The Real Cost of Free

By Laura Benedict

Borrow a book from the library…free.
Borrow a book from a friend…free.
Receive a book as a gift (or promo)…free.
Download an illegal torrent mp3 or .doc file from the Internet…free.

It occurs to me that the actual dollar value of storytelling has decreased exponentially of late—specifically since the advent of the Internet. Everybody writes. And when it comes to available manuscripts, the supply seems to outstrip the demand by a considerable margin. In the rational world, this means that stories are and should be available at rock-bottom prices. It doesn’t get any cheaper than free.

Add in astonishing technological leaps in the inexpensive reproduction of materials—everything from films to photographs to books to music—and it’s hard to believe that people make any money at all from telling stories, taking pictures or making movies. Technology gives us the ultimate democracy. Ultimate freedom. Anyone can be an artist. Put the work out there and you, too, can be judged in the marketplace of ideas. As long as you don’t plan on making a living at it.

Testing the free market waters

In the tradition of grocery stores and crack dealers everywhere, a number of high-profile writers (as well as some less-famous writers) have tested the free market waters by giving away online samples of their books and stories. The offers run for a limited time before the books are available at local bookstores. It’s a cheap way to get publicity for a book and can help build word-of-mouth and encourage amateur review coverage. It makes particular sense for a writer who has a big backlist for a new reader to explore. I don’t know the numbers, but I understand that it’s a lucrative way to bring new readers on board.

I’m a capitalist and have been since I started hiring myself out for babysitting gigs. I worked for money and got paid in money. Over the years, in school and in business, I cobbled together a semblance of a marketing education. I’m no expert, but I can see how free can be a good thing in a free market world.

But as a creative person who spends weeks, months, or years working on a project, it’s kind of a bite in the ass to see my work available online—uploaded by strangers without my permission—for free. (I’ll ‘fess up right here to having used other folks’ photographs from the Internet, but when I finally realized that it was basically stealing, I made some changes. I’ll link, credit and/or get permission when I use random photos.) I don’t mean to whine—but, really. Making up stories and telling them with a modicum of skill is not a particularly easy thing to do. Of course, the capitalist in me screams for me to shut the hell up and stop whining. The market will do what it will do. But who knew the market would suddenly be injected with a big, fat get-it-here-for-nothing monster?

Producing books with beautiful covers and pages that don’t have the hand of cheap toilet paper is a very expensive business. Many would say too expensive. Folks have been announcing the demise of books since Cromwell and neither the naysayer nor the books have gone away. And they won’t. Stories will continue to be told. People like the feel of woodpulp and like evocative pictures. Books will survive. But in the end we’re talking about stories. Stories were around long before books and they’ll be around long after we grind up the last tree and take off for the next planet. The words may float in gossamer banners before our eyes or be loaded into our heads via disposable ear worms or we may have to gather around post-apocalyptic campfires built of our beloved paper books. Who knows?

The music industry has taken a long time to understand that no one is going to pay $20 for an album of music that can only be played on one machine forever and ever. They’re still struggling, but they’re getting it. The film folks are learning, too. Thank God for DVRs and Netflix, etc. You may not be able to rip copies of that Blu-Ray disc, but you can rent it for $1.99—a very democratic price. (We always crack up when we recall that Circuit City tried proprietary technology for films. Ha!) The book industry, though—we’re not quite there.

Eventually the market will sort itself out. It will value our stories somewhere in the middle between too-damned-expensive and free. As writers and artists, I think we’ll fall into two camps: those who feel compelled to tell stories no matter what the cost—or opportunity cost—to ourselves, and those who decide that giving away their work for free isn’t worth it.

Ideas build on ideas—that’s how cultures grow. It’s a wonderful thing. But I always advise newbie writers not to quit their day jobs until they’ve sold a million copies of something or other. Dream. Plan. Write. Move ahead. Remember that we don’t get to decide the value of our work to anyone but ourselves.

So, how do you feel about free?

Laura Benedict is a suspense writer, and her most recent book is Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts. This post is reprinted from her blog with her permission.

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1 Comment

  1. editoradmin

    hagelrat 09.15.09 at 1:28 pm

    It is completely unreasonable for people to reproduce your work for free without your permission. On the other hand, i lend someone three or four books, they really like one of them, they buy the rest of the books buy that author, the author sold a whole series of books of the back of one that they made nothing on. It can be positive. It’s a tricky thing to find the balance and there is a huge difference between borrowing a book and putting it out there for everyone without permission.
    Lydia Sharp 09.15.09 at 3:40 pm

    This is a good post. I’d like to think that the “free sample” method of business can work for books (hell, it works for cosmetics and groceries…worth a shot, right?), but I’m really not sure.
    The only thing I have issue with is when books are compared to music and DVDs. To me, they’re two different animals. Playing music and movies is limited by the technology of the day. A book, on the other hand, requires only that the person know how to flip a page and read words. Books have been around for centuries. How long does the other stuff last? A decade? Maybe.
    Trial and error is the only way to find out what works and what doesn’t, though. These are certainly interesting times we’re living in.
    Christopher Gronlund 09.15.09 at 5:19 pm

    I think you’re right, Laura, that things will even out. I’m buying more e-books and reading them on my iTouch because they are more affordable than hardbacks. (I can’t wait for John Irving’s new book, however, and I will buy the hardback.) While there are many free e-books out there, I’ve had a hard time wading through what’s good and not-so-good, so I still stick to writers I know.

    Free works for some writers who also want to do speaking engagements, but I’m not sure it’s something that will work for novelists who just want to write and remain more quiet in their approach. And I don’t think that those writers have to give their content away. (But they do have to figure out how to keep going in a culture that has more free content available to them, whether legal or illegal.)

    I think it’s in every writer’s best interests to at least consider “free” on some level — whether it’s a blog, sample chapters, or complete stories. There’s a whole generation coming up that’s used to electronic and free. While many people think that generation doesn’t read, I think part of that is nobody’s really figured out how to reach them.

    I think any writer who plans to write for decades to come needs to at least consider the balance between the growing expectations of free content and earning enough to pay the bills…whether they like it, or not.
    Charles Bohannan 09.15.09 at 6:47 pm

    Free at this point has to be part of any writer’s or editor’s marketing strategy.

    Because there are so many unique and independent factors to consider, the threshold between free and paid is the real challenge.

    Fortunately, technology gives us an advantage here — we can more precisely understand and engage with our audience thanks to endless supply of free analytics and social media tools out there.

    With these better understandings and relationships, the price of our work may be self-evident and under our direct control.
    Graham Storrs 09.15.09 at 7:40 pm

    My thoughts are very similar to this recent blog post. Basically, it seems that, by giving work away for free, authors are colluding in devaluing their own work. Because digital content is potentially an infinite supply, it is also potentially worthless, whatever the (finite) demand. The only give-away ‘business models’ that work, are to use digital content to promote something with limited supply – like author appearances, de-luxe (physical) editions, and so on. In effect, the author becomes the real product that is being sold, not the work.
    Laura Benedict 09.15.09 at 8:08 pm

    So many excellent points and interesting new directions in the comments here. Thanks much for weighing in, everyone! hagelrat’s comment got me thinking about libraries in general. I looked up the history of free public libraries on Wikipedia and learned some interesting stuff. Big changes seemed to come about when popular or commercial books came along. Before that, writing was mostly scholarly or otherwise subsidized, so literate folks were already accustomed to free access to books. Interesting that libraries are now also centers of new media access for the general populace. How sad that so many are losing public funding.

    The factors, as Charles notes, are many, unique and independent when it comes to navigating the waters between free and paid.

    Thanks, Maria, for having the post here!
    Charles Bohannan 09.15.09 at 8:12 pm

    Graham — you say that because “digital content is potentially an infinite supply, it is also potentially worthless.”

    Just because digital content is potentially infinite doesn’t mean it has to be made infinite. You can limit how many people buy the content (say at a certain price or time period).

    The give away stuff should serve as a precursor incentive to get more serious and dedicated people to buy.

    I do think your author as product is also a viable model, but that too has some very obvious limitations.
    Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 09.15.09 at 8:58 pm

    That last line nails the crux of the issue, for both writers and publishers alike: “We don’t get to decide the value of our work to anyone but ourselves.” Great post!
    Graham Storrs 09.15.09 at 9:08 pm

    Charles, I agree, of course. That’s why I said “potentially infinite”. At the moment, the model is to try to limit the supply (in extremis, through the use of the dreaded DRM) but the arguments that rage about the price of e-books is an indication of the pressure to move to a cheaper and cheaper and, ultimately, free supply of all digital content.
    Charles Bohannan 09.15.09 at 9:16 pm

    Right, I picked up on that keenly placed word “potentially.” But there’s certainly a paying market for ebooks if the marketing is sharp enough. Free across the board is way too theoretical. People will pay.
    RKCharron 09.16.09 at 12:40 am

    Hi :)
    Thank you Maria for having Laura Benedict on your site and thanks to Laura for sharing such a interesting, thoughtful, excellent post.
    All the best,
    @RKCharron
    xoxo
    Dan Holloway 09.16.09 at 9:27 am

    Hey Laura! As a writer I’m a huge advocate of free for two reasons.

    First, as I outlined in my guest post on Loupoet (http://loudpoet.com/2009/09/03/freemium-for-writers-is-two-debates/), if you’re a newbie writer, the business case for the freemium model is compelling. There are two battles we face. We face the battle to be paid, of course. But before that we face the battle to be read, and unless we are prepared to offer our work for free, that’s a battle we will and, I would argue, SHOULD, lose. As a newbie, I don’t want readers to pay out for my book without knowing if they like my writing or not. I intend being in the business for a long time. For that I need loyal fans. Which means I want those who buy my work to love it and want more. So to me it makes sense to let them read my work for free.

    The second reason is a social one. Over the next ten years access to the Internet is going to outstrip access to banking facilities on a massive scale. People who have no way of getting themselves a Paypal account are going to be able to post their work on the Internet. The latter is great, because it means culture truly will be global. The former is not so great. In fact, if we don’t do anything about it, I predict we’ll see a cultural exploitation and plunder on a scale we haven’t seen since colonialism, as middlemen who DO have access to bank accounts step in and offer to “help” people with no access to banking get remunerated for their work (just like they so helpfully did to people who grew sugar; and wove textiles). What FREE does is sever the semantic connection between the (undisputed) value of cultural content, and the idea that that value has to be monetary. We need a way of rethinking remuneration and value so that when the Internet/finance access ratio gets way out of hand, the means are there to ensure that inequality isn’t reflected in an inequality of recompense to cltural content creators the world over.

    This is THE debate we need to be having. But I haven’t seen ONE industry insider having it. Or even recognising there’s a debate to be had. If we don’t have it, the next economc bubble in the West WILL be built on the back of cultural exploitation. Culture will be to the twenty teens what Biotech was to the nineties.
    Lindsay Price 10.05.09 at 7:19 pm

    I think there’s a yes and a no answer to all these thoughts, comments and questions. Yes, if we give away too much for free, then we’re not working writers. However, until we’re known there’s the notion that obscurity is doing greater damage than piracy will.

    The times they are a changing, and the publishing world will certainly see an upheaval in the next few years. How a writer makes a living will change along with that.

    I strive for balance. I try to have a well defined line between what I give for free (and actually, I don’t term it free writing, I categorize it as part of my marketing budget) and what I won’t give for free. It’s hard because everyone expects artists to be happy to work for free. No one asks the dentist to work for fre….

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