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Time, not money, the obstacle to book sales

Skater-in-a-Strange-Land-800 Cover reveal and PromotionalI used to marvel at a certain fact about the book publishing business: people are more willing to risk three dollars on a cup of coffee than they are on a full-length novel.

Why would someone be willing to pay money for a drink that takes fifteen minutes to consume, for a temporary effect, but not for a piece of art that gives hours of entertainment and has the potential to change one’s life?

Image: Skater in a Strange Land has a new e-edition!

Then I realized something. Something extremely obvious to lots of people, probably, but not to me.

I realized that the temporary effect and disposability of coffee was the whole point.

Coffee gives the drinker a guaranteed result AND doesn’t take a long time to consume.

You don’t have to think about it, either.

And a book?

A book takes a lot longer to deal with than a cup of coffee and there is no guaranteed payoff.

With a book you’re not just spending money, you’re spending time as well.

And time is in notoriously short supply nowadays.

Not only that, time to read a book—that is, unbroken time when you can concentrate on something other than work or family—is even rarer.

So an author does something potentially very demanding of readers when a book is published. “Read this book” does not just mean spend a certain amount of money. It also means invest a certain number of hours, a certain amount of energy, and depending on the book, a potentially large amount of emotion and brainpower.

Back in the day when paper books were the only option and a traditionally published hardcover book cost $19.95, there was a strong sense of the import of the buying decision. The book was substantial and so was the price. You knew what you were getting into. You had better read that book to justify the investment.

Nowadays, an e-book that costs $2.99 is like a roll of the dice. Why isn’t it more expensive? Is it just a bad book that the author is trying to palm off on unsuspecting consumers, like old fish that’s been painted with bleach?

But $2.99 is the same price as a cup of coffee, the reader says to herself. If the book’s bad, I haven’t lost anything.

Yes, she has. She's lost time.

“There’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back” goes the old saying.

How many Amazon reviews basically just say “Waste of time” or “Don’t waste your time”?

Which is why, as authors, it behooves us to write books that are as “worthwhile” ( = worth the time) as possible.

But how does a reader know a book is going to be worthwhile?

  • It has a good blurb. Writers I know hate to write blurbs, but a good one can encourage the sale of a book like nothing else. Good blurbs say, “You will be using your time wisely if you buy this book.”

  • It is written to a specific genre and audience. A cup of coffee is what it is. It delivers a guaranteed effect. So, theoretically, do romance novels, cozy mystery novels, spy thrillers, and all those other familiar categories that comfort readers. If you want a cup of coffee and you get a cup of chai, you’re never going back to that same café again. Same deal with authors. Deliver in your genre and people will return.

  • The audience knows the author. The author has built up a trust and rapport with readers on social media. They like her personally, so they will be more likely to like her book. (This can go the other way for personal friends. They don’t want to have to tell you they didn’t like your book, so they might be reluctant to read it.)

  • The book is at the proper price point--not too inexpensive. This is a tricky one, because a lot of authors have offered their books for free in order to get an audience acquainted with their writing, and it’s been an effective strategy. But in general, a book that’s $2.99 or less as a regular price automatically triggers in the consumer a question: why is it so cheap? The suspicion that a low price point is an indicator of low quality is real. That's when things like a good blurb, active social media, and genre familiarity come into play.

  • The book is at the proper price point--not too expensive. This one is tough too, but for me personally once an e-book is priced at over $4.99, I want to hold it in my hands. I will pay $16.99 for a paperback that I know is going to entertain me, and up to $30 for a hardcover. E-books? There's an obstacle there. My two cents.

Add in your own criteria to supplement these. When you know it’s time that’s the big investment for readers, not just money, it doesn’t change that you’re trying to write a good book.

But it might change your perspective on the whole thing—and give our readers a bit more benefit of the doubt if they choose to buy a cup of coffee rather than our $2.99 novels.