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What’s More Fairly Priced at 99 Cents, Nonfiction or a Novel?

At 99 cents for a “digital nonfiction short,” it feels like an honest transaction.

By Edward Nawotka
one cent penny
How many times have you picked up a book of narrative nonfiction and though to yourself, “Wow, that would have been better as a magazine article”? It happens all the time. It’s hard to shake the feeling that, often times, the heart of a work of narrative nonfiction, and many business books — and, frankly, many biographies and history books as well — is a single chapter or two that supports the entire enterprise. It’s frustrating. You shouldn’t be able summarize the compete narrative arc of a 250-400 page book in a line or two that reveals the surprises or what’s new about a topic; unfortunately, very often, its easier than you think.

Yes, it’s a cliché that agents and editors reject books on the very premise that “it would make a good magazine article, but not a book?” At the same time, agents and editors will often endeavor to construct a book around a single good magazine piece. In fact, anyone submitting a nonfiction proposal these days would do well to make sure they have published several excerpts well in advance of proposing a book, as a form of vetting the work. That said, try landing a long-ish narrative nonfiction piece at any one of the reputable magazines, and you’ll find it may be more difficult than finding a publisher for your book — especially now that, well, anyone can be a publisher.

The truth is very often that many writers know a “book” isn’t really “a book” as such, but a great story that they will then add padding to flesh it out to book-length. There’s prestige in books, there’s reputation in books, and maybe even money.

So why is the market for digital shorts is booming? Publishers ranging from now-established brands, like The Atavist and Byliner, and new publishers like Now & Then, are “mining the literary middle-ground” between the blogs and books, giving a much needed space to these voices. Traditional book publishers too are taking notice and getting into the field.

Well, the answer is simple: it makes commercial sense.

To me, selling a “digital short” nonfiction piece for 99 cents or even $2.99 is a much more valid commercial transaction than buying a fiction title for the same price, especially if it is vetted and edited by a proper publisher. That may just be my taste, but my feeling is the investment in editing nonfiction is more closely aligned with that price point than it is for fiction. To me, fiction — properly vetted and edited fiction — is something that should go for more. It’s often a far bigger investment in a writer’s time than a magazine-length nonfiction piece. As for the 99-cent novels, well anyone in their right mind would tell you that it is purely marketing. My bet would be that very few novelists honestly want to see their books sold so cheaply (yes, it works for some, but it remains to be seen if you can build a long-term career on such foundations); magazine writers and nonfiction writers can probably live with that especially, since — and here’s the irony — they’re probably used to getting paid a fair price for their work from magazines.

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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9 Comments

  1. Posted March 6, 2012 at 3:43 am | Permalink

    Definitely right: 99 cents is a marketing ploy to sell novels and I don’t believe that price point even sells much anymore. It signals the book is cheap and too much slush pile-style books have flocked to tt price point. Readers interested in a good read have learned to avoid the 99 cents novel.

    And that raises the whole question of price again. Is 99 cents right for a non-fiction short piece? Frankly, I don’t think so. The bad image of the 99 cents price point affects everything, fiction and non fiction alike. Better stay away from it both as readers and writers…

  2. Posted March 6, 2012 at 4:44 am | Permalink

    After years of selling books unprofitably through the book trade, publishers are now playing the low-price card again only digitally. Price points like these are the enemy of value and are one of the reasons that publishing so often struggles to make decent margins. While low price encourages volume sales, what is lost is the potential for profit from fewer customers paying for demonstrable value. Publishers who go into this blind – whether fiction or non-fiction – risk surrendering, yet again, their capability to be properly rewarded for what they have created.

  3. Posted March 6, 2012 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    I agree with Edward: there are many ebooks that ought to be kept as chapters, and are better being marketed as shorts, or shorties.

    I also agree with Michael Smith: authors/writers must be rewarded for what we have created. What most writers don’t factor in is that they’ll lose an average of 20% of sales revenues to piracy and bit torrent sites. And what readers seem to forget is that they are benefiting from what they hold in their hands or is on their e-readers after countless hours an author’s work crafting, editing, polishing and then e-publishing a title.

    A 99 cent piece may encourage readers to download the title. The promotion may help an e-author, for a while. But the difference between a 99 cent title and $2.99 is 3X or 300%. An author needs to sell three times as many titles at 99 cents to earn $2.99. Sell titles at 99 cents often enough, and you will not be an author or a writer, but someone who can’t quit their day job. Or who can’t leave their family business. Or who stops writing altogether because they can’t afford the many hours it takes to do their craft any longer.

    Authors must find better ways to support each other, and to educate readers that paying fair and decent prices for their ‘entertainment’ and ‘education’ is not only fair: it is the decent, right thing to do. You can only ever rarely buy a cup of coffee for 99 cents; why should you be able to buy the article that will be read with that cup of coffee for less than the cost of that coffee? Writers need to take a page from the barrista outlets of the world. If you’re selling coffee and donuts, that’s one thing. But most writers and authors are selling grande extra foam lattes with pumkin spice scones. And I don’t know a single place in North America or Europe that will sell you the latter for 99 cents. Authors: please be fair to yourselves first.

  4. Posted March 6, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    No argument here. Too many non-fiction books are simple one idea repeated over and over again. The money doesn’t bother me as much as my loss of time. Nothing worse than a 220-pg book that should have been a 30 page white paper.

  5. dianafaust
    Posted March 6, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Sort of silly to compare 99 cents for a “digital short” as opposed to a full-length novel–one is long and one is short. Of course the shorter piece should cost less.
    But for full-length non-fiction there is a lot of travel and research done, paid for out of pocket because advances are so low nowadays, with payment broken into four imstallments, only 3 of which are paid by the time you see the e-book . And for self-published full-length non-fiction, 99 cents is not enough to cover the author’s research expenses.

  6. Steven
    Posted March 6, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    There are authors who are selling 100k+ books at 99 cents a piece. You might not be able to retire on an income like that, but it’s still a livable wage if you can put out a quality product which keeps your first time buyers buying when you come out with subsequent work.

  7. Edward Nawotka
    Posted March 6, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    @dianafaust — agreed, it is sort of a silly comparison, but it is one that reflects reality, as the “nonfiction short” and the mostly self-published “novel” the two dominant formats that sell at $.99 cents online — you rarely if ever see serious, full-length nonfiction sold at such a low price point, and for the very reason you cite: it’s too expense to cover the author’s personal financial investment.

  8. Mike
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 1:05 am | Permalink

    I can’t really see the point of 99 cent books. If you want to promote your book and get some reviews going, give it away for free for a few days, and then put it back up to what you think is a reasonable price.

    If someone cuts a book from $3 to 99 cents, so what? However, if someone gives away a $10 book for free (for a strictly limited time) thay may attract some attention. As commenters here have pointed out, if your book is always at a low price people will tend to assume that is all it’s worth.

  9. Mike
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 1:14 am | Permalink

    Sorry I didn’t clarify what books I was referring to, I was thinking that .99 cents is a pointless price for any longish book. For very short non-fiction it may be justified, although $3-4 seems a more reasonable price for a niche non-fiction booklet.

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