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Free Books and The Devaluation of Art

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I’ve written on the topic of art devaluation before.

I’m a subscriber and regular listener of the Print Run Podcast because I enjoy their agent’s take on current publishing industry trends. In a recent episode, they touched on the devaluation of art, specifically books, and I tossed around some ideas that are now this post.

I’d like to talk about giving away your work for “free”.

First, I assume you want an audience. That’s probably our shared goal as writers and authors, right? A readership who connects with, and enjoys our work. (To be clear, I am not counting sending out ARC’s or other review copies to outlets. That’s a necessary part of any book marketing plan.)

That said, money is nice too. Even if you take those profits and reinvest 100% of them into pencils, cover illustrations, or an ink cartridge to print query letters for your next book, it can be a wonderful motivator to encourage the creation of new work.

Here are a few trends I’ve noticed over the past year–positive and negative–that seem to be emerging around authors giving away their work for free.

Less Authors Are Giving Their Books Away

It seems like “freebies” are less frequent, outside of contests, in major channels like Amazon and Bookbub. There are still a number of ebooks priced around a dollar, but I find that far more acceptable than simply giving work away.

I still look back on my Kindle giveaways as a mistake. Sales are one thing, but I gave away hundreds of ebooks and have no measurable way of knowing that they ever got read. While this may be a good strategy for authors who have an established backlog to get new readers drawn in, I have always felt it’s the equivalent of a sleazy club promoter trying to get bands to play free “for the exposure”.

The marketplaces are far too crowded to “get noticed” by giving away free stuff. It’s just an outmoded tactic. You’re better off giving away book-related chachkies at a live event hoping they convert paid sales.

I take less authors giving away free books as a good sign, which leads me to my next point.

Buying Books Is a Good Thing

Why? Because cost underlies perceived value.

In a world of supply and demand, scarcity breeds value. Since the “digital revolution” has essentially made scarcity a thing of the past, worth is reduced. Maybe you’re old enough to remember buying CD’s. One album that cost between $15 and $22. Now $20 will buy you a 4 month subscription to any number of music services that have nearly EVERY SONG EVER RECORDED on demand.

Ergo, music is effectively worth about $5 a month. Sure, your favorite song is still a priceless work of art, but don’t tell that to the record execs. Another example is the recent resurgence of vinyl records, which are relatively expensive, but buyers attach value to the highly analog experience of listening to their favorite artists on a record player.

What I’m getting at is when you price your book at $0, there isn’t much reason for readers to care about it. They’re much more likely to read something they plunked their hard-earned cash on than not. Even more compelling is the psychological phenomenon that they are more likely to ENJOY your book, rather than let their brain suffer “buyer’s remorse” after spending said cash.

Giving Away Books Hurts Authors

It hurts all of us. Seriously.

I hate the term “a race to the bottom”, but in this case it kind of is. I used to naively believe that self-publishing was a bold new frontier, and in many ways it is great. That said, the ingenious (and kind of sinister) way Amazon and other online retailers have allowed self-published authors to wage a proxy war against “gatekeepers” on their behalf is hurting everyone. The marketplaces are flooded, with prices going down the drain as everyone tries to undercut for “visibility”. Writers are generating an almost endless supply of books for Amazon’s horn of plenty, and sets readers expectations that books “should” either be cheap, free, or part of an unlimited monthly subscription.

It is insidious because you cannot really blame anyone without sounding like a curmudgeon. Everyone wants books. And why not for cheap, or even free?

Well, because ultimately in this cycle, authors don’t get paid. Even the self-published ones who see better return percentages need to enter the market at low prices and constantly fight the monthly tsunami of new releases.

It’s a slow erosion.

Books Are Worth It

To end this on a more positive note, if you put all this time and effort into making a phenomenal book, or busting your hump to find an agent and publisher, then you should be paid for your efforts.

Don’t feel like you owe readers freebies simply because that is how popular culture and tech have devalued art & media.

Writing is a craft, and craftsmen get paid for their time and skills.

So how do you feel about giving your work away? Have you ever given away free copies of books or submitted stories to non-paying outlets? Is it a strategy that has actually worked for you and your readership?

Tell me down in the comments.

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The Slow Death of Barnes&Noble

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Barnes & Noble recently laid off 1800 employees.

This is one more step along its slow demise along with other “big box” brands being cannibalized by Amazon and other online retailers.

On Monday morning, every single Barnes & Noble location – that’s 781 stores – told their full-time employees to pack up and leave. The eliminated positions were as follows: the head cashiers (those are the people responsible for handling the money), the receiving managers (the people responsible for bringing in product and making sure it goes where it should), the digital leads (the people responsible for solving Nook problems), the newsstand leads (the people responsible for distributing the magazines), and the bargain leads (the people responsible for keeping up the massive discount sections).

I’m conflicted by this news, because I have something of a love/hate relationship with B&N.

Let’s start with the bad points first

  • I don’t ever want to see people lose their jobs. Ever.
  • B&N handled this really poorly. Not unexpected from a large corporation, but still not right.
  • B&N becoming a victim of “efficiency” and “profitability” at the sake of no longer being an interesting place to drink coffee and peruse books. Ayn Rand ultra-capitalism in action.
  • One less place to purchase books in your neighborhood (eventually), and one less e-reader to foster competition in the online space

Now let’s focus on the “good” points

  • Barnes & Noble (and Borders) all but killed independent bookstores in the 1990’s. Their collapse will create a space for small business owners to rise up
  • The lack of any physical bookstore in an area may drive people back to their local library (we can hope).
  • With proper leadership, maybe Barnes & Noble can save itself and get back to selling books on a smaller scale (instead of toys and board games)

There are a few items I purchase regularly at my local B&N, mainly magazines, that Amazon doesn’t carry. Shocking, I know.

The problem is that Barnes & Noble has begun to reek of desperation, in all the wrong ways. Like other big retailers who had their predatory hay day in the late 90’s and early 2000’s and ignored digital sales ::cough, Gamestop, cough:: they are adopting wildly irritating tactics in an attempt to salvage their remaining customers.

I want to buy a book or magazine. I do not want to

  • sign up for your discount card
  • buy more things to “save money”
  • sign up for your marketing emails under the guise of “getting my receipt emailed to me”

These are all annoyances that make myself, and most customers I bet, just want to shop online even more. This latest move to eliminate their full-time employees aka “the knowledgeable people who will provide customer service” will only hurt their shoppers experience even further.

What do you think? Do you shop at Barnes & Noble? Will you sit on the sidelines, shopping at Amazon until you hear about the going-out-of-business sale to get cheap hardcovers?

I won’t mourn the death of Barnes & Noble specifically, but more what its collapse signifies.