Books for Free (sorry, not a giveaway post)
Though I do have an ongoing giveaway here.
Let me preface this with an apology. I’m about to get all deep-thoughty about digital book pricing and so forth. I feel sort of bad blogging about this when a) I blog so infrequently nowadays and b) most of the people who regularly check this blog are, I suspect, not doing so because they want my unsolicited opinions on this topic. Most would probably much rather hear about the next book, right?
So I’m happy to say firstly–I have posted a bit of info about the new series and two–count them, two!–dueling excerpts from A Night to Surrender here. Anyone not interested in digital book pricing and libraries and so forth, please do follow that link and never mind what is beneath the fold.
If you are interested, read on… (but don’t say I didn’t warn you!)
There’s been an interesting discussion ongoing about digital book economics and pricing lately. The ever-brilliant Courtney Milan has been blogging about this. So has the one and only Stephanie Laurens. Dear Author has an ongoing discussion.
I normally sit back and just slurp up opinions of people smarter than me when it comes to these things. My publishing crystal ball looks like it’s filled with maple syrup. But it occurs to me today that I might be able to bring a useful perspective to this particular discussion.
Because from where I’m sitting, it seems that a lot of author and publisher anxiety about the emerging digital market stems from questions like these: “What will happen when readers can get lots of books for free or next-to-free? And when books from established, bestselling authors appear right next to books from small-and self-published unknowns, with little to distinguish them from one another? Will readers stop caring about quality? Will they becoming unwilling to pay more than a dollar for any book? And wouldn’t it be lovely if we had some analogous book-browsing marketplace from which we could infer useful predictions?”
The thing is, we do have that. It’s called the public library.
In a public library, all the books are available for free or low-cost. Mega-bestsellers and indie-pubbed books occupy the same shelves. Is this a perfect analogy for the digital publishing landscape? Absolutely not. But I do think it’s a moderately useful one, and one that allows me to draw a few (what will hopefully be reassuring) conclusions.
(Note: these are strictly my opinions and observations, drawn from my years of experience as a public librarian. They are not based on empirical data. If you think I’m completely off-base, feel free to tell me so in the comments.)
1. Even when all books are free, readers are still discerning.
Really, I feel like this should be obvious–but evidently it’s not. I’ve heard more than one person worry that readers will cease to care about quality writing, if they can get books for free.
My answer: Visit a library. You won’t worry anymore.
Here we go with my own pet theories of reading economics. The monetary cost of a book is only one cost a reader incurs, when s/he chooses to read a book. Regardless of whether or not a reader pays money for the book, there are always costs incurred–namely time and mental energy. These costs matter, too. It’s easy to see this in action, as a librarian. All the books (well, most–I’ll get to that later) on the library shelves are free — and yet, library patrons don’t just go in any grab any 5 random books off the shelves. They are still very selective, because even reading a free book requires an investment of time and mental energy. They want to be as sure as they can that they’ll receive the desired payoff in return for their investment. Library patrons ask for recommendations; they look for booklists or displays or special spine labels. They pay a lot of attention to covers and cover copy. They might be willing to consider a wider variety of books to borrow than they would consider purchasing, but they’re still discerning–even in an environment where everything is free or almost free.
2. Even when plenty of free books are available, readers are still willing to pay for books.
Courtney Milan already made this point, but I’d underscore it with my library example. In many public libraries nowadays, it’s not true that every book is free. Well, it is and it isn’t. For hot new titles, what many libraries do is purchase copies for the regular collection–which check out for free, but you typically have to put yourself on a waiting list. Sometimes a looong waiting list. Then the libraries also purchase additional “rental” copies, which are available instantly, but for a fee of $1-2.50. That’s a fee (higher than a $0.99 Kindle book, I might add) that readers pay not to own the book, but just to keep a book for a week. And these rental copies do very well, even though they are shelved in a building right alongside thousands of free books. Even though patrons could get the same book for free, if they waited on the list. Library patrons are also frequently willing to pay interlibrary loan fees to get books that aren’t in their home library’s collection. And many more patrons just decide “to heck with it” and go purchase the book themselves. So I just don’t worry that an abundance of free books will discourage people from paying for desirable titles. Even if they’re all housed in the same “space”.
There are probably other parallels that could be drawn with the public library analogy, and also probably lots of holes that could be punched in the ones I’ve drawn. I’ve blathered on long enough, so I’ll leave that for the comment section.
My overall point is, books are a unique commodity. It’s hard to predict how people will evaluate and purchase them based on models of toothpaste, or even music albums or newspaper subscriptions. But if publishing is collectively wondering “How will book buyers behave in a marketplace full of free and cheap e-books?”–it might be useful to take a field trip to the public library and observe. Because there they will find actual readers in the wild, interacting with a vast number of free and cheap books.
I’m editing this to clarify–I don’t meant to suggest that the ideal (or probable) book-buying landscape of the future resembles a free public library. I only mean to talk about reader behavior, and whether/how it changes when we are offered plenty of free and cheap books.