12/22/2011 07:02 pm ET | Updated Feb 21, 2012

How Much Is a Book Worth?

Recently, I was nosing around a local bookstore in search of a perfect Christmas read for my father-in-law. He's a history buff; last year I gave him the stellar book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. He's still raving about it. What can I possibly give him this year to top that?

As I shopped, I was distracted by prices. I'm still trying to claw my way out of debt incurred over the past few years through a tricky combo of college tuition bills and my husband's various layoffs. I often save money by borrowing books from the library. I frequent used bookstores and treasure hunt through the lonely remaindered books at Barnes & Noble. If a book isn't free, it's rare for me to pay more than $5 for it.

Except, that is, when I love a certain author -- then I go hog wild and get the hardcover -- or when I feel guilty. My guilt is brought on by the fact that I am a writer who sells words for a living. Over the past few years, I have been the book doctor or ghost writer for several celebrity memoirs. I have also published a memoir of my own through a division of Random House. I would love to have people buy the books I write, so that I can keep doing what I love. Therefore, I feel compelled to buy books by other writers.

But which books are worth buying? And how much should you pay for them?

These are increasingly complex questions in this Wild West of self-publishing and e-books.

The Kindle and Nook are arm-wrestling for our attention. Without editors acting as gatekeepers for many books, and with the demise of book review sections in our newspapers -- hell, what newspapers? -- it's hard to know what's worth our precious time, never mind our money.

When my husband gave me a Kindle for my birthday, I immediately went for the deals. For instance, I paid $2.99 for Toby Neal's Blood Orchids, which I read on the train to New York, along with various other books by authors I hadn't tried before, simply because they bore that ever-popular promotional price tag of $.99. Heck, I can't even purchase a pack of gum for that money!

Several of my editor friends feel strongly that the self-publishing wave is one more example of civilization marching over a cliff. Lemming-like readers, they say, can't anticipate the plunge into bad writing, so they end up in the choppy, cruel waters of mean metaphors and sharp-toothed punctuation gaffes.

Um, was that a mixed metaphor?

It's true that there are a lot of bad (and badly edited) books out there. It's also true that publishers have helped bring this on themselves by giving million-dollar (or more) advances to certain writers or celebrities, and spending their advertising budgets to back up those advances, then acting surprised when the books don't earn out.

It's no news flash that traditional publishers, which once gave writers time to build their reputations, now expect a writer to earn back an advance immediately, if not sooner. If that doesn't happen, the writer is kicked right out of the stable, off to find another publishing home -- or to roam the Wild West with the other raggedy Mustangs.

One writer friend of mine, who has been nominated for the National Book Award and has earned a flotilla of other literary prizes, has published seven books. Despite the high praise consistently coming her way from every literary quarter, and despite modest advances, she has earned royalties on only one novel. She works full-time as a university professor to support herself and her three children, grabbing what writing hours she can on weekends, summers, and, if she has the energy, at night.

Another writer friend, who has authored parenting books and popular chick lit titles under two different names for the past twenty years, told me recently that she used to hate seeing that quarterly royalties statement from her publisher in the mailbox.

"You know the one I mean," she said, "that piece of paper that shows how many books you've sold, and then gives you that negative number under your advance, because you still owe the publisher money?"

I do, indeed, know all about that awful reckoning, having received my own royalty statements for my memoir, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter. That book was considered a success by many at Random House, in the sense that the book earned positive reviews and was even showcased in several magazines, including the issue of People magazine with Michael Jackson on the cover soon after his death. I earned a modest advance for that book, but I have yet to see a royalty check two years later.

My friend had to change her name because her third novel did so badly. The publisher wanted to give her a fresh start as a debut novelist. The gamble paid off: recently, she got a statement for her last novel, a fun romantic read that was picked up by a major book club. "I opened the envelope at the mailbox, thinking I'd toss it into the recycling bin before I even got into the kitchen," she said. "But then a check for $11,000 fell out!"

She had to lie down. So did I, when she told me that story, if only out of envy.

There are, of course, a handful of writers who must be living quite comfortably on royalties and movie deals. I'm sure you can name them as well as I can. But, for most writers, earning a living is a scramble. A fun scramble, but still. Making that next mortgage payment can be a challenge if there's no benefactor or spouse whose job includes health benefits.

In the end, I've decided to canter through the tumbleweeds into the sunset. My first novel, Sleeping Tigers, will be available just before Christmas. (Yes, this blog post is shameless self-promotion.) I'm self-publishing it -- a novel vetted by my agent and several writer friends -- and I think it's a good book. But how much is my novel worth?

I have to decide, since I'm the one in charge here, and it's tough. I earned an MFA in creative writing and I've been working as a writer for over 20 years. My previous book earned great reviews. I've won awards for my short stories. But does any of that really matter, when you're suffering the stigma of the self-published?

I have to charge a certain amount -- a bit over $10 -- for the paperback to make back production costs plus a dollar for me, since it's print-on-demand. But what about the e-book? Should I go for that whopping price of $2.99, like Toby Neal?

Or would it be better, as my son urges, "to just charge $.99 for your e-book, Mom, because anybody will spend that much money. And you don't care if they read it. You just want people to buy your book."

Well, as a matter of fact, I do care if people read my book. Does $2.99 say that I'm worth reading? Or am I still better off charging less than a dollar and letting people find that out for themselves? What does any of that matter, anyway, since I obviously don't write novels to pay the mortgage?

Meanwhile, back to Christmas shopping. If I buy my father-in-law a hardcover, it'll cost upwards of $20 even with my friendly independent bookstore discount. If I go online and read book reviews, I'll end up surfing various book blogger sites and reading Amazon customer reviews, checking out all of the writers vying for attention with book trailers and giveaways and Twitter feeds and blogs of their own, crying, "Look at me! Look what I can do! How much is my book worth?"

Which, when you're a writer with a writer's ego (this I know, being one myself), translates into: "How much am I worth? Do you love me? Please love me!"

My own memoir, for the record, has been out in paperback for a year. You can order it through your local bookstore for $14 (a price set by the publisher) or buy it for your Kindle for $9.99 (a price also set by the publisher). Now come on. Who would do that, with so many books out there for $.99?

But wait! On Amazon, you can also buy my book in paperback, new, for just $.94 plus shipping--or used for $.01! Now that's what I call a bargain basement read!

So tell me. How much is any book worth?

And what does the price of a book say about the author who wrote it?