I downloaded and read two free books last year. Neither were by authors I did not know already. In both cases, I’d planned to buy the book anyway and happened to notice that they were free on a given day.
I don’t remember the last time I downloaded a book I hadn’t heard of, just because it was free. And I don’t think I’ve ever read one. Don’t get me wrong, my kindle is bursting with free books I grabbed not long after I bought it. They’re sitting there, taking up space, buried under dozens of books I paid for and will definitely read at some point.
The problem is want. I didn’t pick up those books because I wanted them. I picked them up because they were there. The books I paid for? I wanted those. Of course I did. I paid for them. I probably own more books that I want to read than I have time to read. So what of those free books, that are simply ‘there’?
I’m going to delete them soon. I hate clutter.
So ends the age of free. Free books have ceased to have value to people. That’s not a judgement of their quality in themselves. It’s because they’re the least wanted things the reader owns. Everything else takes priority.
Not too long ago free books had immense value. When kindles were launched they came as something of a shock to the system. There had never been a startup cost for reading before. As people began to buy the devices, they looked to offset that cost with free books. Amazon very smartly moved their free book bestseller lists to the front end of the site, and those new kindle owners decided to take a few risks. The authors they already knew of were being rather sniffy about the free book thing, and their publishers kept the ebook prices absurdly high (often the same as the hardback price) in anticipation of a gold rush. Readers knew when they were being exploited though, and gobbled up free books from unknown authors instead. Many found new authors to love, and went on to buy their other books. Authors doing well on the free bestseller lists found themselves doing really well on the paid bestseller lists too. It turned publishing upside down for a while.
If you follow the industry at all you’ll have seen more and more articles about the death of free books as a discovery tool in countries where the kindle has been around for a while. Ebooks are normal now. The thrill of free has died down, and readers are resuming their old habits. A book is a book is book, whether it’s a paperback or a digital download, and traditional publishers have finally brought their own ebook prices down. Basically, people want to read the things they want, not just the things that are there. Doing well on a free bestseller chart makes little difference to a book’s overall success.
In a couple of weeks I’ll (finally!) be launching The Flesh Market in paperback and on the kindle. It’s the first book I’ve self-published that I won’t be making free on Amazon. It won’t be dreadfully expensive either, but you won’t get it there for nothing. It’s a little unnerving. Watching hundreds of people download your book is, you’ll have to trust me, exciting even if it’s free. You let yourself forget that most aren’t ever going to get round to reading it. That’s a crushing thing for an author to acknowledge, so we do our best not to.
All those downloads? White noise, that makes us focus on the wrong thing. The only white noise I’m interested in is of pages turning. Readers are of huge value to me. They’re the reason I write stuff. Downloaders? Not so much.
The only exception to this are my email newsletter gang. They’ll continue to get everything I publish myself for free, ahead of the launch dates. The Flesh Market will be going out to them this week sometime, so take a moment now and sign yourself up (there’s a signup box at the top right of this page).
What’s the difference between these downloads and the ones on Amazon? These are going to people who want them.
It’s going to be interesting to see what happens on launch day. Frightening too. It’s a big reversal of how self-publishing has worked for the past few years. Who would have thought that asking people to pay for something would feel so radical?
The Flesh Market is a book that excites me though. It’s the biggest book I’ve written, and (even though I blew up the whole world a couple of years ago) probably the most ambitious. It has value, or at least I hope it does.
We’ll see if anybody else agrees.
Currently reading (graphic novel): Absolute Sandman volume 5, Neil Gaiman
Currently reading (novel): Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons
Currently reading (novel): The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally
Currently reading (short stories): The Weird, edited by Jeff Vandermeer.