Worth and Cost

As a professional writer, I write for money. I work hard on my writing, to make it as good as it can be. However, as a self-publisher, I also work hard on selling my writing. These are two different aspects of the business, the artist and the publisher. The artist wants to say that a story is an ephemeral thing, born of sweat and inspiration, worthy of telling to kings and scholars. The artist feels that each story is special, precious, and worthy of protecting at all costs.

The publisher wants to make money.

At this point, we have a problem because the best way to make money is to treat a story as though it were not a precious little snowflake. The publisher knows that the best way to make money is to treat a story as though it were a widget, a product, and a brand. A story is a creative thing, and as such, it is capable of brand promotion. What that means is, if you read a story of mine, there is a non-zero chance that you’ll want to read another story of mine.

The self propegating nature of that is incredibly useful to the publisher, to the point where it can overshadow the value of the first sale. While I may be able to sell a book at $50, I probably won’t sell very many, which limits my book’s ability to spread its brand promotion. If, however, I give away my book, I maximize the brand promotion, while kneecapping myself on the first sale. So, somewhere in between free and overpriced, the publisher tries to find a way to get the books in as many hands as possible, while still making money.

But already there is a gasp from the artist. “What? Give the book away! But it is art! It is beauty! You cannot disrespect that by saying it is less valuable than a happy meal!” And so we run into the problem. The publisher realizes that there is a balancing point between free and unprofitably expensive. The artist doesn’t care. The artist looks at other books and says, “This is how much ‘Twilight’ costs, and my book is at least as good as that!”.

Different people are going to look at it different ways. Some have more of the publisher in them, and less of the artist. As a self-publisher, I have changed my sales price several times, trying to find the best way to improve revenue. In doing so, I have even dropped the price of some books as low as $1 to improve the brand promotion and sales rank.

By comparison, there are some artists who will set the price of their book to $10 on all versions, and never touch it. Without consideration for other factors, they will say, “This is what I think the book is worth” and denegrate those who would say that they aren’t interested in buying a new author’s work at a steep price.

All of this is personal choice, and we could all happily sell our works in different ways, were it not for one cancerous idea. Some people feel that they have the right to tell others how to price their work, attempting to add value to books by price fixing.

Say there are two writers. One is an artist, the other a publisher. The artist sets his price months before shipping, without doing any research, and proudly declares that his price is based on the book’s “worth”. The publisher shifts his price constantly, trying successively lower prices, until it starts to cut into his revenue.

At this point, the artist becomes angry, not because his book is affected, but because he feels like the publisher is devaluing all books with his experimentation. The artist becomes nervous, seeing more and more publishers experimenting with prices. “What will happen to me?” The artist worries, “when people assume that you can order a richly-crafted story off the dollar menu?”

Then he turns on the publisher, attacking him for “devaluing” writing, for not respecting the craft, and for dragging down the entire institution. He denegrates the publisher in the Wall Street Journal, in the New York Times, in his own personal network.

In response, all the publisher can do is shrug. He wants to help the artist, wants to respect writing. But he’s not willing to give up money for it. The publisher doesn’t feel that he should have to pay a tax on the “sanctity of writing”. And so he trudges along. They call him cheap, they call him cut-rate, they question the quality of his writing (if it were that good, he would charge more!). And while they hurl insults at him, he quietly cashes his checks and works on his next book.

My guess is that this is not a sustainable model. I think that the publishers, by being more successful, will “breed out” the artists. In five years, there will be no $10 e-books. Artists will either admit that there is no one price for every book, or they will be left in a special cupboard on Amazon reserved for overpriced and undervalued books. They will be proud of their rarity, and in a fit of business sense, might raise their prices because the books are so rare.


Brand Gamblin is the author of several novels and short stories. His first novel “Tumbler” can be found at Amazon.com for $2.99. His latest novel “The Hidden Institute” can be found at Amazon for $4.99. Brand likes experimenting.

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  1. Brand,

    I think you’re crafting this as a dispute between Artist and Publisher when it’s just as easily described as a dispute over marketing strategies. A writer who isn’t willing to reduce the price of his work to see an immediate upswing in sales *may* be a chin-stroking, brandy-snifting, mantel-leaning artiste; he may not be, though. He may be just as much of a Publisher as the one who drops prices until the work sells the most units. He may just have a different publishing strategy.

    I get that you feel your strategy is denigrated. Hell, I’ve denigrated it, and almost right to your face. But swinging back by characterizing writers who use another strategy as precious elitists is probably not going to win the day. I pack a lunch every day when I go to work. I’m as pixel-stained a technopeasant as you’ll find. My choice not to use your strategy may be costing me money. It *certainly* is in the short term. I choose instead to shop stories around and hope to sell them the old school way. If/when I decide to self-publish, I will price my work based on the value I assign it. I’m not scared your high-quality, less expensive stories will expose my work as bloated and overpriced. Honest.

    We disagree on strategy, but we’re disagreeing with our Publisher hats on.

    • Of what you’ve written, I totally agree. If the artiste (and I wish I’d thought to add the silent ‘e’ at the end when I wrote this) were content with pricing his own work as he wished, there would be no overlap for argument.

      The main element of concern is when the artiste derides the publisher for “undervaluing” their work, and states that the publisher is then diminishing expectations in the market, which hurt his sales. That is a form of control, where one person decides that the other needs to follow his marketing strategy, or face public condemnation and be labeled a villain for hurting the efforts of the valiant artiste.

      Denigrate my strategy if you will, but don’t take the victim standpoint, saying that the cheap writer is ruining the market. That’s a passive/aggressive form of control, and the Libertarian in me gets all squinty and mean when that happens.

  2. If (when? Yeah, probably when, I’m sure I’ve said it) I say you’re undervaluing your work, I’m not saying it out of fear that you’ll undercut my eventual sales. I’m not inflating a giant rat to set up outside your website or anything. I’m saying it because I believe with both my Artist and Publisher hats on that your work is worth more than you’re charging. If you find it’s a better strategy to sell your work for less than it’s worth, that’s certainly your right. But it’s also a sad commentary on the consumer’s ability to prioritize (“$7 for the #2 at Taco Bell? Sure. $2 for a short story? Hell naw!”).

  3. Well, without trying to dig myself in any deeper, I would point out that you are not the only one who has derided the $0.99 book, and that there are some who do make the statement that this marketing strategy undercuts all book sales. So, it’s not just you. 🙂

    There’s that word again . . . worth . . . a beautiful and ephemeral concept that does not bring me any closer to my solid gold yacht. 🙂

    Trust me, when I’ve sold my cheap books to enough people that my name is a household word, I’ll charge what they’re “worth”. But the way I’ll know how to do that is by experimenting to see what revenue is like at different levels. I doubled my income by dropping my price to $0.99 . . . that’s hard to ignore.

  4. Your time is worth $30/hr. Take better notes! 😀

  5. Neither the writer nor the publisher dictates what a story is worth – the market does. Obviously someone started it, but the market has accepted it. Personally, if I self-publish (and it’s looking more and more likely for reasons I won’t go into here) I will price my book low in order to minimise the risk for a reader trying a new author. I will then release other books and play around with pricing and those royalties add up, even when they are coming from small amounts. Adaptability is the key to survival.

    • I agree (obviously). One of the strategies I’ve seen recently (and really love) involves dropping the price of your book to around $1, then letting interest and sales rank drop, then raising it again to make the most of both sales rank and profitable pricing.