Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"Fair Compensation" for Your Work

Listen to the Companion Podcast Episode

Something I see regularly discussed in writing and publishing circles is the subject of a writer being
"fairly compensated" for her/his work. Often this takes the form of a pricing discussion, or perhaps in the context of reports on authors' average or median income. There are many common refrains I think are misguided. They include:

"I set my ebook price at $9.99 [or other high amount] because I want to be fairly compensated for my work."

In indie publishing, seeking "fair compensation" on a per-unit basis is the wrong strategy. You're not flipping a house; you're creating a work of which you can sell an unlimited number of copies. Your strategy should be what any competent businessperson does: find the price point at which sales*price= maximum revenue. The ability to offer books at a significantly lower price than traditional publishers and still make a solid royalty per-sale is one of an indie's most effective tools. We'd be foolish not to use that to our advantage.

I recently participated in a pricing discussion in  which an author advocated for the $9.99 price point, cited the length of her books as a deciding factor, and claimed her readers "thanked her for charging a fair price for her work." Her book was ranked around 1,000,000 on Amazon, which means she probably hasn't sold a copy in more than a month. We'll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she's selling a copy a month. Is the (a little less than) $7 she earned last month a "fair compensation" for her work?

"I'm going to set X price point and train my readers to expect that price for my work."

Bad news: your readers aren't exclusively yours. They're reading lots of other authors in your genre (and probably in other genres) and those other authors, if they're indies are most likely pricing according to the market. In commercial fiction, our work is fungible. Fans of George RR Martin don't go on a "book fast" in between new installments of A Song of Ice and Fire. If I stopped writing tomorrow, readers who love Dane Maddock will be disappointed, but they aren't going to give up reading forever. They're going to keep enjoying all the other thriller and action-adventure authors in their TBR pile. If I were to start charging $9.99 for an ebook, a fraction of those readers would come along for the ride, but most will simply spend their money one more reasonably priced indie authors, or will buy books from better-known trad-pub authors.

"I'm not going to charge less than X for my book. I worked too hard on it for that."

The level of effort you put into your work has no bearing whatsoever on what price point will maximize your revenue. If you want to be compensated for your hard work, charge a price that the market will bear, and earn as much as you can from your book.

"I'm not going to be a part of the race to the bottom in indie book pricing."

There's no race to the bottom. The indie ebook market is fairly stable, with $2.99-$4.99 being the price points (according to Data Guy) at which authors are maximizing revenue, and that's been the case for a while. Thanks in large part to Bookbub, 99 cents is no longer "special," and is now typically used as a special sale price. The same with free books- authors offer them as part of a larger sales strategy.

"X author charges X and earned X last year!"

- Are you sure?
- Even if that's true, the exception doesn't prove the rule.
- I'll wager I can point to many, many more authors who are pricing according to the dictates of the market, and are making a lot more money than X author.
- If you're new to publishing, or haven't yet reached the level of success you're aiming for, X author's income probably seems like a lot, but remember, your best chance of earning that much (or much more) is to follow the examples of those authors who are enjoying the most success.

"Oprah says, 'Don't accept no from people who don't have the power to say yes.'" 

I saw this comment in reply to a debut indie author who was planning to charge $9.99 for his book. (Side note- Oprah's a badass and, in context, that's a great quote.) If your goal is to succeed in indie publishing,  it is absolutely your prerogative to ignore the experience and advice of the authors who have worked their way to the level you hope to reach, but do so at your peril. No one's telling you "no:" they're saying, "I wouldn't do that if I were you." (Side note #2- the author did, in fact, price his book at $9.99, and it's not selling.)

"It's so awful that the average author only earns X per year. People need to value our profession more than that."

While I won't dispute that the vast majority of authors don't earn a substantial income from writing, let's face some harsh realities:

-A commercial fiction author is creating a product for sale.  The author's compensation is dependent upon that product's commercial appeal, the pricing and marketing strategies applied to that product, whether or not a publisher and an agency are taking cuts of the author's work, and how frequently an author generates new products.

-We are compensated for the product, not the process (and not the effort we put into it, nor the 'intrinsic value' of our work.)

-Author earnings reports tend to be skewed by authors who: don't put out books regularly;  write bad books; write good books but use bad business practices; are fully invested in the traditional publishing model (meaning they're earning pocket change per book sold, and then giving an agent a cut too) but have midlist, or lower, sales figures.

At this point, there are several rabbit holes down which I could run, but instead, I'll save those topics for another day and underscore my main points:

The best way to be fairly compensated for your work is to use the best possible pricing strategies.

While luck plays a part, your compensation as an author will be determined by the commercial appeal of your work, your business decisions, and your work ethic. The time we spend grumbling about underpaid authors is time we could spend writing. Get to work!

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