The Coffee Fallacy

Hang around social media long enough and you’ll see every post repeat itself. One gem that comes back time after time goes like this: people think nothing of spending $7.99 for a coffee that’ll be gone in a few minutes but won’t spend $4.99 on a book that took the author years to write.

I sympathize. I do. I also would like to make more money writing. My first book has sold about 2,000 copies at 99¢ apiece. Through Amazon, a 99¢ cent book makes me 30¢. That’s $600 for 2,000 copies. If that book had been priced at $7.99—the cost of a (really expensive, let’s be honest) cup of coffee—I’d have made $11,000. Holy cow! Give me that $11,000, please! Why you-all so cheap?

Looked at from the consumer’s point of view, my book is worth more than a cup of coffee because it’ll last longer. Not only would that 99¢ book (well, short story) take you probably an hour and a half to read, but you can read it over and over. The coffee is gone in less than an hour and will never come back—not in any way you’d want to use it.

Looked at from my point of view, a book has way more effort in it. I spent twenty six hours writing, editing, proofing, and formatting my 99¢ story. The barista had my coffee ready in a minute. So why shouldn’t my book cost more?

Because coffee can only be sold once. My book can be sold over and over.

That 99¢ story made me almost nothing at first. I’d put a $20 cover on it and was excited when it made back my investment in the first month, but if you’d calculated my per-hour rate at that point in time, it would’ve been pennies. I was just glad it wasn’t negative. But the story doesn’t end there, because I get to keep selling that same book without putting any additional effort into it. My current hourly rate for that story is about $21, and it will only continue to go up over time. $21 an hour is more than the barista made.

And comparing my effort to the effort of the person who makes my coffee is fallacious reasoning to begin with. Before you place a coffee order, hours and hours have already gone into the final product. There were people who grew and harvested the beans, truckers who delivered them, back-office folks who had cups designed and delivered, who hired and staffed the person who makes you that coffee.

Not to mention that the cost of coffee is more than labor. Every cup has its own embedded cost. Coffee beans cost money, as do lids, filtered water, and electricity. These are all per cup costs. If a store sells a lot of coffee, they need to hire another barista, maybe get a second machine. If they sell really a lot, they might need to rent a bigger store.

Whether I sell one unit or a hundred thousand (🙏🏽), I’ve paid the same upfront costs. That’s why it makes sense for writers to sell more units at a lower price, often referred to by frustrated people who want prices to be higher as “devaluing your work.”

Remember that calculation I made above? How much I would’ve earned if my story cost $7.99 instead of 99¢? It’s not valid because few, if any, of those copies would’ve sold at that price. Some people think that if all indie authors simultaneously upped our prices, consumers would pay the higher prices, that we’re in a “race to the bottom” we’ve brought on ourselves.

I don’t think so. Consumers are savvy enough to understand that a cup of coffee costs the producer money where a digital copy of a book doesn’t. That’s why readers of trad-published books have been slow to transition to reading digitally. When they see that the ebook costs nearly as much as the paper book, they feel indignant about it. They know it’s not costing the publisher as much, so they buy the product that doesn’t make them feel like they’re being ripped off. If we all jacked our prices up, consumers would simply go elsewhere—libraries, fanfic, used bookstores, back to trad.

I’ve done enough sales and giveaways by now to be certain they increase my overall earnings, so I’m going to keep doing them. It’s not a question of devaluing my work. It’s a matter of not letting my ego get in the way of maximizing my earnings, of making the most out of that initial outlay of time and expense. My books aren’t consumables. They’re assets.

If my first book hadn’t been priced at 99¢, if I hadn’t put it in Kindle Unlimited and accepted the fractions of a penny per page KU paid, I wouldn’t have a career today. And I wouldn’t have ultimately sold 2,000 copies of my first release.

Readers aren’t being unfair when they purchase my books for less than a cup of coffee. They’re rightly recognizing that their contribution is only a small part of my total earnings, that they didn’t “use it up” when they bought it. Unlike that cup of coffee, which will only ever have one owner (we hope).