Op-Ed: The Indie Scam

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.

12 thoughts on “Op-Ed: The Indie Scam

  1. Reblogged this on Author Matt Bowes and the Dog's Breakfast and commented:
    Awright, I’ll toss in here. I’m not complaining about tradpub’s overpriced books. They sell at the price point the market will bear or they go out of business. Thus, if HogRowling wants to sell a hardback for $32.00, people will pay that because they consider it worth $32.00 (first edition!).

    Back to the Indie pubs. I was conversing with someone who had a 176k first book. My thought? Divvy it up and sell the first half as an introduction to your work for $1.99, then sell part 2 as the $4.99 supplement. That’s 85k per book, and if you price #1 low enough, you’re essentially selling trust. Once they see that you’re not going to typo them to death or use commas in a homicidal way, they can buy #2. Either way, the intro book, either 176k or 85k, is going to have to be priced low enough for the unknown writer to sell any copies, so they may as well capitalize by having two full size books and get paid a bit more. I think the market knows the sequel thing is happening and that yes, some of those are novellas. If you get a book of only 30 k, then you have to consider, “Is this worth pursuing?” They’ll Publishing Clearning House CDs for Only $1 you to death. Sure, that first CD is a dollar. But the rest, they’re cheap. It’s the $15 shipping and handling that you might not like.

    But what happens when someone sells a novella, a 30 k book, and only charges $1.99 for it? The reader feels like they were ripped off, because that guy over there is selling his 300k monster for $1.99, too. So the question is to the reader, why is the 300k book so low priced? Doesn’t the author value his work?


    • Honestly? With a lot of those regular books I’d bet it’s because so many established authors are pushing the newcomers to set their prices at rock-bottom levels. Sell a book for any more, no matter how long it is, and you get ostracized and ridiculed for selling a book at “ridiculous” price-points. Their options are either stand up to a bunch of authors who’ve been selling for a while and have an established base … or cave and drop the price of their book really low.

      Now, to be fair, this isn’t always the case. There are definitely those cases where there are books being sold for a low price because they’re cheap books, no way around it. Low-quality writing, low-quality editing … the works.

      But that’s all stuff that can be spotted in a sample. I’ve downloaded plenty of samples onto my kindle to laugh and delete them a few chapters in because the book was of such a poor quality it wasn’t worth the asking price. One doesn’t need an “introductory price” or portion to a book to discover whether or not it’s worth it, not when you can sample the first 10-20% or so of a book for free. In fact, the act of splitting a book makes me all the more suspicious, because when an author does that, they’re reducing the amount of the sample you can actually see (10% of 100 pages is 10, where 10% of 300 pages is 30), which makes me all the more cautious.

      A comparison that at the moment seems apt is the situation the games market faced when mobile games suddenly became the new “must develop” thing. Mobile games swept onto the gaming scene like a flood, touting low access prices, episodic content, and microtransactions as a way to “beat” the costs of traditional games.

      What happened? Well, the bubble exploded. Consumers started to see the mobile gaming scam for what it was—a get-rich quick scheme—and shying away. Developers were making games that would have traditionally been $10 and giving them away for “free,” while marking up “add-ons” that drove the prices well past $10 and into the triple-A range.

      The result of this flood to grab easy cash? At its peak, something like 96% of mobile games never made back their initial investment because so many games had flooded this low market and so many consumers had caught on. It’s stabilized now, but the “death” of the other game markets never happened.

      I think ebooks are running the risk of a similar problem. To many authors are looking to maximize their profits and counting on readers not realizing what’s going on. The thing is, looking at other industries, things like that can’t last. People figure it out. The trick will be to not be one of the authors that gets caught up in the hype of super low, none-sustainable prices only to get ruined later.

      Too cheap is a thing, as you alluded to. Bic had that problem with their pens. Right now, I think the race to the bottom seems to be doing the same thing to books. But at the same time, like phone games, many aren’t as cheap as they claim, but they’re competing with books that shouldn’t be.


      • For authors where there’s full content books of adequate writing, say 60K and higher, I expect that the entry novel will be low. But that’s the marketing of things – everybody writes a trilogy, because that’s how you market a story. One book might sell well; but if you can triple your profits, do three!

        And I don’t begrudge the author their due on #2 and #3. But I wouldn’t hit a 30 k novella that is priced above $2. I do look at the page count before buying an unknown.

        Another question might be, are you seeing a lot of the scamsters out there with successful sales? Or are they rated #1,452,003 in their area? Dismal content, dismal sales.

        You have alerted me to something I wasn’t aware of, Max, that you can pick up samples of things before buying. I recall sometimes reading a sample in the Amazon webpage, but never a downloadable one for Kindle. I will check that out, and thanks for mentioning it. It’ll make choosing books far easier for me. No more “This one had good reviews, but that 1 star scares me and I dunno, I dunno,” sort of head conversations.


        • Another question might be, are you seeing a lot of the scamsters out there with successful sales? Or are they rated #1,452,003 in their area?

          If they weren’t successful, they long since would have quit, but looking at sales rankings they seem to be doing quite well, sitting in the top 100,000 or even 50,000 with their stuff. It works because like the early mobile market, not a lot of customers are looking very hard at things and realizing that they’re paying far more than they normally would for a book of that size.

          That’s part of the reason it’s worth calling attention to. The scam works, and it works well.


  2. Good point. Hadn’t thought of the adding up, but I tend to not pay much attention to the length of what I’m buying. My main rule of thumb is if the author is selling up a complete story. Five 30k stories that are part of a series, but each one is complete in themselves. In my mind that’s fine. However, taking a 150k story and chopping it up into five bits is not. Kind of a fine line for a definition, but a lot of that is author’s mindset for what they are doing.

    I was hoping there would be less of this when Amazon changed their subscription payout to a by-page instead of percentage read. Oh well. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I read mostly for-free stuff these days.


    • A book, if it’s well-written, ought to have a delineated 3 act structure. Even a novella, which works out to be about the length of a screen play, must have that structure. Taking a 150K book and just dividing it up in five parts does not complete stories make. The style will be choppy and horrible and the reader will be left empty and sad because the story won’t even come close to perfection.

      To me, a 30 k story requires MORE finesse and craft, because you’re doing a complete story in fewer words, so character arc, plot and all the detail have to happen with less material and the author needs to be on top of his game, else he creates crap on the wall.


  3. One of the justifications for chopping a book up was the original formulation of KU/KOLL where a “Borrow” of a book, regardless of length, paid the same. I have a little novelette priced at 99 cents, and a normal purchase would net me 35 cents (You only get 35% below $2.99 instead of 70%), but a borrow would often pay me well over a dollar. So parceling out a story over individual chapters was a real way to game the system, and the users didn’t care because it was free, or a flat fee anyway to them.

    Amazon fixed that scam and now pays those borrows on a per normalized page rate (Normalized meaning you can’t mess with the formatting to game it either), so you may find less parceling out of books in the future.

    Liked by 2 people

    • YEA!!!! EXACTLY this. THIS was the big scam, and it was designed for no other reason than to milk the system, and Amazon caught it and fixed it at the beginning of last summer, I believe (June 2015, with implementation July 1, IIRC).
      Dang it, I had another point…
      Oh, yeah: here it is: the payback rates: we were talking about this on Mad Genius Club the other day, where almost everybody knows a lot, and the hive mind knows all, and someone referenced the book sizes and the tie-in with rate of pay-per-sale. Hold on a minute. Get some coffee or something, I have to look this up…
      Okay. got it: it was Dave Freer’s column titled “so long” (but he didn’t comment on the fish) and it and the respondents waxed eloquent, as they are wont to do. I mentioned that there were constraints on pricing, and nothermike did the research and laid it out there for us all: (everything between the stars comes from nothermike)


      Note: Two levels. 35% royalty and 70% royalty.

      35% royalty: Minimum List Price depends on the file size
      Less than 3 megabytes $0.99
      3 to 10 megabytes $1.99
      10 megabytes up $2.99

      70% royalty: Minimum List Price $2.99


      If you, the author, want the high return — go for the $2.99 price. Willing to accept half that? Check your file size…

      Note. This is list price, and there are various sales and stuff that may lower the price. Also, as a foreign buyer, I can tell you that sometimes Amazon does odd things based on where the customer lives…


      Ummm, and Max,
      Okay, got yer attention now I hope.
      When you title a post “The Indie Scam,” you had best be prepared to have some of yer visitors show up with flaming torches. They will NOT have read your article, just the title, and with all the grief they have had to put up with from tradpub, they will quite likely want to kill you first, and ask questions later. I have read with great pleasure all three of your published works, and because of that, I kept my lighter in my pocket and the fire arrows in the trunk.


      • When you title a post “The Indie Scam,” you had best be prepared to have some of yer visitors show up with flaming torches. They will NOT have read your article, just the title, and with all the grief they have had to put up with from tradpub, they will quite likely want to kill you first, and ask questions later. I have read with great pleasure all three of your published works, and because of that, I kept my lighter in my pocket and the fire arrows in the trunk.

        Oh yes, I knew. Make no mistake, it was a calculated choice. And I knew full well that there would be people who would rake me over the coals without bothering to read the article in the slightest, building an impressive strawman based around the title. And it totally happened in some places (like Reddit). And for them, sure, they probably felt great. Those who read the article likely saw exactly what had happened, though.

        The goal was to get people up off of their seats, to get them incensed so that they would actually click through to read it. Those who didn't bother to read the article? I've got lots of fireproofing over the years—and nothing anyone said I've seen in relation to this article has been even on the same level of vitriol I've been hit with before online, so it didn't sting much.

        Those who were incensed and then read the article, well, then the title succeeded, and maybe gave them something to think about. Because it is something that happens in indie fiction. If it doesn't help people think more about the cost of self-declared "cheap" books, well, at least I can say I tried.

        EDIT: On a side note though, thanks for being one of those level-headed enough to read the article first.


  4. Can someone just tell me what is a fair cost for a book with 400,000 words? if it is too cheap people wouldn’t buy it because it is “cheap” if it is too expensive people will not buy it because it is “too expensive”, usually writing a book of that length takes over a year of your life.


  5. I read the article, Max. Good questions in it.

    I thought about all the above, and read Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith, and priced my debut novel at 8.99 for 167K. Those who have bought it have never mentioned price. One reviewer said the paperback (at 21.99) was worth it, and blogged about it. That book is the first – of a mainstream novel. Not fantasy. It is on the scale of GWTW, and would have been a single book that long except for two things: 1) Createspace can’t give me a single volume of a half-million words (planned length of trilogy) – something about bindings and their equipment; and 2) Amazon wouldn’t let me publish it at a profit. It took 15 years to write.

    YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR – OR LESS. Even from the big publishers.

    The old saw is fast, cheap, or good – two out of three. It may really only be one of the three.


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