L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

27 February 2008 Blog Home : February 2008 : Permalink

Writers and Free

At Wired, Chris Anderson (Mr Long Tail), has a whole piece about the economics of "Free" as a business model. I'm sure its just coincidence that AP reported yesterday that various other authors and publishers are following in the footsteps of Baen and giving work away for free:

NEW YORK - Charles Bock's "Beautiful Children, a best-selling debut novel about characters adrift in Las Vegas, is the latest book to be offered for free online.

Starting Wednesday, Bock's novel can be downloaded from the Web site http://www.beautifulchildren.net/read. The free electronic edition will also be available from such leading retailers as Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com.

"I want people to read the book," Bock said in a statement issued Tuesday by the Random House Publishing Group. "If that means giving it away for free online, great."

"The book really struck a chord with readers as bookstore sales have demonstrated," Avideh Bashirrad, deputy director of marketing for Random House, said in a statement. "We believe it has even more potential readers out there, and the best way to reach them is online, with this unrestricted access."

And guess what? It works too. Despite all the worries about "piracy"

Publishers have worried about Internet piracy and whether online text could hurt traditional sales. But lately the trend has been to make more books available on the Internet and hope that interest in all formats will be increased.

HarperCollins recently announced that books by Paulo Coelho, Neil Gaiman and a handful of others would be posted online (although not for printing or downloading). In mid-February, financial advice writer Suze Orman said on Oprah Winfrey's television show that "Women & Money," published in 2007, could be downloaded from Winfrey's Web site over a period of 33 hours. More than 1 million copies of the book were downloaded and the paper edition jumped into the top 10 on Amazon.com.

Gee. Eric Flint has been telling the world this for years over at Baen's Free Library and more recently in his JBU columns.

On the other hand at the Boston Herald there is a column with a link to a Harlan Ellison rant called "Play the Writer" where he points out that you have to pay to play. He points out that freebies can be a bad idea sometimes and he has a fair point. Free is only sensible if it has a payback. The column points out that many creative people face a similar challenge because "career development" may mean they ought to do one thing but the need for food, clothing and housing means they can't aford to.

The question posed is not one with a simple answer and it applies to all sorts of other activities that surround the process of marketing a work or a career. John Scalzi undoubtedly helped his works by having a blog, but as he points out he had the blog for years before he actually sold any fiction, and he also benefited from not being the sole-breadwinner in the haousehold; indeed he somewhat controversialy suggested that creative types marry someone with a steady job.

The problem of marketing of creative stuff has been a problem that their creators have faced throughout history. The upper end sent samples to would be patrons, the lower end stopped the story and refused to continue before the hat was filled. Both of these are essentially what Chris Anderson is talkign about in the intitial link. The advantage the internet brings is that the free sample / teaser can be distributed for very little cost which makes a bunch of otherwise marginal creative activities possible. And this is where Mr Ellison gets upset because (paraphrasing) the amateurs give stuff away for free so people get used to it and refuse to pay the professionals.

To go back to the free ebooks thing, I find myself (to my shock) in agreement with Andrew Burt - most books (all popular ones for sure) have pirate electronic editions available for a monetary cost of $0.00 if you want to spend the time find them. The argument is about piracy reducing sales is silly as the pirate copies already exist. The trick is to make the free copies bring you other sales and the way to do that seems to be to out "pirate" the pirates yourself.

However not all ebooks need to be given away for free.This is what worries even otherwise smart folk like Jerry Pournelle, however it appears that if you price your ebooks sensibly you can sell them to people with disposable income who like ebooks. Many people prefer to reward the author as long as they don't think they are being ripped off and if you don't make an ebook available (or price it too high) then you deprive yourself of the opportunity to make money from these people. This excellent presentation from the O'Reilly TOC conference makes the point very clearly with respect to how the music industry didn't get that right.