The Price Of Free

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.

Unrealistic Expectations

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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

editing-1756958_640There 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.

Quantity

tablet-1632909_1280Another 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.

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problemSo 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.

Holiday Reading

Just a short one this week, due to being on holiday recently. A week in the sun, lounging about by a pool‌—‌ideal reading time. Some of what I read wasn’t too impressive, but I thought I’d let you know about the best three.

GreatPack_ChrisFoxThe Great Pack‌—‌Chris Fox

In self-publishing circles, Chris Fox is known for his openness in talking about what he’s doing, as well as his data-driven approach to writing. He produced a book on how to write 5000 words per hour (through planning, then using dictation software), detailed his ‘write to market’ strategy (basically, looking at what kinds of books are popular, and writing to please the audience), and is currently doing a ‘trilogy in thirty days’ thing.

I’ve read a lot of his books, and while his Space Opera stuff is enjoyable (that’s the ‘written to market’ stuff), I much prefer his first Deathless series. Somehow, they combine vampires, werewolves, zombies, sci-fi and Egyptian mythology without being disjointed. They’re fast, fun and inventive.

It seems that Fox likes these books, too, because he’s now brought out the fourth in the series, The Great Pack. It takes off where the original three ended, but includes a ‘previously’ section that is helpful on getting up to speed.

And then we’re off. The book is faster than the others, and without the ‘previously’ section I’d have been lost. It twists Fox’s ideas even further, and I really enjoyed it.

Thankfully, he has toned down the action scenes a fraction (if I have one complaint about the previous books, it’s that the fight scenes started to sound like stage directions, and with practically immortal beings, who can survive limbs being ripped off and so on, they soon became pretty ridiculous).

The book almost moves too fast for its own good, though. I noticed this in Fox’s Void Wraith space opera books‌—‌description and emotion are pushed way down, and plot takes over. Personally, I’d prefer something that eases up on occasions (and it’s not like The Great Pack is a short book).

But that’s a minor point. The story’s fun, and while it’s not quite as good at the previous Deathless books, it’s a good read. If you like the others, you’ll enjoy The Great Pack. And if you haven’t read the series so far, check out the first one, Vampires Don’t Sparkle, and see what you think.

Quiet_SusanCainQuiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking‌—‌Susan Cain

I first heard of this book through J Thorn’s Intronaut podcast, where he talks about being an introvert and how that has played out in his life. Quiet appeared as a Kindle Daily Deal recently, so I snapped it up. The more I read and hear about introversion, the more things in my own life make sense. I don’t know if I’m a ‘proper’ introvert (and there are tests to determine this), but I’m definitely towards that end of the introvert-extrovert spectrum.

As the title suggests, it’s about introversion, which is far more than just ‘being shy’ or ‘being quiet’. Cain’s spent years researching for this book, and has interviewed many people around the world, both introverts and extroverts (and everyone is in one of these camps to some degree). But she can also write, and the book reads like an exploration rather than a dry, academic tone.

There are some surprising facts in this book. Introversion is linked not only to societal pressures, but also to genetics. It is easy to see how western culture seems to favour the extrovert, but introverts, in certain circumstances, make more effective leaders. In the financial chaos over recent years, the traders who have come out on top tend to be more introverted in nature.

But the book also explores how to cope with introversion, and how to fake being an extrovert. There is a whole section on raising introverted children in ways that will help them cope with life. And there are also sections on different cultures, especially how eastern societies tend to favour introversion‌—‌think about how somewhere like Japan holds respect in high regard, whereas America is all about making oneself bigger and better in order to get ahead. There are interviews with eastern students studying at western colleges, and the struggles they face.

So, a very interesting book, and well written. As something thought-provoking, it was a great contrast to the rest of my lighter holiday reading. If you’re at all interested in how people think and function, it’s well worth a look.

SongOfTheSpaceSiren_BarryJHutchinsonSong Of The Space Siren‌—‌Barry J Hutchinson

This is the fourth Space Team book, and from what I understand, there are two more to come before the end of the year. Hutchinson seems to bring one out every couple of months, and I recently discovered that there is very little editing involved in his writing process, which makes the quality of these books even more impressive.

Comedy is hard to do well. Pratchett managed it fantastically with his Discworld books. Douglas Adams was great, but the comedy and the bizarre ideas took over, pushing the story to second place. Hutchinson avoids this problem, and he describes his books as space adventure stories with humour, rather than comedy books. The humour comes from the character interactions. It helps, of course, that his main character tends to react to stressful situations by making fun of them.

After reading the first book, I downloaded the rest, but I did wonder if Hutchinson could keep up the high standards of the original Space Team. So far, I’ve been impressed, and I think that rounding the series off at six books will keep things from getting too stretched. As it is, there were a few things in Song Of The Space Siren that didn’t quite work for me (to avoid spoilers, I won’t say what they are), and the growing relationship between a couple of the characters didn’t quite ring true. But these are minor points. The book is still great fun, and I’d recommend it (and the whole series) to anyone who is looking for a space opera adventure with a good dose of humour. I’m already looking forward to early June, when book five comes out.

‘That book looks terrible … I think I’ll read it.’

The more books I read, the more books I want to read. I’m always on the lookout for something new. I’ll check out authors I like, I’ll look at recommendations from others, and I’ll browse stores in genres I enjoy. But occasionally I’ll pick something different. Every now and then I’ll purposely choose to read a book that doesn’t appeal to me.

Before I carry on, I should explain something. I occasionally post book reviews, but I make it a rule to only review books I can be positive about. If I don’t enjoy a book, I’ll simply head on to the next one. I won’t spend my time writing about it. It’s the whole ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’ thing. But in this post, I’m going to mention a few books that I didn’t enjoy. Apologies in advance if this upsets anyone. But please remember that this is simply the opinion of one person. I like certain books, and dislike others. I listen to strange music that I know others can’t stand. I like Marmite. My tastes are not necessarily going to correspond with yours. If I don’t like a book, that simply means I don’t like it. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. Your opinions may differ.

We all like different stuff. If everyone was the same, life would be so much less interesting.

Getting back to books, the ones I’m going to talk about here are Twilight and Fifty Shades. In both cases, the books have sold fantastically well, and have legions of fans. The interest in these books has led to films, and the authors are (as far as I understand) doing very well for themselves. If I say something negative about them, it’s not going to harm the success of either series, and I doubt the authors are that bothered by what someone like me thinks of them anyway.

I’ve read all the Twilight books and the first two Fifty Shades titles. I’m not a fan of paranormal romance (or whatever genre Twilight is in at the moment), and I’m not big on erotic romance (if that is where Fifty Shades sits‌—‌I’ve heard differing opinions). I know I’m not the target audience for either series. I can’t say I enjoyed reading them, but I did finish them.

Why? Why spend time on something I didn’t enjoy? And why, after reading the first book in each series, did I carry on?

There are a couple of reasons.

ignorance-1993615_1280Ignorance

The first I will illustrate with something that happened a few times when I was teaching. I’d get into conversations about music, and my tastes were usually very different to those of the students. Sometimes, when I mentioned an artist or band I liked, I’d get negative comment‌—‌“That’s rubbish!” (although usually with a few more swear-words thrown in). I’d counter by asking what songs by that particular band the young person had heard, and in practically all cases they hadn’t heard anything. It was simply a name they weren’t familiar with, and so they dismissed it straight away.

Chances are they wouldn’t have enjoyed the music anyway, but they weren’t even prepared to give it a chance.

And that’s so easy to do. As someone who enjoys vampire stories like Dracula and Salem’s Lot, Twilight isn’t a ‘proper’ vampire book, and it would have been easy for me to complain about Meyer’s series. But I would have been making unfounded statements, or simply repeating what others had said. If I wanted to moan about Twilight, I had to know what I was talking about. I couldn’t say it was badly written unless I was prepared to back this statement up with examples I’d come across.

So I choose to read certain books because I want to know what I think of them. I don’t want to regurgitate the thoughts of others.

international-conference-1597529_1280Audience

The second reason is connected with target audience. As I said before, I know that neither Twilight or Fifty Shades are aimed at someone like me‌—‌middle aged bloke who leans towards inquisitive fiction with a dark edge. Of course there was a good chance I wouldn’t enjoy them.

So why should I even bother reading them?

Again, I’ll bring this back to music. There are loads of different styles of music, although most people tend to listen to only a few types. But the musicians who are producing interesting work are often the ones who push boundaries, and who draw on a wide range of influences. I’ll illustrate what I mean with a story I heard about Randy Rhoads, guitarist with Ozzy Osbourne back in the eighties. When they were touring, Randy would book a local guitar teacher for a lesson wherever they happened to be. He’d invite the teacher up to his hotel room, and spend an hour learning. It didn’t matter what style they taught, because it was all music, and he knew whatever they had to offer would help his own playing. Rock, jazz, classical, folk‌—‌as far as he was concerned, anything could be a positive influence.

I feel a similar way about books. There are so many stories out there, and so many different ways of writing. If I stick to a few genres, or even a few authors, I’m limiting myself. I need to read outside my comfort zone. I need to know what else is happening. Even stories I don’t like can be educational. It’s why I have a collection of cowboy stories on my Kindle, and why I’ve downloaded a few romance titles. It’s why I’ll read popular books that don’t appeal to me.

Even if I am not particularly enamoured with the story or the writing, I can still learn from it. I can see why others might enjoy these books, and that can help me think of how others might perceive my own writing.

binoculars-1209011_1280Discovery

Now that I think of it, there is another reason for reading outside my preferred genres. There are so many books waiting to be read, and amongst all the ‘rubbish’ there will be uncovered gems. If I only stick to what I know, I could be missing out. So I need to risk something different every now and then. Yes, there is a good chance I won’t enjoy it, and it might be a chore to complete it (because I don’t like leaving a book unfinished). But, occasionally, I’ll come across something I love.

I’ll give a couple of examples of this. I first heard of Louis de Bernieres when Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was released and started getting more attention. It didn’t particularly appeal, but I read it anyway. I though it was okay‌—‌well written, even though the story didn’t grab me. I read a few reviews, and a lot of them suggested that his earlier books, his Latin American trilogy, were better. I gave them a go, and I have to agree with these reviewers. I think this trilogy are fantastic. I haven’t picked up Corelli again, but I have re-read all three of his earlier books.

Other examples involve classics, those old books that ‘everyone should read’ (why?). I remember reading both Wuthering Heights and War And Peace because they came in this category, and in both cases I expected to struggle through them. But at least I could say I’d read them.

Yet I loved the books. I’ve re-read both a few times since, and have gone on to read more Tolstoy (although I still think War And Peace is his best). And I’ve read more classics and ‘books everyone should read’‌—‌some I’ve enjoyed, some have been a struggle, but I feel better for reading them, because now I know what I think about them.

problemSo did I waste my time reading Twilight and Fifty Shades? If I read slowly, and took a few months to get through them, I would say yes. If I continually read books I didn’t think I’d enjoy, again I’d say yes. But if I read widely, and step outside my comfort zone every now and them, reading ‘unenjoyable’ books is not a waste of time. Just so long as I know why I am doing it.

I read for enjoyment. I read to get wrapped up in a story. I read to be thrilled and entertained, or maybe to laugh.

But I also read to expand my mind. I want to have my own opinion, rather than simply aping others. I want to understand how different books can appeal to different audiences. I want the opportunity to find those hidden gems.

And even if I find a book that is poorly written, and that I find little to hold my interest, I can still learn what mistakes I need to avoid in my own writing.

If I read with all that in mind, no reading time is truly wasted.