Wednesday, 27 July 2011

You don't -choose- to move to a ghetto

You might have seen this blog post by Zoe Winters about the 99-cent price point. In the first sentence, she admits she's likely to piss some people off with it.

Well, colour me pissed. Or at least annoyed. I don't actually disagree with Ms. Winters' fundamental point - that authors are free to choose whatever prices they want and some will indeed sell at whatever prices they want. What I object to is her tone, and the way she talks about the writing industry as a whole.

Let's start with the term 'ghetto', shall we? A ghetto is, by definition, a minority community. Within the community of self-publishing writers (admittedly ourselves still a minority, I believe), the minority are the people charging more than 99 cents (or at least, more than the $2.99 that makes Amazon's higher royalty rate).

Idiomatically, though, there's much more to the word 'ghetto'. The normal association is something like this: if you're in a ghetto, you're an outcast from society (this is unfair to a great many people who actually live in ghettos because of inescapable poverty or other cruelties of society, but idioms can be like that). To say someone lives in a ghetto is to stigmatise them, and there's no question in my mind that that's what Ms. Winters intended. It's inflammatory and needlessly rude.

So, right from the start, as I read the article, I was annoyed, particularly since, with my intended price point of £1.20 (just shy of $1.80, I think), I'm sure Ms. Winters would tell me I'm in the ghetto. Well, I've explained my choice of price point before - it's the point at which I make £1 per book, and thus a book pays for the time I spend writing it in 6,000 sales. If and when I sell at 69p/99c, it's a promotion, a kind of advertising, for which I consider myself to be paying the 70p (ish) per book that it's costing me, in exchange for reaching new readers. I'm a new author, the most important thing for me right now is not how much money I'm making but how many readers I'm reaching.

To me, the low price point isn't a ghetto, it's a marketplace. 99c is where the readers who are looking for something new go, and I bear them no ill will for that - there's nothing wrong with choosing to buy cheap when you're taking a risk on an author you haven't tried before. In this analogy, higher price points are like high street stores, I guess (and yes, I'm sure the people who run high street stores have a lot of contempt for street-marketers, but that's their problem).

I believe I can make quite a comfortable living at my chosen price point, particularly when I've got a whole bunch of books on sale. Admittedly, I live in one of the cheapest cities in the UK, but right now I'm living on less than £6,000 a year. If my books managed the purported average 4 sales a day, I'll pass £6,000 a year (at least, pro rata) when I publish my fourth book (or, at the rate I'm going, some time shortly after Christmas).

Beyond that, any extra income is a bonus. As such, I don't have any plans to raise my price point later in my career - though obviously this only applies to ebooks; hardcopy is a different matter and I'll worry about a hardcopy business model when I can afford the initial outlay. Once I'm making a living off my writing, why increase the expense to my readers? It just seems like unnecessary arrogance.

The thing that really got my blood up, though, was the bit where Ms. Winters says "[If we're all forced to sell at 99c,] many people currently writing will simply quit writing (or will write MUCH shorter work). Including me. I love writing but I’m not your slave. This is my career right now. If it ever becomes completely unfeasible as a career, I will find something else to do for a living. As much as it will pain me to make that choice."

Obviously, I don't think the 99c price point makes writing unfeasible as a career, as I've just explained.The thing that gets me here, though, is the idea of quitting writing because you can't make enough money at it. I've said before, writing for a living, and particularly writing novels for a living, is a fool's errand. The risk is too great, the pay too sporadic, and the workload far too high.

And if you are making a living at writing, the chances are (even with the boost to author incomes which the ebook revolution has brought in) you could be making a lot more in a corporate job. If you can make a living at writing, you must be pretty smart and have a pretty sound business sense. Those skills are very transferable.

THE ONLY REASON TO MAKE A CAREER OF WRITING IS LOVE. The only way it makes sense to try and make money off your writing is if you love writing so much, if you're so addicted to writing, that you're going to write anyway whatever else you do. Then you might as well try selling it, since otherwise you're just going to have a hard-drive full of time spent (albeit not time wasted).

If you'd stop writing if you couldn't make money at it, you don't love writing enough to deserve to make money at it, regardless of how good your writing is. Go get some faceless corporate job, and I hope tripling your income by so doing brings you half as much joy as I get when I'm in the grip of a new project.

I write because I can't help it. In about the second week while I was writing 'Heaven Can Wait', I tried to put it aside to concentrate on my PhD research. I couldn't. I couldn't even sleep easy while I was neglecting the novel. I had to finish it before I could get any research done. That novel was coming out of me whether I wanted it to or not, and I loved pretty much the entire writing experience. Once I had it, there was no good reason not to try selling it; the additional income is just a bonus, an added reward for doing something I love.

At the heart of the matter, I think the only reason to try to make money off your writing is to free up time you'd otherwise spend working a day-job for more writing.

And yes, there are issues of reader respect involved in the 99-cent price point. Perhaps it would be nice if readers treated our work as if it was worth more. But I have two things to say to that. The first is that Shakespeare, Plato, David Hume, Keats, and a thousand other literary greats are all out of copyright and therefore freely available to all. It's a reader's market, and we as authors have to compete with the greatest writers in history. Maybe Ms. Winters thinks her books are worth more than Shakespeare's plays (hell, maybe they are - I've not read them, or very much Shakespeare), but I have no such illusions about my own work.

That's a slightly facetious point, but it bears making. My other point is more serious. I apologise for not having the precise figures to hand, but how much does a traditionally published author make on £9 trade paperback? If you compare the 99c price point and author margin to that, I think it looks a lot less insulting. Most of what a reader is prepared to pay for a trad-published book goes to the publisher. The book's only worth a couple of quid to the author at best, and I see no reason not to pass the saving in publisher and distribution costs on to the reader.

Let me put it this way: if a supermarket very publicly lowered its overheads and didn't lower prices accordingly (maybe not all the way, but most of it), you'd be annoyed. You'd think twice about shopping there, unless you had no other option, and if you had no other option, you'd feel like you were being exploited, even mocked. There might even be a public outcry, particularly if the lowering of overheads involved a loss of jobs.

Supermarkets do occasionally do that, because they tend to be run, at least at the top level, by douchebags. There's no reason for authors to be douchebags to readers. I'm sure Ms. Winters' devoted fans will happily buy her books at a higher price point, but I'm happy just to be making money back on time spent doing something I love, and I'll take what I can get.

One final thought; the second-greatest pleasure I've had since starting to build a writing career, second only to the writing itself, has been receiving feedback from people who've read my books (and that includes negative feedback - I like learning to be a better writer). The more people who read my books, the more feedback I'm likely to get. The lower my prices, the more readers I'm likely to get. Given the choice between a devoted fan-base who'll pay $5 a book and five times as many readers who can write reviews, tweet with me, tell their friends and so on, I know which will give me more pleasure.

The value of my writing is measured in the number of hours I get to spend doing something I love. Not the amount of money people pay for it.

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