This is something I’ve wanted to blog about for quite a while now, ever since I came up with the idea for my next series, SAND. I’ve hesitated, because I’m pretty sure this will only seem like a good idea to me. But now that a pre-order page is up for part 1, I’m expecting some questions about the odd price, so I figured I’d post my latest and arguably zaniest idea to head those questions off at the pass.
The idea stemmed from the observation that all book prices look the same, even though we self-published authors have complete control over them. It’s like everyone shows up at school wearing the same outfit every single day, not because there’s a rule or a dress code, but because that’s what everyone has always done. Everything ends in .99. Maybe there’s a few ruffians over there smoking cigarettes and wearing their .95, those rebels. But no one takes those guys seriously, do they? And really, for all practical and commercial considerations, following this trend is a sound idea. It’s similar to how a good cover and a spell-checked product description can help a self-published work blend in with the traditionally published. The problem is this: I can’t stand sound ideas.
I got a lot of grief from trusted advisers over the title of WOOL, back when it was just a single novelette and no one had read it. My science fiction professor and friend Adam Griffey told me it was a dumb title. As did a good friend of mine in my writing group in Boone. But my thinking was twofold: The first reason I went with this title was that it held a hidden meaning that gave away the twist at the end of the story (the wool being pulled over Holston’s eyes), but this hint is so subtle and can be interpreted in so many ways that you can tell people this meaning and they still won’t guess the final scene. It was an artistic choice (if writers are allowed to consider themselves artists) that made me enjoy publishing the work just a little more. The second reason I went with the title of WOOL was that I felt it would pop in a sea of traditional SFF titles (my other works included). It was simple and short. It was a common word amid a sea of uncommon and made-up words. And it’s fun to say!
Who knows if I was right or wrong. Maybe the series would have done better if the book was called SILO (though that’s difficult to imagine). What was important to me was that the name meant something. Painters and poets have complete freedom to name their works whatever they please. Authors don’t always enjoy this freedom. Often, it’s an editors’ or an agents’ suggestion. One publisher who made an offer on WOOL warned that they would have to change the title (this was after the book had already sold hundreds of thousands of copies). I remember complimenting Charlie Huston on the title of one of his books, and he laughed and said that his editor came up with it. He wanted something different. Maybe these editors and agents are right. Who knows? I certainly don’t.
What I do know is that I love the creative control self-publishing provides. Hell, I enjoy paginating my print books so I can see what line every page ends on. Back when I painted, I also enjoyed sawing wood and screwing together my own frames, stretching the fabric myself, and gessoing the canvas. I could make the dimensions my own. This is my approach to writing. I see the book — every single part of it — under my careful purview (for better or worse). Traditional publishing can sometimes feel like you came up with the idea for the image, but it’s up to someone else to transfer it to the canvas. They choose the matting and the frame (of course, they ask you if you’re happy with it. And you’d better be), and then they hang it on the wall for you and determine which way is up and how it’s going to be lit. Maybe they hang it upside down or sideways (akin to seeing your young adult work shelved in literary fiction or your urban fantasy book dubbed a romance novel. Because: marketing). There’s a ton of ways that giving up control can lead to more sales but a different work. That’s a valid choice. Personally, I’d rather work in a bookstore for the rest of my life and write and publish books of my own making than sell a ton of copies that someone else packages and markets. Hence my horrible titles. Hence my next wacky idea.
If everyone is coming to school in a .99 cent tie (or that little group over there in their .95 cent bow-ties, aren’t they adorable!), then here is yet another chance for authors to stand out, to be creative, and to impart some extra meaning into their works. Maybe that epic novel about crime-fighting angels could be priced at $7.77. Or someone could be very brave (foolish, maybe) and make that series of horror novels $6.66. Or what about a trilogy of novellas or short stories at $1.00 for the first book, $2.00 for the second, and $3.00 for the third?
There are a ton of reasons not to do this. I’ve already mentioned that this will signal a work has been self-published, but as someone who is proud to publish my own material, this isn’t a deterrent. I think we are just moments away from entering an age where indie writers will have the same cachet as indie filmmakers and indie musicians (Yeah. I really do). Here’s a far-off prediction: I think we’ll see a point in our lifetimes where traditionally published material is made to appear self-published in order to give it street cred. Seriously.
Of course, the other reason an author would be crazy to price a book at $2.00 is that they make HALF the royalty rate at prices below $2.99. On Amazon, where most e-books are purchased, you make 70% if you price between $2.99 and $9.99. Above or below this range, and you only make 35%. This is an extremely powerful motivator. Most e-book prices are settled upon to maximize earnings, and I don’t begrudge anyone for doing that. I want more and more writers and artists to earn a living with their craft. But like fitting in, making money has never been a huge motivator for me. Being happy while not impacting the joy of others is a much stronger urge. And I like numbers. Which brings me back to SAND and a bit of nuttery when it comes to setting price.
SAND will be released in four parts, with each part priced at $1.41. The first part will go live in 10 days, on the 15th of December. I urge people in the product description (and here) NOT to buy the book in installments. Just wait for the full novel. The reason I’m publishing like this is because I enjoy the “live” aspect of serialization. I enjoy the feedback from those readers who enjoy reading and waiting on each installment. I love the two months of frenetic writing and publishing that await. This is fun for me.
The odd price comes from the themes at the heart of the series. I was pretty deep into the writing of SAND when I realized what the major theme was about. The series started off (and remains) a story about Syria, Somalia, North Korea, and all the places in the world where we know human misery exists but find ourselves unable or unwilling to pool our resources and our courage to assist the stricken. SAND is still that story. But it’s more than that. At the heart of this series, I found both a breakdown and a misapplication of the Golden Rule. The breakdown comes from without and the misapplication from within. You don’t have to even spot this for any of it to matter. It matters to me. That’s when the number 141 jumped out at me. I recently re-read Robert Axelrod’s work on game theory, and tit-for-tat became one-for-one. I started thinking of ways to play with page numbers, similar to how in the Silo Saga page 99 in every one of the printed books is written as 99%. I wanted to do something similar with SAND. That’s when I realized that I had the power to hang this number even higher and brighter and let it stand out. Let it confuse like a simple title with hidden meaning, even if it only had meaning to me. Especially if it only has meaning for me.
This is the coolest thing about self-publishing: I can make bad choices that make me happy. Bad choices that add to the depth and complexity of a work, even if that perceived depth is only in my imagination. Will this make sense for others? Would anyone be crazy enough to have a book series priced at $1.11, $2.22, $3.33? Or a murder mystery where the price was a clue toward solving the crime? Or books that go on sale for a day with the price as the date? Would anyone dare write a cop drama with each book priced at $9.11? Probably not. It’d be chaos. We’d look like a bunch of weirdos showing up at school wearing clothes we stitched together ourselves. We’d be like the kid who wears a tie to school, who carries his books in a briefcase. Yeah, okay, that used to be me.