Confessions of a Digital Novelist

Archive for June, 2011

The 99-cent e-book?

by on Jun.28, 2011, under Books, Digital Publishing

As some of you are aware, my original business plan was to sell my self-published short-stories for 99-cents, my novellas, for $2.99 and my novels for $4.99. I thought that these prices were fair, created differential pricing between three quality products, and were cheap enough to encourage buying. It turns out that I may have been wrong. According to David Carnoy, the standard price for an indie e-book is $2.99 and may be dropping to $2.99 99-cents.

I had figured that $4.99 would allow me to differentiate myself from the big-box publishers who were overcharging customers. According to Carnoy, the digital revolution in publishing is, like music before it, pushing a race to 99-cents.

In some sense, what’s happening in the Kindle Store is what’s already happened in Apple’s iPhone App Store, where developers have been forced to lower their prices to 99 cents to compete (recently, Angry Birds’ maker Rovio told fellow developers to get used to pricing their apps at 99 cents). The price erosion isn’t that great yet on the Kindle; there are still plenty of $9.99 and higher e-books out there from traditional publishers. And many of them still sell very, very well. But with so many more e-readers and iPads out there, the market has grown large enough–like the iPhone market did–that you can actually make decent money at 99 cents, particularly if you crack the Top 100.

Carnoy highlights the experience of Christopher Smith, whose “Fifth Avenue” became an Amazon best-seller, dropped his price from $2.99 to 99-cents and watched his sales soar into six figures. His strategy seems to periodically drop his price to 99-cents every once in a while to spike sales and maintain his Top 100 ranking on the Kindle Store. Then he returns his price to $2.99 and reaps the higher margin from sales attracted by his high ranking. It seems to be working well for him.

On the other hand, Jesse Brown of Macleans believes that the Internet is becoming a 99-cent store where everything music to books to movies to videogames is sold at the magic price of 99-cents.  According to Brown:

One dollar minus one penny seems to be the magic number when selling virtual goods that can otherwise be easily acquired for free. Self-published authors are discovering that when they drop their sticker price from $2.99 to $.99, sales shoot up, and their titles rapidly climb the charts. Rovio, makers of Angry Birds, have built a multimillion dollar business, a buck at a time, and now preach the gospel of that sweet spot price. Kindle Singles are Amazon’s bargain-priced short e-books, which are breathing new life into long-format journalism. Nine of the 10 best selling apps right now on iTunes are priced under a dollar. As different industries experiment with a range of pricing schemes for their wildly divergent products, they are all arriving at the same conclusion: 99 cents.

So this seems to leave me with two possible business models. The first is where I sell Novellas for 99-cents, Novels for $2.99, and drop the periodically to drive sales. The second option would be to sell everything for 99-cents. Personally, I more inclined to the former option as this would allow drop my price periodically, like Smith, to boost readership and give me something interesting to announce on my website (eg. “It’s Canada Day. All books for 99-cents”). However, if Brown is right, then we’re all going to end up at 99-cents anyway.

One change is for certain. I will have to give away short stories for free. While they involve hard work and dedication to craft, they don’t simply have the value proposition that a full-length novel would have. Instead, I can use them as a way to attract readers (who doesn’t love free?) and build an audience for my full-length novels and novellas. They will also provide valuable experience in navigating the e-book self-publishing environment, even at a modest loss.

Regardless of whether or not the ideal price is $2.99 or 99-cents, the goal remains the same: to publish and sell books. However, the pace of change is shocking in the industry. My life’s work, once priceless in my eyes, is now probably worth 99-cents. Would you buy that for a dollar? I’m hoping so.

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Book of Negroes Book Review

by on Jun.22, 2011, under Books

Over the Christmas holidays, the Vancouver Sun held a promotion that they called the 12 Days of Christmas.  Each day, they would provide free stuff for readers with an iTunes account. Now most of the stuff was pretty disposable, but one of the giveaways was an iBooks version of the Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill.  At the time, I didn’t really think too much about it. I put aside and went about my life. About a month ago, I finally found the time to read it.

And I couldn’t put it down.  Lawrence Hill has crafted an excellent story that pulls the reader forward from beginning to end.  From an idealic childhood in Bayo to the cruelty of the American South to the betrayal of the British in Nova Scotia, Aminata is pulled through a nightmarish life full of pain, loss, and suffering but also love and hope that gives the reader a far better understanding of the true horror of the slave trade.

The real strength of Hill’s novel is the unforgettable imagery that transports the reader into the time period. When Aminata is transported from Africa to the American South by ship, you can almost smell the disgusting conditions through Hill’s obscene yet descriptive prose. It was simply unforgettable and gave me an understanding of the horror that Africans, kidnapped from their homes, separated from their families, and robbed of their freedom, had to endure.  Hill’s background in history tracking the Black Canadians of Nova Scotia strengthens the tale by giving the tale historical authenticity.  You don’t feel that you’re reading a work of fiction but instead are staring into the life of a real person.

There are some weaknesses though. While Aminata is an excellent lead, she isn’t the most original of characters.  The intelligent, rebellious female hero who beats the odds is a fairly trope character. While Hill uses her well, it was a missed opportunity for a more complicated and thus interesting character, especially when dealing with the omnipresent influence of slavery on everyone’s lives. Throughout the story, she maintains her trust in others, despite the number of times that she has been betrayed. I would have liked to see her wrestle more with issues of trust and cynicism towards humanity as this would have given her something internally to struggle against and eventually overcome. Instead, her conflict is external, focused on the scourge of slavery and the way it destroys so many innocent lives.

However, this choice may be more appropriate as it allows Aminata’s moral certainty and inner strength to contrast with the poisoned compromises that result from an economic system based on slavery.  For example, see Solomon Lindo, a jewish duty inspector who believes himself to be compassionate and understanding to Aminata yet can not see that by “owning” her, he is still harming her, robbing her of her god-given right to freedom. Despite his redemptive actions later on, I can understand why Mr. Hill does not give Solomon the absolution he craves. By participating in the slave system as an owner, Mr. Lindo has given it personal credibility. The lives that are lost cannot be returned, the atrocities cannot be undone. Redemption and absolution are beyond reach for Mr. Lindo and that is what makes him a somewhat tragic figure. His only hope lies in Aminata’s forgiveness and she understandably, is not in a forgiving mode.

A second weakness in the book is the ending. I felt that it strained the novel’s credibility to deliver a happy ending that didn’t really fit with the rest of the story.  Over her entire life, slavery had robbed Aminata of her freedom, her family, her lover, and finally her children.  For everything to work out at the end, while emotionally satisfying for the lead character, seems to undermine the tragedy of slavery and its destructive impact on so many lives. Perhaps Mr. Hill is like us. Having watched Aminata overcome so much hardship during her life, we cannot help to cheer when she receives a little piece of happiness. We are only human.

However, these weaknesses should not distract from the fact that the Book of Negroes is an outstanding accomplishment.  Lawrence Hill should be proud of his work. He has crafted a story that should not be missed.

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