Writers in today’s new media marketplace are sallying forth and self-publishing a lot of their material. Some are asking what pricing is best and what level of sales is needed in order to make a living at writing. This is an exercise every writer goes through at some point, if that writer is doing it for real income, not merely as a hobby. Here are some thoughts about pricing and income in the current ebook publishing marketplace, with a focus on short fiction. This is not a rigorous treatment of the subject, but some thoughts spurred by a blog post by DeAnna Knippling.
The pricing of fiction is an arcane art. There is not much science to it yet. What works? Often you won’t know until you try it and test it, keeping good records of sales so you can see how book page copy and varying prices work in combination to improve sales. Non-fiction publishers know this, and many indie authors and small publishers are experimenting in exactly this manner to find the sweet spot in ebook pricing in their non-fiction niche.
But fiction writers? Not so much.
As a case in point, let’s consider short stories. Famously (or infamously), there are now scads of short stories being sold for .99 at Amazon, a virtual glut on the market that has both sparked hope in the rebirth of the short form story, and despair that so much cheap schlock is finding its way into print that the really good stuff is impossible to winnow out of the haystack.
This rush to the 99 cent price point has produced a ‘default’ low-ball price tag for short stories. Is this a fair price for a short? Maybe so, especially if it is, erm, short (rather than a longer piece of short fiction) or of only average quality. Then again, for authors who write better quality fiction, to sell at this price point may be a real undervaluation of the work.
There is a constant tension between pricing low and selling in volume, versus pricing high, selling fewer but netting much more return on those units sold. Will .99 guarantee your books will sell well? Or will a higher price attract a different kind of buyer, and help put more money in the writer’s pocket?
The fact is that in outlets like Amazon, the writer can set whatever price she wants to charge for a work, within certain limits. For the sake of illustration here, let’s consider an “expensive” short story priced at $2.99, as used in my friend’s number-crunching examples.
While you the author may not be willing to pay more than 99 cents for a short story, the fact is that many people are. The reasons for this are important.
First, a higher price signals quality. People don’t always want a bargain; they are often very willing to pay a premium where they perceive value is to be had. Second, in a market where there is a race to the bottom to undercut a competitor’s price (and I’d argue that’s been going on in ebook pricing), it is very easy to loose sight of the value factor. But remember: people don’t buy books on price alone. They buy them for the escape and entertainment they offer. If you tell a better tale, you have made your book worth more than alternatives out there, and you can ask a higher price because you are delivering more bang for the buck.
It’s easier to do this if you have a track record or a following, of course. Even so, many buyers are surprisingly willing to simply take you at your word. For instance, in a sea of 99 cent stories, don’t you look twice at the one that charges $2.99? What’s so special about that one? Why’s it worth more? At the very least these questions cause a buyer to look more closely at the work in question. You’d have to sell six short stories at the lower price to make the same royalty you’d clear from selling one of the more expensive stories. Financially this should be a no-brainer. Are you ripping off the buyer? Not at all. If they value your work, then it has higher value. It’s that simple.
So take the plunge and eliminate the guesswork in all this. Offer a story at a higher price point, and see how it goes. Of course, if your storytelling is poor or mediocre in quality, you are taking a big risk that scathing reviews will warn people off from your work, so I wouldn’t recommend this for people starting out or who lack professional-quality editing in their work. But as for testing a price point? It’s that simple. Try a higher price tag in the market. You might be surprised at the results.
Units (Quantity) Sold
So far people have been selling ebooks essentially the same way they sell paper books. Publish, offer review copies, try to get some attention for it through book reviews and blog posts, do things like virtual book tours or podcast readings, hope word of mouth helps it catch on. Occasionally some investment in advertising to help showcase the book. Even so, things like short stories are likely to trickle, not fly, from the virtual bookshelves.
It is my belief that internet marketing tactics can be used to effectively pump up sales volume for fiction (of any sort) in the internet marketplace. I don’t mean banner ads and such; I mean targeted sales campaigns that recruit and sell to an audience that likes your work. This is a potentially complex subject, and rather beyond the scope of this particular post, but my point is simply that there may be ways to amplify sales that are not being practiced by the majority of the bookselling market right now, and which would help your work find its proper (appreciative, money-paying) audience. I hope to be able to post more about this kind of alternative approach in the near future.
Creating a Body of Work
They may offer a low return on the dollar, but here’s one good reason to continue writing short stories: when you have more content on line, you are creating a pool of “related reading” for people who come across your work. They like one story, they browse and buy two others. If you have a pool of work available you are creating a self-amplifying sales tool. It’s also true that the return would be higher if these were books, not short stories, that you had a growing collection of, but short stories are quicker to write and so lend themselves to this “library building” function more readily. One way to work shorts to your advantage is to create short stories that elaborate on aspects of your novels: telling prequel tales, side stories, back stories, tales about locations or characters or legends that you didn’t have room to properly incorporate into your novel. This way fans of the book can get another dose of your fictional world and satisfy their craving for more while you are off working on that next book.
So, there you have it. I know this just scratches the surface, but those are my observations du jour about selling fiction in today’s ebook marketplace. Hopefully these ideas will help writers who are serious about making money off of their work. Do you have other tactics for improving sales and income in short story or novel e-publishing? Please leave a comment below.