These days, with so much free—YouTube has free music, Amazon has free downloads, libraries (for the most part) have free books, and the Internet has Free Everything—how does anyone manage to sell their wares?
The answer, from one corner of the creative industries in particular, seems to be pricing countless items at $0.99: ebooks, MP3 tracks, TV shows, etc. But how does one compete in that marketplace if comparing, for instance, one’s two-page short story with the 500-page novel that costs the same amount?
I ran into this dilemma when I put some of my writings for sale on Amazon. For my collections of 10 poems or two-page stories, I was up against literally thousands of free and $0.99 ebooks.
As a fan of Michelle Sagara West, I felt her short stories were worth their $0.99 easily, because her Author’s Notes always gave me insight into her life and inspiration, and her stories (for the most part) were exquisite and I adored them.
Her stories, however, were several pages, so I became obsessed with assembling Author’s Notes to “add value” to my writing (and pages to the product) so that what I had to offer wouldn’t look quite so measly.
My closest friends, upon hearing of his harebrained plan, took me to task. Add value? If my writing couldn’t stand alone, it wasn’t ready for publication yet.
I described my plight at length, but through our conversation, my attitude shifted and I decided to let my stories stand. But the concern remained—how could I pack enough value into two pages so that they would be worth the same as several hours of happy escape through a good novel?
That same night, by coincidence or grace, my friend and editor of SPAWNews, Sandra Murphy, let me know that her four short stories were on sale at Untreed Reads until the end of the month. She had offered to edit my shorts for free, and I wanted to support her so I purchased her stories, all of them a few pages. How did she add significant value to make such a short experience worth the $0.99?
“The Obituary Rule” made me smile, following the sassy friendship of two elderly ladies while one of them rekindles an old love. “Bananas Foster” was hilarious in a Three-Stooges fashion, mildly morbid but quite entertaining. “Superstition”—which slightly annoyed me by creating a twist that left me confused for the second half of the story (until the final reveal)—nevertheless had a haunting rhythm to it.”Sweet Tea & Deviled Eggs” horrified me (in a good, goosebumps-crawling-up-my-arm way), sweeping me off into a southern world where a little girl makes some terrible choices, leading to a fascinating conclusion.
It took me an hour to read through all four of Murphy’s stories. I had been through the paces of apprehension, of shaking my arms out to ease the creepy-creepys, of hearty laughter; I had smiled, felt warmed, chilled, bothered, and delighted. Was that worth $2.77? Yes. (They’re on sale, so I only paid $0.69/story, but the point still stands.)
After my experience with Murphy’s stories, I thought back to my conversation with my friends and I understood the essence of their advice. The only value I can bring to the table is my heart, and whatever skill I possess or can hone in my craft: intuiting a sense of what my readers crave—be it kinship, laughter, disquiet, or that private smile. What’s the price of a belly laugh at the end of a dratted-long day? Who can really assess the value of a perfectly expressed sentence, whereupon the reader knows they’re not the only one who has felt a certain way?
I took to writing because I wanted to reach out to others just as authors, musicians and artists had connected with me. I didn’t care, at the outset of my passion and commitment to this path, if I could be valuable enough to inspire a dollar’s purchase.
So yes, the market for stories and poems is ridiculously oversaturated and underpriced, and anyone in the business of getting their daily bread from selling things that most can get for free (or for cheap) face an uphill battle.
But for me, I will send my writings out into the world and cross my fingers that my best is good enough to spark that sense of connection, joy, or embraced-into-another-worldness that I, as a fellow reader, crave. If I can achieve that, even for a moment, I’ll have given my reader their 99-cents’ worth and more.