So is ‘free’ killing writers’ incomes?

Social media guru and author Kristen Lamb recently posted on the problem of e-books being ‘free’ – and the issues that follow from the new cultural ‘norm’ where authors are paid for other writing-associated work with ‘exposure’, not cash.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...
Yes, this IS my typewriter. What’s it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er –

Kristen argues that the result will basically kill professional writing for authors, and she’s right. I’ve been in the business professionally over 30 years and I haven’t seen anything quite as radical as what’s happening now. And alas, the return on books for both publishers and authors is dwindling on top of it.

To my mind the problem is the fact that we are in the middle of a revolution. It’s not ‘print vs electronic’ (a total red herring that mis-states the issue) but a more fundamental and complex change of consumer habits, price expectations, production mechanisms and distribution process. Part of it is driven by technology, but it’s also social, a generational change of attitude.

In a way ‘free’ isn’t new. In New Zealand, payment for time when making a public speech or appearing in festivals was always expected to be free – or paid at peppercorn rates. I’ve lost track of how much time I’ve given away doing so – though I draw the line at covering my expenses so somebody else can benefit from my name on their headline bill. If they want me, they can pay for me to get there.

But these days the old staple – payment for print publication – is also disappearing. Just a few months ago a piece of mine appeared in New Zealand Books, discussing the ethics of book reviewing. When I asked about payment I discovered, post-fact, that they weren’t going to pay me after all – it was a ‘service’ they had offered after I’d pointed out the derogatory nature of allegations they’d been publishing, over many years, about me. I would show you the article, but it’s still behind their paywall.

Basically we’re going back to the days of about 200 years ago when writing was an elite hobby pursued by people who didn’t really need the income. When they wanted to publish, they’d take their manuscript to a publisher along with a wheelbarrow full of cash.

Wright_Books2To me it’s a cultural outcome of the way web technology works, including the way in which it’s been co-opted to enable self-publishing on a world scale, coupled with the widespread expectation that services and content should be ‘free’. As, indeed, much of it is. Especially the flood of self-publishing services, led by Amazon.

The way they do it is a function of scale. On figures I’ve seen, Amazon has 4 million separate titles on Kindle. But, if I read a recent NYT article correctly, only about 40 self-pubbed authors have made any real money – they are, Amazon reportedly says, responsible for a million sales in the past five years.  That underscores the fact that the rest won’t be shifting much at all. And that’s OK if you’re Amazon. Instead of trying to profit from a few best-sellers, Amazon and others who follow its business model rely on the size of their lists – the number of different titles for sale. The genius part is that they don’t have to scrabble around finding the titles – by offering ‘free self-publishing’ services, their titles come to them.

Remember, if it’s free, you’re the product.  What’s more, the Amazon model (also followed by Apple) divides the world into ‘markets’, none of which pay authors outside the US until each ‘market’ has hit $100. So even if a book’s sold more than that worldwide, it probably hasn’t reached the threshold for payout in any given market. But many books don’t reach the $100 anyway – average lifetime sales for an ebook, I’ve heard, is less than 100 units. What it means is that Amazon – and others following the same model – hold vast sums in royalties. Technically, that’s a liability, but they may never have to pay it.

They are, in short, profiting from the dreams people have of being authors.

Couple all that with a wider attitude that content and time should be freely given (‘for publicity’) and it’s a recipe for radical change.

The other issue for professional authors is more than just falling income. It’s also – and crucially – the problem of being lost in the ‘noise’. Noise that is becoming louder with every passing day.

In the past, people wanting to publish had to find an agent, the agent had to find a publisher, and a LOT of people bounced off gates that had been slammed shut in their faces.

Wright_Typewriter2There were many reasons for that. One was that publishers had limited lists – only a certain number of books could be published in a given year. But another was that a large proportion of the material being thrown at them was, well, a bit rubbish. The system acted as a filter.

That’s gone. You can find the dross on Amazon, Smashwords, iTunes and the rest. You don’t even have to look hard. Furthermore, today, all authors, including those professionally published by the main houses (as I am) still rely – increasingly – on social media to gain a profile. And everybody on social media has exactly the same tools. It’s a great leveller. But, equally, there’s no way of being heard above the noise.

I don’t (yet) know what the answer is, but Kristen’s right – authors need to do something about it. Authors deserve to be paid, and paid properly for work that is – in truth – professional. And ways have to be found of differentiating the dross from the quality.

Amazon pageThe other question is what is writers’ time actually worth?

Update: More about that here:

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016

31 thoughts on “So is ‘free’ killing writers’ incomes?

  1. I’ve just this year started entering amateur literary competitions and have a full book (as opposed to an empty one) waiting in the wings. The eBook revolution has concerned me as I like the tangibility of books, but in the UK there has been a resurgence of paperbacks and hardbacks. Which is cool. It’s always been quite an odd business, publishing. Think of how many terrific authors have been lost over the years due to some snobby publisher dismissing a piece of work – George Orwell was almost one! You certainly need to be thick skinned. Innit.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sure do. And there are the 25 or 26 publishers who declined J K Rowling, way back when. Billions in revenue for their competitor later, they are probably still spitting tacks. Although in fairness, nobody ever guessed how the books would take off.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good to see you adding your voice of experience to this subject, Matthew. To me, it seems patently obvious that you and Kristen are right. Yet you wouldn’t believe the flack she gets for suggesting that writers should be paid. The landscape is changing so fast that it is sometimes bewildering. But I think it does behove us to at least try to find ways to fight for fair compensation. And I think Kristen is right that it starts with education. Most change does!

    PS waving to Monsieur wapojif! Long time no speak!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I don’t understand why anybody thinks writing should be free – or how anybody can be criticised for reasonably wanting to be paid for professional work. I have a follow up post for Saturday in which I reveal the professional rate I think writers should charge (or aspire to earn). Watch this space!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh Matthew, I wish what you and Kristen said was not true, but I fear it to be so. We have run into several things at once.

    Many people in my country (USA) believe they are entitled, and that means not paying for anything while living a comfortable and entertaining life. And that means they have no sense of honor, and feel no shame at theft, whether it is ripping music, one person saving a place in line for an entire army who show up only at the last moment and crowd the rest of us out, or stealing our books.

    Then we have everyone wanting to write a book. In part, I blame NaNo for this. Someone sits down, bangs out 50,000 words in a month, maybe runs spell check on it, and posts it to Amazon. We are drowning in unskilled writers who don’t understand or don’t care there story was uninteresting, poorly written, and serves only to further diminish the reputation of Indies.

    And then we have the publishers (remember the fight Amazon lost in trying to lower book prices?) charging astronomical prices for the privilege of purchasing a book viewing license. While a few Rowlings or Kings make out like bandits, the rest of us are on the outside looking in, with no hope of ever making anything.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. It’s true of non fiction writing too. There is a clear distinction, for sure, between mainstream ebook and indie ebook prices on Amazon. The thing about that is that the author still only gets a small part of the publisher return on those sales, on a unit basis likely no more than an indie publishing direct at $1.99 or thereabouts.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Looking forward to the follow-up. I can’t understand why artists and writers are expected to put so little value on their time and talent, when no one else does. It’s a job, that takes time and effort. We should be rewarded for it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. I can’t understand why writing and writers aren’t valued either, though I can guess at a few reasons. Follow up is on Saturday NZ time – I have a regular weekly obscure word post tomorrow.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on So, I Read This Book Today and commented:
    “Authors deserve to be paid, and paid properly for work that is – in truth – professional. And ways have to be found of differentiating the dross from the quality.”
    I absolutely agree with your article. Especially the previous two sentences Authors really do deserve to be treated like professionals. That is, of course, when they really are professional in their writing, editing and marketing. And I agree, more than I can say, that there is an absolute crapton of dross out there. I come up on them every single day. I can understand people wanting to write, believe me. The thing is, so many throw their ‘writing’ out there with no concept of how to actually write. I am horrified by the number of books out there that are on a third grade level. If you want to write, shouldn’t you care about how your present your work? Shouldn’t you care about whether your work reflects well on you as a person, a writer, a human being?

    All your points are very well taken. But of course, I do have to admit, I have found some incredible authors from receiving a “freebie” as my first introduction. And, honestly, I have gained editing clientele as well from receiving freebies I felt had exceptional potential. I love freebies, I admit. And let’s face it. If I pay for a book from an author I am not familiar with, which I still do if the book looks that good, if it is junk, I send it back for a refund. And how does that help the author? Besides the fact that I will post a review very clearly stating my objections to sloppy work, well, there is a lesson there as well.

    Yes, there are problems with freebies. But there are also positives. IF, that is, you do it right. Giving away everything you write isn’t wise. Leaving your books on the ‘freebie’ lists permanently isn’t wise. But by doing some truly professional marketing (yes, there are books out there about how to market, some are even quite good) offering a freebie can actually find you new readers, who can also be new bloggers out there spreading the word. So, do it right. Do it well. Do it with professionalism. It takes work and dedication, but I don’t think it is impossible for good writers to do well with their work. It simply takes figuring out this new landscape.

    The one idea that keeps coming back around to me is that of authors setting up marketing groups. Pool their books, and set up a professional marketing service to give them the publishing house experience without the publishing house expenses and limited catalog. Thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Free” has always been a legitimate marketing tool in publishing – I get royalty statements even for books that have been out a while listing copies given away gratis. It’s when ‘free’ – or ‘very nearly free’ – becomes ‘the usual price for everything, all the time’ that the trouble starts.

      My experience of mainstream publisher marketing has been interesting: it mainly involves a lot of leg-work with media contacts to solicit reviews and/or interviews and/or extracts. Beyond that – and certainly in New Zealand – the cost of active advertising vs the likely returns was a fast-diminishing calculation. I’ve had books promoted on TV from time to time, and adverts placed in magazines – but publishers don’t have large budgets for such and a couple of ads (which could easily cost $1500 a placement even for an A6-size corner in a major magazine) can easily soak up an entire advertising budget.

      Pooling resources to market books sounds like an excellent idea. I think the issue would still be discovery, though – that problem of being ‘heard’ amid the noise. Word-of-mouth is key, as you say, but actually triggering the ‘buzz’ is another matter, alas. Moving to media outside the internet gets around that issue, but it’s expensive – the same cost-return calculation as the big houses face applies. Combined marketing by indie authors could well be worth a crack though – and I think everything helps!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Once more, your comments are spot-on and extremely well considered. I always enjoy your blog and the wonderful information you give.

        I will have to give some real thought to this. You are right – getting through the noise is the major issue. There are sites that run book blasts, etc., but that still isn’t getting enough attention. I think it will take a bunch of minds working together on this specific goal to figure this out.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Writing and publishing are different from other creative endeavours (art, film, music) in which professional indies are sorted out from the rank, undeserving amateurs who are capable only of producing “crap.” It’s painfully obvious when someone who can’t sing or play an instrument, but a bit of effort is needed to discover that a piece of writing is really bad.
    Regarding free, I think anyone has the right to give their writing away for free, but it should not be at the expense of those who write for a living. I can’t believe that the poor quality stuff itself really competes all that well with professionally produced and published books; rather, it’s the expectation that the results of creative effort without physical form (ebooks, sound files, images) *should* be free. They aren’t *things* after all, just electronic blips. Which suggests that those who expect to get them for free don’t value the efforts of the creator. If they think about writers at all, they may believe that the writer has fun writing, so should not expect any monetary reward. It’s the physical embodiments of the creative efforts — books — that are seen as valuable, because they are manufactured out of physical stuff, warehoused, transported and displayed in shops with prices on them. So someone who would never dream of stealing a book assumes the naked text (an ebook) should be free because it isn’t a thing.
    I’m looking forward to your further thoughts on this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re right – the concept of ‘free’ has risen with the disappearance of tangible (‘fungible’?) product. The value isn’t placed on soft copy because it’s so easy to duplicate, leaving the original untouched. It’s kind of sad to think that a book which might have taken an author 1000 hours to write, quite apart from the time needed to learn how to write it, is received with an expectation that it should be a give-away.

      I also agree with your reasoning that writing is much harder to assign value to than (say) a painting or a musical performance. All very true! I think part of the issue with writing is also that ‘everybody’, apparently, can write. We’re taught it at school. What isn’t taught, of course, is the necessary technique, which is as complex as learning how to be a concert pianist. I found this to be true even at university where it was ‘assumed’ that writing was a kind of ‘automatic’ ability. I’d actually had proper writing training by then, formally – but others hadn’t. It showed. It wasn’t until my Honours year that, partly by chance, we had a class with a Fulbright scholar from the University of Montana, an English professor who’d specialised in ‘how to write’ – and that was the sole and only ‘how to write’ training most students got while I was there. All, I think, flowed from that supposition that writing is, or should be, a kind of automatic adjunct to ‘proper’ learning, as opposed to being a subject of itself that had to be mastered.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve done a lot of thinking about this stuff since I started writing and then self-publishing. In Canada, anyway, authors do have a certain glamour. Ordinary folks who would never consider being professional athletes, actors or musicians think it’s perfectly reasonable to write something and suddenly be hobnobbing with Margaret Atwood or at least getting interviewed on the CBC. It’s a weird situation, and I have no idea how it will work out. But I am grateful for the opportunity to make my writing available. Much better than gnashing my teeth in the outer darkness. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  7. “Basically we’re going back to the days of about 200 years ago when writing was an elite hobby pursued by people who didn’t really need the income.” I think that sums it up really well. This is something I’ve recently debated with a few friends.

    It isn’t just the publishing industry. Photographers were hit very hard by the same trend. Equipment became more accessible, the digital revolution lowered the overhead costs, and all of a sudden hobbyists were licensing photographs through micro stock sites to magazines and advertisers for a fraction of the price that it would’ve cost to have commissioned a shoot. Before you know it some newspapers are laying off all their staff photographers in favour of arming journalists with iphones, friends with an interest in photography are drafted into taking photos at weddings and professionals are increasingly asked to take photos for free, for the ‘exposure’, non pun intended.

    The television and film industry is going through big changes as well, although not as swiftly as photography and publishing. The NYT article you mentioned, that claimed that only 40 or so self-published authors have made any real money is similar to the YouTube model. Anyone can create video content and upload it to YouTube, but the majority is re-edited pirated material (often stolen from the documentaries I work on!) and low quality content. That said, there are some real gems too, and a small number of people are making a good living through YouTube’s revenue sharing system, but the real winner is YouTube. Similar to how the real winner in the publishing industry is Amazon.

    Journalism is suffering too, increasingly having to compete with social media and bloggers. Those in the music industry tell a similar story. No one wants to pay for their work anymore.

    Producing large quantities of mediocre content is making those with the delivery systems a lot of money, but getting paid a reasonable and fair ‘living wage’ to produce quality content – that seems to be getting more and more difficult.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree on all counts. We are entering challenging times. The question is whether there is an answer (on all of the arts fronts). Sorry to hear some of the doccos you’ve worked on are being ripped off. They’re real quality.


  8. I whole heartedly agree/wish that writers received adequate–however, that might be defined–financial reward for the time and effort they invest in their works. I also agree that being heard above the noise is one of the biggest challenges to face us all. What I cannot agree with is that ‘amateurs’ are somehow less than their ‘professional’ counterparts. I proudly stand tall in defending the right of any person to publish their works. What one person might consider crap another might find hugely entertaining. Let the market–readers–act as the quality controllers. As writers we should be both encouraging and supportive of those who wish ‘to have a go’ because, good for them! Less than able writers are not a threat, readers will suss them out soon enough. The only thing ‘dedicated’ writers–I cannot bring myself to label someone as amateur or professional because its elitist–have the right to control and judge is the quality of their own work, doing this by writing the very best story they can. For. The. Reader.

    Apologies for the rant 🙂


    1. I agree that anybody has a right to publish. But I think what Amazon has done is facilitate everybody’s ‘desire’ to publish. The problem is that writing is a learned skill that requires as much training – and practise – as becoming a concert pianist. But that learning curve isn’t obvious to beginners. The ‘Dunning-Kruger’ effect applies particularly to the field; the problem of illusory competence because beginners don’t know what they don’t know. Those lessons come with time, a bit of training, and a lot of hard work. And then the writer looks back and goes ‘wow, I had no idea I was that bad!’. We all go through it.

      A lot of the self-pubbed material is dire to the point of being almost unreadable – it’s not a question of personal taste as to what constitutes ‘good’, but material that carries fundamental structural, stylistic, grammatical, layout and other problems. Amazon’s recent tightening of its error-detection system is pretty much a tacit admission that this issue is significant in the self-pub world.

      That said, some self-pub stuff is excellent and, were it to get through the traditional system, would probably be picked up there and do well. In fact some of it has – ‘The Martian’, for instance. But those providing it are usually fairly experienced and/or knowledgeable in what they are doing. I agree that readers will probably filter out the dross in due course, but the problem is that the inept material – and trust me, I’ve edited some really DIRE attempts by beginning authors – drowns out the good stuff. It’s not a question of allowing the market to rule; the problem is that the market is being swamped by dribble, the system is driving down price-and-value expectations by customers, and the good stuff can’t be found.


      1. I agree with all you have to say, Matthew, including about the volume of inept material drowning out the ‘good stuff’. I have spent a small fortune buying items of dross only to swipe it from my kindle within fifteen minutes. But, as someone who had their choice of reading material heavily vetted/censored by my parents/teachers, I twitch whenever the issue of ‘who decides’ comes into play. Great article, though, because I rarely feel moved to leave a comment 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Umm…only forty writers making money on Amazon??? Absolutely not so. Little old me from Wellington is doing fine, and so are plenty of my friends around the world. It’s indisputable though that times are now harder and sales less easy to come by.

    Every ebook has a generous free sample for readers to try, and it soon becomes evident if a writer can write, can spell (!), can tell a story, and has a properly formatted book. Yes, there’s horrible dross out there, but it’s not selling to anyone except fond family members and people who neglect to read the samples.

    Several years ago I made ‘The Boat Builder’s Bed’ free, and more than a million were downloaded in a few weeks. That’s what gave me my kick-start and got all my other titles selling. I was lucky – my timing was good. There’s definitely a place for ‘free’, but you have to use it with care.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I read it, Amazon didn’t say nobody else made money, but these 40 authors were the only ones, by their standards, making significant money. ‘Free’ is a useful marketing tool and, indeed, can kick-start an author by building profile. It is also used by mainstream publishers. However, the issue is when it becomes the norm – that everything will be ‘free’, all the time.


  10. A friend of mine just texted me, telling me that a friend of hers is being paid $100 to ghostwrite a novel. Things like this make me mad. It’s one thing to set a story free for marketing and discoverability purposes (like Cory Doctorow) but to pay freelancers substandard rates like this? Which could barely cover your bills? I told my friend that it’s much better for her to self-publish those novels than to get $100 for each of them.

    I’m not sure if there’s really a solution, Matthew. Like you said, we’re in the middle of a revolution of the way people consume information, and the expectation that it should be free is pretty hard on writers. Yet, authors like Cory Doctorow and Paolo Coelho have set their books free because they want MORE people to read their books. I think Cory argued that new authors’ problem is not getting paid, but getting discovered. So in this new age, the less barriers to your work getting read the better.

    I can’t help but think though that Cory and Paolo could do what they do because they have such a MASSIVE platform (Cory with Boing Boing and Paolo is one of the most-read authors in the world.) I’m not sure if new authors can really benefit, though I know newbie author Ksenia Anske who provides both a free and paid option of her works is having a lot of success with it. (However, she’s also supremely good at social media…)

    Do you think new authors should set their books free to be discovered?


    1. No question that the single biggest challenge today is being discovered. Free unquestionably helps. Whether ‘free all the time’ does is another matter. Maybe if one book is free it’ll lead readers into paying for others? I don’t know. Possibly.


  11. If Amazon feels ‘millions’ are significant money, they’re right of course. But with enough good, readable, self-published books, well promoted, an author can certainly live on the proceeds. I have two kiwi friends (also romance writers, because that’s by far the best-selling genre) who will give up their full-time jobs in the next few weeks because they’ve proved they can earn enough by writing. And then they’ll be writing more – and no doubt earning more.

    Don’t let me mislead people into thinking it’s easy though – it’s hard slog for every minute you can spare – whether writing, researching, keeping up with trends in various blogs and loops, sussing out and booking promo (the bane of all our lives) growing our newsletter lists and keeping in touch with our readers… I could go on, but won’t.

    And of course you can’t give ALL the books away, but if the first in a series hooks readers into buying the rest, it’s a powerful tool. And in return I’ve found some great writers by taking chances on free books I wouldn’t normally choose to buy – so it really can be win/win.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good to know they’re able to write full time – excellent stuff. You’re right, ‘sometimes free’ or ‘controlled free’ is a powerful marketing tool. It’s when it goes out of control that the problems start…


  12. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    I’m hoping that giving books free for a short period would not make a significant difference in income. What I’d like is getting my name out there as a writer of good stories. Maybe it’s not the greatest story you’ve ever read, but it was a book you enjoyed curling up with and had trouble putting down. ~ Connie

    Liked by 1 person

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