The sustainability of 99 cents

Jennifer Mattern on has an interesting interview up today with indie phenom Zoe Winters. They discuss something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, the sustainability of the 99 cent price point.

I think almost no one can make a solid living with 99 cent ebooks because you have to have huge volume for that. When I sold 6,500 ebooks in June 2010, that was around $2,300. Well, most people can’t live on that, especially after you take out Uncle Sam’s cut. — Zoe Winters

This is what bothers me. The Between Heaven and Hell trilogy — which comprises the first halfish of the Unification Chronicles, so this is already complicated — is somewhat genre-bending. Here’s the elevator pitch for the first book, Revelation:

When Daniel Cho sees a dead man walk away from a car wreck, he becomes the catalyst for a final battle between angels and demons.

What genre does that sound like? If you picked “science fiction,” you’d be right, only you didn’t pick that, did you? As the story develops, it turns out the angels and demons are really humans with a purely technological basis for immortality, and over the millenia they’ve inspired our myths of gods, angels and demons. In book five of the series, we’ll find out how and why they became immortal in the first place, and what that means about humanity and our place in the galaxy. But to start out, this book seems like urban fantasy or horror. We only find out it’s really science fiction later.

This genre ambiguity means the niche for people who want to read my books is on the smaller side. I will never pull down numbers like Amanda Hocking because paranormal romance just isn’t what I write. I have to accept that my niche is finite, even with the ebook market expansion accelerating.

And given that, 99 cents is troubling. A sale at 99 cents makes me only 1/6, or 16.7%, of what I make at $2.99. Hocking, Locke and others like them can get away with that because their pool of potential customers is so much larger. But if I want to make a living at this, 99 cents can only be an occasional promotional price. $2.99 or even $3.99 has to be the default.

A year from now, when the entire Between Heaven and Hell trilogy is available, plus two stand alone novels and my novella “Do Over!“, I’d have to sell about 500 copies of each book a month to sustain myself. Even that seems high to me, although I’m probably underestimating the size of the overall ebook market by several decimal points. Those will slide down the long tail over time, and be replaced by new books as I keep writing. As long as I stay around 3,000 copies overall a month, I can make my living as a writer. In theory, that’s sustainable.

At 99 cents each, on the other hand, I’d have to sell 13,000 copies a month to make the same amount of money. 13,000 new readers every month, 12 months a year. That’s more than the population of the whole town where I went to high school. Every month. In my niche, I just don’t see how that’s possible.

I’ve seen claims that standardizing on $1 is inevitable for ebooks, and their math is compelling. And while I’m not one of those who frets that $1 is “devaluing” the book, I can’t deny that under the current royalty conditions, $1 doesn’t work for me.

(If Amazon extends the 70% royalty to 99 cents and I’d only have to sell 6,000 copies a month, well, that’s a horse of a different color.)

2 thoughts on “The sustainability of 99 cents”

  1. Thanks for the shout out! I for one, hope Amazon does NOT extend the 70% royalty down to 99 cents. They have been trying to incentivize people charging more, but there are STILL too many people charging 99 cents for full-length novels. I think they only ever intended that price point for short term sales and short stories. I hope they decide to put a strict file-size cap on it so people who aren’t writing short stories HAVE to charge $2.99. 99 cents for a novel or even a novella is just ridiculous.

  2. I am new to reading ebooks (got an iPad for Christmas), and I think the 99 cent idea is a pretty ridiculous expectation on the part of readers. For a stand alone short, OK, but a novel deserves more. I prefer it costs less than a mass market pb, which is the least pleasant format for reading a book that I have found.

    There are so many possible books to read, that price does matter. I read 50-70 complete books a year and probably buy twice that many (including gifts), so there are many books that I don’t buy because I can find a suitable alternative for less. There are less than a 10 authors whose new books I automatically buy because I have to read them. The less books cost, the more books I’ll buy, the more authors I’ll try. Books don’t go “bad” like strawberries. One can stock up.

    Especially for self-published books (but really all books), the ability to read a sample is crucial. Some writers are very, very good, and some are just horrid. Popularity isn’t always the best criterion for judging writing.

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