Monday, August 24, 2009

Writing for Free?

There was a time, not so very long ago, when people laid down their hard earned money for books. They expected to pay good money for reading material. But recently a new trend has emerged. Readers now expect to get books (or at least ebooks) for free.

Publishers and booksellers are working hard to give readers what they want. A recent story in my local newspaper (in a story from Associated Press) tells of Amazon’s new experiment. In an effort to entice readers to its Kindle ebooks, they are offering many of them for free. For example, James Patterson’s novel The Angel Experiment, which came out in print four years ago, is being offered as a free Kindle download. The response from readers has been immense, making The Angel Experiment a Kindle best seller.

The idea is to offer one book for free in order to entice readers to purchase other books from the same author. It seems to be working for Patterson. The Angel Experiment is the first book in his Maximum Ride young adult series. He is quoted as saying: “We’ve given away thousands of free e-copies. Maximum Ride is big already and we think it could be a lot bigger. That requires getting people to read it.” Maja Thomas, senior vice-president of digital media at Patterson’s publisher, the Hachette Book Group says, “There’s always going to be someone who wants free things. What we’re trying to do is link free with paid. It’s like priming the pump.”

Amazon is not alone in believing that free, or almost free, will entice buyers. In his book “Free”, Wired magazine’s editor Chris Anderson argues that goods sold in digital bytes (like ebooks) can be reproduced so efficiently that their cost of distribution falls to “near zero”. Anderson argues that consumers who have grown up with the Internet do not consider file sharing as stealing. They believe it is so cheap to reproduce, that a price can’t be put on it. Anderson’s mantra is “information wants to be free”. It’s hard to argue with that claim when you can get free online journalism, music files, video games, television shows, movies, and increasingly, books.

Recently, Prairie Chick Anita gave us a link that noted another disturbing trend. Airport booksellers are offering to buy back a book you purchase in one airport for a portion of the sales price when you reach your destination. For example, you purchase a book at the airport in San Francisco, read it on the airplane, and when you arrive in New York, you sell back the book to the bookseller in the airport there for perhaps 50% of the purchase price. But as Wendy Lawton points out in her blog, where does that leave the author? An author’s royalties are based on sales, not number of reads. So potentially a book could be placed in this catch and release program a half a dozen times. Six different people could have read the same book; the book seller could have made back his investment several times. But the author has only been paid once.

I have to admit I have been lured by the siren call of a free book. I downloaded all of the ebooks that Harlequin made available earlier this year for their 60th anniversary promotion. I own a Sony ereader and get regular offerings from the The Sony Bookstore which also offers some free ebooks. But as an author with books of my own in the marketplace, I have to worry: with so many books out there for free, who’s going to put down cold, hard cash to pay for mine?

I’m not the only one concerned about this. Author Joseph Finder, whose thriller Paranoia is an Amazon free read from Kindle, also wonders about the future of this venture. Although sales for his other books have increased and his profile in the writing world has improved, he worries that with all the free ebooks stuffing consumers’ Kindles, iphones and Sony readers, why would they ever have to actually buy a book again? Others worry that consumers will soon expect all literary purchases to be free.

As I constantly tell my daughters as they download free music onto their MP3 players, how long do you think an artist can continue to produce new work if they don’t get paid for it? In his review of Chris Anderson’s book "Free", Winnipeg Free Press book reviewer Morley Walker asks “Who will pay journalists if their work insists on being free? If movie lovers can download films at no cost, why should producers spend $100 million to finance them?”

The publishing world is starting to be faced with the same question: How will publishers and authors survive if more and more books are offered for free, or almost free?

So, writers of Blogland, are you worried about the trend of free books? Do you think this trend will continue? Should we be worried or is this the future of publishing and writing?


Helena said...

Hi, Jana. I'm concerned always with the prospect of writers not receiving full value for their work. However, I can't quite believe that the publishers would be involved in something that is not going to benefit them (the publishers) in the long run. Therefore, promotions of "free" books must be happening to increase sales overall.

That's probably a very naive way of looking at a complex question. I think there should be some system of recording number of "reads" of a book, similar to the income that writers get for the number of library circulations of their books or the number of copies of articles through Access Copyright. Otherwise it is disturbing to think that writers will not be fairly compensated.

Free downloads of music, ebooks, art, photos, etc. will have to be controlled somehow. I know some musicians feel it benefits them to make music available free online because it allows fans to sample, and they believe that it leads to more sales. Perhaps that is what the publishers are also expecting. In the meantime, are they benefiting from advertising on their website? If so, are the writers getting paid something for each free download?

Lots of good questions you have raised today, Jana. As you mentioned in a comment last week, writing is also a business, so all of this has to be a concern. Writers can't eat on fame and good reviews alone.

Silver James said...

Mornin', Jana! I've missed the prairie and hope I can visit regularly again, starting today!

Piracy is something that affects all of us. There will always be those who will download anything for free. And second-hand bookstores will always exist. Being epublished, I also get involved in the DRM (proprietary coding to keep people from copying) that allows a purchasers to download to one device, even though they might have several. I'm against DRM, personally, and my publisher doesn't use it.

But back on point--free downloads. Current statistics point to the idea that a free download--either a novella based on an author's current offering or a book from their backlist leads to greater sales. Not always, but enough that the publishers are getting on the bandwagon.

Great topic today!

Danielle Thorne said...

Congrats! You have been nominated for the Kreativ Blogger award. Get the logo and rules at

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
Like you, I'm always concerned about writers not being compensated for their work. And publishing being a business, publishers would not offer free books if it didn't make sense economically for them.

They're not stupid. The books chosen for free download are chosen very carefully. For example, James Patterson's book had been in print for four years so its current sales were probably very low. Offering it as a free download probably revived sales immensely, on that book and probably the rest of Patterson's books. I'm all for that. My worry is if there are so many free books out there by famous writers like Patterson, will consumers take a chance on an unknown like me?

I don't know the answers, Helena. I hope someone much smarter than me figures out a way to compensate all artists, writers included, for work offered on the Internet. Perhaps its a good thing if consumers demand lower prices for books. Maybe more people will buy books.


sugarandgrits said...

Ever since the Kindle, Sony Reader, etc. have been released, I'm worried that eventually real BOOKS are going to be extinct. I really, really hope this doesn't happen because there's nothing I like better than to get a brand new book...perfect condition, "new" smell, beautiful covers...I would much rather have an actual book that I can hold in my hand, as I get lost in the story!!

My bookshelves are over-flowing, but I'm still looking forward to all of the New Releases coming up next month. :)

Thank you, Jana, for the great post!

~ Lori

Jana Richards said...

Hi Silver,
So glad to have you back. Hope you can make us a part of your day once more.

Yes, piracy hurts us all. I want to be fairly paid for my work. Publishers like mine at Awe-Struck books are working hard to combat piracy but it's a tough fight when a lot of people believe that everything on the Internet should be free.

I do agree with offering free samples of my work. I have free short fiction and articles on my website and I also have a couple of free short stories available at I'm hoping they attract readers to my longer, for sale, novels. I'm not sure if it's working. I can only hope.

When I was writing this I wondered myself if file sharing is any different from loaning a friend a book, or if free downloads are much different from a used book store. What do others think? Am I worrying for nothing (I do that a lot) or is the trend toward cheap or free downloads something writers should be very concerned about?


Jana Richards said...

Hi Dani,
Thanks so much for the wonderful honour! I'll go check out the rules right away.


Jana Richards said...

Hi sugarandgrits,
Thanks for joining us here on the Prairies! We're pleased to have you.

I honestly believe that "real" books will never disappear. There is something special about the paper book and the reading experience with a paper book that the ereader will never replace.

That said, we are on the cusp of a revolution in the world of publishing and books. I think writers and readers and publishers are going to see a lot of changes, and ebooks and ereaders are just the start.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Jana, you certainly pose some thought-provoking issues! This was something we talked about over the course of my History and Future of the Book english course, not necessarily arriving at a specific conclusion, of course. I really don't think I can offer an opinion on the issue of piracy, as it's such a multi-faceted topic, except to say that I think overall old copyright policies and such are going to need looking at, as they simply don't work in such a highly technology and connected culture.

As for free books, I don't think it will pose a problem for other authors. I can see you're looking more at the prospect of big-name authors offering freebies and how it affects everyone else, rather than just one author's sales if he/she does or does not offer free books, so I won't get into free short stories on author websites, and all the other free (and potentially terrible :p) writing online.

Personally I'd be inclined to say the sort of people who would just sit around taking free books when they're offered and never buying anything aren't the sort of readers you're targeting anyway. I'd hesitantly say I don't think they're in the majority either. If people are just reading what's free rather than what they want, then I suspect they're more concerned about the price than the content, so they're not looking for a good story. There are still plenty of readers out there searching for a specific reading experience, and they'll seek it out whether it's free, on sale, or at regular price. I get those Sony emails now and then too (although I don't have an ereader yet, but I can still read them on the faithful laptop) and I've only downloaded one of their free offerings, because the premise seemed so intriguing I had to take a look. It also turned out to be a very short book, rather than a free full-length novel.

At this point, I don't think we can necessarily say for certain whether things will work out or cause a problem, but if the evolution of the book has taught me one thing, it's that each upheaval irons itself out in time--whether 'good' or 'bad' as we view things now is harder to say. The novel itself the paperbacking of 'literary' works, used book stores. All terrible prospects for the fate of the written word at one point, but now they seem perfectly acceptable.

Karyn Good said...

Very thought provoking post today, Jana. Especially since last night my Mom returned a book I'd lent her!?!

Certainly writers deserve to be paid for they're work. Having said that I've borrowed books, loaned books, visited second bookstores (although not lately) and picked up the odd book at a garage sale(again, back in the day when I didn't have two nickels to rub together). I'm not sure how that differs from free reads for the Kindle and Sony Reader, etc. A person's not likely to lend out their ebook reader! But they might suggest downloading a great book!

I don't have the answers either, but your post has inspired lots of questions.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
You make me feel a whole lot better! :) I'm hoping you're right about people seeking out the books they want, regardless of whether they have to pay for them or not. Like I said in my post, I downloaded the free Harlequin books, but I probably would not download a free Horror or some other genre I don't read, even if it is free.

The truth is people will still write, and people will read. The way we do it might change, but the need to tell and read stories won't.

Thanks for your insights Hayley.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
I've done all those things myself, and recently. For instance, I talked about a book on this blog that I read recently, Andrew Davidson's "The Gargoyle". I happened to borrow the book from a friend. However, I hope I inspired a few sales for Mr. Davidson. I enjoyed it so much I told everybody in my writing group in Winnipeg about it, and I told people at work. I told my husband I enjoyed it and he picked it up at the library (which probably doesn't count as a sale). But hopefully, my word of mouth helps the writer.

I don't think that kind of sharing of books will ever completely end, unless ebooks start self-destructing after one read!


Anne Patrick said...

Congrats! You have been nominated for the Kreativ Blogger award. Get the logo and rules at

Vince said...

Hi Jana:

This is a very interesting topic.

‘Free’ books became inevitable when the cost of reproduction approached zero. There is no stopping this trend. When eBook readers get down to $5 to $10 each, the paper book will die. Writers must adapt to eBooks.

I predict that non-profit educational institutions will write or commission to be written excellent school textbooks allowing school systems to use them for free. Students will not have paper textbooks. They will only have eBook readers. Textbooks will never be outdated because they will be constantly updated. This will save schools billions of dollars.

Now what is good for the publisher is not necessarily good for the author. What is good for one author is not necessarily good for another author. New relationships will require changes in author contracts. Lots of thought by lawyers, agents, and authors will be needed to adjust to this changing reality.

As an author I would not worry too much about ‘free’ books that are legally distributed. I downloaded all the free eHarlequin books and have not read any yet.

Readers really don’t want a ‘free’ book; they want the book, that-they-want-to-read, for free. As such, authors are under increasing pressure to build their own careers and develop growing fan bases that specifically want to read their books.

Self-marketing is more important now than it ever has been.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Vince,
Now what is good for the publisher is not necessarily good for the author. What is good for one author is not necessarily good for another author. New relationships will require changes in author contracts.

I totally agree with you Vince. James Patterson will do all right, but I don't know how I fit into the picture. Hopefully someone will figure out ways to be fair to all authors.

I really hope textbooks do become available as ebooks. Both of my daughters are in university right now and the cost of textbooks is pretty wild. And like you say, they become outdated very quickly, and can't be resold. Very frustrating, not to mention expensive.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It's certainly a brave new world.


Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Jana, I'm a day late in checking yesterday's blog b/c I've been working on a contest entry but how's this for irony:
While brainstorming yesterday, I finally uploaded your ebook Her Best Man to my eReader.

This is the ebook I bought (autographed) from you at the 2007 Saskatoon workshop. Remember? I'd kept it but hadn't read it since I don't like reading books on my laptop. But I'm test driving this Sony eReader this summer and just yesterday remembered about your's and Lesley-Anne McLeod's ebooks. Maybe you were telepathing me? (Don't think that's a word but you know what I mean.)

Anyway, about free ebooks: The book 'Free' that you mention is the first one I downloaded on the eReader as well as the free Harlequin ones. Then I used the $25 coupon I rec'd from eHarl with my eReader. Then I downloaded a couple free ones from the Sony bookstore as well as a couple other ebook stores. I guess there are authors out there offering free reads, too b/c the SBTB blog where the eReader reviews are posted sent me to a site when there are enough free books to put my eyes in a tizzy.

The Wild Rose Press has been offering free reads for years. Theirs were the first ones I downloaded when I rec'd my iTouch last year. This topic has been a discussion on many of their chats but it's been proven that when an author puts a free read up, it leads to more sales.

And to prove that point, Jana, after downloading Her Best Man, I opened my eReader to check if it was on there and I happened to read the first para...and the next...and the rest of the page...and by the end of that first scene, I was so anxious to keep going but I was supposed to be working on a contest entry. I'm also in the middle of another ebook which I want to finish first. But you can be sure yours will be next. Now that I think of it, I wish I'd read yours sooner b/c it would've been a perfect example to use in my 'Hooking the Reader' blog series. :(

Jana Richards said...

Hey Anita,
Glad you like Her Best Man! And I'm really glad I hooked you, even if it meant keeping you from your contest entry. Hope that goes well for you, btw.

As for free reads, when I got my Sony ereader last year it came with 100 free downloads of their classic books, things like Moby Dick and Jane Austen's books. There are hundreds of books to go through. I only downloaded about 30 of them because I thought, honestly, how am I ever going to read that many books, even if they are free? I haven't downloaded any of the free reads from the Wild Rose Press yet, but I'd like to so that I get a chance to read other authors from my publisher. I guess my point is that there is so much out there for free that a reader doesn't have to buy much. They will only buy a book when it is something they really, really want. So like Vince said, the pressure is on to get your name out there and build a fan base.

Thanks again for the plug for Her Best Man. I always envisoned that book as the first in a series of three but so far, the rest haven't been written. Hopefully someday!


Anita Mae Draper said...

BTW - if anyone is interested, here's today's announcement about the 3 new Sony eReaders: