Monday, June 15, 2015

How Much is a Book Worth?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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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  1. Before I was a writer, I was a huge consumer of books (obviously I still am). I could never separate the art debate from this question because that's precisely what DOES add value to it. Books are ideas laden with emotion and philosophy. They cause revolutions, inspire change, shape belief systems, topple nations. This is precisely why it's so difficult to put a price on them.

    In terms of the actual market question, I agree with the niche argument. But also, shouldn't pricing reflect the hours spent enjoying a book? I think about movies and their price tags of $10-$15 + popcorn and other junk and someone has easily spent what it costs for a hardback for only two hours of entertainment. Readers get hours and hours. That is a problem in itself, though. I think the REAL problem is, when consumers buy a book, they're making a commitment to all of those hours and I think THAT is what keeps people from plunging in more often--they don't want to give up that much time.

    1. Interesting, and it does make sense in today's immediate gratification world.

  2. Interesting topic! Haha I wish it was even possible to buy paperbacks for $10 in Australia, on average the bare minimum is like $14 (both in bookstores and online - and I'm taking exchange rates into account). Personally I'd be willing to pay up to $20 for a paperback if it was a book I REALLY wanted to read.

    I read Jody Hedlund's comparison and I'm not sure it's the best basis. From an economics standpoint, books are non-rival - one person's consumption doesn't diminish another's (i.e. a book doesn't vanish after you read it once, unlike food!) This is probably why people would value such products less - the cost of each /extra unit/ isn't strictly tied to the author's time and effort (or the editor's and publisher's), and people subconsciously take that into account in their willingness to pay. Though Heather's point about movies is true, with regards to time spent enjoying it...

    1. Ouch, that's a lot. The non-compete factor could play a role in higher prices. Not as much need to beat the other guy on price.

  3. I like your first statement, that it's the app's price that is low, because it's not only possible but easy (in theory) to sell it in much larger numbers. Burgers are the opposite, where each one is made on the spot, and we aren't downloading one of an infinity of copies of it.

    A really good book *ought* to be priced based on the hours of fun it gives, and sometimes a Stephen King will be priced a little that way; we lesser folks are discounted based on how we aren't as reliable in delivering the same experience (especially with varying reader tastes in the mix). That's another difference from apps: there you can tell in a minute if it does the job or not.

    So what keeps authors from charging what we're worth may be that it's hard to define just what we're delivering and what the reader wants, and all the rest is just letting quality and particular tastes start to show. (Though I'm with Heather too; all the time and effort it takes to follow a book, compared to other media, does mean it gets a kind of "do it yourself" discount.)

    1. I think it's also just hard for any artist to know what they're "worth." When that equates to a product, it gets even murkier.

  4. Hmmm.... I buy 99 cent e-books classics that are in public domain. I buy also sometimes buy used books cheap at thrift stores and library sales. I've found some excellent out-of-print books that I had been keeping an eye out for that way.

    I do like to support authors by buying their latest books. I'm paying them for their time and work. Sometimes I'm also paying for the privilege of owning their work as soon as it comes out- the same way someone might pay extra to see a movie as soon as it hits the theaters.

  5. Actually, this is Economics 101. It's the principle of supply and demand. A paperback may be worth $9.99 but if no one is interested in the book, it's worth zero and won't leave the shelf. No one is going to profit from it. Apps are hot these days. And depending on how popular a specific one is and what the wholesale cost was will determine the price for that particular app for the public.

    However, this is coming from the perspective of most business(if not all). It doesn't include the blood, sweat, or tears that went into the book. It don't involve the literary or artist value of the book. Unfortunately, these values are worth as much as they used to be.

  6. I don't know how many apps people are likely to buy per month, so I don't know whether total expenditures on books versus apps are a factor.

  7. The real question from my point of view isn't what a book is worth for us. We're writers. Every book is a gem.

    But we don't sell to ourselves or to each other as much as we sell to a consumer base. Readers.

    The reader--the consumer--is the one who ultimately decides the value of a book or anything else. You can set your prices wherever you want (if you're indie), but it's up to the reading public whether or not you get that price.

  8. I second Heather Webb...books are probably undervalued on a cost-per-hour-of-entertainment basis.

    I'd also add that a slightly higher ebook price is a signal from the publisher to the reader: We value this book, so you should, too. Giveaways and .99 cent ebooks may rack up impressive numbers, but I suspect many of those books fall back in the Kindle carousel, unread and forgotten. Most decisions are emotion-based, and if you remember the decision to buy, you're far more likely to go back and read the book. (I interviewed for a job with Amazon once, and when I explained my thinking on this to the interviewer, she reacted as if I had two heads--like she couldn't comprehend this line of thought.) Obviously you don't want to rip people off, but if you sell them a book that they may not be interested in, but that they bought just because the price was low, you're not doing anyone any favors either.

  9. The guy who really could get away with thinking the book equal to the app would normally not be consuming the book. Unless the app involved reading books of course!

  10. I think you have to separate works of art from other products that require hard work to produce. Functional value is a higher priority than the aesthetic. Of course, many products combine the two, and the aesthetic is certainly the side that ups the price. Compare Chevys and mercedes, for instance. Still, the potential market is rooted in functionality. When aesthetic value is the only appeal, there will be less demand simply because we must first purchase what we need before splurging on our desires. That means that functional products can be sold profitably on the cheap because there is a larger market for them, whereas art is a luxury that few can afford, and therefore its valuation must be higher to realize a return.

    Unfortunately, novels, like music, have the pitfall of being available for free, or next to it, if one is willing to a) look, and/or b) show patience. Hard covers are eventually released in paperback, and all books are marked down after the initial wave of interest subsides. There are also libraries to consider, or a friend may very well lend you a dog-eared copy of the latest best-seller when he or she is through with it. Further lowering the perceived value of books is the fact that, unlike paintings and sculptures, which are lucrative for their prototypical nature, all books on the market are reproductions.

    The combination of a lack of functionality and swift depreciation creates a pricing quandary for writers, especially when self-publishing. The natural temptation is to slash your prices from the outset to be competitive and develop a following. That is alright if you consider your work to be in line with a Chevy, or worse, a Hyundai. It should be remembered, however, that Elantra owners rarely upgrade to an S Series (unless they've won the lottery). When you raise your prices, very few of your readers are going to follow you to the high rent district.

    So, if you think of your work as a Rolls Royce of fiction (or Ferrari for the action-oriented), your pricing should remain firm. Don't devalue your work even though it may take longer to develop your audience.