Saturday, September 10, 2011

You Get What You Pay For

I happened upon a three star Amazon review for "The French Have a Word for It" wherein the reviewer stated:

I know it only cost $1.49, but it's only 631 locations (translation for the rest of us: 8,362 words -- or 20 pages) there are free sample downloads that length. So while Lanyon is a skilled writer, this is really just a snippet and I'm not going to buy anymore stories this length because they are too short to satisfy me. Colin is a young artist, Thomas is significantly older and used to be his body guard, and they bump into each other in Paris...

There is nothing wrong with the writing or the ideas here, it's just too short to build any meaning for me.

Now, not everyone loves short stories. I do get that. But where did the idea that all short fiction should be free come from?

You don’t get this attitude from those readers still buying print books. But maybe that’s because they’re under the (false) impression that the bulk of a book’s price has to do with the physical end product?

I have to admit that review -- those comments -- floored me. Are a lot of ebook readers this far out of touch with publishing reality? Are they honestly this spoiled? Or is it simply that because so many readers in this genre come from a fan fiction background where all the stories are free, they don’t grasp the fact that writing is a skill and a trade like any other, and the practitioners of that trade need to earn a living?

If skilled writers can’t earn a living, then you won’t have skilled writers penning your stories. You’ll have fiction from people who have trouble giving their stuff away. Oh yes! On another Amazon forum they’re debating that very thing. Debating whether Amazon ought to charge authors upload fees (one person suggested $500 - 1000. ) as means of weeding out all the dreck that is currently showing up at low, low prices and apparently making it too hard to find good stories.


Come to think of it, maybe the bigger concern here is we might have a generation growing up that can’t tell the difference between a snippet and a short story. There is a difference. It has to do with plot and point. I think most readers get that, right? Please tell me this woman is the exception and not the rule of our new book buying paradigm because there are writers who specialize in short fiction. They make a living at short fiction. The short story is a perfectly valid art form, and while print markets for individual stories are dwindling, the market for anthologies is growing. Magazines like Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen still pay around 5 - 8 cents a word.

I happen to love writing short stories, but not so much that I would write them for free.


  1. Josh, I just went and re-read The French Have a Word For It. I loved it just as much the second time as the first and wasn't it fun that it was such a nice short read. That's all I was looking for at the time. Your writng puts me right in the moment and makes me part of the scenery, scents, sounds, and colors. Very often after I read one of your stories I google the places you talk about so I can see what I've imagined and what I've learned through you, such as the I love You wall. I'd never heard of it. What a beautiful place. The reviewer that you talked about will miss this beautiful story and I can't imagine why? Because she didn't want to pay $1.49? Because a short story couldn't possibly be indepth enough to be good? She obviously isn't familiar with your writing or she would know reading any or your stories is worth the small price you ask as should anyone be paid for the work they do. Some of my favorite stories you have written have been shorts and novellas so please continue to write them and I will continue to pay for the joy of reading them.

  2. Hey Josh, the way we should look at is that you need to food to write and you can't buy food if you give away your stories. Then you would have no energy to write stories. And we would all be sad.

  3. Hi Josh, I don't understand why you have to be floored, BTW the way of using "floor" was new to me and I took it as "be devastated" like..., with such a groundless review. I think her review simply implies her shallow experiences as a reader.
    There are many kind of materials out there and I think that readers are expected to take different tactics best suited for the material to read. If the book is short, then there should be some reason being short, especially when you're an author of many titles, it's crystal clear that you're offering something different from other longer titles and I should try to use whatever I can do to treasure it to the fill.
    Since I'm Japanese and it's not that common for us to read books, even fanfic, for free, I sometimes wonder readers in English speaking world are too demanding and careless and take it too lightly of the right of authors.
    Thank you.

  4. Well...I shelled out $99 on a textbook full of short stories. I think I did the math ounce, it came out to $4.00 per story, so yours is a bargin!

  5. Hey thank you, Anonymous. I'm so glad you enjoyed the story!

  6. Ha! Thank you, Debby. That's certainly true. If I can't make a living writing then I have to do something else.

    I guess there are readers who feel that all writers and stories are interchangeable, so in that case, it would simply be a matter of getting the cheapest possible stories.

    Luckily those readers don't seem to be the majority.

  7. Mrs. Malone, it's not just this one reader's views on what is worth paying for -- because her attitude is not unique. I'm hearing such extreme views on what books should cost all over the web in all kinds of forums.

    I suppose it doesn't help when some writers price their work so cheaply in an effort to get attention. That does create a false expectation on the part of readers.

    Also, judging by these Amazon forums, a lot of readers think that the main cost of a book is paper and ink. So if there's no paper and ink, why should they have to pay more than $3.99.

    It's a matter of educating people, but where do you begin?

  8. It's all relative, isn't it, Frost Queen? :-D

  9. I read on a budget so am always delighted to get a quality short story [aka The French Have a Word For It] that I will read several times for such a small amount of money. But I have seen this reviewer's attitude repeatedly - this sense of entitlement that as a reader they can demand fiction with exactly the content they want and get it for free. I think there may be something in the fan fic analogy since they often request that works be tagged as to content 'so they don't waste their time' with something they might not like.

    Reading a book should be an adventure.

  10. It's not easy to change mind of others and it must be great waste of time to try to educate a mass of people by yourself when big power such as amazon dominates the ebook world.
    I think the best authors can do is to make up their mind which kind of authors they want to be: to produce so-so titles consecutively and sell them cheap a lot, or, try to create impressive the best of the best titles and sell them steadily at the price you think they deserve. The former type would attract capricious fans and the latter faithful ones. 

    If there is any good approach to educate readers, it'd be such a message from Jordan Castillo Price. I was quite impressed with the short message she put on at the beginning of each ebook and it encourages fans to support indie authors.

    I'm going back to your story of Tim and Jack now. ^^

  11. Hey Josh!

    I come from the fanfic segment and write it myself. There's a huge difference between fanfic and the fic you pay for. Fanfic is supposed to be free, for one. ;) It's understood that we're all amateurs and doing it for love of the fandom, and we all have day jobs to make our ends meet. I don't think any of us expect professional writers to give away their work for free, and we're more than happy to pay for a good book. So I don't believe that's the reason.

    I think it just comes down to basic economics. If I'm looking at two books, both the same price (ave paperback is about $8.99), both by authors I love, or heck even the same author, one is 100 pages and the other is 700 pages, I'm going to buy the 700 page book. It's more bang for my buck. Does that mean I'll never buy the 100-page book? Not necessarily, but I may wait for it to hit the bargain bins or the second-hand book stores.

    With ebooks, you can find literally hundreds, if not thousands, that are free or under a dollar, many of a very decent length and, believe it or not, that are very well-written. This can make certain ebook readers stingy with their dollars and lead to the skewered POV that ebooks are supposed to be cheap. You're not going to win these people over with your exceptional writing skills, and that's their loss, not yours.

    I've bought many of your books and never regretted a single dollar spent, even when I thought the story was on the short side. My main problem with your shorter stories is I always want MORE, which is a wonderful problem to have. I got The French Have a Word for It awhile back when it was offered free at that one site, can't remember the name, and enjoyed it immensely. I think the price you set for it now is more than fair.


    PS - I hope this doesn't double-post. I hit post, nothing happened, so trying again. :)

  12. Two thoughts come to mind. First, consumers in general have very little concept of the price of an item versus the cost to produce it. I believe a lot of that stems from the fact that so few people actually "do" anymore. We no longer understand that it takes hours to knit a sweater, fix a car, or bake a loaf of bread. In your case, add the confusion of what is involved in the job of writting and the understanding gap becomes Grand Canyon sized.

    Secondly, there does seem to be a percentage of the reading population that wants everything spoon fed to them, every thought, every movement, every emotion. I don't know if it's due to immaturity, lack of imagination or the lack of critical reading education, but it is disturbing.

  13. Elin, that's an interesting point. You do have a lot of these challenges in fan fiction, and I do find in this genre there is a lot of reader input as far as what a particular reader wanted out of a story and didn't get. Almost as though reading were an interactive sport.

    Which in a way it is -- the reader does bring their own experiences and expectations to any work -- but his seems a little more hands on.

    I agree with you about reading being an adventure. At some point the reader must let go and let the writer drive the story.

  14. Hope you're enjoying those lads, Mrs. Malone!

    Yes, I think Jordan does a good job of reminding readers how much each and every sale helps -- how an individual's actions matter.

  15. Hey, LL. I do totally understand and agree with that. And it's true that all these dirt cheap stories create this false expectation that it costs nothing to produce these things and there's an endless supply of them.

    Well, and maybe that's even true in some cases.

    At the same time we have readers complaining about the declining quality of m/m fiction, the flood of crap, etc. etc.

    It will eventually work itself out and achieve some equilibrium, I think. In the meantime we're all nervously watching the rocking boat. ;-D

  16. That's absolutely the truth, Susan.

    I think it's hard for a lot of people to see the value added of things like...products that aren't made by child labor in foreign countries or a well-written story that has been edited and copy-edited. All too often these days we're thinking short term and small picture: what can I get for free?

  17. I have to admit that, generally speaking, I have never been a fan of short stories (anything under 400 pages usually). When I buy a book (and I'm willing to pay upward of $30 for a really good one), I want to become fully invested in the characters and that is not something easily achieved with short acquaintance.

    That being said, there are exceptions to every rule and you, Josh, are one of them. I still don't know how you do it, but somehow you manage to capture the humanity of your characters so perfectly that I care what happens to them after two pages and spend the rest of the day cursing because I don't get to know more about them :-). I know I can trust your work and will by anything with your name on it regardless of the price or length, but I still will always prefer the longer works because it means more of you to enjoy.

    I might not be so sanguine about trying a short work by a different author. I would certainly expect to pay for any work I tried, as I would if I were trying a new sushi roll, whether I liked it or not, but I might not come back and order the same thing again, and might wish that I had just stuck with something tried and true. It seems to me like the amazon commenter took a cost benefit analysis of her own preferences and decided that short stories are not for her. While I can deplore her taste, I understand her reasoning. She did at least pay for the book, and if she found that she prefers one chapter of a longer book for free, so be it. Perhaps in the future she can make use of those samples and not buy a book she won't enjoy.

    For my part,I will continue to send a portion of my paychecks your way, and hope that there are enough discerning individuals out there who will do the same. Junk food is cheap, but soon enough it gives even the most frugal individuals a belly ache.


    P.S. I apologize for the rambling nature of this post, it is probably far to late for me to be writing this and brevity has never been my strong suit :-)

  18. Josh - like Claire, I am not a fan of short stories generally. I've been thinking about why that is, and the best I can come up with is that I like to become engaged with characters and their interaction and, if an author succeeds in doing this, I find it disappointing when the experience ends so quickly! Also, I remember when I read Somerset Maugham's short stories that I used to feel that it was a shame that such good plots were wasted on such short stories, and I wished he'd written full-length books instead to develop them fully.

    So I tend to only read short stories by authors whose work I love so much that I'll read anything they write! (Except paranormals, but that's another tale...) So I read "The French Have a Word for It" as soon as I came accross it and (ironically given the topic of your post) I'm sure it was free! Probably on your website? And of course I loved it, and in fact the length of it was just right for the story you had to tell, a (relative) snapshot in the story of two lives.

    Now to the real point - why on earth should I not be happy to pay for a carefully crafted, beautifully written story just because it is shorter than a novella or a novel? Granted, the pricing should reflect the different length, but only to a degree, and it should reflect the different amount of work you did and not the number of words or pages per se.

    Any English Literature student would confirm that the short story is taught as an art form in itself, requiring different skills from full-length novels etc.. And that demonstrates that each has its own merits and value.

    It does seem that the market has become confused by the volume of free and cheap digital downloads. I think of them as falling into three categories - fanfic (some of which is excellent) generally written by non-professionals; stories/books which were written with the hope that they would sell, but which are not good enough for anyone to be prepared to pay for them; and loss-leaders i.e. "proper" stories/books which the writer would usually (be able to) sell but which are given away to enable readers to discover the author and who will then buy other books by the author. I have benefited from this in downloading free Kindle books, to the ultimate cost to my account.

    The only one of those categories relevant to you might be the last, but you don't need to do it any more! And that identifies a fourth category, much rarer, of stories occasionally given away by generous authors as a bonus to very grateful readers. Thank you!


  19. Unfortunately, that sense of entitlement is not limited to ebooks. I have seen the same attitude from friends and colleagues regarding music that they download (and I am sure movies too). It doesn’t matter if it is a single song or a whole album. There seems to be some connection between being able to access something immediately and the belief that one already "owns" it and therefore shouldn't have to pay for it.

  20. Thank you, Claire, that was a lovely note. People could ramble at me like that all day and I'd die happy. ;-)

    I do absolutely understand the desire for longer works and I understand that everyone will not want to read my short stories. I truly have no problem with that.

    As I look over my response to that comment, I see it was largely colored by my own frustration over rampant piracy of my work -- so the careless comment that seemed to imply a belief all such works should be free naturally hit a nerve.

  21. Thank you, HJ.

    The truth is, I couldn't survive and would have given up writing for publication long ago if there weren't enough readers like yourself and Claire and so many others. You make the rest of it all worthwhile.

    I never forget how lucky I am to be able to earn a living at doing something I love to do

  22. It's partly a matter of education -- and maybe it's even partly a sense of isolationism. I know many people who believe -- whether it has to do with voting or piracy -- that their single, individual action doesn't make a difference.

    Which is foolishness because as we've seen, elections are sometimes won by a handful of votes -- and in a genre this small, every sale does absolutely count toward someone earning a living or not earning a living. And not earning a living means not writing. Or writing strictly for one's own pleasure.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts!

  23. There is often an expectation, even among people who should know better, that everything is available for free on the Internet. We have an English instructor at our college who assigned his students a contemporary short story to read and told them they could find it free on the web. (They came to the library for help when they couldn't find it, so we (librarians) had to intervene with the instructor.) And, our former college president's wife said to the dean of libraries at a party, "What do we need a library for when everything is on Google?" It doesn't sound like that was necessarily the case here, but it all blends in to the same problem of people expecting something for nearly or absolutely nothing.

  24. Reading your work gives me the same satisfaction as a meal at a five-star restaurant. If I'm paying so much for one, then I should have no objection to paying just as much for the other - which is why I consider your books an incredible bargain. If people are reluctant to pay $1.49 for such a tremendous experience, then all I can say is that I feel sorry for them. Keep writing and delighting scores of readers :)

  25. Thank you for commenting, Alex. There is certainly a lot of that going around these days. And there's often a militancy to these views. I've heard it proposed that "all information" should be free. I'm not even sure what that means. Do these folks not see the ramifications of that?

    But fiction is not exactly information, in any case.

  26. I thought your short stories were very reasonably priced. I'm disappointed when I read an ebook that is poorly written and edited. That's when I feel I've wasted my money and my time.

    As I described your writing to my husband, you set the bar very high in terms of quality of writing. As an inspiring writer, I admire your work, and as a reader I enjoy the places you take us.

    So please take heart that the reviewer whining about the price for the product is in the minority.

  27. Thank you, Vanessa. I do take heart at the reminder that the majority of readers are supportive of the work (and the neurotic author too)

  28. For what it's worth... I was thrilled to be able to grab a free copy of "The French have a Word for it" when I first got my e-reader, and absolutely loved it. I'm not usually a fan of short stories - like others here - but yours are just perfect. So, yes, I went ahead and bought the new Kindle edition of "The French", too - because it's just absolutely worth it. And I would totally buy it in print, too :) (Any chance of that, in a collection maybe? *hopes*)
    - Kathy

  29. Thank you, Kathy. Yes, I do plan to do another print collection next year and that story will be included.

  30. I'm a bit off topic but your post just made me realize that "The French have a word for it" is now available! I was so crushed to discover it on your book page a while ago and there was no way to buy it!
    If I like an author's work or if a story line catches my interest I keep buying it regardless of length or prize and in this case I really can't see the reviewers point since it already is very low prized.
    So I'm very happy now :-) and looking forward to finally reading it! Just one question: is it also available as pdf?

    - Stormy

  31. Thanks, Stormy! You that I think of it, I believe we may have forgotten to list the PDF on my website.

    A little something to add to the list.

  32. I thought I would de-lurk for a second to say that I've never understood why some readers consider a short story to be somehow less than. I enjoy a tightly written, well-plotted short story - which always seems to have an elegance and economy to it that so many longer, rambling pieces lack - and is certainly worth my time and coin. A well-turned short story isn't a "snippet" or a lopped off scene from a longer work - it has integrity in itself. And what's wrong with that? "In Sunshine and in Shadow" happens to be one of my all-time favorite pieces, of any length - just perfect the way it is. (On a separate note, I'm looking forward to reading Mummy Dearest tomorrow - or even later tonight!)

    Best wishes,

  33. Thank you, Pea. I know not every reader loves short stories, but I think this is the first genre I've come across that seemed to equate value with length. That's such an extraordinary notion.

    But then I wonder if a lot of work in this genre is becoming undervalued across the board.

    There's so much stuff for free out there and perhaps if the price is right, that's all that really matters for a lot of readers?

    I hope not!

  34. I agree with so many of these viewpoints. Coming from the aspect of encouraging people of all ages and mindsets to read - so great reading material does not disappear for lack of support or future writers it seems the younger a reader lately, the shorter the reading format the better. I truly believe this has been subliminally imprinted by the delivery systems in which information is disseminated. Think about it - Gannett's USA Today newspaper saved print media because people loved the format of short stories and newsbites - fast reads. Those that wanted more in-depth coverage continued to read more within traditional newspapers. Well, those newspapers are disappearing and those that have not have all borrowed the USA Today format - shorter stories - to some degree. (read the making of McPaper). Even magazines have moved to streamlining. The fact is, the education system now utilizes textbooks in these kinds of formats. I'll never agree to this as "dumbing down" in fact, it is a great way to make sure there is a diversity of exposure - more short articles, more subjects covered. Readers then move to learning more about what they want in detail in other genre. So basically, its not so much a short attention span as the desire to learn many things at different depths - there is so much to learn and so little time.

    I'll add to this, as an addictive reader (what a great disease to catch!) I need short fiction to clear my head from the longer, deeper reads and also to dip my toe into new areas of interest without the commitment of time and money a long, new bestseller requires.

  35. Thanks for your thoughts, EHO. I love short stories for many reasons, both as a writer and a reader. I do always sympathize with the desire for more when you've enjoyed characters -- because I've experienced that many times as a reader.

    I go back and forth on whether streamlining so much content ultimately plays into reduced attention spans. :-)