We MUST Have a Voice!
Remember this guy?
Yes, it’s Christian Bale, but many of us knew him before he was Batman, back when he was Jack Kelly, the newsie who shook the entire city of New York during the strike of 1899. He’s portrayed by Sexy Mr. Bale in the film Newsies. Why am I bringing him up? Well, sometimes history repeats itself and the answers are there, but we don’t immediately recognize the obvious.
I started writing in 2008. My first book was published at the close of 2011. I earned my first big contract with an industry giant in 2013 and figured my career was set. Guess again. I’m what the publishing community refers to as a hybrid author. That means I work under contract to traditional publishing houses in New York, published with small presses, and self-published the majority of my backlist. I never intended to self-publish, but with the close of so many small presses, it’s the most secure avenue I’ve found (in my personal opinion).
How my prices lowered when I went Indie…
It’s also no secret that self published authors make 35%-70% royalties and that profit belongs solely to the author (before taxes of course. The IRS gets their fair share from us authors each April). The bonus of earning such high percentages is that we also have the autonomy to price our work as we see fit. When one of my small presses closed without warning, I had to jump into self-publishing and learn the tricks of the trade quickly. Formerly, some of my readers complained about my books being priced too high when sold by small presses, but contracted authors have zero say in the final price of a book. With the small press, my ebooks (novels roughly 400 pages each) were priced between $5.99 and $7.99 (set by word count at the publisher’s discretion). Each sale was divvied up between the publisher, author, editor, copyeditor, cover artists, and of course, the distributor. Royalties are a lot smaller when divided that many ways than they are when an author is independently published and a sale is only divided between the writer and distributor. With my small press I earned an income of about $4.00 per book (before taxes), but I wasn’t making as many sales as I would pricing my books at, say, $2.99.
Here’s a little marketing tidbit…
Lower Prices = More Sales
Higher Prices = Less Sales but more money per sale
$2.99 is a hot number. It’s the cusp on Amazon that separates the authors earning 70% from those earning 35%.
Here’s how Amazon works…
FREE books = 0 Royalty
$0.99 to $2.98 books = 35% Royalty
Anything over $2.99 = 70% Royalty
In short, a $0.99 book earns an author $0.35 per sale. A $2.99 book earns the author $2.09 per sale. And to make my point about how big the gap between $2.99 and $2.98 actually is, that one penny drops an author’s royalty from $2.09 to $1.04. That’s one pricey penny!
When I joined the ranks of the self-published world, I decided to help my readers by lowering my prices. I dropped the majority of my books to $2.99 (that’s $3 to $5 cheaper than what they were spending with my previous small press publisher) and I made half as much per sale, but I sold twice as many novels. In this business it’s all about exposure, so I was fine with those numbers. The result was great. I made more with Amazon than I did with any small house, but each author’s experience is different. I really felt the closing of my small press was a blessing in disguise, until everything changed.
My staff and I have scratched our heads for months, trying to pin point the sweet spot of the self publishing market. Honestly, it’s like trying to locate the g-spot of a woman… sometimes that stuff only happens in fiction (Buh-dum-bump). But this was no laughing matter. Not only were my sales tanking, so were the rest of my friends’ sales. Please also keep in mind that indie authors are responsible for all the other expenses that go into publishing. My last novel, when all was said and done, cost over $2,500.00 to polish and perfect (think editing, audio, cover art, marketing, book tours, proofs, printing, and postage). It’s a lot to gamble, but a good quality product should show a fair return, if things are operating as they should. Unfortunately, they’re not.
Like a funeral procession, I watched as each day, another author threw in their hat and gave up on the dream. It was beyond scary and as the amount of self-sufficient authors dwindled, so did my sales. This is with the continuous price drops, which should drive sales up. But they weren’t.
The Industry Climate Changes…
Here’s what was happening… Someone had the brilliant idea of dropping their prices down to $0.99. This was once a steal for a book! the readers jumped on the opportunity. Then that author hit a bestseller list. Awesome! That’s what we all hope for. Other authors saw what Author #1 was doing and did the same. The market overflowed with $0.99 books, and not just novellas, these were full length novels, something that takes months or years to write. Once $0.99 books became the norm, authors started pricing them for FREE, and while this did nothing for their income, it did get them the coveted exposure we all hope to find and more sales, but again, they made $0 on each sale. Please don’t take this as complaining. This is just a recap of history. All of the above is clever marketing and part of doing business in a saturated market. But then the game changed again.
Authors then got together and started selling bundles or box sets or what used to be called anthologies. This was a fine practice that opened authors up to new audiences by riding the success of other professionals and sharing a bit of their own readers as well. But when box sets started getting crowded, squeezing 24+ full length novels into one set, things went awry. To compete with the saturated market, box sets were priced at $0.99, sometimes even sold for FREE! When a box set hits a best seller list, all the authors involved reap the notoriety. However, they were making less than a penny per sale. This was summed up beautifully in an article by author Mia Downing, which you can read HERE. Ms. Downing also pointed out that in one week, she was able to download over 170 full length novels without spending a penny. If that many books are available for free, who has time or the need to buy books? Just take a minute and imagine how long it would take to read 170 novels.
Just as Ms. Downing pointed out in her article, many have pointed fingers. Some blame Amazon. Some blame the Big Six publishing houses in New York. Some even blame promotional giants that require authors to spend upwards of $1,000.00 to be featured in one (1) email and require their book be marked as FREE. Marketing is a bitch. There’s no debate about that. Authors are spread thin, trying to figure out how to market their work, maintain an online presence, host parties, run giveaways, coordinate with editors and artists, and don’t forget, write. It makes it really difficult to do all of this when making a few dollars, sometimes pennies a day. No, I’m not trying to play martyr or have a pity party. I’m trying to echo the poignant points Mia Downing made in her mentioned article above. We authors are drowning and we are doing it to ourselves.
Going back to my Newsies reference above, there’s more to this story than a cheerful Disney portrayal of down on their luck cutie pies dressed in Jeff caps and suspenders. There’s truth and a moral to be learned.
In 1898 publishers raised the cost of newspapers sold to newsboys from 50 cents to 60 cents per one hundred papers. This was due to the Spanish-American War. Because there was a war taking place, the price out of pocket was balanced by the increase of paper sales. So everyone won. But when the war ended, Joseph Pulitzer’s paper, The World, and William Randolph Hearst’s paper,The Journal remained priced higher than the newsies could afford. You see, newsies were impoverished children who were sometimes homeless. They only had their meager profits to survive and no one to speak on their behalf, as they were independent entrepreneurs much like us authors. So they went on strike, combining all their voices as one, until the world heard what they were trying to say.
This isn’t right.
If you watch the movie, you will get an enchanting, musical depiction of American history, be inspired by the strength of numbers, and awed by the power of integrity. While none of us authors are doing cartwheels in the streets and staging protests in an industry that operates mostly in cyber space these days, we are worrying. And many of us are whispering, “Something’s wrong.”
The book industry continues to crumble, and not just where independently published writers are concerned, but also in the land of skyscrapers and industry giants. What was once The Big Six is now more commonly referred to as The Big Four. Authors are left floundering while the standards continue to fall. What was once worth $5.00 and a week of pleasure has been devalued down to almost nothing. It hurts to warn budding writers away from author careers, but I feel it’s my duty with the recent climate of the industry. People will pay $2.00 for a cup of coffee, but anything over 99 pennies has become too much to ask for a book.
What can we do?
Something is wrong here and it will continue to be wrong until those that set it in motion unify and work together to correct what has become a very dangerous situation. As the lovely Ms. Downing said, we authors have done this to ourselves. No superhero is going to come along and magically save the day. We need to put our Jack Kelly hats on and leave batman out of it, because this is not a you or a me thing, it’s an all of us thing. I commend Mia Downing on her brave article. It’s a scary thing, talking about the fall of an empire when the world seems more comfortable sitting silently watching it decay. But we can’t go on like this. Readers need good books and authors truly need to write them. (If not, we get squirrely and cranky.) These authors that throw in the towel, they are not just walking away from a dream or a hobby. They are walking away from careers. They’re having to return to Go, not collect $200, and pick up the pieces where they fall.
It is my hope, with this article, to not garner pity or sympathy, but empathy, that critical emotion every great story has. We need to work together. We need to stop underpricing our work and help the market heal. I’ve done the roller coaster experiment. The gains are no longer as great as they once were when marking a book 60% below the economically feasible price. We are all losing and we are all sinking. Now that we’ve identified the problem it’s time to turn our attention to a solution.
I write this article as a plea, to my fellow indie authors and the readers who invest so much into the entertainment we diligently work to provide. We must raise the bar and find balance once again. While giveaways are great and I will continue to do them regularly, our full length novels must maintain prices that lead to sustainable incomes, or we are all going to be out of a job sooner than we expect. I ask my indie friends stand together and hold a standard that both readers and writers can agree upon. Think twice before you cross that $2.99 mark. Hold tight to what you hold dear and keep pouring your heart and soul into every word.
How you can help…
Just as I’ve been inspired by Mia Downing’s plea for change, I, too, intend to carry the torch, shedding light on the issue at hand, by writing my own article here. I encourage–no, beg–you to do the same. Make $2.99 as low as we go and share your thoughts on the subject with your own readers, so that word gets out. We need to speak out and speak up, so that the readers understand this is nothing against them, but something we must do for us. Please, blog to them and let them know how things are on the other side of the fence. I understand some of us are locked into sales and can’t immediately make a change, but let’s make an effort as a whole, to keep our books above the cusp (above $2.99). Eventually the market will rebuild and, if we work together, I believe we can recover faster than we ever would working alone.
Like the quote says, “Headlines don’t sell papes. Newsies sell papes!” We are no longer dependent on the big dogs and a great deal of accountability rests on our shoulders. Times have changed. The market has changed. And “Publishers no longer sell books. Authors sell books!” So let’s make some sales at a fair price and keep on writing.