The Price of a Book: Why Streets of Gold Costs $5.24

The Price of a Book: Why Streets of Gold Costs $5.24

The people and locations in this blog post have been changed.

Most new novels cost $14.99 for the digital version and significantly more for hardcover or paperback. I didn’t want that. After obsessing over every word on the page, it didn’t make sense to follow the standard, generic pricing convention, which was calculated to suck out as much money from readers as possible. Instead, I wanted the price of STREETS OF GOLD to be a part of the story, so I stepped away from the comfort of my desk and drove to the garment district in Los Angeles. This may sound strange for a book about a young gang pledge and a wealthy business scion, but allow me to explain.

At noon on a Friday I drove into the southeast shadows of downtown. The signs call it the "fashion district," but it's more like a street market--instead of freshly picked produce and bloody meat the shops sell a range of clothes that will never find their way to a department store.

I asked one of the owners, a woman who spoke broken English and had curly hair dyed purple, where she got her clothes. She was skeptical, as if I was going to open up the shop next to her and slash prices even though undercutting seemed impossible (sharpied neon orange paper said the pants were only 3 for $19.99).

“I’ve written a book and want to figure out what it should cost,” I said. Rightly so, she was confused and pointed east, so I drove that direction. The storefronts quickly faded into barren buildings marked with an increasing number of gang tags and broken second and third story windows. I used google maps to search “cut and sew,” and it directed me to an unmarked door down a small, un-trafficked street. A chain wrapped around the sliding fence across the front door, so I walked around back, where a homeless couple slept under a couch turned so the seat served as a roof. The back entrance was propped open and I looked inside to find about five lines of tables occupied by Hispanic and Chinese women at sewing machines. I stepped inside and all eyes looked up. For some reason, I felt like I’d been busted, caught doing something incredibly wrong. I didn’t know what to say, and before I had the chance to think, an Asian woman at a table with an old computer came up to me. “No,” she said. “Go.” She shooed me off.    

Scared and sweating, I jogged back past the homeless couple—now awake—and into my car. I started to drive home, with nothing but failure in the passenger seat and the resignation that I’d just price my book like all the others. I had to remind myself why I’d set out on the mission in the first place. Streets of Gold is fictional, it’s a thriller, it’s all about a 14-year-old named Scooby who must complete an unthinkable act only to be interrupted by a rich playboy named Tom, but (without adding any spoilers) it also speaks for all classes of people in our cities . . . from the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor. With such a theme, it didn’t feel right to price the book for only the former. My intention had been to enable anyone to afford Streets of Gold for under an hour’s worth of wages. So, why wouldn’t that be the national minimum wage of $7.25? Because in doing research I learned that many people in our country get paid far less in what’s known as “informal economies” involving “wage theft,” and the garment industry is one of the biggest culprits.

On my way home, I tried to google what anyone in an informal economy could actually make on an hourly basis, and all I found was a study from nearly ten years ago that said a migrant female garment worker makes around $8,000 per year, but it didn’t break down the hours, which are typically more than 40/ week. Plus, a ten-year-old study doesn’t necessarily reflect today’s reality. The options were clear, fail or . . . I turned my car around and headed back to find another cut and sew shop.

Google was out of results (that type of company is rarely listed), so I parked outside a four-story building. Through broken windows I could see giant rolls of textile on the top floor.

To find the entrance I had to walk around the whole building twice. It ended up being in the back of a tiny convenience store, the register guarded by bulletproof glass. Taped on the far wall was printer paper with five vague company names; one was crossed out. A narrow stairwell with cement walls covered in thick paint led upwards. At the base of each floor a steel door with a hefty bar lock from the outside guarded the hallways.

The only thing keeping this from locking  from the outside is the small pin lock at the top propping the door open.

The only thing keeping this from locking  from the outside is the small pin lock at the top propping the door open.

I entered through the cell door on the fourth floor. It was just like the first sewing shop—Rows of tables, machines humming. This time there was no manager, just the women, mostly Hispanic this time.

“Hola,” I said. No response. After two years of Spanish in college, I barely remembered enough to piece together, “cuantos dollores haces por hora?”

The women just stared at me. I tried to say it another way, and one woman responded, “No comprende.”

It wasn’t clear if she didn’t understand me, or if she didn’t get the concept behind an hourly wage. I realized the latter was entirely possible as many garment workers are paid on a per item basis. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to follow-up with additional questions since a man appeared behind my back.

He yelled at me, too loud and fast to understand any of the words. I held up my hands and shimmied past him on the way back to the stairwell. The thought of the door now being latched shut shot through my mind, but it wasn’t. I hit the stairwell hustling down to the third floor, where I paused. I didn’t hear anything other than the light footsteps of a worker heading upward. She was young, maybe mid twenties, and wore her hair in a bun. “Excuse me,” I asked. “Do you speak English?”

“English . . . No.”

“Yo tango una pregunta.”

She looked around nervously. “Sí.”

When I asked the same questions about hourly wages, she had a similar confused response, but did say, “No mucho.”

“Por un articulo?” I tugged on my jeans since I didn’t know if articulo translated anywhere close to item of clothing.

“Un dólar y cincuenta centavos.”

With no idea what that meant, I repeated it in my head so I could look it up later, then had one more question to ask. Before I could spit it out, the thump of a boot on cement stairs pounded from above. It made the young woman nervous. She started to walk away, but I asked. “Cuantos por hora.”

“No sé,” she whispered, then turned back to me. “Tres o cuatro.” She slipped off through the door that led to the third floor shops. The footsteps continued toward me, so I headed downward. They seemed to get closer. I glanced over my shoulder and saw a man, but couldn’t make out his face. Maybe the manager from the shop. He was close, running now. He had probably demanded his laborers tell him what I’d asked, and then assumed I was a journalist or worse, a regulator. I hustled, trying not to look guilty.

Exiting the stairwell and back in the convenience store, he jumped right behind me. I spun.

The man ran past and out the front. It wasn’t the shop manager, but my heart was pounding out of my chest and I sensed a suspicious look from the cashier behind the bulletproof glass, so I picked up a pack of gum and asked if they accepted credit. When he said no, I acted disappointed and shot out of the building.

In the car, google translate told me the woman had said she was paid $1.50 per item and could complete 3 or 4 items per hour. Averaged out that equals $5.25 per hour. I’d almost found the price of my novel.

Keep in mind, this was never intended to be a masterpiece of investigative journalism, nor is it an entirely accurate representation of what some workers are paid in our country (it may be impossible to find this REAL number). Instead, it speaks to a theme. While it’s trendy to discuss raising minimum wage to upward of $15/ hour, that won’t necessarily impact the workers spending twelve hours a day sewing garments, nor will it help the young men who choose to join gangs because they can’t find a job. In order to ensure anyone in America can buy the novel for less than an hour’s worth of work, I had to charge less than the woman in the stairwell makes; that is why STREETS OF GOLD costs $5.24.

*This price is for the e-book. Unfortunately, the print copy would lose money, so I took the lowest multiple of this number (3 x 5.24) that would still be profitable which led to $15.72 for the paperback edition.

About STREETS OF GOLD

Hustle the beautifully gritty streets of Los Angeles in the shoes of a 14-year-old gang pledge and a wealthy entrepreneur playboy who live a mile apart but would never cross paths . . . until now.  

Scooby grew up believing a brutal LA gang, the Lords Latino, was responsible for putting food on his family’s table. Now, still too young to shave, he has a chance to join his brother in the gang and help provide for his baby sister. First, though, he must survive initiation: being beaten—possibly to death—or committing an unthinkable crime.

In the same city but a different world, payday loan scion Tom Milford would rather be partying the night away with (yet another) model, but after insensitive comments land his company in a PR quagmire, his very public act of contrition takes him to a rough-around-the-edges part of town, where bad timing places him at the center of Scooby’s initiation.

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Their violent clash triggers a series of events that rapidly spirals out of control, putting both lives in the crosshairs and bringing tensions that have long simmered just below the city’s surface to a boil, drawing young and old, poor and rich, powerful and powerless into a battle that threatens to destroy them all.

Related Articles:

Al Jazeera Study of wages in Los Angeles Garment Shops

Global Informal Economies: Half workers are off books

U.S. Informal Economies greater than 2 Trillion