Should authors be giving away their books for free? It’s a question I’ve been thinking about since a conversation I had with a group of other authors on Facebook recently.
It came as part of a wider discussion about the financial rewards (or otherwise) of writing a book. Cards on the table – at my level of authorship there simply aren’t any significant financial rewards! My book is a literary novel by a first time unknown author, published by a small press – it’s not going to sell like Fifty Shades of Potter. So I didn’t expect to make very much money at all from my book – and have not been disappointed in that expectation.
In fact, it still comes as a surprise and a pleasure to me when a tiny royalty cheque lands on the mat – a novelty if you like. I am amazed I get any money at all for doing something I love – and perhaps that’s the problem we authors have.
Unless we sell books by the skipload authors do not make a great deal of money from the books people buy and the other peripheral things authors do don’t add to their riches either. At my level, for example, getting paid for reading at lit fests is hit and miss. I have been paid on occasion – but I’ve also been expected to turn up for nothing, and pay my own travel expenses, just for the privilege of promoting my book. My view on this has been that as a recently published author, in all humility, I ought to take the opportunities which are offered to me. I accept that I am working for the festival organisers for nothing and put it down to experience.
The thing is though, even more established authors often don’t get paid for work either. There was a row recently when a novelist refused to write a forward for an academic non-fiction book for free. His argument was that, as a professional writer, he ought to be paid for his services. Was that so unreasonable? And I have also heard that very well established writers are still expected to turn up at literature festivals and read for nothing, or for some kind of low value ‘gift.’ Why is this?
It’s a surprising state of affairs I think. The literature festivals only exist because of writers – they sell tickets and make money. So why shouldn’t the writers be paid? I like to compare it to when I was a kid playing in rock bands. If the owner of some bar had asked us to play for nothing, on the basis it would be ‘good exposure’ for us, we would have laughed in his face. Somehow the economy surrounding books and writers has become skewed so that the market has set the value of an author’s labour at more or less zero and the expectation is that they do a lot of work for nothing. We work ‘For the love of it’ or to increase our profile. Where do we draw the line?
This is something I didn’t know happened until I had mine published – but I’ve seen plenty of it since. It tends to be the download, Kindle, variety of book which gets given away for nothing. Self published authors do a lot of this, though it is a marketing technique I have also seen adopted by some small publishers. Often books will be given away free as downloads for a limited time – during a free week for example.
I think part of the idea is simply for people to get their book out there – to put it in as many hands and in front of as many pairs of eyes as possible. This is a need I understand only too well. There is a glut of books on the market in an age when people can just publish their own work with no quality control whatsoever. And, of course, there are a lot of calls on people’s time – all those TV shows and movies and web sites and games. Who has time for reading? (Me!).
It is very hard to get your work noticed, however good it may be. So asking people to take a copy of your book off your hands for free – spreading your work around as widely as possible, can no doubt seem like a great way of kick starting it on it’s road to best-sellerdom.
There’s also the issue of the ‘best-seller’ lists, which are broken down into numerous genre and sub-genre groups. How many authors are propping up their claims to be ’best-sellers’ on some of these more minor lists on the basis of the number of books they have given away for free?
Here’s my position – I don’t like the idea of giving away my book for nothing. Why? Because that suggests my work is worthless, and it is not. Song of the Sea God took me two years to write, it’s been nominated for a couple of serious book awards, been published by a reputable publisher with a passion for literary fiction and has had good reviews from readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Frankly I am very proud of it. So why would I want to suggest it is worthless?
Writing is such a subjective business – the only thing which separates me from a mad old lady writing cat poetry is that, sometimes, I get paid.
It really isn’t about the money. I know I am not going to make any significant money from Song of the Sea God – but that does not mean it is not a good book. So why would I treat it as though it is of no value?
That’s why I don’t give away my book for nothing. I don’t do it online and I don’t do it in person. Since I became a published author I’ve been surprised now and again by work colleagues, acquaintances and the like who say things like ’lend me a copy of your book and I’ll read it.’ or ‘stick a copy in the canteen so people can borrow it.‘ I politely decline their kind request. I don’t know who they think has paid for the copy I would be giving them.
I’m lucky in that my publisher has never asked me to give away my book for free through Amazon etc – they’ve set a price for the product and stuck to it. I’m sure I would have handed out a lot more books if I had given them away for nothing – but what would I be saying about the quality of my work?
What’s your view? Let me know in the comments section below!
If you’d like to see whether my book is worth paying your hard earned money for you can take a look here at Song of the Sea God.