I’ve talked before about how I feel that self-publishing is working, at least in part, to deflate the value of books. I’m not one who is willing to blithely accept the notion of “sell it for what will sell the most copies.” I don’t subscribe to the dollar book pricing. Yes, I understand some writers make money this way, and economics in the digital world is a different animal than the physical, but I am still holding to the idea that books are worth more than a buck, regardless of what works.
Honestly, I think writers would sell for whatever the market perceives is reasonable, whether it’s $1.99 or $9.99. The problem of course is making headway in a glutted market. It’s not like there is limited store space. There is no scarcity of supply in the digital book world. Demand, of course, is limited. There are only so many readers out there. In this scenario, there is going to always be downward pressure toward zero. If we want to alleviate this pressure, two major issues have to be addressed.
- Book Quality
- Reader Expectation
These are complicated, interwoven issues. As a writer, the biggest thing under our control is the product/story we put out there. Everything about the words on the page are under the control of the self-published writer. You don’t have to answer to anyone. This is both boon and bane. There is the danger in being your own boss to assume, that because the product is yours, that you always know what is best for it. This isn’t true in the business world and it isn’t in books either. As with all creative works, the artist is often too close to it to see potential flaws. This is why editing, copy-editing, cover artists, and the like are so important. Sometimes people with knowledge and experience in your field have expertise and a viewpoint that are better than your own. To not use or ignore them results in a poor product.
When you ignore that which will make your product better, you do so at your own peril and jeopardize any chance of success. You also create that downward pressure on the products around you. Consumers look at their product choices and if the majority of them are of a certain quality, an expectation is built and the perception of value declines. Think of it as something like a neighborhood of houses. The more shoddy homes there are the less overall value there is to all of the homes, from the mansion down to the shack. Basically, don’t build a shack when you have the capability to build a mansion. And if you don’t know how, find out from those who do. If you can’t afford to, save until you can. In the end, if you can’t do these things at all, then don’t build.
Yes, I said it. If you can’t write a good story, don’t know if you can, or find yourself in a position of not being able to, then don’t do it until you can. I realize that in an open market such as this, everyone has the right to put their product out there, but just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Have respect for the story. If the readers don’t then they aren’t going to value your books, and more significantly, they aren’t going to value other books as much either. As a consumer, I don’t want it to be difficult to shop for products I like and find worthwhile. If I have to struggle through an endless array of cheap products to find the good ones, this lessens the value of my shopping experience and lowers my expectation of the products as a whole.
Which brings me to reader expectation. Readers want good stories. They expect to be able to get them. You want reader expectation to be high. If they perceive value, they’re willing to pay more. Self-publishing has been working against this perception of value. Let’s face it, one doesn’t expect much for a dollar. It’s an impulse, throw away value item. One doesn’t expect much for a dollar and one isn’t terribly disappointed if one doesn’t receive much for that investment. Self-publishing is playing off this idea of giving a valuable item at a throw away price in order to generate interest in the product.
There are problems with this idea. It’s a balancing act between value and expectation. What I’m seeing in self-publishing (at least with fiction, which is where I am coming from) is that readers are developing an expectation of low value because they are having to spend on poor books in order to find good ones. If you are finding only 1 book in 3 at $.99 that is worth your time, the mindset is that you spent $3 to get a good book. Books are an odd and difficult product to market because it’s hard to perceive its actual value without purchasing, and it’s not like you can return it for a refund if you don’t like it.
We’re getting to a point, however, where readers are going to expect, even demand that books be at the dollar throwaway price, because they have to pretty much waste their money on products they don’t like in order to find one they do. There are some out there who believe this is a perfectly acceptable mode for publishing. If your product is good, your cheaply priced product will lead buyers to be willing to spend more down the road. The problem is, there’s some tipping point in all of this somewhere, and I don’t know where, that the cost vs benefit exceeds what the reader is willing to tolerate. Readers will spend so much in that effort to find the good books, that they will not be willing to pay more because the investment to get there is just too high.
Unfortunately, we may be close to this point already. The expectation for a dollar book isn’t great. It doesn’t take a lot to exceed this expectation, which leads to the mentality on the producer’s end that you only have to be “good enough” to exceed this value. If you can make a “good enough” product to make money at the impulse level, which requires less time and investment on the production end, there is no incentive to make the product better. Basically we get a book market where writers crank out mediocre or worse books because that’s all that is required to meet reader expectations. It’s a vicious circle of driving down the value and quality of books.
In the end here, respect for story as well as value is pressured ever-downward. If the writer doesn’t have respect for the product, how is the reader suppose to? Now, I’m not saying all writers are like this at all. There are plenty of great writers out there, but there is a growing population of writers out there who don’t or perhaps more difficult to deal with, the writers who aren’t experienced or knowledgeable enough to even understand how they’re feeding into this cycle. My point of all of this rambling is essentially this: have respect for your work writers and also respect for the reading experience; if you don’t believe you need/have to put out the best possible product possible, readers won’t expect it either, and they won’t value what we do as writers.