So, I was reading this article that someone linked on Twitter about what the 99 cent eBook price-point “means” or whatever to the future of self-publishing. If you know me at all, you know that I was eye-rolling pretty hard over some of the stuff in the article. Even the title itself is telling–indie authors question the price. Duh, of course they do. Everyone wants to get maximum payday from their work, amiright? But indie authors–you guys aren’t the ones buying the product. Do you see where it might get a little sticky if you start price-questioning?
Here’s the good news! You do have control over what people pay for your product, although it’s not in the way you might think.
One tactic I see overused (overused in that, it should never ever be used, ever) in trying to get readers to pay a “fair” price for self-published books is to tell us how hard indie authors work to put out a product, and that we should pay more because they spent a year writing it, made a monetary investment, poured their soul into it, etc. That their work is “worth” more because of that. Authors? The longer you continue to feel this way, the longer you will not get paid what you think you should be earning for your books. You might be protesting at me already for saying that, but I intend to show you why what I’m telling you is true.
The first thing you should never, ever forget: readers are not generous patrons of the arts, they are customers.
Writing books is a creative endeavor. Selling books is business. If you want to wear both hats, you need to know when to take one off and put the other on. When you’re marketing, you need to put on your business hat. If you forget this step, you’ll only stumble into earning a living writing by being lucky–do you want to leave it to luck?
One lady in the comments of the article I linked went off about how readers “should appreciate” how much time and effort went into writing a book. She made a point that we wouldn’t expect free lattes at Starbucks, why should we expect free content? Two things came to mind right off the bat: one is that, publishing is a multi-billion dollar business. We clearly do not “expect” free content, as those billions have to be coming from somewhere every year. The second thing that made me cringe when I read that is that, if Starbucks had taken her attitude of demanding that people “appreciate” their product and pay the price that they demand, they would have been long out of business by now.
Imagine when Starbucks was new, and you were used to getting coffee for less than a buck. You walk in and yow! A coffee with foamy milk was almost three dollars. Imagine if you’d asked the barista, “Hey, why is the coffee so much more here when I can get it for fifty cents down the street?” and the barista answered back, “Hey, man, I got up at four o’clock this morning to grind beans and brew coffee. I have to foam the milk every time someone orders one of these things. It’s worth that much because I have to put a ton of work into making that foamy coffee for you!” You might have been impressed with the amount of work that goes into it, but having never tried the coffee and not knowing anything about it, your real question wouldn’t really be answered–and that question is, “Why should I be paying more for something that I can get cheaper elsewhere?” The attitude probably would have turned you off completely to boot.
And remember, your customers have a lot of options because you have a lot of competition.
You, as an indie author, have an enormous amount of competition. In 2003, there were 300,000 books published. In 2011, there were three million books published. In 2012, that number could end up being as high as fifteen million, according to the number of ISBNs issued just this year. This is called market saturation, and it’s the real reason that you have a hard time making money off of your books. It’s not because your “entitled” customers want free content or don’t understand your blood-sweat-and-tears contribution to your work. There’s simply a glut of self-published fiction. Most of us do well to read fifty to a hundred books in a year, much less three million or more.
What that means for indie authors is that, if you randomly decide to charge more for a book just because you think it’s worth more, there are hundreds of thousands of competitors willing to step right in and take your sale. In the free market, competition is a major factor in determining what you can charge for a good or service. If you opened up a retail store and decided to charge twice what your competition charges just because you “feel” your goods are worth more, your store would go out of business. It’s the same idea with your books. You cannot charge based solely on what you think your book is worth and expect to do well. You cannot tell your customers that they “should” appreciate your work and pay based on that. They will go somewhere else.
How Starbucks got people to pay more for coffee.
Starbucks did not get to be where it is by just demanding that customers appreciate the quality of their product. Howard Schultz had a vision, and he knew it would be difficult to pull off in America because of the price point at which he would have to sell to be profitable and grow. He put a number of policies into practice that would help him achieve his vision:
- top-notch customer service that was unlike anything most people had seen before
- product consistency and insane(ly good) devotion to quality
- great in-store ambiance
- customer education about the product, such as where the beans come from and why they cost more (“arabica beans” wasn’t a major selling point outside of specialty markets before Starbucks made it a thing and told people why it’s better; now it’s everywhere)
- sampling so that customers could try the product firsthand and know that it wasn’t the same Maxwell House that the diner served down the street (this is a HUGE one. It’s the quickest and best way to convince people of quality.)
- specific customer service policies that would encourage brand loyalty and make both customers and employees feel like part of the “family” (remembering names, drinks, calling employees “partners” and allowing them to share the company with stock options, giving employees the tools to bond with customers to keep them coming back)
- being innovative in corporate responsibility, such as giving even 20 hour per week employees health insurance and getting involved with various community and national volunteering or humanitarian projects, so that people would get warm fuzzies when they thought of Starbucks
- encouraging customers to participate, taking ownership of their experience with customized beverages
All of these policies added value to Starbucks in the customers’ eyes so that the customers would feel A-OK about paying more for coffee. Starbucks didn’t just demand that the customers appreciate their product, they demonstrated why their product and company was superior and deserving of customer dollars. It’s the business version of “show, don’t tell.”
Self-published authors can do this, too. You can. But you have to start with the idea that you’re not entitled to a single sale just because you wrote a book. I’m sorry; I know that’s harsh, but it’s absolutely true. Once you get rid of the notion that you are entitled to make a living being a writer just because you wrote a book and published it online, you can start building your audience and reputation from the ground up.
Show us why your book is worth more than the thousands of other books that we could be buying.
Did you notice in the Starbucks list, I left off “buy great beans”? That was a given. Starbucks would have failed if they had crappy, second-rate coffee. (I know, some people hate the taste of their coffee–but they do use quality beans. It’s a matter of palate rather than quality.)
Writing a book that people want to read, that is a given. If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be self-publishing.
You have to do more to stand out in a crowd of, literally, millions.
Adding value to your work goes beyond just writing a good book. It even goes beyond getting your book professionally edited and getting a professional cover design–right now, the lack of those things are huge issues in the self-publishing world, but you need to treat your book like these services are mandatory, or you will be behind the curve when innovations spring up to help separate the first draft manuscripts from the polished books. (They’re coming. They’re already in the works, even–I personally know people who are tackling this issue.) Once that happens, you will still need to separate yourself from the people that didn’t get left behind. You also still need to compete with traditionally-published books, which will nearly always be shined up good before they’re launched.
[Yes, I used "good" on purpose there. I'm from Kentucky, it's part of my DNA.]
Anything that makes your book different from other good books, or that makes it stand out, or that makes you stand out, tell us about it. If you can’t think of anything, that might be the underlying problem in not being able to get more for your ebooks. We pay more for branded items than off-brand items, so brand yourself and let us know who you are and what you do.
Remember that overnight success doesn’t happen.
You know The Bloggess, right? Blogger, author, “overnight success” (that took a decade)? Her book has been really successful, and she earned every bit of it by working her tail off, putting out free content, for years. That’s really the hard truth about becoming a writer and being successful enough to pay your bills: you’re going to give a lot up for free, or cheap, until you earn out your payday. When you self-publish, you’re skipping a huge advantage that traditional publishing has: a built-in audience. Distribution. Reader trust. You’re starting at, or close to, zero. Just like any other business, you’ll have to operate in the red for awhile until you build up your reputation and customer base. This isn’t anything surprising or abnormal–unfortunately, almost nobody gets to skip to the head of the line.
Case Study, or, how you can apply this in the real world.
Someone that sj and I both love is @ChuckWendig. He’s an author who has built himself an audience that most self-published authors dream of building. He has published fiction (some of it is through Angry Robot, not sure about all of it) and self-publishes books about writing. He also blogs at Terrible Minds.
Wendig may or may not have launched Terrible Minds with an eye toward adding value to himself as an author (I’m not a Wendig Expert), but that’s exactly what seems to have happened. By writing well about something that he’s passionate about, he draws in a lot of traffic; by writing well and putting it out there for anybody to read, he can more easily make conversions when it comes to sales because we already have proof that he can write. When you can become a fan of someone for free, you’re a lot more likely to open up your wallet when they put something out for sale. (In the Starbucks model, this is “sampling” and “customer education.”)
Wendig is also amazing at social media. He puts out great tweets that are share-able, which gets him more exposure; he also talks to people who talk to him, in a nice way that doesn’t make them angry. I’ve even had conversations with him where we disagree about stuff, and he was still super nice about it. He respects his readers and doesn’t expect things from them, or go off on rants about how shitty it is that they will only pay x amount for his books. This adds value to his brand, because a person is more likely to pay someone that they like for content. (In the Starbucks model, this is “customer service” and also general brand identity.)
Wendig also regularly engages his audience. He runs writing contests on his blog (in the Starbucks model, this would be under taking ownership/customizing one’s experience there) and asks for feedback. His audience is not just full of people that followed him through a promotion who tune him out when he puts out content; they’re participating. They’re turned on, so to speak. This undoubtedly helps his sales.
If you looked up Chuck Wendig on Amazon, you might notice that some of his non-fiction books sell for $2.99. If you look more closely, you’ll also see that these books are full of content that he has posted previously, for free, on his blog. Let me say that again: people are paying for content that they could read for free on his blog. He organized it by topic and made it available for e-readers, which is always good for convenience, but they didn’t need to buy them. They wanted to own the content because they friggin’ love his content.
Chuck Wendig didn’t write a book, kick back, and then put it out there and wonder why people weren’t buying it. He hustled his ass off to build an audience (whether he did it to build an audience or whether he hustled his ass off and the audience came, it amounts to the same); that audience, in turn, values Wendig enough to pay for content even when they can get it for free. And they value him enough to share him around to their friends and create new fans. He didn’t demand that they recognize his value, he demonstrated it over and over.
If you want to charge more than $.99 in a market where you have to compete with millions of other people, you need to figure out how to do that. Don’t tell us that you have value, go out and show us you have value.
Are you a self-published author? Have you found any self-published authors because they created an online presence? Do you have any tips for other authors that have worked for you? Do you like cake? Drop it all in the comments below!