Part of being a writer means pushing at boundaries, whether they be your own or those set by external influences. For more than a century, writers that wanted to publish their work were at the mercy of agents, editors, or publishing houses. Only in the last decade have things begun to turn in favor of those wonderful wizards of the word.
Rob Guthrie, an indie author I respect and admire, made a great blog post on the subject of eBook pricing not long ago. I’ll link it at the end of this article for you to check out. His article made me think about the problems writers face when trying to price their books, market them, and how the Big Six Publishers have dropped the ball when it comes to eBooks in general.
A writer no longer needs to repeatedly beat their head against the stone gates to be let in. The gates of the brick and mortar publishers are starting to crack and crumble, leaving large holes that the gatekeepers are unable to close. The boundary between being published or not is no longer in their hands; it’s a decision that the writer can make for themselves. In this digital age eBooks have leveled the playing field for writers. It has even given them a few short-term advantages while the old publishing guard is still scrambling to find their way. One of the best advantages that a writer has these days is the ability to set their own price for each book. This is huge. Some might even argue that it’s also a huge responsibility.
The Lone Wolf
In one camp you have the lone author who sees their work as a single product. They make it, so they should be able to sell it at whatever price they want to. Industry standards or regulations do not appeal to them where price is concerned. This can lead to extremes. Some may offer their books for free, while others charge the same high-end retail price that publishing houses do for their top rate talent. Most however fall somewhere in between.
Whether to sell a book for $.99, or $4.99 is an issue that writers are forced to make when they take publishing in their own hands. There are success stories at each of these price points, as well as failures. The decision to price a book is typically made from one of the following:
(1) Advice from friends or fellow authors
(2) Whether the author has a backlog of books, or just a few to offer
(3) Market data on similar books or genre
(4) Previous experience with other price points or books sold
(5) A shot in the dark, not unlike throwing a dart and seeing which price it hits
There are no experts on the topic, regardless of their claims. It’s not possible. What works for one author will probably not work for another. In other words, there is not a magic formula that will make writers rich by selling their books at a specific price point. This is what the other camp has trouble understanding. They believe that if all authors sold their work at standardized prices, then it would help, or at least not hurt them. This group believes their book, priced at $3.99, is hurt when another author comes along and starts selling their work for $.99.
Which of these camps are right, the lone wolf author or the group? Technically, both, and neither.
There are arguments to be said for each of their views, and the reality is both of them have a point. Authors that tell a compelling story, or have a backlog of books, are likely to succeed at many of the pricing levels. The group that believes they are being hurt by the volatility of eBook pricing would like to see a community standard in place that would level the playing field even more than it already is. Overall, this would probably help a few authors. However, some critics say this is market tampering and setting a standard price for all books would be a form of socialism.
The problem is not in the setting of a standard price for eBooks. It goes deeper than that.
Problem 1: There are currently no standards for quality.
The big publishers paved the roads from author to public, and yes they charged a hefty toll to travel on their thoroughfare, but it was a smooth ride with very little bumps for the consumer. The quality of the books they distribute is where the bar is currently set.
Now that anyone can publish a book, the choice of using an experienced editor is left to the writer. But, let’s face it, there are some books written so poorly even the best editor would have a hard time making it an enjoyable read.
Problem 2: Marketing is a full-time job.
The digital age has invited the authors to make their own inroads to the public, and this has proven to be successful for some. For others, not so much. If the public does not know an author even exists, then how are they expected to find the path to that author? Marketing your books can take a lot of time; time that could better be spent writing.
Getting your first book into a national chain of bookstores may soon be a moot point if the publishers do not quickly change their business model. But you have to give Big6 credit, they did do a remarkable job at distribution, even if they fell short on marketing.
A Possible Solution
Indie authors do not need a gatekeeper, but there should be some type of quality control inspection, and the prices for eBooks should reflect that. Hold on, take a breath. I did not just slap your mamma. Seriously, take a moment and think about it. If there were some type of quality control system in place, then it would benefit the consumer, which in turn would benefit the author, even the ones that suck. Let me explain.
Let’s say that the indie community rallies behind a standards body (good luck in herding cats, I know, but stay with me). Or, one of the Big6 changes their business model to incorporate the overwhelming flood of new authors. They would offer to guarantee your book with a seal of approval. That SOA would then tell the consumer that this book has been rated and is being sold at the price that reflects its rating and content.
A New Business Model
I’m going to give you a brief overview of a business model I came up with. I’ll retain the rights to it and one of you enterprising souls can pay me royalties if you put it into action.
The Guild Ink (TGI) is the name of our fictitious company. They offer a variety of services for authors, and have earned the trust of the public by offering a guarantee of their quality rating for eBooks. The rating and pricing scale are based on quality and content. In this case, content equals word count. A short story, regardless of how good it is, should be in a different price category than, let’s say, The Stand by Stephen King.
Consumers would feel ripped off having to pay the same price for a 15 page story and an 800+ page behemoth such as The Stand. So, pricing for content matters.
* PROMO: These books can have any rating and be set at any price that is lower than what its normal rating deserves.
On this scale, a Top Quality novel over 90k words with an A+ rating would cost the consumer $4.99 +tax. For an Above Average story of 80k words the cost is $1.99 +tax.
On the low end of the quality scale there are penalties. A 90k word count, normally $1.99 would be free after subtracting the Poor (F) Quality penalty of -$1.99.
The scale above is for illustration purposes only. The numbers can change, as well as the ratings or word count. It is the concept that I want to focus on.
Right now there are no quality controls outside of Big6. With a business such as TGI in place the quality is guaranteed. If the consumer is not happy with the quality rating on the book then they can open a dispute to contest it. This could be anywhere from 7-30 days after the date of purchase. There would of course be limits on the number of times a single individual is able to dispute a book within a specific date range.
I should point out here that TGI has an Amazon type online store, and consumers purchase these titles directly through them. Smashwords anyone? Mark, you listening? Probably not. Nobody does. That’s part of the problem. We are mostly a bunch of lone wolves that like the idea of a pack, but nobody wants to lead it. (sorry…soapbox mode for a moment there)
TGI can let the customer rate the book if they dispute it, then refund the difference between the rating that’s on the book and the one they give it. If enough customers dispute the rating, then it could have an impact on the rating that TGI originally gave it. Some fraud detection programming on the back end should keep this aboveboard.
Services that TGI offers to authors:
Rating your book (FEE)
Customers will use the service because they can trust the quality of the books. Authors will use the service if the fees are affordable.
Okay, that’s all I have at the moment. I’ll reserve the right to add or subtract stuff as I think of it. Or, if you have suggestions that might take it in a different direction or expand on it, then I would love to hear them. Times are changing, and it’s time we pushed the boundaries of the current business model to reflect those changes. It’s all about focus people.