Once again on free ebooks ruining the market

This came up in an Amazon author thread, and I felt like adding my two cents one more time (at this point, it’s added up to a dollar or more I’m sure!)


The “e-book market” more or less began as free books, with Project Gutenberg. It took a long time for the internet to grow up, but much of what the internet has become began with the concept of free and still includes much that is free of charge to use, including but not limited to Firefox, Chrome, Linux, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, SoundCloud, Tumblr, Instagram and so on, You hear plenty of complaints about how Instagram is “ruining” the professional photography market, how Napster ruined the music industry, and how ebooks are ruining publishing. You would think there is no more music being made anymore, no more books being published, but it’s quite clear that industries adapt and change. Do artists get screwed in the process? I think it was Mick Jagger who recently said that most professional musicians in history never made much money except for a decade or two beginning in the 1970’s.

In the current state of things, “free” is generally used as a promotional device, a loss leader, a mechanism, a publicity tool. “Free” is part of the DNA of the internet and it isn’t going away. As for quality, it’s been my experience from many years as a bookseller that much of what gets traditionally published is nothing special, that most of what gets bought is typically more of the same old thing. Sure, there’s even worse quality in most amateur ebooks, but the bar was pretty low to begin with. Literature has always been a rare and minor sliver of the book trade, nearly as tangential and profitless as its kissing-cousin, poetry. So-called literary novels are as trophy wives to corporate publishers, primarily paraded for glamor and show, but never sell much at all. The real money is in the tried and true formulaic genre books, which is why there’s so much of it in ebooks as well. If that’s the business you want to be in, you have to play that game and write that kind of stuff and out-hustle and out-compete all the others who think there’s gold in them thar hills.

Part of me believes the ebook market has been held back by the corporate publishers by charging ridiculous prices for what are essentially text files, and delivering poorly edited versions of their manuscripts on top of that. I find as many typos in Harper Collins ebooks as in most of those I get from amateurs on Smashwords.

Speaking of amateurs, I’ve always been happy to be one of those myself. I recently came across an interview with one of my literary idols (Clarice Lispector) who said the same thing. To follow your own beat, do what you want, when you want, not be controlled by markets or money or expectations or public demands, to truly be free creatively. There are people who give their time and their effort to open-source software and at this point in time you hear fewer and fewer complaints that those amateur programmers are ruining the software industry. For me, contributing stories to the general pool follows the same logic, and that is why I give all mine away. There’s room enough, I believe, for professionals and amateurs alike, I could never write the kind of books that sell like hotcakes, nor would I want to. But by the same token, no one can write the books I write (nor would they want to either!) and I think that’s okay.

Finally, I think there will always be people telling stories and always be people making money. I’m not too worried about anything ruining that.


2 thoughts on “Once again on free ebooks ruining the market

  1. Wonderful Tom! I couldn’t agree more.

    “Publishing” has always been a barrier to the bulk of writers, with only a “select” few being published and chosen based on what publishers think will sell. They might as well be lawyers.

    Authors have always been screwed and separated from the elite publishers and the distribution industry – at least this means we get screwed by fewer people. Sure Amazon takes advantage – but we have choice! Something you were never expected to exercise in the past, or at least be content to fish your choice from a very small pond.

    Writers write to be read, there is no doubt about it, and ebooks reduce the distance between writers and readers. It cuts out the middle men. Why should someone you don’t know choose what books you can read? Someone you don’t know is already deciding what films you can see, what music you hear about and what art works you see. How well do you trust that person? How do you know what motivates them?

    The bulk of writers get turned down by 100+ agents and publishers. At least self publishing and ebooks ensures they will get read by 10 – 100 people (minimum) over a lifetime and that is a lot more than all those rejected books we never got to see through history. Just think of what we have lost! What about the books that were brilliantly written, but about gay men or lesbians, or “other” races, or with potent female protagonists or genre bending ahead of its time, or apparently against the current political party etc? Remember Wordsworth was heavily crticised by the establishment for going “off track” and writing about “daffodils” and worse still, Keats was loved by the bulk of his critics, but 15 out of 80 crticisims of Keats were from major periodicals and were disproportionately scathing, having a huge impact on the writers career. Publishers almost never go out on a limb for a writer. They just claim to.

    We have been held hostage and ebooks goes a long way to freeing us from that.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. With you completely on this Tom. Well said. I also agree with Lisa that writing ebooks frees us up to do whatever we like. We may be ruining publishing the way it was, but I don’t care much about that, never having been a part of it. I prefer to say we’re evolving writing as a craft/art/whatever. We’re about writing, not publishing. If publishing/publishers can’t keep up with that, it’s not our fault. It’s just that for the first time in history writers are in the driving seat.

    Liked by 1 person

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