Race to the Bottom is a phrase that is most often associated with rapidly decreasing prices or quality controls within an industry. As it applies to write, it can refer to book prices, book quality, and burn out.
“If it’s not free it costs too much.” With the advent of e-books, followed closely by independent publishing platforms, we’ve seen a steady drop in e-book prices. A lot of readers won’t pick up an ebook by a new or unknown author for more than $2.99.
The way I see it, a book’s price should reflect its length more than anything else. 99 cents is great for a novella or for an introductory offer (say, the first book in a series).
$2.99 is minimum for a full-length YA or adult novel (so, 250 6×9 pages if it was a paperback). For writers, this is roughly 65,000 words. $4.99 is still decent for this length. I often pay five and six dollars for an ebook without batting an eye. It’s still half the price or less than the paperback.
$9.99 is about the most I will pay for an e-book unless it’s a monster (400+ pages, dense text).
Really, you should charge no more than 50% of your paperback price for your ebook. Yes, you have editing costs and cover design costs, but that 50% mark puts prices at a reasonable place for both writers and readers.
Sadly, a lot of readers look at $4.99 on an ebook by an indie author and balk. They email authors and ask when the book will be available for free giveaway. They go to places like Quora and ask for links to free books. (And users on Quora are happy to provide links to pdfs of popular books for free. And Quora doesn’t care one bit that its platform is being used to pirate books.)
This leaves writers in a bind. How do we compete? I don’t have a well-known name like Stephen King or JK Rowling. I don’t have a publisher’s stamp of approval, or a publisher’s distribution network, or a publisher’s marketing budget. A lot of indie authors look at this situation and think, “The only way I can compete is to be cheaper, more readily accessible to the reader,” and that’s sound logic – if consumerism worked that way.
I understand where readers are coming from – poorly edited indie books, indie books with bad plots, book stuffers, it all leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. They don’t want to spend their money on a product that may or may not be satisfactory, in production value or entertainment value. Short of adding “this book has seen 5 rounds of copy edits” to the description, what can the writer do to prove to readers their book is worth taking a chance on?
There are no easy answers. Contrary to what a lot of book coaches and marketing gurus will tell you, there is no fast track, no one-size-fits-all solution, no magic wand or magic hashtag. I do have a few ideas, but they’re slow, they require a lot of people to get on board, and they smell an awful lot like work and waiting.
- Value yourself, your work, and your brand. That means taking pride in how you present yourself to potential readers (a clean, easy to use website or blog, well-produced covers, good response time to comments and queries), but it also means setting your prices at an appropriate place (high enough to say ‘I have value’ but low enough that the reader doesn’t feel ripped off).
- Produce quality work. Get a beta reader or three. Get an editor, a paid professional. Take the time to polish your work instead of rushing to publish. The only way we can change the reader’s mind about the quality of indie work is to change the quality of indie work – let’s make the crappy stuff the minority. Make sure your interior formatting, be it for paperback or ebook, is professional and to industry standards.
- Review everything you read. Even if you just leave a star rating, it helps. And this goes for readers and writers both. If something is good, review it. Put in your review “this book was clean of technical errors” or “the editing was really good too” so other readers know they’re not wasting their money on garbage. And if you find a book with a lot of errors, here’s the polite way to write that in a low-star review: “I feel this book could benefit from further edits” or “It feels like the author rushed to release this book and did not take the time to make it the best it could be”. Again, this alerts future readers to poor quality products. Indie authors don’t answer to the traditional gatekeepers, so we need new gatekeepers, and reviews is one way to provide that. Keep your comments polite, to the point, and professional.
- Be a mentor and an advocate. If you are a member of a writer group or two, or if new writers seek you out for advice, emphasize how important the editing is. Let’s teach this to every up-and-coming hopeful author – HIRE AN EDITOR. There is no skipping this step, there can be no cutting corners here. Also, stress the need for professional covers. This goes with point 1. Let’s teach new writers to have pride in their work and their brand.
- Be respectful of costs. Editing and cover art cost money if you want the job done right. Just as we want readers to pay fair prices for our finished books, so too must we be willing to pay a fair price to the people who work for us – editors and artists. Familiarize yourself with the Editorial Freelance Association rates and respect people who follow these rates in their pricing. Share information on professional artists and editors instead of advising people to visit fiverr and other such sites (because these are causing a similar race to the bottom in editing and art that is frustrating our fellow creators and freelancers).
- If you edit or ghostwrite – charge fair prices. Value your work, don’t undercut other freelancers, and demand a fair wage for what you do. As a ghostwriter, I was making less than a penny a word and I was still being undercut.
This is an uphill battle for all of us on all sides of this. The economy isn’t great. Everyone with a love for books thinks they can be an editor and everyone with photoshop thinks they can make covers and that floods the market with cheap options that undercut professionals and make it easy to resent people who want to make a living doing what they are trained to do. If we stick together, work with professionals who value themselves and us, and refuse to cave to the “free or cheap” consumer mentality, maybe, just maybe, we can salvage the indie e-book industry before we’re all reduced to monkeys at typewriters.