Please don’t get me wrong, I like to get things for free as much as the next person. But the word free has multiple meanings. Free as in kittens, or free as in beer being two well-known examples. Free kittens usually have long-term ancillary costs, such as food, vet bills, love, grief, scratched furniture, frayed electrical cords, aggravation, additional rent or security deposits, etc., etc., etc. I am intimately familiar with this particular definition of “free”. Free beer is free, unless you buy the next round. But beer, well, someone gives you a beer, you drink it, it’s over.
Should ebooks be free because there are no costs to print, warehouse and transport them? Ebooks don’t require a physical bookstore with rent and light bills and heating and A/C to sell them. So they should be free, right?
What goes into the creation of a book? Not the container, the content. The book has to be written. That’s a creative process on the part of the writer, or writers. Whether the book is printed or electronic, the actual creation doesn’t change for the creator. They have to invest time in that creation, whether it’s invention, research, or a combination of the two. If the reading public desires more, the authors need to be compensated for their time, otherwise, they will have to find a different way to make a living. There are people who write their first book, or first couple of books, in their spare time from a day job that pays the bills. But they write a lot fewer books than folks whose full time job is writing.
There are other parts of the process that would still need to go on, even in an all ebook world. Editing is importing! Editing doesn’t have anything to do with whether a book is print or electronic, it has to do with making a book better. Everyone who reads a popular authors’ work over time can tell exactly when that author stopped being edited. The books get longer, and they are less “tight” and not quite as good. I call it “describing the wallpaper”.
Books sell better with covers. Library books circulate better with covers. Ebooks will probably sell better with good cover art. A quote from science fiction editor Lou Anders in the January issue of Locus Magazine probably said it best. “I won’t buy a book with a crappy cover, and I am finding I won’t buy an e-book with one either. E-books need to have compelling cover art…” A picture really is worth a thousand words. While there is a print edition, the print cover is used to sell the ebook. When there is no print edition, the publisher has to create cover art. Good cover art sells books. Cover art is produced by artists, who are also creators who need to get paid for their work.
One of the things that has turned into a brave new world for everyone is promoting books, especially works by new authors. How does anyone decide to spend money on someone they’ve never heard of? It turns out that people are browsing “bricks and mortar” bookstores but buying ebooks. We look, we touch, we click. It turns out that Barnes and Noble had a really great idea when they allowed Nook users to browse the entire bn.com while they were inside a B&N store, just like you can sit and read any book on the shelf, as long as you don’t leave the store. Sampling is good.
Books sell a lot by word of mouth. I like a book, I tell everyone I know. Blogs and lists and Facebook multiply that effect. But how to get that ball rolling? Different channels of promotion have been created. Publishers need people to work those channels. It’s an investment in keeping the company in business, so that it can, in turn, discover new writers, and promote them, which feeds my addiction to reading.
But I expect to pay less for an ebook than a hardcover, and so do most people. Instinctually, the fact that there is no thing that I can hold, no physical piece that has to be toted and shipped and stacked and stocked, means that it should cost less than a hardback. Also, I can re-sell or give a hardback (or paperback) away when I’m done. An ebook still feels slightly ephemeral. And Amazon or B&N can take it away without my consent if things go awry, and Amazon has done this in one famous case. (1984 anyone?) When Michael Connelly’s latest best seller, The Fifth Witness, initially cost more on the Kindle than it did as a hardcover, Amazon users revolted by giving the book one star reviews and vowing to either wait or purchase it in hardcover elsewhere. The Kindle price has since dropped below the hardcover price.
I’m willing to pay for the creative process. I want more books that I want to read, and I expect to pay for that privilege. One way of voting for which books I want to read more of is with money. But not an unreasonable amount of money. If I buy an ebook, I’m not willing to pay for the storage costs of the print book, since I didn’t purchase that and I’m not getting the benefits that go with buying a physical item.
Free ebooks make great teasers. The freebies exist as introductions to new authors, or series. They are designed to get me hooked, so that I will then purchase more books by the same author. It is supposed to be a win-win. If I don’t like the book, I’ve lost nothing but a little time. If I like it, I’ll buy more, and the author and publisher win. But I am willing to pay.