We Don’t Need Books to Free. We Need Them to be Brilliant.

When I’m meeting people for the first time, some of them want to confess: “Bless me, Librarian, for I have sinned. It has been four years since I last read a book.” People tell me this sheepishly (and quite unbidden. It’s not like I demand a reading list before consenting to a conversation), but are quick to absolve themselves because they just don’t have time to read.

(Were I less polite, I’d ask them what they do instead of read, but if people enjoy the idea that they would be raving bibliophiles if only they weren’t so busy, who am I to disillusion them by asking them to name their favorite reality show? Many activities compete with reading.)

However, no one has ever told me that they don’t read because books are too expensive, nor that they would read, if only books were free. We’ve had sources of free books for a long time. They are called “libraries.” And extremely cheap books can be picked up at yard sales and thrift shops. Price has seldom been a barrier to reading for most Americans, as countless biographies of poor kids who educated themselves in libraries will attest.

This is why I’m puzzled by the proliferation of offers on Twitter and in other social media of free e-books from indie authors. Of the many obstacles standing between me as a potential reader and a self-published author, price is not one. Free books are not an unmet need of booklovers. Free is a feature, not a benefit, the steak, rather than the sizzle.

The free book giveaway can be unwittingly insulting, too. It implies that the potential audience is willing to exchange our time and attention for a book, simply because we don’t have to pay for it. Do these authors think we value our time as little as that? That’s not who we are, we readers. We want so much more out of the bargain we strike with a writer.

Here’s my unspoken contract with every author I read: I am going to give the writer something valuable, something that many people want–my attention. At times, this is something that rightfully belongs to my children, my husband, my family, my friends, or my community. At the very least, it belongs to me. I’ll also give the  author something even more precious than my attention: the few moments in my day that are mine, sometimes only a handful of minutes between waking and sleeping, when my brain is done thinking about the day that’s past and planning for the one to come, and is ready to go someplace else. I will give this precious time and attention to an author and pay for the privilege, whether in money or in the effort it takes to borrow the book from the library or a friend.

In return, the author will tell me an original story, written in fresh, gorgeous language, using technical skills I have not mastered myself. I want to see tricks done that I don’t know how to do yet. S/he will introduce me to characters who are so real I can feel their pulses, and either take me to places I have never been and never could go, or show me familiar places in radically unfamiliar ways. The author will challenge me, entertain me, teach me, distract me, enrich me, and amaze me.

If a writer can do that, I am happy to pay. $25 is a steal.

Recently, I bought Michael Chabon’s new book, Telegraph Avenue, retail price $27.99, for $18.47. I would have paid more because Chabon’s books give me experiences I need like oxygen. I cannot do what he does with language. Reading and re-reading his sentences is like opening little gifts with secret drawers and compartments. Seeing what he gets away with as a writer teaches me to be freer, more inventive, less concerned with balancing metaphors like chemistry equations. His books are genre-bending and boundary-crossing, and always take me places I didn’t even know I wanted to go. They’re also witty, erudite, and wise. I admire and envy him, and get far more pleasure from his books than the value of the cover price. I’m getting a whole lot of brilliance for my $18.47.

Maybe brilliance is not what everyone wants from books. I don’t always want it myself. Right now, I’m taking a rest from brilliance and reading a book that prominently features a sexy vampire (no, not that sexy vampire). But whether readers long for books that are educational, romantic, diverting, thrilling, amusing, erotic, scary, or all of the above at different times, they expect to pay in money, time, and attention.

The aspiring indie authors giving their work away for free are trying to build an audience in hopes that someone will eventually pay. But giving those stories away as a regular practice (not just a contest or a special promotion) perpetuates the idea that these cultural products should be free, that authors write just for fun, and that readers are doing writers a favor by downloading their free book onto their Kindles, and maybe throwing the book a few stars on Amazon.  But authors cannot eat stars, and we as a culture cannot afford the idea that writing novels is a hobby that some very creative, kind people do in their spare time after they work all day at their real jobs,  just so that they can give the rest of the world the pleasure of a free downloadable story.

Self-publishing has made some authors, like Amanda Hocking, rich and famous. But Hocking was selling her self-published e-books, not giving them away, and what attracted the attention of the traditional publisher with which she eventually signed was her off-the-charts sales. It’s a capitalist game. Money is how we keep score.

The free e-book undermines the relationship between author and reader, devalues literature, and fails to support authors in their careers. We don’t need free books. We need to nurture our developing writers so that they can grow into the kinds of artists for whose work we would feel privileged to pay.


“And that is worth some money. Think about it. That is worth some money.”

About Julie Goldberg

Julie Goldberg has lived a life entirely too entangled with books. She is a school librarian, former English teacher, compulsive reader, occasional jazz singer and the author of Lily in the Light of Halfmoon. You can email her at perfectwhole@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @juliegoldberg.
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11 Responses to We Don’t Need Books to Free. We Need Them to be Brilliant.

  1. fransiweinstein says:

    Could NOT agree more. And when authors give their books away for free, they undervalue themselves. Their talent and their effort. I know you’re writing a book. So am I. I have no intention of giving it away for free and I’m sure you feel the same way. It’s a lesson we should all have learned already, from all the newspapers etc. who didn’t charge people to come to their sites when they first launched. Kinda hard to go back and charge people for what they’ve been getting for free for a long, long time. Bad business practice. No good can come of it.

    • Thanks, Fransi.

      Maybe the gatekeeping system of publishing is broken, but if it is, this is not a solution that is going to nurture artists or literature.

      • fransiweinstein says:

        Absolutely. And I think it is just naiveté, to some degree. These authors are trying to get their books into the hands of readers and, they put this down to ‘marketing’ costs. But the thinking is flawed, as they’ll find out in time. And what I’ve learned from my years in advertising is, consumers don’t ‘value’ what they get for free. Even paying a nominal amount makes it valuable.

  2. Let me play reading devotee’s advocate and ask whether we’re not already guilty of giving lots away by having a blog, which is almost by definition a place where we put up our words (and in my case also photographs) for free. When I started my etymology blog in 2010 and nature photography blog in 2011, it was at least partly with the idea of building an audience for several books I’d already put together, hadn’t been able to find a conventional publisher for, and hoped to release in electronic form. I’m currently at work on recasting some of my material as e-books, but even then I’ve thought I might make a sampler available for free in order to spur interest in the other books that I would charge (a nominal amount) for. These are my thoughts for now; experience will confirm the correctness or futility of my plans.

    Let me add that having a blog has proved to be fun in its own right (and the player with language would add that it’s its own rite). I’ve gotten to “meet” people from around the world, exchange comments with them, and see what their lives are like. I think few of us would be willing to pay for those experiences, but they’re still worth while.

    • Great point, Mr. Schwartzman! I almost put a paragraph in about the irony of writing this on my blog, which is definitely giving away a lot of, IMHO, high-quality content for free. I left it out because the piece was already running long, but perhaps it merits its own post.

      One justification is that the blog is a platform that has always been free. (If I were smart and could be bothered, I’d figure out how to run ads to make at least a few pennies on it, but I’m not, and I can’t, so I don’t.) It’s not undermining anyone’s method of earning a living if I’m not giving away something that other people expect to be paid for, although one could argue that blogs undermine magazines, where this kind of content was once published.

      Another is the same as the introductory e-book: that I use this blog to build a platform of readers so that when I am ready to publish my novel, I will have some people who may be interested in it from the outset. However, the audience of regular readers of this blog is small (though not all of them are related to me by blood or marriage). Though the occasional post goes viral in a particular corner of the Internet, I realize that librarians looking for posts about weeding, or Waldorf parents hoping they’re getting their $140,000 worth, will not necessarily be built-in readers for my novel. It’s not like they leave me their email addresses, either. So, maybe I’m kidding myself about that, although blogging is the standard advice for creating a writing platform.

      The only real rationalizations I can come up with is that attempting to produce two good essay per month improves my writing, connects my ideas with the larger world, and makes me feel less isolated as a writer. It is encouraging when a post gets a lot of hits, retweets, shares on Facebook, comments, etc. It lets me know that I am on the right track in some way. You’re right: blogging can be fun in its own right/write/rite.

      I, too, am considering creating an ebook out of some Perfect Whole content, but I would charge for it. For my novel, I plan to go the traditional publishing route.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • Kit Fox says:

        I put plenty of my writing up on a “public” blog as well. For me, all that public content is just practice.

        Writing is an art. I do it because I enjoy it; I share what I write because I enjoy it. But publishing is for making money.

        For a novel, I plan to go the traditional route. I’ve had friends try to talk me out of it because I could have instant gratification if I self-published, but a traditional publisher has knowledge and experience I lack.

        If a publisher doesn’t think my work will generate a profit, then I don’t want to waste my time trying to prove them wrong. I’d rather spend the time practicing the craft.

      • I agree completely. When my novel is done, which I hope will be soon, I intend to go the traditional route. If an agent doesn’t think she can make money selling it to a publisher, or a publishing company, with all its vast resources, doesn’t believe they can sell the book to readers, then why would I, with no business or marketing experience, assume I could do better? The fact that a tiny number of indie authors have had enormous success tells us very little about the business as a whole, nor of a first-time author’s chances of success at it.

  3. Ruth Hansen says:

    I highly recommend the Chicagoland Vampire novels as a guilty pleasure. Definitely an antidote to Michael Chabon and other brilliantly engaging authors. On the other hand, I just lost an out of print Emile Durkheim book, so sometimes I even pay for books from the library. I wanted to own it, anyway.

  4. Emma Welsby says:

    I mostly disagree. I do agree with the idea that authors should not undervalue their own work and that authors should be paid. But in my opinion, offering free books – especially the first books in series – is one possible route to getting readers to pay for other books.

    I read a lot – I buy books and ebooks, I borrow books, I use libraries (and I’m a library student, hence why I follow your blog) and I also download free ebooks. Several times a week actually because I follow forums online where people link to free ebooks they’ve found. Some of those ebooks aren’t very good and get deleted. Others I love. And for almost every one I’ve loved, I’ve gone back online, researched the author, and paid for at least one more of their books.

    There’s a website for the publisher Baen Books where they have the “Baen Free Library” with a whole bunch of free books by fairly well-known fantasy & science-fiction authors, usually the first books in long series. I have downloaded a number of these and subsequently spent a rather large amount of money buying further books in those series. Why shouldn’t self-published authors try for the same thing?

    • I want two things: I want books to be amazing and I want their authors to get paid. If ebooks are enabling both of those things to happen, then it gladdens my heart to hear it. I will start to believe it when more authors are able to earn a living off their work.

      Thanks for reading and responding, Ms. Welsby!

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