Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What is a book worth?

Are books worth more than two pints of Guinness? I wouldn't usually recommend asking this question of anyone of Irish extraction, but Adrian White has written an interesting piece about why he values his latest book at $9.99.

I am, as most of you know, a total Kindle convert who still loves paper books. I embrace the ebook revolution, but I am still doing my bit to make sure print doesn't die (I picked up three paperbacks at the weekend, one gift, two for myself. Long live print and digital!). Part of the reason I love the Kindle is that I can now buy more books and support more authors, because the books are cheaper - my money goes farther.

Adrian White priced his first book at $4.99, because he was told the story was strong and unputdownable, and his second at $2.99 because it deals with self-harm and was likely to appeal to a narrower market. Now, I would have suggested pricing the unputdownable book at $2.99 (get them in the door) and the less widely-appealing book at $4.99 to maximise the revenue generated from people who bought it expecting more of the same. But evidently Mr. White is both nicer and smarter than me, and thus has some hope of retaining his readers for Book 3, which is priced at $9.99.

A few commenters on his original post have remarked that value is determined by the customer, and this is true. The Irish understand this better than most - a few years ago, our housing market was such that horrible little houses in poorly-serviced areas were worth hundreds of thousands of euro more than they were ten years earlier, because people were willing to pay that. They aren't any more, so prices have dropped.

I haven't decided that the value of an ebook for me is less than a chai latte (I don't drink Guinness so we'll just have to live with my cost of living indicators for a moment). I will happily pay over $9.99 for a book by an author I really like. But for me (and that is the key phrase), it's too much to spend on an ebook for an author that isn't one of my Top 20. I'd rather take my $9.99, add another few quid to it, and use it to support a bricks-and-mortar bookshop.

From his article, Adrian White's books sound as though they are each quite different from each other. I have some sympathy with this, as I genre-hop like a bunny on acid in a great big genre field. But it makes me even less likely to spend $9.99 on an ebook, no matter how good the author says it is, because if I have read and liked his previous two books, it doesn't follow that I'll like the third. This is true of every author, of course, but more so for an author whose books differ drastically from each other.

I admire Adrian White's decision. He knows it may cost him sales and yet he is refusing to undervalue his work, and I respect anyone who shows such courage in their convictions. But the market is currently geared towards the idea that ebooks are cheap and cheerful, and print books are endangered luxury items we must fight to retain. I don't know if there is space in such a market for an ebook at almost a print book price - right now, I think the market wants either value for money or a comfy bookshop with knowledgeable staff, a thriving arts-n-culture program and an in-store Starbucks (we're back to chai lattes again - lord, does every road in my life lead to chai lattes??).

We want the best of both worlds. At the moment, we can have it. This may not last, and if it doesn't. . . then maybe consumers will get a little more comfortable with paying $9.99 for an ebook.

What's the most you guys will pay for a book? Print, digital, paperback, hardback, audio (the forgotten stepchild of the publishing industry), debut author, favourite author, bestselling author, small press, indie, self-published. . . whatever! What's your magic price point?


  1. I fiond writers and other peopel trying to make a living in the brave new world of the interent are very confined to the old business model. 99c (or less) is considered an insulting amount for all the work they've put in. But is 9.99 a fair price for three years work? It makes no sense.

    The only thing that matters is total revenue generated, and if 99c gets you more sales that means total income is about the same as fewer sales at 9.99 then it doesn't matter if each individual paid only a few pennies.

    Art has no intrinsic value, just what you place on it. Time also has no worth either. If one person spends ten years writing a book and another spends six weeks, does that mean one has more value than the other? Will it define the quality of the work?

    The new market place does not have the same restrictions as the old. You can find the audience you want and approach them directly. Pricing structures will adapt to deal with that.

    Mind you, I'm just guessing.

  2. As far as chai goes, I prefer chai tea myself. Not as sickly sweet.

    I tend to determine what I expect to pay based on book size, genre, and phyical format. So I'll pay up to €15 for a hardback, though I only get hardbacks if it's a book I really want to read right now. In and around €10 is what I expect to pay for a typical paperback, so I'd pay €12 for a writer I really like or a book that just screams at me to be read.

    I tell you what would actually put me off though? An author pricing his book based on how many people were likely to buy it. I don't know why, but it just seems "off." One of the reasons I went for traditional publication rather than self-pub is that I have no experience in bookselling. I need someone who knows that field to advise on what is a good selling price.

    Myself, I like prices to be fairly consistent. If I start reading one author's work, I want to be able to rely on a similar price range for their stuff so I can budget my spending accordingly. A price rollercoaster just makes no sense to me.

    All that said, while I don't own an ebook reader, if I'm going to shell out hard copy prices for something, I want a hard copy. I want something I can own, smell and touch and see on my shelf when I'm done.

  3. At this point in time I am not willing to pay more than $5 for an e-book. I will pay between $12 and $16 for a book in a bookshop though. If I think I will love a book or need it for reference I want the hardcopy.

  4. I don't have an ebook reader but I suppose I assumed that the prices were about half that of a paperback. It was a shock when I had a look and found that some of them are almost the same. One part of me thinks that I shouldn't have to pay as much for a 'virtual' book but another part of me knows that just as much effort has probably gone into writing both books.

    I expect to pay about £9 for a paperback these days (if I was buying, which I'm not sadly). I think if I owned a kindle or the like I'd investigate some of the 'unknowns' who are pricing their work to get noticed. Knowing me, if I liked it I'd probably pay more for the next one by the same author.

  5. "I genre-hop like a bunny on acid in a great big genre field"

    That made me giggle :)

    I've paid $9.99 for an e-book before, but it was my favorite book ever and I really want to support the author so the third book in the series actually makes it out into the world! Usually I'll pay a couple dollars less for an e-book, but not often. And what really gets me is when the e-book is MORE than the print book! WTH is that?

  6. Great post. My e-reader is arriving next month and so this is something I will keep in mind. I like the fact that there are writers out there who don't want their work undervalued. Price wars and cut-price sales hurt everyone.

  7. I've noticed that a majority of publishers are still pricing their eBooks the same as the physical ones. I don't think this is right, the eBook should definitly be cheaper but I'm not sure if I agree with 'half the price' of the physical book.

    Publishers seem to be going blue in the face aserting that the cost of developing an eBook and a physical book are not that different but unfortunately it's not something consumers really hear (or maybe even believe) and it is the consumer that will decide what they will pay. So publishers need to price accordingly.

    I could go on and on about pricing structures and profit margins but I'll leave it be for now.

    Just a side note: I'd agree with the pricing you suggest - higher price for the niche audience. Niche markets may be smaller but they are more likely to buy/need the book.

    Another side note: Funny that you should post a blog on this topic - I did something similar :)

  8. Mood, brilliant point on how art and time have no intrinsic value - if I write a book in my spare hours after working at a full-time job, is it worth more than a book written by someone with more free time than me? Nope, it's worth what each individual buyer thinks it's worth.

    Paul, definitely agree with you that I like consistency in pricing across a writers' backlist. Obviously I expect new releases to be pricier and I don't mind that at all, but once books have been out for a while, consistency is important to me. Otherwise it feels a little like they're saying 'the first hit is free, then ya gotta pay for it. . .'

    Books and heroin. Not my best metaphor!

    Ann, I'm the same, hard copies are now strictly for reference or books I know I'll love or books I can't get as ebooks. This is more a space issue than a financial issue to be honest :) I would pay over $5 for an ebook, but probably not more than $10.

    Sarah, I also feel that ebooks should be cheaper. Yes, the same amount of mental work has gone into it and I have no problem paying for that, but as I'm not paying for printing, distribution, storage, bookshop rent, bookshop heat and light and bookshop staff wages, I do expect the price to be lower.

    It is great having the chance to try new authors at low prices - I am dreadful for downloading cheap ebooks and not getting around to reading them, though!

    Glad you liked it Rebecca :) Yeah, ebooks costing more than print books really annoys me. I get that there are logistics involved in creating an ebook but is it really more costly to do that than it is to involve a distribution network and bookshops?

    Donna, I agree that price wars aren't good - I prefer to see ebooks priced in the mid- to upper-single figures, but if I know an author is self-pubbed I don't mind the super-low prices. They have fewer people to pay and I have found the quality is often lower than I would expect of a traditionally published ebook. It's like the low-cost airline of books.

    Zoe, as a consumer, my perspective is that when I look at a physical book and an ebook, I see fewer people (distributors, sellers, even van drivers!) who need to get paid a salary out of the purchase price of my ebook.

    On the publishing side I assume the costs are pretty similar but getting the book to me is much cheaper, and that's why I expect to see savings. I usually pay about 8-12 euro for a paperback in Hodges Figgis, and I'll happily go above half that for an ebook because to me, that sounds fair.

    But the flip side is, the higher the price, the less likely I am to take a risk on an unknown author. So I think a market in which some books are priced lower is ultimately of benefit when it comes to getting new authors out there. I think undervaluing ebooks is bad, but a market allowing for more discounting for unknowns, debuts, niche books, etc. has the potential to be very good.

    Glad you agree with my pricing idea - makes me feel less evil!

  9. £1.71, baby! : )

    Seriously, though, it's enough so that I get 50p per book sold after my publisher takes her bit, which is pretty damn good when you consider that most authors only make around 60p on paperback. So if you can have good sales on Kindle by keeping the prices low, then you stand to make a tidy little sum without feeling like you're juts giving away your work.

  10. Honestly...I don't mind paying $9.99 if its really a good book...
    I do prefer books to e-books...


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