Is Selling Books Unethical?

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.

14 thoughts on “Is Selling Books Unethical?

  1. Books free? No thanks.
    I dont dispute the value to society of books, but the same could be said of music or any other creative endeavour. Free is what libraries are for. Why should an author spend hours and hours writing for zero return? They wouldnt, i wouldnt.
    People who genuinely think they should be free should try writing one then see how they feel. Writing is hardly an unobtainable resource.
    Wriring is devalued enough without idiots writing a useless thesis on why it should be free. Was it sponsored by the Huffington Post by any chance? They dont pay anyone.


    1. As I said towards the end, it definitely needs to apply to anything creative; and we have to be broad about what we mean by creative, too.

      Having books (or anything else) for free doesn’t have to mean not paying the producer, in the same way that having free access to Accident & Emergency doesn’t mean not paying nurses. I’m suggesting we make all books free and the government pays a small but reasonable salary that isn’t linked to book sales.


  2. Hmm. Since almost every reader (and some who are not) are already writers, taking this idea to its logical limit would have interesting consequences. And who would read all that writing? But if the mere desire or intention to write were the only qualification, it may not be a problem. As for covering the costs, perhaps people of means would want to have a Resident Writer, sort of like those 18th century garden hermits. The writer could offer advice and critiques to the host and his/her guests, preside over book club meetings and tell stories at dinner parties.


      1. That does seem like an idea worth considering, but in that case there may be an expectation that actual written works would be produced, and eventually a return to employment. (This is based on the way Employment Insurance works here in Canada; recipients are expected to be making efforts to find work, and there is a time limit for the benefit).


          1. I suppose comparing your proposal to unemployment insurance muddied the waters somewhat. UI (called EI here in Canada) is intended to be a bridge between losing a job and finding another one. Your proposal is more like a grant, I suppose, intended to improve the well-being of the populace.


  3. In a perfect world (at least my perfect world), everything would be free – writings, music, art, (thought), food, education, etc. Currently, many of cultural items can be viewed for free at libraries and museums, but someone still pays for them.

    I would think there would be strict criteria from the government paying would-be writers a living wage, or anyone and everyone would sign on. That might include an intelligence test or an ethics exam or simply a committee voting on what they like. Since we can’t even get suitable funds for public schools when we desperately need it, I doubt any social group would be able to get taxpayers to agree to pay me to stay home and fiddle around with pen and paper. Censorship would be high to make those taxpayers happy – no controversial topics! Certain topics might become an underground endeavor. Sci-fi, Horror, Erotica… all those might be out of consideration, and our rich diversity might suffer.

    Like music, people on the outside aren’t always aware just how much effort it takes produce a work of creativity in real form and that writers, musicians, and artists should be paid, just like the creator of the latest miracle medication or the engineer who designed the newer, safer car. Writers don’t ask for much. 99 cents or even 2.99 is a small gesture.


    1. I want everyone to sign on; in fact, I want to pay it without people needing to.

      In my perfect world, creators would have the right to sell their work and get the universal income as well. However, I suggested offering the income in exchange for making the product free to consumer to make it more palatable to people who think their should be some direct burden in exchange for benefits.


  4. Ethical or not, I think we’re at a point where we need to have a serious societal conversation about whether we want our culture to be created and controlled by multinational corporations, because as long as individual creators have to work a day job so they can afford to create independently, corporate culture control is what we’re going to get.

    Universal basic income would fix this by letting creators focus on creation. Did the Beatles have a day job? No; they were on the dole (or as Cockney’s supposedly put it, the rock ‘n roll). How come we haven’t seen a major musical movement like the New Wave of British Heavy Metal come out of the UK and sweep the world since Thatcher?

    My guess is that post-Thatcher the welfare state in Britain just isn’t generous enough to allow working-class people to be full-time creators unless they go corporate or make it big.


    1. The issue might not just be cash-generosity; it might be social-generosity.

      A system based on the assumption that people who aren’t working need to prove they deserve help constantly tells those who need help that they are worthless. Which feeds straight into all that self-doubt that many creative people already have.

      So, whether or not it is possible to support creativity on the money, each new level of “prove you deserve this pittance” pushes more potential artists toward the compromise of consumer numbness.


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