The Value of Starbucks?

Posted: February 4, 2016 by ajbrown in Writing
Tags: , , , ,

Hey. Come here. Pull up a chair. Don’t worry about it scraping across the floor—they already need to be refinished, but that won’t happen for a while. It’s okay if you get close, unless of course, you had onions or some other nasty smelling food that stinks up your breath. If that’s the case, here’s a Mentos, now come in and sit down. Trust me, you want to sit down. I have no clue how long this will take.

Today, I want to talk about something that is akin to churches asking for bigger offerings when they pass the plate. I’m saying I’m not sure how this blog will go over.

Recently, a friend of mine went on a rant about how people complain about the costs of books—especially eBooks—these days. What makes this interesting is I had a conversation with another friend about something similar. Instead of complaining about the costs of eBooks, we discussed what all it takes and how much time goes into creating a book (it doesn’t matter if it is an e-book or a print book, though print does take a little longer, the concept is the same).

I think I may have to break this up into sections so I can stay focused. Are you comfortable? Do you need a different seat? A cup of coffee? (That’s an appropriate question, considering the example I’m going to use.) Do you need to run to the bathroom before we get started? Go take care of all of that, and then come back. In the meantime, I’m going to get started.

Exhibit A: A Cup of Coffee, Anyone?

I love coffee. So does my wife. However, I only drink coffee that I make at home in my trusty Mr. Coffee pot. My wife is a little different than I am on that respect. Yes, she drinks the coffee I make in Mr. Coffee, but she also likes Starbucks. Personally, I don’t care much for the burnt coffee taste that is so strong it can put hair on your tongue.

Sure, they have their seven hundred million combinations and you can get it frapped, capped, iced and hot. You can get expresso (whatever that is) and a double shot of your favorite flavor. You can get them Short, Tall, Grande, Venti, and Trenta. I find the sizes confusing. Short is kind of like a basic coffee size. Tall is really a small. Grande is medium, venti is large and Trenta is the horse trough size. I’m not even sure Trenta is a real word. I think they just made that one up to sound fancy. (Okay, fine. It is a real world. It is Italian for ‘thirty.’ Whatever.)

For the sake of this post, I am going to stick with what Cate gets: a Grande vanilla latte with extra vanilla. I asked her a series of questions about her Starbucks experience. Here they are:

How long do you stand in line, on average before ordering? Two-three minutes.

How long do you wait after ordering? Five minutes, unless it is a busy day, then it could be up to ten minutes.

How much do you pay, on average? Between four and five dollars, if it is just me.

How long does it take you to drink it? If it is a hot drink, fifteen minutes, because I don’t want it to get cold. If it is an iced coffee, half an hour.

Thank you, Babe. I appreciate your time.

So, let me do a little math, and I am going to use the high end of the numbers Cate gave me: 3 + 10 + 30 + 20 (for the heck of it) = 63 minutes or just over an hour from the time she orders her drink until the time she is finished with it (if it’s an iced coffee).

Keep that number in mind.

Exhibit B: Putting Out a Book

For this part of the post, I am going to use the discussion I had with my friend about the amount of time it takes to put a book together, from beginning to end. Unlike with the Starbucks coffee exhibit, in this case, I will use more conservative numbers. I am also going to use my latest release, A Stitch of Madness as the example.

Are you ready for this? Here we go. (Don’t adjust your screen—there is nothing wrong with the formatting of this section.)

The stories in ASOM were written over a period of years. Let’s just say each story took 5 hours to write (yes, that is very conservative).

Then it took 5 hours to edit each one.

That is now 30 hours of working time on the stories.

I rewrote all three of the stories, and the rewrites took longer than the actual writing.

Let’s just say 7 hours went into each rewrite

Catherine’s Well was rewritten on four separate occasions. That’s 28 more hours just on that story.

So that is a total of 58 hours so far.

Stitches was rewritten twice.

Up to 72 hours.

A Sickly Sweet Scent was rewritten six times with three different endings (that is a total of 42 hours on those alone).

That is 114 hours.

Then there was the whole finding a publisher thing.

Thankfully, in this case it only took about 6 actual hours of researching and shopping it out. Stitched Smile Publications picked it up immediately.

120 hours so far.

That is three full work weeks.

But wait, I went back and edited the stories again after it was picked up. Why did I do that? I wanted it to be as good as I could make it before their editors went through it. That took about 18 hours.

Up to 138.

Then I formatted the book, reformatted it because the page numbers didn’t come out right in the print edition.

That took about 6 hours.

Now we are up to 144 hours.

Then I formatted it for the digital versions.

Fortunately, I had already formatted it for the print edition and only needed to change the TOC.

Add another 4 to it.

That is now 148 hours.

Now, you may be asking yourself, ‘Why did he do the formatting? Isn’t that the publisher’s job?’ Sure, it is, but SSP allowed me to be very hands on with the things I wanted to be hands on with, and hands off on the things I’m not all that good with. I believe a publisher and its authors should work together and help each other.

Then came all of the promoting and talking back and forth to the publishers, the contracts, all of the time it took to get the book out there. That’s an ongoing process, so let’s just cap it off at 12 hours.

That is 160 hours of work, and that is being conservative.

I got paid exactly ZERO dollars for around 160 hours of work. That is four full work weeks at forty hours a week. Remember, that is the conservative totals, and I left out several steps to boot.

Exhibit C: Minimum Wage and the Cost of a Book

The average for minimum wage in the United States is between seven and eight dollars. For this, we are going to split the difference and call it: $7.50. Now, let us do some simple math: 160 hours multiplied by $7.50 = $1200. If I got paid minimum wage as a writer, that would be the amount of money I would have made over that four work week period.

Now, let’s say the cost of an e-book is $2.99, but let us go ahead and round it up to a cool $3.00. In order to make minimum wage for one hour of work on A Stitch of Madness, I would have to sell two and a half eBooks.

Remember that 160 hours? Multiply that by 2.5. That is a total of 400 eBooks that would need to be sold (this is not including taxes or any other deductible) in order for me to make minimum wage writing a book based on the 160 work hours that went into it. Now, I don’t know what my sales numbers are right now, but I’m almost positive it isn’t 400 books worth.

One more thing to keep in mind here: that four work weeks of time is done an hour here, three hours there, two hours here and so on. It’s not like a writer with a full time job can sit for six or seven or ten hours a day and work on the books. It is a commitment.

Exhibit D: Back to Starbucks We Go

Let’s go back to Starbucks for a minute. Remember my wife? Remember how much time she said she spent from the time she got in line at the Starbucks until the time she finished her Grande Vanilla Latte? That’s right, one hour. And remember how much she said she spends each time she gets one? Between four and five dollars. Again, we will split the difference and base it on the 160 hours mentioned above.

Time for math again: 160 X 4.50 = $720.

Even if we only counted the cost of a coffee at Starbucks it would take one and a half eBooks to buy one Grande Vanilla Latte. It would take 240 books to buy 160 Starbucks coffees. Crazy, I know. Why would anyone want to buy coffee at Starbucks 160 times?

Exhibit E: Value

I’ve stated on numerous occasions over the last few years that people value things differently. By value, I mean, how much would you pay for something you want? I’ll give you a couple of examples:

I don’t like steak. Yeah, I know. Who doesn’t like steak? Umm…me. Since I don’t like steak I am not going to spend $15.00 at a steakhouse for one. I don’t care if they come with baked potatoes on the side—a baked potato is worth only so much. A steak holds very little value to me.

Many folks value their Starbucks coffee and will spend more than that five bucks my wife spends on it. They value that coffee and are willing to pay what I consider too much for it.

Each person values things at a different level and different price. I hope that makes as much sense to you as it does in my head.

Exhibit F: Devaluing Art

Art is subjective. Everyone has an opinion about it. I don’t care much for Taylor Swift songs. I just don’t. Are they good? Sure they are. Are they my cup of tea? No. Would I listen to them on an everyday basis or throw one of her albums on and listen to them on the trusty headset? No. That doesn’t mean her songs are not art.

I have a friend who paints and draws some of the most amazing images. He sells them. Recently, he had been commissioned to do a painting for someone. They agreed on the price. He got to work, finished the picture and let the guy know. Before the customer even looked at the painting, he wanted my friend to lower the price. This did not sit well with my friend, and an argument ensued.

‘I can order similar pictures online for half the price.’

My friend ended up not selling the piece. His work was devalued by the customer because of what he could get online. Sad but true.

That brings us to eBooks. Are they real books? Yes, yes they are. It takes a lot of work to put out any book, eBooks included. Is it something you can hold in your hands? Is it tangible? Yes, yes it is, though maybe not as tangible as a paper book where you have to flip the page to turn it (and not just swipe a screen with your finger), or dog ear or use a bookmark so you don’t lose the page you are on when you close the book.

The problem? ‘It’s an eBook. It shouldn’t be so expensive.’ Answer me this: why not? Why should we charge less for the same amount of work? You wouldn’t take a job making less than someone else doing the exact same job would you? So, why charge less than what a book is worth?

‘It’s not a print book, so there is no paper involved.’

True. So why not cut the price by twenty percent instead of seventy to eighty? Most paperbacks these days cost around ten to fifteen dollars, but let’s use the lower end of that for now. If I sell one paperback for $10.00 (which is still cheap) I would have to sell three eBooks and still not make the same amount of money as I did the print version.

The same amount of work went into creating the book—the art, if you will—but one version of it is discounted significantly, partially because it is not paper.

Exhibit G: Authors Do Not Rake in the Dough

I probably shouldn’t do this, but do you remember that $3.00 price tag for an eBook? Let’s just say you purchased it for your Kindle. Well, the author doesn’t make three bucks. Nope, the author only makes a percentage of that. There are two basic royalty amounts on Amazon: 35% and 70%.

If an eBook is purchased at $3.00 and the royalty is set for 70%, the author makes $2.10. Selling two eBooks at that price won’t even get you one Starbucks coffee. Take that same price at 35%. That comes to a whopping…$1.05. That would be the amount of money an author makes per eBook sold.

Want a little perspective? It would take selling 7 eBooks at $3.00 with a 35% royalty rate in order to make the average minimum wage in the United States.

But why 35%, you ask? Well, there is this thing call KDP Select. If you enroll your title into KDP Select you can get that 70% royalty, but your book also gets added to the Kindle Free Lending Library, which means the author isn’t making 70% if it is ‘borrowed’.

Exhibit H: Let’s Put This All Together Now

Let me go ahead and state this: Not everyone will agree with me on this blog post. Some may even be argumentative about this. Are the numbers accurate for everyone? No. They are numbers based on my experience and royalties I have received on sells of my books.

Here is where the rubber meets the road. Most authors write because they enjoy it. Yes, we want to make money. If we didn’t then many of us would stick to writing and our stories would never see the light of day. Why? Because it takes so much time to do all of the other stuff involved that is not writing in order to get the work published.

Writers like to entertain people. Writing is difficult, just as most art forms are. It may be easy for some, but not for most. Sometimes it is agonizing.

I’ve said all of the stuff above to kind of paint a picture of a writer’s life who has a full time job (not one who can afford to write for a living). It takes hours and hours of hard work and commitment to complete a book and get it ready for publishing. I left out all the stuff about rejections from editors and agents and publishers. I left out all the criticism writers face. I left out a lot of stuff on purpose—it just didn’t fit what I was going for.

Here is what I won’t leave out: You, the reader, can make a difference in a writer’s life. You can.

‘How?’ you ask? Great question. Here is how: Buy their work. Don’t get it for free through Amazon Prime (yes, I know you pay for the service, but it doesn’t help the writers you like). Read the book. Review the book (this is a very important step, but that is a topic for later). Let other folks know about it through social media or by mouth. Like their author pages, both on Facebook and Amazon (if they have one). Subscribe to their blogs and newsletters (you will get to know more about your favorite authors that way). If you can, drop them a line and let them know you enjoy their work. Those little notes are great ego boosters. When you can, purchase the print books. If you can get them directly from the author, do that (and if it is in your heart, pay more than what they are selling it for. By doing this, you are placing a value on their work, and that is as important for the writer as most anything else you can do). If you ask, they will probably sign the book for you.

And don’t complain about the price of the book. When you break it all down, writers make very little money on hours and hours of work.

Exhibit I: One More Thing And, Yeah, It Is Important

I will never put my books up for free on Amazon. I won’t. I don’t understand the concept of it. Don’t get me wrong, I do understand the concept of giving work away in order to get new readers. I do that each month with The Brown Bag Stories. But, as I stated above, with authors making so very little money off of eBooks priced at $3.00 a piece, then why give it away at even less than the marginal amount we do make?

KDP Select allows for five days throughout the term of the book’s enrollment into the program where the author or publisher can make the book free to purchase. Free to purchase isn’t purchasing. To purchase something you have to spend something on it in return. If no money is spent, then there is no purchase made. Sure, there are downloads to be had, but I have a problem with giving books away for free on Amazon.

Would you like to know why? Sure you would.

A lot of people will download a book for free and never read it. They see it’s free and download it, just in case they decide they want to read it. Does it help a writer’s numbers? Not really. Sure, your numbers will jump and your rank will increase, but if everyone who downloads the book for free were interested in it in the first place, maybe they should have paid for it.

Here’s the other thing, and this is going to come across as harsh, but this is my opinion: if someone who wasn’t willing to spend $3.00 on your book downloads it for free, the value of your book–your hard work–is $0.00 to them. Let that sink in for a minute. Basically, that is saying all of your time and energy and care, all of the love you put into creating the best possible book you can has a net value of zero dollars.

Also, if one thousand people download it, you still make nothing, and there goes the potential of a thousand customers. So remember, 70% of zero is still zero.

Here’s another way of looking at it: Would you work a job for 160 hours for free? Before you answer this question, think about it. Would you go to a job and work at that job for forty hours a week for four weeks knowing you would get no compensation for your time and energy? I bet the majority of people will say ‘no.’ If you wouldn’t work a job for free, please, don’t make your favorite writers do the same thing.

In Conclusion

 I’ve wrestled with this topic for a while now. Some people probably won’t care much for it. Some people may even say I’m just screaming for attention. Call it what you want. Like I said at the beginning, this might be viewed the same as being asked to pay tithes at your local Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Catholic, and a whole slew of other churches. It might be unpopular.

I know a lot of really good writers, most of whom you have probably never heard of, all of whom are passionate about their work. You may not even know who I am. You may have stumbled upon this blog or had someone share it with you and you have never heard of A.J. Brown. That’s okay. It is what it is and it ain’t what it ain’t.

This business is hard. Finding readers is difficult. Finding readers who become fans is even more difficult. Making money? Yeah, that’s a luxury most of us don’t have (myself included). Making a living at this? That isn’t even close to a luxury.

If you have stumbled across someone whose work you enjoy, let them know. Spread the word about their books, leave reviews for them, purchase their work. I’m not talking about myself here (unless, of course, I am your favorite writer). I’m talking about all of us who do this with a passion and a heart for writing.

For now, I’m going to go switch on Mr. Coffee and do a little writing. These stories aren’t going to write themselves. I’m on the clock, now. Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.









  1. Joan MacLeod says:

    I don’t drink coffee never have but I totally agree with you. When I see the long lines at the drive through for Tim Horton’s I always think make your own damn coffee at home. It’s cheaper and doesn’t tie up traffic. Also once the coffee is drank it’s gone not so with an ebook you can actually go back and read it again if you’d like. Great blog boss.

    • ajbrown says:

      I agree, Joan–once the coffee is gone, you can’t get it back. Well, you can, but that would be pretty gross. But a book…now that is something you can hold onto.

  2. Becky Narron-Heath says:

    Your books are priceless! No amount of money could repay the time, love and enjoyment I get from reading!

  3. unsaintly says:

    Reblogged this on Stitched Smile Publications and commented:
    From Author A.J. Brown, a look into one of the struggles of being an author.

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