Monday, May 9, 2011

The 99 cent book

"He sold his first story to Wonder Stories in 1931 when magazines cost a dime and you could get 12 ounces of Pepsi for a nickel" Harry Harrison writing of Clifford Simak in the introduction to the 1977 edition of Ring Around the Sun.

I read this and got a dose of perspective. So... back when pulps had their heyday - in the Depression, they cost two bottles of soft drink. They ALSO had circulations that most 'bestsellers' now couldn't dream of. A name built on a pulp readership could make your novels successful right out of the gate. Now those 'pulp' descendants have moved upmarket in price and sometimes in quality... and are outsold by an average midlister, and have a sadly tepid marketing value.

Things have changed since then. For example: We've increased the number of books being published enormously... and we've also changed the distribution mechanism and structure. The distribution curve for sales has become ridiculously attenuated, with 97% of books selling less than 10K and 2.8% selling between 10-100K and 0.2% selling into the tens of millions... as opposed those days when there were far less books published, but perhaps 30% of books sold less than 10K, and 69.8% 10-500K... and 0.19 getting to million, and 0.01% did better.

Lets face it, 2011 has a fair amount of frightening commonalities with 1931. The one trend that isn't running in tandem is entertainment. In the Great Depression books and movies did well. They provided cheap escape from a grim reality. They also provided uplift and hope for depressed people in hard times. I can't say that a lot of 2011 books are cheap enterainment, or good escapism or uplifting. And the industry has been hurting, badly. I can't really believe that no-one in the publishing establishement can see this, but I suspect it's a case of vested interests who would rather aim straight for the icebergs than change from their course. The content an I suspect especially skewed distribution model plainly has LOST readers/buyers. So I think has price, particularly with e-books, where electrons are cheaper than cheap pulp paper ever was. However: Where the behemoths lumber on their preselected paths, it does look as if independents with e-books are challenging this (I note some very cheerful - humor too - books which publishing ignored are doing very well thank you.) I also note that Pulp pricing is BAAAAAAACK... 99 cent books. Many of them probably at the same level as much of the material in those pulps, and I suspect the escapist and uplifting ones will do well. I'm unsure if they're going to return to the distribution curve of sales - simply because the entry is easier. But I have a feeling a solid 'midlist' will develop driven by reader demand not the marketing department -- a LOT healthier for a diverse reading audience and actually growing a reading market. Oh and as another aside, I see Apple's challenge seems to have been a fashion statement rather than having any real impact on e-book sales. Curiouser and curiouser.

So what do you think? Is it worth doing a 99 cent book? Is there a sea-change underway, to fit our society to a more austere but more hopeful model?

20 comments:

MataPam said...

For 99 cents . . . It's going to be a short book.

Plucking one off the shelf . . . Catseye by Andre Norton, which I purchased for 50 cents, copyright 1961 . . . my calculations come up to 70K words, and I obviously had no problem with small type.

And I certainly didn't consider the story skimpy.

But 99 cents sounds frighteningly small. Short stories, sure. 30K word novella? Maybe. But a whole book? Even a short one represents so much time on the part of the writer.

And selling for five to ten soft drinks.

Hmm. I'm going to have to think about this. Can we rebuild the volume, if the price is right?

Dave Freer said...

Matapam - it's a volume equation. If price is a real decider on 'try it, maybe I'll like it', well it could work. At the end of the day, I would accept a normal skilled trade wage to do something I enjoy. So let's assume that 25 dollars an hour (not very high by Aus standards) and for a short about a five day week of writing editing and all the other nonsense - a short would have to earn me 1000 dollars to 'pay'. So let's assume I'd do it for half that because I am a sucker $500. Most shorts professional markets are around 5-6 cents a word. The market closes out at 5 K words - so you're unlikely to earn more than $300 for that story - and they're unlikely to buy for a circulation of less than 5K. At 30% royalty - If you sell 1000 copies you're quits, if you can sell more you're slowly heading into positive territory - but single short stories are not very easy to sell. For a Novel the numbers are bigger, but so is the bait.

Ori Pomerantz said...

I don't think we'll see sales number like in the Great Depression, for two reasons:

1. It is easier to get publisher (= put your material on Amazon) than it was in the old days, so more books competing for readers.

2. More entertainment options. In the Great Depression there were no online games, no facebook discussions, etc.

However, that does not mean there is no money in the 99 cent market. There probably is.

onyxhawke said...

I'm not sure $0.99 is a great price point, at least in terms of sustainability.

Going comparatively off "two sodas" If you're looking at a 20oz bottle of soda that is the norm for most soda drinkers these days that puts the price between $2.50 (if you're VERY lucky) to as much as $3.50 or so when buying from the average convenience store. If you're buying at a sporting event, concert or the like double or triple that.

I think the return of the novella as a viable market place might be seen at the $0.99 price point, maybe but the average Weber novel or Heirs of Alexandria book would NEVER make it to press at that price.

MataPam said...

Oh, Onyx one, I think most 99 cent shoppers buy their sodas in the grocery store, in bulk, while they're on sale.

It's just a matter of getting enough couch potatoes to watch a bit less TV and read a bit more. I mean, the population of the US is over 300 million. The world population is so large it's too scarey to even check. If I could get a million people to read a book of mine, I'd gladly sell it for 99 cents. Less than one third of one percent of the US population. The anglosphere? Include India and half of Europe as mostly having English as a secondary language, and we're looking at such a small fraction 0.05%? Surely we can get such a tiny fraction of humanity to read good SF/F?

It's just, how to pay the bills while building readership, you know?

Daniel O Casey said...

99 cents for a Novella, or a short? I could probably see my way clear to putting out at that price point, but it's only for the confirmation and validation. Not until the individual sales ran to +1000 each would such a price point seem attractive to a writer actually looking to make a profit on their efforts.

As for MataPam's original query volume vs. price, Tobias Buckell did a piece on this over at his blog,

http://www.tobiasbuckell.com/2011/04/11/99-cents-only-works-if-you-actually-sell-more-copies/
There's lots of associated good stuff here, but the gist of it is that you could make it work, maybe, but find the range that works for _Your_ stuff, and stick to it. 99 cents is a loss leader that you can absorb if the readers also find other stuff that they'll buy from you... kinda, it's a long and winding conversation that I'm just too tired this Monday morning to fully relate.

Would I sell for 99 cents, dang right, but then again, I'm not actually a very good writer, and I have a dayjob (dont' we all) that I plan on keeping...

Later, need more coffee.

Dan.

elf said...

I can't say that a lot of 2011 books are cheap enterainment, or good escapism or uplifting.

Have you been watching the "supernatural romance/erotica" genre? Vampire porn is *big* in ebooks. I don't know how "uplifting" they are, but they're pretty strong on "here's something exotic and fun to think about for a couple of hours."

Brendan said...

The consensus I seem to be seeing on e-book pricing is 99c for short stories and novellas and 3-5 dollars for novels($2.95-$4.95).

One aspect of e-book pricing, at least for self-publishers, is the ability to vary pricing, dropping the price down to 99c for a limited time to see if that garners interest.

Of course the most important thing(well after making sure the work is well written, edited, and presented) is to have lots of work on offer. The more you have out there the more chances you have you will be discovered.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget that .99 cents in 1930 had a hell of a lot more buying power than .99 cents in 2011.

If you take 1930 as your base year, then .99=13.25 in 2011 dollars. If you take 1935 as the base year, then .99=15.92 in 2011 dollars.

When you look at it, the price of a paperback hasn't done so badly. It's the devaluation of the dollar's purchasing power that's done most of the damage...

Dave Freer said...

Anonymous - please take the reading comprension test again, paying particular attention to the part where Harrison states the price of a pulp magazine as a _dime_, and gives a purchasing parity comparison. 99 cent books are NOW. For purchasing parity comparisons use 12 fluid ounce (not 20 - o'mike) cheap soda. According _your_ figures that's roughly $1.30-$1.50. As I can't price 12 ounce soda in the US from here I can't work that out.

No matter HOW you slice it, books are more expensive than pulps were, I think.

Dave Freer said...

Brendan - that's exactly what I would like to try - a cheap launch, stating clearly that buy book x or day y the price will rise. I think it could work, because the volume/time equation plays heavily on rankings.

Dave Freer said...

Elf - yep. And they're doing quite well. By 'uplifting' I mean a book that raises your spirits, and does not leave you wanting to slit your wrists.

Dave Freer said...

Daniel O Casey - Toby is a savvy businessman, a good guy for the genre and authors, and always worth reading. We agree on a lot of stuff. I was seeing if people reach that conclusion themselves (making it it more likely to be right). I'd say it's a loss-leader, but worth doing especially for shorter work. I think the old strict divisions 'novel' (which can be anything from 80K-500K!) and Novella (about 25K-33K) and Novellette about 10-20K, are artificial. A story is as long as it is, and is worth what the reader is prepared to pay, if the author is prepared to accept that.

Dave Freer said...

matapam - YES. The potential market is HUGE, and yet we reach such a tiny proportion of it. Assuming readers are a 20% minority, that's still a vast number... and we can only get a few thousand to read our stuff... c'mon. Something is wrong.

Dave Freer said...

Onyxhawke, there probably needs to be gradient of price/length. But a million sales of Shadow of the Lion length at 30 cents a book - for me, as opposed to the current 10-40K band at 64 cents (royalty on paperbacks)... I know which one I want!

Dave Freer said...

Ori, several authors have proved there is very good money - for them in 99 cent market. Probably not for everyone. You're right of course, more entrants (but many may never really sell more than a few hundred books. I still believe the midlist will get broader) and more -or at least different (a game of cards didn't have to cost much) cheap entertainment. But the value of that entertainment was determined by the degree of escapism and ability to cope with an uncertain future it generated. That was what made pulps - and disney (movie pulp) successful, and that's what has been good for a number of successes now.

EvMick said...

I've got no idea about any of the technical aspects...price point and so on.

HOWEVER...I'm really, really into escapism.

I like to read books about a lone "hero", finally having had ENOUGH and smashing a bunch of gooberment goons.

Just me I guess.

Brendan said...

One reason why it might be better for self publishers to go with lower e-book prices is that if the author decides to start selling POD readers may be happier to pay the 15 or so dollars they seem to cost of they haven't already paid ~$10 for the e-book.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Dave, for people like you and me, with very little name recognition, I'm starting to think it would be worth writing four to five 99c books. I just want to have time to wrirte them... Maybe next year. And Pam, I think I need to do a full size book for 99 -- that's the point.

Daryl Adams said...

Ok, I love the idea of a pulp e-book. However, the problem is a case of signal to noise.

How do you find the content in a vast sea of mediocraty.

For all the publisher haters, in its true form, a publisher provides support to the author and to the book consumer in providing edit, advertising and production value.

I have been looking at self publishing, and unless I outsource my RPG suppliment's artwork and editing, it is going to have poor production look and feel (as I am a poor aesthetics and my artisic ability is solely some basic geometric designs in Sketchup).

Can the average writer staring (And I am sorry Sarah, a mid range Baen writer is not little name reconition, for me at least) afford to make money on 99c unless they do all the task a publisher does by themselves?