Thursday, November 3, 2011

Do 99cent Kindle books Mean the Death of Publishing?

RHYS BOWEN: I confess to checking my Amazon stats at regular intervals--I know. It's an obsession that results in bleak despair every time my numbers go down, but I can't stop myself.
Today I found myself checking the top hundred mystery bestsellers and what a surprise--I find that most of them are ninety nine cent Kindle books. Several of them are by names I recognize--legitimate writers. So I'm wondering several things--can they actually make a good living by selling their books at 99 cents? That means they earn 33 cents a book. A thousand books gives them 300 dollars.(which it will have cost them to have the book set up in Kindle format) Ten thousand gives them $3000 . That means they have to sell an awful lot of books before this is worth their while.
Perhaps some people do sell a hundred thousand kindle books. But how would readers find out about you if you're not on that bestseller list?
My next point to ponder is whether we are lowering the expectations of the readership. Some of those 99 cent books will be good. Most of them will be poorly written and have been rejected by regular publishers. Will readers come to think that this is how a story should be? Silly question really. They are already used to the fragmented style of TV drama , the lack of characterization of action movies.
And my third point--how will this affect the publishing industry? I've already been given one star reviews by Kindle readers who are angry that my Kindle books are being sold at $11.99 (a price set by my publisher for the first year). Will those readers eventually force down the price of all books as the power and scope of the e-reader grows?

I had an interesting brush with this myself last spring when St. Martin's had me write a free e-story featuring Molly Murphy, to coincide with the release of Bless the Bride. The cover clearly says A Molly Murphy Story. It is not a full book. Suddenly I find that it had risen to #2 on free Kindle. Then I find that I am getting all these one star reviews because IT IS NOT A WHOLE BOOK. This blew me away. It was free. It was a good story. It's like getting a sample chocolate at Sees Candies and then complaining because it's not a whole box.

My point is that readers are becoming entitled. They want the best, right now, and they don't want to pay for it. And those people putting up their own 99 cent stories on Amazon are sadly catering to them. It may just mean the end to legitimate publishing.
What do you think?
(And I was asked to republish this blog that first appeared on my own Rhys's Pieces site. If you've already read it, I hope you'll forgive this repetition.)


  1. It's a double-edged sword, that's for certain. I tried the 99 cent route; there was no "sudden upsurge" in sales.

    One thing I've learned after owning my own business for the past ten years is this: the value you put on yourself and your time is what counts. I've had way too many conversations with people who start out with, "Well, I talked to So-and-So, and he quoted a much lower rate." My response to that is, without exception, "It's your decision."

    You, and you alone, are the best judge of what your time, talent, and product are worth. Stick to your guns.

  2. These are good questions Rhys! i've gotten one of those one-star reviews on a short story too--crazy! I have no idea how this will all shake out, but we as writers need to be paid decently for our work or how do we pay the electric bills that run our computers?

    So many things up in the air right now with this business. Our friend and excellent writer Libby Hellmann made some excellent predictions recently--take a look at her blog...

  3. I think some people new to reading on a Kindle don't realize the differences in what you can purchase. But also, I'd be the first to state that most people will not, I repeat, WILL NOT, read directions or information -- they just plunge right in.. [witness any recycle bin marked 'not trash- only recycle'... Additonally, I recently read where publishers are trending towards trade size [$15 opposed to $8] that will steer me to more e-reading prices.. [I'm an old fuddy-duddy who remembers paying 75 cents and $1.25 for paperbacks..]

  4. First, I take issue with the meme that the lower-priced books are "not as good", especially with self-published titles. Being published traditionally is no guarantee of perfection or even quality. I've added a lot of free or very low-priced titles to my Nook Color, and have found some really good writers I'd never have found otherwise.

    Secondly, with publishing the way it's been, most authors' backlists are no longer available through printed books. Posting one or two on Amazon or B&N for a low, low introductory price is one of the best ways to scoop up new readers and intrigue them into buying other titles, both electronic and printed. Who doesn't want that?

    And thirdly, since I bought my Nook Color in February of this year I'm shocked to realize I've spent three times my book allowance for the year already. It just does not equate that e-books will mean that authors will no longer make money. I suspect that authors will need to negotiate better percentages for e-books, or risk having publishers take advantage of the contracts they already have to pay authors less.

  5. I will soon be ready to go live with my book on Amazon/Kindle and this is something that ways heavy on me - how to price? Looking forward to reading comments. Thanks for the re-post!

  6. Make that 'weighs' - shows how stressed I am about this issue.

  7. Good questions, Rhys.

    I love the most the comments about the greedy authors who won't give their "content" away free!

    I think one of the things to remember is that e-books are still only about 20% of all books sold. I know you wouldn't realize that from all the hype the news media give them.

    Another thing to consider is that some people are already tiring of the mounds of poorly written, unedited books cluttering the Amazon 99-cent offerings. (This is not to say that all of these are poor quality, but so many are.) I have heard from people I know and have read in comments on numerous blogs the frustration people have in wading through the dreck, trying to find the good. There has been a great deal of speculation that Amazon will have to set some minimum standards or risk turning people completely off.

    As the Chinese curse goes, we certainly live in interesting times!

  8. RHYS: I didn't mean to imply that all 99c e-books are poor quality. I have many friends who have posted out of print packlists or short story collections cheaply. But if you have people willing to put up their work for 99 cents with no editorial oversight, you're going to get a lot of would be writers who have been rejected by tradtional publishers.
    I will be writing another free story at the request of my publisher next spring, and no doubt et more hate mail that it's not a complete book. If the goverment would like to give me a stipend to live on, I'll be happy to write for free!
    I suspect people feel entitled to free content because TV and the web are essentiall free (if you don't contribute to PBS)

  9. I bought a bunch of 99 cent e-books. Notice I didn't say "read."

    I have an anthology up now for $2.99, all proceeds go to charity. 30 writers in it. That's a dime a story, and the 2 charities get a buck each. And it allows me to lower it to 99 cents if I change my mind.

    Personally I think 99 cents for a story or small collection as a teaser is okay. I've downloaded a few "free" ebooks too. They are unread. When I pay $3 or more, I read the damn thing quicker.

  10. Speaking as a reader... Of course I like getting a good read for only 99 cents, but I don't think it's reasonable to expect that as a standard price for a novel. A 99 cents novel as first in a series, with later installments closer to mass market paperback price works for me; the low price for the first volume encourages me to give an unknown-to-me author a try.

    I also noticed that I am more lenitent when it comes to proofreading. I bought an ebook produced by a small publisher and sold for $5 and found more than just a handful mistakes, and I thought that I wouldn't mind so much in a 99 cents book, but for $5 I expected thorough proofreading.

    99 cents do seem a nice price for stand alone short stories and maybe novellas, but since there are novels sold for that price, too, I think it's important for ebook descriptions to be clear about what is being offered. Some people will still miss it, but the info should be there for those that look. (Mind, giving bad reviews on a FREEBIE because it's shorter than expected seems excessive. I think I'd mention that it's a short story and then just comment on the content.)

    Like in Karen's case, the amount of money I spend on books has multiplied since I got an ereader, and I didn't have to worry about where to keep the books.

  11. I used to go to these unbelievable conferences when my husband was in Telecommunications. For the dinners and afterwards, the conference used to supply entertainment such as:

    The Eagles. Live - no kidding
    Mandy Patinkin

    And you know what? Because it was free, NO ONE LISTENED. I was actually embarrassed to be a part of the audience, it was so rude. Don Henley actually - and for good reason - chastised the crowd.

    Reading takes time and energy, and is challenging to aging eyes. I think Thomas is right. There will be a lot of 99 cent purchases that go unread.

    I downloaded a free book six months ago that I still haven't read.

  12. I regret having purchased a Kindle mystery recently, whose hard copy had illustrations and maps -- which I love. I think I've just about had it with e-reading, too, because I really miss reading ALL of the author information, dedication, cover comments (even knowing which page I'm on) etc. Maybe it's because I reviewed books for almost 20 years, but I those things are important to me.

  13. What a timely submission today since my Mystery Writers Unite blog( topic is: The $0.99 Book Price -- Is it Making or Breaking You?

    I've had a lot of comments and one thing is for sure there is no easy answer for self-published authors.

    I don't think it's the 99 cent price that will mean the death of publshing. Instead, I think many publishing companis shoot themselves in the foot each and every a new author self-published - regardless of price.

    Of course, that is just my humble opinion.

    Have a great day,

  14. I notice that my book buying habits are more conservative with the economic downturn. I have gotten free or next-to-free ebooks (or sample chapters) solely for the convenience of checking out the author's writing style from my home. Then I go out and buy the hard back or paperback at my favorite indie bookstore.

    I will sometimes read reviews, but I can usually judge the (possible) intelligence of the one doing the review.

    I'm just sayin'.

    p.s. I will search for an alternate buying source before I will ever use Amazon. Confession to prejudice. It's still a market to study, for trends and consumer mentality. But I don't have to like it.

  15. Great blog, Rhys - and such interesting comments. Someone asked me the other day what I thought about the book business and I said I feel like Dorothy standing on her front porch in Kansas, watching the cyclone on the horizon. Scary as hell.

  16. As an avid reader and a Kindle owner, I strongly disagree that the free and/or 99-cent books harm publishing. Quite the contrary. I have "found" new authors with the discounted books. That has encouraged me to head to my local indie book store and purchase additional novels by those authors at regular prices.

    I use my Kindle only for "light" reading, the classics (many are free), and poetry. I have no limit on the price of a book from the bookstore. However, I refuse to pay more than ten dollars for a Kindle download.

    For me, the Kindle is for "cheap" reading and convenience. It has not slowed my book purchases at all.

    For readers like me the free and cheap books will never hurt the publishing industry, much less contribute to its demise.

  17. RHYS: I am concerned about two things: the 99cent price that will make buyers expect to pay that amount for a book and refuse to buy it at a price at which publishers and authors can exist,
    the spotty quality. Obviously one discovers some gems, but an awful lot of very poorly written books. Will people try a couple, then decide that 'books are not worth reading'??

  18. Well, Rhys, those are the two major problems, aren't they?

    We may be heading toward the situation that poetry has developed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. There are thousands of people out there writing poetry, much of it quite awful, and they give it away for free. Heck, they often pay large fees to have it read. Traditional publishers, mostly small, and journals do some curating, but self-publishing has been going on a long time in poetry, where it actually has a real tradition.

    Now, poetry has reaped the consequences of all this with a general audience of readers who, for the most part, disdain poetry and an assumption in the world that real poets should not be reimbursed for their work.

    Novelists who want to see one way this whole thing could turn out need only look at the state of modern poetry, where even the big names with the big awards can't make a living with their poetry but must write some other kind of work or teach in universities or something else. Not at all what we want, I believe.

  19. Talk about opening a Pandora's box... do 99 cent bookss devalue our work? Yes. Should you price the first of your series at 99 cents... or (gasp now) free? Yes.

    In fact, take a look at today. She has had a good deal of success pricing her books free for a limited time. I haven't done it yet, but I'm thinking about taking the first Ellie book, or the prequel and making it free... just to see what would happen. The problem, however, is getting it UNfree. Not as easy as it seems.

    Right now I'm using that strategy with Toxicity. It's 99 cents. It's selling pretty well but it's not burning up the market.

    The problem is there are no rules. Yes, people are beginning to see that 99 cents usually means crap, unless you specifically say SHORT STORY... that was your problem Rhys... your publisher has to use the word SHORT in front of Story.

    At the same time, though, decent writers like Simon Wood, Andy Straka, and others are doing well with 99 cent books. I wouldn't do it unless I had several books up and could position it as a gateway book, though. Unless its a short story. Then 99 cents is reasonable.

    In 6 months, I think $2.99 will be the new 99 cents. Which is good for all of us.

    We shall see.

  20. I think the 99 cent price point as a sales draw has passed. Readers (like me) who have trouble sifting through the onslaught of self-pubbed books are more wary about price.

    99 cents no longer looks like a bargain, but a tell-tale sign of being an indie/self-pub. Not that all of them are poor quality, but it's tough to trust the unknowns.

  21. Do 99cent Kindle books Mean the Death of Publishing?

    RESPONSE: No, what the 99cent Kindle Books have done is open up the market to many writers who wouldn't have other wised had their material. What the 99cent Kindle Books have done is to force a new business model for the publishing industry.

    The 99cent ebooks when used properly may help to encourage sells which may in turn help sell other books by the author/publisher for higher prices.

    I've adjusted prices from 99cent to $9.99 and what I've found is price does matter, but it matters most in the genre in which you write. Those genres which are most competitive will likely see a continuation of price competitiveness.

    Additionally, as an author becomes more well known and builds a base of readers they may be able to raise their prices without having their sells adversely effected.

    If it happens that their book sells decrease it may be offset by the equivalent benefit of a higher royalty per books sold.