The Numbers on Self-Publishing Digital Fiction

Considering a title for this post, I was reminded of a post I wrote back in 2010, "The Numbers on Self-Publishing Long-Form Journalism." In 2009, I'd self-published, "They Shoot Porn Stars, Don't They?", a longform look at how the Great Recession impacted the adult movie industry. The piece was free for readers, so the numbers I wrote about in that follow up essay mostly focused on how many people had read it.

This week, I self-published "The Tumor," a beautifully designed, deeply horrifying digital short story about a husband, a wife, and the tumor that shows up to terrorize them. You can buy it directly from me on my website, and I'm charging $1.

Or am I?

Gumroad, the platform I'm using to process payments, has a payment option called Pay What You Want. You can read about how Gumroad does PWYW here. Of course, Gumroad didn't invent PWYW. Radiohead used the pricing strategy to sell In Rainbows. Stephen King used it to serialize The Plant. Panera Bread used it to hawk turkey chili.

According to Wikipedia:

"Pay what you want (or PWYW) is a pricing strategy where buyers pay any desired amount for a given commodity, sometimes including zero. In some cases, a minimum (floor) price may be set, and/or a suggested price may be indicated as guidance for the buyer. The buyer can also select an amount higher than the standard price for the commodity."

Gumroad enables you to utilize PWYW pricing by giving the seller (people like me) the option to add a "+" when setting the price for the product. I decided to charge $1 for "The Tumor," and I added the PWYW option. So the price for the buyer (people like you) appears as $1+. When you click to purchase, Gumroad's prompt next to the amount box reads: "Name a fair price." You can enter $1, or you can enter a bigger amount -- say, $3, or $5, or $1,000. It's up to you, the consumer. 

Why would you use PWYW? Well, for one, Gumroad asserts, "Pay-what-you-want products often make upwards of 20% more revenue." I'd already used PWYW with Gumroad because Clayton Cubitt is my friend, and a photographer, and people were emailing him with questions all the time -- you know, asking for advice -- so he created the InterroClayton. Basically, you can ask him a question, but you have to pay for the answer.

As Cubitt puts it:

"This $2 digital download entitles the purchaser to ask any single question of me and receive an honest answer to it in a timely fashion. It is a VIP ticket to my mind."

Way to monetize your brain power.

(Side note: You can also "sell" your stuff for free on Gumroad. One great thing about Gumroad is that you get to see who is buying your product. Unlike Amazon. Like I said before, Fuck Bezos. You won't be making money, per se, but, as Gumroad says, "It's a great way to get valuable data from your audience in exchange for giving them great content." Gumroad's got more on pricing and pay what you want here, and you can also check out their "Is Pay What You Want Pricing for You?" interview with author Tom Morkes, who wrote The Complete Guide to Pay What You Want Pricing. Also, Money has "A Brief History of Pay What You Want Businesses" and Louis C.K.'s role in it).

In any case, "The Tumor" is PWYW priced at $1+. So far, the average price people are paying for it is $2.77. The highest price paid thus far is $20, and $3 and $5 are popular amounts.


What's interesting to me here is not the money, or the pricing model, but the concept of value and who decides it. Is the black convertible Bentley that I see parked at the gym worth $226,000? Last year, Fiat started selling Maserati Ghiblis for $68,000, well below the rest of their $100,000-plus Maserati models, so what does that do to their brand and our perception of it, when randoms can afford a Maserati? Or, you know, why don't you just buy a Nissan Versa for $12,000 and call it a day because you don't need a car to tell the world your worth?   

Why would you pay $1 to read "The Tumor"? Why would you pay $20 to read "The Tumor"? What is "The Tumor" worth? What is its value? What service does it provide? What is the market value of a fiction?

Here's the first page of "The Tumor" (page design by Domini Dragoone):

Now, what would you pay to read the rest?