Short Stories Have Been Priced out of the Market

John PhythyonGuest Post
by John R. Phythyon, Jr.

Ninety-nine cents doesn’t sound like a lot of money. It’s less than a buck. It’s not even enough to get something on the Dollar Menu at McDonald’s.

But 99 cents is a huge number in the world of independent publishing. It’s come to mean so very much to indie authors, and that meaning has changed in the last year.

Ninety-nine cents is the minimum amount Amazon will let you price a book. It also nets Amazon’s worst royalty rate – 35%. However, authors often think it’s worth charging (and making) so little because consumers see a book for 99 cents and figure that’s worth the risk. So you make up in volume what you lose in percentage.

But the market has changed, and the strategy behind deciding which books an indie author should price at 99 cents has to change with it. In particular, individual short stories (not necessarily collections) are no longer viable.

A Short History

Short stories have had a difficult market for a long time. With the slow and agonizing death of print magazines over the past 20 years, fewer literary magazines, short fiction’s traditional home, exist anymore. Short story collections don’t sell as well as novels, and that made it even harder for new authors to break in to short-story writing than into novel-length fiction.

But with the advent of digital publishing, the size of a book became less important. A short story can be distributed as easily and at roughly the same cost as a novel, so suddenly there was a market for short fiction again.

As with any product, perceived value is a key factor in determining sales. In other words, does the buyer feel like he or she got a good deal – was it worth what you paid for it?

Here’s where 99 cents was huge. If an indie novel costs somewhere between three and 10 bucks (the price required to get Amazon’s better royalty, 70%), the perceived value on a short story wouldn’t be very high if it was in the same range. At 99 cents, though, it’s a bargain. Pay a dollar, get a quick read, and feel like it was worth it.

I follow this pricing strategy with my own books. My novels range between $2.99 and $4.99, and I have two short stories at 99 cents. The prices are set to create the right perceived value.

It worked well initially. In the early days of its published life, my short story, “Sleeping Beauty: A Modern Fairy Tale,” garnered four- and five-star reviews and netted comments like “Well worth the purchase price,” and “Definitely worth the money.” Readers saw value in the story they got for the money they paid, and “Sleeping Beauty” was easily my bestselling book.

Free Fall

All this started to change when Amazon began tweaking the way it did things. To reduce the demand for free eBooks, Amazon first altered its algorithms so that free downloads only counted as one-tenth of a paid sale. Then free books were no longer listed side by side with books in the paid store. Then the affiliate agreement changed so that only a small percentage of referrals could be for free products.

That last was the big one. It forced all those third-party referral sites to start focusing on bargain books more than on free ones. Free events became less and less successful for indie authors.

The net result of all these changes was a shift from free to 99 cents as the new standard for a bargain book. Ninety-nine cents became, in effect, the new free – the tease to get someone to try your material.

Value Perceptions Changed

You still can’t charge less than 99 cents on Amazon, so short stories can’t be marked down any further. With so many novels available at 99 cents, a 4000- to 8000-word short story is no longer a deal; it’s a rip-off.

My reviews of “Sleeping Beauty: A Modern Fairy Tale” reflect this trend. The comments now say things like, “finishes abruptly,” and “feels incomplete.” Where earlier remarks suggesting the reader wanted to know more were complimentary, they are now critical. My review average plummeted. Four- and five-star reviews became two- and even one-star reviews. The perceived value isn’t there for the reader anymore.

Short Futures

It seems then that the future of the short story is back to where it was before the digital publishing revolution. The market for them isn’t there. Downward pressure on novel pricing has made it impossible to offer individual short stories at a reasonable retail price.

Of course, the form isn’t dead, and there are people who want to read them. The best business approach to them, though, is to collect them into large volumes. Indie authors wanting to publish their short fiction should probably think about writing three or five stories and releasing them together rather than as individual pieces.

Without another seismic change in the market pushing novel prices up, the future of individually published short stories is history.

John R. Phythyon, Jr. wishes he were a superhero or a magician, but, since he has not yet been bitten by a radioactive spider or gotten his letter from Hogwarts, he writes adventure stories instead. He is the author of the Wolf Dasher series of fantasy-thriller mashup novels, as well as several short stories, a two-act comedy, and numerous game manuals. He won awards for the latter and hopes to make millions with the former. Connect with John on his website and his Amazon Author Page.

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25 thoughts on “Short Stories Have Been Priced out of the Market”

  1. Your last thought was what I did with some of my short stories–Who Listened to Dragons, Three Stories. By combining three, I thought the price of $0.99 was reasonable. I also used the stories as a lead to my fantasy novel, The Stone Dragon, set in the same universe as the stories.

    I agree that with so many novels available for free or for $0.99 that an author selling short stories has to create a package that is seen as worth the money to the reader.

    1. But given that argument, one might wonder why $8 novels sell at all. Yet they do. I know a number of indies who do fine selling ebooks at $6-10.

      I also know some writers who do fine selling short stories at $2.99 – often helped along by having a print version for $4.99, which improves the perceived value.

      Because value is all about perception. It’s not just about length. Many other factors have more impact on the price for which you can sell a work.

  2. My own experiences are very different. My short stories still sell slowly and steadily. No real change there. My novelettes (also 99 cents) do even better, but at 10-15k words that is to be expected.

    Ironically, I think the audience for quality short fiction (at least in science fiction and fantasy) is as strong as ever… But I find myself not wanting to write that short anymore for other reasons entirely! Because a novella (20-40k words) sells well at $2.99, and nets me about $2.09 vs 35 cents from a 99 cent 6-15k word short, it’s actually more efficient for the writer to produce novella length work than shorter ones.

  3. I am thinking of releasing a short story ebook. Currently, it is at about 7750 words and was wondering if you can give me some advice. Should I add more stories to it to make it longer? I kinda want to leave it “as is” and market it to younger teens and tweens. It consists of four stories.

    1. Lorraine, I would leave the length as is. If the story can be told in fewer words and is complete, I think the reader appreciates that there is no added fluff to maneuver through to get to the end of the story.

      If you need a Beta reader, please let me know. 🙂

  4. I published a collection of short stories last year. I had four new ones in the can and two that were previously published (online magazine sites), and I also included chapter one from two of my novels. And of course I have the buy links to my other work spread throughout the book.
    I play with the pricing. I’ve had it at 2.99 for the past few months and then put it out for free this week. Then, I’ll go back to 99 cents for a while. It’s not a loss-leader because it does produce a little bit of revenue but for the most part I use it to promote my other work.
    Good article, thanks for sharing your experience.

  5. Thank you, John, for sharing and I can see a few different ideas being aired here. This has helped me to decide on a project I’ve been considering for some time.

  6. Thanks for the insightful article. But I have to disagree with the statement … “individual short stories (not necessarily collections) are no longer viable.”

    I have had quite a different experience in the the two short story e-books (single short stories) I have published through Amazon KDP. I gave both away for free for five days (during any 90-day period) and have received very good reviews.

    They both are currently at 99 cents and it appears that as long as they are marketed up-front as a short story – implicitly, the reader knows what to expect in terms of length of the piece.

    This price point of 99 cents works for my offerings as my continued sales indicate there is currently still a market for short stories.

    My take on the pricing is this … It really depends on the targeted demographic, the age/maturity of the actual reader, and the topic of the short story as to whether the reader/purchaser thinks 99 cents is too much to pay for a single short story.

    Regardless, any business plan for marketing short stories should include the caveat that Amazon will most certainly change their pricing structure once again – before the ink is even dry on the paper of said plan.

    1. Glad to hear your stories continue to sell well!

      I did some free runs with “Sleeping Beauty” last year, and they were largely successful in terms of generating sales. However, the noticeable change in both sales and review ratings happened after Amazon altered the rules for affiliates, forcing affiliate sites to shift their emphasis to bargain books, which, in turn, in my opinion, caused authors to start offering novels at 99 cents (often as the intro book in a series) rather than focusing on free runs through Select.

      I think you’re dead-on that Amazon will change the game again. Then we’ll all be altering our strategies to adjust. It’s the way of life for us indie authors. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment!

  7. fascinating article & subject, read this last night on my phone before sleep, and wanted to comment, but not til i was more awake 😉

    i write and enjoy short stories (have been enjoying reading IU’s flash fiction anthology)

    the “comeback” of the short story does seem to have hit a perception-price problem, with a few people reporting they still do well with 99¢ shorts, but most people not

    i liked the comment too about having a print version to add value to the price of the digital; i have a couple of audio versions of some of my short collections,and they do (relatively) well

    but overall, i’ve found the same thing, folk are not wanting to pay for single shorts as much anymore, for lots of the reasons you mention john –

    however, i am finding a platform where shorts are not only easily available, not only affordable for the reader, but pay well for me, the author, and that’s via Scribd and Oyster’s selections of shorts on their subscription services

    I’m about 3 weeks in on their trial period, and very quickly am finding a large selection of shorts to choose from, can read as many as i like (along with longer work) and still pay just the one price – so, so far, i like it 🙂

    add that a “read” short pays the writer, last i heard, 60% of retail, and that jumps what we, as writers, usually make by almost double, even with a 99¢ story

    so i’m sending both subscription services all my shorts and short story collections, and hopefully they’ll be up for people to choose from soon, then i’ll have something more definite to go by whether this is as good an alternative as i hope it is

    meanwhile, best wishes john, and again, really liked the article, hope you have a follow-up 🙂

  8. Interesting post, John, and the comments are interesting, too. I have a few short stories for 99 cents each on Amazon. One has never done much of anything. The other three are prequels for my new series; I put them out individually last fall and then collected them into an anthology in November. The anthology is priced at $1.49 — it hasn’t done much, but it’s done better than the individual stories. I’m thinking I’ll drop the anthology to 99 cents and see if that makes a difference.

  9. John, my experience with shorts is schizophrenic. I released two standalone shorts last year – a revenge story and a Christmas story – that didn’t get much traction. I probably sold 300 copies between the two of them. However, I started releasing a serial in short form in December and that’s been a different experience. I got the idea to peg each segment of the story around a holiday, thinking that then I will always have a Christmas, Valentine’s, Thanksgiving story to promote in the future. That seems to have been a key element, because the first two are selling pretty well – both have spent time in the under 5K sales rankings in the overall Amazon store. I also had pretty good free runs with them (“pretty good” when taking into account that I didn’t pay to promote either of them): 4500 downloads for the Christmas story and 6,200 downloads for the Valentine’s story. The great news for me is that these stories have done an excellent job of funneling people to my mailing list. Personally, I estimate each addition to my mailing list as being worth $2.50 each (contact me if you’d like to see my math) and so I am looking at these stories as a great future earner for me. Finally, once I have the five shorts completed next December, I will bundle them all together in a novel-length book and release it that way. One other benefit is that it supplies fill-in material to my readers in between novels. I think that keeps people from floating away from me and losing interest.

    So, I can’t argue with you about the points you made about pricing – when you can get 80k books for .99, why pay that for a short – but I definitely see ancillary benefits to them. As soon as this little serial is done, I plan to launch another one!

    Thanks for the great article and discussion!

    1. As always, Shawn, I appreciate your wisdom.

      I think you’re onto something. With the shift in the market, you need a reason for people to buy short stories and think they are a good deal. Selling them in serial fashion may well be a viable answer, especially if you’ve got a dedicated fan base like you do. But you’ll also have the collection when you’re done, which mirrors my thoughts on how they can be successfully sold in the new market.

      Thanks for the comment!

  10. I just don’t think it’s worth charging anything for a single short story. There’s no valid price point for something that short that doesn’t devalue everything else in the current market climate. And there’s too much of a chance of getting trollish reviews because of the price.

    I have one published, my only piece of fiction, and I give it away as a sort of loss leader on Smashwords (it’s still 99-cents on Amazon since when you want them to match a price, it takes them for freakin’ ever). I just can’t see charging for something short. The same goes for the get-rich-quick -style books people can “write” in an hour.

  11. I sell GOBS of short stories on Smashwords for .99- 1.99 but hardly any on Amazon where my novels do much better being priced from 2.99- 6.99. I think the market is fickle. My novels hardly sell at all on Smashwords. And BN is a toss up of the two.Having several places to distribute just increases your chances of finding the right market for your work.

  12. I have to admit I am disappointed in what I thought was a huge potential with kindle with my stories. Then again- I dabble in the contemporary literature fiction genre which seems to be the slowest selling of the genres. Which is why I’m switching to novellas and the paranormal. I should think sales should pick up once I get a few on the market. I won’t give up on the shorts but I sure figured that kindle was an excellent format. But again- perhaps contemporary lit is on its way out as a popular genre for the general public.

  13. My collection of three short mysteries for 99 cents is my best seller. My single short story, same price, doesn’t do nearly as well. Good advice, John.

  14. As you said though, short stories have ALWAYS been a hard sell. And 35 cents is what some traditional authors make on the sale of a single mass market paperback. So getting 35 cents for a single short story sell isn’t all that bad. I do think your conclusion is correct, however. You have to bundle them, much like a magazine does. Or put several stories about the same character into one volume (those are the ones that sell best for me).

    You always have to go where the market takes you. And short stories are a difficult market. In this market they are better used as promotional tools. I ran free, send to kindle short stories, from multiple authors for 3 months before Christmas. Hopefully these stories introduced people to new authors and gave them a place to spend their Christmas money!

    1. These are some good observations, Maria. Working with a single short stories or a group of three or so short stories is a good way to introduce longer works. Also, eventually, collecting the published short stories into a longer work that includes new stories can also be a project down the writing road.

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