A recent article got my husband and I chatting over lunch about the value of a book (more of an intellectual debate really), and Jody Hedlund’s post on books vs. burgers got me thinking about it even more. My husband made a very interesting comparison I felt was worth more open discussion, and I'd like to hear what you guys think.
Let’s imagine two people who have day jobs and work on projects at home in their spare time. One is a writer, working on her novel. The other is a programmer working on his app. Both projects take skill, knowledge, and creativity, and both take a year to complete.
The programmer puts his app out for 99 cents.
The writer self publishes and puts her ebook out for $3.99.
Why does the writer get to charge more? Why is the book worth more than the app?
It's hard to discuss this without delving into the "are books art?" debate, but that's not the question I'm posing today--it’s more about debating the commercial value of a creative product in the marketplace compared to another creative product.
There's a belief in the literary world that books are special, and thus deserve special treatment, but the reality is books are a product just like any other. What makes the writer who slaves away on nights and weekends to publish a book any different from the programmer who slaves away nights and weekends to create an app? Why is the book worth more?
Personally, I knew in my heart that 99 cents was just too low for an ebook, and my husband kept asking why. Gut reaction wasn't good enough for this debate, I had to articulate my reasons for this opinion. Much as I hate to admit it, I was hard pressed to answer, because I had an emotional response to that question, not an intellectual one. I love books, I write books, I feel they're important and worthy of a higher price. To me, they are special. But I couldn't give a single argument as to why that wasn't "because I love books and that's how I feel" in nature.
After much debate, it came down to this:
Apps have a much wider potential audience, while books are more of a niche market. Niche market products typically sell for more. The 99 cent app had a potential for far greater sales due to market size than the $3.99 ebook.This made sense to both of us, which of course led into...
What is a book worth?
We all have a price line we won't cross when it comes to buying books. For example, $4.99 for an ebook is fine, but $12.99 is way too much. Or $5.99 for a paperback is acceptable, but $9.99 isn't. $17.99 for a hardcover is pushing it, but doable, but $29.99? Forget it.
And then there’s the difference between a brand-new author and an author we’ve read for years and love. We might not think twice about buying a hardcover copy of our favorite author's new book, but we’ll balk at spending the same amount on someone we’ve never heard of. The value of the book changes based on who wrote it and how we feel about the author.
As Hedlund's post illustrates, there’s a long-running comparison that someone will happily pay $5 for a cup of coffee or $8 for a burger, then complain about the $3 ebook, so clearly there is a range of “worth” where the average book consumer feels books should go. The public feels X experience is worth X amount vs. Y experience is worth Y amount, no matter what product we’re looking at.
On a site like this, aimed at writers, our views will naturally be skewed toward books being worth more because we love them. But put aside our love of the literary, our views on what authors ought to get paid, the concept of what’s a fair percentage for author vs. vendor or publisher for a few minutes. For this exercise, think like a book consumer.
What is a book worth? Why?
Let’s hear your thoughts on this.
Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.
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