November 14th, 2010

I was recently traveling for work in Latin America. I had a few days off when my scheduled work was done, and I decided to take a short internal flight to see some sights — the land is large, time is short, was my thinking.

For some reason, we were required to be at the airport two hours early — for a flight that was on time and took about 10 minutes to board. Practically the full two hours then was spent in one small waiting room of a domestic airport, which did at least offer seats, some posters on the wall, and free coffee (seriously! free coffee! and it was good, too!).

For a long day of trekking, I hadn’t brought a laptop or reading material. Fortunately, a fellow passenger (I guess also without reading material) struck up a conversation. He was a doctor, from Germany, who’d been attending a medical conference and now was enjoying his few days off. We talked about a lot of things — health care systems in Germany and the US, travel, the country we were in, and so on, and at one point found ourselves on the subject of the US economy.

He said he could tell the effects of the US recession by the way Americans had become more “calculating.” Just as I was wondering if I’d gotten more sly and devious in recent years, he explained that by that he meant that when he saw Americans these days, either in Europe or when he traveled to the States, they were always calculating and figuring out the cost of things. How much would it cost to rent a car? What would that meal cost in dollars? How much to add a third night in the hotel? Which he said they didn’t use to do.

“For me,” he explained,” “when I’m on vacation, I don’t calculate. I’ve already made the decision to go. Like this tour. If something comes up that costs another 10 euros, I don’t think about that, I just pay it.”

Frantically, I calculated 10 euros — hey, that’s nearly 14 dollars! or 112 Local Currency Units, or twice what I paid for dinner last night. Must be nice being a doctor!

My first reaction was that I’ve always “calculated” costs, recession or no. But as I thought about our exchange later, I realized it’s not quite so simple. What “a lot” of money is depends so much on the situation. $50 is an outrageous price for a dinner entrée (in my world); I’d consider it for a dress for a close friend’s wedding; it’s a hell of a deal on an iPad. I’d just paid $300 without hesitation for a plane flight and transportation to one of the most amazing sites on the continent, while feeling grateful for the free coffee that would save me, what, 50 cents because now I wouldn’t have to buy my own. Context is everything.

One thing authors and publishers talk about with each other, and with readers, is book prices. With the boom of self-publishing, many authors are now put in the position of choosing their own prices for their books. Publishers and editors have to make those decisions for their authors.

Now, how do you set a book price? It’s not just a question of what it’s “worth.” You need to recoup your expenses (the time spent writing, the cost of an editor and a copy editor / proofreader, a typesetter, a cover designer, the cover art and any internal art, the paper, the salaries of the people in marketing, and so on), and you need to make enough of a profit for everyone that it’s worth it to continue the process. Retailers and online stores will take their cut. Typically, the author makes a royalty from each copy sold, a percentage of the book’s sale price, which can range from 10% to 40%, depending on the publisher and whether it’s a print book or an e-book and where it’s sold.

If you price a book too high, no one will buy it, and you make nothing. If you price it too low, unless you have a ton of sales, the money brought in is too low to be worth much. So really, you want the book to be priced at the highest amount that still seems fair and attractive to the reader.

But how much is that?

Let’s take a paperback novel of, oh, 200 pages. We’ll assume too that it’s a good book; one that you would be happy to have read, and one that you would be happy to own, at least for several months until your family complains that you have too many darn books all over the place and for heaven’s sake can’t we take some of these things to the thrift store because it’s not like you’re ever going to read them again, not when you keep getting more all the time (not that that ever happens in my house). Not a classic book, not one that you’re going to have dipped in bronze, but one that you’d truly enjoy, even if you only read it once.

How much would you pay?

(I’m going to give everyone a few moments to jot down their answers.)

Retailers are guessing that you’d spend around $5-$15 on a paperback from an unknown author, and less on an ebook. Maybe $9 for an ebook. Maybe $2. Nobody really knows! And it’s a different answer for every person, so that adds to the complexity too.

But I have another question. Not just “how much” would you pay, but “would” you pay anything at all? Do you buy books?

I assume that everyone still reading this blog post is interested in reading books (anyone who got here just by googling, hoping for hot S & M photos of my naked ass being whipped with a riding crop will have realized that there aren’t any here today) (because how would I hold the camera, people?). So, OK, how many of us buy books? How about new books?

I’ll confess that most of my books come from the library, and then after that, the used bookstore. I read a book, or at least part of one, every day of my life; I’ve worked in publishing and writing for years; but I still treat books to some extent as a luxury. I’d buy a crappy meal in an airport because “I have to eat” — but I wander through the bookstores in airports, thinking how much I’d like this or that one, and then (probably with that German guy watching), I calculate the price… oh, plus tax… and it seems self-indulgent.

In the US, at least, the “holiday season” is upon us. It’s being shoved down our throats, and has been since before Halloween. I don’t mind buying people gifts — honestly, I quite enjoy it, “commercialism” or no. But I remember that my favorite gifts to receive when I was growing up were books. So I’ve decided. That’s what I’m giving this year — books. Physical books for people who’d want them, ebooks for my green friends, maybe gift certificates for people whose tastes I just can’t fathom.

And at the risk of sounding obnoxious or even self-serving, I’m going to urge others to buy books too. They’re great value! $5 of $10 or $15 is not “too much” for something that brings such pleasure, and lasts for so long (books can be re-read, and loaned or given to friends). If you support your favorite authors, they will write more! I know I’m sounding a bit like Pledge Week on NPR, but it’s true. They’re not all just writing books for their health, you know. (OK, maybe they are for their mental health. But you know what I mean.) You don’t have to buy my book. I’ve reviewed several great ones here on this site. You don’t have to buy erotica, or even fiction. Buy whatever you please, and whatever pleases you. But no more complaining about how “kids today” don’t read, can’t think, can’t communicate, don’t know anything, if we don’t give them books and let them see us reading. We either value it or we don’t, and if we do, we should support it. And do it!

However, as a self-confessed “calculator,” I have sympathy too for those who find purchasing anything hard to rationalize at the moment. So… I will announce my first-ever book giveaway! Yes! Just like some of those other cool bloggers, I’m going to give away a book on this site. Signed, even (if you choose the hard copy and not the e-book). Not my book, but a novel by Jeremy Edwards (so, signed by him, obviously, and not by me). I’ve read it, and I approve of this book!

The giveaway will be held November 18 – 24. I’m going to be interviewing Jeremy here, posted November 18, and details of the giveaway will follow the interview. Check back!

This entry was posted on Sunday, November 14th, 2010 at 3:02 pm and is filed under • Calculating: What Is a Book Worth?. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

12 Responses to “Calculating: What Is a Book Worth?”

Craig Sorensen Says:

Actually, I get, and give books for Christmas and birthdays every year.

I buy what I like, and though I’ll usually try to find a good price, if it’s a book I want, I pay what the market will bear.

Shar Says:

Ah, but that’s the golden question, isn’t it? What will the market bear? I’ve heard people say their ebooks wouldn’t sell at $6, but marked down to $3, they sold like hotcakes. Does $3 make such a difference? I go a bit in the other direction… if I see a new book for $3, I assume it’s either very short, or not worth very much. But maybe that’s not a typical thought, I don’t know.

Willsin Rowe Says:

Awesome blog again, milady. Well-thought-out, well constructed and some very good points made. I must admit I’m very similar in my book purchases. It’s the library first (and we have a pretty amazing one within about 500 yards of my front door!), thrift shops/fetes/markets second, book clearance outlets third and THEN the new book shops. But give me a flask of coffee (or thirteen) and some comestibles and I could camp in Borders just for the smell of words on paper.
PS: I have some suggestions for how to hold the camera, if you’re interested…

Shar Says:

Here’s a question for you that I’d probably be embarrassed to answer (no, it’s not about the camera!): Do you spend more in a year on coffee, or on books? Not that one should ever have to choose between the two, of course!

Willsin Rowe Says:

It would probably be coffee for me. I think you nailed it when you suggested that books feel like a luxury. Coffee, I think because of the relatively low (but still hugely inflated) cost, doesn’t attract that same feeling. Plus you don’t HAVE to make time for coffee. You can drink it while you talk or drive or walk or take pictures of your own ass. It’s difficult to read while you’re doing any of the above. So I think it’s because of that exclusionary nature that we view a lot of reading as being a tad self-indulgent.

Craig Sorensen Says:

Ah, but that’s the golden question, isn’t it? What will the market bear?

Especially as pertains to e-books where there is little cost relating to production of the actual book, and of course how much time an author spends on writing and editing vary wildly; this can scarcely enter into it.

It’s a matter of perception.

Some of the best books I ever read cost a dollar or even less (flea markets, yard sales, Goodwill etc) and I’ve spent over $20 on books I didn’t really enjoy. Sigh.

Sorry, guess I don’t have any answers today. Just more questions.

Double sigh.

Fulani Says:

It’s complicated by a bunch of factors, I think. Buying a book isn’t the same as buying a standardised product where you can measure price elasticity, however much publishers might like that as a model. Buying isn’t just a single, simple decision.

Firstly, there are (nonfiction) books I need to buy because they’re directly relevant to my work – either the ‘day job’ of writing training materials or the writing of stories, erotic or otherwise. Some of these books are very pricey, but unless I buy them I won’t be able to do the work that pays the bills. There’s an inelasticity here because essentially I need those books and have to buy them whatever the publisher charges. I admit I will seek out secondhand copies if possible, but for a new edition that’s not always feasible – and I want it for a specific project with a deadline so I can’t wait until what I need becomes available secondhand.

Secondly there are things I read for pleasure or curiosity. Mostly, though, these aren’t the well-hyped books available via the supermarkets, or the ones Amazon sends me emails about. They come from conversations with other people (which is how I found out about Haruki Murakami and Rolo Diez, among others) or looking on the shelves of secondhand bookstores. Once I’ve found such authors I may, actually, go back to buy new copies of their other books partly because I can’t find them secondhand and partly because as a writer I do understand that authors depend on royalties from sales!

So the price I’m prepared to pay is basically a function of:
– how much I need the book for my own work activities,
– how much I want it because I want to see what an author’s work is like,
– how ‘transferable’ my choice is (a book by an author I want to read is $X, the one by an author I don’t know is cheaper, so how much cheaper would it need to be for me to choose it instead?), and
– how quickly I want/need it, which affects where/how I buy it and thus how much I pay.

In terms of what that means for a bookseller (whether the seller is the publisher or not) – it’s going to be a matter of second-guessing the ‘need’ (academic books will sell at high prices because they’re mostly university library sales anyway); the interest in the author, which may be bolstered by things like reviews, literary prizes or TV adaptations – I remain unconvinced about the effectiveness of advertising; the transferability of choice (is a book ‘just another of those vampire novels’ or ‘reckoned to be the best vampire novel of the year”?); and the speed with which readers are likely to demand copies.

And that’s before we get into questions like print versus electronic, paperback versus hardback, special editions, etc. etc.

In terms of money amounts (these are UK pounds) in the last year the most expensive new academic book I bought was a bit over £30; the most expensive nonfiction non-academic book £20, the most expensive novel £10. Secondhand books were anything from 50 pence to about £6. These are all for print books – the most expensive download was £3.

I’m not claiming to be a typical consumer, though, and in principle I’d be prepared to pay the same for a download book as I would for, say a CD or MP3 album – up to about £6 if I’m just browsing and £20 for something I really want, because I have eclectic tastes and some of the music I like is hard to get.

Not sure how much this helps, but I guess the implication is that unless something is unique or special in some way, or I need it instantly, I’d say a top-end price for a print novel is around £10/$16 and a more encouraging price (as a consumer) would be about £6/$10 for print and maybe a bit less, say £5/$8, for an e-book.

In terms of my own writing, of course, I’d imagine readers do feel it’s pretty easy to choose any one of dozens of books on the market and the prices need to be (and indeed are) on the whole commensurately lower!

D.N. Stuefloten Says:

Like you, I get most of my reading material from our local library. But some years ago, when I acquired a permenent area to store things, I haunted all the used bookstores I could find, looking for copies of the books I had enjoyed in the past and for books I’d always wanted to read and new authors, too, who looked interesting. I carried in my wallot one sheet of paper with a list of the books I’d found, and another of books I wanted to find. Now I’ve got more books than space to show them. I may not re-read many of them, but I still love taking them down, browsing through a few pages, remembering…

But now I seldom buy new books. Perhaps it is my age, but no new authors excite my interest. I just dont see, today, writers who can compare with Faulkner or Joyce or Becket or the other great experimentalists of the last century. There doesnt seem much fervor in literature any more. Ive been hoping to see more wildness, shall we say, with the ebook revolution–but so far, at least, as a revolution it is pretty tame.

Incidentally, where were you in Latin America? There were a lot of interesting writers there, from Borges right up to our new Nobelist, Vargas Llosa. I’ve spent many years south of the border and have always found it a good mileu in which to write: a vivid, erotic, and paradoxical world….

Gregory Allen Says:

It is funny how, say, a couple might spend twenty dollars going to a movie (4 hours total enjoyment), but not spend fifteen on a book they could both read (20 hours or more)

I admit to being primarily a library person, but for the last ten years I have only bought books as gifts. Usually books I got out of the library and enjoyed and thought of a friend or family member who would enjoy it. Partly I want to do my small part to support the literary arts; mostly an enjoyed book makes for a meaningful gift.

Books also have to be priced low enough to compete with the enormous amount of free reading material out there. What’s happening in journalism is happening in fiction. A lot of people are content to get their news from online bloggers as opposed to more experienced journalists so newspapers are hurting. In the world of erotica, a lot of readers are content to get their fiction on free sites. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of great amateur writers out there. So even writers who have devoted countless hours to the craft have to be realistic about how much financial reward they’ll get for their time. The nice part is writing is loaded with intrinsic rewards, so writers, published or not, selling or not, are I think some pretty happy folks no matter what.

By the way, I recognize the name Jeremy Edwards. I’ve read his stories at Every Night Erotica. Maybe I’ll take a crack at winning his book

Shar Says:

OK, I guess I automatically discount books that I have to buy, like for work (and those I’m going to take off my taxes, as well). Used books are easier to buy because they’re cheaper. However, I have worked my way up — read something at the library or from a garage sale and liked it so much that I re-bought it new. I’m probably more likely to buy new books as gifts, though.

Most recent new book I received: Bill Bryson’s At Home.

Most recent book I bought to give as a gift: James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks.

Fulani Says:

Just a thought – D.N. Stuefloten says no new authors excite his/her interest. I’ve that feeling of ennui in the past, but actually there’s a huge amount of ‘new’ stuff out there that’s excellent. However most of it is coming from small independent publishers and you have to look hard to find it. Lists of independent publishers tend in my experience to be country-specific and I can’t speak for the US since I don’t live there, but in the UK there are at least half a dozen small independent publishers whose output from new authors is, without exception, excellent quality and between them they cover a wide range of genres.

On a completely different note, I’ve recently been poking about in hyptertext fiction. One of the seminal texts appears to be Adrienne Eisen’s ‘Six Sex Scenes’ (1995), but since Penelope Trunk decided to terminate the use of the Eisen pseudonym (and website) it doesn’t appear to be available – anyone know where it might be archived?

Shar Says:

Uh oh…. I don’t even know what “hypertext fiction” is!! Please tell me it’s not sent in abbreviations by cell phone (“mobile,” to you).

I think there are great new authors out there, but there’s such a sea of books now that it’s hard to know what you’ll like. I mean, the publicity and reviews for every book sound great. But which ones will I actually think are great? I tend to take recommendations from friends first, I guess, whose taste I already know is somewhat similar to mine.

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