I am inundated by new writers offering me free e•content these days. “Download my book for free!” And this has led me to realize why the traditional world of publishing, that is, those who try to make a living out of this business, have circled the wagons on their industry.
It is almost a given these days that a new writer has to self•publish his book and give away the e•book version for free. Some say that you have to give away three free for every one sold at $0.99. That is less than 25 cents per copy. How long will that take before you amass the minimum required to receive your first royalty check from the online retailers who are notoriously lax at paying? Perhaps many fall by the way before accumulating that minimum, to the benefit of the online retailer. And why do we have to do this? Where is the value exchange? Where is the token of respect for all the hours socked away into learning the craft and then producing the book? Where is the sense of self•respect that this labourer is worthy of his hire?
Sure, I give a certain amount of content away for free – like this blog article, for example. But my value exchange here is received in the engagement by the many that read and provide feedback to me on the issues I raise – that is my compensation. But to give away a whole book, something taken years to create, to some faceless person, seems a bit excessive to me. Yes, I have given away books for free too, but again, only when the reader engages with me one•on•one and agrees to discuss the book’s pros and cons. Most of these “freebies” have paid off, for the readers have gone on to post online reviews of my book, good, bad or indifferent.
I am told that free downloads can amount to thousands of curious, “anything for free” collectors, but not many of these freeloaders actually get down to reading the book. So, all that one has achieved is to have moved the book of your own hard drive to the hard drives of many others where it sits in storage. I believe that the online retailers also count free downloads as “books sold” (I recently received a $0 invoice for a free download that I tested) so this permeates the myth that the free book is now a best seller. Of course, try telling this to a new writer and it’s like water falling on a duck’s back.
I developed a principle some time ago: I will not give away my e•books for free unless in a limited promotion (and I haven’t engaged in one yet for I am still studying the implications). My e•books (and trade books) will have market competitive prices to the faceless multitudes. And “market competitive” does not mean “free” for then there is no market for one’s work. And if my restraint ends up in fewer copies sold, well, so be it. At least that will give me an indication of my true value as a writer. J.D. Salinger was the master of this restraint principle – the more he tried to hide his work, the more the world wanted of him.
I do not know if this stubborn “last stand” of mine is going to drive me into a hole in this new publishing world. I am sure those who practice the “give three free, expect one to be bought for $0.99” approach will dismiss me (and Salinger) as a Luddite. But if the new publishing world means working for free, it sounds worse than working in the times of slavery, and I thought that we had evolved past that dark stage of our lives. And as for the guy who sends me that ubiquitous tweet, “Thanks for the follow, please download my debut novel Blah, Blah & Blah for free,” he, or she, will be coming off my “following” list pretty damn quick.