(e)Book Pricing

If you’ve been paying attention to my various hints, missives, and clue-by-fours, you know that I have a book coming out real-soon-now. Since it will be available in both print and electronic form, I’ve stumbled onto the hot topic of e-book pricing.

Ok… maybe it’s no longer such a hot topic. If anything, it’s been beaten to death. Then again, it’s also been raised from the dead, beaten to death again, and finally animated. To paraphrase an old D&D friend, “Undead topics don’t get tired.” Ultimately, I think we’re two the three years away from a long-term consensus on e-book prices, so the debate rages on.

So where does that leave me today?

When researching this, I ran into three common price-point arguments: the paper discount, the freebie, and the quality.

The paper discount argument is most common among traditional publishers, and it focuses on all the work involved.

We put a lot of investment into each book, the selection process, the editing, the proofing, the cover, the layout, and so on. The prices on our paper editions (hardbacks, trade paperback, and mass-market paperback) reflect this. All of those costs still apply to the electronic edition. So we’re just going to knock off a little to cover for the fact that we didn’t have to print a physical copy.

This leads to hardbacks going at $17 and the e-book editions going for $13. Eventually, the paperback comes out at $8 and the e-book… also coming out at $8. I don’t find too many people complaining about the $8 e-book, except that they still think it ought to be cheaper than the paperback since they only got bits instead of pages. And at $13, I still hear a lot of grumbles, though probably not from people who made it a habit to always buy the hardbacks.

The freebie argument is common among self-publishers.

Sell it for as little as possible – free if feasible. I’m trying to make a splash and get as many sales as I can. The higher up I go on the sales charts, the better my chance of becoming the next Amanda Hocking. So here, 99-cents rules the day, with as many shots at free promotions as you can.

This may work for some – it certainly did for Ms. Hocking – but I think it fails for most. Why? Because inherent to this argument is the readers’ notion that “at 99 cents, I’ll give anything a shot.” It’s not someone who is really interested in the book’s subject. The cover or title caught their eye, and they figured they’d plop down a buck to see if the author actually knows how to write.

The problem is that many of them can’t, and that 99-cent price range has become a cesspool of crappy books. Most readers aren’t willing to risk that dollar, opting for the sample instead. And what’s more, an increasing number of readers are realizing that what they’re really risking is their time, and the 99-cent price tag is a red flag that this one is very likely a waste of their time.

The quality argument is a reaction to that.

If I think I have a quality product, I shouldn’t price it into the bargain bin along with Gigli and Superbabies. Instead, I should set the price for what I’d be happy to pay for a book of similar quality. This tends towards prices in the $4 – $7 range.

Yes, these books tend to sell fewer copies than some of their 99-cent cousins, but in this case the author is not going all out to make an immediate splash. They’re focused on the long term. Selling a thousand copies today is not what matters. Selling twenty thousand copies over the next twenty years is what matters. With e-books and print-on-demand, that book can sit on the virtual shelf for decades, so its profit window is long. This kind of thinking favors the long-tail of sales rather than the initial velocity.

And it’s that last argument that resonates most with me. I think I have a quality product that the right readers will really enjoy. It’s been through multiple beta-readers, and their feedback has gone back into improving the story and the writing. I’ve gone through the text, carefully proofreading. I had a professional copyeditor mark it up as well. I put a lot of care into the layout, both for print and e-book editions.

So I settled on a price of $4.99 for the e-book. I know a few folks who would tell me to go for 99-cents or rely on Amazon’s free promotions in KDP Select, but I don’t think that path is for me. It will take time to grow it, but I think the story can build a fan base without resorting to short-term gimmicks. And of course, there will be other books to come along after it, and that fan base should grow with each new book.

Now comes the question of how to price the print edition. Personally, I’d like to put out a mass-market paperback, because for dead-tree editions, that’s the format that fits my hand the best. Unfortunately, print-on-demand can’t work at the scale economies of the mass-market paperback, so I’m looking at a trade paperback format which is always more expensive.

There’s also the matter of list price vs. retail price. For e-books, I am currently setting the price, and I get 60% – 70% of that money. For print books, however, I set a list price and then discount it heavily to the retailer, and they mark it back up to some percentage off the list price. So, I have to price high enough to still make a profit after the retail discount. In the end, I guess I used the reverse logic of the traditional publishers. I started with my e-book profit, added the cost of printing the book, and then added a buffer to cover the retail discount.

Here I settled on a list price of $14.95, though it looks like the actual retail cost will be closer to $11 or $12, depending on which store/site you shop at. $14.95 might seem like too much, but again that’s the list price. Those hardbacks you buy at $17 actually have a list price of $26.

So that’s where I am: $5 for bits or about $11 or $12 if you want to kill a tree. Either way, I get about the same amount. It might be a touch more for the dead tree, but not much more.

Limbo and Unreality

I’m in a bit of limbo right now for my novel, Beneath the Sky.

I have finished the cover and uploaded the necessary files to the printer for the paperback edition. They’re doing their review and should get back to me in a day or two. Then I’ll have them overnight me a galley proof and look that over.

Meanwhile, I’m finishing off the eBook formatting for both MOBI (Kindle) and ePub formats. That should let me reach Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook directly, as well as a few others (Apple, Sony, etc.) through the intermediary service at Smashwords. Uploading on those should come in the next few days, which will probably result in some more limbo as their internal processes push it out to the servers.

Self-publishing is hardly a push-button process, but to the extent that it is, I suppose I’m in the midst of pushing that button. With luck, I’ll be able to post real links next week.

So while part of me is excited with the anticipation of getting this out the door, it’s also a little unreal. It’s one thing to set aside my lifelong notions of traditional publication in favor of indie publishing, but it’s quite another to actually step through that door.

Tune in next week to see what’s on the other side…

Manuscript to Book

Self-publishing is the ultimate do-it-yourself literary exercise. What a publisher would normally take care of is going to fall on me. That means everything from copyediting to accounting will have to be done by yours truly, except that much of it can be hired out. After all, that’s what the publishers do: hire people to do the work, but before I decide what to do myself and what to hire out, I’m going to look at what all that work actually is.

The Business End

First, there are some legalities and paperwork to be done. This could be creating a legal entity like an LLC, filing a DBA, or maybe even less. Books need ISBN’s and sometimes UPC symbols. Accounts need to be created and linked so the money will flow. These are the things that make up the business end of self-publishing, and unless I found some pre-existing author co-op who has already done this, I’m going to be doing these things myself. An excellent overview of all this can be found in the book Publishing & Marketing Realities, by Christine Rose.

All of that is a one-time activity which does not need to be repeated for each book. The rest of this will focus on what I have to do for the book itself.

Shine the Manuscript

Normally, I would think of this as “polishing” the manuscript… you know, fine-tuning the language, double-checking the spelling of various names, and fixing all the there/their/they’re errors. But that’s what you would do before sending a manuscript off for consideration by an agent or editor. Before it goes out to publication, it needs a little more. Hence, we need to “shine” the manuscript.

This gets into the real nitty-gritty of copyediting. Beyond there/their/they’re, copyediting includes all those pesky rules of punctuation, noun-verb agreement, proper case usage, Mom vs. my mom, and so on. Of course, these are all things a good writer is already supposed to understand, but they’re also things that are easy to gloss over when you’re reading, especially when you’re reading your own familiar text.

This calls for a third-party copyeditor, someone who not only knows all those rules but is willing to grind through the story, reading not for pleasure, but with a pen poised to drip blood over every little slip-up, from that first quotation mark to the final period. Certainly I can do a careful combing of the text, but if I’m prone towards a certain mistake, I’m probably prone to miss it while reading too. Hence, I will almost certainly hire this out. While there are many other skills I can attempt to learn, I will be hard pressed to teach myself to not be me.

Putting the E in Book

There are two quite different formatting tasks in putting out a book these days: formatting for e-books and formatting for print. Let’s start with e-books.

As I understand it, e-books are essentially a kind of compiled HTML. Or at the very least, HTML makes the best source material for e-books. I found a great series on e-book formatting that lays out the process step by laborious step. If HTML is Greek to you, then it’s probably even more laborious. Fortunately for me, I’ve been hand-coding HTML since 1995, and apart from the use of styles, the HTML involved doesn’t look much more advanced than what I was doing in 1995. My initial test with a short story was promising.

This I will likely do myself, though I’m not opposed to paying a knowledgeable consultant to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. This is less about saving money and more about having control. I could hire it out, get a crappy result, and not know how to go about fixing it.

Putting the Book in Print

I have decided I want to do print versions as well as e-book versions. Partly this is for actual sales, but I confess that a large part of this is emotional. While it is not one of my rational reasons for wanting to be published, there is a little irrational core that wants to put a copy of my book on the shelf in my library. It’s hard for me to say how much is sales vs. holding it in my hand, but I think the rational side is strong enough to justify the effort.

So, what is involved in putting a book in print? Strangely, I’m less sure in this area. I know that all the printing services (Lulu, Lightning Source, and CreateSpace) want it as a PDF. Alas, unlike HTML, PDF files are something of a black box to me. Adobe keeps me well supplied with PDF readers, but PDF writers are in short supply.

Microsoft Word can export to a PDF, but is that a valid PDF? I recall once talking to a small publisher about sending files to Lightning Source, and she kept saying that I had to use Adobe’s In-Design because “the fonts have to be embedded.” I’m a little fuzzy on what that means, but it looks like it means adding the font definitions to the PDF file, just in case the print-on-demand machine doesn’t have them. Alas,
In-Design costs hundreds of dollars, so I may not be so quick to go down that road. I’ve seen a few tutorials that talk about simpler (or at least cheaper) ways to embed the fonts, but I haven’t tested them. If nothing else, I might hire out the job of making sure my fonts are embedded.

But there’s another question in my mind about the print formatting, and that is quite simply making it look good. A print book is a richer visual experience than an e-book. Issues of font choice, margins, line-spacing, headers, etc. are all handled somewhat automatically by the e-book reader. In print, all of this is under the control of the publisher, which in this case, would be me.

So my question is, do I actually know enough to make it look good? Certainly, I can look at other books and try to match their style, and I can contort Word around in lots of interesting ways, but until I actually see it in physical form, I’ll always be wondering if it looks more like The Catcher in the Rye or a 300-page ransom note. Clearly, this is another area I might pay a knowledgeable consultant to point me in the right direction.

The Cover to Be Judged

We always say don’t judge a book by its cover, but in reality we do it all the time. When strolling through a bookstore, we make that judgment multiple times a second, waiting for something visual to grab us. We may do it less when shopping online, but even then a catchy cover will get me to click through and see what it’s about. A boring cover fades into the background of the page.

So, apart from cleavage and explosions, what should my cover have? Ok, maybe it’s not that simple. It should have some relation to the story inside, but I feel strongly that cover art should not live within the straightjacket of illustration. Instead of trying to show a scene from the book, I think the artwork should try to capture something of the essence of the story. Maybe it’s a unique view. Maybe it’s an emotive character. And hey, maybe it is cleavage and explosions, but I’m going to wait a while before launching my bestseller Bomb Boobies of Babylon!

I think I can do the artwork myself. I did quite a bit of digital painting from 2005 through 2009, and while I have focused more on my writing lately, I think I can do a decent job at it. If it turns out badly, I might simply take it to another one of my artist friends and say, “Can you paint this… only good?”

Then there’s the title, my name, the blurb on the back, and so on. That’s less about art and more about graphic design. While I don’t have as much experience here as I do in the artwork itself, I’ve done enough that I at least have the technical skills. However, I won’t know until I try it whether or not it’s snazzy or forgettable. I will say that I already shortened the title because I could see it would not fit well on the cover.

The Package

Putting it all together with CreateSpace and the e-bookstores will be the final hurdle. Hopefully, it’s little more than navigating through the various web forms and uploading the content, but like parallel parking, you don’t know how hard or easy it is until you actually do it. (For the record, parallel parking is HARD!) This might be one of those areas where I could use an experienced hand guiding mine along, saying, “Click… NOW!”

There’s more to do after that, from marketing to sales pushes, getting reviews, and trumpeting them across the internet, but mostly I’m focusing on getting it out, and then getting the next one out, and so on and so on.

That’s it for now. Wish me luck!