‘Who Decided Our Worth?’ Do Free Books Give Away Authors’ Value?


‘There’s Something Badly Wrong’

For those following the industry! the industry! in its digital melodrama, tossing books to the crowd free is not new.

But the question of whether today’s plethora of free offers may devalue books and/or authors in readers’ minds is not going away as easily as some folks wish it would.

The London-based author Roz Morris (both traditionally and self- published) became concerned enough about the issue this week to write Free book giveaways – when do they work? When don’t they? In it, she writes:

I’ll admit that I worry we give away our work too easily. If we create a culture where a book costs less than a sheet of gift-wrap and a greetings card, there’s something badly wrong. An ebook may not have material form, but it does give you more time and experience than something you glance at and throw away. And tellingly, the people who get cross with me for speaking out are the ones who say they refuse to spend more than a couple of dollars on a book, or berate me for not putting my books into Kindle Unlimited.

Indeed, the question of her headline — when do free books work? — is not the interesting part.

The key issue here is what people think of books, now that they frequently can be had for less than the paper they come wrapped in at Christmas.

The “free” debate is a worthy one, in part because it points to a confusion about what the digital dynamic represents. And this frequently is lost in the self-publishing world — where seldom is heard an unemotional word.

(1) What “digital” is about is distribution. It makes it possible to move content of several kinds around much more easily and less expensively than before. It makes it possible for you to publish a book yourself — also to make a film, record an album, devise a video game.

(2) What “digital” is not about is art — or even entertainment. While digital means you can publish a book, it doesn’t mean you can write your way out of a Starbucks bag. You may be awful. And you can publish. You may be radiant. And you can publish. Digital, like justice, is blind. It distributes the good and the bad, not just in books but in any medium to which it’s applied.

(3) And what digital does not promise is an audience. This is where “free” comes in. While the going complaint is that traditional publishing doesn’t deliver the marketing support it once did, a book with a “house” at least enters the world “in the system,” meaning the standard supply chain. It will be listed in that publisher’s catalog, which in turn is something that retail buyers and/or librarians look at routinely to find inventory. In happy cases, there may be much more, from sales-department efforts and mainstream media attention to publicity campaigns and advertising.

‘Free’ As A Bid For Attention

Offering content free of charge (not “for free,” by the way), is a way to tempt a consumer to try something he or she might normally have passed up. It’s used a great deal by self-publishers because without publishing-house support, a new author arrives on a retail platform as an unknown.

So, like a sample of a new peanut butter offered by that grinning, aproned person at a small table in your supermarket, the author offers a free book, or one nearly free, to try to snag a shopper’s eye. Generally, it’s thought that making the first book in a series free will come-hither the readers.

But the bigger question, and the one that gets the most interesting comments on Morris’ column, is about marketplace ideas of value.

What does a price of zero do to the readership’s appreciation of an author’s labor?

One Argument We Need To Set Aside

Although he has talked of withdrawing from the bloggy-boggy book scene, the genial, wonderfully earnest writer Dan Holloway apparently can’t resist tickling the keyboard whenever he can put forward the idea that — in a phrase from his comments — “art should be free,  and people should pay for it.”

Indeed, he and Morris perform a friendly if brittle pavane on the matter. “I’d never dream of getting cross with you,” says he. It’s right out of Congreve. But however they may bow and bob, they’re dancing to different tunes. Here is a bit of Holloway’s footwork:

My point is that there is a serious conversation that writers need to have about whether free works as part of a business strategy, but that there is also a wider question about whether art should be free, and that we really need to acknowledge that the two should be separate conversations.

“Separate conversations”? He’s right, they should be separate conversations. And as for his conversation, good luck making art free.

Holloway’s basic premise is that creative work should live outside our commercial and economic systems entirely and be made available to us all as the gentle rain from heaven. And several centuries from now, as we float peacefully in our rocket-togas up and down the acropolis of our cultural achievements, this may come to pass. I’ll hope for a lot of free retrospectives of Paul Klee, and a minimum of interpretive dance.

For the moment, however, things aren’t going that way.

“No other professionals in the book business are expected to work for nothing, or for so little.”
Roz Morris

Holloway tries suggesting that Amanda Palmer enjoys a strong lead in the practice and parlance of open-source arts culture.

Morris counters that Palmer’s marriage to Neil Gaiman may help facilitate art unsullied by commerce.

Holloway concedes that “Amanda is problematic.” (When I met her, I had no problem with her whatever, and she is, yes, an eloquent proponent of sharing one’s creative life and work.)

But it’s fabulously late in civilization’s day to assert that society should somehow free its creativity of all markets and lucre. Indeed, some would say that this would wrongly take away from artists the right to vie in the kasbah for their own bags of coins. And maybe our arts and entertainment can work as humanizing contributors to the coffers of our crasser currency.

Let’s refocus on what is at issue, today, in the world as we know it.

‘The Impression That What We Do Requires So Little Effort And Expertise’

Here — in one of many responses to Holloway, as a matter of fact — is Morris’ best formulation of her point:

I’m a professional writer. This is my livelihood and I take it very seriously. No other professionals in the book business are expected to work for nothing, or for so little. Yet the books we make are the foundation of everything. Without us, the industry has nothing to sell. If we give the impression that what we do requires so little effort and expertise, this will only damage our future and the future of the craft because nobody will be able to afford to learn to write well, to practise and develop.

That’s the problem, well stated as a seriously practical concern.

Two thoughts from my own experience:

  • I have a different idea today of what a film ticket should cost than I once did, now that streaming services have made so much film material available to me at so little cost and with so much convenience. When I consider the hassle of getting across town to a cinema — and at a certain time, no less — after parking the car, standing in line, paying for a ticket, and then suffering the idiots in the seats around me? — that “big screen experience” better be full-on IMAX. Otherwise, I’m just fine with my remote control that will pull in whatever I want to see to suit my timetable, not the cinema’s, and with myself as the only chattering fool in the house. Now, does this mean that, say, Wes Bentley’s performance in a film is worth less when streamed onto my nearest device than when seen in theatrical release? Of course not. But I’m not paying as much for that same performance, am I? How long is it before I subtly begin to think that an actor’s work is of less value than I once thought it was?
  • I caught myself recently looking online at the new album of an artist I was covering in our #MusicForWriters series here at Thought Catalog and thinking, “Whoa, $8.99 seems a lot for that MP3.” I’m not glad to be thinking that way. Do I like saving money? Of course I do, I’m American. Do I think that this composer and the studio-ful of artists who created that recording worked any less long and hard to generate such superb music than when that album might have cost $15.99 as a CD? Not for a minute. So how is it that I’m thinking of that work as being worth less money?

Over time, we’re all starting to think of various forms of entertainment and artistic content as being worth less money than they were. Abundance, rather than scarcity, is doing this. And from a consumer’s standpoint, that might be dandy. From the standpoint of somebody who needs to make a living creating these things we enjoy, not so dandy.

And as more comments follow Morris’ original write, the dilemma deepens.

‘I Don’t Want The Kind Of Audience That Expects “Free”‘

One respondent offers Morris a use of free books that she, Morris, agrees can be profitable. It’s the writer C.S Boyack, who writes:

I have used the Amazon giveaway a few times. I gave out a ton of ebooks, but never saw any return. There is no guarantee those copies will ever get read. I’ve had better luck emailing copies to friends with blogs. I give one book out and get a review or blog post.

When Philippa Rees comments approvingly on Morris’ position, saying that “It is time for authors to collectively decide their work is worth the price of a cup of coffee,” Morris responds:

You’re right about the pricing. I think we have to make a stand. It’s strange that indies sometimes make a virtue of the fact that their books are cheaper than traditionally published books. I don’t see the logic of that and it creates a two-tier market. If we believe our books are good enough to publish at all, surely we should ask a price that’s in line with the rest of the market.

Julie Harris writes:

Mid-December I gave away over six thousand copies of The Longest Winter. Mid January I have sales in single digits for six of my twelve stories. Few reviews, yet a bump in likes and traffic to my Facebook page. No more [KDP] Select for me.

Dave Morris, author and game designer (and Roz Morris’ husband) chimes in with what many believe is the fallacy of the reader’s thinking on all this:

The irony about people niggling over paying an extra few dollars for a book is that reading a typical novel is likely to take – what, 20 to 40 hours of your life? That’s time you can’t get back and the opportunity cost of which is considerable. So why grub around for 99c books, or even demand them for nothing, rather than pay $10 so that you get a rewarding experience and the author can afford to write more?

Ileandra Young may represent the plight of many authors whose work becomes stuck in free mode on Amazon without their knowing how to change it. She writes:

I have one free book out, which heads a six part series. There are always tonnes of downloads on it but nothing else. No reader interaction, no reviews, no new subscribers. It’s not working.
But Amazon has price matched the title and I’ve no idea how to get them to put it back to what it should be.
So maybe every now and then someone follows the product funnel and buys the next title… But my stats say ‘not really.’

Morris helps her with some advice on getting that book out of the free zone.

Henry Hyde comments:

Personally, I don’t want the kind of audience that expects free, or even heavily discounted…The problem with the internet and the rise of Kindle is that it has given the audience a sense of entitlement where none should exist. You can’t possibly please all the people, all the time, and as you rightly point out, I’m pretty certain we’ve all got digital dungeons full or unread freebies.

And Morris comes back with yet another reason (why don’t we get this more clearly?) that comparisons to the music industry’s artists don’t work for authors:

There’s a lot of comparison being made these days with the music industry, and how difficult it is for bands to charge for their music. That’s pretty outrageous, but bands can make money from live performances – or they can in theory. I bet most of them can’t in practice. But writers don’t even have this. Our books are what we have, full stop.

It’s Kathryn Magendie who probably makes the most ringing statement of the heaviest side of the question: “Who decided our worth?” She writes:

Who decided our worth?

What other professions do we ask, or demand, the proprietors to give away their work for free or so cheaply they cannot make a living on it?

I was a reader before I was a novelist, and over the years I have spent many dollars purchasing books (before e-readers for many years) that I did not like all that much or that I was disappointed in. But, that’s just how it works. I never questioned it.

All that said, I like that ebooks are less expensive – I like that we can try out authors or that readers can try out my work with less “risk” — but there has to be a reasonable expectation of “monetary worth” here, right? For all the sacrifice and stress and worry and work?

And that’s the issue laid on a nice, balanced pedestal.

  • On one hand, the comparatively lower costs of digital’s ebooks is good, both for authors and readers who can find each other without traditionally higher price barriers between them.
  • On the other hand, hasn’t the bottom dropped right out, with the dive to free books and nominally priced 99-cents volumes or 20-pence specials?

The great used- book stalls along the banks of the Seine or at Central Park have always had their place, their fascination, and their value, yes, both for newcomers and for seasoned readers experienced in hunting down treasures.

But those have nothing to do with the digitally ordained practices of charging a pittance for one’s work or routinely giving it away.

Investment, Risk, And What Return?

In her most  recent piece on this year’s Digital Book World author survey, Dana Beth Weinberg writes:

It appears the expectations of many authors in the 2015 sample are closely tied to the allocation of risk and the distribution of rewards. On the risk side, many indie authors do not seem to be making substantial investments in their publishing projects. Yet having taken little monetary risk, these authors may be pleased to earn even a little money.

The voices we’re hearing at Roz Morris’ site tend to be saying something different — encapsulated in Magendie’s lines:

I worked hard to write my novels. I sacrificed time and family and friends and food and fun. I huddled in a room for hours and hours, weeks, months, years. Then, when finished, there is never a guarantee that the hours and weeks and months spent will net a published book – even if you already have other published books.

That is risk. And, taking nothing away from the respondents to DBW’s survey, I think this writer may not find herself in agreement with those whom Weinberg finds responding as being “pleased to earn even a little money.”

Surely, Morris is not in that camp, either.

She and some of her fellow authors finally may be fed up with perceptions that what they do is worth so little money.

She writes:

We do have to look at what we are doing to perceptions of writers’ worth. It’s expected that because writing is cheap to do, doesn’t require equipment, there is little cost. Actually there is. It’s in time, sacrifices, crafting, care, years of practice, discipline.