I have a sad announcement. July 1st is the last day you'll be able to buy my second novel, The Perfect Burrito, on Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com, and the iTunes bookstore.
The decision is all mine. I'm yanking it from the virtual shelves, because I've come to the conclusion that my work isn't being valued enough by...well, read on and come to your own conclusion regarding the culprit(s).
After the success of my first novel, My Name Is Will (it sold a respectable 30,000 copies, despite being released in 24.99 hardcover mid-2008, at what we now know was the height of the Great Recession and the beginning of the decline of the print publishing industry), I spent three years, full time, researching and writing the The Perfect Burrito. I think it's the best work I've ever done. It's not just a jokey compendium of burrito reviews, you know, but an unabashedly literary tale that owes more to Don Quixote, Lolita, and Jitterbug Perfume than Anthony Bourdain. The publisher of My Name Is Will liked it, but not enough to make it one of the elite Twelve books a year they publish. Fair enough.
After a half dozen glowing declines from other big New York houses (I cheekily used some of their effusive praise as blurb quotes in the book's front matter), I decided to take what I thought was the innovative, forward thinking route of a self-published e-book that would capitalize on my collection of hats in the areas of performance, production, direction, and technology by creatin a multitude of illustrations, photos, video, audio, and other extras to accompany the text. The experience would be optimized for tablets and Kindles, but would be accessible to anyone with a computer. And all of the many extras would be freely available on the web, hosted on my own website. All readers would have to pay for would be the story itself, the e-book text, which could also be read on its own without relying on the extras. And the e-book would be inexpensive, $3.99. The price of a grande latte at Starbucks.
I thought this was a business model that would work. The web abounds with tales of authors making mints off of low-priced e-books. And mine would offer much more for the money. I spent days with a professional photographer, in costume as one of my protagonists, visiting the many locations up and down California's El Camino Real, shooting photo illustrations. I pulled in every favor imaginable to get George Takei—George freakin' Takei!—to star in a video version of a memorable scene from the story, and then "embedded" it in the e-book. (It's also out there for free on YouTube). I rewrote sections of the book to ensure that the illustrations matched the text and vice versa. I did nationwide promotions, one through Kindle Nation Daily and one on my own to give away not one but two Kindle Fires. I contacted bloggers and online reviewers—the few who will read anything but vampire, thriller, and romance novels—to try to get them to feature my book. Because the website was so intricately linked with the text, I built the entire site, which seamlessly links the e-book to over 400 photos, videos, maps and readings, myself. All of this—the production and post-production of videos and photos, the website building, the unusually complex coding of the e-book—took another year of full-time work. In addition to the uncounted man-hours on my part, I paid photographer, cameraman, sound man, video editor, jacket designer, research assistant, proofreader, and copyeditor for their various services. Beyond my own time, when you add in travel expenses for me and my small crew, launch party expenses, postcards, promotions, software and the like, I spent somewhere around 10k to get the beast (which started out as a simple road story, much less complex than the dual-timeline My Name Is Will—or so I thought at first) launched.
I didn't expect to get rich on the thing, but I hoped to at least break even, while establishing myself as an innovator in a new, immersive medium for the presentation of long form fiction. Pricing the e-book at $2.99 (which is mid-range for e-books these days), about two bucks of every sale goes right into my pocket, with the other buck going to my agent and the online retailer. So, I figured, all I have to do is sell 5K copies—a small fraction of the sales of My Name Is Will—to break even.
I was hugely disappointed in the opening weeks' sales reports. Double digits? Seriously? But common e-book wisdom is that you must wait six months before beginning to assess sales numbers; e-books depend on word of mouth to a greater extent than traditional books. So I've waited.
Ready to hear the six-month figures? So far I've sold exactly 232 copies of the book, for a net of about $460. That pretty much covers the food tab at the launch party. I used to make that much in sweaty dollar bills in a couple of 20-minute, pass-the-hat Hamlet shows, back when I was 23. Hell, I could probably throw on an Aragorn costume right now and go make that much posing for pictures on Hollywood Blvd.
232...mind you, I have three times that many friends on Facebook.
232. And almost all of those sales were in 2012. The entire year-to-date figure for 2013: 42.
For the month of June so far...exactly 1.
The recommendation from my agent and other e-book pros is that I should try dropping the price to .99¢ and run another promotion. My agent tells me that one of her authors did this and sold 1200 books in a week. Okay, so that's another $600. Not bad, but keeping those numbers up beyond the one-week promotion seems unlikely to me. Sure, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I could make that 10 or even 20k by selling my book for a buck, although I'm sceptical.
But here's the thing. All marketing strategies and price-point-and-distribution-channel calculations aside, I'm laying down the freaking law.
You can't have my book for a buck.
I simply won't let you read it at that price. I don't care what the free market says, four years of my blood, sweat and tears is worth more. I've been a professional writer my entire adult life, so I think I have a pretty good handle on what my work should return, and a copy of The Perfect Burrito is worth more than a latte. I think it's worth more than a movie, even a pretty good movie. I think it's better than my first novel, which cost $24.99 in hardcover. True, you don't get the nice binding and jacket art, a jewel for your library shelf and something for your grandkids to donate to a library or toss out; but then George Takei doesn't magically appear on the page at his first mention in a paper edition.
So: I've decided you can own your own digital copy of my book for $13.99. That's a buck less than what the paperback of My Name Is Will cost, and I think The Perfect Burrito is a great entertainment value at that price.
Oh, and you can forget about Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com and the rest. They did nothin' for me. If you want to buy The Perfect Burrito after July 1, you can get it directly from me, the author, in PDF, ePub, or Mobi (Kindle) format. Just PayPal $13.99 to firstname.lastname@example.org.
So who's to blame for the undervaluing of authors work? You may have reached your own conclusion, but I strongly believe that readers, and consumers of digital property in general, should re-calibrate their sense of worth. Think about it. That app on your phone—you know, the one NOT developed by a huge media giant—is probably worth more than $1.99. You can't have the full New York Times for free online. You should really shell out something for all that porn you're watching.
And you might be prepared to pay your friendly neighborhood author in advance for his next novel.