Why Can’t Books Be Free?

26 April, 2014 Musing Musers, Random 20 comments

its-free-300x209A while ago Horrible Histories author, Terry Deary, came out swinging against libraries.  Quite properly almost every other human on the earth thought it was ridiculous.  But a quote of his did get me thinking:

“People have to make the choice to buy books. People will happily buy a cinema ticket to see Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and expect to get the book for free. It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Books aren’t public property, and writers aren’t Enid Blyton, middle-class women indulging in a pleasant little hobby. They’ve got to make a living. Authors, booksellers and publishers need to eat. We don’t expect to go to a food library to be fed.”

And it made me wonder to myself how excellent life would be if books were public property.  If there was some magical utopia where authors and publishers could simultaneously be paid for their hard work, while the masses could read whatever books they wanted.  Also, as a secondary comment – If people can’t afford to eat, then I am fully in support of a food library where they could get it for free because I am not a monster.

But first, why are books so special?  Why do we have public libraries, using tax payer money to loan out books, movies, music and TV shows for absolutely free?  More specifically, why am I here arguing that it would be lovely if books were free and easy for everyone to access?

According to a report by The National Endowment for the Arts:

“There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans.  Most alarming, both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates.  These negative trends have more than literary importance. As this report makes clear, the declines have demonstrable social, economic, cultural, and civic implications…With lower levels of reading and writing ability, people do less well in the job market. Poor reading skills correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement. Significantly worse reading skills are found among prisoners than in the general adult population. And deficient readers are less likely to become active in civic and cultural life, most notably in volunteerism and voting.”

When you read through the document, there’s lots of number like things and charts and statistics.  Funnily, in a correlating kind of way, those coloured lines for academic achievement go up kind of at the same pace as reading frequency.  Weird, huh?  Anyway, read the report for yourself to see all the data they have to try and demonstrate the benefits reading has not just for individuals, but for society.

But putting all that aside.  We kind of take it for granted that a public library is something worth investing in because people reading = good.  And libraries are good because everyone can use them, authors still get some money and the world keeps spinning.  Studies also show both a strong correlation between reading for pleasure and high literacy scores, and that a wide range of choice of books is one of the most effective ways to foster a love of reading.  It seems basic and pretty simplistic that knowledge should be collected, cataloged and easy for everyone to access.  That sharing and improving the world through information and stories is a human achievement that encompasses some of our species greatest accomplishments.

But the thing is, that access to information is still, by and large, for the financially blessed.  Librarians work hard to build up a catalog of quality books and sources as well as those they think will appeal to readers. But they’re working with limited resources, and so are those in a lower socio-economic bracket.  Result?  The poorer you are, the harder it is to access the benefits of reading.  And that situation doesn’t seem to be changing.

Can we?  Is there a way to make books either free or super cheap for everyone without depriving authors, publishers and editors of their well-deserved and much needed payment?

As a blogger and reviewer, this question seems silly to me because this system, on a very small scale is already happening.  So it clearly can be done – the problem is just figuring out how to do it.  And, not to minimize any other industry, but isn’t using imagination, thoughtful application of lessons and knowledge, and our willingness to explore KIND OF THE BEST THING WE DO, PUBLISHING INDUSTRY?!

So here’s the thing.  I can’t afford all the books I read.  If I had to pay for them then, ha! No.  I only end up buying my favourites and it takes a lot of money.  Luckily, I don’t have to pay for all the books I read – and I do that legally because publishers send them to me.  They send them to me, for free, hoping that I will read and review them, publicize them, and promote them.  But get this, I don’t get paid to review.  I don’t ask for money for people to read my shit.  See, Cuddlebuggery earns its expenses by pageviews.  Advertisers see our stats, recognize that for a small fee, our readers might accidentally glimpse their ad out of the corner of their eye and pay attention to it, or even click the link and buy it.

Clearly, giving everyone free books hoping that they’ll review it and then somehow buy it is not the answer.  But it is an example that readers have something to offer.  There is value in their time and attention.  The only problem is turning that time and attention into something profitable for publishers and authors.

Then I was watching this video by Hank Green.  He’s talking about the Ownership of Ideas, but he discusses this very interesting change to how corporations deal with derivative works on YouTube.

“The good news is that the internet is making all of this obsolete.  Fewer and fewer corporations are enforcing copy right in the way that they used to.  There’s just too much derivative work going on.  I remember when wizard rock was first happening and, like, the publishing companies behind Harry Potter were like, “No, you can’t make derivative works based on Harry Potter.  You can’t make Harry Potter songs, and-” Yeah you can! Why would you stop people from being enthusiastic about your creations?  Harghhhh!  Now when somebody posts a lipsync video of One Direction [Redacted: some truly horrible lipsyncing.] the video doesn’t get taken down.  YouTube’s algorithms identify it as a One Direction song, advertisements pop up on it and Sony Music International gets the money from those advertisements.

Incorporating advertisements into a product (like a book to subsidize its cost) isn’t even original or new.  Remember when Apple put in a patent for that with future iPhones in mind?  The point is, right now someone wants an ebook and they pay for it (or they pirate it.  In increasing numbers). They pay for it once no matter how many times they read or reread it.  But imagine a world where someone downloads an author’s book for free.  And every time they read it, or loan it to one of their friends to read, or resells the ebook for someone else to read – that author gets paid for the advertising in there. A system of free product with advertisements and a paid product with no advertisements is already happening with the apps we download.

Say someone doesn’t want to have ads in there book every few pages.  Guess what?  They can pay money for an ad-free version.  Either way – the author is getting paid.  And even though I get books for free all the time, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve not read a book because it’s been too expensive to buy.  That’s a lot of authors I never got to try.  A lot of books I never got to experience.  I lost out.  Those authors lost out (or maybe not if I didn’t like that book and decided to review it), the publisher lost out – and according to society, everyone loses out.

And a lot of people mocked Amazon’s public desire to get into the used ebook business – but I think it’s brilliant and innovative and probably why the rest of the industry is kind of getting its ass-kicked.  I easily have 30-50 ebooks that I paid for, read once and now sit wasting away on my kindle.  But if I could make some money off of unloading those, if someone else got to buy them at a cheaper rate and if that author is getting more widely read then what’s the problem?

Think about other results.  Book piracy and DRM – these aren’t going to be the significant problems they are today.  Most people don’t want to actively rip off an author.  If there is a free copy available that they can get legitimately, then I’m thinking a lot more people are going to be willing to take that then a bit torrented version.   You no longer need to restrict an ebook to that one person because sharing becomes a good thing.  Because the more you share, the more those ads get viewed.  The more people get paid.

Clearly any and all ideas I discuss here are not finalized, not brilliant, probably not original.  Discussion, experimentation, cooperation and innovation is needed.  And I’m willing to accept the fact that this is likely a thoughtless idea.  But I don’t think the discussion is worthless.  I don’t think making books easier and cheaper or free to access on mass is a stupid discussion because reading kicks ass.  And I would hope that anyone who truly loves to read would want everyone else to experience the magic of it. Even more, I want my authors and publishing people to be paid. I want them to be thriving again.  That’s why, instead of talking about closing down libraries, there’s an entirely different discussion we need to have.

Kat Kennedy

Kat Kennedy

Co-blogger at Cuddlebuggery
Kat Kennedy is a book reviewer and aspiring author in the Young Adult genre. She reviews critically but humorously and get super excited about great books. Find her on GoodReads.
Kat Kennedy
RT @huffpostqueer: This couple's princess engagement pics are a modern-day fairytale https://t.co/wY8MbULG0W - 2 days ago
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20 Responses to “Why Can’t Books Be Free?”

  1. Eugenia @ Chasm of Books

    You’ve made some really interesting points here Kat. Like you, I’ve had to sacrifice buying many books by authors which I would love to read from simply because it can get so expensive. Once again, even in this leisurely aspect of society it seems that money is the issue. If there was a golden solution to helping get others involved in reading and encourage them to have more access to books (while still being ethical by making money for the authors and publishing companies) then this world could, in a small way, become a better place 🙂
    Eugenia @ Chasm of Books recently posted…Discussion: Organising BooksMy Profile

  2. Kate Copeseeley

    Oh yes. Oh definitely yes!
    First, I just want to make a point that libraries are awesome resources for people who can’t afford to buy books. My parents had eight kids and my dad was a pastor. We got one book a year for Christmas, and it was probably used. Libraries were manna from heaven for a passel of kids with an insatiable urge to read.
    Second, just to argue the point with Terry Deary (who I love to argue with), libraries are most definitely NOT filled with free books! Those books are bought and paid for, mostly likely at a higher price than most of us pay for books. And those higher priced books are paid for by people like you and me, who pay taxes in the hopes that our money will be used for something awesome. (I’m looking at you, California State Government. What is this bullet train nonsense???)
    Third, I think your idea is brilliant and wonderful. The only problem I see is how to count those page views. Yes, my kindle is connected to the internet if I want it to be, but like all paranoid peons of the internet, I keep it disconnected for fear that Amazon will choose to erase everything on it without so much as a by-your-leave. I load all my books on by hand. Like, I download them to my computer from Amazon (and smashwords) and then transfer them over to my kindle. Because then, licensed or not, at least I have a physical copy.
    So yeah, I guess people would have to agree to have their devices hooked up to the internet all the time. And until we have internet everywhere like Korea does, it’s impossible to do that and send transmissions to servers anywhere. So I guess I’m saying that your idea is awesome, but possible for the US anyway, at some time in the future only.
    Kate Copeseeley recently posted…How Self-Publishing Fosters DiversityMy Profile

  3. Jennavier Gilbert

    I’ve heard of this concept before but never from the economic angle. As someone whose lucky to be both highly educated and very poor (thank you crappy job market!) I live and die by my library. If it doesn’t have it then I’m out of luck, which means I hardly if ever get to read indie published/ small press books. I would love to discover lesser known authors but there’s no real way for me to do that right now.
    Jennavier Gilbert recently posted…Dog!My Profile

  4. Anne

    I’ve run content businesses on both sides of this model. Ad supported and paid content (ie reader supported) along with a spectrum of mixed. In general, there’ are not enough ad dollars in the world to support all the content in the world.

    On the content end, advertisers come with strings attached. They want you to write things that enhance or agree with their brands. I’ve had sponsors make my editorial team’s life a nightmare with their demands and wording tweaks. Some sponsors are cool with freedom of expression, but then you run into the middle management problem — the publisher or producer is so worried about offending the sponsor (even if there’s no reason to be) that they water the content down pro-actively.

    Also, advertisers have very specific demographic targets (people more likely than most to buy their product) and highly measured campaign ROI (return on investment) goals. Every ad must not only reach the perfect eyeballs, it must also get a certain response rate…as shown by clicks, purchase conversions, and consumer loyalty/repeat purchases.

    The Internet has made this measurement and targeting a million times more precise and possible. The ad dollars that used to go to magazines, newspapers and even trade journals have declined precipitously. Advertisers now know if they want to sell something, such as new boots, their ad on an article about new boots will not get remotely as good results as their ad in search engine results for the search term ” new boots.”

    If your job is to sell boots, your going to move your budget to the thing that works. Or you will be unemployed.

    You are never ever going to move your ad to novel.

    Especially if it’s not about boots. And not if the publisher can’t guarantee a precise number of boot buyers in the demographic, who like your style of boots and who have the money to buy them, will read this novel.

    As a content creator trying to attract sponsors, instead of chasing the truth of your story, your are chasing bulks quantities of the perfect eyeballs. You’re not writing to please your readers, you’re writing to attract your sponsors’ target buyers.

    Plus, your revenue per reader is lower. Sponsored content can make as little as a penny per reader. Or even less. So, to make a living, you need a lot more readers. For example, as a business news publisher I can’t sell an ad in my articles unless I can guarantee at least 5,000-10,000 readers. That ad doesn’t make much money. If I take the same editorial and marketing effort, I can make triple that amount of money with an ebook. Maybe a lot more, depending on topic.

    So, reality is, most fiction does better as a paid content model. If magazines are in trouble, there’s no way books can cover costs with ads. Reality.

    • Kat Kennedy

      That is an excellent point. I always knew that my idea had probably been considered before and there were good reasons it hasn’t been implemented. But I was hoping it could be the beginning to a discussion.

  5. Ilex

    I certainly don’t buy most of the books I read — it would be much too expensive, and many of them turn out to be something I will never reread, anyway. So I am highly dependent on my public library (which is where I’ll be heading after I post this, in fact). I’m lucky enough to have access to a really good library system, so just about any book I want to read is available, or, if it’s not, they borrow it for me from another library system. But I do sometimes feel guilty that authors aren’t getting paid for all this reading I do.

    I’m in the US, but I know other countries (including Australia), have what’s called a Public Lending Right, which provides funding so authors get a small amount of money for each time their books are checked out of a library. That seems pretty civilized to me.

    I certainly don’t know how to get people reading more *without* access to public libraries. Not everyone can afford e-readers, or even home computer access — my library’s free computers are always in use, with a line of folks waiting for them. So to a certain extent, when we talk about e-books with ads, we’re talking from a very privileged position.

  6. La Coccinelle

    I find the idea of ads in books absolutely abhorrent. It’s yet one more area where the less well-off folks end up being bombarded with ads for things they can’t afford and/or don’t care about. Basic cable comes with programming where about 1/3 of the time is taken up by commercials; premium cable often offers commercial-free programming. (You’d think that companies would want to sell to people with more money — like the ones who can afford premium cable packages.) And don’t even get me started on how we now have to watch commercials (the same ones we’re bombarded with on TV) every time we go to the movies…

    Anne makes some good points, too. And what happens if your book deals with a controversial subject and you can’t get any advertisers? If you’re dependent upon ads as part of your publishing business model, your book might not ever make it to market. We’re trying to get books into more people’s hands… not fewer. If we let advertisers dictate what does and doesn’t get published, we’re not very far from censorship.

    Re-sale of e-books at a lower price might be a good way to help distribute the reading wealth… but that’ll have to wait until there’s technology in place to track the books and make sure someone’s not just making multiple copies and selling them for their own profit. It would be a nice idea for libraries, though, if they could buy e-books at a lower price. Libraries may have limits on how many times an e-book can be lent, but since most second-hand e-books will only have been read once, it would mean that libraries could get a discounted e-book and they’d still be able to lend it almost as many times as a brand-new copy.
    La Coccinelle recently posted…Booking Through Thursday (26)My Profile

  7. Krys
    Twitter:

    This was a great piece. I’m not going to dwell too much on this except one thing, your statement on the fact that public libraries loan out so much for free using primarily the public dollar to pay for it. Considering how much libraries have to pay to ensure they have permission to loan out a movie(s), I can see why there’s such a demand on ensuring that there are some really big numbers attached to the item(s). It would be awesome, of course, if we could get a lot of stuff gratis but in the end, economically, it just wouldn’t make sense. Copyright stuff, I would love to see lifted, as long as the entire world ran on the honor system, but we all know that’s never going to happen unless an apocalypse made people realized they needed to change their ways.
    Krys recently posted…Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John GreenMy Profile

  8. BarefootMedStudent
    Twitter:

    Thank you for addressing this! I’ve been wondering about these things for YEARS but never really managed to form a coherent argument about it. (The furthest I got is, “So pirating is bad, yes, but what about libraries?)

    I feel kind of a kinship with everything you’ve said here. For one, I’m a broke-ass student. I struggle to pay for my tuition and so yeah, I can’t really afford books. I go to the library and I use NetGalley (I’m from South Africa though, and not an exclusive book blogger, and so I don’t get approved for many titles) and I beg and borrow and get gifts and try to eat less chocolate so I can maybe buy a book at the end of the month.

    And just recently I saw how many of my classmates used pirated textbooks (because uni tuition is mad expensive) and I had that same thought, and I was angry, WHY CAN’T BOOKS BE FREE?

    But obviously I don’t expect authors to work for free…

    Anyway. I think your post is fantastic and if I only knew how, I would be involved somehow to help the world reach this goal. I think it’s fantastic.

    Also, a note on the socio-economic bit: I remember being six years old and walking to the library in our new town, wanting to get a library card. The librarian told me I could not get a library card because I needed a utilities bill to prove that I (my parents) are tax payers. It wasn’t a big deal, I just had to wait a few hours for my parents to get home from work and bring their utilities bill, but I remember being angry. I asked the librarian if that meant that the kids in the nearby informal housing settlement (“slum”, basically) couldn’t get library cards. And she said yes.

    I guess their argument was that tax payers fund libraries and what-what. And also, I suppose, how do you serve an overdue notice to someone who doesn’t live in formal housing? And the informal settlements are constantly flooding and burning down, and I suppose they were worried for their books.

    But I still don’t agree with it, and it still bothers me.
    BarefootMedStudent recently posted…Hell Week is Over. But I’d Rather Talk About SAS.My Profile

  9. Katrina Southern
    Twitter:

    A really interesting post! I really don’t understand how Public Libraries can be slated in any way, they are invaluable resources not only for avid readers who aren’t millionaires and can’t afford to buy every book they lay their eyes on, but for people who do important research that benefit mankind in so many ways. Without libraries, human education would suffer terribly. I suppose I understand that Authors want their work to be bought, after all, they have worked hard on it and rely on an income from that. But personally if I like a book enough, then of COURSE I will buy it. And in order for the Library to actually get hold of those books, they would either have had to buy them or rely on a donation from someone else who has bought them and no longer wants them. Either way, they were purchased at some point. Is it not better to have the books read by many people who are interested, rather than wasting away on someone’s shelf? What next, ban people from loaning books to their friends? I feel that the very idea of having no resource to get books from to read freely can only work against an author. It certainly wouldn’t make me think ‘Oh, I guess I’ll just have to buy every one’. I would just end up going without.

    Katrina @ Chased By My Imagination
    Katrina Southern recently posted…Weekly Wishlist #10My Profile

  10. Shannelle C.
    Twitter:

    I have been waiting for a long in-depth discussion from Cuddlebuggery for a long time now and I get it! 😀

    As an international person, I’m going to view this in that perspective. It would be really cool if some of your ideas happened, especially that free books with advertisements thing. That just really makes sense. It might actually stave off piracy or people downloading because some of them are actually fans but just don’t want to dish out the money. And I would know, since it’s really rampant in the Philippines. I don’t know how any of them can claim to be fan when they haven’t bought a thing.

    And libraries for the financially blessed? I agree. the Philippines is jsut generally a poor country so that can be reflected in our utter lack of public libraries. The ones that are the best stocked would have to be private school libraries, most likely.
    Shannelle C. recently posted…The Signing Recap Survey Results!My Profile

  11. Lyn Kaye
    Twitter:

    I think the answer to “Why are books free” argument is this: tradition. Libraries were started to help the poor masses enjoy knowledge (I know there is an Ever After gif lying around, waiting to be used for that sentence right there). Books were, at one time, a privilege. It was a huge sign of wealth and status. The free world decided that the peasants should get some of this action as well.
    It is sad to see the big move to capitalize on everything. I can remember when TV was free, and when we would swap movies with family to save on the cost. Now big industries want schools to purchase the rights to show movies in schools, and I feel that libraries are going as extinct as the tigers.
    Lyn Kaye recently posted…DNF Review: The Secrets of Lily Graves by Sarah StrohmeyerMy Profile

  12. Zero
    Twitter:

    Nice idea you have here!

    I wouldn’t mind seeing ads in any page in my book (if possible), in the same manner I actually see ads in my magazines.

    The thing is, I noticed in 4 of my old books (released on 70’s and 80’s), they actually have at least 2 ad pages with that glossy paper in contrast with the rough texture of book paper. I don’t know what’s the deal with those books that time.

    Zero@NightofSnow
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  13. Justine S.

    OK, I’m really glad someone else finally said it, but there is absolutely no way I could ever afford to pay for every book I read – being in the neighbourhood of 150-200 per year on average. I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m eternally thankful for a good library with a massive and growing ebook collection, several great used bookstores nearby, a few awesome book exchanges and a community book box on my street, and, very importantly, a family that with a history of hoarding books like the reading apocalypse is imminent.

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