TL;DR: I ain’t doing it ever again.
I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it now: Many authors underprice their books. A few overprice their books to the extreme, but I find it’s the former I encounter the most.
But it’s not just authors.
Freelancers and service providers are similarly tempted to offer their hard work and expertise for a low price in order to “be competitive”. They fail to realize they will attract clients and customers who EXPECT low prices from them and others offering the same thing.
Earlier this year I removed the pricing from a few of my services listed on my website, particularly e-book formatting. Before coming up with a fixed price, I used to do it on a “love offering” basis. For the uninitiated, that’s basically a price based on the free will of the person for whom I’m formatting their manuscript into an e-book. A pay-what-you-want model.
At first I noticed that the people who gave me the highest offering were always hands-off and would just let me do my thing and trust my judgment. However, the clients who were the most demanding and nit-picky were always giving me offerings on the lower end of the spectrum.
Stiffed by Clients
I had one particular client who served as the pivot point for me that changed my mind.
He came from one of my two usual referrals, one being the editor I work closely with, and the other being a typesetter for print books. I figured if they had the money to pay for those professional services, then it stood to reason they would be reasonably easy and professional to work with.
In this case, the author had several unusual demands with his Word document which is not included in my formatting. I provide the final product — a mobi file for uploading on KDP, and an ePub file for the other online retailers.
I couldn’t make heads or tails out of the particular issues he was having with the Word document (in summary, fixing things he blundered up) and he wanted me to give him a price quote, as he didn’t want to “insult my dignity” by giving me too little for my work.
He also said there was no rush, which we will come back to in a moment. I’m also assuming he may have had dyslexia or a learning disability because all his emails read as though he didn’t read a single thing I said but just decided to write back and type things out and hit the ‘send’ button, anyway.
Less than 24 hours later I had the file ready for him. Even though it’s typical — even expected — for some back and forth between me and my clients over issues in the formatting that I’ll fix, there was an abnormally huge list of issues he had. This included things he had not actually mentioned he wanted me to take care of but now was upset that I hadn’t read his mind and known I was expected to.
We went back and forth many times that day through email. To make matters more unnecessarily chaotic, he refused to even use the native Kindle app on his tablet to check the file. Instead he used some other random thing he Googled, downloaded, and then complained to me he couldn’t open the mobi file with it. He finally found something that opened the mobi, but it butchered the heck out of the file and ruined a lot of the formatting, and didn’t display it properly as the Kindle App most certainly would have.
Why he refused to use a Kindle app still puzzles me when I think back on it. Despite my insistence that I know what I’m doing, and that a mobi file is best opened in the program that it’s designed for, there was no convincing him.
Keep in mind, this all happened within 24 hours of starting this project for him.
He had many images and diagrams in his book, and he was very particular about how he wanted them to appear in the e-book version which were basically impossible to guarantee since the appearance can be different on everybody’s device depending on their screen size (phone, tablet, e-reader, computer, etc…) and font choice and size, among other things are determined by the reader’s preferences.
After at least 30 emails back and forth, most of them me trying to explain something to him that he would ignore and do his own way, he told me this was taking way too long, and he no longer wanted me to do it and he would find someone else. Again, only 24 hours or so had passed since I had become email acquainted with him and started on this formatting job.
I politely wrote back that I had spent from 10pm the night before until 2am working on formatting his e-book, in addition to these emails back and forth with him the next day. He had already expressed he was going to generously offer me a whopping $50 for my work, and I politely suggested there’s nothing I can do if he won’t follow my instructions.
I knew I was getting the short end of the deal for all my work for a measly $50 now, but I kept my word anyway as I believe my integrity is more important than money. You can replace the latter if you lose it, the former not so much.
Needless to say, I ultimately worked for free. Six or seven hours of my time wasted, and nobody was going to be financially compensating me for it. And this was a “pastor” who I was “working” for, who initially was excited at the idea of financing me on the mission field by hiring me to do this for him.
Basically now I had wasted those hours and not gotten any “support” for it. Obviously that time could have been spent doing something more fruitful and kingdom-productive. But hey, who needs food when my wife and I have each other?
I was really annoyed and hurt, but I also have half a dozen other stories just like this one. But this occasion was the proverbial straw that broke this camel’s back, and I determined a few things going forward, at least for the time that followed:
- A flat rate for my work, no matter what.
- No work without being paid at least half up front, and then the other half upon completion (or instalments for larger projects). But regardless, I don’t start work on ANYTHING until I’ve SUCCESSFULLY received money in my hands, bank account, PayPal or whatever.
Sticking to this policy has not been without its flaws. Sometimes people get ticked at my quote and feel they should pay me for the amount of time I spend doing their book and not for my EXPERTISE and that my ability to do it fast is from years of experience getting good at this.
Pricing Per Project
Shortly after I started charging a flat-ish rate, I worked for a client who had a series of novels and a couple of non-fiction books for me to do all in the same week, and he, too, kindly refused to guess at how much the work was worth, and insisted I come up with a fixed amount and whatever it was, he would honor it. So I finally came up with $150/book. For a while. He even threw in a tip and I made $1250 USD from formatting just for this one client.
Whether the project was short or long.
Whether it had a lot of images or a few.
Whether it had many footnotes/endnotes or only a few…
… I was now charging a flat rate.
This was a mistake in the long run but a great job for that week.
He was reasonably pleasant to work with, and the nitpickyness in some instances was very easy to tolerate because I was making enough money — that I was happy about, anyway — doing this work for him. I felt he could complain about whatever he wanted and I could put up with it because of the paycheck.
After working for this client I changed the information on my services page to show that book formatting was now a flat $150. People could make payment to begin the process of giving me the files needed, and pay the first $75 up front, and receive a document automatically in their inbox listing what I’ll need from them to get started.
Around the same time I had two different broke Christian authors reach out to me about this, one wanting to know if I’d do his audiobook for him in addition to the e-book formatting. I gave him my usual rate for the audiobook, which is based on the project’s length/word count, and he agreed to this. I offered to throw in the e-book formatting for free as a bonus and send him an invoice. I can’t remember why, but he wanted me to create separate invoices, one for the e-book and the other for the audiobook which we would not begin working on until later in the fall. I did his e-book, and encountered a level of nitpickings I was a bit surprised by.
Sure enough, in a matter of weeks he emailed me to cancel my services for the audiobook. As a sidenote, while writing this I decided to look him up on Audible and I see he went with another narrator — which is fine, I don’t get offended! I assume this narrator had done it for royalty-share since the author wasn’t able or willing to pay much for audiobook production.
I won’t lie, this narrator’s voice was super silky smooth and I would rather listen to his voice than mine, but that’s just the competitive nature of the audiobook narration business.
Thanks for All Your Free Advice — Bye!
It was the second author of those two that took the cake for me. This project had a LOT of images. Uncopyrighted ones he had found a lot of on the internet from doing Google searches, and then placed them in the book where he wanted them.
Getting all the images to turn up just right in the e-book was obviously challenging, and he had many questions, and in the end was a notorious scope creeper. As in, he kept asking more and more than what I actually offered in my formatting: he wanted me to go find proper royalty-free images to replace the ones he was using in his book.
I declined, of course.
He wanted me to get him an ISBN and find a cover artist for him. I politely declined all the extra tasks as well, and gave him some referrals instead, as well as answered every question he would ask me in email, which were at least one per day for a while.
Did I mention he only paid the first half, and then due to circumstances beyond his control which I won’t say more about, wasn’t going to be able to pay the second half?
I forgot that detail?
Well, that’s what happened!
A long time went by and this author wrote me again, this time he wanted me to re-format his book because he had written more and it was now twice as long. Not a big deal since he had not published it on Amazon yet. But now he wanted me to also do the typesetting, which I had done more of for my clients by this time for their print books.
I told him that this time I would be charging my normal price, and not offering any discounts. We had several positive back and forth emails and the way I understood it was we were waiting on it to finished being edited.
From a volunteer.
First red flag!
Finally, after many months had gone by, I reached out and gently indicated I was going to need to know whether I’m moving forward on this project or not for him, as I had previously been hearing from him multiple times a day for every little question he had, and he had now been radio silent.
It turns out he had already gone ahead and had someone else do the formatting for him. That week he was publishing the book on Amazon.
OK. Well, thanks for telling me, bro!
What knocked the wind out of my sails in this case was not how many hours accumulated I had helped this particular author with all his questions and personal advice that I felt was very Google-able. It was all the value I was giving him, and he didn’t have the manners to let me know had changed his mind about all the things he had emailed me wanting me to do for him.
So in effect, I had formatted the first version of his book for him for half my normal price, but I did like 4 times the amount of work, and of course was left hanging in the end.
The Arts: A Skill, Not a Commodity
I get it.
I’ve been the broke missionary that people voluntarily helped with things like my website in the early days, and the first few books I self-published.
So do I ever get it.
I also cringe thinking about anybody I’ve overlooked whose help I forgot to appreciate with these sorts of things. There were many people who’ve given me their expertise cheap or at a discount, and I had gone out of my way to over-thank and do whatever I could to show my appreciation.
Over the years as my budget has grown from being a single guy on the mission field to being a father and a husband, I’ve fast learned that no, I can’t offer “competitive pricing” in order to get clients so they don’t go elsewhere instead. It results in my work being treated like a commodity. If somebody wants to get it cheaper somewhere else, they will and can. So, I let them!
I’ve got a family to provide for.
And a vision to fulfill that requires money.
Doing what I’m good at and pricing it too low makes me wind up busy doing work to earn money just to scrape by, and then I’m too busy to do the very things I’m on the mission field to do.
I’m going to end this post on that note, and I’ll explore the scarcity mindset versus the abundance mindset in a future post as I have time.