Why a $3 cup of coffee can be a better bet than Unknown Author’s $4.99 book

That annoying, will-not-die comparison between a cup of coffee and a novel has popped up again. The most recent example I saw invoked the customer who doesn’t think twice about paying $3 plus a tip to a barista while at the same time thinking $4.99 is too high a price. Needless to say, the author was not happy.

There are other rebuttals to the coffee-book comparison. [ETA: I was blanking on the other really good post on this topic: Liz McC's wonderfully titled one on the $4 cup of coffee.] Here’s mine.

Let’s start with some background: I don’t consider the $4.99 price point to be a hardship. I am fortunate enough to be able to buy just about any book of fiction I want. I’m not a collector and I don’t have huge amounts of time every day to read for fun, so I always have more books than I can ever read. If I want a book, I buy it. That is absolutely not true for all readers, and frankly, I find the implication that everyone can afford $4.99 to be insulting, but that’s a different argument.

The difference between $2.99 and $4.99 and $6.99 is not that great to me, in a practical sense. If I bought 50 books a month it would add up, but I don’t. Moreover, as a reviewer for a large site, I have access to lots of books. So when I buy a book, it’s because it piques my interest, or is by a favorite author, or sounds interesting to me. In the normal course of things, I don’t really have to think twice about buying an unknown-to-me author’s book.

And yet, I frequently don’t buy it. Why not?

First, the money expenditure is just the first of my costs. I then have to find the time to read the book, which means time spent not doing something else. If I enjoy the book, that’s one, two, or even more hours of enjoyment. If I don’t? That’s time I’ll never get back. Not only that, it may put me off other books of its type.

And that’s just the reading time. What if it’s a book I had planned to review, or decide after the fact that I should review? Writing a review for Dear Author takes me at least an hour, often more. On the day it runs I monitor the post and reply to the commenters, since DA has a lively and intelligent commentariat and interaction is one of its popular features.

In total, then, each book has cost me the purchase price and the opportunity cost of my time, and it may also include the opportunity cost of the time spent reviewing it. Even if you think my time is only worth $10-$15 per hour, that’s the equivalent of up to $50 for your book and perhaps more.

Reading a book is an investment of my money, my time, and my emotions. When it pays off, there’s no feeling like it. When it doesn’t pay off, the disappointment can be severe and it can affect other reading choices I make.

Now, let’s think about that $3-plus-tip coffee made by a barista I know.  First, if I know her, then it’s because I’ve had her coffee before. I’m back, so it must be good enough for me to be a repeat customer. I’m engaging in a transaction about whose quality I have confidence.

Second, I tip her because (a) she does a good job; (b) she does an OK job but I like the interaction; and/or (c) I know she makes very little money doing something that probably isn’t her first choice of occupations.

My usual coffee buying and drinking experience lasts, at most, half an hour. If it’s a bad coffee experience, the reasons can range from bad beans to bad execution by the barista to annoying atmosphere in the coffee shop. Unless it’s my first time there (in which case I may not return), I won’t assume that the barista is incompetent.

In other words, I know what I’m getting for that $3-plus-tip cup of coffee, and as long as I’m not experimenting wildly, it’s a predictable experience. And it’s over in 30 minutes. With a book, unless it’s an auto-buy author, I’m much less certain of what my experience is going to be like, and the time and effort are much greater.

And that’s why I’m more than willing to pay $30 for Ginn Hale’s 10-installment Rifter series, or $2.99 for a short story by Josh Lanyon, or $9.99 for a Susanna Kearsley novel. I know what I’m getting and I’ve decided they’re worth that amount of money to me. Other readers disagree, and I respect that.

But if I’m telling you that $4.99 is too much for me to pay for Unknown Author’s book? It’s because to me, $4.99 plus all the other costs exceed my expectation of my payoff, especially compared to all the other books in the same genre I might read.

There is no substitute for a really good $3-plus-tip cup of coffee. There are some (but not an infinite number of) substitutes for a really good read. In today’s market, if you want me to buy your $4.99 book, you need to give me either the kind of slam-dunk positive experience I receive from a $3-plus-tip cup of coffee, or a reasonable probability that the experience will be enriching in some other way.

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27 thoughts on “Why a $3 cup of coffee can be a better bet than Unknown Author’s $4.99 book

  1. I hate that coffee to ebook comparison. I’m a huge coffee drinker. I make a pot or two a day, but you know what I don’t do every day? Go to the coffee shop and buy an iced skinny vanilla latte. That for me is almost $5. I almost always have the kids with me. That adds about $4 in chocolate milks for them to my bill. Now that we’re near $8 for coffee and chocolate milks, let’s add a couple bucks tip since I always go to the same coffee shop. So my latte experience is around $10. It’s a bit more realistic that I can’t do this that often. If I don’t have the kids with me, or if they did something awesome that deserves a treat, I might stop off and grab that latte I love. But it’s a treat. Just like buying myself a book is a treat for myself.

    Every time I see that coffee/ebook comparison, I cringe. It seems so condescending and it implies I’ll automatically pay that for my coffee. I don’t, in fact lots of people don’t.

    I have a budget I have to stick to, and I’ve paid $9.99 for an ebook before, but it’s rare, and as you pointed out in your post, it was a “sure thing” for me. I know what to expect from that author. I won’t spend that on a new-to-me author. If that makes me cheap, I’m sorry, I guess I am. But I can’t always spend 10 bucks on an ebook.

    • I’m starting to think this post slot should be called the VM Friday Rant, given how it’s turning out. But I can’t help myself either. It IS condescending, although I’m sure many authors don’t mean it that way. Why do you get to assume you know why I will or won’t pay a certain amount for your book, or your friend’s book? Why do you assume that I make the comparison the same way you do?

  2. What bothers me about the coffee comparison is the implication that because someone can afford what’s considered a luxury or an unnecessary thing, then they should shut up because they obviously have money to pay for things. I can afford all the books I want because I make sacrifices in other aspects of my life: I don’t go out much, I only buy new clothes when I need them, we go camping instead of traveling and staying at hotels, etc. But even if I had all the money in the world, I also invest time in the books I read. So as you said, the investment that goes into a book is more than just the price paid for it.

    • We all make tradeoffs, at least all of those who aren’t in the 1% (and even they make tradeoffs, just different ones). No one should have to justify how or why they make the tradeoffs they do. I concentrated on what I consider the true costs of my tradeoffs, but it’s still about how *I* make them.

  3. What frustrates me about this analogy is that it presupposes and innate and universal difference in value. That the book, per se, is more valuable. Which is, when you strip everything else away, an insupportable absolute.

    My life is not all books and no coffee, or all coffee and no books. It’s books and coffee and sandwiches and sticks of Five Star butter and video games and overpriced makeup and all sorts of stuff that I am fortunate enough to afford and enjoy.

    The comparison, if there must be one, should be book to book, and even then, it’s not going to break down in a linear, predictable way. Books are certainly part of a fulfilling life for me, and yes, sometimes I’m going to decide to spend my money on something else, because at that moment, something else has more value to me — whether it be for entertainment, nourishment, enjoyment, necessity, whatever. And if I get to the point where I have to think much more about buying a $3.99 book and a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte, then, as you say, Sunita, it’s going to come down to how decisively I can predict a good experience with either choice. Because value is never just about price.

    • I decided I didn’t want to complicate the post and so I left out how annoyed I get when authors suggest that because I don’t want to try their book, I’m unimaginative and risk-averse. This idea that EVERY book, per se, is more important and enriching than other things (or more honestly, that THEIR book, per se, is more valuable than other books), is really infuriating. But hey, feel free to judge my reading habits and tastes. There are always other books and authors to read.

      • Right, because no authors wants to hear, “Thank you for convincing me that a book is a better purchase than this coffee. I’ll be buying book x by author Y next week. Good luck with your sales, though.”

        The reality is, though, that books have always been in competition with other things; it’s only now they we can track those choices in real time via social media.

        You know, I think that in the case of self-pubbed books, at least, this comes back to the difference between functioning as an author and functioning as a publisher. In the publisher role, what is the best way to convince a reader to buy a book? With the big trad pubs, price and advertising are important, because those publishers don’t connect directly with readers. For smaller pubs, advertising can go wrong (like Entangled’s insult to category Romance readers with their “not your mother’s category” campaign — which both slaps category authors and readers, but also shows ignorance of the diversity of categories) and turn off readers.

        Authors are even in a more delicate role, because they have to shift between creator of the book and publisher of the *product* — and I think that’s where the problems arise. If you can’t make that cut clean, it can be more difficult to persuade the consumer to buy your product. I think this is another aspect of the self-pub quality conversation we need to be having more often.

  4. You articulate my stance on this very well. I’m at a place in my life where, if I want a book badly enough, I’ll pay what I have to pay for it….within reason. I AM a frugal Midwesterner, even I have my limits. I agree that for me it’s not so much about the money spent as the TIME spent. I’ve become almost Gollum-like in regards to “me time.”

    This whole argument brings to mind Kresley Cole, who was the featured speaker at RWA’s Librarians Day event this summer. She talked a bit about her childhood (not good) and her first marriage (also not good). I’m paraphrasing wildly here, but she basically said that the people who need books the most, to get through their everyday lives, are the same people who lack the disposable income to buy them. That without the library, for her during those years, she’s not sure what would have become of her. So yeah, there are readers out there who aren’t spending $5 on coffee OR on books. It’s a fact that I think many in the industry have a tendency to forget about, or are just plain ignorant about.

  5. “There is no substitute for a really good $3-plus-tip cup of coffee. There are some (but not an infinite number of) substitutes for a really good read.”

    This is key to the argument for me. If I want a latte, the cost of said latte is going to be around $3. I can settle for making a cup of espresso at home, but it’s NOT the same thing. And even in the realm of coffee, I’d rather spend a little more and get a latte from Blue Bottle, because I know the quality thereof.

    So when it comes to books, it takes a lot to convince me that I should spend money on an unknown when there is a steady supply of KNOWN quantities that fill my TBR. Of course I want to find new authors to love, but I don’t want to do so by taking random $4.99 (or even 99-cent) hits over and over and over. My time is worth too much for that nonsense. So when I see something that looks good, I download a sample. That sample sells me or it doesn’t. And then when I make the purchase, I’m not randomly throwing my money and time away. I’m making an informed decision. So what authors have to do is convince me that I want to download that sample in the first place, not tell me I’m being cheap because I don’t buy every book that comes along.

  6. “So what authors have to do is convince me that I want to download that sample in the first place, not tell me I’m being cheap because I don’t buy every book that comes along.”

    Yes, this. Author McWriter isn’t going to make me buy his book by shaming me, or being rude to me.

    • Surprisingly, many eBooks still don’t have excerpt samples which for me is an essential requirement for testing a new to me author. I was scrolling through Smashwords a few days ago becoming more and more frustrated because of this and so only bought the one book I had heard about on twitter. I came away realising I am more risk averse than I had thought with new and unknown authors. I read a lot, I accept that not every book will be fantastic and have a place in my life for 3* reads but I want to know what I am getting.

      The price of a book has to justify the experience of the book before being worthwhile to me as Sunita has wonderfully and passionately outlined above. I would add that going out for coffee is a social experience so the dollars pay for more than just the cup. The argument that compares a book and a cuppa is so reductive it means a book is a thing and a drink is a thing on its own, full stop. Yet each enables something in and for us that has a value larger than its concrete self.

      • That is weird. I set all my samples as large as possible. I figure that if I haven’t hooked a reader enough after 30% of the book to want to buy it, then it’s not the book for them.

      • I’ve never looked at SmashWords. I download from Amazon. But yeah, sometimes the sample is almost all front matter and then a few pages of story. That means a lost sale.

  7. I’ve heard the coffee comment made by established authors in response to fans (or interested readers), so I think that’s a different deal. And, in one case, I think the book price was $12.99. So it was an ebook that was available at the same time as the hardcover book, and I really do think that, for a lot of us, hardcovers are luxury items. So comparing it to a $5 latte makes more sense. (And yes, I will pay the very occasional $12.99 for a book I want to read now. But I won’t pay $2.99 for an author I don’t know.) I’m paying a premium to read the book early, not really for the ebook itself.

    And, if you like a book by a particular author, and you like lattes, well, the price comparison isn’t so ridiculous. (I think sometimes it’s more of a price comparison than an “if you buy lattes, you can afford this.” It’s more “a good book should be worth at least the price of a latte.” I can agree with that, but I also think that price includes the necessary editing and good production values.)

    I think there are various problems with ebook pricing, but that’s not really the issue here. I think authors using that comparison for a $4.99 — or more — book by an unknown, perhaps self-published author, is way off target. I do buy books. But why should I buy one arbitrary book from an author just because the price is “reasonable”? (I used to buy new-to-me authors by going to the bookstore or local stationery store, and checking the racks. I’d read the back, look for the very short excerpt inside, maybe check the first few pages. I paid attention to the publisher. I once picked up a book because the author had the same first name as another author I liked. The book looked good, so I took a chance. Hey, it worked.) But I now have access to way too many books for that process to work. Plus, back then, most of the books had to get through some kind of process to get published.

    So if an author I like makes the comparison, I’ll give them some slack. They’ve proven (to me, anyway) that they have a product worth selling, and maybe they’re feeling the sting of constant complaints from readers who think any price is too high (particularly annoying if they are with a publisher who sets the price). But if someone I don’t know tries to use that comparison for a specific book, it falls flat. Maybe I’ll spend the money, but it’ll be on a book I want to read. Or maybe I’ll save the money for a lovely flat white (a coffee drink that is new to me, it has less milk and less foam than a latte).

  8. All I can say is… IF I was pissing off authors left and right with my negative reviews for books they have written.

    They most likely do not want to go anywhere near the type of negativity I spew over coffee and how it gets served usually.

    Food products get some of the harshest critique on record and they want to make a false equivalence with their ebook and a cup of coffee? Are they that desperate?

  9. I resent the idea that my definition of “value” and everything that it entails for me, should be the same as theirs or it’s wrong. It’s like they’re saying “you’ve clearly got money to throw away, why not throw it my way?”. Totally misses the part where it’s MY money and also disregards what I’ve given up/scrimped on/worked for to have it to “throw away” anyway.

    I hesitate to spend $9.99 on ebooks from authors I love. If I’m to spend money on an unknown author, it will be from recommendations from trusted reviewers. Even the freebies represent some value for me (in reading time and reviewing, as I review everything I read) and if a freebie wasted my time I get grumpy.

  10. I agree with the argument that the comparison should really be between a $3 coffee and a book by a known author, or if unknown, a book that everyone is talking about that you really want to read. It should be a comparison of experiences, not a comparison of products.

    In her comparison, Liz made the excellent point that the $3 for coffee includes everything from growing the beans to paying the rent for the coffee shop, whereas for a book, especially a self-published book, it’s the author and the retailer, and that’s it.

    And then consider the fanfic book I talked about last week. It’s for sale for $9.95 as an ebook. $9.95! That’s for a book that was already written for a different purpose entirely. At this point, the author is retrospectively recouping the costs she incurred by writing it. If she’s doing well, good for her. But that’s not exactly the writer in a garret, starving herself for her art, that I’m denying a living wage by blowing my money on capuccinos. That’s probably a whole different discussion, though.

  11. Right on. I deeply resent having someone – someone I don’t know, who does not know me – make value judgments with respect to my choices. Mine. My choices.

    Furthermore, the sense of entitlement behind such a statement is enough to put me off their work permanently.

    And if the author can’t tell the difference between cost (the dollars) and value (the entire experience), then I don’t think they have anything to show me in their writing, so why on earth would I spend precious hours with them as my mind’s companion.

  12. To me you can’t compare; it’s all relative. I would easily spend $9 on an ebook that I know would entertain me for days more than I would spend $7 on a matinee movie I’d only be entertained for 2 hours for. And some people would rather spend $100 + going to a 3 + hour baseball game than spend $4 on a book.

    The argument for me is to compare within the same arena. Books to books, movies to movies, etc. So coffee to books is a stupid argument to me.

    Also, on the coffee, I get the effect of caffeine that keeps me going at work for couple of hours in the afternoon. I get coffee for the buzz. I need it keep my head sharp during a long day at work. So that $3 latte means a lot more to me than just a luxury good taste item I might have money for.

  13. With the exception of unexpectedly short stories, I’ve never been one to complain about the price of books. I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford them and, as much as I love reading and would hate to do without, books are still a luxury, and authors/pubs should feel free to charge whatever they want for them. If people are willing to pay, why not?

    That said, readers have no moral obligation to buy books no matter the price, and authors who make that book/coffee comparison are implying that we do have that obligation. They can charge whatever they want for their books, but if they’re not selling as much as they’d like, that’s on them. If I’m going to pay $9.99 for a book, it won’t be because I’m thinking about how hard the author worked/how many bills she has, etc.; it will be because, for a variety of reason, I decide that book is worth the price. I’ve paid $12.99 for ebooks without blinking an eye, and I’ve refused to consider $5.99 books because I didn’t consider them worth that amount. It’s business.

  14. I can understand the latte/book comparison as a response to the small minority of people who think that *every* ebook, whether novel or heavily footnoted special-interest limited-audience non-fiction, should be 99 cents, period, end-of-discussion. But as an argument that I should be willing to pay $4.99 for *this particular* ebook because I’m willing to (occasionally) pay $4 for a fancy coffee? Sorry, no.

    For that matter, just because I’m willing to occasionally spend $25 on a skein of hand-dyed yarn (that I will knit into socks which will eventually wear out) doesn’t mean that I’m therefore willing to spend that $25 on an ebook, or even on five or ten ebooks. I know I’ll enjoy knitting the yarn and wearing the socks. Unless I’m familiar with the author’s previous work or have read the books before, I don’t know whether I’ll like the books.

    (And I’m speaking as someone who recently paid $9.99 for an ebook when I already have a print copy that I paid less for. I’ve adored the book for nearly thirty years; it’s one of my all-time favorites; it was worth buying twice even at that price. There are tons of other books I won’t even pay 99 cents for, because they don’t interest me enough to be worth it.)

    • Yarn is a great example, because as you say, there’s the pleasure of the knitting process and then the pleasure of wearing (or giving as a gift) the finished product. So the total value of the transaction is quite high.

  15. Sorry to have missed this post when it was freshly brewed!

    The cost of a cup of coffee comparison is a tired cliche I remember from television commercials for the Save the Children charity. I don’t know who thought migrating it over to the world of self-publishing was a good idea, but clearly that person hasn’t read as many bad books as I have.

    God, you are so right about the time/opportunity cost involved in reading, especially for a slower reader. I never finish reading a book in an hour or two. Reviewing one usually takes me three hours, typically, if you include the time to format, spellcheck, and edit. Even the Kindle samples can suck up too much of my time which is why I frequently ditch them within the first five pages.

    Yes, I am risk-averse when it comes to trying new authors. But I’ve been burned a lot, sometimes even by highly touted books.

    And it’s not only the financial cost and time/opportunity cost. There’s sometimes also a thought cost. Books affect me emotionally and some of them have depressed me, given me nightmares, or frustrated me. There are some genres I avoid for the same reasons I avoid watching the local news on television.

    The idea that we should all spend our time, money and emotional energy indiscriminately is insulting. Even with freebies, there are some I regret getting since so many of them are cluttering my kindle.

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