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?