How Do You Feel About Free?

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.

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.

Here’s where I play the game: The lovely folks at Wily Writers invited me to send them a story. They recorded a reading of it and asked me if I wanted to charge for readers to download it. The story I chose is “Witches, All” from SURREAL SOUTH 2007 (Press 53). It’s a rather challenging story–edgy, I think–told in the voice of a disillusioned musician who loses his mind in a graphic manner. It’s full of language to make grandma blush and is not for the under-16 crowd. I chose not to charge for it. I’d love for you to read SURREAL SOUTH itself, which is an anthology composed of surreal stories from writers like William Gay, Kyle Minor, Robert Olen Butler, Susan Woodring and Pinckney Benedict. But “Witches, All” is mine, and I choose to share it. For free. Enjoy!

9 thoughts on “How Do You Feel About Free?”

  1. @inshin says:

    It’s hard to say what part of your post I don’t agree with, actually there isn’t anything. I have always had an issue with ‘free’.

    In my business I have a constant battle with the notion of always giving things away free as I can see the minute it is done it devalues it immediately. Of course there may be the odd time, as you are today, when that choice is made, but I have no doubt whatsoever that people enjoy something more if they have actually paid for it, no matter how little.

    We need to value the creative mind.

  2. ...... Bobbi says:

    Excellent post! You gave me some serious food for thought. I never realized what effect “free” could have on our society. Althought I enjoy free items as much as the next guy – I’m a huge advocate of public libraries – I think I agree with @inshin – “people enjoy something more if they have actually paid for it.”

    Now, this may be hypocritical, but I’m off to read your story.

  3. AnswerGirl says:

    This is the big issue for everyone involved in the production of artistic content.

    My problem with “free” is that I genuinely don’t think people value what they don’t pay for. It also sets up the expectation that these things should be free, or else priced at a level that doesn’t allow anyone to make a living wage.

    “Free” on the Internet is a different and more dangerous kind of “free” than “free” at the library or as a loan from a friend. In the case of both the library and the friend, someone paid for the original book. On the Internet, that’s not always true.

  4. Another point on AnswerGirl’s comment is that at the library, the promo book, or the gift from a friend — and I give away a LOT of books to friends and fans — is that it’s one, unreproduceable copy. The book is tangible and can be passed on from one person to another. No two people can possess it at one time.

    Piracy takes one tangible item and reproduces it multiple times–everyone some downloads it, they make a digital copy on their computer (even html is “cached” on your computer.) More than two, ten, one million people can possess a reproduction. It’s stealing from the publisher and stealing from the author. It’s wrong and illegal. People don’t understand or they don’t care.

  5. I agree with you completely in regards to free. But I was a bookseller, and as a book junkie, I really don’t like reading “free” books on my computer. I belong to some mailing lists that send out e-serials for members only and most of the time, even though I really want to, I don’t read them. I end up putting them off until I can buy the physical book.

    I’m not sure how many readers out there are still like me, though. I think a good chunk right now, but it may be that a new generation of readers who don’t care about format won’t have the issues I do.

    I also get free promo books, and as a reader who really wants an outlet to share with other readers the fabulous books I read, I feel (and have ever since I started getting arcs as a bookseller) that it’s my responsibility to read it and get the word out about it. That’s why mine is free.

    I think you’re right that things will balance out. I know a lot of my opinions come from the jobs that I’ve had so others may not feel the same way I do, but we’ll see how it all comes out in the end. I would prefer to still have bound books available for me to spend my hard-earned bucks on. I’ve had “Becky’s Book Money” since I was a kid, but back then it was a plastic jar with pink letters that my parents put babysitting money in!

  6. Hey lovely Laura,

    Free is a tough one — I’m not wild about it given the already long unpaid hours that writing demands. I agree that the market does sort stuff out and it’s interesting to watch. I don’t think books will ever go away though — you can take a book anywhere and it’s little and cheap compared to a computer and disposable (or at least not terrible if you lose it which cannot be said of a laptop). I’ll check out your story! Can’t wait to see Surreal South!

  7. Basil Sands says:

    Free, when used as a marketing tool, is not really free in the truest sense. It may be better classed as “coercively-priced”.

    I am an advocate of using this model of free in order to advance a product for sale. In my own books as I have striven for publication I took the route of giving away a free podcast audio version that anyone can download at no charge from ITunes. The catch is that the 100k word book is broken into 20 minute episodes with 30 second bumpers on each end. Yes it is free, but it is a little cumbersome. There is also a “Donations” button on the website. But hey! If you want to listen to the story straight through, go to my website and buy the CD-Audio set for $$ and then the cumbersomnity is done away with.

    The other benefit is that as a new writer this model has enabled me to build a significant audience that publishers will hopefully look at and say “this guy can write”.

    Putting a couple works up for free has the effect, as Laura says, of getting them hooked. Then, once addicted, they will be standing in bookstores shaking like an addict begging for the next fix, and willing to pay.

  8. Drue Allen says:

    Great topic Laura, and very thoughtfully dealt with.

    What I was thinking–the entire time that I read–was that storytelling began as an oral tradition. We started out sharing stories, for free. So publishing, in the grand scheme of societies is basically a new idea.

    We like to tell stories. And we like to hang over the cubicle wall and say, “I just read this book, and it was g.r.e.a.t. Wanna borrow it?” While that might be FREE for the reader, it’s also FREE promotion for the writer.

    I think the market will balance itself out. At the same time, I’m a college English prof, and I insist everyone credit their sources — one more type of promotion for the author.

  9. “What we receive too cheaply, we esteem too lightly.” That’s a saying we have at our house and I’m not surprised to see that it echoes your all’s thoughts here.

    There’s so much more to think about as well–thanks for weighing in. It means a lot!

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