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What if books became free?

April 5, 2012

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a blog post referencing Seth Godin’s assertion that authors have no right to make money any more.  A few days after that, I wrote about a legal way to get free access to a pretty decent word processor. Those blog posts are two sides of the same coin.

Horse hockey!

There’s a growing subculture that says intellectual property is an antiquated concept–that you can’t claim ownership to ideas. That idea is, in the words of a great leader, horse hockey. A worker should be paid for his or her work–giving it away only by choice, not by someone else’s dictate.

Let’s play what if, though. What if books were free? Once the dust settled (and there would be an immense amount of dust–more than in a teenager’s bedroom), there would still be some form of people writing for a living.

  • There would be an immense flood of content. Everyone in the world would be writing and publishing books–but they’d be doing it on their own time while working a day job. (Or they wouldn’t need a day job.) Finding the best content would be more difficult initially, but a new order would arise in which the cream rose to the top–through social media and word of mouth.
  • A lot of very good writers would stop writing. If you current get paid to write things of your choosing and the money were to stop, you would probably find something else to do to pay the bills. It would probably leverage your work as a writer, but it would also probably not include novels, short stories, or non-fiction books, except what you choose to fit in on your own time.
  • Amazon’s back would be broken and the Big Six would go away. Amazon is developing a firm–some would say scary–hold on book distribution, enough that it’s starting to dictate the terms of the arrangement to the other pieces of the supply chain. If the content became free, Amazon’s stranglehold, along with the primary place of the Big Six and pretty much all other publishers, would go away.
  • Electronic content would explode. If there’s no cash payment for content, there’s no one to absorb the cost of producing and binding the content. It would have to be available online, though it could potentially be downloaded and printed at the reader’s discretion.
  • Piracy would end. There’s no gain in pirating content you can get free.

I’m not advocating someone pass a law eliminating intellectual property. It’s an intellectual exercise, mostly.

But a lot of the items discussed above are currently happening on the Internet. Blogging is online publication open to anyone who wants to do it. And some people make a decent living writing and producing a blog.

I periodically reference a guy named Paul Lukas, who writes a blog about sports uniforms. Through his blog, he also has a periodic gig with ESPN. I wouldn’t pay money for a book on athletic aesthetics, but I read the blog every day–something his advertisers recognize. Blogs open doors that might otherwise be closed, reaching readers in ways that only random chance, luck, and hard work can control.

The changes to the model that’s existed since forever are just beginning. To succeed in the future will require the courage to move through discomfort and explore new ways of doing things, to play what-if long enough to find a new model that works, and capitalize on that model.

The future will belong to those who are brave and honest in what they write and brave and open-minded in how they distribute it.

  1. Diane Carlisle permalink
    April 5, 2012 7:49 am

    If books were free, nobody would be willing to publish them. There would still be plenty of writers who will write for free, just to establish a name and grow numbers of fans on Facebook, Twitter, their personal blogs and other social media sites.

    Then the really popular websites, blogs and online journals will monetize their sites and they will be paid via advertisements to other products like Viagra and anti-aging creams.

  2. April 5, 2012 9:12 am

    Anyone actually can write and be published right now through blogs, websites and Forums on the Internet. The problem is that when you search any topic you get at least a million hits so finding the good stuff amidst all that C**P is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

    I for one am thankful that books are hard to get published – it weeds out the drivel so that there is a better chance that a book you pay good money for is actually one of the better offerings.

  3. April 5, 2012 12:13 pm

    So is your what if…. what if they were free to the reader? The question that follows is… Does the author and/or publisher still have to pay to produce a quality product?

    Yes I could see the industry crashing with the Bix6 falling, I believe Amazon would stumble as they have diversified their revenue stream already and would find a way to make money on the distribution whether through advertising or something else. The voracious reader could read to their heart’s content rifling through the drivel to find quality. Readers may be more adventurous as their wallets no longer felt the impact of a bad read.

    Even digital printing comes at a cost if you want your product to go on an ereader in ePub, MOBI or any of the 7 formats other than PDF. What happens to all of the glossy covers if the Author cannot recover the cost? The only free means are options offer by the likes of Amazon or Barnes which would go away if those organizations crumbled. Would there even be a centralized means of distribution available or would authors/publishers have to gain an understanding of SEO to be found on the web and distribute from their own sites. No company does anything for free. They get paid somehow.

    or is the what if… free to the reader and still a cost to the author/publisher?
    Many good authors would stop publishing. I can see donation requests increasing to help offset the costs. But how many readers would delve into their pockets and pay if they didn’t have to. How many writer’s would give their work away.

    The economy would stumble.

    As odd as that sounds every change has a global impact which has an effect on finances.

    I usually take a look within but for this example this won’t suffice. I don’t think very many would notice if I stopped publishing.

    So go to the other extreme, let’s look at the Harry Potter series. How many books have sold and are still selling? Who does it impact? Bookstores, paper mills, loggers, presses, transportation and all the charities JKR supports. In some way shape or form many are affected if JKR or her publishers stopped selling her books.

    Nice post.

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