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.”