On the blog The Bliss Quest, a blogger who goes by Athena writes a lengthy, thoughtful post looking setting a price for her self-published book. After her last publisher offered her a contract that would only pay her 5% of the book’s cover price (and her editor actually told her “Writers don’t write to make money, they write because they must”), she started looking longingly at the 70% revenue that self-publishing would offer her, and trying to figure out just how many copies she would need to sell at what price in order to make back minimum wage for the time spent writing the book.

She was looking at pricing it at $6, but the problem she runs into is that a lot of the people she talked to who might be inclined to read e-books are cheapskates—they only want to pay $4.99 or less. Athena finds this rather frustrating—as she points out, depending on reading speed, $6 for a book is often less than $1 per hour of entertainment, and people pay a lot more than that for movies.

If writing (my book) does not pay for me to survive well enough to write the next one and the next one – I’m clearly in the wrong profession. If my writing can’t entice people to pay $1 an hour for entertainment – then I might as well be doing something else. If people will pay 12$ for a two hour movie like Transformers 3 or the newest haunted flick, but they won’t pay 6$ for a book – then I’m not doing my job well enough.

I can certainly sympathize. As an unknown independent author, the problem she faces is not just a matter of price, of course. It’s a matter of all the competition out there at all price ranges, and the competition for people’s time from non-book-related activities. And from an economic point of view, it’s hard to figure out how to reach the optimum point on a price-demand curve since every book is going to have a different appeal and thus different demand.

But the question of what price to set is one that every self-publishing author is going to have to face, and nonetheless it’s interesting to see Athena’s thoughts on how to approach it. Hopefully she can get some good advice from writers who’ve gone that way before.


  1. Your book is worth whatever people will pay for it. If they won’t pay enough to provide you with a decent living, then that is YOUR problem, not theirs. Go and clean toilets, or do brain surgery, or something else that benefits humanity rather than adding yet another book to the vast and ever-growing pile of stuff to read.

    Why anyone thinks they should be rewarded for writing a book when there are more books already out there than anyone could read in a hundred lifetimes beats me. It’s like bringing a jukebox to a rock concert, and getting upset when nobody puts their nickel in.

  2. The comparison to movies is flawed. People go to movies to be entertained and not to think or imagine. Few people will analyze a movie and wonder what the movie would be like if scene B was slightly modified. They take the movie as they view the movie. Books, on the other hand, require the reader to think and imagine; books require work. Because they require work, people are inclined to pay less for the book.

  3. There’s nothing like going from one extreme to the other, as if there’s no ground in between. From art for art’s sake to considering only per-hour profit. If she chooses to create a false analogy rather than look at the potential long life and earning capacity of a book, she’s going to let herself be screwed out of her hard work for every book that her publisher takes on.

    Should I bother to read the rest of the post or is that where she stops using her brain?

  4. Although a self-published writer myself, I agree with Jon’s comments above. An author (particularly of fiction) who writes with an expectation to make a living is setting themselves up for a fall. I am also an avid reader with a Kobo Touch and it seems to me that self-publishing has generated a race to the bottom in terms of price. Ebook pricing has become a mess, with so many offerings at $0.99 or for free that it’s become near impossible to find gems amongst the also-rans. Perhaps on-line booksellers could reverse the trend by setting minimum prices depending upon length, genre, whatever – then drop any titles that don’t sell within a trial period?

  5. Her writing is so good that she compares it to a multi-million dollar blockbuster movie but she thinks that she can only sell 10,000 books worldwide. If she thinks that only 10,000 people would pay for her book in the next 70 plus years why does she think she deserves to earn a living only from writing?

  6. There’s also the issue of the price the pros are charging. Getting someone to pay $6 for an newbie unknown, self-published author when they can pay about that for a backlist book by a known, proven author is a tough sell. And that would be true of any business—I, like many professional teachers, moonlight in tutoring part-time, and I command a higher price per hour than a high school kid would because the people who choose me over them want someone with the extra maturity, education and experience. Of course, there are tons of people for whom the high school student is perfectly fine for what they need and they of course are more than welcome to pay in that price range. But if a high school student suddenly raised their prices to the point where they were competing with me, I would bet they’d have a tough time convincing someone to choose them over me.

    I think the problem a lot of authors have when they get into these price debates (and we have seen it before) is they seem to view price as a fixed thing—the appropriate price for ‘a book’ as an absolute—and not as a relative thing. The question is not ‘is my book worth $6?’ so much as ‘at the range of $6, what would my book be competing with?’ If the answer is Patterson/King/Nora Roberts and you are a self-published indie, there is your disconnect. You can’t charge pro prices your first go out and expect to build an audience that way. If that means your first book is priced lower because you are paying your dues, the same way you would in any career, so be it. My first teaching job, I made so little money that the government actually gave me back all of my taxes! All professions have that paying dues period. If you are serious about writing, that’s part of the job.

  7. “$6 for a book is often less than $1 per hour of entertainment, and people pay a lot more than that for movies.”

    Some people, but more and more people are staying home for just that reason. I don’t think the movie example is the one you want to emulate, given the direction of the movie industry these days. I see probably only a movie a year – and that only on a special occasion if there is a movie appealing enough to make me want to see it at the theater. It is just too expensive to take a family of 4 to the movie theater for a two hour entertainment experience.

    When people pay to see a movie at the theater, they are paying a premium for the get out of the house and have a good time experience. It is more than just the movie they are buying. When they sit at home and watch a movie rental – that is closer to the book experience.

    I can rent a two hour movie for $1.20 from Redbox for my family of four (plus my kids’ friends oftentimes). That is a total of 8 hours of movie entertainment, averaging out to about 15 cents for an hour of entertainment. By those standards, her 6-hour entertainment experience book is worth 90 cents. And considering all the expenses that go into making a movie and all the people who need to get paid for it, the book would be overpriced. If she thinks it is more profitable to make a movie, she should do that instead.

    Artists never get paid on a dollar per hour basis – I don’t know why she would expect that. Most never get paid what their time and commitment was worth. But they do it in the hope that their next work is going to be the one that breaks through and gets them the recognition and reward they hope for.

  8. It’s very difficult to predict sales figures for ebooks. It is, to reuse a very worn metaphor, difficult to see the wood among the trees.

    As an indie you compete with every other wanna-be out there with access to both word and the internet. There are very low barriers to entry, and the 35/70% commission is truly exceptional for the industry.

    A book sold for $1 could see a return of 60 cents. To get the same margin on her 5% she’d need to sell it for $12. If it’s good enough to sell at $12 it’ll fly out of the door for just one. By selling cheap you also reach a wonderfully large audience. Giving away an earlier book, or selling at the apparantly magic $4.99 for all your books can see a huge surge of interest in your work. As an author seeing my word read is the gratification. The money is simply icing on the cake.

    The movie analogy, as another comment pointed out, is awful. It’s just not the same thing at all. If the amount of effort spent on these debates was used marketing the works properly then the book will sell. All indies need to do all of their own publicity, and that is a skillset few indies have; but if no-one knows about your work, it’ll never sell.

  9. “If the answer is Patterson/King/Nora Roberts and you are a self-published indie, there is your disconnect.”

    I agree.

    She also needs to read Joe Konrath and Scott Nicholson, two very successful indie writers who are happy to share what they’ve learned. Many indie writers now have successful careers but paid their dues first by working very hard at marketing, having lots of free promotions, and pricing their books reasonably.

  10. I price my e-books on a range from 99c to $9.99. Last year, my biggest seller was $9.99. Readers pay for what they want to read.

    Five years in self-publishing has taught me that the only way to determine the ideal price point for an e-book is to experiment. Sometimes that means you end up with a lower price than you anticipated. However, it should be pointed out that stubbornness about price points and unwillingness to experiment is quite common among indie writers. Usually it takes the form of writers crying, “Nobody will buy my novel unless I sell it at 99c!”

  11. Chris – your second last paragraph is an encapsulation of what almost every business selling product of any kind goes through. Self pubbed authors now need to realise that they are business people and face these kind of difficult decisions.

  12. I must add that people should not compare what people say they are willing to pay with what they are actually paying. People (at least in most cultures) tend to undervalue everything. The statement “your work is only worth $1” and the action of giving you $6 because a friend recommended it is not perceived as a contradiction.

  13. I agree with Jon Jeremy that no one is entitled to make a living writing. However, those who write good books that find an audience and set a price that audience is willing to pay will succeed, and many indies are succeeding at making a living writing. Many others aren’t making a living but are making as much as they ever did with legacy publishers. I’m a pure indie and convinced I’m making more than I ever would have/could have with a legacy pub. Going into indie publishing is like starting any small business – a gamble.

    However, I think Athena’s biggest mistake is a common one. She believes the price she sets is indicative of the worth of her book. The worth of any given book is what the author gets from each book x the number sold. So a book that sells a million copies at $.99 is “worth” more than a book than sells a few thousand at $9.99 (given the same time frame). Amazon pays an indie author just over $2.00 per sale of a $2.99 book. That blows away what an author receives from legacy pubs for a paperback and compares pretty favorably with what a first-time author would receive for a hardback, if she could get a hardback deal.

    Someone who sits back and agonizes over math instead of getting books out there will never discover her own truth, but it’s a hard fact that a book sitting on a computer hard drive will never earn a nickel.

  14. Being disabled and housebound, I read several ebooks per day. I buy a great many ebooks, but can get much better value for my time out of ten fairly-good 99c ebooks than one good $9.99 ebook.

    Recently, I’ve discovered several authors through their initial 99c offerings. I’ve gone on to buy their higher-priced ebooks. Last night, I hesitated over three later ebooks priced just over $5. At $4.99, they would have been impulse buys.

    99c, $2.99 and $4.99 are impulse buys for “I’ll try that”, “Not bad” and “Quite good”. Pull the readers in, then offer them a no-analysis deal. Bundles and specials are also good selling points.

    And HarperCollins and Hachette, regarding predatory pricing for Australians? NO popular-fiction ebook is worth $20. After all, according to the contract, we’re only renting the ebook.

  15. i think you have to think in terms of volume. you do quite well with a book priced at 99 cents and that price point is nothing to be ashamed about. just ask amanda hocking. she made a million bucks off 99 cents ebooks. granted she does have a series of books and the readers is hooked into buying her other books. just experiment with different price points and stick with a price that works best for you.

    other helpful resources for authors:
    goodbookstoday.com (affordable book marketing services)

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