Cheaper Than Dirt

 Posted by at 10:30 PM  Tagged with: ,
Mar 042011

As gas rises well above $3 a gallon, and a latte at Starbucks can run you close to $4, it got me thinking more about the prices of e-books. There is lots of debate over bestsellers selling for over $9.99 — in many cases $12.99 or $14.99, which is beyond the price range I will generally pay for e-books. But, on the other end of the spectrum, one of the perennially most popular posts at the authors’ forums I hang out at is some variation of “Should I price my e-books at $0.99 or $2.99?”

This choice always manages to depress me. I understand the appeal of pricing our work as low as possible ($0.99 is the minimum sale price on Amazon’s Kindle store) and getting as many readers as possible. At one point, I even sold my novels for $0.99 each. But I also understand it’s an unsustainable price point, one that will not support authors producing quality work. Making the choice even less appealing is the fact that novels priced between $2.99 and $9.99 now earn 70% on Amazon, but only 35% for books below that price. (Barnes & Noble’s breakdown is similar: 65% / 40%). So, you’re only making half the royalty on one-third the price — meaning you make one-sixth the royalty on $0.99 books as on $2.99 books, leaving only 35 cents per sale. You’d have to sell 100,000 copies a year just to make any kind of living (yes, royalties are taxed, including self-employment tax), and there just aren’t many authors who will manage that. (UPDATE: there are 44 indies on the planet selling that many through Amazon.)

And, really, can readers not afford $2.99 for an e-book? Isn’t that a more than reasonable price? How many readers will say, “Sure, I’ll buy it for 99 cents, but $2.99 is just out of my price range”?

This debate also got me thinking about what a great deal a full-length novel for just $2.99 really is. For that price, you get several hours of entertainment (compared to a 90-minute movie for $10 or more), an instant download, a digital copy that lasts forever, text-to-speech, and all the other cool features of e-books, like adjustable text sizes and built-in dictionaries. At $2.99, that’s cheaper than dirt. I mean, what else can you buy these days for under $3? I set out to take a look.

Dirt: twice the price of e-books

Well, you can’t buy a gallon of gas or a latte for under $3 these days, but how does $2.99 compare to the prices of a few other inexpensive items? I mean, is an e-book literally cheaper than dirt?

I checked, and I couldn’t find a bag of dirt for less than $2.99. Their most popular brand of dirt is $6.99 — you can buy both books in my Edge of Apocalypse Series (Right Ascension and Declination) for less than that!

This is a depressing start.

OK, this is just insulting.

OK, let’s try something lower than dirt. How about … I don’t know … how about poop? Surely an e-book will be worth more than a bag of poop! Let’s check it out on Amazon … oh, crap. Does that bat guano really cost almost 10 bucks?? That’s more than all 3 of my novels combined!

All right, I know what you’re saying now: dirt and fertilizer can actually be useful, for gardening. Fine. A depressing line of thought, but fine. So how about if we look at something totally useless, and also gross and worthless. Something like … lemme see … fake poop! Yeah! Surely my e-books are worth more than fake poop, right? Right? Wrong.

So I set out to find the most useless item I could find, something with no redeeming value whatsoever. Some product that really just … stunk. And then I found this: a foul-smelling spray called (I swear I am not making this up) “liquid ass.” Surely my e-books are worth more than — wait, that junk is almost $5? And that’s on sale? I’m in the wrong line of work.

Water? For $3.39? That's still Hydrogen and Oxygen, right?

OK, maybe I’m going about this the wrong way. All of those things, while seemingly worthless, might have some value to someone (gardeners or pranksters, I suppose). But what about stuff that is even more plentiful than dirt or bat poop … stuff that’s all around us, like water or air??

So I checked trusty again and found this single bottle of water for … $3.39?? Wait, guys, water is still just Hydrogen and Oxygen, right? And you’re charging over $3 (plus shipping) for one lousy bottle? You know water falls from the sky, for free, right? It’s almost as plentiful as …

Then it hit me: air. Fine, e-books are just electronic ones and zeroes, etherial and without tangible form. But at the very least I should be able to rest assured that no one would pay more than $2.99 for air.

Unfortunately, the briefest of Amazon searches informed me that, yes, people are purchasing air in a can, and they’re paying $20 for the privilege. That’s … that’s more than I charge for a combination package of all 3 of my novels in paperback form.

Since this little experiment was depressing me more than I anticipated, I figured it was time to wrap it up. What is something that literally no one would ever pay more than $2.99 for? Something worth so much less than my e-books, that there’s no way it costs as much. Something that’s only worth a few cents?

The last straw.

That’s it! What would people pay to buy, literally, a few cents? A penny. A one cent piece. You know, the things you throw away or leave on the counter when you get them in change? And not an old, rare penny with numismatic value either, I mean a brand-spanking-new, not-worth-more-than-a-penny penny.

At this point, if I told you 4 new pennies sold for $4.95, would you even be surprised?

Sigh. And some people think e-books should cost less than $2.99?

  5 Responses to “Cheaper Than Dirt”

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  1. Brilliant post! I love it. Thank you for clarifying how silly it is to think that an entire novel is worth 99 cents or even $2.99.


    • Thanks Amy! I just thought I could have a little fun with the whole $0.99 vs. $2.99 thing, since that’s been beaten to death. And I do think it puts the argument in perspective, because $2.99 is still very inexpensive, compared to lots of other stuff.

  2. I think people have a powerful need to own ‘stuff.’ Sadly, I don’t think eBooks have the save intrinsic value as print books because they don’t meet the ‘stuff’ criteria. All electronic media has the same difficulty before it becomes popular. Once it’s popular, you can sell it for any thing you want to.

    But until then, it’s cheaper than… stuff.

    • I’ve certainly heard that argument, and I think you’re right that it will take some time for everyone to adjust to the idea of digital downloads being valuable. I think it’s starting to happen with music and ringtones and apps. Once I owned a Kindle, I fairly quickly realized that I preferred e-books, and they’re more valuable to me (give me a choice between a free e-book or free paperback, and I’ll take the e-book).

      That being said, it’s also true that e-books don’t cost as much to produce or distribute, so they shouldn’t cost as much as physical books. Readers should enjoy some of those savings. But it’s pretty clear that $2.99 is a substantial savings over any (new) print book.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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