The Cost of a Book is Mainly the Time You Spend Reading it and Enjoying it
I have been thinking about what is the fair pricing for a book--from a writer's viewpoint, and a reader's viewpoint. Because fair pricing cannot be separated, in this case, from cost, and value. And when I use the word "price" below, it is sometimes shorthand to mean cost or value, and to include both the monetary and non-monetary component, unless it is obviously otherwise.
From a writer's viewpoint: of course, any true writer writes because he/she must, because of a compulsion that goes far beyond financial logic; but in a money-based economic system, his work should ideally fetch him/her at least a U.S. postal clerk's salary for the years of life he exchanged for writing that book (in my case, 8 years for The Revised Kama Sutra and 1-2 years for most of the other books, and I have still to recover a fraction of that). Though even this is simplistic: if you spent 8 years as a hostage and 6 months writing about it; or 3.5 years as Prisoner of War barely escaping death almost every day, and it took you 6 months to write your POW memoir (my father's memoir, 'EATEN BY THE JAPANESE'), how much of life have you exchanged for it?
There is also a second matter: the realistic audience for the book. If the book contains a mathematical formula that only 20 persons the world over will understand, or is meant for a specialized audience of 50 or a 100 readers--that book needs be priced higher to recover the author's costs and higher overheads. I have seen books selling for $200 or more. Whereas Dan Brown can afford to price his books at 10 cents above manufacturing costs and still end up very rich. None of the above has anything to do with the time that Dan Brown spent writing his book.
But from a reader's viewpoint: a book like "The Revised Kama Sutra" (my novel) will take the average intelligent reader around 6-9 hours to read. And many a reader is likely to return to that book at least twice. That makes it 18 hours or more. Almost no one will reread a Perry Mason book or a Dan Brown book--once you know the plot, the thrill is gone, and the language of such books is pitifully bare and banal. But "The Revised Kama Sutra": many have reread it multiple times, and have told me so.
If you are the average college-educated reader of this blog, and of books like mine, then your time is worth at least $20 an hour (I was once seen by a medical specialist who charged me $400 for a 20-minute consultation, and have often paid $100 for a 2-minute dermatological consultation). So the real cost of a book that takes you even six hours to read is a minimum of $120, plus the purchase price of the book. When you've already decided to invest $120 or perhaps $200 of your time, assuming the book takes you 10 hours, the $18 you spend on buying the paperback, or the $9 you spend on buying the e-book is inconsequential. It is not at all, should not be the chief criterion in deciding whether the book is worth your time. Or else, you are valuing yourself too little. If you've been convinced, by reader reviews and newspaper reviews, that this is a book worth reading, then that itself is the major investment you have made: of your precious time, in a life that is far too short for most of us.
This is why "The Revised Kama Sutra," my 125,000-word novel, and by far the best reviewed of all my books, is back at $7.99 (it started at $8.99, then went as low as $3.99 and $2.99, often LOSING sales in the process, yes, selling fewer books at the cheap price).
In terms of what a good book gives back: sometimes, the benefit is incalculable. I cannot really put a price on what "Hamlet" (the Shakespeare play) did for me. It is one of the foundations of my literary universe, and my writing, and my thought system, as are books like "Herzog" and "Invisible Man." These books are axes for the frozen seas within us.
And the classics are mostly free, but the time you spend in reading them is not free. Sometimes you need a contemporary work, a book that introduces you to a new world, that gives you delight, that reminds you of things in your life that you had forgotten or hurriedly passed by, that makes you understand yourself or the contemporary world that you live in a little better--good novels and nonfiction books can do that--and these are also priceless. And the cost of the book has nothing to do with a dead tree or dots on your screen, or even printing or manufacturing costs: between two 400-page books, one of which may not even be worth its weight in toilet paper, it is the quality and originality of that thought and writing that the writer brought to the book that makes up the value of the book. Certain books will sell only to a small audience, and need to be priced accordingly to compensate the author for at least a fraction of the time and labor he invested in it.
If you've decided to buy any of my books, I thank you from the bottom of the heart for your trust, for your graciousness, and also for supporting a writer who has tried to retain some shred of integrity despite having had to yield a bit in the course of recent difficult battles for survival.
(*As for the paradox of why I sold fewer books at the lower price, I can't be sure, except that I've heard from a few readers, German for example, that they "suspect" a book that is too cheap, or below $8, that it will be the work of an amateur; and on the other hand, I am aware there are those on a tight budget for whom $3.99 may be the limit--but they usually have other tastes than my books. However, for the few for whom price is a crucial element, I will be having a Smashwords sale a few hours from now--please watch this blog.)
And finally, the market is not very good at deciding who should survive and who not. Many great writers died poor, or died early due to poverty and lack of medical care, and their books, the ones that were saved, are considered immortal. Whereas the writers of fluff can entertain the masses and become rich, but, like repetitive and bad porn, they tell us little of lasting value about ourselves or the world.