Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Should You Get Books for Free?

"One of the first things I associate with the reading of books is the struggle I waged to obtain them,” Henry Miller once said. “Not to own them, mind you, but to lay hands on them."

These days, Miller’s lament seems as antiquated as the pantaloon. With the advent of internet shopping and digital media, laying your hands on a book has never been easier (or cheaper), as long as you’re flexible regarding the form of the book.

Free books have been around for a long time—in libraries, and in ARCs, advance reading copies delivered to a small target audience (mostly reviewers). As print book review opportunities have fallen away, NetGalley has stepped in with digital ARCs to be downloaded by a wider market of online reviewers.

Another fresh trend in free books (and recycling) is BookCrossing.com, where you share books and watch where they travel. It starts with sticking a book identifier inside a book and leaving it in a public place for someone to pick up. As your book makes the rounds from owner to owner, you can track it online, provided its new readers log in to tell where it was found. As of now, there are over 850,000 active BookCrossers who have collectively registered almost seven million books that are traveling around 130 countries. For writers, BookCrossings is a way of sharing their books with readers they’ll never meet—random, untargeted ARCs, if you will—not an especially efficient way of generating interest in your book, though an interesting one.

By far the largest trend is the free (or greatly reduced) e-book. Each day, thousands and thousands of books are available for free across all digital platforms. These aren’t just classics that have entered the public domain because their copyrights have expired, but brand new books by authors who hope that by making their books free for a few days, readers will download them, fall in love with their work, and become fans for life, going on to buy book after book by the same author, and advising their friends to do the same.
Compared to the pervasive piracy in the digital music industry, this “system” has the advantage at least of the author determining when and where her books will be free (though book piracy is also a problem).

Is there downside to all this free, easy access to books? Ss a friend of mine in the publishing industry speculates, is there now a parallel universe in which the primary criteria for choosing a book is that it’s either free or dirt cheap? For readers, are free books even worth downloading? For writers, how much can we (or should we) offer for free?

A few thoughts on navigating the world of free books:

  • Free books are trending fast: there are a whopping five million global Google searches each month of the term “books for free.”
  • There are dozens and dozens of newsletters, blogs, and boards that feature free e-books. My favorite is BookBub, which delivers daily deals to readers targeted to the type of books they prefer. The deals are curated, meaning that not every book is selected, and while authors and publishers have to pay for their books to be included, there’s a nice up-front breakdown of what to expect in click-throughs and downloads.
  • Readers who prefer real paper can enter Goodreads and blog-tour giveaways to win free copies of their favorite books. For writers and publishers, giveaways mean more exposure for your titles at a relatively small cost.
  • When it comes to offering free e-books, writers should think hard about the extent to which the “field of dreams” set-up will work for them. Best case scenario: you have a huge, active fan base who’ll be motivated to download your free book and encourage their friends to do the same, and you’ll be savvy enough to tap that base again and again when you’ve got a new book to share with readers. Spreading the word beyond your fan base requires a lot of work—you'll likely spend hours getting listings in the dozens of newsletters, boards, and blogs that feature book deals. Will your efforts translate to sales? Maybe. Maybe not. Worst case: your book gets only a few downloads, or it gets downloaded but not read, or readers browse a few pages and leave scathing reviews.
  • Get your books free. Get them cheap. But honor their creators. It’s not that readers owe writers anything (it’s our own crazy choice to do what we do), but everyone benefits if they now and then support the writers they love. Five ways to do this:
    • Support your local library.
    • If you attend a free literary event, buy a book by the featured author. (Consider it your price of admission.)
    • Recommend books to your friends. Talk, post, and tweet about them.
    • Bloggers write for free. Thank them by leaving a comment now and then, or by signing up for their RSS feed, or by sharing their links with your social media contacts.
    • The number one way to pay it forward to a writer (besides buying her books): Rate and review what you read on Amazon and Goodreads. Because reader reviews figure so hugely into the metrics of which books get attention, there are places all over the internet where unscrupulous authors can pay people to fill their book pages with high ratings and good reviews.  Amazon is trying to crack down on this practice, but the schemers always stay one step ahead. Your honest, unsolicited rating and review is among the best ways you can support the work of honest writers—especially if you’ve been enjoying their work for free.