Late last year Steven Poole embarked upon an experiment in giving away one of his books—an eight-year-old non-fiction title in an exceptionally fast-changing genre—as a .pdf without digital rights management (DRM). After 30,000 downloads he’s decidedly unimpressed with free as a business model. Poole added a free-will donation button below the download and 0.057% of those who downloaded the book made a donation.
As a once-upon-a-time, full-time, professional writer I explored every business model of which I could conceive, including free (Information Eclipse was available in its entirety on this website within a month of its print publication date; free didn’t work for me, either). I’ve written international bestsellers as well as a few dogs that didn’t earn back their advances. I’m still writing—albeit much less—but I’m biding my time with gainful employment until someone stumbles upon a sustainable publishing business model before I take a crack at another book. Since I’m not writing as much, I’m not buying as many books (part of that’s because I got spoiled at Utne Reader with the freebies). Importantly, I’m reading as much as ever, it’s just that the sources are changing. I’m certain I’m not an outlier in this. That can’t be good for book publishing.
Poole accurately states the problem:
“If the breathless advocates of ‘the free distribution of ideas’ are serious, they need either a) to come up with a realistic proposal as to how I am to keep feeding myself while giving the fruits of my labours away for free; or b) come out and say honestly that they don’t think any such thing as a ‘professional writer’ ought to exist, and that I should just get a job like anyone else. In a way, I’d respect people who came out and said the second thing. What I don’t respect is people who can’t see that those are the choices.”
His entire screed is worth a read if only for the clear-headed statement of the problem and some of the more well-reasoned and insightful comments.