Saturday 17 March 2012

Free Book Syndrome

I was in a bookshop on Thursday.

That shouldn’t sound shocking, but it’s been a while.

The reason for the visit, the launch of Hit And Run – the new novel from the excellent Doug Johnstone.

If you’ve never read one of Doug’s books or seem him at an event, I’d like to recommend both to you.

Hit And Run sounds like it has all the ingredients for a fast-paced noir thriller and the first chapter certainly has got me hooked.  The opening has a partying trio taking the long way home to avoid running into the cops on drink-driving watch.  Unfortunately for them, they run into something else, and there’s a sense that things are just about to move from bad to really bad with the next turn of the page.

Excellent stuff.

Not only that, but Doug sang a couple of songs.  The first I liked, the second was a real humdinger about Bjork and car-crashes. 
On top of that there were laughs aplenty, so it was great entertainment all round.  Make sure you get yourself a ticket for him for the Bloody Scotland festival if you're around for that.

Walking out afterwards, I had a look at the shelves.  There was something warm and familiar about them, packed full of books as they were and in neat order.

It was only when I got to the front door that I realised that there was no FREE BOOKS table.

No free books?  How do Waterstones (without the apostrophe these days!) expect to survive if they’re not giving everything away?

It’s an interesting idea, the Kindle Select programme.  Put in your book, let it be borrowed and be paid for that and have access to the facility of the giveaway.

Now, I’m a mean guy.  Mean in the saving money where I can way.  Truth is I have to be if I want to be able to pay for my children to have some of the brilliant experiences that are on offer to them – theatre, cinema, music, football, workshops, soft-play, swimming club, Rainbows and Brownies, you may know the kind of thing.

In the supermarket, if it has a reduced price sticker on an item because it’s on the verge of disintegrating in the fridge, you’d have to hold me back to stop me putting it in my basket.

Same goes for books. 

Books are my biggest indulgence these days.  My shelves are packed to overflow and regular culls don’t seem to make any difference.  They’ve been stocked by titles from Amazon, charity shops, car-boots, jumble-sales for as long as I can remember.  Not even becoming a kindle user has completely changed my habits and I still can’t resist the odd tree-book now and again (take Dead Harvest by Chris F Holm, for example, how could the electronic version do that cover justice?).

Now I have a couple of new syndromes. 

The first is called ‘Free Kindle Download Syndrome’.  I see a book I want or think I might want and press click as soon as I see it’s going for nothing (not even for a song!).

The second is ‘Giveaway Syndrome’ where I keep having the urge to give books away for nothing.

I have another title going for free today.  I’ve enrolled ‘With Love And Squalor’ again to the Select Programme and it can be downloaded for nothing over the next 3 days.


To be honest, I’m not even sure myself. 

In part, it’s down to the desire to be read by as many people as possible.  More downloads should equate to more readers even if only a fifth of them are actually opened.

Another part is the sheep mentality.  Everyone else is.

I’m also keen to sell books.  My fantasy is that at some point in the future I’ll be able to swap my hugely stressful and demanding  teaching job, a job that is killing me softly, for a part-time one that allows me space to write, the two complimenting each other so that I can make enough money for the roof, the food and all of those clubs.

The idea, give some or lots away for free, sell a few and maybe get some traction.

There’s nothing wrong with any of those things.

I do wish I could be more like Pablo D’Stair and his idea of just giving it all away for nothing for as much of the time as possible.   I admire his views and his writing.  Thing is, that leaves me in the ‘killing me softly’ job for eternity.

My worry about all of the free books thing is one that’s no doubt been aired all over by now.  If every book is free for a certain period of time, won’t people eventually stop paying for books?  It’s not stopped me yet, but if I manage to reign in my enthusiasm at some point surely the rational thing is to do that.  Stop buying.  Be canny.

I guess Amazon know what they’re doing from their side.

If a book has 20,000 giveaways and everyone raves about it, then the book will have to be bought in retrospect.   But won’t it be available for free to the Kindle Prime folk?  And won’t that persuade us all to join it eventually?

So, the big books will be borrowed and the best-selling authors will do fine.

And that leaves the less well-selling folk.  Maybe they’ll do OK, but not as well. 

Then others will fall by the wayside.

Isn’t that the way it’s always been.  Is this a speedy evolution back to some form of the status quo? 

There are differences, I know.  The status quo didn’t have the self-published before.  There might have been a more diverse platform in terms of where people shopped.  We had to move and mix in the world to buy our books and chat to people in the shops and find out what was going on in the book-world of their lives.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still embracing the e-book world and its possibilities, I just get nervous about it all from time to time.

If you’ve seen an analysis of this that makes sense, could you please drop in a link in the comments for me.  I really would like to find some informed opinions.

Have a good weekend.


  1. Nigel, I share everything you say. Your dream is my dream, and my goodness, I know what you mean about 'killing me softly' although some days it doesn't feel so soft.

    If anybody's going to make it then it will be you. xx

  2. I'm not keen on the free book thing, at all. I know it's early days for e-publishing and people are trying out different marketing techniques but I think it may well be a slippery slope.
    Music now is often sold cheaply or given away for free however a musician can get income from live performance as a pay off. What does the writer have as their pay off?
    Some mid-list authors say that giving away their previous older books for free for about a week has a (substantial) positive effect on sales but is it the same for new authors? That would be interesting to find out.

  3. Has the ability to borrow books FREE from the library for the last century or so (the exact same thing really) already killed book sales? No.

    And if the Kindle Lending Library were to persuade everyone to join... So what? I am paid for my "borrows" which are nothing but very SLIGHTLY discounted sales. And since Prime members are people who spend a lot of money on Amazon (or they wouldn't be Prime members since very few join for the free book once a month and most join for the free shipping) they are highly likely, if they like that one book, to go out and buy others because Prime members only get one book a month, and eBook readers tend to read a LOT more than that. I would be thrilled if I got a lot more borrows.

    As for never buying, I have no way to know for sure when or if the book I want NOW will be free. And guess what. A book under Ten Bucks is an IMPULSE BUY for most of us. I feel like reading tonight and, yeah, I may browse the free best sellers first. Guess what. There's usually not anything there I want or maybe I download one but I haven't spent any money and there's another there for only Three Bucks right next to it. Think I'll pick that one up, too.

    By definition, you don't put off or plan for an impulse buy any more than you do that candy bar on your way through the checkout line in the grocery store.

  4. I agree completely, Nigel. I still say, as I did in January, the indie eBook world has jumped the shark. For several years now the battle cry was, I'm building my brand so I can make money later. Well, when does later come if there are thousands of free books available and more being made free every day.

    You said: " If every book is free for a certain period of time, won’t people eventually stop paying for books?"

    Yep...that's exactly what's happened. Before Select I was selling 40-60 books per month. Since it started in mid-December, I've sold a total of 6 books. The flipside is that while I used to buy a lot of eBooks, I haven't bought one since Select began and in spite of being picky, I've downloaded at least a year's supply of books without spending a dime. This dynamic simply will not work for writers, though I guess in the short term it's great for readers.

    Cheers --- Larry

  5. Interesting points all.
    And it's not really killing me softly at all, you're right McDroll - there are regular hard knocks to be had.
    Keep in there, Larry. We'll see how it pans out.
    And JR, I get books from libraries for free and that's great - a principle worth fighting for if necessary. I don't think it's the same thing though, what's happening here. The philosophy of books for all (literacy for all being a different matter that's very close to my heart) seems different from what's happening here, something about cornering a market that seems less healthy. As far as I know, the libraries aren't in competition with anyone else.
    Also, though I'm happy to be an impulse buy, in my egotistical fantasy people will be downloading my books because it's what they were looking for (fantasy indeed).

  6. Comparing Amazon, with it's reach to the public library system is an unfair comparison. Firstly Amazon has a much larger audience than the library, secondly, the one click ease of downloading a book is an incentive, getting into your car and driving to the library is (unfortunately) not for most folks.

    Personally? I think Amazon was very successful in separating writers from publishers. Writers are almost completely throwing in with the one entity to the collapse of the other. It's deliberate on Amazon's part.

    They separated publishers from bookstores deliberately, much to the bookstores detriment.

    They are almost done separating writers from publishers to the publishers detriment.

    I am planning to use Amazon to sell some indie pubbed stuff, but do plan on sticking with publishers.

    I an VERY distrusting of the lending program. I believe writers will see money given out from it dry up really quickly, and yet their material still be used to sell the program.

    It's all a big ball of who the hell knows going on right now. You have to try to make your way while keeping an eye on the future. It can be crazy making.