The value of indie

Over the last few weeks, and especially the last few days, there has been a great deal of discussion about the value of the indie publishing movement. The Big 5 traditional publishers continue to claim that e-book sales are leveling out, proving that the fad is fading. Indie authors continue in their attempt to discover the best price to charge for their work. How do we value our work and how much value does the reading public put on it? Those are the two of the biggest questions facing any indie author.

But there is something else we face as well. Most indie authors know that, for all its problems, traditional publishing does offer certain benefits we don’t have, or at least not easily, as indies. Print distribution is primary among those benefits. I will admit here and now, there is one traditional publisher I would jump up and down and do a happy dance were they to offer me a contract. Baen.

The reason for this is simple. Baen has always put out books I enjoy reading. Have I liked every book the house put out? No. I wouldn’t expect to. But I know that I can rely upon the brand and know that, with very few exceptions, I will like what I read. Something else I like about Baen is that, despite what some folks would have you believe, it doesn’t publish just conservative fiction. It’s authors run the gamut from extreme conservatives to liberals to more. Whatever their politics or religion or whatever else, Baen doesn’t care as long as they write books readers enjoy and buy.

That is in direct contrast to what Nick Cole encountered with his publisher, HarperVoyager. Mr. Cole discovered the hard way that there are publishers out there who are no longer making any attempt to hide the fact they have a social and political agenda. If you write a book that doesn’t fit the narrative, you have one chance — if you’re lucky — to fall in line or the book will be canceled. I applaud Mr. Cole for standing up not only for himself and his work but for his readers. Mr. Cole has written about his experience as have Larry Corriea and Michael Bunker. I highly recommend you check out their posts.

There is a difference between editing a book and forcing an author to change his book because it doesn’t meet whatever agenda the publisher might have. This wasn’t a case where Mr. Cole submitted a sexually graphic book to a religious publisher. HarperVoyager was the publisher he had worked with before. He was under contract to them. They had never before expressed any concern about the “message” his work might be spreading. But this time, they didn’t discuss the so-called problem with him. Oh no, they issued an ultimatum. “Do it or we won’t publish the book.” I’m afraid a number of authors would have caved. Mr. Cole did not. For that, I tip my had to him.

That is one of the downsides to traditional publishing and one that would keep me from signing with almost any traditional publisher, not that most of them would ever offer me a contract. I’m too outspoken for one thing. For another, my books don’t fit the narrative they are looking for. That’s just fine with me because I have readers who want what I write.

But that brings me to the next issue I have to worry about as an indie author. Pricing. How much should I charge for my e-books? That is the question every indie author asks himself before pushing the publish button. It is also where, not too long ago, a lot of authors were gaming the system.

Before Amazon implemented the Kindle Unlimited Program, there was the Kindle Only Lending Library (KOLL). Under KOLL, indie authors who chose to publish exclusively on Amazon were paid each time one of their eligible titles were borrowed. At first, most of us were please with the program. We were getting paid for books and short stories that might not be purchased. The program allowed readers to try us out for free and, if we did our jobs right, won us fans who would then go out and buy our titles instead of borrowing them.

Fast forward a bit and those of us who wrote long fiction started looking at our royalty reports and realized that we were making the exact same amount per borrow for a five thousand word short story as we were for a hundred thousand word novel. The grumbles started. Those grumbles turned to a roar that was being echoed by the reading public when some authors started gaming the system. They would take their novellas and books and split them into small chunks and sell those at 99 cents. That was fine but they were also enrolling them in the KOLL and that pissed off readers because they thought they were buying an entire book, or at least the first act of a book, only to discover they had, at most, a scene or a chapter. From an author standpoint, those splinters of books diluted the pay pool.

And if there is one thing an author is always sensitive to, it’s the bottom line on royalty reports.

So, after study and a lot of feedback from authors, Amazon started the Kindle Unlimited Program. If you want to see how those authors who were gaming the system screamed, it will only take a quick google search. They did not like the fact those in the program would be paid based on a “normalized” page count. Worse, the monies paid would be based on the number of the normalized pages read. No more of the if 10% is read, they you get paid that had been KOLL. The result was a recognition by Amazon that novels should receive more than short stories.

My only complaint with the program is we don’t see how far in a book a reader gets before they stop reading.

So, with the KOLL payments leveling that part of the payment playing field, we get to how much should you charge for your e-book. Amazon even helps us there. When you get to the rights and pricing page on your dashboard, you can check the beta version of their pricing recommendation. I look at that but what I also do it look at what the best sellers in not only the sub-genre but the main genre (for example military science fiction and then science fiction) sell for. I check to see which of those best sellers are traditionally published and which are indie published. Then I make my decision about what the best price point would be for my novel.

Have I ever priced one of my books even close to a traditionally published best seller? Hell no.

Why? That’s the question some authors have been asking of late. After all, shouldn’t we value our work as much as that best selling traditionally published author does? Of course, but there is a difference between how much I value my work and how much I know I can get for it. I also know the difference in cost to publish as an indie vs. traditional publishing. I don’t have any real overhead. I have no employees to pay, no office building with its attendant costs, I’m not paying an artist to create exclusive art for my cover or a graphics artist to do the lettering. I am author and publisher. I barter for most of the services I can’t do myself. Yes, on occasion, I have to pay for an editor because the one I barter with isn’t available. But even then, we are talking at most a couple hundred dollars. So, I don’t have near the money to recover quickly that traditional publishers do.

There is another, ever more important, factor to consider when setting the price for my e-books. Even though my books sell pretty damned well and my sales continue to pick up, I know I do not have the name of a best seller. I am still working to cultivate new readers, folks who will not only enjoy my work but recommend it to their friends and family. I also remember that I am not going to pay $12.99 – $14.99 or more for an e-book by anyone, unless it is a research book I need. There are very few authors I will pay $9.99 for. Those authors are the ones whose hardcovers I used to buy. My target range for traditionally published authors whose work I know and who come from publishers I trust — almost exclusively Baen — is the $6.99 – $8.99 range.

Indie books, nope. Not gonna happen. Not unless I know that author very well and know the quality of their work — and know that the author does not add the thrice-damned spawn of Satan DRM to their work. Looking at my library, there are less than a handful of indie published books I paid more than $4.99 for.

So, here’s the thing. Would I like to be able to charge and get $9.99 for my e-books and not see my sales drop off? You bet. But I also know that I have to be cognizant of what the market is willing to pay. The sales reports we see from traditional publishers as well as from Authors Earnings prove the point that readers have a limit to what they will pay and, with few exceptions, will not go over that limit. So, I will keep my eye on the market, compare what is hitting the best sellers lists and determine my pricing accordingly.

Finally, there is a reason (well, several of them) why indie published e-books are taking such a huge chunk of the market. Part of it is, as shown above, because we don’t have to worry about a publisher trying to force us to conform to their social and political agendas. That means readers can find the sort of books they want and, it is becoming clear to everyone but the Big 5 and their followers, that they want more than the approved agenda. The other part is cost. At this point where so many folks find themselves without as much disposable income as they once had, they are looking for the best bang for their buck. I don’t know about you, but I would rather be able to buy two books, or even three, for the price of  that best selling traditionally published author.

Just my two cents’ worth.


  1. ” At this point where so many folks find themselves without as much disposable income as they once had…”
    I’m also aware folks in other countries are at the mercy of brutal exchange rates and government action to deliberately reduce the value of their currency to improve trade. I try to set my book price as low as possible in places like Mexico, Brazil and India.

  2. $5.99 is pretty much my sticking point, when I’m buying ebooks. The sole exception being Baen crack–eARCs. What! I can get the Lois Bujold’s next book early? Maybe with a few typos? Who cares! $15? Take my money!

    As a writer? Under 20K words and it’s $0.99. Then I jump to $2.99 for the novellas or whatever (I never can remember the subcategories). $3.99 for short novels, $4.99 for novels. I have had reviews that complain about the stories being too short, but not “too short for the price” so I must have it about right.

    As for editing on demand, yeah. No way. On the other hand, I’ve enough _readers_ dislike the sexual content of the third book in my series, that I’m in the process of toning it down. Not because it was demanded, but because the readers, multiple, comments about it. They demanded nothing, I got clued into a problem with a book.

    1. Pam, I kept my novels at $2.99 until I started to see a good uptick in sales. Then I increased to $3.99 and my next will come out at $4.99. I possibly could have increased before then but I would rather build the audience and then raise prices. Shrug. I just hope I don’t wind up shooting myself in the foot with this tactic.

      1. We all just keep experimenting. At one point I raised the newest novels price up to $5.99. It increased sales. Until two years ago when everything tanked, then I lowered everything. _When_ the economy improves . . . I’ll think about raising prices, but I’ve gotten into a slot of writing shorter novels that feels natural to me, so . . . who knows.

  3. Yep. The pricing thing forks me in the hand every time. Sure, I’d love to set my books higher, but then sales die. Right now, they’re all at $2.99. Not a bad price to pay for full-sized, professionally edited novels, I think. (Yeah, I pay an editor and the occasional cover artist, if I can’t make a professional looking cover myself.) I might raise it when I get more noticed by the reading public. (Which is a forking trial in itself.) Time will tell. I’ve only been at this a year.

  4. I really hate to go much more than $5 – the only one of mine that is, is the all-in-one Trilogy that is a portmanteau of three separately-available books (which come close to 480,000 words – hey, when I say I write long-form, I write long-form!), and I priced it where it is so that readers who bought all three separately wouldn’t feel ripped off. YMMV, of course.

  5. I am one of the (hypothetical) readers discussed in this thread. I will comment from my individual rules of thumb for indie books. 1st book in a series that sounds interesting and I’ve never run into the author before and noone I know has recommended it $1. (first taste of the crack) Following books up to $5 if I find the series so-so, up to $8 if I’m really into it. $4-$7 for stand alone recommended by someone I trust and don’t know the author and noone has said “Another RAH”. My limit (except for Baen E-Arcs) seems to be $10 even for trad published authors that I have bought for years. Grouped books will garner more $ but only up to what it would cost to buy individually. I have bought a package for a series after the first book even when I wasn’t sure that the series was going to pan out. It was cheaper per book, first book was interesting, and it was convenient. Just my humble opinion.

    1. I know a number of readers who follow pretty much what you’ve described. Some will go $2.99 for a first book, as long as it is a “real” novel — ie, a minimum of 80-100k words.

  6. Lately for me, it has been “if it is not KU I am not buying”.
    There is so much that is good enough for me on KU that I am satisfied.
    Authors still get paid and I get to read.
    That seems to work.

  7. In the Evolution of Publishing category: I wonder if in the future we’ll see more of a hybrid publishing company. Something where the author retains the eBook rights and the publisher pushes the hardcover and paperback copies. In order for the publishers to make out I think the author would have to already have the novel, complete with editing, done. They provide the cover art and printing, and get it into stores nation/world-wide, maybe help negotiate TV/Movie contracts.

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