Free is the new Free – NOT

Yesterday I got an email from Amazon (, telling me how wonderful it was for authors, publishers and readers to buy books for less money.

I assume that you, good reader, want to get excellent and well-written books that you enjoy.

Amazon’s logic was this: books aren’t competing with other books, they’re competing with all “media”. And because every other media costs little or nothing, then ebooks ought to cost little or nothing. Amazon also theorized that an ebook that cost $9.99 would sell 1.7 times more copies than an ebook that cost $12.99. Therefore, everyone involved would make more money.

What Amazon didn’t mention was that Amazon gets 30 or 70% (depending on which deal you sign) on every ebook sale. So it doesn’t matter to Amazon whether you spend $100 on 10 ebooks or 8 ebooks. Amazon wins.

In the old days, publishers paid a pittance in royalties. In exchange they made sure books were proofread, laid out, printed, distributed, and (hopefully) publicized. Now authors like myself are expected to do all that work — which we stink at. Publicity especially is an insane thing for an author to try and do with her child. We’re told to develop social media profiles and tweet. (Aside: How many books have you purchased as a result of Facebook? Twitter? Why or why not?

The Value of Free

For years “experts” have told me that by giving away something of my work, I’d get publicity and sales. I haven’t seen this. Ever. For more than a decade, I’ve been sending email newsletters to friends and fans. The “sales” that have resulted from these emails is close to zero.

I’ve loved sending out stories (most of the time) and articles and essays (all the time). But I did have a hope that people would then buy books or audio or contribute to a campaign. Yes, many of you have, and for that I thank you. And no, I’m not trying to be critical or chiding of you. I’m simply noting that of the hundred thousand emails (more actually over a decade), the whole click-through and sale thing has been a bust.

We consumers spend our money on things that have no value. (bear with me on this.) We buy phones that cost hundreds of dollars and spend hundreds of dollars a month on service. The phones are throw-away and obsolete within 4 years — or less. We buy huge screens and invest another $100-$200 in home internet and television. We pay Netflix and Spotify and Pandora and Amazon Prime to stream stuff to these media centers. Now there are services that let you stream unlimited ebooks for $10 a month. Whooeee.

And at the end of the day, when all that money is spent, what do we own? Hardware that they’re already trying to make useless.

Old days: when you bought a book, you’d own it and keep it. Maybe you’d read it once. Maybe you’d read it again and again. You’d wander through a store, looking for other titles by the same author. Maybe you’d sell it to a used bookstore.

Old days: You’d buy a record or a CD. You’d own it and keep it. Listen to it again and again. Develop a deep relationship to the music and its creator.

Those days are gone, I know. We burn CDs to files and then trash them — if we buy them at all. Now you donate books in a bin at the library and they resell it for a few pennies.

And everything is always available from Amazon. And Amazon profits — or it will as soon as it drives everyone else out of business.

Bookstores are empty shells. Record stores are gone. What’s lost besides the local jobs and visceral connections with those things? The ability to scan through a thousand possible books or CDs in a few minutes. The PLEASURABLE experience.

I hate looking for books or audio online. BORING. And manipulative. You only see what Amazon wants you to see. For example, Amazon’s new unlimited ebook “service” only allows people like me to participate if that book is exclusively available on Amazon. No iBook or Kobo readers allowed.

Worst of all, after 2 minutes of searching I get bored and go to Facebook. Remember spending an hour in a book or record store? That was happy time, even if you only spent $15.

While much of this essay sounds like an old fart rant — and it may be, I want to point to a conversation I had with my 18 year old son, Max. Max uses and loves Spotify. He thinks that books in stores are too expensive. $15 is a lot of money. He’d rather buy it online for less. (Search for my first book, “Crumbs Don’t Count, the Rationalization Diet” and you’ll find it on Amazon for $.01) He will buy a poetry book or a CD at a show for $15 and think it well spent because it’s going to the artist directly.

Getting back to my initial assumption that readers want good books, my question to you is this: given the current model proposed by Amazon and as used by my son, how will authors and musicians and other artists develop and produce work over time?

One theory I’ve heard are that you only need 1,000 dedicated fans to make a career. It would be nice to think that, but those 1,000 fans have to each spend $100 a year for you to make $35,000 income. (Amazon takes 30-70%, plus there are those things like costs…)

Another is that artists make money touring. I know that I make most of my revenue from performances. Which is lovely and I enjoy it. But that’s a lot of time spent booking and planning and traveling, not writing and creating.

Years ago a theater teacher told me, “No one asked you to become a playwright.”

Yep. That’s true. But I think that our society wants some of us to be playwrights and some to be writers and some to be musicians. I hope not just the ones who are “discovered” on America’s Got Talent.

I’ve about run out of steam on this rant.

I’ve got some ideas percolating, but I’m interested in hearing your reactions. What do you buy and value? What do you spend money on and wish you didn’t? Is there a way to support “the arts” that doesn’t come from creators asking you to buy stuff?

Most of all, what would you like to read from me? What would you enjoy — and support? I’ve always been highly motivated by the feedback that I get from my readers. Tell me what you’d like.

Thanks for reading this far.

Have an awesome week.
– Mark