As small business owners, many author-publishers will be familiar with the idea of giving away a sample (in this case, a book) to draw in customers; and with the arguments for and against. However, yesterday, I encountered the apparently radical suggestion that all books should be free. A suggestion that I find myself supporting.
Usually my experience of free book tactics concerns the balance of immediate revenue against long-term revenue: evidence that giving away the first book in a series is so successful that not writing a series is professional suicide; proof that readers don’t value free books, so won’t result in real fans; strategies for using short periods of free to raise popularity before charging. However, all of those are based on the free book increasing sales of books for money. The discussion yesterday was over making all books free to the reader.
As might not surprise you, the discussion wasn’t on a writer’s site; it was on a social policy blog. Their thesis was that the benefit of reading, both as a valuable skill and as an exposure to alternative perspectives, was so high that everyone should have access to all the books they can get; that charging for books (their argument was based on the prices of traditional publishers, so is less dramatic for independent publishers) acts as a barrier to those who need it most, the poor and disadvantaged.
An idea that I, as someone who considers a broad reading experience one of the most important drivers of my happiness and social development, have difficulty disputing.
However, as someone who believes in nuanced solutions and careful legislation, I don’t accept the simple “therefore make publishers give books away”. Writing is effort, publishing is effort. Without compensation, the barrier to participation merely moves from the reader to the producer: only books that the rich (in money or time) wish to see will be produced.
So, my suggestion is to make the books-as-social-good mechanism even stronger: books are free to the reader but the government pays anyone who wants to write a living salary; and to stop the salary mechanism controlling who can write, make the salary dependent on wanting to write rather than producing X qualifying works per year.
Of course, this would privilege books over music, sculpture, and other things that can produce better citizens. So, we’d have to expand the program to cover other creative pursuits.
We can sort out later whether we call this non-conditional payment basic income, citizen income, or Bob after we have it in place.