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.