World-famous, multiple-time New York Times bestselling author Larry Correia recently posted a rant. This is nothing new; he rants a lot, though the difference between him and your average Internet Joe is that his rants are educational snark and not simply complaints. (Well, other than stuff like complaining about government bureaucracy, but hey, if my wife were treated that way, I’d be ticked off too.)

This particular rant was about something I talk about a lot too: the pricing of books. You can click here to read what Correia wrote (language warning), but the gist of it was that someone posted a review of one of his novellas without reading it, simply so he could complain about the price. It seems that a 30,000-word novella written by a very big-name author in a moderately big-name IP (Warmachine), with full-color illustrations and accessible to people who know nothing about said IP, is not worth the huge, huge cost of . . . five bucks.

Similarly, there’s a member of a Facebook writing support group I’m in who has said multiple times that he won’t bother reading any ebook priced higher than $3.99, because “That’s how much mine is and I doubt anyone worked any harder than me.”

The first complaint included this: “Anytime you spend $8 to $10 to $16 for an e-book; you are being gouged and when I saw a short story being sold for $5.00 I had to speak up.” I won’t go into the arrogance of a man who will review something without trying it, only because he had a moral objection to the price. (Though I find it odd that he thinks it’s a “short story.”) Instead, I want to focus on the idea of “being gouged” for an ebook.

On the face of it, he seems to have a point. An ebook does not require a bookstore. It does not require printing costs. Amazon will even format it for you for free (though finding and correcting any errors remains your responsibility) and won’t charge you an up-front fee for listing it on the biggest book market in the history of mankind. Awesome!

Of course, you do have to give them a cut of the proceeds. There are also other little expenses, like if you want to recoup the cost of a cover illustrator, ads, hiring a freelance editor (*cough*), and help defray the gas money you spend going back and forth to your day job. Alternatively, if you’re going through a publisher (as Correia did; actually, they approached him, which at his pay scale meant some not-insignificant money), you’ve got all of that plus more overhead like employee benefits and operating expenses. Someone has to keep paying the electricity bill, after all.

On top of all that, writing is work, and since you only get paid for a product, every moment you spend not writing is a moment you won’t get paid for. I don’t know what Correia got paid, but I’m sure I’d be fighting off envy if I heard it. Every moment he spent working on that story was a moment he wasn’t working on something else that would help feed his family. So, if you think your time is valuable and you aren’t just publishing a book for the accolades of friends and family, you too probably want a little compensation along the way.

What, then, is a fair price? Good question. Let me answer it with another question: How much are you willing to pay?

This is as mathy as I care to get.

Publilius Syrus, a poet who lived at the end of the Roman Republic, once said, “Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it.” The corollary is, of course, that if you aren’t willing to pay it, then it’s not worth the cost. In economics, this is referred to as a “demand curve,” describing the points at which demand for a good or service falls off in response to its price. All businesses deal with that in order to figure out what to charge.

They also deal with another curve: the “supply curve.” (Yup, you guessed it, “supply and demand.” Bear with me. I’m not going to use any math!) This curve describes the points at which supply increases or decreases depending on cost; charging too little will reduce the supply, while charging too much will mean no one’s buying and you’ve got too much product or not enough work.

“But wait,” you might say, “if this is the only way to get that book, and the book is composed of 100% recycled electrons, doesn’t that mean the supply curve doesn’t matter anymore? The publisher or author can overcharge and no one can tell them no!”

That would be true if the book existed in a vacuum. The publisher would still need to recoup costs, of course, as I described earlier, but after a while they’d just be creating a net profit. That isn’t a bad thing, of course; more profit means they can turn around and hire more editors (*cough*), other authors, and generally put out even more stuff for people to buy and enjoy.

Unfortunately, there is a supply problem. It’s not an issue of being able to provide enough copies of a book; it’s actually your supply problem, as a consumer. If this were a necessary good, then yes, price gouging might apply at some point. However, books are a luxury good, which means the consumer is looking for things to spend spare change on in order to relax and have fun. If there are other choices out there, then that one unique book is still competing with other unique books.

And so each publisher prices a book as low as they can in order to entice you to spend money, but still high enough to hopefully regain some of that money they sunk into it. Self-pub authors agonize over the issue: how much to charge, when to go on sale, whether or not to pay for advertising. It’s easy to forget that publishers are also nervous over the issue, as they too ride the delicate balance and hope that each quarter is better than the last. And, while they have a larger safety net than your average self-pub, this is their day job and they don’t want to lose it.

Which brings us back to that second complaint: the claim that since the author’s books are no more than $3.99 on Kindle, anyone who charges more is faking it. “That’s how much mine is and I doubt anyone worked any harder than me.”

Well, let’s assume that everything is equal. That author and another author have spent exactly the same amount of money on editing, art, and marketing. There are still other issues. Again, every moment the author is writing is a moment that could be spent on something else. One book may require more hands-on research, more books to read, more time to prepare. Another author might simply bang out a story based on his own life experiences and personal knowledge, set in a place he’s intimately familiar with. I’ve read a bestseller that was written in nine days (the initial draft, not including subsequent editing), and plenty of others that took years of careful work involving research and wordsmithing. Not all books are created equal; not all authors are created equal.

Most of a book’s cost is regained (it is hoped) in volume rather than its initial price. We still have to figure out a medium for it, and it’s based on those two curves I mentioned. Oh, no, nobody’s charting it out for each book like that (or I certainly hope not!), but we’re still dealing with it even if we don’t graph it. Larry Correia’s novels are $7-$10, depending on title and sale, and most of that is figured out in negotiation with Amazon. (His normal publisher, Baen Books, used to refuse to deal with Amazon’s Kindle Store because they didn’t give authors a high enough cut. They sold their own ebooks for $6. Amazon finally offered them a deal they could accept, but the Baen ebooks had to be increased to $10 each so that Amazon was worth it.)

It’s interesting how easy it is to blame the author or the publisher, and yet so many people forget that Amazon takes a very large cut for the same supply/demand reason: they’re the biggest market, which means they can demand a lot. Other ebook markets will charge less, but don’t get the same coverage. The author or publisher has to work out how to balance that. (Particularly since Amazon offers a better deal if you only list your ebook on the Kindle Store. Some self-pub authors find that to be worth it; others react in horror at the thought of a limited market, even if it is the largest in the world.)

So if you were looking for a guide on how to price your own book, I’m sorry; that topic has too many variables for me to cover it in one post. (Fortunately, there are a lot of opinions out there, and if you shoot me a question I’ll give you what advice I can.) What I wanted to do, and what I hope I helped with, is to lay out why some books cost more than others, and why you should always keep in mind that the author only gets a few cents on the dollar.