O’Reilly sums it up the theory behind the movement in his important essay “Piracy is Progressive Taxation, and Other Thoughts on the Evolution of Online Distribution“: Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.
The movement has led an increasing number of authors, including Neil Gaiman and last week’s guest blogger MJ Rose, to offer some of their content for free, whether it’s a free preview or just outright free. In her article in the Huffington Post explaining her decision to offer advance copies of THE REINCARNATIONIST for free, MJ writes: “It’s because trying something for free is the best way of discovering it.”
The most prominent media experiment in free was conducted by Radiohead, who let listeners pay what they wanted to download “In Rainbows.” HarperStudio’s blog noted that they made more money from the preview than they did on their last album.
So what do you make of all this? Does free work? And is it for everyone or for the already-famous and successful, who have other revenue streams? Can authors use free to build their audience?
To be sure, free or almost free has been around for a long time in the publishing industry in the form of used bookstores and libraries. I know a few authors who cringe every time a fan tells them they can’t wait to borrow their next book from the library — if everyone did that, of course, the author would get next to zero royalties.
Should authors be worried as piracy, used books, and free downloads proliferate as the book industry moves electronic? Or should they embrace the free?