The Cost of Free eBooks

by Adam on March 13, 2010

So I’ve got an idea for a new business. I’m going to start a company, a clothing company. And I’m going to make some really fabulous stuff, better than my competitors and others in the industry in many ways. I’m going to be independent of the big chains, consumer-focused and market-driven. And I’m going to give all the clothes I produce away for free.

Sounds pretty nifty, eh? Some of you skeptics might ask, “well how do you make any money if you’re giving away what you produce?” Replace the word “clothes” with “ebooks” and you can see the predicament that publishers are in right now.

Free is not a business model.

If we don’t try to work together on this, then authors, agents and publishers are going to bring about an end to publishing as we know it. I know we love free – free can be a great promotional tool, a driver of word of mouth marketing, a rallying point for consumers. But free is not a long-term sales strategy.

Where this stems from is that with the rise of digital distribution, consumers are more accessible than ever. Publishers are still playing their traditional roles as purveyors of content – in some cases, more so now than in the past, as dictated by a tough economic situation and the influx of new authors getting out online. This has caused us a bit of backlash, because now authors believe they can do it better themselves when the publisher won’t perform (and in some cases, this is true…in others, not).

It gets stickier when these newly minted independent authors decide to give away the work they produce for free (again, this isn’t true in every case, but comments on blogs and message boards are coming out more and more that deride publishers for their pricing of ebooks while at the same time affirming that free is the way they’re going because that’s what consumers want).

All well and good for an author of a single book that took 6-12 months to put together. Not feasible for a publishing house of even 10 people, with 150 books that need to be supported and more coming down the pipeline that need a similar high-fidelity treatment. Not only is it impossible to do, but then we can’t even compete in a fair market with these authors who are giving their work away for free.

Where this could lead is that the new use of free as a tool for promotion will cause consumers to be drawn to independent authors who can engage in those sorts of free-doms in a much broader way – this deluge of content online could dilute the ebook offerings from publishing houses, especially because we can’t give away all that we produce. The content flood that’s coming may damage the growth of ebooks as a primary medium, especially if consumer perception is that the content available online is of low-quality (I understand many independent authors can do a great job on their own, but again, others can’t and won’t, but will still be out there on the same playing field).

It’s a scary thought, but one that can easily happen if we don’t all work together to try to find a way to make the issue more about uses and functionality, than just about price.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: