What’s a Writer Worth?

Domer just loves to push my buttons.

Recently, I was bemoaning an article in Writer’s Digest magazine, where author Jane Friedman discusses the basics of e-publishing.

“Independent novelists charge very little for their work, usually between $.99 and $2.99,” Friedman wrote.

‘That sounds about right,’ Domer said. ‘Nobody knows you. Why should they pay good money for your book? Besides, wouldn’t it be better for you to charge $1 for a book and sell a million copies than to sell only 10 copies for $30 each?’

Not necessarily. If “nobody” knows you, how are you going to sell a million copies?

More to the point, I for one haven’t labored the better part of six years on my series to sell each book for a measly dollar. It’d be too demeaning.

Look at it this way: To become a doctor in the U.S., a person must spend four years in undergraduate university, four years in medical school, three to five years in residency, and two to three years in a fellowship. Nobody does all that and charges each patient $2 per visit!

Why should what I do be of less importance?

True, writing novels isn’t exactly saving lives, but how many doctors are saving lives? Honestly, don’t they sometimes make people sicker — from worry and fear, from side effects of medications or procedures?

Domer is looking at it as a numbers game. Fair, since he’s studying Business. And you can’t argue with his math — one million copies at $1 each totals $1 million, whereas 10 copies sold at $30 each amounts to only $300. That’s a big difference. Huge, even.

But how many novelists are trying to “get rich” from their work? Isn’t it more likely that we can’t NOT write? That we believe we have something to say, something that might change another person’s life? That we might take our readers on a thrilling journey, far from their possibly mundane existence? That we might scare the socks off them — and ourselves — through the power of our written words? That we might inspire them to be their best, to unshackle themselves from burdens they don’t need to bear?

I say creative people have endured far too much devaluation over the centuries of civilization. It’s time we appreciated our own worth and realized our world would be a wretched place without writers, musicians, and artists. If we don’t believe what we do is worthwhile, how can we expect others to believe it? And, believing it means rewarding it.

Any thoughts from my fellow creators?

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26 thoughts on “What’s a Writer Worth?

  1. Funny you should mention the Friedman article. I just read it. Right AFTER I published my very first book in both paper and Kindle versions. I priced the paper one at $12.99 and the Kindle at $9.99, after seeing what some other authors did. My husband (my wailing wall) said if he saw a book at $2.99 or less, he’d assume it was a throwaway that the author didn’t have much faith in. A few years ago, an industry adviser told us writers we should consider giving away our first book, pricing it at zero, as a way of building an audience! Not just the occasional contest, but all copies of the title! That’s when i knew I would have to make up my own guidelines, because the industry had lost its mind. You have to draw the line somewhere.
    I priced mine the way i did and I call it the L’Oreal argument: Dakota Blues is worth it.

    • Lynne, you’re the voice of reason, and I thank you! Your dear husband, too! When I started my own Web Design business, pricing was a HUGE concern. I spent countless hours researching before arriving at fees that would be fair and reasonable, both to me and my clients. I’ve often heard that fees which are too low are a red flag to lack of quality. Same goes for books, I think!

  2. Lynne is right. Your favorite Domer is — dare I say it? — wrong. Price is less important to me then value.

    I’ll give you an example which isn’t in the book world. I recently saw a car sporting eyelashes on it’s headlights. I thought they were so cute and wondered where they had come from. Amazon, of course.

    Yet, when I looked them up and discovered they cost less than 2 dollars I decided they were junk and not worth the bother of ordering.

    Perhaps the copies of your book you give away are to reviewers only. :)

    • Yvonne, thank you! Yes, giving away a copy to reviewers makes sense; giving away the farm doesn’t! I can’t imagine anything worse than living with resentment over pricing one’s work at “zero” and then learning it could have been a huge success. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one hoping to receive a fair wage for my labors!

  3. It’s a good point that underpricing suggests lower value, and Domer’s numbers are also good points. I suppose that’s why it’s not easy! I suppose something to keep in mind is that he is a business major in a time of e-commerce and he is also a member of a generation familiar with the concept of “going viral”.

    A number of musicians I know (and admire for finding a way to live their dream) are experimenting with new ways of marketing their music. One of my very favorites is Jake Armerding’s CSA, modeled on the concept of Community Supported Agriculture (http://www.jakearmerding.com/csa/index.html) .

    I wonder if there’s a way to translate that to novel writing.

    Good luck!

    • Hmmm, that’s an interesting concept. Domer probably would agree with you (being a hip, music-lovin’ kind of fella); he loves regaling me with stories of musicians whose stuff goes viral. I suppose that happens, too, with writers (witness the popularity of a Harry Potter or a Fifty Shades of Grey). Sadly, the bulk don’t get that kind of break. We labor for years on end — often after the rest of the family has gone to bed, after our day jobs — and never see our work on a best seller’s list. Sigh. It’s hard being stuck on the wall, when you aspire to being popular!!

      • No sooner had I signed out than I realized the similarity to the serial and domestic fiction of the Victorian age. Somewhere out there there’s an English professor who’s really disappointed in me. :-)

  4. Hard to know where that middle ground is, I think. I’m not near the pricing stage, but it seems to me that there is something to being known raising the price. That doesn’t mean new authors have no value.

    • You’re right. The sharpest tool in the shed can afford to charge the most price, but even one’s fingernails have value. What makes it hard is knowing as the writer that YOU have to do all the publicizing and marketing, too. Used to be, the publishing house and agent helped with much of that. I realize the new kid on the block can’t begin to compete with the likes of Grisham and Crichton, but even they had to start somewhere. Thanks for weighing in!

  5. I have mused about your post all day and I don’t think I have much to contribute because I would simple say… stop crunching numbers and ship–to loosely quote Seth Godin. Let go and see where you land. I would give the first book away if I was independently publishing because the more I give away in my life the more money I seem to make. I never worry about what I charge because my numbers never add up but somehow they meet in the end. I drive business majors and creative types insane. It’s a gift. :-D

    • My sister, too, believes in the “cast your bread upon the waters” philosophy, and it seems to work for her. I think the key is faith. I realize most writers never earn what their work is worth, but if we fail to value what we do, how can we expect anyone else to consider it valuable? I don’t think it’s the money per se; it’s more the idea that money is the tangible thing our world trades for goods and services people want and need. Nobody really “needs” another book, but who wants to see a world in darkness??

        • Fascinating, Katybeth! Thank you for finding this — I’ll have to research it a bit more to learn if it’s the way to go for me, but just glancing through, it appears to be a viable alternative. Certainly one that lets the author keep more of the profits while spreading the wealth around. You’re too kind in pointing it out!

  6. Seems low, I know, Debbie, but I think it’s the new reality. One of my blogger friends, wrote a memoir about her mother and sells it for 99 cents. Here’s her blog so you can check it out and share your thoughts with her: http://deborahbatterman.com/

    It’s a very rare author who can get rich on selling books. The JK Rowling’s are few and far between. Sigh.

    • Writers who want to get rich go into another field, something like public relations or corporate communications, don’t you agree? I write because I can’t NOT write! That said, I haven’t penned (keyed?!) thousands upon thousands of words, spent countless hours at a computer, labored over plot and characters and dialog, for the “privilege” of earning a measly 99 cents. There are books people write that draw from such a small niche — say, only their family and close friends — that 99 cents is reasonable. Let’s say it’s a story about a particular time in your life that the average reader could care less about — those are more of a “vanity” book than a novel. What I’m talking about here is something other than that, something I hope people will enjoy reading and be willing to pay to read. Thanks for your thoughts, Monica!

  7. Agreed, agreed, agreed! Reading, writing, music… those are my outlets and my means of escape when I really need it. It would be a very grey world for me without them.

    • Me, too, Terri! I’m glad to hear you’re a kindred spirit. In our busy worlds, we NEED outlets, and I can think of nothing better than the ones you listed (I might add exercise, though!!)

    • Yvonne, I sincerely thank you!! I hadn’t read this post of Kristen’s, and it speaks so eloquently to what I’m talking about. I’ve never been a fan of giving away stuff for free (not since a PR agency I used to work for went belly-up, just for that reason). Yes, a give-away can be useful if done thoughtfully and carefully, but usually, the more one gives away, the less one’s work is valued (or so I’ve found). Thanks for pointing out this timely article for us!

  8. I think there has to be a middle ground on pricing. A dollar seems too low, and I’d never pay $30 for a book, I don’t care who wrote it. I buy most of my books on clearance, so I pay between $1.99 and $3.99 for them. I’ve read some pretty good books, and I’ve read some awful ones – doesn’t seem to have anything to do with pricing. As you and Domer figured out, pricing is a gamble- especially for newbies. (At least I don’t have to worry about that yet…everything I write is free…on my blog :))

    • Thanks for weighing in, Janna. Yes, it’s definitely a gamble, setting a price for one’s work. Used to be lots easier when I was a journalist, letting a company pay me! I don’t know where the “happy medium” lies — price something too high and nobody will buy it; price it too low, and nobody thinks it’s worth anything. Sigh.

  9. I found this conversation so interesting – it’s hard to know which is right. It’s impossible to know where the “break” will come. Or if it will. I’m with you Debbie – I write because I can’t not write – and it’s a huge act of faith that it will ever monetize. Well – it has a few times for me – and out of nowhere. It seems when I let go and put the writing out there, remembering that at the end of the day, I love doing it – $$ arrives. Never been enough to live on. Supplemental only. But also at the end of the day – we also have to eat and pay bills and travel. Yes, travel, I think, is as necessary as eating. But that’s another conversation all together.
    I appreciate the links here from your readers – will check them out.

    • Thanks, Barb. Writing is an act of faith. When I was a journalist, I got paid to write; same thing for when I was in PR. That kind of writing is different from novel-writing. With the latter, one usually spends countless hours and energies doing the work, all without knowing whether it will ever see publication and the light of day. Even though it’s a labor of love, if it’s “ready,” it should be valued — and sadly, money is our value system. Now if somebody wants to pay me in chocolate or travel miles, we’ll talk!!

  10. Just a couple of thoughts, from someone who comes at many of these issues from a completely different perspective.

    (1) Price and value are different.

    (2) From a reader’s perspective, how much time we spend at our craft or how many revisions there were are completely irrelevant. They want something of value – something that will be worth their time. It’s the final product that counts.

    (3) If they suspect a piece of writing will be worth their time, it’s value goes up, and they will pay more to purchase.

    (4) In this hypercompetitive environment, being able to provide evidence that our writing is worth investing time and/or money is critical. It’s one reason the internet is valuable – it’s one way to establish some credentials.

    I find myself in complete disagreement with your statement that “the more one gives away, the less one’s work is valued”. When you get right down to it, my blog is a way of making my writing available for free, and the value of doing that has proved itself to me a hundred-fold!

    • Thanks so much for your opinion — I hadn’t thought of it that way. Yes, I “give away” on my blog all the time, but to me, that’s different. Novels housed in a public library are, for all purposes, free as well, but somebody somewhere had to pay something to acquire them. I’m convinced that too many words floating around, free for the taking and reading, is overload for most people. Certain things, I believe, shouldn’t be published and don’t merit payment. I think value is in the eye of the beholder — it’s up to the creator to prove to the buyer that what he/she is purchasing is worthwhile. Social media can do just that. One gets a feel for how others string words together — a popular blog doesn’t indicate a potentially successful novel, though, unless the blogger has put in the time and effort to learn how to write a novel! I appreciate your comments — we all can learn from those “brave” enough to voice opinions that differ from ours!

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