When I posted my list of places to get legally free fiction online, commenter T Moore replied: “As a struggling writer and publisher you just put a nail in my coffin.”
I’d like to open this up for wider discussion.
People have more options for ways to spend their sitting-and-looking-at-something time than ever before. Books used to compete with newspapers and magazines, and then with films and television; now they also compete with video games and the entirety of the internet. So I’m not surprised that Moore feels threatened by a blog post that promotes cut-throat competitors who can’t be undercut because they’ve already dropped the access price to zero. Obviously, all things being equal, people will choose free entertainment over entertainment they have to pay for.
My question is whether all things are in fact equal.
There are lots of reasons that people spend money. Some people pay $30 for exquisite hardcover reprints of novellas while others read the same novellas online. They’re paying for a sensual experience that cannot be had for free. I get lots of books for free from work, but I still buy books written by my favorite authors, or published by my favorite publishers; I see those purchases almost like charitable donations, a way of saying that these people make my world better and I want them to be able to keep doing that. I’m paying for the feeling of contributing to my community. People also happily pay for scarcity (limited editions), personalization (author inscriptions), and convenience (faster shipping).
Most pertinent to this conversation is that people pay for the expectation of quality. I would suggest that those legal free fiction venues introduce readers to new authors, help readers build up an expectation of quality work from those authors, and thereby encourage them to later pay for those authors’ new works.* In addition, the readers get lots of information and entertainment for very little investment of time and no investment of funds. As someone who’s in favor of reading and encouraging readers, I think this is a pretty valuable service to provide to the reading community.
* It’s no coincidence that many people, most recently and famously Neil Gaiman, say the same thing about pirated books. That conversation has been had many times in many other places and I don’t feel a need to recapitulate it here, but I figure someone else will bring it up if I don’t head it off. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s focus solely on legal entertainment.
So who loses out, in this world? As far as I can tell, only authors who haven’t earned that readerly expectation of quality (because their work is poor or because they haven’t gotten a lot of exposure), and publishers that don’t provide an unusual and valuable service or experience. And in both cases, I don’t think the existence of free entertainment options is really the problem.
Bring on the discussion; just keep it reasonably civil, please.