Why All Ebooks Should Be Free…And (Almost) All Readers Should Pay For Them

I have been writing about “free” for pretty much as long as I’ve been blogging, and throughout that time, I have argued, to mixed receptions, in favour of writers giving their work away for free.


(Click the picture above to download my novel Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, a Murakami-esque story of the search for identity in post communist Europe)

Nonnetheless, because the subject has been in the news again in the past few days, with Philip Hensher stating very firmly that he won’t write for free, I thought it was time to tackle the subject again. Sadly, most discussions you’ll find among writers about “free” these days have to do with whether or not “free works” – in other words, does giving your work away for free lead to more sales. That’s not a question that interests me in the slightest here. But, if it’s the question that concerns you most as a writer, I would urge you to carry on reading, because I want you to consider whether you could look at the issue of “free” a little differently.

First, let me state two principles that I take as axiomatic, then explain why I take them as axiomatic, and then explain why they aren’t so paradoxical, and what they mean for writers, and for readers.

Hungerford Bridge landscape 3

(click the picture to download my latest poetry collection, i cannot look at walls in case you have graffitied them with love poetry)

1. Lack of social or economic means should not be a barrier to participation culture. And as culture creators, we should not put up such barriers.

2. Culture is an essential part of what it means to be human and those touched by culture, and those who care that others are touched by culture, should support it.

Now, I’ve been accused of many things. Some – like trying to do hard-working authors out of a living – I’m really not bothered about because they’re either way wide of the mark or utterly beside the point (my point being a general one about the good of culture, which trumps to the point of irrelevance the economic interests of we individual authors and any decisions we may have made regarding our careers; and my mark being that I care deeply, very deeply, about authors and want desperately to see them flourish).

Others, like saying contradictory things, or living in Pollyannadom, are more to the point, and I want to address both of those. To take Pollyanna first, yes, it is a far off wish for a world in which all have unfettered access to culture. And if I had a pound for every time I heard “I know there are kids starving in Africa but…” I wouldn’t have to worry about getting paid for my writing, or anything else. But the point is that the impossible is as much our responsibility as the possible, and the distant are as much our priority as the close. And no, I am not asking people to neglect their families for the sake of causes they don’t understand, but those two points remain true, and whilst many of us have very good social/economic/health reasons of our own why achieving one step towards the impossible even is inconceivable, that is no reason why it should not be our collective dream, and why those who lack those social/economic/health barriers should go erecting self-justification ones in their stead.

And to take contraditoriness. No, the idea of people paying for something free is not contradictory. It *is* Pollyanna-ish. “In your dreams” is a perfectly valid thing for someone to say when you suggest they pay for a free download. To which I can only say “yes, in my dreams.” In fact, these two principles are simply two sides of a pact between those who create culture and those who are touched by it. Let me explain each, and explain what they mean in practical terms, and then get on to what they mean for me and my readers.

1. Lack of social or economic means should not be a barrier to participation culture. And as culture creators, we should not put up such barriers.

Now, I know this is more complicated than saying “my work should be available for free.” Nonetheless “my work should be available for free” is an essential starting point (and one I’m working my way through. My aim is soon to have all my books available in newly-edited beautifully produced free editions. You will find three free downloads here of three of the books of which I am most proud). It is not the end of our job as writers though, and as people whose sphere of activity is culture, it is our duty to be aware of all the barriers to culture, and even if we can do nothing then to raise awareness amongst those who can. Shrugging our shoulders is not a valid response.


(click the picture to download my short story and poetry collection (life) razorblades included)

When we think of barriers to participation in culture, we often think first of censorship. But the rise of digital publishing has created a digital divide both at home and on a global scale. I’m not in a position, sadly, to make hard copies available to everyone everywhere. I would love to be able to do so, but the best I can do in the meanwhile is to welcome people printing out my pdfs in booklet form and copying and distributing them for free. And I can also make the electronic version of my book available for free so that those who have access to the technological means to read but not the economincal means to access teh books they’d like to on a pay-for basis can do so. And in the meanwhile, I can also do more (and that’s a very personal note as I know I haven’t done enough in general) to raise awareness of projects that seek to widen digital access nationally and globally, and to preserve and extend the library system.

Of course, it’s all very well for me to say this. I’m not dependent upon receiving money for my writing to make a living. Like many writers I have a day job. The real proof of the pudding, so to speak, is whether I still act the same if I ever were dependent upon my writing. It’s certainly a position I’d like to be in, and I hope very much I’d feel the same if I were, but until then, I realise it’s hypothetical.

2. Culture is an essential part of what it means to be human and those touched by culture, and those who care that others are touched by culture, should support it.

For me, this is self-evident. Culture enriches our lives and our understanding of the world and ourselves. It transports us out of our lives, and it takes us down into parts of ourselves nothing else can reach. Its value to us is immense. But not immeasurable. Well, not immeasurable in the “oh, I couldn’t possibly put a value on it, so I won’t, I’ll just take it” kind of way.

cover for ebook

(You can download my experimental novel Evie and Guy for free by clicking the cover above, but you can also buy the paperback, along with my poetry books, direct from my online store – just click here)

I would like to see everyone who can afford to give something for the culture that transforms them give to the creator of that culture proportionately to what they can afford (this isn’t so different from what a lot of our free to enter museums and monuments do, encouraging donations at a certain level but allowing for donations of any amount or none). Now, there are different ways this can be done, and I think as writers we should enable people to pay us in as many ways as possible. These are just some suggestions to illustrate the principle.

  • It makes most sense to give after you have read the book in question – only then do you really know what it means to you. So why not put a link to your Paypal at the end of your free downloads to remind people that they can give in this way.
  • Make your books available in pay-for editions as well as free. This needn’t mean making your electronic edition free and your paper edition pay-for, although having a paperback that people can buy is definitely sensible. Of course, sites like Amazon have a never undersold policy, and you will have to work with such things. It may also be a good idea to make it clear on the pay-for sites that the book is free elsewhere, with a brief explanation of why – you want people who pay you to do so because they are delighted to do so and not because you want to dupe them.
  • Of course, paper copies of your book are pretty much an essential, even if it’s just having one available for people to order pay-on-demand (POD) (and for those of us who do lots of readings, it really is essential to have physical books with you at all times – I’ve missed out too many times by turning up at a reading and failing to have books to make that mistake again). But it’s also worth considering having special editions with extra material or exquisite production values – look locally for bookbinders, for exaple, or consider commissioning endpapers, or special plates, or just giving readers more stories. As well as having my books available POD, I have an online store using Bigcartel.
  • It is easier than ever to make merchandise available to buy. This can range from T-shirts and the whole host of other things available from sites like Zazzle through skins for phones/tablets featuring your book cover/imagery from places like Skinit to more unique and handmade items. You can sell these through your bigcartel or other online store, or even if they’re really handmade set up an etsy store. The music download site Bandcamp is another great outlet for selling merchandise as well, of course, as recordings of your work.
  • People can give in ways that don’t necessarily involve giving money directly to the author. This may be particualrly appropriate when they don’t have money but they do, say, have time. I would love for people who read my work to go out and volunteer for, or donate to, mental health charities for example.
  • And of course what everyone can do is share. This may or may not mean leaving a review or rating of a book, but they can find some way to tell people about your book – or share the actual book.

This does not mean I’ll work for free

I started writing an appendix here, but it turned almost as long as the piece itself, so I will save it for another post. Suffice to say, I won’t just turn up to a conference or an event and pay my own travel or write a great long piece for a magazine just because I’m asked to. That’s different. But you’ll have to wait for the why!

For now, I’d just like readers and writers to consider the dynamic at the heart of this post. It is, you’ll find, very similar to much of what I’ve been writing about recently. It’s about an economy of altruism. Oh, and for goodness’ sake google Amanda Palmer TED if you haven’t already. She says it better than I do.


9 thoughts on “Why All Ebooks Should Be Free…And (Almost) All Readers Should Pay For Them

  1. An interesting point of view, Dan – one that makes me think (I love that about you). My biggest problem with this midset isn’t giving my writing away for free but, rather, getting people to value it enough to bother to read it when it is free. My experience (and mine alone, everyone’s mileage will vary) has been that when I offer works for free no one at all bothers to read them (or even download them) perhaps it is an extension of the glut of ‘free for promo’ books that are out there. When I charge, people not only download, but actually read them – they want the value they have paid for. I fear we need some kind of paradigm shift and I have no clue how you go about causing one of those 😉

    • You are probably right about needing a paradigm shift. I think that the phenomenon of the ebook giveaway has led to an extreme exaggeration of the actual potential fanbase for books. I’m not sure that fewer people will read books that are given away for free than if they had to pay for them (I’m advocating both, so they *can* pay for them) it’s just that such a tiny proportion of the thousands of people who download free books read them that we hardly notice them. That’s my feeling anyway. Utterly unproven, I’ll admit

  2. A thoughtful, passionate piece, Dan, and I salute you for it.

    I’m uncomfortable about the current vogue for making a book free on Amazon for a time in the hope of boosting its rankings and therefore increasing the chances of it popping up as a recommendation alongside other orders (and therefore making more money). Not least of my reasons is that I am guilty of downloading a lot of such freebies in the past, most of which are still unread – so no culture shared there.

    I believe that anyone who, like me, writes something and puts in on their website for all to see is effectively self-publishing stuff for free – that’s a no-brainer, surely? But when asked if I’ve published any fiction, I automatically answer “no” – even though in my heart the answer is yet. Having read your argument here, I will now have the courage and wit to say “Yes, my stories are published and freely available on my website”.

    I’ve been thinking about publishing slim ebooks of stories free of charge but have been worried that it would look defeatist or tantamount to saying they’re not worth paying for. I want to use them to raise money for a particular charity, but was disheartened by the fact that Amazon would therefore take a cut and that the small remainder would take months to filter through to me for the charity. But I think I will now follow your suggested model and issue them free, with a link to the charity at the back.

    That way, I can get on with creating without fretting about money or admin, and feel that I’m reaching my readers unfettered. (Though, now freelance, having given up the day job last month, I will also have to put out some paid books somewhere along the line!)

    Thank you for making me think these issues through properly for my own purposes and allowing me to move forward in a sensible, considered way. Sorry if this sounds like a selfish response, but hey, it’s one more person won over to your way of thinking! 😉

    • 🙂 Debbie, there are some superb examples of charity volumes – 100 Stories for Haiti, New Sun Rising and Poems for Pussy Riot come to mind. Each of those had a very strong printed book element, quite probably for that reason. I think having the ebook free to download but with a link to a justgiving page on your website and in the book is probably the very best way to get the most money to the right people as quickly as possible

  3. I completely agree with both of your statements (about culture and barriers), but neither of these are the reason why all of my books are free as ebooks and always will be (wherever possible – through Amazon it’s pretty much up to them). My reasons are simple: I don’t write for money. I never have. It doesn’t cost me anything to write (I also enjoy designing my own covers), so I have no expenses to recoup. I use mainly open-source software – Ubuntu, Libre Office, Calibre, Gimp – and view my contributions of fiction in the same light as open-source software (in which I also participate). I try to explain it to people as “everything doesn’t have to be about money all the time.” It really doesn’t. Or, as William Saroyan once put it, “there are more important things in life than making sure you aren’t being cheated”.

  4. Dan, you’re a wonderful human being and I applaud your passion. The problem in this electronic age is that e-books are never really free. In order to read them, you need at the very least, a computer. And you also need some means of downloading them (ie an internet connection). When I was a child I was fortunate, given my very working class background, that my parents supported and encouraged my thirst for an education. For me, this meant my second home (as it were) was the local library. THAT is what we should be encouraging if we want to bring culture to the masses.

    About my own books, I don’t write literature, you won’t acquire any culture from my stuff. It’s genre fiction, action adventure that would sit comfortably with 1960’s pulp science fiction. I’ve tried giving books away. Like others, I don’t think, in general, it works because people don’t read them – and people don’t value them. Let me hasten to add don’t write for money. If I did I wouldn’t have a weight problem 🙂 I’d consider giving away books to lending libraries, but free on Smashwords? It achieves nothing for the reader – or the author.

    • Yes, I absolutely agree – and I think I made precisely that point, about campaigning for library access as well as universal digital access. And I absolutely agree that ereading is in danger of creating a huge barrier to access to knowledge and culture – we need to do everything we can to bring down that barrier!

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