Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Bob Barker, I Apologize!

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.

46 replies to “Bob Barker, I Apologize!”

35%? OUCH! Seriously…that’s…a ripoff. I like Amazon, and buy most of my ebooks there, but knowing that they only give 35% (and thus take 65%), is ridiculous. Perhaps I will wait for the entire novel to be released…but I hate waiting.

I wonder if there’s a meaningful way to encourage Amazon to increase the percentage an author receives for the $0.99-2.98 range. 35% is far too low, especially when Amazon is getting the other 65% for something they didn’t create. Perhaps a 50-55% at the very least?

I don’t know why this bothers me so much, but it does. For the record, I bought the Wool Omnibus, and then for SHIFT and DUST I bought the first installment for each and then waited for the collected/omnibus version of each. AMAZING series. I seriously cannot give you enough praise for it. Very excited to see further stories from this universe.

Any news on the possible movie?

That’s great, don’t get me wrong, but a publisher also helps with marketing and a physical product, correct? Amazon…doesn’t really do either last I checked. Yes, Amazon is a huge site that millions of people go to, but the work itself is still 100% yours, and Amazon has done nothing to help create it. So for them to take 65% just because you want to give your readers a better deal…seems low.

Maybe it’s because I am in Canada, but when I look at your preorder link, the price is $2.82, not $1.41.

Also, if I look it up on Amazon.ca, it’s priced at $2.99.

This is an interesting idea though. The common knowledge is that you half-trick consumers by pricing things at X.99, but it is theoretically possible to differentiate yourself solely by using a ‘non-standard’ pricing increment. It’s an interesting experiment, regardless.

“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.”

If that doesn’t come true I’ll eat my book (I don’t have a hat).

Yes, $2.82 for me as well. Weird that it’s exactly double the price Hugh listed. I don’t get it, none of his other books have differed in price for us folks in Canada, at least not that I noticed!

Will stick to the newsletter version on this one till Amazon works out their sh*t.

I am teaching the Wool Omnibus. I love the themes and characters and the way your title works into all the chapters and poetry. As to your pricing, Amazon is making too much off writers and as self publishers, there should be a way for you to collectivly bargain a better wage!

In my print copy of the Omnibus, I do not see the 99% on page 99. Why would that be? Also, Juliet is a very strong female character, but she is also somewhat impulsive. Her connections to others seem rather temporary and she is not a person who feels deeply. Solo is also a very unique person, kept captive in his own world for so long and a bit of a Peter Pan. I picture him sort of hopping around like a teenage boy with a 50 year old man’s face. He saddens me, really.

I love that you encourage others to write about the silos and to enlarge the stories. It is a huge leap of faith. Why did you do it?

I think it is an interesting idea that each individual publisher should put a unique twist on their books and it is a valid point that other forms of art don’t generally get criticized on their unique works/titles. Authors that publish their own books choose to do so for a reason and I think that it if they really want to make the books their own without seeming like they are from a publishing industry they should use unique prices or titles. This would allow self-published books to standout and become more recognized. If this trend did actually catch on than Howey is not far off with his prediction. Publishing companies could very well start changing the titles and prices that they would normally choose to make it look like a book was actually self-published.

Now in regards to the omnibus of Wool, I think the title was a wise choice. The title can not only be connected to examples of symbolism throughout the book, but it is simple, yet unique enough to work. Silo would have been too obvious of a title for the work and it would not really create much symbolism in the books. Silo as a title could obviously be connected to the several different silos throughout the book or the fact that the people were “stored” in them for the bad times. I think Wool just works better as a title for the story.

The idea of making the price of a murder mystery is a clue to solving a crime along with the other ideas of how the price could relate to book, I think, is a great way to make a book stand out. If I was looking to buy a book and narrowed my choices down to two, one being the regular $X.99 and the other having the same price as the title like Fahrenheit 451 being $4.51 I would choose 451 because it sticks out.
The only problem with doing something purposely to stick out in a crowd of others, is there’s too many people these days that don’t like things being different. People want to see that $X.99 priced book because that’s what their used to seeing, people get scared to try something different. On the other hand there is also a lot of people who enjoy certain things for that very reason that its different.

Wool was a very interesting name for your first novel, and it kept me reading to understand the meaning behind it. I’ve ordered Shift and Dust and I hope they keep me reading for as long as the first novel did, and I really hope you keep on writing these very intriguing stories so I will have something to look forward to far off into the future. Sand sounds appealing to my tastes, and I will look forward to reading yet another book from such a talented self published author.

What happens when the majority of new authors decide to self-publish their work? Will we see the downfall of big publishing companies as we know them, or will authors create their own? (Good idea, huh?) Also, did you have any trouble getting WOOL publicity?

We might already be at that point. I think self-published titles outpaced traditionally published titles last year. I could be wrong. I think what we’ll see next is more established writers realizing they can do this themselves. When Pulitzer Prize winners like Mamet and big-time celebrities like Jim Carrey join in, you know something’s up.

I had a lot of trouble getting publicity early on. Which is why I didn’t waste a lot of time trying. I just wrote my fool head off and made my work available. I gave myself ten years to write 20 or 30 works. At the end of that time, I would start marketing them. Everything took off on its own. (I did quite a bit of little stuff, like local book signings and keep up a blog, but that’s not what made the works take off).

I think wool was the right choice for the title of the book it made complete sense to me and I think each part of that book related to the title and it was part of the reason I think why I stayed interested in the story.

As a hopeful author-to-be you’ve been an inspiration to me. I think you’re selling yourself short. Writing is an art, both fiction and non-fiction. There is little difference between choosing the right words to articulate a message and choosing the right colors to convey an emotion.

About the commissions for books under 2.99, I think that one of the reasons is because merchants have higher credit card processing costs at this level, as a percentage of book price. I suspect Amazon can get better pricing than an average merchant, but a typical cost is $0.35 + 2.8%. Therefore a $2.00 book has a processing fee of a little over 20% or 28% on a $1.41 book.

I am looking forward to reading the next series!

I am a highschool teacher and love the Wool books. I am currently teaching the Omnibus. I was wondering why you encourage others to write and publish more installements for this series. It is incredibly brave as a writer to do this.

Also, Solo is one of my favorite characters, though he saddens me. I think of him as a Peter Pan kind of character. Is that what you had in mind?

Hey Julie, I’m honored that you would use the book in class. I’ve Skyped in with classrooms before if you’re up for that.

I don’t really encourage people to write more WOOL stories. I encourage people to write whatever they like. But when people asked if they could continue the saga, I gave them my blessing.

Solo is probably my favorite character in the series. I see a lot of myself in him.

About the title Wool. It is the one thing that caught my eye and made me stop and actually read the book description when it was on the daily deal a while back. I normally just skim over the books to see if there is a title on my to-read list there, but Wool caught my eye because it was different. It wasn’t the run of the mill SFF title and I needed to know what it was about and how wool played a part in a SFF novel. I will admit that I didn’t buy the book immediately because I have a to-read list that has over 200 books on it already, but low and behold, a week later it was the book chosen for our book club to read. I’m not sure my friend picked it because of the name, but something about it caught her eye, something she found unique and interesting because she is rarely interested in reading SFF or self published books. I think it is a brilliant title and I’m glad you didn’t listen to others who didn’t agree. And by the way, we all read the Wool Omnibus and every one of us in the book club loved it. That is saying a lot, because most of these ladies do not read SFF.

NEVER. EVER. CHANGE.

Seriously, even if I didn’t like your books I would still buy them just for your refreshing take on writing, publishing literature and the way you interact with your fans.

This idea of creative control not only over the bare bones content of your work, but also its final form and method of delivery is incredibly strong, and I agree that its supporters will only grow in the future.

After giving it some thought, (love this idea by the way) I have to wonder, why did you choose 141 as your price point? With all of your examples about how numbers could have a ‘hidden’ meaning to what’s inside a book, I have to ask, what is special about THOSE numbers? Will we find out as we read SAND? If so, just ignore me or shout “Spoilers” and I’ll go away. :)

I am, however, very intrigued. It’s like you gave me a puzzle that I’m compelled to figure out.

Well, it’s fascinating, that you want to make the price part of the art. Actually, as an economist, I think, it’s not part of it. I mean, taxes and inflation, they effect the price, which can change, while the art is the same, it is simply something that represents the value in exchange. But if you really don’t go for profit, it’s also perfectly rational in economical sense too, that you consider it part of the piece you created. And luckily, you can do that as a self-publisher.

Although, I’m pretty sure, I will wait till the omnibus, mainly, because on the pre-order page it’s $4.33 for me, and also because I have an exam period right now, and also because I think that just until I don’t know the story, I’m okay and don’t wait eagerly for the ending, but if I so much as sniffed of it, I’d be in agonizing waiting, which will be easier to bear when I can read further anytime I want. That’s the reason I didn’t read the snippets sent in the newsletter, which was cool btw.

Hi
Will there be a physical copy for us Luddites who believe books are made out of paper?
Thanks
Jon

. . . wow . . . you always come up with ways of looking at the entire writing process that i haven’t thought about in years. since i was in my teens and it was about blank journals and filling the pages with doodles and secret symbols and sign posts i’d discovered. wow. just wow. . . you are such a cool guy to hang out with . . . the best kind of cool . . . the kind of cool that comes with a briefcase filled with all sorts of magical stuff :)

“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.”———————A man after my own heart. :) ——Tit-for-tat; 1.4.1——Now I’m more curious than I was before. If I dial 411 will they be able to give me the answers that I seek? That’s about as creative as I get. Sad, but true…lol

Did you see the research released a couple of years ago about odd prices for real estate?

Listing your house at a strange price like $573,321 sometimes fetches you a faster sale or a better final purchase price. The theory is that we tend to associate very precise prices with bargains and markdowns.

The study spurred a whole trend of pricing houses at $397,104 or $812,847.

Ha! Not trying to plug myself here but I have a serial, post-apoc, zombie horror novel underway titled 6 Hours, 6 Minutes, 6 Seconds that will be released in 6 parts (1 & 2 are available now), and my plan was when all 6 parts were released to compile an omnibus with all 6 parts and price it at 6.66 for the novelty. Just thought it was funny you said that.

Hi Hugh,

“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”

I agree! Back in 1997 thru 2003 when Cathie and I self published our five mystery novels as Cathie John (starting with “ADD ONE DEAD CRITIC”) I felt it was unjust that self published writers were looked down upon simply because their work didn’t fit into one of a couple of little boxes designated by a publisher’s marketing department. Writers have the same creative talent and vision as do indie filmmakers and musicians.

Right now I’m working on my first sci-fi/fantasy serial. The plot has been outlined and I’ve finished writing the first episode and have almost completed the second one.

John
(the male half of Cathie John)

print version available through amazon, just click on the link on the top where it says preorder for part 1

I came across this page while searching for details on how writers settled on selling prices for their books. Apparently there is no common formula based on genre and word count (at least not that I have found yet), so the idea of hiding ‘easter eggs’ in the title is appealing.

I have debated with myself and others, the sense of misspelling the word ‘magic’ in my novel’s title – Magik Bear in the Night Sky, knowing that the misspelling might limit the book’s searchability, and consequently, sales.

I’m sure a traditional publisher would have over-ruled my decision. But like many others, I like the control and understand the creative aspects behind the decision.

Love this site! Everyone is so civil.

About the price fluctuations people are noticing – the price you set on Amazon varies quite widely, depending on where the customer is. They apply a surcharge to ebooks bought from the .com store by none-US customers, which is different in each territory, and of course they now have separate stores in loads of countries like Brazil and (finally!) Australia. Sometimes the prices you set in these countries have tax added, as with VAT in the UK – you have to figure out what they’ll add on, and price accordingly! So I wanted my book to appear as £1.99 (I know, BORING!) – but to do that I had to make it £1.93 as VAT is calculated based on Luxembourg rates (where Amazon EU is incorporated, for exactly this reason – low VAT!). Ebook tax there is just 3%, so 3p x 2 (pounds) is 6p, + £1.93 = £1.99! SUCCESS! And then, anyone looking at it from a different EU country probably sees a different price again. Fun!

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I just started reading the Shift omnibus, made it to page 99, and realized that just like Wool – page 99 was at the close of a chapter and was labeled 99%. I’ve googled and haven’t been able to find a clear answer on why this is. I love the story and am eager to continue but my brain has me completely paused at this trivial question. Please help!

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