A Fistful of Pennies: My Ebook Price Point Woes

See what they did there?
I'll just come out with it arrogantly. I think my work is worth more than a buck. Actually a great deal more. I'm well-reviewed. I get the sense that people enjoy most of my work, so why shouldn't I be able to command higher prices? If I thought I could get away with it, I would charge $2.99 for my short stories and $9.99 for any novel I put out. In other words, Big 6 prices. After all, how is their time spent at a keyboard more valuable than mine? Yes, those prices reflect more overhead (gotta pay the publishers, editors, artists etc etc), but you know what? I have overhead too. It's called rent and groceries and gas. At those prices, if people were willing to pay them, I would also be able to afford more editors and artists. At my current $.99 sales rates, I would be making real, substantial income with my writing. More money than I would make at any part time job I would find outside the house to supplement my husband's income.

But it doesn't work that way. Don't ask me WHY it doesn't. It just doesn't. Stephen King can get away with asking $2.99 for a short story, but I am not Stephen King. There are a lot of factors that go into deciding what gets charged for ebooks, but never is it based on the question, "Is the author getting a fair wage for his or her work?"

Here's some boring (and depressing) math. My most recent release, a 15000 word novelette called The Empathy of Agnes Winters, took about, I would say, 40 hours of work. It may have taken more than that, but I'm going to stick with easy numbers. That hour count includes all the raw writing, the editing, and the cover design. I would have to make $312 on that story to qualify for minimum wage ($7.80/hr in the state of Ohio). At my current royalty rate of $.35 (I'm selling it right now for $.99, because it wasn't selling at $1.99, but I'll get to that in a minute), I would have to sell nearly 900 copies to make $312. EIGHT-HUNDRED NINETY ONE to be exact.

I could be wrong, but I don't think I've sold 900 copies of anything. I've given away that many, absolutely, but sold? For money? I would have to dig back through two years' worth of sales records, but I think "Dust" may be the only story that has come close or passed that mark, and again, that's taken over two years.

Help the poor. Buy indie.
So at $.99, it will take a minimum of two years to make minimum wage on one story. This is why I sell so many stories (and why you should too). Because cumulatively, maybe I can make a minimum wage salary on my work. Eventually. I could make more money on a collection of stories, but I've had mixed results with that attempt, and I will have to create a separate article to address it another time.

You're probably wondering why I'm not asking more. Good question. I've tried. Believe me, I have tried. For the last two months, I have been asking $1.49 for my short stories instead of $.99. I figured even if my sales dropped off a little, I would still come out on top because one sale would nearly equal TWO of what I was making at the $.99 price point.

Well, my sales didn't just drop off a little. They stopped almost entirely. In the whole of April, at $1.49 price points, I only managed to sell around 40 books, a fraction of what I typically sell. Sales usually do drop off in the spring for me, as they do for a lot of other authors I know. My best season is November - February. But this was a precipitous drop, such that the increase in royalties wasn't making up for the drop in sales. I saw no choice but to flip back to $.99 and to see what would happen. And sure enough, though sales are still slow as they normally are this time of year, things normalized and I have already passed April's totals. This tells me that the $1.49 price point was no good and I should probably avoid it. Furthermore, smaller sales even at a higher royalty rate = fewer readers. If I had to make a choice between more money and more readers, I'll always take more readers. At least with adding readers to your roster, you have a chance to make up for the money in volume.

Smashwords recently released a survey of indie book readers showing, among many other helpful metrics when it comes to buying habits, popular price points. $.99 and $2.99 were the most popular, but $3.99 was becoming even more popular for novels. Things dropped off considerably above five dollars for indie authors. $1.49 and $1.99 were complete black holes for sales regardless of short or long fiction and it was suggested that people avoid them entirely. Also, not surprisingly, cheaper books sell more copies overall, and the longer the book the better it sells.

In short, it appears that the $.99 price point for short fiction, for better or worse, is the best one. I don't like it. I don't have to like it, but if I want to make at least a meager income while attracting new readers, it's where I have to be. Now, when I release a novel independently, expect the price to be around $3.99. I don't know what the price will be for my traditionally published books coming out this year, but I expect it will be around that, give or take a buck.

Yes, I think I'm worth more than a dollar... or the thirty-five cents I'm making on every dollar. But artists rarely make what they think they're worth. They make what people are willing to pay.