Monday, November 12, 2012

Is "Iron Curtain" Worth Four Frappuccino's?

By Nancy Bilyeau

Being published yields lessons about control. After you sign your contract and, much later, the book goes on sale, you will learn what you can control. Or what you think you control but don't. Or what you don't realize you control and should actually spend more time controlling. Some of the lessons are stark, and some are subtle.

But there is one thing that you, the traditionally published author, do not control and that is the price of your book. There are no gray areas here. You can send emails to your editor and agent, or spend hours venting to friends in your online groups, and the price won't change a penny. The publisher sets it. Period.

Do readers know this? Maybe not.

Last week my husband and I were talking about the new book "Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956." I'd read a compelling review of "Iron Curtain" in "The New Yorker," on the way home from work on the subway. Later that night, I mentioned it to my spouse--we both studied 20th century history in college (University of Michigan for me, University of Toronto for him). We were sitting up in bed, with our laptop computers and kindles and magazines, talking about this new book we were both interested in.

(Clearly if you've come to this blog post looking for Fifty Shades of Grey, you've so come to the wrong place.)

Anyway, my husband was poised to order "Iron Curtain" from when he said, surprised, "Two one-star reviews?"

"Iron Curtain," published two weeks ago and and written by the award-winning journalist Anne Applebaum, does indeed have one-star reviews. And both of them were posted by people who hadn't read the book.

That's right. Hadn't read it. But were ready to post "reviews," which are by any definition about the work itself.

One-star review No. 1: "Having travelled recently as a tourist in this part of the world, I was very excited to buy this book after reading a review. When I saw the outrageous Kindle price I was mightily offended. Pass on this."

One-star review No. 2: "Not only will I not purchase this book for a kindle I own (which my wife uses pretty exclusively), but this is the sort of thing that will leave me on the fence in deciding to purchase a Paperwhite for my own use, which I have been seriously considering this week. I love the author; it is probably a great book. But, I will wait. I have plenty of unread books.
Some of us enjoy holding a book. I only read one at a time, so space/size simply aren't considerations for me. I would never, in a million years, purchase an e-reader for any reason other than economy. So, an eye-raising price like this factors DIRECTLY into my buying decision."

What is the price that these consumers, one of whom travels through Eastern Europe, recoil from? $17.99. The original list price for the 608-page hardcover is $35 but of course amazon does not charge that and most likely book stores discount too.

The pricing of books is now at the heart of debates raging about traditional publishing versus self publishing. I use the word "rage" advisedly. Independent publishing is an issue often argued with passion that veers into accusation. We who are published by one of the "Big Six" are in the strange position of being both envied and despised. My friends with books out have been told they're passive, deluded, defrauded, the victims of Stockholm Syndrome. I'm not going to hurl myself into the fiery pit of which way of being published is "superior." I see merits in both. I have read great books that came to me via a bricks-and-mortar publisher and an author using Smashwords. I have come not to criticize self-publishing.

No, I have to come to talk about value. What our books are worth.

My novel, "The Crown," is currently priced at $9.99 for e-book. Many novels cost about that. I worked on my book for five years, researching and writing, taking classes and workshops. Traveling. Getting up at 5 a.m. so I could make my word count before the children woke up and I had to go to the office. Drawing on my love of Tudor England and the thriller genre, I crafted the best book I possibly could. It was edited by talented people, with a striking cover. Is my e-book worth $9.99? In my opinion, yes.

Let's talk about entertainment, because that's what many novels are. I am fine with that. In cities, movie tickets these days are set at about $10 for adults. So my novel is not as much of a value as a couple of hours with "Skyfall" or "Taken: 2" or, good grief, "Paranormal Activity 4"?  When you tell a novelist that their  book--in many cases, their dream--should be priced at a dollar or two, rather than nine or ten, you're saying their dream is not worth as much as "Paranormal Activity 4" and should instead cost as much as the Diet Coke someone sips while watching it.

To return to "Iron Curtain," it is an extensively researched book by the journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize for her last book, "Gulag: A History." My husband, who went ahead and bought it that night, keeps reading to me parts he thinks are especially interesting. Based on his comments, The New Yorker review and the first chapter I read for myself on amazon, I believe "Iron Curtain" to be a thoughtful, provocative,deeply informative book. And yes, I think it is worth $17.99. I think it is fair market value to pay that much for a serious work of nonfiction. 

The e-book price of "Iron Curtain" is the price, plus tax, of four venti Frappuccinos at Starbuck's. 

And that's gouging? What am I missing here? It's as if people are outraged that a new book costs $50, which I would agree is too high. Instead, it's $17.99-- the cost of a movie ticket and popcorn and drink. Or a CD.  Or one-third of the cost of the new Playstation game. Or one-fifth of  a ticket to a professional baseball or football game. Or four Frappuccino's.

The supporters of self-publishing write very well about the movement. I sometimes get worked up reading their blogs. I agree it's important that writers now have a means to reach readers independent of agents and publishers. But lately the controversy over pricing of books (which has to do with the question of monopolies and the Department of Justice suit) has crept into the question of self-publishing. Now, for me, things are getting messy.

Nathan Bransford, a fascinating thinker on the book business, writes in "The Publishing Industry is Not Deserving of Special Protection", "What are publishers fighting for? They're fighting for the ability to charge a premium for their products. To make customers pay more money for books." I worry that Nathan is one of the people who thinks books should cost as much as a Diet Coke. Being a smart man (who used to be an agent), he knows that there's no way that an industry that went in that direction would be able to dole out an advance to a nonfiction author that would finance the months and years required to research a serious book. His fix for that problem is nonfiction authors should "find a member of the 1 %" to pay for them to write. I know a little bit about the 1 percent. You know what? That's not going to happen too often. No, if traditional publishing goes away, books like "Iron Curtain" go away too. And I think that would be a true and terrible loss. 

Agree with me? OK. Disagree with me? That's OK, too. But please don't let's duke it out in the reviews for the actual books.


  1. Reviewing an book on a price point is vile (and no that is not too strong a word). If the market--including customers--wants to have a debate on the pricing of e-books fine but to use any one, non-price-controlling, author to do that is just wrong. Those one star reviews will influence the author's logarithm at Amazon as well as his overall rating and leave a mistaken impression about the content of his book.

  2. I completely agree with Sophie. Authors work so hard to not only craft a great book, but to maintain some sort of living from writing. If money isn't coming in in some way, they won't be able to produce said great books. To attack an author's reviews on principal is garbage. Create a stink another way. Thanks for the great post.

  3. I'm a book blogger and I don't think it would ever even occur to me to review based on the price. That doesn't tell anyone anything! When I'm looking at reviews of books that I may want to read, I definitely want to know what people thought of the book and not the price. If it's a good book that I really want to read, price probably is not going to factor in all that much for me. I just don't understand how that could be the main thing that people care about when looking for a good book.

    I think that books and ebook prices will go much the same way as music and MP3s have gone. At first when MP3s became widely available, people were not ready to spend a lot of money on them because they didn't feel that by downloading music that they really "owned" anything. MP3 files are less tangible than having a cd that you can actually see. I think a lot of people feel this way about ebooks. I think as time goes on and more and more people get ereaders that this train of thought will go out the window as it did with music and more and more people got ipods and MP3 players. The music industry got pretty creative with some of their pricing models for music and I think that it would be good for the book and publishing industry to take a page out of their book, which will not only benefit readers but also the book industry itself.

  4. I almost never look at the price of a book. I just buy it. I have bought books on sale, on special, and I have downloaded books for free. I always figure that offsets (for my wallet) the ones I buy at full price. Kind of the way I enjoy both Walmart and Nordstrom.

  5. Thanks for your comments. Meg, the music industry comparison is very interesting.

  6. This is an interesting article, particularly his list of three new costs publishers have now, with e-books. The QA would be particularly relevant to a non-fiction book of this length, with footnotes, etc.

  7. Thank you, Nancy, for stating it so eloquently!

  8. Why are the arts the first to go in a difficult economy? And why give a book one star that you haven't read? On the up side, thanks for reminding me of this book, which I'd heard about on NPR and which I definitely want to read.

  9. I agree with you whole-heartedly. But I believe in the age of Amazon and the e-reader, we're now dealing with such a mix of readers and reviewers being thrown into the same arena, there's always going to be blood. In traditional book-buying, the '50 Shades' buyers would never be reviewing Iron Curtain and vice versa. It's a sad fact that it's just become one homogenous battleground.

  10. I'm always of two minds when reading posts like this -- on one hand, I very much want to support the authors I love -- and those I don't yet love -- by paying a fair price for their work. On the other hand, in this cheap digital age, I do bristle at paying paperback cost for a book that ultimately is just a 'rental'.

    Using a book review to grouse about price totally baffles me.

  11. ...and you can read a book you enjoy over and over for the one-time price, whereas movie ushers get a little testy when they find you hiding in the seats, hoping to stay for the second showing.

  12. ...and in terms of value, a good story lasts a great deal longer than a short-lived caffeine/adrenaline buzz. Some have lasted centuries.

  13. You can know if that the iron curtain worth four Frappuccinos with help of the post here. Good post