Is a Book Worth Four Frappuccinos?

By Nancy Bilyeau

Being published yields lessons about control. After you sign your contract and, much later, the book goes on sale, you will learn what you can control. Or what you think you control but don’t. Or what you don’t realize you control and should actually spend more time controlling. Some of the lessons are stark, and some are subtle.

But there is one thing that you, the traditionally published author, do not control — and that is the price of your book.

Do readers know this? Doesn’t seem so.

The ebook of my third novel, The Tapestry, published on March 24, 2015, by Touchstone Books, is priced at $12.99. The question of cost reminds me of a book my husband and I were talking about at the end of 2012: Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956.

I’d read a compelling review of Iron Curtain in The New Yorker, on the way home from work on the subway. I mentioned it to my spouse — we both studied 20th-century history in college (University of Michigan for me, University of Toronto for him). We were sitting up in bed, with our laptop computers and kindles and magazines, talking about this new book we were both interested in.

(Clearly if you’ve come to this blog post looking for a Fifty Shades of Grey coupling, you’ve so come to the wrong place.)

My husband was poised to order it from when he said, surprised, “Two one-star reviews?”

Iron Curtain, published two weeks before this conversation and and written by the award-winning journalist Anne Applebaum, did indeed have one-star reviews. And both of them were posted by people who hadn’t read the book.

That’s right. Hadn’t read it. But were ready to post “reviews.”

One-star review No. 1: “Having travelled recently as a tourist in this part of the world, I was very excited to buy this book after reading a review. When I saw the outrageous Kindle price I was mightily offended. Pass on this.”
One-star review No. 2: “Not only will I not purchase this book for a kindle I own (which my wife uses pretty exclusively), but this is the sort of thing that will leave me on the fence in deciding to purchase a Paperwhite for my own use, which I have been seriously considering this week. I love the author; it is probably a great book. But, I will wait. I have plenty of unread books. Some of us enjoy holding a book. I only read one at a time, so space/size simply aren’t considerations for me. I would never, in a million years, purchase an e-reader for any reason other than economy. So, an eye-raising price like this factors DIRECTLY into my buying decision.”

What is the price that these consumers, one of whom travels through Eastern Europe, recoil from? It was $17.99. The original list price for the 608-page hardcover was $35, but of course Amazon didn’t charge that, and most likely book stores discounted too. (By the way, the price today is $11.84.)

For several years, the pricing of books has been at the heart of debates raging about traditional publishing versus self-publishing. I’m not going to hurl myself into the fiery pit of which way of being published is “superior.” I see merits in both. I have read great books that came to me via a bricks-and-mortar publisher and from an author using Smashwords. I have come not to criticize self-publishing. It’s exciting to see the freedom that some authors have in getting their work to readers.

No, I have to come to talk about value. What our books are worth.

My 2012 debut novel, The Crown, is currently priced at $11.99 for e-book, one dollar less than The Tapestry. Many novels cost about that. I worked on my first book for five years, researching and writing, taking classes and workshops. Traveling. Getting up at 5 a.m. so I could make my word count before the children woke up and I had to go to the office. Drawing on my love of Tudor England and the thriller genre, I crafted the best book I possibly could. It was edited by talented people, with a striking cover. Is my e-book worth $11.99? In my opinion, yes.

Let’s talk about entertainment, because that’s what many novels are. I’m fine with that. I’ve even worked as an editor at Entertainment Weekly. In New York City, movie tickets these days are set at about $15 for adults. So my novel is not as much of a value as a couple of hours with Insurgent or Focus? When you tell a novelist that their book — in many cases, their dream — should be priced at a dollar or two, rather than nine, ten, or eleven, you’re saying their dream is not worth as much as Furious 7 and should instead cost as much as the Diet Coke someone sips while watching it.

To return to Iron Curtain, it is an extensively researched book by the journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize for her previous book, Gulag: A History. Applebaum is proficient in Polish, French and Russian. My husband, who went ahead and bought it that night, kept reading to me parts he thought were especially interesting. Based on his comments, The New Yorker review and the first chapter I read for myself on Amazon, I believe Iron Curtain to be a thoughtful, provocative, deeply informative book. And yes, I think it was worth $17.99. I think it is fair market value to pay that much for a serious work of nonfiction.

The e-book price of Iron Curtain is the price, plus tax, of four venti Frappuccinos at Starbuck’s.

And that’s gouging? What am I missing here? It’s as if people are outraged that a new book costs $50, which I would agree is too much money. Instead, it’s $17.99 — the cost of a movie ticket and a drink. (I don’t think you could fit popcorn in.) Or one-third of the cost of the new Playstation game. Or one-fifth of a ticket to a professional baseball or football game. Or four Frappuccinos.

The supporters of self-publishing write passionately about the movement. I sometimes get worked up reading their blogs. I agree it’s important that writers now have a means to reach readers directly. But the controversy over pricing of books crept into the question of self-publishing some time ago. That makes it messy.

One blogger wrote, “What are publishers fighting for? They’re fighting for the ability to charge a premium for their products. To make customers pay more money for books.” By the way, all the deep discounts on ebooks, driving the costs lower and lower, are demolishing the value of books to the point where some people balk at buying any e-book priced above $1.99. That’s 11 cents more than what I pay for a small Dunkin Donuts coffee. (Yes, I drink a lot of caffeine.) My friends who self-publish notice that when they offer a book for free, it moves product. When it returns to a couple of dollars, people stop buying. It worries them. Are we moving steadily toward narrative content priced at exactly zero?

To return to that blogger, a smart man, I’m sure he knows that there’s no way that an industry that keeps hurtling in this direction would be able to dole out an advance to a nonfiction author large enough to finance the years required for serious research. His fix for that problem is nonfiction authors should “find a member of the 1%” to pay for them to write. I know a little bit about the 1 percent, as an editor at a luxury magazine. You know what? That’s not going to happen too often. No, if traditional publishing goes away, books like Iron Curtain go away too.

And I think that would be a true and terrible loss.

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