Slashdot has the story of independent writer John Locke, who writes crime novels and sells them as e-books on Amazon for 99 cents. He’s sold 350,000 copies since January, which was a 20x improvement over his sales rates when he was selling them for $2.99.

Publishers hate the idea. There’s not enough perceived value in a 99-cent book. Looking at it from an author’s perspective, I don’t think it’s necessarily bad.

About 11 years ago, I was approached with a book proposal. Write a book about building a Linux PC. We didn’t talk advance, but my royalty on each copy sold was going to be 25 cents. Of course I was insulted, but I talked to some other authors, and yes, that’s what this particular publisher paid in royalties.

I said no fairly quickly. If I thought the book would sell 100,000 copies, I would have been willing to do it. At 50,000 copies I would have been hesitant, but willing. But if the book only sold 10,000 copies, that wasn’t worth six months of my life. And I thought the size of the audience was more along the lines of 10,000 than 100,000.

But that shows that writers are already used to getting pocket change per book, and making it up in volume. Publishers may be hesitant to get on board, but they may not have much choice.

Consider what happened with my book. It received a glowing review in Canada, so what happened? Well, it cost about $25 US. That’s an hour or two’s wages for the book’s audience, so some percentage of people just aren’t going to pay that. But the book sounded worth it, to some people. So they drove to the nearest book store, where there might be a copy in stock. If not, they’ve just wasted a trip, and now they’re disappointed. Some then went and ordered it off Amazon, but some just gave up and probably forgot about it.

99 cents is an impulse purchase. People will eagerly spend more than that on a caffeinated soda to get them through the afternoon. At that price, it’s worth buying even if there’s only one chapter that’s useful to you. So if my $25 trade paperback had been a 99-cent e-book, who knows how many more copies it would have sold.

And that price kills the used market. How many different people read the typical mass-market fiction book? It wouldn’t surprise me if the number was five or six, but only the first purchaser pays full retail. Divide the cover price by six, and you’re not far from that 99-cent impulse price. And there’s no printing and distribution overhead. Just editing.

So under this scenario, I think authors win. Publishers don’t lose as badly as it would appear. Consumers lose the right to re-sell their used books, but at 99 cents, they won’t complain. When they sell their used books, they sell them at a 75% loss, or more. Call it a net win. The losers are the bookstores and their landlords, who are selling to a steadily eroding audience.

Some people my age or older don’t want to read a book on anything but paper. But some people my age and younger, now that they can get an e-reader and carry a library with them everywhere, read more than they ever did before. And believe me, those people talk.

Now, the question is, if it takes me 6 months to write a book, is 99 cents the right price to charge? Perhaps some books need to be a bit higher. But to me, $9.95 for an e-book is ridiculous. There’s no reason for that pricing, with the cost of printing and most of the cost of distribution eliminated from the equation.