Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Does the 99 cent Kindle signal the Death of Publishing?

I confess to checking my Amazon stats at regular intervals--I know. It's an obsession that results in bleak despair every time my numbers go down, but I can't stop myself.

Today I found myself checking the top hundred mystery bestsellers and what a surprise--I find that most of them are ninety nine cent Kindle books. Several of them are by names I recognize--legitimate writers. So I'm wondering several things--can they actually make a good living by selling their books at 99 cents? That means they earn 33 cents a book. A thousand books gives them 300 dollars.(which it will have cost them to have the book set up in Kindle format) Ten thousand gives them $3000 . That means they have to sell an awful lot of books before this is worth their while.
Perhaps some people do sell a hundred thousand kindle books. But how would readers find out about you if you're not on that bestseller list?

My next point to ponder is whether we are lowering the expectations of the readership. Some of those 99 cent books will be good. Most of them will be poorly written and have been rejected by regular publishers. Will readers come to think that this is how a story should be? Silly question really. They are already used to the fragmented style of TV drama , the lack of characterization of action movies.

And my third point--how will this affect the publishing industry? I've already been given one star reviews by Kindle readers who are angry that my Kindle books are being sold at $11.99 (a price set by my publisher for the first year). Will those readers eventually force down the price of all books as the power and scope of the e-reader grows?

I had an interesting brush with this myself last spring when St. Martin's had me write a free e-story featuring Molly Murphy, to coincide with the release of Bless the Bride. The cover clearly says A Molly Murphy Story. It is not a full book. Suddenly I find that it had risen to #2 on free Kindle. Then I find that I am getting all these one star reviews because IT IS NOT A WHOLE BOOK.  This blew me away. It was free. It was a good story.  It's like getting a sample chocolate at Sees Candies and then complaining because it's not a whole box.

My point is that readers are becoming entitled. They want the best, right now, and they don't want to pay for it. And those people putting up their own 99 cent stories on Amazon are sadly catering to them. It may just mean the end to legitimate publishing.

What do you think?


  1. Welcome to my world Rhys. There are no answers at the moment, but rest assured the paradigm will change -- again -- within 6 months.

    Check out my blog if you want to see some additional thoughts on the matter.

  2. I first found your books when I downloaded the free Molly Murphy Story. I enjoyed it so much that I have purchased all of your Molly Murphy Kindle books and then purchased all of your Royal Spyness Kindle books. When I read the short story it just left me wanting more!

  3. Rhys, you're highlighting the mess publishing is in right now. Those 99 cent books are driving the market down. Ironically, the traditional publishers have to take some blame. By publishing fewer mid-list authors, they've helped fuel the very low cost, self-publishing, e-book phenomenon that is lowering standards and the perception of what a book should cost, and it's weakening the market for their print books. Libby's right - this situation will change. I just don't know HOW!

  4. There are a couple of things to remember:

    1.) 99 cent books often sell to a very different audience than the regular books. Those readers are often addicted to bargains, and spend a lot of money on cheap books they never read. Which means that you aren't competing with those 99 cent books head-to-head -- they're attracting a different audience.

    October tends to be a slow sales month, so you may just be seeing an ordinary dip which has nothing to do with the bargains.

    2.) A lot of publishers (from indies to majors) have realized the value of churning prices. Instead of setting some books permanently low, they have a cycle of "sales" which offers each book for cheap for short periods.

    By cycling prices these publishers do two things: first, they boost the book's numbers in Amazon's internal algorithms, which in turn puts that book into more "also bought" lists and other suggestion pages. Second, by sometimes offering at a lower price, you get those bargain shoppers, who will never buy the book at a higher price. In other words, you expand your overall audience.

    Susan and Libby are right -- things are in a mess right now, and all writers need to hold on and keep writing.

    Oh, and one other thing is driving this out-of-control bus: As new readers come to ebooks, they tend to start by going wild with the bargain books. Then they settle down, and realize they have a huge pile of books to be read. They stop buying for a little bit... and then they go back to more sane buying habits. At that point they tend to sample for new authors, pay a higher price for those they like, and also do some extra shopping to replace their paper library -- which they will do as they do it in real life. They'll buy what they can at bargain prices, but still pay full price when they are ready to read a book.

    I worry about my favorite midlist writers who are dependent on not-so-favorable publishing contracts, but I think in a few years, things will shake out very well for authors.

  5. You're overlooking a few things here, Rhys. One, many of those 99-cent books were alredy published by regular publishers, and we authors are now collecting 35 cents per book on stories written years ago. Two, many of us charge more ($2.99 is a nice price)for new stuff. Three, traditional publishers have given up their role as gatekeepers by repeatedly spending fortunes on crap (Can you say 'Snooki?') while dropping real writers right and left.
    If I sell a $24 hardcover, I make two bucks in the end. If I sell a self-published $2.99 Kindle book, guess how much I make? Two bucks. Which price is friendlier to readers?
    As much as I love old-fashioned books and bookstores, I'm now a e-book believer.
    Steve Brewer

  6. Nah. There's a generation of overly-entitled, spoiled, me,me,me people out there, but it is a generation, not a whole civilization.

    Until we pull out of this recession, I don't think there's any reliable way of knowing what directions publishing will really go in.

    Or, so I think.

  7. I agree that the .99 cent books are selling to a different crowd than traditional publishers. I know that authors still have to make money traditionally publishing, so books can't be .99 cents for those. However, I don't like to pay much over $10 for a book on kindle (although I did buy your latest for $11.99 because I really wanted it.)

    I have bought a few of the .99 cent books. Some are good, some are alright. Some could probably go the traditional publishing route, and some probably wouldn't make it. But when you pay .99 cents for an okay book, it's going to probably have higher stars than if you pay $10 for an okay book. Pay more, expect better writing.

    In my limited perspective, I think that e-books are going to do well, but I think traditional publishing is here to stay. I love having a bunch of kindle books, but I also love to have a real book that I can flip through to re-read favorite parts. You'll have those that will stick to books, those that will stick to e-books, and those that will enjoy a bit of both.

  8. My view: It depends.

    I've bought eBooks for 2.99, I've bought them for .99, I've bought them for more. It all depends on what I want. I shelled out 11.99 for Rick Riordan's latest - because I like his books and I wanted it NOW.

    I am less likely to shell out that kind of cash on an unknown writer without some heavy-duty recommendations from folks I know and trust. Why? I don't have the money.

    I never liked spending $20-30 on a hardcover. I'd wait until it hit clearance, or paperback, or the discount store. There were a few exceptions - Harry Potter comes to mind - but I'm more than happy with paperbacks.

    And that's where I think the .99 to 2.99 eBook comes into play. Those who really want hardcovers will buy them. Even those who want something nice to have around will buy a trade paperback. But if I want something quick and cheap to read on an airplane? It is cheap eBook all the way. Yeah, some of them may suck - but at least then I don't have the physical book taking up space on my shelf and I won't be out $$.

    I agree, things are in turmoil. And it'll settle down. Because folks who can appreciate good writing, and are willing to pay for it, will not be permanently suckered by the .99 dreck in the barrel.

  9. I'd like to comment on a different point of yours, Rhys: the problem of one star reviews. This is a very strange world where anyone, anywhere can give you a one star review, whether they've read your book or not! (Indeed, one wonders why a reader would read a book all the way through, if they only thought it to be worth one star.)

    Another college teacher pointed out to me that disgruntled students (and I've had a few) might play this game out of spite, to bring down an author's rating. Must admit I'm watching out for that, on my own book.

  10. Rhys, I found this blog post fascinating. Frankly, I don't know what to make of the pricing issue. My publisher wants to have periodic .99 sales for it's authors, but we've been asked to participate or not. So far, I haven't, but maybe I'll be forced to. 'Tis a puzzlement!

  11. Rhys, I can only speak for myself, but I appreciate an author's time and talent too much to consider 99 cents an appropriate price. But what upset so many of us was the big publishers adopting the agency model for ebooks. Many books on my wishlist, priced $6-$10, increased to the $12-$16 range when the agency model went into effect. Publishers control the price, set higher prices, and eliminate competition by the retailer. The result for me is that instead of buying many ebooks, I have to use the library more than before.

    I also want to tell you how much I enjoy the Constable Evans series, Rhys. Will you ever write more books in this series? I certainly hope so!

  12. "I've bought eBooks.... for 2.99, I've bought them for .99....

    I am less likely to shell out that kind of cash on an unknown writer without some heavy-duty recommendations from folks I know and trust. Why? I don't have the money".--Mary Sutton

    Oh stop it, will ya?? You have a KINDLE that cost a good piece of change, yes?! If you have $200 minimum for a Kindle, you have money for a damn book. Don't rip off writers because you don't want to pay more than the price of a Snickers for your entertainment. You know I'm telling the truth.