in ebook prices is terrifying for any author trying to earn a living. The way the industry is currently set up, either you starve because your ebooks are priced too low for you to get a reasonable return on the investment of time needed to produce a quality product, or you up your production schedule and end up burning out, in the meantime risking cranking out heavily compromised texts that could have been great if you’d had the resources to take the proper time and care with them.
Or, if you price your books reasonably in line with the time and effort spent, you can be inundated with nasty emails calling you a sellout or accusing you of “taking advantage” of readers somehow. And, as a bonus, informing you that your books are going to be stolen in “protest.”
Fun times for all.
Here’s the thing: low across-the-board ebook prices are not good deals. You end up getting fewer books of less quality in the long run, not just because of writer burnout and starvation, but because that’s the way the business model is set up. That’s what it’s engineered for.
Amazon’s success means it’s been able to impose a number of conditions on the market. Amazon profits on volume when prices on ebooks are kept artificially low, because they don’t care what you’re buying as long as you’re buying a lot of it. Authors do not benefit–they work themselves into the ground or the grave, or they quit publishing because they literally can’t afford to keep going. That means readers don’t benefit either; the quality fiction you crave gets harder and harder to find because selling algorithm bumps is profitable as all get-out and/or because the writers experienced and talented enough to provide that quality fiction have been driven out.
Who does benefit from this? You guessed it–Amazon. They profit both coming and going. There’s a fresh crop of hopeful new baby writers willing to be fleeced each season, the plagiarizers and page-stuffers pay Amazon for the privilege to play, writers are working themselves into burnout, and it’s all going into Bezos’s pocketbook. The ‘Zon gets their cut of even a $.99 ebook, you’d better believe it, and enough of those going out the door is a nice chunk of change. Who cares if it’s readable, if it’s quality, if it’s what you actually wanted? You’ll buy anything, according to Amazon, as long as it’s cheap.
Now, Amazon’s done some good things, largely without wanting or trying to. I suppose you could find a few beneficial effects in any cancer if you narrow your focus enough, too. And I’m sure a lot of people will say “books are a luxury anyway, nobody who creates them deserves to make a living because it’s not a real job.” I’ve heard it all, from “all authors are rich anyway”1 to “but if books aren’t less than a dollar apiece people will HAVE to steal them, you just hate FREEDOM.”
But if you’re a fellow publishing professional looking for advice on ebook prices this fine holiday season, take it from someone who’s been in the game for a little while and saw the first explosion of ebooks and witnessed the race to the bottom afterward: Price your books however you damn well please. I’ve raised some of my prices recently to better reflect the time and energy spent on writing and taking the books through quality control; I haven’t been sorry and haven’t noticed any dent in sales. In fact, pricing my books to reflect the quality I try to put into each and every one has had a somewhat salutary effect, I’d say, because it’s clear I respect myself and my work and Readers tend to follow suit.
Trad, indie, and small publishers all refine price, discounts, and deals all the time. It’s part of the game, and self-publishers should do the same. There may come a time when I look at the industry and say “yeah, prices are outta control, I’m dropping mine.”
But today is not that day.
Amazon profits immensely from the race to the bottom in ebook pricing, and has been doing everything possible to keep it going. Nobody else gets a good shake out of the deal, and we’re all somewhat at the mercy of the elephant in the room. Until the rapaciousness of their business model provokes a reaction and a shakeup, it’s pretty much every self-publisher for themselves, not least because getting writers to work together for better conditions is like herding caffeine-crazed hyperactive felines.2
In the end, very little will change until readers are tired of swill choking the gunnels and their purchasing habits change as a result. When a market reaction comes, it’s going to be quite painful for a lot of people and I’m not looking forward to it. In the meantime, though, I’m going to price my books to reflect a fair value for my time and experience, and I encourage any of my peers considering the question this holiday season to do the same.
And I wish everyone, publishing pro, Reader, or anything else, a low-stress holiday full of good food and free of family or other arguments. This time of year’s awful on everyone; I say we all go to bed until New Year’s.
I know we can’t, but it makes me feel better to contemplate the prospect. Over and out.