There are a lot of blogs, posts, and news articles out there decrying the pricing of the big publisher’s books. They make regular appearances on smaller author’s sites, reddit’s r/books, and very frequently in the circles of indie authors. “Publishers are making their books too expensive!” they cry. Look at the price of these books!
And to be fair, they have a perfectly valid point. One I was reading last week pointed out the ridiculously high cost of a new fantasy title ebook: $14.99. Too high, the post claimed, and I agreed.
Then came the bit I didn’t agree with. That everyone should flock (and was flocking) to ebooks and indie because the prices were so much better.
The problem is, this isn’t always true.
Let me tell you a story. About a year ago, I was attending a con and talking with a bunch of authors about ebook sales and indie publication. One man in the “group” we’d sort of formed in the hallway was a known trailblazer in the ebook world, one of the first authors to jump ship from his publisher and go straight indie, a decision that had been great for him. Naturally, he being the one with the most experience in success, everyone was letting a lot of questions and comments gravitate his way.
At some point, ebook pricing came up, and I mentioned I was trying to figure out a price for the draft I was about to finish. He shrugged and said it was simple, and asked me how long it was. 300,000-odd words, I said. Eyes wide, he shook his head, and then told me the best way to sell a book of such length:
Cut it up into 8 or 10 sections and sell them for $2-3 a pop.
This, readers, is what I’ve started to see as “The Indie Scam.”
You see, as already mentioned, a lot of indie authors will decry the cost of “big pubs” and their ilk. Like the classic meme, they repeat the line that the prices are “just too d**n high” while showing that their books are so much cheaper at their low, low prices.
But are they really? Well, in a lot of cases … no. And that’s the problem. It’s a misdirect. Because a lot of these indie books? They’re a lot smaller than what they’d have you believe.
Now, before I get people too incensed, let’s look at this with some math. The common complaint is that something like $15 for a 384—you know, let’s be generous and call it 400—page book is too much. $2.99 is a much better price.
So let’s look up an indie book—not a big pub—that costs $2.99. 120 pages. Multiply that by three, and the price for a 360 page book is … $9.
That’s actually not that much less.
This is the problem of what I’ve begun thinking of as “The Indie Scam.” Cheaper books! Cheaper books! It’s a rallying cry for a lot of indie publishers. But when you take the time to look, for every author that’s actually delivering on that claim and selling a 400-page novel for $5.99, there’s one who’s selling his 500-page Sci-Fi as five separate books … each for the “much lower” price of $2.99 a pop.
There’s worse out there too. Some authors will take a single story and chop it up into little pieces, then make the first one “free.” It’s actually 99 cents, but they’ll put it on a permanent free promotion so it’s always catching eyes. That’ll get you the first 20-30,000 words or so. Then you get to the end—cliffhanger—and find that part 2 will set you back 99 cents.
Okay, no problem. The end? Same thing. Part 3? $1.99. Part 4? $2.99. The ending? You’d best have your wallet out, because that’s going to be the most costly so far at $3.99.
The end total cost for a “cheaper” book? $10. For a few hundred pages. In some cases, as low as 300. That’s around 100,000 words.
Now, looking at that, who is the “cheaper” publication?
The loophole that these authors are exploiting—and yes, it is an exploitation, and the reader’s wallets are the resource—is that when most people look at an ebook, they’re only going to look at the price, and many of them aren’t going to glance at the length or the sample contents—though Amazon at least, makes those two bits of information readily available, perhaps in some attempt to dampen this effect.
But worse still, authors who follow this trend are aggressively pushing out against other authors and driving a “race to the bottom mentality” among indie publications. They throw out “rules” like “no ebook should be more than $5.99” while plugging their own $2.99, 30,000 word, 100 page works, hoping that no one will notice that if one begins to compare the cost of the books they decry with the books that they sell (and yes, I am aware that I sold my first 100-page novella at $2.99. At the time, I simply looked at the pricing of like books and priced mine accordingly. There’s a reason it’s $1.99 now).
The problem is that this mentality of “every ebook must be below a certain cut-off, but then all bets are off” not only cuts off a whole swath of books, it pressures other authors to price their books on a similar level. Which, if we do the math, either becomes way too low ($4.99 for a 600 page epic, for example) or too high (Unusual Events, if chopped up and priced “equally” with a lot of indie fare, would cost between $15-30 for the whole thing, but even right now it has had other authors publicly put it down for being “too expensive” at $8, peer pressure to match the system). Which in turn can be ruinous for those authors who don’t wish to subscribe to being part of the same “scam.”
Now look, I’m sure a lot of you are looking at things at this point and thinking “All right … So?”
Well, you’re the readers. You’ve got the power in this situation. Right now, the indie scam works because so many readers simply see a low price and hit the buy button because “It’s cheap.” But in quite a few cases, it’s not nearly as cheap as they’re being led to believe.
And sometimes readers figure this out. There are book “series” out there, ones where it’s really just a full-length novel chopped into five increasingly expensive parts, where the reviews for the later portions of the story drop lower and lower as people realize what kind of trap they’ve been caught in.
But on the whole? The cry of “It’s cheap! It’s cheap!” is working quite well because readers aren’t being discriminatory enough.
Look, I’ll be honest, the behavior of some indie authors is distasteful. Sure, it’s marketing, it’s “the biz,” but it’s still a way to maximize profits just as the publishers are doing.They’re just taking a different angle.
But I can’t force any author to change the price of their book. That’s not how the system works. I can only choose whether or not I’m going to participate in the same system, and what authors I’ll support with my own limited funds.
I, for one, hold that the big publishers are selling overpriced ebooks. That’s not even a hard decision. When 380 page (120,000 word) or shorter ebooks sell for $15 or more, that’s too much.
But $10 for 400 pages isn’t much less of a deal. Or worse, $20 for 400 pages. That’s also overpriced. I don’t care if the author crows that ‘It’s cheaper because you’re only buying it in bite-sized, low-priced chunks.” The end result is still very similar.
And those are authors I won’t buy from. Sell me the book up front, not on a “Pricing plan.” Book sellers should not taking pricing points from car dealerships.
As one author? The prices of my books aren’t going to change much. But as a consumer? My wallet matters. And so do all the other wallets of readers out there. At the end of the day, the bottom line is what matters.
I’m not naming names, nor providing links, and there’s a reason for that. The goal is not to point a bunch of fingers at people and send a drove of unruly consumers at their review pages.
No, the goal is to call attention to the idea that Indie is not as cheap as many would like us to believe, and as consumers we need to acknowledge this and be more discriminating with where we spend our money. After all, if we do the math and an indie author ends up being almost as expensive (if not more expensive in some cases) as those “overpriced” big publisher books.
As consumers, we need to be aware of what we’re spending our money on and where. If $15 is too much for a regular fantasy book, than $3 is too much for a fifth of a regular fantasy book.
Don’t get caught by the scam. Check more than just the price. Make a comparison. Look at what the book you’re thinking of buying is actually offering: the price, the content, the whole package. Check the reviews. Check the sample.
Because it does no good to decry one book for overcharging you before turn to purchase the same thing in a different skin. If our goal is to find books that are worth our hard-earned dollars, we need to really look at what we’re buying, rather than just checking the price and thinking “It’s cheaper, so go!”
Because more and more often, it actually isn’t.