These days I find myself barraged with offers to download books – for nothing, with the blessing of their authors. ‘Here, my book’s always free! Pleeeeeze download it!’
I know how it happens. One of the axioms of economic theory is that demand rises inversely to price. Make something free, and – in theory – you have infinite demand. In practise, of course, that doesn’t happen, but that’s because people usually buy books for more reasons than just price. Interest and time enter the mix. So does discovery. A free book can sit there, not shifting, because nobody knows about it – a problem in this internet age when everybody is screaming for attention and everything gets lost in the noise.
Another axiom of economic theory is that – assuming steady demand – price falls if supply rises. This explains, pretty much, why the money’s gone out of book-writing of late. In the old days – and by that, I mean five or ten years ago – publishing was the province of mainstream businesses, involving authors, agents, editors, publishers, marketing and retail bookstores, all using hard copy.
Enter Kindle, and all that changed. Really it was the same revolution as happened to print photography, music and all the rest, applied to books.
With one other outcome. Anybody could publish – so anybody did. The gatekeepers were gone, and one outcome has been Chuck Wendig’s ‘shit volcano‘. Would-be authors suddenly got to publish the 23-volume epic saga they’d been writing on their cellphone while riding to work every day since 2003. And for them it’s not for the money – so they chuck it out free.
That’s a problem for mainstream authors and publishers, because they feel obligated to match it. And so they scrabble for cash just when the traditional business is changing.
What’s the answer? There’s an expectation in Generation Z, or AA, or whatever one we’re up to, that anybody has a right to help themselves to stuff online. The concept hasn’t been helped by Google, who offer everything for nothing because it’s a vehicle for their real business, advertising. (Google is an advertising company – trust me!)
But this idea of ‘free content’ is killing the writing and publishing industry – not because everything suddenly has to be free, but because it’s driven down the expectation of price. Free is handy for give-away moments – a quick promotion to get the book into the hands of key people who might help promote it – but free – and low-cost –doesn’t generate income, either for author or publisher. And there are costs to publishing, even in the new paradigm. Books still have to be designed – especially the cover – edited and proofed. There are marketing costs. And authors like to be paid. If they’re not, chances are they won’t be able to carry on writing.
In this sense, all ‘free’ does is take money out of the business. Besides, if you’ve got good quality content – well, it’s reasonable that those wanting to consume it should also pay for it.
‘Free’ or ‘low cost’ also implies that the author doesn’t value their work.
My take? Use ‘free’ judiciously to promote – but otherwise, set a realistic price that’s going to meet costs and give the author a return on time. It’s fair, and it’s reasonable. Thoughts?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015