Self Publishing

Is 99 Cents the New Normal?

99 centsThere is little chance that publishing ever returns to the “dark” golden age. The very fact that there are discussions about Indie author book quality suggests that for good or for bad it is here to stay. Attention always dictates longevity. Plus, there is revenue to be earned, as in the case of Smashwords who reported around 20 million dollars in sales last year. I believe self-publishing is for the good of the industry, although I’m also convinced that some form of gate keeping will and should arise. A manner in which to separate those who are good stewards of their craft from those who publish first version, unedited documents. But such “quality” comes with a cost and the current trend in book pricing may make for a bumpy ride.

Self or Independent publishing is of course a function of the explosive ebook growth. It is unlikely we can turn back the dial on ebooks, anymore so than there will be a resurgence of the Roledex or address books. While I think the growth will slow, I also believe that ebooks will, in time, find a somewhat higher threshold of the book buying market share. My guess is that in the U.S it ultimately settles around the upper 30% – let’s say 38%. Higher percentages will be determined by the current youth market’s adoption of e-reading in later years and a continued transition by the power house buying group – adult females over the age of 40.

The largest or at least most influential changes are still ahead. There are hints of change around the web — the hybrid author is leading much of that change. These are “famous” authors who publish hardcovers and paperbacks through traditional channels, but also publish, on their own, the same or additional material electronically. In time, every author will be at least one part “Indie.” Traditional publishing companies have already conceded ebook pricing models in order to remain competitive. Consumer attitude is against the $9.99 ebook — buyers understand the lower costs and feel a little gouged when asked to pay for a “pretty” electronic document even when said document is written by a best-selling author. Many best-selling books are now priced significantly lower than they were in the past. Half of the “top ten” paid Amazon best-sellers are selling for $4.99 and there are only three books in the Top 40 selling for more than 8 bucks. Even Stephen King’s new book, Doctor Sleep is offered at $7.99.

The changes are the results of the Laws of Influence. Consumers become quickly anchored to prices and once an item sells at a lower price, it is difficult, if not impossible to return them to a higher price. A truism that Brick and Mortar retailers have understood for years and the reason why Black Friday sales items are actually manufactured to sell for profit at the deep discount price. So that “60% off” cashmere sweater was never intended to be sold for $100. It was made to sell for $40 at a 30% margin.

Price economics is a challenge in every business. Competitive book pricing by large publishers create price ceilings for Indie authors. Book consumers have an expectation — one we created— that a self-published book sells for less than a traditionally published book. Don’t waste time trying to explain that “costs are costs,” consumers have already become anchored to Indie books being either free or real, real cheap. In other words, a price distance is required between the Stephen King books and the Raymond Esposito books. How much? Well, that is hard to say.

If traditional authors are posting ebooks for $4.99, it’s safe to assume that SPA needs to be lower although how much lower is still uncertain. 99 cents might become the new Indie threshold. The 2013 Smashwords survey posted last May already demonstrated that the majority of their books were being offered for under $2.99 and that these price points reflected an average price decrease from previous years.  As the price of best-sellers drops, Indie authors will most likely concede even  the $2.99 price point for the lowest possible price point (besides free) of .99 cents.

The trouble with a .99 cent price is an author’s already limited return on investment will further erode. As I’ve stated, in order to compete, an author needs to invest in the work. Even with the most basic investment, an SPA author will spend about $800 on editing and $200 on a book cover. At .99 cents and an average per book royalty of 70 cents, an author needs to sell 1430 copies to break even…a little over a 100 books each month in the first year. A difficult feat when one considers that about thirty to forty thousand new titles are published EACH month.

A low ROI (return on investment) isn’t the end of the world. Most authors don’t write fiction to make a living, they write for the love of the craft and an addiction to story-telling. Lower prices also mean innovation. Authors are not the only people who want to do what they love and make a few bucks from doing it. Traditional publishers, distributors, editors, designers and artists all want successful economic models for the book industry. That means folks from all parts of the business spectrum are working to reduce costs, increase readership, and find less expensive ways to increase quality. So authors have a large team in their corner. Create Space for example no longer charges for expanded distribution and has added matte finish options to their books. Amazon has added features to allow paperback purchasers to own a free e-copy.  Smashwords is now working with a company that offers reading subscriptions. For a single monthly fee, readers can read as many books as they’d like — sort of the Netflix of books. Many independent editors are willing to price according to the initial author work quality and cover artists are creating low cost “off the shelf” book covers for as little as $40.

These rapid-fire changes may appear as an erosion of the industry, but they are not. The “dark ages” of publishing belongs to a time when an author such as you or me, would spend years waiting or hoping for a contract— our work left unread in a computer file. Today, there is no barrier and no one to tell us we can’t publish. Success comes down to the same things that have always driven a business. Create the best product, don’t short cut the quality because there are no short cuts, build an audience of consumers, and make certain to keep stoked the fires of your writing passion. The book industry is filled with creative and innovative people. Change is only a bad thing when we are not willing to meet the changes and incorporate them into our success plan.

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