What is Your Writing Worth?

The entire book publishing industry, both traditional and self-published, is dependent upon creating books other people will pay money for in sufficient number to make it worthwhile.

Just about everything discussed on this agency blog is intended for people involved in revenue-generating publishing. Most authors can write something and give it away for free. Fewer can write something, which others will value enough to pay for and read.

Like many things in life, if it were easy, anyone could do it.

A word in common use today is “sustainable.” Depending on how it is applied, sustainable actions can relate to just about everything in life.  It’s another way to describe a long-term approach versus a short-term one.

Sustainable businesses are those who practice corporate culture allowing it to operate profitably and long-term with well-treated employees.

A sustainable farm is one where farming practices do not damage the ecosystem, but support it in a healthy way, allowing the farm to operate long into the future.

A sustainable forest is where at least as many trees are planted as are harvested.

You get the idea.

The traditional publishing industry is sustainable because authors write something which can be sold. The self-publishing industry is financially sustainable because there are a lot of authors willing to shoulder the commitment, financial burden, work and accompanying risk to publish their own books.

At the end of the day, both traditional and self-published books need to financially justify themselves in order to be sustainable.

“Free” should be carefully utilized, even in self-publishing. If you want to guarantee something is regarded with little value, give it away for free.

What is your writing worth? (“Free” is not a value.)

When an agent or publisher reviews a proposal, we ask ourselves if people would pay for it. If so, how much money do we believe people would be willing to pay and would it be enough to justify the risk of publishing?

The answers to those questions are what make up a publishing decision.

So, again, what is your writing worth?

For commercial writing to the retail consumer (as opposed to professional publications or textbooks), here are some suggestions to build value into your work: (most relate to writers of non-fiction)

  • Build value in the concepts and content of the book by talking about it and presenting it in person before you begin to write and throughout the entire writing process. Authors need to be “public presenters” to an audience. The book is never first. Present it first, then write.
  • Look at other books where people have spent money on them. Successful books contain content valuable to readers. Think on what made a certain bestseller…sell.
  • Throughout the entire process of writing, think more about the eventual reader than yourself. Writers can become “heads down” in their work, which is a danger for anyone, losing sight of the consumer who might buy your work.
  • Become a bona fide expert in your field. Never, ever stop learning about the topic you are writing about. Second hand or old research is value-poison. Once you stop learning and put your head down, your work starts to become less valuable to the consumer. Value relates to your credentials as an author. No credentials, less value.
  • Don’t be so quick to give it away for free, unless you are doing so as a short-term promotion with the purpose of seeding the market for future sales. (I would rather not see any book given away for free when it first releases, unless it is limited quantity review copies for people who have committed to writing honest reviews.)

Finally, don’t confuse monetary value with intrinsic value. You don’t need to sell something in order to make it valuable, but if you want to earn a living from your writing, you need to view it from the consumer’s perspective and make sure what you write is worth someone’s hard-earned money.


12 Responses to What is Your Writing Worth?

  1. Judith Robl February 7, 2017 at 5:52 am #

    Thank you, Dan, for a valuable look at just who we are and why we exist. You’ve posed enough questions for us to examine our works and our raison d’etre accurately.

    Evaluation and re-evaluation should be applied regularly.

    Thank you.

  2. Diana Harkness February 7, 2017 at 5:55 am #

    Thank you. The higher the perceived value of a product (yes, a book is a product), the more the consumer is likely to pay. How do you raise the perception of value. Price may be a good indicator. If you pay $1800 for an electric range, you expect more from it than one for which you might pay $500. A book is a product, but it is something more, a work of art, because it contains words, ideas, and concepts which may elevate or sink its worth. How do you value a sentence by Annie Dillard that cuts straight to the heart? An essay by Frederick Buechner that lifts you to places you’ve never imagined? That paragraph by C.S. Lewis that occupies your brain for days? A poem by T.S. Eliot that twists your head right around? And the problem is that if I write like Dillard or Buechner the book may not be seen as marketable. I have found that literary novels have much smaller sales than other novels. Many artists are not rewarded with high sales until long after they are dead. So do you write for the person who loves language, literature, and art or do you write for the masses? I’m trying to strike a happy medium (which just sounds wrong when I consider L’Engle’s Wrinkle in time), but is that even enough for sales and if it is, will readers be disappointed because it isn’t one thing or the other?

    • Katie Powner February 7, 2017 at 8:16 am #

      Good thoughts Diana. In my experience, it is often when we try to please everyone that we end up pleasing no one.

  3. Jay Payleitner February 7, 2017 at 9:28 am #

    Our friend the interweb has also thrown a monkey wrench into the value equation. Since you can get the information for free (and faster), why would anyone buy a thesaurus, atlas, dictionary, concordance, home maintenance book, or book of quotations?

    Also, I used to toss free copies of my books into the audience for effect. It was great fun and energized my talks. But I think it cheapened the perceived value of the product.

    A valuable post, Dan.

  4. Robyn Hook February 7, 2017 at 9:52 am #

    I love this statement, “If you want to guarantee something is regarded with little value, give it away for free.”
    Just last week, I downloaded a free novel from Amazon and was SURPRISED when it was good! You made some excellent points. Thanks!

  5. Joey Rudder February 7, 2017 at 10:51 am #

    I’m learning so much from your posts. Thank you, Dan.

  6. Carol Ashby February 7, 2017 at 10:52 am #

    I’ve observed something interesting about free ebooks. My first novel is selling for a reasonable amount in ebook formats and at standard paperback price online. Buying the paperback includes the option of getting the ebook free. I love that option myself when I by hardcopy, and I always take it.

    However, only about a third of the people buying the paperback download the ebook even when it’s free. So it’s clear that free isn’t irresistible to people who are willing to pay significant cash for the same product in a different form.

    I’ve read many places that offering the first book in a series for free is the way to hook people so they will buy the second. I’ve been tracking what ranks on the first page at Amazon for my own novel’s keywords, and the books that stay there for extended times are not free. I just searched at the Kindle Store for Roman Empire fiction, and not a single book on the first 2 pages is free. Same is true for Biblical fiction. So free doesn’t put you on the pages where the keyword shopper will find you.

    • Iola February 7, 2017 at 11:07 pm #

      I can’t say I’ve ever searched for Roman Empire fiction … so I did. Your book is #1 (congratulations!), but I found six free books on the first two pages (including one by Janette Oke), and three more for under $2 each. Biblical fiction gives similar results.

      Of course, the Amazon rankings change hourly so what is true now might not be in five minutes – and may not be a long-term trend.

      Having said that, I agree with Dan’s point that we shouldn’t undervalue our writing, but not all writing is paid for. For example, I write book reviews but Amazon rules say I can’t be paid for that. If I am, it’s not a customer review. That doesn’t make my writing any less valuable … I hope.

      • Carol Ashby February 8, 2017 at 11:08 am #

        I see that you get very different results if you search under Kindle Store or All Departments! How bizarre for the two free ones that are only sold as Kindle versions that they are on page 1 of All but not even on page 2 under Kindle!

        I’m only number 5 in the Kindle Store search where there are no free ones on page 1 or 2. I guess I should be searching in All Departments if I can see a number 1 rank there! Thanks for pointing that out, Iola.

        Same for Biblical fiction, with no free books on page 1 or 2 of a Kindle Store search. Oke’s is only an Audible Audio version that shows as free on page 1 of Kindle Store even though I find her Kindle version as free on page 1 under All Departments) Forgiven is doing better at All Departments under biblical fiction, being #2 instead of #5 under Kindle Store. There is a paperback version, but the Kindle version sells more copies by far. I wonder how that could possibly be?

        The ranking algorithms of Amazon are still a mystery to me. I’d love it if Dan or someone would explain them to us.

  7. Sheri Dean Parmelee February 7, 2017 at 10:57 am #

    Dan, thank you so much for your blog today. You really encouraged my heart. The Bible says that “the laborer is worthy of his hire,” which I believe applies to writers, as well.

  8. Julie Sunne February 8, 2017 at 5:32 pm #

    Great points, Dan! Thank you for giving me much to chew on as I process my next book.

  9. Henry Styron February 13, 2017 at 7:45 am #

    Thank you, Dan. Something to think about, and no mistake.

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