Are free ebooks harming the literary landscape?
With the advent of electronic books comes a virtual flood (pun intended) of digital books. In the few short years since the invention of ebooks and the ease of self publishing, the Amazon market has been inundated with a host of books offered at little or no cost to the reading public. At first this vast selection of free reads might seem like a marvelous turn of events, and for many readers it is just that, but free books could deliver a fatal blow to authors and eventually the reading public in the years to come.
The up side to the digital revolution is that literary agents no longer control the flow of information. For decades now high brow Manhattan agents – think of them as a kind of incestuous blue blooded aristocratic family – have turned their noses up at anything that hints of popular fiction. They represent genre fiction grudgingly and only because they know that authors like Jim Butcher, Stephen King and Larry Correia sell millions of copies to the unwashed, easily entertained masses. (This brings up an interesting side note: agents’ well known disdain for genre fiction is probably why a large portion of the self published books on Amazon are scifi and fantasy. But I digress ) Agents all but slam the door on conservative voices. With self publishing, hopeful authors no longer need to kowtow to agents.
But self publishing, for all its good points, has no oversight. Anyone can publish anything they damn well please. It’s the wild west. When Agents and Publishing houses still held court, they made certain that every book passed under the careful nose of editors before the book was committed to print. Now any yahoo with a laptop and an internet connection can pound out a story and hit submit. Because it doesn’t cost anything to produce, the author can offer it for free. The end result is a sea of self-published ebooks that are rife with spelling errors, grammar mistakes and typos. Any ardent reader will agree that even the best of stories can be ruined by poor editorial standards. Nothing is worse than humming along in a story, really enjoying it, and then whamo! You get hit right between the eyes with a missing word or typo. You are jolted right out of the story space. The magic is gone. Too many errors forcibly remind you that you are reading a book and this isn’t real.
The deluge of free books might also devalue books as a whole in the mind of readers. With literally thousands of free selections, people never need spend another dime on reading material. Offer any service free over a long enough period of time and people will begin to expect that it should always be free. After all, why pay for a book when there are so many to choose from for free. Sure, the free ones aren’t as good, but they are free! Any business will tell you; no one wins in a price war. Not even the consumer. They might be getting a product at no cost, but the quality of the product will take a nose dive.
Which brings up another interesting point; when books no longer cost money, authors no longer make money. Which means the Jim Butchers, Larry Correias and Stephen Kings will go get jobs doing something that puts bread on the table and gas in their cars. Free ebooks have the ability to drive away all the talent and leave the field populated by crazy cat ladies writing stories about Mr. Mittens and malcontent teenagers scribbling nihilist dreams. Fun stuff.
While that last bit might be a worse case scenario, the sheer number of new voices in fiction certainly makes it harder for any one voice to stand out from the crowd. With so many people all offering the same product, and for free no less, marketing a book is harder than ever. Talented authors don’t just have to prove that their book is worth reading, they have to convince customers to plunk down their hard earned money when they could download any number of free books instead.
In the end, while I believe that free ebooks have a negative sum effect on the market, I believe that effect won’t last. If there is one thing I know as an author, it is that the reading public is a lot more intelligent than Manhattan agents give them credit for. While readers might be temporarily dazzled by a market place full of freebies, they will begin to recognize that they are feeding on scraps when they could be feasting on more appetizing fiction produced by writers with enough faith in their abilities to actually charge.