The Value of Starbucks?

Hey. Come here. Pull up a chair. Don’t worry about it scraping across the floor—they already need to be refinished, but that won’t happen for a while. It’s okay if you get close, unless of course, you had onions or some other nasty smelling food that stinks up your breath. If that’s the case, here’s a Mentos, now come in and sit down. Trust me, you want to sit down. I have no clue how long this will take.

Today, I want to talk about something that is akin to churches asking for bigger offerings when they pass the plate. I’m saying I’m not sure how this blog will go over.

Recently, a friend of mine went on a rant about how people complain about the costs of books—especially eBooks—these days. What makes this interesting is I had a conversation with another friend about something similar. Instead of complaining about the costs of eBooks, we discussed what all it takes and how much time goes into creating a book (it doesn’t matter if it is an e-book or a print book, though print does take a little longer, the concept is the same).

I think I may have to break this up into sections so I can stay focused. Are you comfortable? Do you need a different seat? A cup of coffee? (That’s an appropriate question, considering the example I’m going to use.) Do you need to run to the bathroom before we get started? Go take care of all of that, and then come back. In the meantime, I’m going to get started.

Exhibit A: A Cup of Coffee, Anyone?

I love coffee. So does my wife. However, I only drink coffee that I make at home in my trusty Mr. Coffee pot. My wife is a little different than I am on that respect. Yes, she drinks the coffee I make in Mr. Coffee, but she also likes Starbucks. Personally, I don’t care much for the burnt coffee taste that is so strong it can put hair on your tongue.

Sure, they have their seven hundred million combinations and you can get it frapped, capped, iced and hot. You can get expresso (whatever that is) and a double shot of your favorite flavor. You can get them Short, Tall, Grande, Venti, and Trenta. I find the sizes confusing. Short is kind of like a basic coffee size. Tall is really a small. Grande is medium, venti is large and Trenta is the horse trough size. I’m not even sure Trenta is a real word. I think they just made that one up to sound fancy. (Okay, fine. It is a real world. It is Italian for ‘thirty.’ Whatever.)

For the sake of this post, I am going to stick with what Cate gets: a Grande vanilla latte with extra vanilla. I asked her a series of questions about her Starbucks experience. Here they are:

How long do you stand in line, on average before ordering? Two-three minutes.

How long do you wait after ordering? Five minutes, unless it is a busy day, then it could be up to ten minutes.

How much do you pay, on average? Between four and five dollars, if it is just me.

How long does it take you to drink it? If it is a hot drink, fifteen minutes, because I don’t want it to get cold. If it is an iced coffee, half an hour.

Thank you, Babe. I appreciate your time.

So, let me do a little math, and I am going to use the high end of the numbers Cate gave me: 3 + 10 + 30 + 20 (for the heck of it) = 63 minutes or just over an hour from the time she orders her drink until the time she is finished with it (if it’s an iced coffee).

Keep that number in mind.

Exhibit B: Putting Out a Book

For this part of the post, I am going to use the discussion I had with my friend about the amount of time it takes to put a book together, from beginning to end. Unlike with the Starbucks coffee exhibit, in this case, I will use more conservative numbers. I am also going to use my latest release, A Stitch of Madness as the example.

Are you ready for this? Here we go. (Don’t adjust your screen—there is nothing wrong with the formatting of this section.)

The stories in ASOM were written over a period of years. Let’s just say each story took 5 hours to write (yes, that is very conservative).

Then it took 5 hours to edit each one.

That is now 30 hours of working time on the stories.

I rewrote all three of the stories, and the rewrites took longer than the actual writing.

Let’s just say 7 hours went into each rewrite

Catherine’s Well was rewritten on four separate occasions. That’s 28 more hours just on that story.

So that is a total of 58 hours so far.

Stitches was rewritten twice.

Up to 72 hours.

A Sickly Sweet Scent was rewritten six times with three different endings (that is a total of 42 hours on those alone).

That is 114 hours.

Then there was the whole finding a publisher thing.

Thankfully, in this case it only took about 6 actual hours of researching and shopping it out. Stitched Smile Publications picked it up immediately.

120 hours so far.

That is three full work weeks.

But wait, I went back and edited the stories again after it was picked up. Why did I do that? I wanted it to be as good as I could make it before their editors went through it. That took about 18 hours.

Up to 138.

Then I formatted the book, reformatted it because the page numbers didn’t come out right in the print edition.

That took about 6 hours.

Now we are up to 144 hours.

Then I formatted it for the digital versions.

Fortunately, I had already formatted it for the print edition and only needed to change the TOC.

Add another 4 to it.

That is now 148 hours.

Now, you may be asking yourself, ‘Why did he do the formatting? Isn’t that the publisher’s job?’ Sure, it is, but SSP allowed me to be very hands on with the things I wanted to be hands on with, and hands off on the things I’m not all that good with. I believe a publisher and its authors should work together and help each other.

Then came all of the promoting and talking back and forth to the publishers, the contracts, all of the time it took to get the book out there. That’s an ongoing process, so let’s just cap it off at 12 hours.

That is 160 hours of work, and that is being conservative.

I got paid exactly ZERO dollars for around 160 hours of work. That is four full work weeks at forty hours a week. Remember, that is the conservative totals, and I left out several steps to boot.

Exhibit C: Minimum Wage and the Cost of a Book

The average for minimum wage in the United States is between seven and eight dollars. For this, we are going to split the difference and call it: $7.50. Now, let us do some simple math: 160 hours multiplied by $7.50 = $1200. If I got paid minimum wage as a writer, that would be the amount of money I would have made over that four work week period.

Now, let’s say the cost of an e-book is $2.99, but let us go ahead and round it up to a cool $3.00. In order to make minimum wage for one hour of work on A Stitch of Madness, I would have to sell two and a half eBooks.

Remember that 160 hours? Multiply that by 2.5. That is a total of 400 eBooks that would need to be sold (this is not including taxes or any other deductible) in order for me to make minimum wage writing a book based on the 160 work hours that went into it. Now, I don’t know what my sales numbers are right now, but I’m almost positive it isn’t 400 books worth.

One more thing to keep in mind here: that four work weeks of time is done an hour here, three hours there, two hours here and so on. It’s not like a writer with a full time job can sit for six or seven or ten hours a day and work on the books. It is a commitment.

Exhibit D: Back to Starbucks We Go

Let’s go back to Starbucks for a minute. Remember my wife? Remember how much time she said she spent from the time she got in line at the Starbucks until the time she finished her Grande Vanilla Latte? That’s right, one hour. And remember how much she said she spends each time she gets one? Between four and five dollars. Again, we will split the difference and base it on the 160 hours mentioned above.

Time for math again: 160 X 4.50 = $720.

Even if we only counted the cost of a coffee at Starbucks it would take one and a half eBooks to buy one Grande Vanilla Latte. It would take 240 books to buy 160 Starbucks coffees. Crazy, I know. Why would anyone want to buy coffee at Starbucks 160 times?

Exhibit E: Value

I’ve stated on numerous occasions over the last few years that people value things differently. By value, I mean, how much would you pay for something you want? I’ll give you a couple of examples:

I don’t like steak. Yeah, I know. Who doesn’t like steak? Umm…me. Since I don’t like steak I am not going to spend $15.00 at a steakhouse for one. I don’t care if they come with baked potatoes on the side—a baked potato is worth only so much. A steak holds very little value to me.

Many folks value their Starbucks coffee and will spend more than that five bucks my wife spends on it. They value that coffee and are willing to pay what I consider too much for it.

Each person values things at a different level and different price. I hope that makes as much sense to you as it does in my head.

Exhibit F: Devaluing Art

Art is subjective. Everyone has an opinion about it. I don’t care much for Taylor Swift songs. I just don’t. Are they good? Sure they are. Are they my cup of tea? No. Would I listen to them on an everyday basis or throw one of her albums on and listen to them on the trusty headset? No. That doesn’t mean her songs are not art.

I have a friend who paints and draws some of the most amazing images. He sells them. Recently, he had been commissioned to do a painting for someone. They agreed on the price. He got to work, finished the picture and let the guy know. Before the customer even looked at the painting, he wanted my friend to lower the price. This did not sit well with my friend, and an argument ensued.

‘I can order similar pictures online for half the price.’

My friend ended up not selling the piece. His work was devalued by the customer because of what he could get online. Sad but true.

That brings us to eBooks. Are they real books? Yes, yes they are. It takes a lot of work to put out any book, eBooks included. Is it something you can hold in your hands? Is it tangible? Yes, yes it is, though maybe not as tangible as a paper book where you have to flip the page to turn it (and not just swipe a screen with your finger), or dog ear or use a bookmark so you don’t lose the page you are on when you close the book.

The problem? ‘It’s an eBook. It shouldn’t be so expensive.’ Answer me this: why not? Why should we charge less for the same amount of work? You wouldn’t take a job making less than someone else doing the exact same job would you? So, why charge less than what a book is worth?

‘It’s not a print book, so there is no paper involved.’

True. So why not cut the price by twenty percent instead of seventy to eighty? Most paperbacks these days cost around ten to fifteen dollars, but let’s use the lower end of that for now. If I sell one paperback for $10.00 (which is still cheap) I would have to sell three eBooks and still not make the same amount of money as I did the print version.

The same amount of work went into creating the book—the art, if you will—but one version of it is discounted significantly, partially because it is not paper.

Exhibit G: Authors Do Not Rake in the Dough

I probably shouldn’t do this, but do you remember that $3.00 price tag for an eBook? Let’s just say you purchased it for your Kindle. Well, the author doesn’t make three bucks. Nope, the author only makes a percentage of that. There are two basic royalty amounts on Amazon: 35% and 70%.

If an eBook is purchased at $3.00 and the royalty is set for 70%, the author makes $2.10. Selling two eBooks at that price won’t even get you one Starbucks coffee. Take that same price at 35%. That comes to a whopping…$1.05. That would be the amount of money an author makes per eBook sold.

Want a little perspective? It would take selling 7 eBooks at $3.00 with a 35% royalty rate in order to make the average minimum wage in the United States.

But why 35%, you ask? Well, there is this thing call KDP Select. If you enroll your title into KDP Select you can get that 70% royalty, but your book also gets added to the Kindle Free Lending Library, which means the author isn’t making 70% if it is ‘borrowed’.

Exhibit H: Let’s Put This All Together Now

Let me go ahead and state this: Not everyone will agree with me on this blog post. Some may even be argumentative about this. Are the numbers accurate for everyone? No. They are numbers based on my experience and royalties I have received on sells of my books.

Here is where the rubber meets the road. Most authors write because they enjoy it. Yes, we want to make money. If we didn’t then many of us would stick to writing and our stories would never see the light of day. Why? Because it takes so much time to do all of the other stuff involved that is not writing in order to get the work published.

Writers like to entertain people. Writing is difficult, just as most art forms are. It may be easy for some, but not for most. Sometimes it is agonizing.

I’ve said all of the stuff above to kind of paint a picture of a writer’s life who has a full time job (not one who can afford to write for a living). It takes hours and hours of hard work and commitment to complete a book and get it ready for publishing. I left out all the stuff about rejections from editors and agents and publishers. I left out all the criticism writers face. I left out a lot of stuff on purpose—it just didn’t fit what I was going for.

Here is what I won’t leave out: You, the reader, can make a difference in a writer’s life. You can.

‘How?’ you ask? Great question. Here is how: Buy their work. Don’t get it for free through Amazon Prime (yes, I know you pay for the service, but it doesn’t help the writers you like). Read the book. Review the book (this is a very important step, but that is a topic for later). Let other folks know about it through social media or by mouth. Like their author pages, both on Facebook and Amazon (if they have one). Subscribe to their blogs and newsletters (you will get to know more about your favorite authors that way). If you can, drop them a line and let them know you enjoy their work. Those little notes are great ego boosters. When you can, purchase the print books. If you can get them directly from the author, do that (and if it is in your heart, pay more than what they are selling it for. By doing this, you are placing a value on their work, and that is as important for the writer as most anything else you can do). If you ask, they will probably sign the book for you.

And don’t complain about the price of the book. When you break it all down, writers make very little money on hours and hours of work.

Exhibit I: One More Thing And, Yeah, It Is Important

I will never put my books up for free on Amazon. I won’t. I don’t understand the concept of it. Don’t get me wrong, I do understand the concept of giving work away in order to get new readers. I do that each month with The Brown Bag Stories. But, as I stated above, with authors making so very little money off of eBooks priced at $3.00 a piece, then why give it away at even less than the marginal amount we do make?

KDP Select allows for five days throughout the term of the book’s enrollment into the program where the author or publisher can make the book free to purchase. Free to purchase isn’t purchasing. To purchase something you have to spend something on it in return. If no money is spent, then there is no purchase made. Sure, there are downloads to be had, but I have a problem with giving books away for free on Amazon.

Would you like to know why? Sure you would.

A lot of people will download a book for free and never read it. They see it’s free and download it, just in case they decide they want to read it. Does it help a writer’s numbers? Not really. Sure, your numbers will jump and your rank will increase, but if everyone who downloads the book for free were interested in it in the first place, maybe they should have paid for it.

Here’s the other thing, and this is going to come across as harsh, but this is my opinion: if someone who wasn’t willing to spend $3.00 on your book downloads it for free, the value of your book–your hard work–is $0.00 to them. Let that sink in for a minute. Basically, that is saying all of your time and energy and care, all of the love you put into creating the best possible book you can has a net value of zero dollars.

Also, if one thousand people download it, you still make nothing, and there goes the potential of a thousand customers. So remember, 70% of zero is still zero.

Here’s another way of looking at it: Would you work a job for 160 hours for free? Before you answer this question, think about it. Would you go to a job and work at that job for forty hours a week for four weeks knowing you would get no compensation for your time and energy? I bet the majority of people will say ‘no.’ If you wouldn’t work a job for free, please, don’t make your favorite writers do the same thing.

In Conclusion

 I’ve wrestled with this topic for a while now. Some people probably won’t care much for it. Some people may even say I’m just screaming for attention. Call it what you want. Like I said at the beginning, this might be viewed the same as being asked to pay tithes at your local Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Catholic, and a whole slew of other churches. It might be unpopular.

I know a lot of really good writers, most of whom you have probably never heard of, all of whom are passionate about their work. You may not even know who I am. You may have stumbled upon this blog or had someone share it with you and you have never heard of A.J. Brown. That’s okay. It is what it is and it ain’t what it ain’t.

This business is hard. Finding readers is difficult. Finding readers who become fans is even more difficult. Making money? Yeah, that’s a luxury most of us don’t have (myself included). Making a living at this? That isn’t even close to a luxury.

If you have stumbled across someone whose work you enjoy, let them know. Spread the word about their books, leave reviews for them, purchase their work. I’m not talking about myself here (unless, of course, I am your favorite writer). I’m talking about all of us who do this with a passion and a heart for writing.

For now, I’m going to go switch on Mr. Coffee and do a little writing. These stories aren’t going to write themselves. I’m on the clock, now. Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Real Value Isn’t a Fast Food Meal

There is a value to everything. That value is different depending on whom you ask. It’s true. Let me give an example:

Kim Kardashian.

Okay, do you know what just happened? Half the people reading this just clicked the X button in the top right corner. Why? Because, like me, they are sick of hearing about Kim Kardashian (or any of the Kardashian’s for that matter).

The other half of you continue to read on for one of two reasons:

1. You like Kim Kardashian and you probably think this is about her.
2. You like my blog and you want to see where I’ll take this.

If you are those reading because of reason number one, go ahead and click the X button in the top right corner—this is not about Kim Kardashian.

So, here is how I judge the value in this case:

1. For the folks who went right ahead and clicked the X button, closing out the screen this blog is on, there is NO value in Kim Kardashian. For that, I am thankful, even though it probably cost me a few readers.
2. For the folks who read on because they thought this blog was about that Kim woman, and THEN clicked off when I told them it was not about her, this blog post had a value of around 50% interest.
3. For those of you still reading, welcome to the 75% value club. It’s nice to have you. Why only 75%? You haven’t made it to the end, yet.

Okay, so that value system is pretty much subjective, but the point is everything has different values based on different people. I like strawberry Kool-aid. I’m not a drinker of alcohol. Strawberry Kool-aid has more value to me than any type of alcohol. Again, subjective, but you get the point.

Let’s take a second here and look at the value of items or services. Someone who is a mechanic probably doesn’t value another mechanic’s service as much as someone who can do little more than crank a car up and put gas in it. The people who can’t work on a car would probably pay more for the service than someone who knows what they are doing.

If you don’t need an attorney, then there is no value in that service, whereas someone who just robbed a bank and got caught would probably think an attorney could be good money spent.

That’s still pretty subjective, though.

Let me take it in a different direction.

If you are one of my Faithful Readers, then you know that I would like to sell some of my books. If you have been awake at all and have Facebook and have any writers on your friends list, then there is a chance you’ve heard about Amazon’s letter to KDP authors involving the dispute Amazon has with Hachette. I’m not going to go into details, but it’s pretty much a ‘Mom, he’s touching me,’ type of thing. Name calling at its finest. They wish to drag the KDP writers into the argument, but most of us find this to be annoying, if not unprofessional, and honestly, a bunch of folks are pissed about it. Rightfully so.

The thing is, for all the great things Amazon has done for the ebook world, it pretty much frowns upon the same group of people who helped build its empire—the self-publishing (or independent) author. But that’s really for another blog post at another time. The point is this, though Amazon makes it easy to publish works to the Kindle platform, it also makes it difficult to get recognition within its own algorithms. Amazon essentially devalues the books for writers by not really making it all that easy to be noticed, while still taking in anywhere between 30-70% in royalties. However, right now they are acting as if we are valuable to them by asking us to do their bidding and help fight their battle with Hachette.

I’ve gone way off the topic here, but somehow I have managed to actually stay on it, somewhat.

Okay, let’s get back to real value.

People are willing to pay good money for books by the likes Stephen King, James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins and a few other well-known writers. For those folks, they get more value for their buck by purchasing proven authors. I can’t blame them. Many of those same people would not buy a book by an unproven author at the same price as one of the proven ones. Why would they?

This is where value comes in to play.

It’s like buying a steak dinner from a fast food joint when you know Longhorns or Outback is much better. Unless you really like that fast food joint, you’re going to want that steak from a restaurant that is known for cooking them. When it comes right down to it, Stephen King and those other famous writers are the real steaks and the rest of us are the fast food rip-offs. At least, that is how a lot of folks (including Amazon) view it.

But wait, let me tell you about some of us fast food rip-offs. Yeah, there are those out there who write books and slap them up on Amazon or Nook or Smashwords without even looking over the manuscript before doing so. They just want to get that book out there and start making money. Yes, they do. Those are the real fast food rip-offs. They also make it tougher on the rest of us.

Then you have those writers (and small market presses) who take their time with the production of a book—and believe me, book publishing is a huge production. There are those who pour over each story for hours and hours, reading the manuscript over and over, tweaking sentences and structure and grammar and spelling. There are those who spend hours looking for the right cover art and often going through several covers to try and find the one that not only fits the story, but appeals to the readers—because as writers and publishers we are under the belief umbrella that a reader’s first impression, the cover, can make or break a sale. There are those who seek out beta readers and editors and proofreaders. They ask questions of friends and other writers, so often hoping for just a little bit of help. There are those who go to great lengths to make sure the formatting is right, often going over each page to make sure the fonts didn’t mysteriously change from Times New Roman to Curlz, or that the italics and bolds are in the right places. There are those that when all is said and done and the story is as right as it can possibly be, who let the mouse hover over the SUBMIT button because, quite honestly, they are scared of whether the story will be received well or torn apart by the masses, or even just by one person.

What is the value of that book for that person? Why should that person sell their book—their hard work—for $1.99? Why would they not sell their book for four or five bucks more? Because the value of their work, as they see it, is not the same as it is for those who might possibly read it? For those doing the work, they believe—no, they feel it in their bones—that their work should be treated just like the real steak houses. Those writers aren’t fast food rip-offs. They are the real deal. Readers just don’t know that, yet. Many of them don’t know the value of an independent writer’s work.

Before Nike became the brand name in shoes, it was nothing. Before Wal-Mart became the mega-bagillion store it is, it was just an idea. Before Amazon became the king of Internet shopping and ebooks, they were just a dream in someone’s basement. Before Stephen King or James Patterson or J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins became even remotely famous, they were nobodies, scratching at the surface of the publishing world, wanting that one shot to prove they were the real steaks and not the rip-offs. You see, everyone must start somewhere, and to everyone, their own value is the most important thing to them.

Everyone values things differently. I think that’s a given. In order for anyone to make it in any business, others must find value in them or what they are doing or both. These days I rarely buy books by big name authors. These days I rarely buy books from the Big 5 publishers. These days I like to purchase books from small presses and the little known authors out there. Why? Well, a few reasons:

1. The big name authors have become too pricey. They know their fans will buy whatever they put out, including their grocery list. And why wouldn’t they? They’ve earned their spot among the real steaks.
2. I like to find new authors, ones I’ve never heard of, and ones you’ve probably never heard of either.
3. I also like to support those new authors and small presses.
4. I’m one of those little known writers, and the hope for me is that someone will pick up something I’ve written—will, you know, take a chance on me—and like it enough to tell their friends, and then those friends will like it enough to tell their friends, and so on, and so on. It’s my hope.
5. I just might be that person that finds a new writer and tells all my friends about that person (you know, like reason number four).
6. I’ve always pulled for the underdog or the little guy, and those little known writers and presses fit the description.

Now, about that value thing. No, this isn’t a value meal at Taco Bell we’re talking about. This is finding things that are worth your hard earned money. If you are a reader, then that means you want good books. You want to buy books by writers you know and trust and who have proven that they can deliver the goods. Sometimes, they don’t quite succeed in getting those goods delivered. Sometimes the real steaks aren’t cooked all the way.

I encourage you to take a chance on writers you’ve never heard of. You don’t have to spend 10 0r 12 or 20 bucks on a book to do that. Most of their works aren’t all that expensive. Just take a chance on a writer you don’t know. You never know what value you will find in a book from that no name writer. You may just develop a new favorite.

If you have made it this far, I thank you. I also welcome you to the 100% value club. You didn’t click off until the end. I hope it was worth your time.

Until we meet again, my friends…