There is growing concern amongst authors that increasing ‘race to the bottom’ pricing of 99c for ebooks is devaluing books generally.
But my concern is a little different. And it is this. I believe that the pressure to set a book at the lowest price accepted by a retailer is driving authors to write particular sorts of books in a particular sort of way in order to stand a chance of earning a living. And this in turn is determining – or will do, as these books become available – the sort of books readers have to buy.
A short background for those unfamiliar with ebook pricing and royalty. For most authors, their biggest market is reached via Amazon. If you price an Amazon book at less than $2.99 (or UK equivalent) you get 35% royalty. If you price it between $2.99 - $9.99 you get 70%. So if you price a book at 99c you will need to sell 6 times as many to earn the same return as pricing it at $2.99. A discouragement, you may think. But Amazon’s algorithms for advertising mean that the more copies you sell, the more your book will be recommended to others. And authors are competing to reach the most customers.
Now, back to the original problem. An author can spend a year or more writing a full-length, intricate novel (general and historical fiction are usually the longest) and price it at $2.99. But this is a huge investment of time for a huge risk. It’s very difficult to get new work noticed. Even if you already have one successful book, you will usually need your second to be very similar or preferably a sequel to the first in order to benefit from the first book’s success. Meanwhile, writers of traditionally shorter genres (eg romance, paranormal) can write 2 books a year and still price at $2.99 (pricing above $2.99 now works for very few indie fiction authors unless they already have a big following).
But what if your book isn’t getting noticed? Especially when, for so many readers, 99c is now the expected price? So you drop your price to 99c (you can price between 99c - $2.99 but it’s something of a no man’s land, being lower royalty). But if you’re going to set the same price and get the same royalty for a book that takes you 6 months to write as one that takes a year, then surely you’re better writing 2 shorter books and getting double the income.
And it doesn’t stop there. If you plan that your book will be priced at 99c then why write as much as 50K words? Surely you would be better to write 4 books of 25K words each. But isn’t 25K words a novella, you ask? Well, yes, if it’s a stand-alone book. But if it’s part of a series then maybe it’s just a different way of dividing a book up, like publishing it as 4 or 5 short sections rather than one full length work. And there’s the added advantage that if readers don’t like the first book you’ve only wasted 2 months’ work.
I’m already seeing authors plan their genre novels as series of very short reads. It makes good business sense to do so. Now, if it were an artistic decision to write books in this way because that’s how you want to write and it’s how readers want to read, then that’s fine. But if it’s a choice, very much influenced by the best way to earn a living, then that isn’t so good. If reader expectation of pricing, and retailer contracts on royalty are persuading authors to structure their writing in this way, then what future is there for the intricate, complex, full-length novel with plots and sub-plots? Will the writing of this traditional fiction be relegated to a hobby for the comfortably off?
Comments in response to this post are very welcome. However, comments containing detailed author earnings or sales figures will not be displayed as I believe the constant publication of this data is not helpful to new writers and has probably helped cause the pricing issues we now have.