I am publishing a collection of short stories as an e-book. In this week’s blog posts I’m trying to work through the relevant pricing issues and set a price for that content.
If you’re bringing your first crop of parsnips to market, at some point you find out what everybody else is getting for their parsnips. Maybe you randomly phone-check prices in several locations, or maybe you do insanely-thorough research down to the type of parsnip sold, the number sold and the time, date and weather conditions of each sale, but in the end the idea is the same: you try to figure out what your parsnips are worth based on what other parsnip growers are getting paid.
As noted in yesterday’s post, I’m not a big book buyer, so I don’t have a lot of real-world experience to draw from in pricing a short story collection. From the reading I’ve done over the past six months or so I’ve learned something about the price ranges for publishing products, with the emphasis on general, but I don’t know much beyond that. So doing a little product research seemed like both the obvious and easy way to go in resolving my pricing questions.
I’m now here to tell you that gathering meaningful, useful data on book prices is not as simple as it seems. I’m quite confident that someone on the interweb has all this information automatically downloaded and arranged on a daily basis in handy, sortable tables, but I haven’t been able to find that person or their data. (Yes, I really looked. No, I probably didn’t search as hard as I should have. No, I don’t think you’re unkind for pointing that out.)
Attempting to do the same thing using consumer tools proved even more frustrating. For example, a quick search at one of the larger online book retailers reveals that short story collections vary in price from $0 to over $1,000,000. Unfortunately, not only is there no useful filter to screen out the anomalies (if you limit a search to ‘new’ books the top price is still over $2,000), but the low-to-high sort option on this best-of-breed site also appears to be broken.
Which is why, after blowing an hour of my life trying to filter out idiotic outlying prices and fly-by-night third-party resellers (who are actually encouraged to infest this particular site), I decided to change tacks and look up specific short story collections to see what I might learn. Or not:
- John Updike’s My Father’s Tears and Other Stories is selling for $17 in hardcover, $11 in paperback, and — surprisingly (to me, anyway), $14 as a Kindle e-book. Really? The digital version is $3 more than the paperback? On what basis?
- Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness: Stories is also $17 in hardcover, has no paperback listed, and is $10 as Kindle e-book. (Updike gets $4 more for his Kindle version? Can anybody explain this to me?)
- Ernest Hemingway’s The Short Stories — a classic by any and every definition — is $23 hardcover, $12.50 paperback, and $7.50 Kindle. (Okay…clearly they’re just making these Kindle prices up.) By the way, this is a big book: 464 pages, and close to 50 stories. By that measure my 12 short stories in hardcover would sell for about $6, if I was Ernest Hemingway….
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Mark, these are all famous short story writers. And you’re a guy wearing a propeller beanie.” Well, yes. But me and my propeller beanie are interested in what seems to be a rare bird: the non-discounted, non-inflated book price. It’s no good to look at books that have been priced higher in the market simply because they’re hard to find, just as it’s no good to look at books being heavily discounted or remaindered like rotting fish. Only by looking at the price of books that are readily and steadily available in the market — meaning the classics, or popular contemporary authors — do I think I can learn something about the price of books apart from the influence of fluctuating demand.
- Louis L’Amour’s The Collected Short Stories of Louis L’Amour, Volume 6: The Crime Stories has a hardcover price of $16.50, a large-print paperback price of $19, and a Kindle price of $15. So the price of a sacred hardcover is $1.50 more than the evil e-book price, but both are less than the corrected-vision paperback?
With that I hope you now understand why I gave up trying to price my short story collection using product research. There’s no sense to any of these prices, or, more importantly, to any relationship between p-book and e-book prices. None. It’s all being made up for the same reason I’m having to flail at the problem: nobody knows what the price of an e-book should be.
(You can see further confirmation of this fact — and I do say it is a fact — in a post on the publishing industry’s recent attempt to control the pricing of their products. Central to the industry’s full-court February offensive was the idea that consumer sentiment about e-book prices is ‘unrealistic’, if not ‘entitlement thinking’. This kind of price-control rhetoric is known either as ‘positioning’ or as ‘propaganda’, depending on your point of view, but it’s a practice I won’t be engaging in myself.)
To myself as a would-be independent online publisher, and to the larger publishing industry as a whole, I have to ask: is this any way to run a business? The answer, of course is no, which means it’s clearly time to try another pricing approach. (For the sake of completeness, by which I mean complete insanity, I went to several other online booksellers and checked prices there over the course of several hours. They made as much sense.)
As a related aside, and as noted above, I’m not famous. As noted elsewhere, I don’t want to be — at least in terms of celebrity. (I would love it if people equated my name with good stories. I would not love it if they equated my name with talk show appearances.)
Because I’m a complete unknown to book readers I feel a kind of self-conscious pressure to adjust my price downward to account for that status — and even so in those fleeting moments when I’m convinced that my stories are not terrible. Because I’m self-publishing rather than fighting my way past the industry’s vaunted query/agent/editor/publisher defenses, I also feel as if this demands some sort of capitulation on my part — even as I know that the industry no longer has any credible claim to piety. Because I’m publishing my stories online in e-book form I have no sacred object with which readers can bond, and I again feel as if I need to lower my price to accommodate that shortcoming — even as I recognize that I’m essentially devaluing my own content in preference of an archaic, tree-destroying physical object that must be shipped from Point A to Point B using fossil fuels.
And then the nightmares really begin. Should my price be less because this is my first ‘published’ work, even though I’ve been writing and telling stories and getting paid to do the same for twenty years? Do writing credits in other industries mean nothing when you publish fiction — either in terms of the price you set or your worth as a storyteller? Do I have to cut my price because I’m not a 22-year-old wunderkind fresh out of some Ivy League fiction factory, pipelined into the publishing world on the omnipresent career grease of great social contacts and whitened teeth? Or should I discount my price in deference to prices commanded by truly great writers? If an e-book of Hemingway’s best is X, should Barrett’s best be half-X? One-quarter X? One tenth? Should I just kill myself and donate my organs to the Hemingway foundation? Is there a Hemingway foundation?
Determining the specific value of my content by trying to determine the specific value of others things seems an iffy proposition at best. Straying from actual transactions into the netherworld of hype and celebrity strikes me as a one-way ticket to a rubber room. To the extent that ignoring these issues may make me seem egotistical, I’m not happy about that. But I’m not sure I have any choice. In publishing my own content I am saying I intend it to be as good as content that passes muster with industry gatekeepers. I am, quite literally, saying that I don’t need those people to help me, or to get in my way, or to approve of me, and that’s an egotistical thing.
How that should affect the price of my content I don’t know. But right now I don’t feel as if I owe anybody a price cut because I don’t have an industry stamp on my forehead. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but it’s how I feel.
— Mark Barrett