Free books. What could be the problem? Everyone loves free, right?
I’ve been thinking about this recently, both from a reader’s perspective and an author’s. And I’m not too sure what I think.
I download free books. If I find something on Amazon that looks interesting, and it’s free, I’ll grab it. A few months ago I got a few books through Instafreebie, and now not a day goes past without at least a couple of e-mails informing me about more Instafreebie giveaways. I’ve lost track of how many free books I’ve downloaded. It must be in the hundreds.
And I’ve even read some of them.
For new authors, it is hard to get noticed. Most people aren’t prepared to shell out for something new. So giving something away for free—a ‘try before you buy’ strategy—can help increase visibility.
Author Nick Stephenson’s strategy is to have the first book in his series free, then offer the second free to anyone who signs up to his newsletter.
Does this make sense? He’s spent time and money to produce those two books, and he’s not getting anything in return for them, right?
Not quite. If enough people get that first book, some are likely to sign up to his newsletter in order to get the second. And of those, some will buy his subsequent books. And the readers who only get the freebies? They probably wouldn’t have bought his books anyway, so these are not lost sales. This is e-books we’re talking about, not physical products. Once the original file is created, there is no cost in replicating it.
Although I see the logic in this, and although I have downloaded far too many freebies myself, a part of me doesn’t like this model. I’ve considered it for my own books, but have resisted giving any of my novels away so far (although I do have a novella out through Instafreebie—check out Expedient by clicking here — and yes, that was a shameless plug).
There are a few reasons for my unease with this model.
I heard a story about an author who was contacted by a reader. This reader praised the author’s books, saying that she’d downloaded and read all of them. But she also said she’d returned the books to Amazon, taking a refund. Other authors had books for free, so this reader didn’t see why she should have to pay for books.
Yes, it is possible to read an e-book and then return it for a refund. Amazon probably don’t like this, but allowing customers to return unwanted goods makes sense from a customer service perspective. And many people who do this probably don’t see it as anything more than a mild inconvenience. After all, Amazon can afford it.
Of course they can. They record both the sale and the return, and no money passes on to the author. Amazon doesn’t lose out. The author does.
But that’s another issue, and isn’t why I mention this reader. What I want to focus on is the expectation that books should be free.
This is becoming more prevalent, especially with subscription services (which feel like getting something for nothing, because it’s easy to forget the monthly fee when you don’t have to pay for each individual ‘purchase’). The same kind of expectation happened with music, when mp3s became so prevalent. It was easy to download a whole album, and as there was no physical object, it was fine, right? Walking into a shop and taking a CD (or a book) is clearly wrong, but downloading something? That’s…not a thing. So it doesn’t really exist. So it’s not a problem.
I’m sure you can see problems with this. In the case of both music and books, there is a cost in producing those downloadable files. With books, this involves formatting, buying a cover, and paying for editing. There are also other costs around the business of producing and promoting books, like web-site upkeep and advertising/marketing. And then there is the time it takes to write the thing in the first place. Is it really fair to expect someone to spend hours writing a book and then give it away for free?
But once one author gives a book away, that sets a precedent. Others feel they should follow, and then readers come to expect free books. And when the amount of free books available would take over a lifetime to read, why should a reader pay for a book?
Thankfully, most readers still appreciate the work that goes into writing, and they are willing to pay for their entertainment. But the more widespread free becomes, the harder it will be to convince readers to pay.
Maybe, in the long-term, subscription services will be the way forward. But again, this causes problems. Which books are available in which subscription service? Kindle Unlimited is the biggest at the moment (I’ve heard it said that, if Amazon is the largest book store in the world, then Kindle Unlimited is the second largest), but for independent authors it is only available if you go exclusive to Amazon. Where does this leave those who use Kobo or iBooks? Where does that leave those who don’t have, and don’t want to have, a Kindle or Kindle app?
But I’m getting sidetracked. Back to other problems with free.
Perceptions of Quality
There is a saying—‘you get what you pay for.’ Now, I’ve read some fantastic free books, both out-of-copyright classics and books by new authors, so the correlation between cost and quality is not rigid. But there is a great deal of poorly-written free stuff out there. And this, combined with the (thankfully lessening) idea that only traditionally published authors are good writers, has led to a certain attitude towards free books—that they can’t be much good.
This leads to a subconscious problem. If we read a free book, there is a part of us that doesn’t expect much. If it was any good, it would cost money, right? So we expect the free book to have problems. We almost seek out those typos and grammatical errors that mark it out as sub-par. We’re on the lookout for poor dialogue and plot holes.
Look hard enough for something, and you usually find it.
This shouldn’t be the case, but it is. If there are two books that have the same problems (a few spelling mistakes, a few dodgy plot points), we are far more willing to forgive them if we have paid for the book, and praise its good points. If the book is free, the problems confirm our suspicions that it was badly written, and the good points slip by us.
If the author has a solid reputation (and therefore doesn’t need to give books away), they must be good, and if their writing is hard to get into, the fault must lie with us—maybe we’re not intelligent or educated enough to appreciate what they are doing with their words. Conversely, anyone who is starting out and who has to practically throw their books at potential readers—well, they’re desperate. Of course their books won’t be up to much.
Another problem I can see with free is one of quantity. As I mentioned before, there are more free books available than anyone can read in a lifetime. Through projects like Gutenberg, older classics are available to all. ‘First in series free’ is such a popular business model that there are a glut of books in every genre that can be downloaded without any cost.
My Kindle has books I downloaded years ago that I have yet to read. It’s too tempting, when a book looks half-interesting but has no cost, to click on the download button. My in-box is becoming clogged with updates from authors whose mailing lists I have signed up to in order to get free books, and many of these contain links to other offers (the Instafreebie model, to be successful, involves a great deal of cross-promotion). I try to resist, but so many of these books look interesting, and I end up with even more freebie.
The saying that the cream always rises to the top might be true, but it takes time, and with so much material out there, it’s taking longer and longer. I’m wary of spending too much on a new book now, because I start to question when I’ll get round to reading it. There’s a risk that any book I pay for will become lost in this sea of free.
I know not everyone thinks this way. I have heard of people who never consider a book unless it is over a certain price. But I also know there are those who actively seek out free books. And with so many available, why not? Why ever buy a book again?
Of course, the ‘first in series free’ model hopes that readers enjoy the book enough to buy the rest of the series. But I sometimes find myself enjoying a book, telling myself I’ll check out others by that author, but then I’ll move on to another free book, and that first one will slip from my mind.
So I have problems with the free model. But I still download free books. Sometimes, when I enjoy a book, I’ll buy more by the author, so I know that free can work as a marketing strategy. And authors like Nick Stephenson have boosted their writing careers through this strategy.
Maybe whenever I download free books I’m becoming part of the problem. Maybe I’m helping perpetuate a situation that will slowly become more damaging for authors.
Or maybe it is a situation that is inevitable. When digital files take up so little memory space now, and can be shared and spread across the world in seconds, maybe the idea of paying for such products is becoming a relic of a physical past. Maybe those of us who create digital work need to look at a different way of funding. Maybe we should start thinking of art as a service, and seek funding not for the product but for the entertainment and enjoyment it brings. Maybe the way forward is sites like Patreon, or subscription models.
I don’t know. The only thing I can be certain of is that things will always change.