“Free” books have been around since the first libraries, but our ability to access them has dramatically improved. Just a decade ago or so, apart from the library, the closest we had to a free book was whatever happened to be in the “bargain” section at a bookstore or a thrift shop. The books could be cheap enough to be virtually free, but the selection was, to say the least, limited and outdated. These days, there are thousands of recently released books available for free. We pay only for our Internet service and reading device, while the unpaid authors hope that their generosity will benefit them in the future.
For authors, as Richard Levesque explains in So You Need a Funnel, this marketing tactic involves “cast[ing] a wide net with a specific product that pulls people in to read (and purchase) more of your work.” Another potential benefit is the development of a fan base that will spread the word about the book, but as Levesque notes, not all books are “very funnel friendly.” This strategy is a particularly poor one for authors who have only published one novel, whose novels are not in a series, or who have published novels intended for different types of audiences.
Nevertheless, even when this strategy is unlikely to produce future sales, many authors still give their books away. In a follow-up post, With Apologies to Harlan Ellison, Levesque notes Ellison’s disdain for writers who give away their work for free, and asks, “Has the e-book revolution created a culture in which readers expect FREE! from writers? Maybe. Are those of us willing to give our books away either as promotions or as the mouths of our funnel contributing to this culture? Probably.”
It makes sense that the rise of e-books has contributed to consumer expectations about price. I would guess that most of us have a lower limit for what we’re willing to pay for a computer file than what we would pay for a physical copy of a book. A year and a half ago, for example, I balked at the $17.99 price tag on J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, which has since been marked down to a more reasonable $9.99 on Amazon.
It’s hard to justify a steep price for an e-book when the publisher or author does not bear any costs associated with printing, binding, storing, packaging, shipping, or dealing with the overstock of unsold books. It may also be hard for consumers to justify spending their limited resources on a book by a new author, particularly a self-published one, when so many free options are available.
As for me, though, I prefer to pay something for the books I read. My budget is limited, but it already goes farther than it did in the past because the e-books I buy are usually much cheaper than traditional paper books. Perhaps it could go even farther if I took advantage of more free offers; however, a quick scroll through my Kindle history reveals that I didn’t actually end up reading most of the free e-books I downloaded over the last few years. I suspect that many of these books probably aren’t ones I would’ve chosen had I been required to spend money on them (such as books in genres I don’t typically read). Plus, because I didn’t spend any money on it, I wasn’t invested in it. So, I could more easily forget that I had ever downloaded it in the first place.
More importantly, though, I prefer to pay for the books I read because I like to support authors. No matter how much they seem to encourage me (and everyone else) to download their books for free, I can’t help but feel like I’m exploiting them. Considering that I have an ability to pay something for the books I read, downloading a free e-book from an individual author trying to make her name in the field makes me feel like I’m no better than the production companies behind Black Swan and 500 Days of Summer that allegedly used unpaid interns to do work that they could have hired and paid employees to do. Those interns received experience and a couple of lines on their resumes, but not the pay they might have deserved under our labor laws.
While there’s obviously nothing illegal about downloading an e-book that an author has given us permission to download for free, I don’t want to take advantage of an author’s unpaid labor. We live in a society that undervalues the humanities and the arts, and far too many authors struggle to make ends meet while they write the thoughtful entertainment we download to our e-readers. The cost of producing an e-book may be less than the cost of producing a traditional paper version, but there’s still the author’s effort and time, plus the editing, formatting, and marketing of the final product. These are all costs that a self-published author has to bear on her own.
Levesque’s post, With Apologies to Harlan Ellison, highlights the ambivalence with which he offers his hard work for free. It may be in exchange for the possibility of a review and/or a new fan, but it doesn’t feel like a fair deal. It doesn’t seem like authors in his position really have a choice.
*I reviewed one of Levesque’s novels in Take Back Tomorrow: A Fun Foray Into Science Fiction.