Talent Will Out

By John Gilstrap
In my effort to maintain a digital footprint in the Worldwide Web, I participate on several writers’ boards on Facebook and LinkedIn.  For the most part, those boards are filled with shameless self-promotion of self-published books, but every now and then, I find thread that piques my interest.  Recently, I found two: One dealt with authors’ needs to brand themselves, and a second with the pricing of eBooks.  In my mind, the two topics are closely related, and I thought I’d nudge a discussion here in the Killzone.

As I see things, the act of writing a story is an art form that not everyone is cut out to do.  There’s an X-factor to story creation that transends the mechanics of writing (which can be taught), and involves a certain clarity of vision which cannot be taught.  For lack of a better term, we’ll call that X-factor talent. 

That said, the selling of one’s art is 100% commerce, reducing the finished work to a product among other products that are seeking attention from the same customer base.  Like any product, a book needs to be noticed before it can be successful.

This brings me to the notion of branding.  Given the nature of our product, there are only two options that I can see: we can brand the book, or we can brand the author.  In a perfect world, we brand both.  As consumers become comfortable with the way a particular author tells a story, they’ll start looking forward to the next release.

Branding presents a delicate mix.  Covers from an author should invoke some sense of the previous books, and the stories from book to book should take readers on the same kind of ride without becoming repetitious.  In my own case, I jealously guard my July 1 pub date, ever aware that readers are learning to look for the new releases at that time of year.  All of these little detals perpetuate the brand.

Branding can’t be rushed.  Except for the occasional first-novel lightning strike, the common denominator I see among the mega-sellers in our industry is the regular production of books.  Year after year–more or less at the same place in the calendar–they produce yet another story for their readers.  Over time, they create a critical mass, and then they’re off and running.  Huge marketing budgets and media campaigns aside–all of which are justified only by growing readership–bestsellers are born of word-of mouth.  I honestly don’t think there’s a way to force it.

Which brings me to the subject of pricing, whether you have control over your cover price, or if that is controlled by your publisher.  All too often in this business model, the production side of the business looks too hard at their own interests while turning a blind eye to their customers.  Here’s the question that we and our publishers need to ask when it comes to pricing: What’s the level that will give incentive to readers to read our book instead of a book by an author who’s far better known in the genre?

There’s a lot of noise on the other boards about authors disrespecting themselves by pricing their books too low.  This is nonsense.  Given all the entertainment alternatives, it’s in our best interest to get people to read our works at virtually any price.  The fact that we need $X to make ends meet is irrelevant to a reader’s decision to buy our work.  If they’ve never heard of us, but are intrigued by all the other things that have to go right for success to even be an option, we’ve got to make that a low-risk gamble.  Vince Flynn and I write in a similar genre, but he has many more fans than I do, who are clearly willing to shell out $28 every year for his next story.  God bless him.  If I want to tap into that reader base–and I do, as does my publisher–then we need to give readers a reason.  If their rationale for picking up their first Gilstrap book is, “What the heck, it’s only $4.00,” I’m okay with that.  I’m also confident that they’ll feel they got a great ride for their investment.

With luck, that reader will share his perception of value with his friends, and come next summer–or the one after that–those friends will dare to take a chance on their own.  Do it enough times, and a critical mass is born.

So, what do y’all think?  Is it worth it to surrender some coin on per-copy compensation to increase the reader base?  Have you been driven to buy a book you otherwise wouldn’t have because the price was right?


26 thoughts on “Talent Will Out

  1. It depends. If the price is decent I usually give it a shot (or at least add it to goodreads and plan to check it out from the library). If the price is really low, or in the bargain books section, I often start wondering why the price is so low. Does no one want to buy it? Are the publishers/bookstores dying to get rid of it? Maybe there is a fine balance to draw. As for the authors – chances are you aren’t going to make boatloads of money writing anyway so why not at least let someone enjoy your book for a little less?

  2. I’ve given some thought to pricing as I’ve set the price for my own books. I do think pricing can be a turnoff, but there is a limit on what a reduced price can do for us in terms of increasing readers’ interest (short of giving them away free). I wouldn’t take this to be the rule, but my experience has been that I’ve sold more books with them priced rather than with them priced lower. And though it is comparing apples to oranges by comparing fiction and non-fiction, my highest performing book is nearly twice the price of some of my others. I believe the reason for that is because potential readers know immediately what the book can do for them. With fiction, we must convince readers that the book will give them a story they will enjoy. That has nothing to do with price.

  3. Interesting points, John. My pub sets the price, so I have no control. But in today’s economy, you need a steel-hard brand to get readers to spend hard cover prices. I think that’s one factor that’s contributing to the success of the e-reader devices. $9.99 or less for a just-released hard cover is much more in line with most reader’s budgets. And they get the book now without having to wait for the MMPB.

    One price you didn’t mention is free. And I don’t mean short-term promos constructed by the publisher. I mean free BitTorrent file sharing downloads which are becoming as common as weeds. Everyday, my Google Alerts shows me another site where my books are available for free download. Should I be upset and try to fight the incoming tide? No. If someone wants to download one of my thrillers in Dutch or Chinese or Russian, have at it. The way I look at it is that I want as many people as possible reading my words, no matter how they come by them. I believe that for good or bad, this is another method in which a writer’s brand can grow in today’s marketplace. I find that the most free downloads are available in languages where the books have already been bestsellers. So do sales breed file sharing or does file sharing breed higher sales? Either way, I think it’s another component of brand building and another factor to consider in pricing.

  4. I was lucky enough to talk briefly with Joseph Finder at the last Muse and the Marketplace conference in Boston. I told him I’d become a fan of his work through his thriller Paranoia, which had been very briefly available for free as a Kindle download on Amazon.

    Finder said that he’d gone to the publisher and asked (paraphrasing from memory), “Look – how many copies of Paranoia are we moving?” The answer: not enough. So the publisher set Paranoia up as a free giveaway temporarily.

    And it worked in my case – I’m now a fan. This is also how I discovered Lee Child (Persuader), Timothy Hallinan (A Nail Through the Heart) and some other great writers.

    eBooks are (as you say, John) great for pricing experiments like this. A publisher’s not limited to the suggested retail price printed on the cover flap. They can experiment week by week to see what sells the most. It’s pretty amazing.

  5. I never understood “one size fits all” pricing for books, or movies, for that matter. The theater will get ten bucks for the new TRANSFORMERS flick, but they’re cutting their own throats by pricing the new indie for the same amount. I may well stop in to see a movie for which the trailer was borderline if it’s $5, and that’s five buaks they wouldn’t get otherwise.

    Same with books. Maybe $4 is a little low for someone like John, who does have a bit of a footprint, though not as big as Flynn. E-books provide a lot more flexibility here. Publishers and writers might do well do drop the price of each book an author puts out as new ones are released. This allows readers to go back to early works for a small investment, while still generating revenue for the newer books.

  6. There’s this one guy, his first book in a new series was offered FOR FREE!, and I thought, well, yeah, I’ve got 40+ books on my TBR list, but I’ve heard of him, and he’s FREE, and, y’know, my buddy Joe shares a blog with him–and his book is FREE–, so I downloaded NO MERCY by some guy, whatsisname, and I loved the book, so I promptly downloaded HOSTAGE ZERO, for which I paid whatever it was, and when his next book comes out, I’ll buy that, too, and I imagine, over time, God willing, I’ll be going after whatsisname’s backlist, because, y’know, 40+ books in your TBR list isn’t TOO MANY for any self-respecting reader, but so don’t discount the long-term value of FREE or CHEAP, although it’s probably necessary for some other factor besides just FREE or CHEAP to get the impulse going, but FREE and CHEAP are definitely part of what goes along with NAME RECOGNITION to get you to hit the DOWNLOAD button. Now, what’s that author’s name again?

  7. I say this from the security of a well-paying day job–I would rather judge my success in numbers of books sold than royalty payment, therefore lower priced books to gain readers works for me. Especially in the beginning when we are all competing for readers limited time. I want the reader to feel like it is worth the chance on a new author.
    I also am branding myself with similar sounding titles. SEA Fare and SEAsoned both reflect the story of a yacht chef traveling the world to gain recipes and adventures. The only drawback I have with branding in this manner is that it gets confusing and I sometimes mix them up when speaking.
    PS-I bought your book at the discounted price and loved it so much I immediately bought the next in the series and have ordered more copies for Christmas gifts–not because of the price but because of the great writing.

  8. As I’m not published I can only comment as a reader. With a tight budget, I always appreciate lower priced books. However, as someone said, if the price is too low, I wonder what’s wrong with it.

    So as with all else in publishing, it’s a balancing act.

  9. As a newbie to the writing scene with only 1 published novel, I am thrilled any time anyone reads my book. Frankly, I view my first release as PR that will help to earn readership for future releases.

    I make so little per copy that it really doesn’t matter to me if the retail price is $20-$15-$10 or $5. I tell everyone where they can buy it cheapest. Perhaps I’m naive and have no business sense, but for me, at this stage, each work is a building block towards something bigger. Someday I may feel different.

  10. Low prices (and free via piracy) are here to stay. This trains the consumer. Fewer and fewer are going to pay hardcover prices again. Not even for a Vince Flynn. The old model of starting out in paperback, building an audience, then coming out in hardback is done. Less money all around. Less on the advance. A lot less. So why go with a publisher at all? “Distribution!” Oh yes? Where? Especially if you’re in mass market pb? The pie is shrinking, and a publisher will only be able to offer crumbs. If the goal is readership, put the ebook out yourself at a low price and market the hell out of it. The publisher is for sure not going to market it for you.

  11. Hey John–Interesting discussion. As a reader, before I was pubbed, I never thought about price except that I rarely bought a hard cover unless it was on the sale table. If I could replicate the price of a paperback for a haredcover book, I tried new authors’ books. I read too much to spend that much coin on a hard cover. And it wasn’t until my husband wanted to pack up all my paperbacks in favor of my hard cover collection that it made me think about how my expanding library looked in my home. The thing that drives me to buy–and still does–is the back cover summary–what the story is about. If it interests me, then I buy it. If the author is new, I might read some of the first pages to see if I like their style, but I have a debut author collection that I’ve expanded–mostly books off those sale tables. But I love finding a new voice.

    And even though I started my love of books in a library, I only go to libraries these days for research. If I care enough to spend time with a book, I prefer to have it be something I own and may read again.

    And as an author, I give books away to new readers on a limited basis (since my books are in paperback). And my house dictates what the price point will be on e-books. But if I was selling them myself, I would price them at a discounted price until the marketplace dictated otherwise. Gaining marketshare is important.

    I’ve been focusing on YA books recently, because I’m writing that genre too now. And I love the larger book size and print. These books are either in small hardcovers or trade paperback. In this economy, publishers need to put a great deal of thought into price points. And old formulaic approaches to introducing an author or building a readership don’t work as well these days. E-books are an easy way to gain readers without the same expense. The overhead has already been spent.

    Now back to work…

  12. I think prices are going to be all over the place for a while, until the e-book market settles into a groove. Established authors will probably have two pricing levels: those set by their publishers, and then a variety of pricings for back lists and self-published works. I’ve heard that $1.99 is the “sweet spot” for works that an author self-publishes on Kindle–not too expensive, not too cheap.

  13. Ahhh…hitting critical mass has become my goal. My apparently distant goal. I keep getting sparks, then I blow on it and a tiny flame erupts but the wood never catches.

    I think it’s time to switch from flint & steel to plutonium and a berylium hammer.

  14. Mark and Victoria, you made me blush. Thank you.

    Dana, I’ve never thought about a sliding price scale for movie tickets, but I think that’s a great idea. My wife and I were visiting Vienna, Austria, a couple of years ago, and while I was there, I decided to check off a line on my Bucket List and attended a performance of Le Boheme in the State Opera House. It’s such a beautiful structure. Understanding that the future of the arts lies in the hands of today’s children, and that opera is not the exclusive domain of the wealthy, they make hundreds of tickets available for every performance in the upper balconies priced at 2 euros.

    It’s a rule that drug dealers have known for years: Get ’em hooked young and cheap, and they’ll be with you through the hard times.

    John Gilstrap

  15. Have you been driven to buy a book you otherwise wouldn’t have because the price was right?

    Yes. I won’t spend much to sample a new writer or give a disappointing writer a second chance, but if the book is inexpensive enough I can be persuaded.

  16. Are you kidding? Who doesn’t love a deal. I love “Free Book Fridays” on my nook from B & N…I have gotten totally hooked on some authors I have never heard of and then gone back to buy more books from them in the series or as solos. If I have three books that look kind of interesting and 2 are $8 or more and one is $3.99, you bet I’ll try the discount one first. It is always easier to take the first risk if it is cheaper to try it out.

    As for the pricing… I’m kind of miffed at the e-pricing… when I get get a softback for half the cost of the e-rate, why bother with the e-version. And what’s up with new releases being $13 + dollars. That’s the price they sell new hardcovers for with their regular “new” discount of 40%…no shipping, no printing, not much cost to them at all, but they are still charging for all of those things and I bet the authors don’t get the bigger chunk- so what’s up. Reading books has gotten so expensive over the last 10 years that you have to have a full-time job just to afford a reading habit. They keep trying to make it rare air- rather than something for everyone.

  17. Chaco, I think you have good cause to be miffed at eBooks priced over, say, $10. That kind of pricing policy is one of the things I was talking about when I wrote that some publishers and authors are putting their own needs ahead of their customers’ desires.

    And their need is legitimate. Imagine being a publisher who just signed a four-book, 8-gajillion-dollar contract with a marquee author on the assumption of a $28 hardcover (minus the 30% bestseller discount), followed by millions of $9 paperbacks, and now facing the reality of a marketplace that becoming comfortable with $5-$10 content (or less) from the first day day of publication. I’m not sure they’ll ever be able to earn out their investment, and they’re panicking.

    I attended a keynote presentation at one of the big conferences this year (B-Con, I think, but I can’t swear to it), where one of the big-three publishers talked about the need to increase the perceived value of eBooks so that readers will pay more for them. The presenter’s tone deafness stunned me. She should have been talking about the means to embrace all the cool 21st century technology that is flooding her 18th century business model and product line. They’re working hard to convince readers that they want something more than they do while ignoring the message that affordability is the strongest way to excite a marketplace.

    This is a terrific time to be a writer, and a particularly terrific time to be a publisher with the agility to adapt. We’ll see how everything plays out, but I predict bad things over the next five years for the behemoth publishers and their lumbering, mega-corporate ways.

    I also predict, with the growth of eBooks, that advances for even the big stars will shrink considerably, replaced by a faster turnaround on royalty payments. (With the onerous specter of returns removed from the equation, there’s no need not to pay authors more quickly.)

    I believe that publishers who react quickly and aggressively to the demands of the market will have a long and profitable life. Those who linger too long over the old business model will find themselves presiding over the literary equivalent of a warehouse full of high-end buggy whips in a world of automobiles.

    John Gilstrap

  18. Very nice post. Anyone have any thoughts on how this might affect a new series? For example:

    Book 1 is written and self-pubbed at $2.99. When book 2 is released, book 1 drops to $1.99 to encourage readership. After all, the first book is the best starting place. When book 3 is released, both books 1 and 2 drop a buck again creating a nice price ladder for the series. When subsequent books come out, book 1 can become free temporarily, etc. Lots of options!

    Certainly there is the potential for lost revenue but the consensus seems to be that this is a risk worth taking to build readership.

    Anyone try anything like this with a series?

  19. Daniel, take a look at Mark Terry’s post toward the top of this string. That’s exactly what my publisher did to spur sales of the second book in my Jonathan Grave series, and it worked really well.

    Wait till you see what we have planned for THREAT WARNING, Book #3in the series!

    John Gilstrap

  20. Absolutely- I actually think that what your publisher did with the last release, John, in electronically offering the last book in the series for free for a set period, is the way to go.

  21. Here’s an interesting twist on the freebie concept: I recently uploaded a free copy of my short story, The Rumblin’ onto smashwords. I blew my trumpet on Twitter and Facebook and even on Amazon discussions, announcing that my short suspense was available for FREE! Lo and behold, my .99 copy of the same short story at the Kindle store has had a sales uptick. I knew I could generate interest in my writing by offering a free sample, but I didn’t think folks would go ahead and buy it anyway…but I’m not complaining.

  22. I noticed how you mentioned authors putting out titles on a normal schedule. I’ve always wanted to write, and I’m interested in trying to get myself published one day. How many novels a year does the average author publish? Is 3 or 4 a year a reasonable goal for someone who isn’t already a successful writer? Or do you think there would not be enough time to make that amount of novels with quality if you have to keep up with a dayjob and family?

  23. William, you ask a great question. I in fact continue to have a day job, and I find one book per year to be daunting. That said, it looks like I might be doing two this year (though I’m not sure how).

    The trick is to concentrate on quality over volume, while still fulfilling your contractual obligations.

    Happy New Year!
    John Gilstrap

  24. Another question I want everyones’ opinions on. The ebook movement certainly doesn’t seem just like a fad. It seems like a real great new way for authors to make money, but if your work is primarily digital how much damage will piracy do to you? Is there anything you can do to fight piracy?

  25. William, we are now officially entering an area where I have only opinions, without benefit of real knowledge, so weigh that with everything else.

    It seems to me that the whole piracy fear is overblown. Since the day the first efficient copy machine hit the market, books have been subject to counterfeit. Granted, the Internet and digital reproduction make distribution easier, but it all starts with desire to steal, which begins with a perception of value that is outstripped by cost. (If diamonds were free, no one would steal them, right?)

    Moving into the future, I think that publishers need to be sensitive to the pricing demands of their customers. If the general consensus is that digital book prices are reasonable (whatever that means), then I don’t think that piracy will rise to a level above annoyance. On the other hand, if they demand $25 hardcover coin for a new-release digital book, then I think they’re looking at trouble.

    John Gilstrap

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