Between Free and Responsible
Let me start by saying, I’ve got nothing against free books. Obviously, I understand that publishers and authors need recompense in the first case for the physical costs and in the second case for the creative endeavour and input of time. However, the idea of commodifying creativity and especially its centrality in the free market economy, seems, to me, to run counter to what we actually want to achieve with reading (and culture).
So – for example the Book Depository tried to tempt me in with Booksale – up to 50% off last month (though when I looked for Jack’s Barrie book as I was then if you recall, it was a cool £69) I decided not to spend any more time browsing for a ‘bargain’! It’s so so so easy to find cheap books. Everyone is trying to tempt you. But why pay? You can get all the books you could ever read for free. Enter Amazon Free lists. You can get books of all kinds on there, though often they are the province of the indie struggling for visibility.
I say again. I’m not against free books. I’m against being ‘sold’ free books by large corporations who see books primarily as product to be shifted.
That’s the capitalist view of culture. And, I’m afraid, it’s the world we live in.
What price free is an incredibly thorny issue and far too complex a topic to get into one post, so I’m not even going to try. What I am going to look at this month is the consequences of free culture – books specifically – and that mean ebooks specifically. No one gives out totally free print books. Actually that’s almost not true. You can quite easily pick up second hand books online for 1p plus post and packing (usually around £2.80) That’s as close to free as you can imagine.
We’ve been trained to see new and second hand as conceptually different. This is odd because the content is the same (and isn’t it the content that is important?)
Likewise we’re being trained to see Ebooks and paper books as different animals. There is a right royal battle going on between those who put out ebooks for free (because, let’s face it the costs of production are minimal) and those who place a ‘market’ value on the content which can sometimes see you pay more for an ebook version of a text than a paper one. But don’t be fooled for a moment. This is not about culture it’s all about profit.
The arguments for and against price in any and all of these negotiations are different and put together become ridiculously complex. Isn’t this part of the plan. Make things so difficult for people to reason out that they stop bothering and just follow the bouncing ball of hype/market/FREE IN YOUR FACE style purchasing.
Ebooks come in many quantum flavours. Essentially these are: new ‘indie’ or ‘self’ published, new ‘mainstream’ or ‘traditional’ published and re-versioned texts. The rules as they apply today seem to be that no value is (or should be) placed on ‘indie’ or ‘self’ published books. Authors of these works are expected to put them out for free – because they don’t have a ‘name’ that people will buy. They are further encouraged (and expected) to try to ‘develop’ (and that means ‘buy’) their own brand. To sell books you need visibility. You get visibility primarily through buying it. The alternative is to make loads of ‘friends’ and get a ‘fan base’ but this includes expenditure of both time and money. The cards are very heavily stacked against the actual cultural or creative element of the ‘indie’ world. It’s not really any different from music. Who pays for music any more? And what do you think about that?
The difference is that people do still listen to music, (though I’m no expert on what music is actually being listened to) whereas evidence suggests that many of those who download ‘free’ ebooks don’t even bother to read them. It’s more about acquisition, impulse, a sense of ‘ownership’ and the ability to ‘cheat’ a system – though it’s not the system that’s being cheated it’s the author who is being exploited by being forced to ‘give it away’.
A lot of public domain books are also available as ebooks and that’s largely a good thing. Except when the quality of the production is so low as to make the work unreadable. That happens rather too often. Never mind the creative content itself, if the form it’s delivered in is unreadable, that’s disrespectful to both writer and reader.
The above instances seem to suggest that our current cultural system places no value in the creative work itself. It’s a world of brands and product. It’s the ultimate pay to play version of culture. And most people seem quite happy with that. Perhaps it’s time to think about it? When questioned, a lot of people employ the ‘only a soldier following orders’ line of reasoning – it’s out there free, why not take advantage of the offer? Yes, indeed. But who are you taking advantage of? Not Amazon or the online retailers. You are taking advantage of the generosity (or desperation) of another human being. Even if they are offering the ‘gift’ in good faith. To get away from capitalist cultural perspectives one might suggest a rebirth of reciprocity. Picture the scene:
You download a free ebook. Intellectually of course you know its value is more than zero. Someone has put time and effort into this beyond the click it’s taken you to download. Responsibility one – READ IT.
You could even take responsibility earlier than this: Don’t download if you’re not going to read it. Just say no. Why not do some research and work out if you think you will like it first. We seem to think that the digital world doesn’t have ‘waste’ but it does. It’s just a lot more subtle. And it’s all tied up with keeping us like rats in a cage clicking the ‘pleasure’ button.
If you want to be a ‘risk-taker’ then do at least accept that you need to read responsibly. And take responsibility for your risk taking activity. This is someone’s creativity you’re holding in your hands for free. A real, living human being who is trying to communicate with YOU. So do them the courtesy of reading the book. And then leave a review if you’ve enjoyed it.
Should you leave a review if you didn’t enjoy it? Yes, if you feel you have something more significant to say than ‘I picked the wrong book here. I didn’t ‘get’ it and I’m pissed off that I wasted my time so I’m going to blame the author rather than accept that maybe I shouldn’t have grabbed the free bargain simply because it was there.’
But if you did enjoy it, and you got it for free, you really should feel a responsibility to pay it forward. Not just clicking LIKE but actually engaging like a real live human being. Telling other people about it. Giving them a reason to read it. Sharing. Not with one eye on the ‘what will everyone think about me?’ Do not ask yourself the question ‘Am I saying the right/cool/acceptable thing about this or will everyone shun me?’
Remind yourself that you have the power of turning the invisible into the visible –as widely as you can be bothered. You have the same power, by investment of your time and creative engagement, as those who are paid to ‘sell’ things. You are not selling, you are telling. You are not trying to part people from their money for profit, you are engaged in a resistance movement to reclaim cultural creativity for the masses. If you don’t then many voices are silenced. When everyone abdicates responsibility for creating and sharing culture and creativity we get the culture we deserve. Look around you. Are you happy with the way we are offered and consume culture and creativity today? Yes. Fine. No, do something about it.
So much for ebooks. What about paper? There is the obvious cost of production involved in the paper and ink for producing new (or new editions of old) books. However, it is possible to get books for free from libraries, or next to nothing paying only postage. This is in many ways a ‘green’ thing to do. And green is good. Part of me thinks we should have an entire moratorium on cultural production (another part of me thinks we should have a moratorium on human production – births) for a decade or so. I’m not sure how much would be lost if we did this. There are more films, books, songs in the world floating around than anyone could ever even scrape the tip of in a whole lifetime dedicated to consuming cultural offerings. It’s truly a tower of babel.
There are two arguments against such a moratorium. The first is a capitalist one. The ‘creative’ economy is so important – a beast of a machine that keeps on churning out consumer product just to keep itself alive. I don’t like that argument. The other argument is ‘it’s wrong to stifle creativity.’ Yes it is. But the model of cultural creation we have at the moment IS stifling creativity of the many in favour of the creativity of the few for the goal of profit.
So what I’m really suggesting is a moratorium on the monetisation of creativity. People want to write. It’s less obvious these days that people want to read. For people who want to write as a mode of communication (rather than, deludedly as a ‘get rich quick’ scheme) these people can, should and most probably will keep writing whether they are being paid or not. We need to get away from the thought that a ‘professional’ writer deserves to be paid. Step away from the capitalist model. I pause here before I head off into a far too long exegesis of what might replace this model. I am trying to stick to the consequences of where we are rather than explore the ‘options for change’ though this is a necessary but difficult conversation.
Removing the financial imperative from the whole writing/reading experience (and reminding ourselves it’s an experience rather than a ‘transaction’ is what I’m talking about. Where someone is trying to ‘sell’ themselves or their ideas via a market driven capitalist business model, you can do as you like. Pay what you will. There are plenty of people making a buck out of the process and you’re keeping loads of people in work – but remember it’s always the folk at the top who benefit the most. Where someone is trying to communicate with you, to share their thoughts, emotions and beliefs, that’s a different matter. For a varied, diverse and vibrant culture of creativity we need to treat people with respect (both writers and readers) rather than as parts of a financial transaction. I feel I’m starting to repeat myself. I should stop. I simply find it so hard to understand why people either don’t see this, or are indifferent to it.
We are all able to take advantage of (and responsibility for) employing a mixed economy attitude towards our cultural consumption (not just for books but for everything). In the context of books I suggest that you take advantage of libraries for the free books they contain. Likewise, seek out public domain works for free (but pay attention to whether they have just been cheaply scanned or actually have some ‘additional value’ such as a modern commentary that makes them worth paying for.) But where you are engaging with a living author, especially if they are not the ‘brand’ or ‘product’ of a large publishing conglomorate, it’s a good idea to act responsibly. Not all authors make themselves into ‘brands’ (some would like to but can’t, others find it an offensive concept) and those who take the path less travelled need all the help they can get.
Codicil on Copyright. It’s another big and thorny issue. At the basic level copyright is important for living authors not least because stealing copyright from another living person is effectively stealing their labour. For dead people the situation is slightly different. Copyright as a ‘legacy’ is a double edged sword. Royalties can help relatives and death is certainly a good thing for publishers these days (it wasn’t always the case) but the downside is that those outside the mainstream financial model are effectively silenced for 70 years. That means that we are all deprived of access to diverse voices and alternative opinions whereas we could benefit from free and unfettered access. These are the sorts of works that should be available free. There are movements and groups seeking to challenge public domain issues. There are those (especially the academic fraternity) who want to hide things behind paywalls and in doing so they act as the gatekeeper to our culture. Are you happy with that? If not, do something about it.
To find past articles please use monthly archives.