Do you think Dickens should cost more than Dan Brown? Do you approach a 99p ebook with a different mentality to a £10 hardback? And does a soy latte really have more impact on your life than a book? The value of literature – not in the sense of soul-stirring, brain-pimping, culture-cementing worthiness, but in the sense of cash – has never seemed more contradictory.
Historically, reducing the cost of book production, distribution and ownership has been an important step in increasing the freedom and sophistication of society, from Gutenberg’s press to Penguin’s sixpence paperbacks. Books are essentially whores, not madonnas; the more people that get the chance to handle them, the better for us all. Sure, there is a place for beautiful, limited edition objets, handcrafted by callous-palmed bookbinders, but that place is on a coffee table, not out in the world, in pockets: connecting people, spreading ideas.
But that was before the Kindle Daily Deal, which gives the harvest of an author’s heart and soul the status of a hamburger. That was before I saw recent book-buying data from Bowker, which finds that price is the third factor for people buying paper and ebooks (behind author and subject), but the first factor for those buying self-published ebooks. The first factor? Are people seriously downloading manuals on falconry and novels about time-travelling dinosaurs simply because they are free? Do they perhaps believe that reading works like your five-a-day, shoving in a stale turnip of a story because it will eventually come out the other end just the same as a fresh organic strawberry?
And no, apparently free books do not act as gateway drugs, luring non-readers in, before hooking them on more expensive product. At the The Literary Consultancy’s annual conference Writing in A Digital Age, self-published author and SEO expert Chris McVeigh highlighted research showing that people who read free books simply do not go on to pay for books. He declared that he would never offer a book for free on a commercial marketplace such as Amazon; he may give a few copies away within his personal networks, but maintaining the idea that his work was actually worth paying for was an important part of his marketing strategy.
This is part of a wider debate around the value of original creativity in social media. Jaron Lanier, early internet pioneer and author of seminal manifesto You Are Not A Gadget, was once a vocal advocate of online music streaming, but now insists that society simply must start to pay for what makes it rich. As he put it in a recent talk in London, “If we’re in an information economy, and information is free, we’re fucked.” Surely, musicians and journalists have taught us by now that freebies can’t save an industry.
Producing even half-decent literature is extraordinarily expensive. One of the best things about Unbound, the brilliant crowd-funding platform that allows prospective readers to invest in unknown authors or quirky projects from established names, is the insight it gives the public into exactly how much money is needed to create a book. In most cases, the bulk that money doesn’t go on award-winning cover art or innovative multiverse web builds. It goes on time. Time to write. Time to research. Time to edit. Then more time, to write and research and edit again. Even if you believe art is a luxury, it seems extraordinary that a ticket to the theatre can cost ten times as much as a novel, when the former is a one-night stand and the latter a lifelong relationship.
At the same TLC conference, Alison Baverstock, Senior Lecture in Publishing at Kingston University, ventured to suggest that, because people who work in book PR get books for free, they underestimate how much consumers are willing to pay. And yes, perhaps the publishing industry does need to grow a pair in regard to pricing; but to be fair, finding itself squeezed on all sides and pilloried from all angles, the publishing industry is doing its best. I think the responsibility lies with the readers.
If you get a mass-cc email containing a PDF of the latest must-read, swallow your pride, be that guy, and send a mass-cc rant back. If you get sent a freebie from a marketing department, pay full price for another novel that same day. Don’t showroom in bookshops, buy online, then moan about the demise of the high street. If you care about hardbacks, make an effort to buy one for every handful of ebooks, and buy them as gifts.
Of course, free books still have an essential place in libraries, schools, and education and social schemes. Literature is a human right. But it simply must be subsidised by those of us who can pay.