You get what you pay for

I’m a frugal individual. While I firmly believe that you get what you pay for, it doesn’t mean you can’t spend the time to shop for the best value for your money. So these days when I am going to buy something, I take my time, find the balance between quality and price, read the reviews, and then find the least expensive place to buy the product I’m after.

I wasn’t always this way, in fact I used to just be plain cheap. If I needed a vacuum cleaner, I would buy the cheapest vacuum cleaner I could find. Hell, I would hit the garage sales and see if I could find one for just a few dollars. This was before Craigslist of course, and if I were the same now as when I was young, I could probably find one for free. Cheaper is better, as long as it works. At least that was how I felt about things.

Unfortunately, I got lucky once in a while, which perpetuated that notion. I found that vacuum cleaner that worked better than any vacuum cleaner I had ever owned. Not only was it reliable and worked well, I only paid a few dollars for it. So if a $3 vacuum was every bit as good as the $200 model at the store, why should I pay $30 for a steak when I could get one for $5 that was “just as good”? And why should I buy a $40,000 luxury car when my $5,000 Toyota was every bit as reliable?

The problem, of course, is you usually get what you pay for, and eventually I found myself “saving” money at the cost of getting a product that failed to do what I needed, or just didn’t live up to my desires. Most of the time a $3 vacuum cleaner is going to suck, and not in a good way. Your $5 steak is probably a half inch thick and served with au jus to cover up the fact that it really tastes like a piece of old shoe leather. And that $5,000 Toyota is a great vehicle if all you care about is getting from point A to point B, but once you drive that $40,000 luxury car for a while, getting in that $5,000 Toyota feels like getting into a toy go-cart.

So I decided that sometimes if you want to be wise with your money and get what you want the first time, you have to spend a little more. Being frugal means I don’t spend what I don’t need to spend, but I can still have some of the finer things in life.

When buying a book, I am the same way. I tend to go for the authors I am either familiar with or were recommended to me by someone who I know has the same taste in books as I do. If I can’t find something new by one of those authors, I will shop around a little and do some research. In the end, I am willing to spend $10-$15 on a mass marketed eBook or $4-$5 on an independently published eBook. I am okay with that because chances are good the book will meet my needs and expectations.   (Indie authors don’t have to pay off the agent, publisher, editor, or marketer, so they can make more per book and sell for less.)

There is a growing trend for independent authors to publish their works on Amazon and just give them away for free. Amazon doesn’t normally allow this, but some other eBook publishers do, so these authors publish on other outlets for free then request Amazon to price match the book. This is allowed with Amazon because like any retailer, it is a “loss leader”. A lot of free books will attract buyers to purchase Kindle devices so they can take advantage of all the free books. Of course, like any loss leader, the free product is usually inferior and underwhelming. The authors claim to just want people to read their books. This is all well and good, but you have to ask yourself, if the author is doing this for free, how much time and effort will they put into making it a good book that is worth your time to read?

Writing a book is not an easy task. It takes many hours (sometimes many hundreds) to write even a first draft, and often twice that to edit that story for content and then grammar. Then there is formatting it properly, coming up with a good cover and blurb, and finally marketing the finished book. My book is around 160,000 words, about 400 pages in a typical mass market paperback size (318 pages in my larger 6”x9” paperback), and took me well over 1000 hours to write and edit. There aren’t many people who will willingly spend a thousand hours of their life creating something they just want to give away for free.

It is true, sometimes these hobbyist authors are extremely capable writers who take pride in putting out a good product but just want to write and have people read their works. Sometimes they are using free giveaway promotions to generate interest and hopefully sell some books by word of mouth when they raise the price back up to normal. And sometimes an author with an entire series of books will set the first one to free so readers will get hooked and want to buy the other books in the series. However, these are the exception – the garage sale vacuum cleaners that actually work well.

Currently Amazon has around 1.4 million eBooks available, with 20,000 new eBooks being added every week. While you could correctly point out that pricing doesn’t guarantee quality with any product, in general you do get what you pay for. That being said, will you spend several hours of your life hoping a free book will turn out to be worth the time to read, or play the odds and spend a few dollars on what is more likely to be a well-rounded product?

4 thoughts on “You get what you pay for”

  1. David,
    It’s the conundrum the Indie has been facing and, inevitably, we are sucked into occasional “read it, it’s free” promotions. As you say, it is sad, especially for those of us who do produce full-length novels. Let’s just hope that more readers begin to honor our hard work.
    By the way, congratulations on your “Milestone.” (I followed you over from the Forum.. Eurocountess).

  2. Excellent post, David. You make some really good points. To be honest, I can see both sides of the issue. I think free giveaways, when done correctly, can be an excellent sales tool; however, I also think that most authors who give away their work for free are not doing it correctly and are therefore reducing the perceived value of their work.

    As a shopper, I still search through the freebies and bargain books because I’m on a budget. Occasionally, I find a real treasure that makes me turn around and buy more from an author whose work I downloaded for free. I’m sure I’m not the only one who buys books that way, so there’s no denying that giveaways and bargains work SOME of the time. Definitely not ALL of the time.

    As an author, I don’t have any perma-free books because I don’t have very many books, period. I’ve used a few free days here and there for my short “prequel” to my series, but I get better long-term results from pricing my longer works at .99 cents for a week at a time. That’s not to say I’ll never make a book permanently free, but I certainly won’t do it any time in the near future, and not without a lot of thought.

    I like your analogy of the $3 vacuum cleaner. It’s a great way of looking at it.

  3. Given the overwhelming tsunami of poorly-conceived, poorly-written, poorly-formatted self-published books available through Amazon and elsewhere, price is the only remaining semi-reliable, immediate indicator of quality (even terrible writers can purchase decent covers). I’m not rich, but I no longer look at works that cost less than $5.99, and have set my own novel at that price point (and I refuse to participate in KDP Select, as I believe that option further devalues writers’ efforts with its pitifully low “royalty” per borrow, particularly for full-length works like mine).

    Life is much too short to wade through the massive garbage pile in an effort to find the gems, so using price as an initial filter helps a great deal. But if authors–even the very good ones–continue to devalue their works by setting the prices for their creations ever lower in desperate attempts to gain readers, soon no writers will enjoy any kind of decent return on their investments of time and energy, and readers will lose the last, best sorting option–the price filter–that we now use.

    1. Very good points. My only contention would be that Indie authors make a far higher royalty than traditionally published authors on a per book basis, so even at $3-$4 per book we make far more on each sale than a traditional author selling a $10-15 book. Because of this, the market is fairly well established for Indie authors, and $2.99-$4.99 is the sweet spot. While a traditionally published author will benefit from wider distribution and visibility, I think taking 10 times the royalty per book is a pretty good tradeoff. In the end I care about two things: making money on my work and getting more readers to read it. I have already made more than I ever expected, and while I want to keep the perceived value of my book as high as I can, I still want to move volume because after all, in the end the factor that will determine if I can have a steady income from my writing will be dependent on the size of my reader base.

      As for Kindle Select, I tend to disagree. There are some really nice benefits to the program, and being a subscription service I don’t think it degrades the perceived value of the product. I don’t necessarily like the fact that Select pays the same royalty for a 10 page pamphlet as a 410 page novel, but at the same time, 55% of my sales are now from Select borrows, and I believe most of those are from Kindle Unlimited subscribers who wouldn’t read my book if it weren’t in Select. At least for now, Select works well for me, although I do believe those of us with longer books are getting screwed just a little bit.

      I wrote Paradox Cycle specifically to see how viable the idea of a short book in Select really is. Ironically, priced at 99 cents (only 68 pages), it actually gets far more regular sales than borrows, and I end up with a measly $.35 rather than the $1.40 from a borrow. I was aiming for more borrows than sales, but it ends up working in reverse – I get more borrows on my $3.99 book and more sales on my $.99 book. Ideally I would like to see it the other way around, but then I also wish I had a few hundred thousand sales. You know what they say about wishes though…

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