Thursday, January 9, 2014

Writing 101: The Great Cheap Book Debate

Depending on who you ask, cheap ebooks are either a scourge upon society and the potential death of all literature...or an amazing way to affordably spread the written word. I got pulled into the great cheap book debate rather unexpectedly recently. Much of the argument has since taken place between me...and me. 

Why Cheap Books Are Bad

I search for myself quite regularly on Google -- not because I'm vain (though for the record, I am) but because I advise all indie authors to do this. I stumbled across some of my own blog posts being plagiarized one day, and I've since appointed myself as my own watchdog. So imagine my surprise when I found my name appearing in a debate about cheap books...and how evil they are.

I was introduced into the topic in the comments section, after I'd already read through an impassioned blog post and a very persuasive argument that nearly inspired me to run right to my Amazon page and lift the price on all my novels.

Blogger Karen Hooper explained her reasoning very well, and admitted that she, too, has filled her Kindle with free and $0.99 books. She argues that such low prices devalue the entire market, and that soon traditionally published authors may find themselves unable to compete. 

And she's right. Writing a book is a massive undertaking. It requires research and thought and plotting and pacing and sweating and crying...and that all happens before you get to the really hard part, editing. I took almost a year to write my last book, and it doesn't quite hit the 60,000 word mark. Is there any amount of money that can really compensate me for all the nights I sat on the couch, staring at the screen and trying to dig through my imagination to make the words appear? 

Maybe it's $0.99, the price of my newest book. I have to sell precisely 117 books before I earn back the money I spent on it, and that's with zero time and labor put into the thing. So by Hooper's logic, I'm definitely under-pricing my work. That's exactly how I got brought into the discussion, as a matter of fact. A commenter pointed out that my books are cheap, yet they're worth so much more (thanks!). 

I'd like to believe that's true, but I'm not going to change the price of my books based on this blog post -- no matter how sensible or impassioned or logical the plea. Because I really, really like the fact that people can very, very easily get free and cheap books. I think all books should be cheap books. I think people should be swimming in books.

Maybe that will encourage them to start reading those books. 

Devils' Advocate

The market is full of cheap and free books, and thanks to ereaders they're more accessible than ever. And you know what? The market needs a whole lot more cheap books. In the past 10 years, the US illiteracy rate has not moved. We are losing an extremely important battle and it's terrifying. 

The written word is one of the oldest art forms mankind ever created, and as of the writing of this post there are 32 million adults who cannot read in the United States alone. That's 14% of the adult population. And if you're not in tears yet, here's more: 21% of adults in the US read below a 5th grade level. Around 63% of prison inmates can't read, by the way. Notice how off that seems? Around 14% of all adults can't read, and 63% of the adults in prison can't read. Could there possibly be a connection here, somewhere? 

Almost 19% of high school graduates can't read, and of all the illiterate people in the world 66% of them are female. 

Studies show that two-thirds of all children who cannot read well by the end of the 4th grade will end up in prison or on welfare. One in four children in America will grow up without learning how to read. Low literacy levels have been linked to higher occurrences of juvenile detention, teen pregnancy and high healthcare costs.

And despite all the cheap books already out there, 44% of Americans don't read even one book in a calendar year. Of those who can read, many do so poorly. Around half of all Americans, 50%, read so badly they can't even follow the label on a prescription bottle of drugs.

We're going to need a lot more free books, I think. 

Money and Me

And now for the disclaimer. I'm not the best person to reasonably argue any debate that concerns any amount of money. I personally believe we ought to do away with money and go back to a system of bartering, so I'm a subversive. 

But at the end of the day, most indie authors don't make much money no matter what they do. Most traditionally published authors don't make a lot of money, no matter what they and their agents do. You have to be a consistent bestseller to earn all of your income from writing novels, or you have to be a prolific writer with a healthy fan base that purchases everything you write. The vast majority of indie authors make very little money from their efforts. 

I've said many times that self-published authors shouldn't price their books based on the amount of money they hope to earn, because chances are you won't make any. You should always price your books based upon your market, and that's what any professional retailer or salesperson will tell you. The amount of love and time and tears you pour into your books can never be equaled, anyway, and even if it could money is a cold substitute for just one sincere fan letter. And besides, if we're going to price books based on value then nobody would ever be able to afford Gone With the Wind

So what's my opinion on the great cheap book debate? ...Maybe all books should be free. If that makes it possible for everyone in the world to read, I'll be the first to slash my prices right down to zero.

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  1. See, you raise a good point too. We do need to get more books into the hands of the masses. This is really one of those debates that can never be won.

    I still think your books are worth more than you charge, just my two cents. Hope you aren't upset with me for the name drop. I didn't even think about that in the moment.

  2. I was very pleased with your name dropping! I always need another idea for a blog post. Thanks for your comment!