The $0.99 Dilemma


I’d like to dip my toes into some dangerous waters.  Dangerous because I know there are strong emotions around the issue.  And dangerous because I’m largely an outsider to the issue.  But it’s an issue that’s been floating around various writing blogs, and that I have my own thoughts on: the 99 cent eBook.

There’s a recent school of thought that 99 cents is the natural price for a writer trying to break into the market, someone trying to make a name for himself.  Some have even suggested it’s the “proper” price of all eBooks.  The argument goes that it’s the lowest allowable price, which makes it the lowest investment purchase for a reader while still giving the writer at least some money.  It’s also a step above free, which clearly leaves nothing for the writer who has put effort into this work of fiction, and is often viewed by readers as an admission of poor quality (public domain works notwithstanding).

I have some problems with the 99 cent price point.

Is 99 Cents the New Free?

Apple did this.  Amazon did this.  They set 99 cents as the cheapest an item could be, whether in the App or Kindle store, while not being free.  This was, in part, to prevent a race-to-the-bottom.  With this pricing scheme, two people with competing apps or books can’t leapfrog each other on the race to be the cheapest offering by shaving off two cents at a go.  If you want your impulse buyers but still want buyers rather than takers, the floor is 99 cents.  These are companies looking to make money too, and while they’re willing to support free apps and books as loss leaders, using their resources of hard drive space (though that’s basically free anymore) and bandwidth, they’re not willing to work out a revenue split on a nickle or penny.

And who can blame them, really.  It’s easy to forget the middlemen in the modern microtransactional marketplace, to feel that we’re buying directly from developers or writers, but this isn’t the case.  If anything, the need for middlemen becomes more important with digital transactions.  It protects both the creators and the buyers.  But that’s not the point of this post.  The point is that, through these decisions of 99 cents as the absolute price point floor, they’ve created a new reality in which 99 cents feels nearly free.

And isn’t it?  Have you ever paid for something out of your pocket change and had it felt free?  Have you ever cashed in your coin jar and felt like the resulting money was somehow a windfall, found money?  Inflation has created a modern America where coinage has less of a value than in the past, it’s what was left over after we paid for something.  There’s also psychology at play, the same psychology that’s always been at play with prices that end in 99 cents.  Going from $99.99 to $100 is, in terms of percentage, a minimalistic increase, but in terms of a human animal predisposed to look for round numbers and thresholds, the difference between “Under $100!” and “Only $100!” is a surprising chasm.

So if 99 cents is “Under $1!” and we’ve come to devalue change, doesn’t this price point become essentially free?

And if it’s the new free, the new ultimately disposable price point, doesn’t it have the same issues as free always has?  Doesn’t it become the mire through which someone has to dig to find the gems, the legitimate loss leader books that will hook you on a new series hidden among the books that have been thrown up in haste and cynicism.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I love that the new digital marketplace for goods and ideas has opened a door that never existed before.  It’s the idea that literature can be microtransactional.  There are now places to buy and sell short stories à la carte, which opens up ways for writers and readers to connect to each other in new ways.  By transacting in units of one short story, readers can pick and choose who and what they’re reading.  By selling units of one short story, an author can try something new or even, as I’ve discussed before, expand their world for the most curious and devoted of fans.

This has also reopened the novella market, traditionally the hardest length of fiction to sell because it has the fewest markets. They’re not long enough for separate publication in the eyes of most traditional print publishers, but they require serialization in a magazine or a lion’s share of an anthology, which asks a lot of the editors of either.  However in modern ePublication, length doesn’t matter like it once did.  Because there aren’t limited resources, like page numbers, to fight over, and there aren’t super-skinny spines to hide among the novels on store shelves, novellas can stand their own.

But with the 99 cent price point for novels, these two markets get squeezed again.  There’s no way to go down from 99 cents, so there’s a situation where novels, novellas, and short stories, all works of differing lengths with various expectations, end up lumped together at the same price point.  And that’s unfair not just to the short stories and novellas, but to the novels as well.

Pricing Proposal

So if we’re stuck in a marketplace that sets a floor at 99 cents, and allows for publication of fiction at any length the author chooses, shouldn’t 99 cents be the proper price point for a short story, rather than a novel?  This price point isn’t far off from most print journals or anthologies, it only looks cheaper because you aren’t “forced” to buy stories you “don’t want.”

Please note I put both of those in quotes.  I don’t ascribe to that theory.  I’ve had several instances where my favorite stories in an anthology weren’t the ones I bought it for.

Next step up.  Novellas.  Longer than short stories, requiring more work from the author and often entered into with more expectations from the readers.  Since the market place requires prices that step up in whole dollars, the next cheapest price point allowable is $1.99.  Step up a dollar again for novels, and you’re at $2.99.  Which in my thinking really is the magic number.

Not only does $2.99 create space for shorter-form fiction in the marketplace, it’s also an important threshold in Amazon, the point where the self publishing author jumps from a 35% share of the revenue to a 70% share of the revenue.  Now, I know that a lot of writers who are hanging out in the 99 cent price point aren’t there for the money.  But…they are.  If they were there for just the exposure, they’d be pricing things for free.  At 99 cents, they’re calling their product something worth paying for, something that they want to see monetary gains from, even if they will be minimal.

The Fiction of Exposure

But the exposure.  99 cents gets you exposure!

It’s true that there are a lot of Kindle readers who are willing to buy books at that 99 cent price point without a second thought, who will read authors they wouldn’t have read before because the book was nearly cheap-as-free.  There are two problems here.  First, there’s already a sampling process within the Kindle Store, one that any author must take full advantage of.  Second, exposure only works if the book is worth being exposed to.  I know there are stories online of people who have had a lot of success with 99 cent books, who have seen their titles shoot up the charts, and who perhaps even made an appreciable amount of money 35 cents at a time.  Not enough to retire on, but perhaps enough to vacation on.

And people have successfully offered the first book of a series for 99 cents to get someone hooked.  Remember the drug dealers in the old after school (and sometimes during school) specials we used to watch?  The first one’s always cheap, get someone hooked, then jack up the price.  It’s a legitimate marketing strategy, and some authors have used it with out-of-print back catalog titles of ongoing series.

But the trick with exposure: it’s only exposure.  It’s not inherently good.  It lays you bare and lets people see you for what you are.  And if they don’t like what they see, they aren’t going to want to see any more.  To put it simply: 99 cents is not a license for bad writing.

Be Worth Your Price Point

Why are we willing to pay more for the new Stephen King book?  Because it’s a known quantity.  We also know that it’s been vetted, edited, revised, and cleaned up.  All by professionals.  Mr. King didn’t just finish 11/22/63 then stick it on Smashwords the next day.  The self published writer looking to make a name on the Kindle store finds himself in a store that also offers King, may even find himself in the same list of search results as a King novel.  But he doesn’t have the name, doesn’t have the promise of a professional publishing house, so he uses the only tool in his arsenal: undercutting the price.

But just because he’s able to put his book up there for 99 cents, or even $2.99, doesn’t mean that it can be of clearly inferior quality.  Because readers will be turned off.  The success stories that have come out of authors self publishing on Kindle don’t come from people who have slapped up their Nanowrimo novels and called it a day, they’re from either established writers who are self publishing their rights-reverted back catalog, or from writers who have busted their asses making sure the product they’ve created is as indistinguishable as possible from professionally published novels.

Need I remind you, Amanda Hocking eagerly signed a publishing contract rather than staying self published.

Any novel presented to the public at large should be worth at least $2.99, because if it’s only worth 99 cents, then the writer is cheating his reading audience, and in turn is really cheating himself because the negative exposure will stick.  I learned this first hand with my one venture into self publishing on Kindle when I did put up something that wasn’t worth the $1.99 I was charging for it.

Looking at this from another angle: My wife is the fastest reader I know, and even then I’ve never seen her go through a novel in less than four hours.  At $2.99 that’s only asking 75 cents per hour of entertainment even for the speediest reader.  But it’s also asking for hours of a readers life.  This is a contract that goes both ways.

In Conclusion

There are legitimate uses for 99 cents in the Kindle store.  Getting people hooked on a series.  Offering books for limited period sales prices.  What I don’t agree with is the notion that it’s somehow the “right” price for the self published writer, or any writer, by definition.  You as a writer are worth more than that, and if your book isn’t, then it shouldn’t be published to begin with.  Is that harsh?  Yes.  Do I stand by it?  Yes.

It’s a new market out there.  And with any new market, there is going to be some growing time, and some learning time.  I suspect (at least I hope) that this 99 cent period is a fad and that the market value for a self published novel ends much higher.  Because novels are worth more than that.  They are an investment of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of hours of the writer’s time, and still stand as the best ratio of cost-per-time of any entertainment form on the market.  The 99 cent price point really devalues all of that.

So be worth it, and people will buy, even if the book costs a little more.

, , ,

  1. avatar

    #1 by Michael Haynes on December 21, 2011 - 11:47 am

    Interesting post. I especially like the point about the 99 cent novel creating a lack of appropriate price points for short stories/novellas.

    On the other hand, I’d rather pay 99 cents for a short story I knew there was a very good chance I would like as compared to a novel I had little reason to think would appeal to me.

    I suspect the biggest “trick” is how to get the right eyeballs to your story, regardless of length or price. (Though I’d also add that if you’re selling something other a novel you need a good way to make SURE that people know exactly what length of fiction they’re buying.)

    • avatar

      #2 by DLThurston on December 21, 2011 - 12:09 pm

      And that’s an important trick, I’ll agree. I’ve seen a few short stories offered in the Kindle store with poor reviews from readers who felt baited-and-switched into buying something far shorter than they expected.

  2. avatar

    #3 by Jeff Rubinoff on December 22, 2011 - 10:55 am

    Our friend Bill has been experimenting, rather successfully, with publishing for the Kindle and different pricing structures. See http://networkedblogs.com/rSgj6 for example.

  3. avatar

    #4 by majority on December 29, 2011 - 5:28 am

    Great post, even though-yes, it is a little late to tackle the subject of 99 cent ebooks. But didn’t you hear: FREE on Amazon’s Kdp Select is the new 99 cents! These people have tripped over themselves in that race to the bottom, that race to nowhere, and are offering Amazon Select EXCLUSIVITY on their ‘work’ in exchange for being able to give it away for free.

    Does that make any sense to you? It sure as hell doesn’t make sense to me. When a company asks for an exclusive on something, they PAY for it, usually up front, and try to entice the content creator. But with KDP Select they’re only saying :Hey, we’ll give your work away for free to make out Prime Membership sell better. And over 50,000 writers have signed up for this.

    As far as the 99 cents, I’ve never bought one & won’t. I don’t shop by price, I shop by content first (followed by price). I don’t think about paying $10 for an ebook. Most paper books are $10-$35 at Barnes & Nobles. I never bought anything for 99 cents there.

    The 99 cent ebooks are sub-par to me. They’re inferior, less than, their authors are not professionals at all. If they were, they compete on value of content instead of “race to the bottom”. So no, I’ll skip over them to buy the higher priced content. 99 can appeal to cheapskates and moochers who count pennies and want the world for nothing. These ebook consumers and the authors who cater to them are in the minority and are so loud in expressing their opinions. Their loudness makes it seem like they’re in the majority when they’re not.

    • avatar

      #5 by DLThurston on December 29, 2011 - 8:35 am

      I’ll be interested to see what comes out of the first round of KDP Select payments, that mythic pot of money getting split among the participants. My understanding is that’s supposed to be the exchange for the exclusivity, but I agree it’s probably an inadequate payment

      I do hope you’re right about the race to 99 being a vocal minority of both writers and buyers.

(will not be published)


%d bloggers like this: