The Author Trap: An Essay by Patricia Green
Deanndra Hall started a discussion on FB, recently. The subject was how hard writing is these days. She was basically giving advice to wanna-be authors to pull on their big girl panties because the going is rough out there. And I thought, yes, times are tough, but why? I came up with several reasons why we, as authors and readers, are having such a tough time finding quality, blowing off the chaff to find the seeds of ideas inside the pages.
A little background on me: I started writing for publication in 1992 and my first book was published in 1993. It was a bit of a fluke, but it did result in a paperback romance anthology (single-author) that sold out its first printing within a week, so I guess it wasn’t half bad. At that time, I wrote under a pseudonym (“A.L. Reine”) because I had small children and a husband in a relatively conservative job and didn’t want the erotic nature of the stories to make problems. It was, and remains, the only book I published under that name.
I went on to write part time while I worked as a technical writer on non-fiction material. The next several books took years to write as I snatched an hour here or there to put pen to paper (yes, all longhand, though I had a computer).
In 2002, my girls were big enough to mostly take care of themselves, and I had more time to write, though I was still working as a technical writer. From 2002 to 2010 I wrote four more books. These were all under a new pseudonym for the same reasons as the first pen name–family safety. But in 2010, it became clear to me that I was not challenging myself enough and that I could stop being a technical writer and start putting my time where my heart was: writing fiction. So beginning in 2010 I wrote six or more books a year, under my own name, working with several publishers.
Why does all this matter? Because the nature of writing is as much a social endeavor as crafty one. As people become under-employed and it becomes easier to self-publish, more folks who have an idea that writing is glamorous are taking a shot at becoming an author. Are they good at it? By and large, no. They become discouraged by bad reviews, bad sales, but that leads to desperation. They give their books away for free often, or sell them for 99 cents.
It takes me six weeks, writing full-time, to produce the manuscript for a single 40,000 word book. Not only is that a modest sized book, but the time I quoted does not include the cover art, the editing, and the packaging. Publishers like the ones I’ve worked with, do this efficiently, but it does add time onto the process. So, depending on a publisher’s master schedule, it can take three months (often longer) for a book to go from concept to release. But some authors have a low value of their time. For me to make my $2.00 royalty per book and feel as though I have worked beyond minimum wage level, I have to sell thousands of books. Imagine if I was giving those books away, or selling them for 99 cents a copy (netting me 37 cents per sale). There is no way I’d get close to making minimum wage. So the people who are doing this regularly clearly aren’t doing the calculations, don’t value their own time, or are seeking some sort of other compensation.
Let’s talk about what that compensation might be.
Downloads. It is entirely possible to get 30,000 downloads for a free book. That’s a lot of free stuff to give away. Imagine if that author was getting just $1 for each “sale.” That’s a decent year’s wages for most people. But do readers actually read their free downloaded books? Statistics say they don’t. There are creatures called “book hoarders” who keep hundreds of books (some even thousands) on their ereaders. They probably intend to read the books they’ve chosen, but with such a large library at their fingertips, what are the chances that they’ll choose your book? Small, to say the least. Still they accumulate books, and we see high download figures and little else.
Amazon ranking. Plenty of authors live for their book’s Amazon rank. If they make it to #1, even with a free book that they’re not making a dime off of, they feel successful. If you’re a hobby author, maybe that’s enough. Certainly, it sounds good on the surface.
Loss leaders. In marketing of many products, there is such a thing as a “loss leader” product. When Gelson’s Supermarket puts grapes on sale below their wholesale price, they’re not trying to get you to buy grapes; they’re trying to get you into the market in order to upsell you on the pears and porterhouse steaks. This kind of thinking can apply to book sales. Often, the author thinks: I can give away or significantly discount my first book (particularly the first in a series) and that will hook readers enough to make them want the second, third, fourth book, and so on. But does this work? Largely, no. It seems logical on the surface, but consider how much money it costs to produce a self-published book (the only books an author has total control over from page one to price in India). If a book is a quality book, the author is spending money on editing (a minimum of $200 for an experienced editor), formatting (this can cost between $35 and $99, with the higher price more accurate and professional looking), and cover art (which costs between $100 and $500 for a cover that looks professionally done). That’s a price tag of between $335 and $799 for a single book—whether that book is priced at zero or $4.99. How many self-published authors are willing to spend $400 on a book they plan to give away? Very few are in a position to make this investment. And, remember, we haven’t included the cost for the author’s time creating and writing the book.
Consequently, loss leaders are often self-defeating propositions. The first book is of lesser quality because of the need to keep the cost low and subsequent books go unsold. Unlike Gelson’s, the loss leader concept isn’t so good with books.
But there remain a zillion free and 99 cent books out there, even a goodly number of 99 cent box sets of multiple books. Desperate authors are competing for readers’ time and disposable income, and they’ll take the hit to get it.
I recently had a conversation with a free and 99 cent book promoter, whose entire marketing business was geared toward listing free and 99 cent books to thousands of potential readers every day. They did not list books at regular prices of, say, $2.99 – $5.99. I lamented to this person about how impossible it is for a writer to make a living these days, with the proliferation of cheap books, and he pointed out something interesting. He said that at first, these cheap books were a good marketing tool for authors. They did as you might expect: led the reader to the next book by that author at full price. But then another ten authors tried it, and one hundred after that, and one thousand after that, and suddenly, the market was saturated with free or 99 cent books, completely obliterating the entire paradigm and pushing normally priced books to the back of the line.
Another thing I think is happening that makes free and 99 cent books so much more popular among readers is that today’s reader, generally a person between twenty-five and thirty-five years old, hasn’t been schooled on the concept of book quality. They don’t recognize technical flaws, such as poor grammar, spelling, or homonym abuse. They don’t look for big ideas or gripping romance or adventure. They look for—for want of a better word—pap. It’s sad, and somewhat sickening for someone like me who studied literature and can look at it with a critical eye. Everyone’s tastes are different, but quality is not a fungible concept. If school children’s book reports weren’t viewed as relativist documents that had to be politically correct, maybe some useful ideas could be discussed, and some critical thinking could result. Such thinking is sure to have a positive effect on how young people view literature, unlike the current mode.
Having been writing for publication so long, I’ve seen a lot of shifts in book marketing and the success of literature over time. I think it’s a tough time for quality writing from new and midlist authors; the temptation to cut corners and give away the farm are very strong. My personal belief is that we are entering a (hopefully brief) dark age, when ideas are subjected to standards that squash creativity and create mushy, overly politically correct garbage. I’d like to see some authors with a backbone, sticking up for quality writing, bold ideas, and emotionally satisfying scenarios.
My books sell for $2.99 to $4.99. They’re worth paying for. Don’t fall for the loss leader scheme. Demand quality, and be prepared to put down your $3 to get it. It’s a small price to pay an author for dozens of hours of their time and creative effort, not to mention a way of helping them recoup their costs. If you like reading, it’s your opportunity to show it.