Marked Down!

A veritable ton of analysis continues to be made regarding the questions of ebook pricing and revenue, much of it presumably ramping up in advance of this year’s Kindle Fire Christmas, and what promises to be a tipping-point selling season for Amazon and the other major ebook retailers. Much of the discussion (as usual) talks about the race to the bottom, and the idea that unfettered competition and a wealth of books written by indie authors who don’t care that much about quality will inevitably force a 99¢ price point on all authors and publishers. For whatever it’s worth, i don’t favor a 99¢ price point for full-length novels and anthologies (though to be honest, the money i’d lose as an author stacked up against the money i’d save as a reader means i’d probably break even). However, there’s one point that always seems to get glossed over when people are talking about book pricing and the fate of an author’s ability to make a living.

The brand-new hardcopy, trade paperback, and mass-market paperback revenue stream for books has never been wholly representative of the way that a lot of people actually buy books. An awful lot of people buy books at a discount. They shop for bargains, they buy online. They look for the old hard-to-find books from authors they’ve just recently discovered. They use libraries to read first-run titles whose hardcover prices are rapidly approaching the point where booksellers will start asking for credit references.

Now, i don’t have hard and fast statistics, but i’m pretty comfortable saying that the used book market never approached the kind of dollar value that ebooks represent in the long term. Thus, i acknowledge that this point is mostly just allegory. But there’s one important distinction between the way books used to be cheap, and the way that ebooks are cheap now — the fact that cheap ebooks can still return money to the self-published writer. For whatever it’s worth, i’m a fan of the ebook pricing model championed by Dean Wesley Smith. But the thing to remember is that no matter what price point we choose as indie authors and no matter what rationale we use for that decision, we have the freedom to use pricing to appeal to the widest number of readers, and to make money while we do.

Here’s a confession. For the relatively long period of my life in which i was a starving student, every book i bought was either used or remaindered. Not because i was cheap in a general sense, or because i was a dick taking perverse pleasure in denying royalties to the authors i loved, but because that was literally and seriously the only way i could afford to buy books. In a completely coincidental way, a remarkable number of the used paperbacks that came into my possession in those years did so for the now-contentious price of a dollar a shot, gleaned from the dusty lower shelves of used bookstores and the anarchic tables of library and charity fund-raiser sales.

There’s a certain type of reader who will only ever buy books that are perceived to be a bargain. On some level, all writers want their work read by the largest number of people, so on some level, having cheap books out there is a good thing. However, no writer ever chooses to have his or her books remaindered. I would imagine that relatively few writers are in favor of people buying their books used at the expense of new books that go unsold. Because regardless of where they came from, none of those remaindered and used books i bought back in the day ever returned anything in the way of income to any of the writers who created them.

The relatively large number of ebooks i’ve bought for 99¢, or $1.99, or $2.99 in past months? Their writers chose those price points. Their writers are making money from me, and that’s not a bad thing.