Selling Your Novel for a Song

Selling your novel online has at once become an easily accessible endeavor and a wicked web of unknowns. The new self-publishing capabilities we now have at our fingertips seemed at first a gift from the heavens, but I’m noticing a disturbing trend and cannot hold my tongue (or keyboard) any longer.

A lot of people I love love writing. And most of them probably cringed at that last sentence, and this one too, for that matter. But not as much as I might cringe at the prices they put on their work.

It occurred to me recently, as I was browsing the listings on Amazon for under $1, that there are far too many writers undervaluing their work. Far too many great books going unnoticed in the sea of “$0.99 and less.”

And if “50 Shades of (f*&^%$#@) Gray” can sell for $9.99…what the hell are the rest of you doing wrong?

During a friendly debate on the topic of pricing literary fiction, someone noted that “Consumers do not value creativity,” thereby dooming all writers to sell their Great Work for the same price as a song on iTunes. A. Song. One song. Not an album. Just one song.

As much as I love this friend and value her opinions, I also must wholeheartedly disagree with her here.

Consumers (you) absolutely value creativity, don’t you? You crave it, seek it out, get your hands on it whenever you can. Am I right?

All of you proud owners of Apple products, even if you don’t care to admit it, spent at least 3-4 times as much for that product because it was…creative. As far as I can tell, that’s the main distinction between Apple’s products and the far less expensive equivalents. Oh, I can hear the protests already, but spare me. You and I both know why you bought it.

Because Creative is Cool

Let’s dig a little deeper here into the topic of what consumers value and what they don’t. In the wise words of the late Steve Jobs,

It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

Truer words have rarely been spoken with regards to marketing. This is where the crux of the problem lies for many literary fiction writers.

Sweeping Generalization #1: Writers want to write. They don’t want to socialize, they don’t dig marketing and they certainly don’t want to have to push their wares. They write their novel, slap it up on Amazon, and then go back to writing.

This is a great strategy if you don’t actually care about selling your book. But, if you do want other people to buy and read your book I have some bad news for you: Your greatness, your talent and your creativity is not going to seep into the masses by osmosis while you ignore them and move onto your next project.

You must tell them!

Writers who are self-publishing don’t just take on the added task of getting their books in print, they also must take on the marketing and PR of their work. If they are to expect any measure of success, they must take these additional responsibilities as seriously as they did in creating their novel.

Yes, this means social media *gasp.* Yes, it means writing your own press releases on a regular basis. Yes, this means networking and relationship building. Just like any micro business online today, the onus falls on you to spread the word about your product.

“But this is my novel! I poured my soul onto those pages. I worked for years to complete it. This is NOT just another product.”

Yes, it is.

Publishing houses have known this to be true for hundreds of years. And you resented them for it, didn’t you? We all did. As if it was their fault. But now it’s time for us to face this unpleasant fact: Your book, even if it is the next Great American Novel, is just another product in an already overcrowded marketplace.

And we don’t even have the Oprah show anymore! Gah.

Sweeping generalization #2: Writers, especially literary fiction writers, are arrogant introverts. It takes a certain level of arrogance to write this type of fiction effectively. They don’t feel they should have to explain themselves to anyone and don’t particularly like conversing with the masses. They are artists and the world should respect them as such. They will not stoop so low as to pimp their own work to readers if those readers don’t automatically “get it.”

Not gonna work. At least not without a huge publishing house to do this “dirty work” for you.

So please, allow me to repeat myself:

You must tell them!

One of the ways we communicate value to our potential customers is in the way we price our work. If you tell me your book is worth pennies, I’m going to take your word for it. I might buy it but, let’s face it, I’m probably not going to read it. I’ve spent $5 on another book and am far more committed to reading it than yours. You’ve already told me your book is worth less of my time, because you told me it’s worth less of my money.

How can you get the reviews you need if no one actually reads your book? How can your book go viral if no one is talking about it?

And then you ask…but how will people know my book’s worth their time?


We are at a turning point here, writers. This is a call to action, a battle cry if you will, for you to step up and define what self-publishing means today. You must do this not just for yourself, but for tomorrow’s writers as well.

This is brand-spankin’ new territory. As someone said to me recently, “It’s like the Wild West out there!” Well, get the horses watered bitches, ’cause it’s time for a new sheriff in town.

Are you really willing to let Amazon or Apple decide what your art is worth? Because I promise you, the giants are deciding your fate even as I write this. Or will writers, as their own publishers, collectively stand up and take on this responsibility themselves?

If you do not take charge of this process, it will take charge of you.

Sweeping Generalization #3 (and the last): Writers are not very savvy in marketing, online or off. As a result, they are getting their advice from blowhards who know very little about this market. How do I know these “experts” don’t know what they’re talking about? Because nothing’s been truly tested yet. This is all still too new. Everyone’s simply guessing.

Please note the distinction I’m making here. I am speaking to self-published literary fiction writers. Writers who can only produce a book once every year or so. I am not speaking to genre fiction writers who are pushing out a pulp novel every month as part of a series. For those equally talented writers, the $0.99 model may work nicely for a short time whilst they build their fan base…but guaranteed that low price isn’t going to stick around for long. They are following a current online strategy for selling this specific type of fiction.

By my estimations, the same model does not apply to literary fiction (unless you’re able to produce a full-length, high-quality novel every month…in which case, I’d love to represent you) and yet, this distinction seems to be lost on many.

Self-published literary fiction writers are going to have to develop their own strategy. Gone are the days of sending out your manuscript and waiting for an advance while you continue to write, leaving all that unpleasant marketing stuff to the house that selected you.

Be willing to experiment. Question everything you hear or read about this topic (including this post). Then, go out and share with the world what you’ve learned.

Today, publishing is our industry to shape. Finally, it belongs to the writers (if we’ll have it) and the windows of change are closing fast.

So…go. Be brave and daring with your pricing. Be humble and available to your readers. Above all, value your work for more than the price of a song…even if it’s just a little bit more.

Questions for book makers: How does this topic sit with you? What is your experience around pricing?

Questions for book lovers: How likely are you to read a book if you paid less than $1? What’s the most you’ve paid for a fiction book…and did you read it

Please leave your comments below and let’s get this discussion going. I want shits to hit fans…let’s take off the kid gloves and really have an open debate about the issue.

39 thoughts on “Selling Your Novel for a Song”

  1. I like the technique of raising the price everytime a reader benchmark is hit. It’s risky, but it rewards early adopters and demonstrates social proof. But, I look at my book as a gateway drug to my work, so I don’t mind if it’s a loss leader.

  2. As a member of teh choir, I see no debate. You are correct, too many fail to understand the differences in meaning of words like “Cost”, “Value”, “Price”, and their “perceived” counterparts.

    I am just getting started in the self-publishing biz (via Amazon Kindle anyway) so I don’t have a lot of experience there. But when I was selling calendars and “Getting Things Done”-related products I found that pricing above $8-9 sold more units than when I priced them at $3-4. Just because it’s digital doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value.

    1. Exactly, Stephen. I keep waiting for someone to mention print books and related distribution costs as a factor in pricing/valuation so I can really release the hounds 🙂

      If it’s a great book, I value it just as much on my Kindle as I do my over-stuffed book shelf.

      Thanks for your input and good luck with your self-publishing! Can’t wait to hear how it goes for you.

      1. My publisher originally priced the Kindle version of my novel at $9.99 but after a year dropped that price to $2.99 — due, he said, to the glut of self-published E-books. He was getting complaints about his price tags. He’s now retired, but he had a small literary press, and I think those type of publishers felt the pressure of all the self-published writers out there with these rock-bottom prices.

        Not that I disagree with what you’re saying, however, Jenny Bones. On the contrary, I’m on your side: I deplore the .99 cent E-book. It cheapens it, in every way.

  3. Hey Jenny, You pushed a button, and I may have trouble with brevity!

    There are so many issues swirling around book pricing and marketing right now with proponents in both camps right now. Some advocating the low prices and others decrying them. As with all things eventually I think the market will find some sense of balance and figure it out.

    I believe .99 book prices are unrealistic. In terms of pure labor and time, I highly doubt the .99 price actually encourages a volume of sales that adequately compensate a writer for their time let alone their artistry. It’s more likely as Shanna Mann points our a loss leader situation, in which writers are trying to build a readership.

    However, I think that using the loss leader strategy is dangerous. Writers are training their readers to believe that is what their work is worth, rather than declaring their value from the outset. Particularly when, frankly, a lot of the .99 books out there are drek! Too many peole are pumping out low quality books and self publishing digitally because no one would touch them with a ten foot pole otherwise.

    I think authors should find that middle ground beginning in the $5.00 to $10.00 range. As a consumer, I know that I’m reluctant to pay for books in the $10 to $15.00 range unless there is a very compelling reason, and I RARELY buy over the $15 threshold, because I don’t think I should be paying hard cover prices for digital materials.

    1. No room for brevity in this discussion, methinks. It’s a very important and timely one to have.

      I agree with you, Anne. I think the market will settle in and find a balance…however, unless writers *as publishers* get into that mix, then they’re/we’re the ones who’ll get it up the arse in the end.

      Also, Amazon had been promising site-wide promotion for people if they listed their books at .99 or less…I’ve heard rumors lately that they’ve quietly pulled all that extra promotion they promised leaving a lot of uninformed authors getting the big amazonian shaft…more to come on this subject, too!

      1. And I agree with YOU Jenny! It’s not sufficient for an author to publish a book and list it. They have to also take on responsibility for strategy and marketing.

        It adds a whole new learning curve to the mix, and I know it’s daunting for authors who want to focus on their craft not navigating the constantly changing marketing landscape.

        I’m loving this discussion! I’ve recently made a decision to return to my roots in marketing and communications and this is stoking my creative juices.

    2. I actually have to disagree, but I have to first disclose that I’m a genre writer and plan to be writing basically until I no longer have motor functions. 🙂 So my perspective is entirely different. But don’t think that having one book (usually your first book) .99 or free as a loss leader is dangerous. There’s several successful authors out there who have their first book free while all their remaining books are pricedcompetitively to draw in new readers. And there are other authors, like Heatherwho purposely keep it a certain price for their readership, because they’ve chosen to do so and are perfectly okay with the decision. But the point as to why that this is not as dangerous to do is that these authors have more than one book out.

      Also, .99 can make you a decent amount of money if you’re working on the long tail. One of the reasons why .99 can be appealing, and viable to an author, is because there’s no pressure from a big publisher to sell a certain amount of volume in a short period of time. There’s no pressure to earn out your advance or to make killer sales and there’s no threat from a publisher of being cut if you only perform decently. So people can afford to keep their prices at .99 and build up sales volume and a readership overtime. You have to consider authors who aren’t putting out low quality work but can no longer publish a past series because their publisher canned them for mediocre sales.So .99 isn’t a bad option for some people. .99 makes sense to some and the important thing for any author is to make sure that decision makes sense for YOU. I’m really tired of people choosing to price at .99 because that’s what everyone’s doing, and not because it makes sense as a business model to THEIR situation. And like Jenny mentioned, if you only have ONE book, and that’s your only book, your only baby that you’re going to release into the wild, then .99 is shooting yourself before you start. Especially if an author has plans of making decent money. At this point, it’s following the herd mentality.

      As for pricing at 9.99, I might just be in the wrong genre. 😉 Because I have a hard time swallowing a 8.99 or 9.99 price tag right now as a consumer. But that’s because all the books I buy would be 6.99 as a paperback. So my sweet spot for my genre is between 4.99 and 7.99. 7.99 is the highest I’d pay for a genre fiction book and I’d only pay it as a new release. But this shows that my price point and Anne’s price point are entirely different depending on what we read and what audience that is. I’ll pay more for non-fiction. But like, Anne, I won’t pay more than the print version of a book.

      If your audience doesn’t blink at 9.99, go for it! More power to you. But if your audience thinks you’re price gouging them, you need to think about what your pricing strategy will be. But inevitably, I think what it comes down to is knowing your audience, and knowing that each author should CHOOSE the path that fits them. Not just follow the herd. Not give in to peer pressure. But make a decision as to where their career is going and stick by it.

      1. Thanks, Laura!! It does seem to be the sweet spot for one-off novels: 4.99-7.99

        Your insights into marketing genre fiction are so valuable. Thank you so much for taking the time to share them here! LUV

    3. Thanks for this post, Jenny – what a meaty debate and some really interesting posts.

      I’m an indie author, one novel published five months ago. I originally priced the Kindle version at 4.43 ($6.91) which included VAT.

      At the beginning of this month I reduced the price to under a pound/dollar, as an experiment to see if it would encourage more sales through pricing. It was a tough decision.

      Aside from – or despite, even – territory rights and download fees, I cannot YET see any benefits to Kindle taking a 65% cut. I have a sense that I’m seeking a holy grail that doesn’t exist. I’ll let you know how it goes. Though I’ll say now, I do feel like I am under-valuing my creativity, it doesn’t sit well, but I’m sure I’ll change my mind if sales rocket!

      I think it’s important to note that one self-published author – with some several years’ experience under his belt – has assured me that sales do get better, gradually, slowly; that he markets enthusiastically should also be noted.

      Pricing is just one element of the marketing mix, after all. There’s so much more to it, as you’ve so brilliantly pointed out.

      1. Thank you, dear sister! It’s such a wicked web right now and all this discussion can only help to bring some much-needed clarity to the situation.

        And yeah, that enthusiastic marketing can make all the difference :)


  4. The entire loss leader issue is an important one to address. Consumers (of anything, not just reading material) are now conditioned for the ‘best deal’ regardless of quality. Just because it costs .99 cents doesn’t mean it’s worth it. Conversely I have paid an awful lot of money (and no I won’t disclose exact amount so it can be archived and held against me forever :-)…you’ll just have to settle for ‘lots’ and have thought I purchased a bargain.

    Pricing is a tricky business but by pricing artificially low (or high so you can discount by a huge percentage) doesn’t benefit anyone in the long run…except maybe a middleman getting a cut.

    1. It really is tricky business and not something people seem to discuss often enough. It can be doubly tricky when pricing something you created yourself…how much am I worth? It’s too easy to undervalue our work OR to price it low so that all that messy marketing stuff can be ignored. Just won’t work. Thanks, Nan!

  5. Here’s the issue as I see it: readers will pay $.99 for pretty much anything Amazon suggests they pay $.99 for. Once a product gets to be be $5 (ish) people stop and think about it, rather than mindlessly clicking their 1-click buy button.People are less likely to randomly buy a book from an author they don’t know if it costs $5 – $10. Which proves your point that authors have to build their fan base. (side note: I’ve been semi-following Johhny Truant’s novel and how he made sales. Interesting case study)

    This seems to be unique to the digital market. I managed a bookstore for years, people routinely paid $10 + for books they knew nothing about.

    My theory is that because there is so much free stuff online people get funny about paying for digital stuff. Even when they would pay for a tangible equivalent.

    Fascinating discussion Jenny! I recently threw my hat in the self-publishing ring with non-fiction. Ebooks have that wild west feel that social media had 5 or 6 years ago or that the internet had in the 90s.

    1. Thanks so much, Deanna!

      I’ve been following Jonny’s case study too and it is fascinating (plus he’s always good for a laugh…love that guy). However, he’s in a pretty unique position when compared to the average new author.

      I agree that for the time being ~$5 seems to be the sweet spot for not getting lost in the crowd of <$1 books while still being able to get dedicated readers to take a chance on an unknown author. ESPECIALLY if that unknown author is marketing the crap out of their book and themselves…something I see too many avoiding.

      The digital vs. soft cover debate will rage on in terms of value and it truly is a fascinating process to observe and to be a part of.

  6. I look at it this way, Kindle will publish my blog for a price I can’t set. They set it at $1. If my book isn’t worth more than my blog, why am I trying to sell it in the first place? I agree that you shouldn’t necessarily pay hardcover prices for digital materials, but that also depends on the value of the materials. If you lump yourself in with the 99 cent books, that’s the kind of audience you’ll attract. If you’re a John Locke, who cranks out a few books each year at a buck a piece, then that may work for you. On the other hand, if this is your magnum opus, you might reconsider. I’ve never seen JK Rowling’s work for a buck.

      1. My question is, what “kind of audience” do you attract at 99 cents? I’ve heard that before and I assume it means only interested in price, but it also feels sort of derogatory in a way.

        My goal is to change people’s minds about self-published books, especially 99 cent ones, not to lump myself in with anything. So far, so good! 🙂

  7. On Friday I released my ninth self-published novel. They’re all 99 cents (except the first one, which is free). I have put a great deal of time and energy into these books, and also into their pricing, and I am comfortable with what I am charging.

    That is not remotely because I don’t value my work, and I do have to say that the frequently-made assumption that I must not value it because I price it low aggravates me. It’s precisely because I DO value it that I keep my prices low, because that way there is no barrier (or as low a barrier as I can get, anyhow, without making them all free) for readers.

    And I have readers. Since last summer, I’ve consistently earned between $3-4000 a month from my books. At 99 cents each. Of which I receive between 35 and 55 cents. (Full disclosure – I had one at $2.99 for a while, but while it earned more it had fewer sales and I didn’t like it.) I have a steadily growing mailing list and Facebook fan page, and I receive email nearly daily from people who love my books (many of whom also thank me for keeping the price low).

    Would I make more money if I raised the price? Yes. My experiment at $2.99 proved it. But I had fewer sales, and I am very much interested in having as many people as possible read my books. 99 cents has given me that. Even now, when over 200,000 copies of my free book have been downloaded, I’m still thrilled to see my readership expanding more than I’m thrilled to see the cheques arriving in the mail (although of course I like that too. 🙂

    As for marketing, I have found that as I release book after book and people enjoy them, I am needing to do less and less of it. I still do it (spent the morning emailing book bloggers!) but I do not do anything that makes me uncomfortable, which means no constantly posting about my books on various forums or begging for reviews. Frankly, I do very little of what you “have” to do to be a successful self-published writer, and I am successful beyond where I ever thought I could be.

    So for the foreseeable future, I will be sticking at 99 cents. I personally see no reason for me not to!

    1. I hear ya, Heather. And it is why I took the time in the post to distinguish between authors who can only produce one book every year or so, and others who are able to get several done in a year. This is a *very* important distinction to make, in my opinion, in terms of the pricing discussion.

      Your observation that you don’t have to work as hard at marketing now that you’ve ‘made your mark’ is really valuable for the rest of us. Knowing that things can simmer down with subsequent novels might be very reassuring to many writers.Thank you so much for enriching the discussion! And congrats on your self-publishing success~!!

      1. I think the biggest “secret” to my success at the moment is Amazon’s “people who bought this also bought” section on each book’s page. Now, for many books like mine, at least a few of my books are listed there, and I’m positive it’s bringing me additional readers. That’s when my sales jumped.

        I am deeply blessed to be at this full-time thanks to a hugely supportive husband, and so last year I released four novels. This year it’s “only” going to be three. 🙂 I really can “make it up in volume”, as they say.

  8. Urgh, I thought by logging in it would include my web site, just in case anyone wanted to take a peek, but no such luck. It’s, perhaps not surprisingly,

    Oh, and Jenny, I’ve never had Amazon promise me extra promotion. Didn’t know about that, in fact. Interesting! Will be looking forward to your posts about that! 🙂

    1. The rumors are around their algorithm and possible changes made recently which would reduce the number of lists .99 and free books are put into. Doing some more digging and I’ll post what I learn here.

  9. Wow-Wee, Jenny — there’s certainly a lively and juicy conversation going on here in the comment (or should I say “peanut”) gallery! 🙂

    To a great extent, I believe “pricing” will always remain a bug-a-boo issue. I wish I had something pithy to add but, instead, I’ll just say that I think pricing is a selective and purely personal decision-making process. I’m not convinced there’s even a remote possibility of meeting somewhere in the middle and compromising on a “balance”.

    Off to share this post!

  10. As an avid reader, I’m a big fan of Amazon’s Prime deal. Hoping some published authors will kick in here and add their 2-cents if they’ve used it! Thanks TK!

  11. From what I gather from my hubby, who heard a lot during his time at Borders, even the peeps at 99cents are still making more per book than most do going the trad. pub. route.

    And I know from my own researches back in the day, and it’s worse now, you have to do a grand chunk of your own marketing anyway, unless you are one of the very top-most peeps.

    At a reading last year, I heard from one of the authors, small, respected, a bunch of titles out there what they paid her per book.

    It’s appalling. I’m pretty sure it’s not even minimum wage, for something that’s nowhere near minimum-wage work.

    Do we want to emulate or do we want to do better than? :>

    THAT’S a good Q, and one I’m currently pondering as I get my own books together, both fiction & non-fiction.

  12. This is absolutely right, although – like lots in life that costs less than $1, cheap ebooks can provide a LOT of entertainment and value. But it takes getting over that hump of “is this valuable” in the customer’s mind.

    With a glut of free resources – blogs, for instance – which can give you enough to read for several lifetimes, and several really, really good blogs on very niche topics, you hardly “need” books for the sole purpose of information.

    What an author becomes then, is a curator of the best information on the topic – not like those cheezy list posts, but rather in the way that a business librarian can accumulate the best of the best over years, and then rattle off a statistic with no hesitation.

    My book is currently priced at $4.99 – but it’s not exactly flying off the shelves and – being a marketer – isn’t poorly marketed (it is, however, neglected largely due to lack of time).

    I love the idea of publishing multiple $.99 works out there and that may be my course of action for the rest of the year – once a month, a new 150+ page book on a specific topic.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts here, Nick! And congratulations on your book. I, too, am beginning to warm up to the idea of publishing a series rather than trying to write the next LotR lol. We’ll see how it goes, eh? 🙂

  13. Wow — I suppose I had no idea that authors were selling their hard work for $.99! That’s amazing to me (and as an inspiring writer, also quite depressing). Judging from the other comments, though, it seems like self-publishing is the way to go now with traditional publishing offering less and less for their authors. Anyway, welcome to the Livefyre community, and please feel free to let us know if you have any questions or feedback for us. Looking forward to more posts!

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