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

by Sunita

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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