Karen Dionne is an interesting writer and a good soul. She’s written a thoughtful piece on Huffington Post today about how 99 e-books are bad for writers.
Thoughtful, sensible—but (in my opinion) wrong.
First, you have to understand the overall transition that’s taking place in the book business. In the traditional business plan, publishers controlled supply (they owned the press, supplied reviewers and filled the stores) and used that control to maintain higher prices and profits (for the company, not the writer). Only so many books appeared each month; publicity and marketing were controlled from the top down—you knew about the big books coming months in advance.
The ebook marketplace is one of unlimited supply, with the great majority of profit going to the writer—if the writer can find a readership. The gatekeepers are gone—newspapers are dying and very few of the living maintain a book review section worth discussing anymore. And even those few don’t deign to mention indie ebooks.
The blogging universe is chaos like most of the Internet world—eventually some reviewers will rise to the top but things aren’t close to settled at the moment. So the hard part even for established writers these days is being heard over the din.
For indie (or self-published, if you prefer) ebook writers, things are even tougher. We have neither name recognition nor a publisher sending out review copies to ensure even a trickle of attention. Our whole focus at the start has to be getting our names out any way we can.
It turns out that there is a support structure in existence—a network of blog sites that review ebooks. Type ‘ebook reviews’ into Google. Or type ‘indie ebook reviews.’ What you find is a hodgepodge of ‘how to publish’ and ‘how to market your ebook’ articles and reviews of e-reader hardware along with a few actual ebook reviewers. Now type in ‘free ebook reviews.’ BAM! Suddenly, you’ve got pages of reviews, download sites, videos, offers, etc. There’s a world out there—of free content.
That’s where the 99¢ title actually functions in this new marketplace; as the seawall against the tide of free books. Sure, most of them might deservedly be free. Nonetheless there’s an enthusiastic group of readers out there who might be enticed away to a 99¢ book, but who definitely aren’t considering (for the moment) a $2.99, $4.99 or certainly a $9.99 ebook (check the angry reviews on Amazon for publisher-released $9.99 ebooks—that price point is never going to fly).
Once we get readers, we have the chance to move up. I have three books online now, two of them at 99¢. They are short and I’m unknown to the public. The third, at $1.99 is full-length and a real novel. Its sales are slower than the other two but my feet are dug in (for the moment). My two best will go live in the next week or two; those will be priced at $2.99. But I might offer a deal: buy one of the $2.99 titles and get one of the 99¢ ones free.
The idea is to be read, to have people tell their friends and establish a baseline from which to grow. I’ll have more books to sell as time goes on—that’s my focus.
In twenty years, the marketplace will have sorted itself out some. You’ll have a couple bloggers whose ebook taste coincides with yours (and expands upon it—I found a lot of filmmakers over the years through Pauline Kael and David Thomson). If they say something’s worth reading, it goes on your list. Prices will settle into several rational tiers that reflect a writer’s success and the effort it takes to do good work.
But I still think you’ll see a thriving marketplace of 99¢ books then. And at the moment, while we’re living in the Wild West? The arguments in favor of a 99¢ indie ebook, particularly for unpublished or underpublished authors, are very compelling.