Should eBooks be Available for Free?

Jar of Coins

This is not a post about self-publishing vs traditional publishing.

This is not a post about eBooks vs Print books.

This is a post about the way we think about pricing books, regardless of how they’re published, or by whom.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve read numerous articles regarding the “best” or “correct” way to price eBooks. I’ve heard stories about the benefits of giving away books for free as a promotional tool, and diatribes about the insanity of devaluing your own work by giving it away. I’ve heard arguments for pricing eBooks at no less than $4.99, and arguments for pricing eBooks at no more than $1.99.

I’ve not gotten involved in the discussion before. I’ve listened to the arguments, formulated my own opinions, and let it go. After all, I don’t have an eReader, don’t read eBooks, and don’t have any books of my own published (yet). So I figured the debate didn’t really concern me.

And maybe it doesn’t.

Or maybe it does.

Maybe it concerns everyone with an eye to the future and a care for the way artists interact with their fans and the rest of the artistic community, from writers to musicians to visual artists. Because when we talk about how we price our books, we’re not just talking about a simple matter of ‘Price = Cost + Profit’. We’re talking about wider issues.

We’re talking about the changing face of publishing.

We’re talking about the way the internet informs our choices, as both writers and readers.

We’re talking about the new and varied ways we communicate and connect with each other.

We’re talking about the way being an Author has changed and is changing.

No matter whether you’re self-published, traditionally published, or hoping to be published, I can guarantee you are well aware that being a writer is not just about being a writer anymore. It’s not enough to write a book. You’ve also got to market that book. You’ve got to build a platform and create an online presence and use social media and so on and so on.

As writers, we no longer connect with readers through book tours. We can’t sit in our fortresses of solitude, trusting in our publishers to get our books into bookstores, and trusting in the bookstores to put our books into the hands of readers. Now, we’re directly and intimately involved in the process. We connect with readers online, using blogs and Facebook and Twitter and whatever other social media sites you frequent. We forge personal connections with our readers, sometimes  long before they even are our readers.

But what does building personal relationships have to do with the price of eBooks?

Nothing. And everything.

Let me explain.

One of my heroes in the creative world is Amanda Palmer. If you don’t know her, she’s a singer/songwriter who first came to fame as half of the Dresden Dolls punk cabaret duo. She’s now a solo artist, touring and recording with the Grand Theft Orchestra band, and made headlines last year with her Kickstarter project.

She asked for $100,000 to fund her new album.

She got $1.2 million.

Amanda Palmer is a big believer in music being free. She supports downloading, torrents, file sharing, and good old fashioned copying of CDs to give to your friends. If you visit her website, it’s possible to download all of her music free of charge. All she asks is that if you like it, you come back and pay what you think it’s worth and what you can afford.

I’d love you to take a few minutes and listen to Amanda Palmer’s TED talk, ‘The Art of Asking’ where she says, “Don’t make people pay for music. Let them.”

One of my favourite quotes from Amanda Palmer’s TED talk is this one, in relation to her Kickstarter project:

The media asked, “Amanda, the music business is tanking, and you encourage piracy! How did you make all these people pay for music?”

And the real answer is: I didn’t make them. I asked them. And through the very act of asking people, I’d connected with them. And when you connect with them, people want to help you.

You see where I’m going with this?

As writers, we connect with readers online, using blogs and Facebook and Twitter and whatever other social media sites you frequent. We forge personal connections with our readers, sometimes  long before they even are our readers.

We connect with our fans in exactly the way Amanda Palmer is talking about. We do it already. We blog and tweet and connect on a personal level. But we don’t take advantage of that.

We don’t ask for help.

We just tell them that if they want our book, they’ll pay the ticket price.

Imagine what would happen if we did things differently? Imagine what would happen if we offered our eBooks for free, and asked our fans to pay what they think the book is worth.

I’m not just talking about self-publishers here. As I said to start with, this is not a post about self-publishing vs traditional publishing. This is a question for everyone.

I know the current publishing model doesn’t support giving away books for free. I know the current model is all about making people pay, not asking people to pay. But we’re in the middle of major changes in the way that publishing works. And if we, as writers, don’t have the right to have some say in the future of publishing, who does?

I’d like to leave you with another quote from that TED talk.

For most of human history, musicians — artists — they’ve been part of the community. Connectors and openers, not untouchable stars. Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance. But the internet, and the content that we’re freely able to share on it, are taking us back. It’s about a few people loving you up close, and about those people being enough.

Do you think eBooks should be available for free?


Filed under Opinion, Writing

33 responses to “Should eBooks be Available for Free?

  1. I am actually preparing a post about it myself.. a post to ask people to donate while offering my self-published book for free.
    The rest of the internet content is free, at least what comes in text form (with the exception of The Times, which I read is not overwhelmingly successful…) So there is the expectation that content should be free.
    That is why, I have made this decision to make my book available for free in electronic form, and ask like Ms Palmer is doing.
    I may succeed or not, but from a self-publishing venture point of view, I don’t really see any other viable option.

  2. Wandering away from the pack/herd for a moment, doing what you are good at and then receiving what the recipient can afford (or chooses to give) is an ancient model. The wandering bard staying for free until they cease to entertain is a classic trope.

    I think the issue with artists returning to it is fear: so many of us, growing up in capitalism, have internalised the concept that we need a plan to replace a steady wage so unconsciously focus on ROI.

    Personally I would prefer a gift economy but am still struggling with my desire for the validation of people paying to see what I have written this time.

    • The concept of the wandering bard is exactly what I’m talking about. Artists, musicians, storytellers — they were all valued and rewarded fort heir art. That type of equal give and take, where a storyteller is supported by the community in return for their stories is exactly what I’m talking about.

      And yes, I understand that fear. It’s terrifying to think about placing so much of our “financial security” into the hands of others. But that’s a learned fear, and one that isn’t necessarily healthy.

      In saying that, I’m fortunate to have a husband who is our primary beadwinner — and I’m not quite ready to give up all “secure” income when we have children to provide for. But do I believe a respectful “gift economy”, as you term it, is viable in the long term? Absolutely.

  3. JackieP

    I’ve seen Amanda’s TED talk. It was inspiring. If I had my choice I would do what she does and just simply ask. When my novel is ready to be published I am going to do what Amanda does and just ask for donations, pay me what you think my novel is worth. It’s something that would work I think, with so many authors out there, you need something to stand out. How many authors ask instead of demand? I write for the sheer pleasure of writing. Would I like to make a living at it? Sure! Who wouldn’t. But even if I don’t, I will continue to write because I must.

    • I hear you, Jackie. I am so inspired by Amanda Palmer — so much so, in fact, that simply listening to her music puts me in a creative frame of mind. And I am both deeply respectful and jealous of her fearlessness in putting herself and her art out there for the world.

      In saying that, I still want a traditional publishing contract, and I know that means I won’t have the power to decide on how I price my books. At least, not as the publishing model currently stands. But the world is always a-changing, and there’s nothing to say we can’t change the world.

  4. Have to say, I disagree. From a purely Utopian perspective, I agree, it sounds great. But from a practical perspective, I don’t think it works out so well that way, and Amanda Palmer, in particular, seems to have missed the lessons on some very important contributors to her own success. It’s the same thing that a lot of Self-publishing evangelists of the previously-published sort usually miss.

    I think author (and successful Kickstarter) Tobias Buckell says it very well in this interview he gave about his Kickstarter experience: A successful Kickstarter is a mixture of three factors: the cool factor… your audience factor… and the can-this-person-deliver factor.You really need to have strength in two of those three, I think, to do well… So for a first-time author, who normally doesn’t have a large audience (being a first timer) and hasn’t proven that they can deliver, they’re almost entirely banking on a single leg (is this cool?). That’s a large river to cross.”

    What people like Palmer and other established pros have is a great deal of strength in the pre-existing audience factor and in the can-this-person-deliver factor. They have an audience, and they have a track record.

    Someone like me? I’ve got an idea that I think is cool. But on the very off-chance that random-Joe-Somebody-With-A-Few-Bucks-to-Burn happens to accidentally discover my work (which is unlikely, given the “I have no pre-existing audience” problem), what motivation do they have to give me those bucks?

    In a practical world… and the music industry is bearing this out: not a whole heckuva lot.

    Another problem with Palmer’s idealism: would she, honestly have been able to produce her latest album – would she have delivered if she had not had the successful Kickstarter? Not a record-breaking one, but a successful one? Cost-wise, considering the time and expense to produce, to her personally, it wouldn’t have been feasible. So that is music that wouldn’t have existed unless her audience had paid her money up-front for her music. In point of fact… while that music may be freely available for download now, on a post-hoc basis, that’s only possible because the music was already paid for in advance.

    Pulling the realities of Kickstarter into this isn’t really the same as saying something is or should be free.

    None of this art is produced for free, not even the work of idealistic stars like Palmer. There is a cost, and someone, somewhere is paying for it. If I give my work away for free, then it is I who am paying the cost.

    This is not to say that writing should never be given away for free. Obviously, I blog, and whatever I write on my blog is offered up free-of-charge. I don’t even have a tip-jar asking for donations. That’s not the purpose of the blog, for me, as an artist, and the cost that I bear for producing that content (a cost primarily of my time and energy) for free is, in my consideration, a justifiable expense for what I get out of the blog (including, but not limited to, a sense of community, a connection with other writers, and a place to just write whatever’s on my mind and let myself feel free to express myself).

    Going back to Kickstarter, which I think is pertinent since Palmer is justifiably famous for doing a huge Kickstarter, and her thoughts seem to be central to this argument… this is a platform not about giving work away for free, or not. It’s about changing the means by which the production of art is funded. Historically, until now, there were really only two models for funding the production of art: (1) a rich patron funds the production of the art and (2) the artist self-funds the production of their own work. (Traditional publishing, as it happens, is mostly model 1 with a dash of model 2 thrown in for early-career authors, when writers write most of their work “on spec” in the hopes of finding that rich patron. A self-publisher is operating on model 2.) Kickstarter simply adds a third option: treating a large crowd of potentially-interested micro-philanthropists as, collectively, a rich patron. Each of these models has benefits and drawbacks. And this list of three models isn’t necessarily the entire universe of artistic-project funding models, nor are the three mutually exclusive.

    My point is just this: someone, somewhere in the process is paying a cost for the production of art, be that novels, music, or what-have-you. None of these is necessarily good or bad, right or wrong, but the cost exists regardless of whether we recognize it or not. If a given author has, as a goal, to be financially self-sufficient from the production of art, they would be wise to consider the ramifications of these different funding models, and what that means for their ability to make a living from the fruits of their labors. If one can afford to be an idealist, that’s great. But for the rest of us, we need to think a little more strategically about how to approach this than simply glomming on to the idea of giving our work away for free.

    • Does it sounds weird to say that I agree with almost everything you said?There are a few points I disagree with, but that’s largely because I tend (heavily) towards an idealistic view of the world in comparison with your (largely) realism/practical view of the world.

      Would Amanda Palmer have made $1.2 million on a Kickstarter if she didn’t have a pre-existing (although niche) audience? No. Absolutely not. And when she was unknown, she didn’t try. She painted her face white and stood on a box on the side of the road. And that made her enough money to live and fund her burgeoning music career.

      A first-time novelist is highly unlikely to make that much money from Kickstarter based on cool factor alone. But remember that the average advance for a first-time novelist is only about $5000. Could a first-time novelist make $5000 via Kickstarter based on cool factor? Maybe. If they were to offer their first chapter as a sample, and make genuine connections with people online who would advocate for them, I’d say there’s a good chance they would. (Assuming they had the cool factor.)

      You and I have a connection based on our blogs, and I assure you that if you were to tell me you had Kickstarter going to enable you to take a month off work and finish your first novel, I’d put money into it. How many other connections do you have online and in meat-space?

      But back to your point — yes, someone is paying. I 100% agree with you. And if it wasn’t clear from my post, I’m not actually advocating the idea that all stories should be free. I’m advocating the idea of asking people to pay what they feel a story is worth — and trusting that people will do so.

      Am I an idealist? Maybe. Sure. But you know how it goes: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

      And I’m not suggesting everyone should follow the “idealisitc” route. I’m just putting it out there as an option. And one I think is viable for people who want it to be.

      • Yeah, I’m a dreamer, too. But sometimes my dreams are nightmares. (I had a really bizarre one, recently, but I’ve forgotten it. When I was a kid many of my nightmares involved monsters, nowadays they involve crazy people with guns… Social nightmares also played a big role, both as a child and as an adult.)

        But yeah… I prefer the model of idealism, but I’ve learned that naked idealism alone won’t bring about the results I want, and that I need to be practical about things.

        How’s this for a model: Pay me what you think the story is worth… with a minimum payment of $X. If you don’t think it’s worth at least that much, then why are you bothering to read the story at all?

      • See, that’s a compromise I’d be happy with. And I’ve seen similar things on musician’s websites. Something like:

        Download our album and choose your price. Click here for $1, here for $5, and here for $10.

        I almost always choose the middle option, as a matter of interest. Unless I love, love, love the music, when I’ll try to pick the most expensive (if I can afford it at the time). But personally, choosing the lowest option always feels a bit like what you’re saying: If I think it’s worth such a small amount, why would I even bother downloading it?

      • It’s an interesting model… I’d be curious to see someone try it and see what happens.

        The only problem, I think: this would only work when selling ebooks directly from your own site. I don’t think Amazon, B&N, Apple, etc. have the infrastructure in place to allow for variable customer-choice pricing. And if you’re going to get the kind of exposure you probably need… you most likely need to be on all those platforms.

      • Pretty much. But that is, in many ways, the reason for my yelling into the void. Because why not have those models available? If not a completely open “choose your price”, then a choice of options? Surely Amazon et all doesn’t really care, and will simply take their cut from whatever is paid.

  5. I will give you my comment for a price. j/k I’m trying to get used to the idea of asking. It’s an interesting concept, kind of like kickstarter.

    • We’re raised in a culture where asking is almost considered shameful, whether that’s asking for help or money or even fair treatment. It’s kind of sad, don’t you think?

  6. “I can guarantee you are well aware that being a writer is not just about being a writer anymore. It’s not enough to write a book. You’ve also got to market that book. You’ve got to build a platform and create an online presence and use social media and so on and so on.”

    Really? I have to do all that? 🙂

    Stephen raises some very important points about the business side of this, but I also disagree from the other side. Art has value, and it had that value long before the publishing industry (or any industry) existed. I think we have to start with why we tell stories in the first place, as Jackie brought up.

    I do have respect for professional writers and their desire to get paid for their work, but that’s only one way to be a writer. To draw an analogy, some people are professional teachers, getting paid for their work with children and rightly so, but many people have children and raise them, bearing the cost themselves (as Stephen points out, someone is always bearing the cost), providing value to the community without asking anything in return except the non-monetary rewards of the process itself. But if what you’re producing is art rather than (or in addition to) children this way, you’re regarded as not valuing your work because it’s not generating income for you.

    The point about relationships is interesting, and I think it’s attractive to some people today because so much of our art and entertainment is corporately produced, involving no human relationships at all. Neal Stephenson got into this a bit in Snow Crash.

    • The concept of valuing art is really important to me. And I think it’s one of the aspects of writing that many people struggle with. Raised in a capitalist society as most of us have been, there’s this idea that Value = Money. But with art, whether it’s writing or music or visual arts, there’s so much more to valuing and appreciating it than a balance sheet.

      Oh, and this whole “I have to do all that” nonsense? Don’t start with me. You may not think about it in the same way, but you DO do all that stuff. You make friends and connections online, meet people (and come to their blogs specifically to disagree with everything they say 😛 ), and “market” your writing via social media (ie. your blog). How many people have read your stories because you connected with them online, huh?

      *raises hand*

      Just because you don’t call it “building a platform” or “creating connections via social media” doesn’t mean you’re not doing it. Your motive is different. You’re doing it because you’re a friendly, opinionated, artistic guy who likes to share his writing.

  7. I watched her TED Talk via another blogger, and I admit – I did not ‘click’ with her. The initial quote you referred to where she mentions ‘letting them pay’ is a good theory but I think it comes with many flaws.
    I think you get what you pay for – and I fear a society that thinks everything should be ‘free’.
    Should ebooks be free? I do not think there should be a rule where ebooks should be free. I think it is up to the person – if they want to charge for their work, they should charge for their work. If they want to give their work to others for free- then so be it.

    • As much as I respect and agree with Amanda Palmer, I understand that not everyone is going to click with her opinions, or her music. So it’s okay, we can still be friends. 😉

      If it wasn’t clear in my post, I’m not actually advocating that all ebooks be free. In fact, I’m not advocating that ANY ebooks be truly free — I’m advocating the idea that consumers of stories be asked to pay what they believe a story is worth.

      I believe that when asked to pay as much as they believe something is worth, 99% of people will choose to make a payment. I believe that payment will often be more “fair”, and certainly more willing, than when people are told they must pay a set amount.

      On a personal level, I’ve (many times) (illegally) downloaded music for free. Not because I don’t respect the artists, but because I can’t afford to pay $30 for an album. I just can’t. But every single time I’ve come across a musician who says, “Download our music here. Please pay what you think it’s worth. We suggest $X, but understand if you can’t afford that much.” — every. single. time. — I’ve paid for that music. Sometimes more than they’ve suggested. And I’m not egotistical enough to think I’m any different to the average person.

      Think about a place where you’ve recently been asked to donate as much as you can afford in exchange for something you enjoy/believe in. A museum or an art gallery or somewhere like that. Do you give money? Or do you think to yourself, “Hee hee hee. That means I don’t have to pay anything. Suckers.”

      As for your other statement, I agree. I also fear a society that thinks everything should be free But on the other hand, I’m terrified of a society that thinks the only things that matter, the only things with value, are the things with a price tag.

  8. Also… I just want to second what Anthony said. 🙂 As I saying, my argument wasn’t that this or that artistic expression shouln’t be free, but that we as artists need to be aware, first, of our own motivations behind producing that art and, second, of the resources available to us to reach whatever artistic or lifestyle goals we have (and to be honest with ourselves about the relative merits, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats in our artistic and industrial environment). This can include, of course, our network of relationships and the strengths and natures of those relationships.

  9. I actually do like the idea of being asked to pay what I think something is worth. Louis CK, the comic (Is he huge in Australia? He is here.) has put downloads of his shows on the net for $5. It’s set up so you could share it, to make it easy to download – but he asks that you don’t. He made a significant amount on those downloads. I like the way it worked both because it was inexpensive and because in the end he still made a fair amount.

    Besides, isn’t art about sharing and not about making money?

    • I’ve not heard of Louis CK, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not huge in Australia. I’m not exactly what you’d call “with it” when it comes to a lot of popular culture — and I haven’t watched TV in about seven years. But the way he does things sound fantastic. That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

      And yes, art is about sharing. Although being able to afford wine is also important. Thus, the social contract: I will provide you with art in exchange for you respecting my position as an artist and helping to support me so I can make more art.

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  11. I haven’t heard her talk. I’ve heard of sandwich stands allowing customers make their own change, so in essence they are paying what they want for the item. I think some people would get extremely rich through their good work, and a lot of people would starve because they simply aren’t great, and their readers would rather hold on to their money than pay something for reading it. If we have to pay a price, then the person who wrote the book – or whatever – would receive some compensation for what he/she did.
    My husband is a realtor. So he is paid when the sale is completed. If he does the work, and the sale falls through – no paycheck. If he is a bad salesman – no sale. If people like what he does and return, he makes a good salary. Most salespeople don’t make very much money, and they get out of the business – especially when times are tough.

    • I’ve worked for commission as well. Not as a realtor, but as a travel agent. It’s tough and challenging and a real test of mental strength and fortitude. And I LOVED it.

      There were some months when I wondered if I’d make ends meet, and others where everything just seemed to fall into place without any effort at all. But the number one thing I learned was that success is a mindset.

      When you enter every interaction with a positive mindset, you will be successful. Not necessarily with that client or that sale, but you’ll attract the type of people who will make you successful.

      When you are feeling under pressure or desperate or disillusioned, your mindset is wrong and you sabotage yourself before you even start.

      I think that lesson works just as well for artistic endeavours as selling holidays or houses. 🙂

      • I actually think it works for everything, but most people don’t know it. I taught for years without a contract, and never worried about it. I worked in a County office for 15 years, and never had a guarantee for the next year. Most of the time when you work hard, have a nice personality, and treat people well, you will succeed at whatever you.

        I like the freedom of not being on someone else’s demand schedule, maybe? My philosophy has always been if I don’t like the job, I can leave. That leaves an open that if my employer doesn’t like me he can let me leave. Have you read Daniel Pink’s books? He talks about motivation. I recommend him highly. 🙂 M 🙂

      • No, I haven’t. I just did a search on his name, and would love to read some. But which book first? Recommend me one of his books as a starting point — Please?!

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  13. Jo, I just discovered your blog and am an instant fan. Thank you for writing this. It gives me ideas about my own book marketing and speaking events – much needed ideas. Thanks for stirring the pot!

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