I alluded to the implicit costs of "free" books in my last post ("The Value of Books"). I want to talk a little more about this topic.
"Free" books are free to everyone except the publisher. When you consider that one book given away can result in anywhere from 2 to 10 fewer sales with the help of Amazon marketplace and eBay, you can see the significant negative impact, from a publisher's perspective, of giving away books. Advance reader's copies do not have a bar code or a price on them specifically to prevent them from being sold through retail outlets, but that doesn't stop them from getting sold.
I'm talking about monetary/bottom-line effects here, but there's a psychic cost as well. In our society, it's tough to really put any value on something you get for free. Think about those cheap calculators and pens that you get from local businesses or banks. Do they really mean anything to you? Of course not. They're stupid pieces of plastic that have no intrinsic value, and you perceive them as such.
So what sort of signal does it send when writers and publishers give away copies of their books? It sends a message to consumers that books really aren't worth much, which has led to the situation in which we find ourselves--the high costs of publishing significantly counterbalanced by the low price consumers pay for our product.
And this is where editors and writers sometimes find themselves at odds. Writers usually have two goals: (1) to make money from their writing (though, as I've said before, that's a very unrealistic expectation in fiction markets, especially for newly published writers), and (2) to get people reading their work.
Let's take these in order.
(1) Of course no one is going to bring in any revenue by giving books to people. By giving away your books to people who might otherwise buy them, publishers are denied the revenue they need to keep operating. And you are deprived of royalties.
(2) Plenty of writers don't care about making money -- they just want a devoted readership. They think the way to develop this is to give away a lot of copies of their early efforts, sometimes at their own expense. It's true that this has worked for particularly savvy, hardworking writers who live on Listservs and the Internet, constantly pushing their own work. But they've usually gotten these books free, or at cost, from their publishers--which leads us to the problems I outlined above. If writers want publishers to stay in business, and their editors to stay in their jobs, they would be wise to consider alternate methods of building their readership.
Some would argue that I am being too "short-term focused" in my need to bring in revenue. But I can't think beyond the short term when vendors have to be paid, the distributor has to get its pound (or ton) of flesh, and it's time to pay royalties.
If I had my way, publishers would destroy all their obsolete inventory instead of basically giving it away to remainder houses. Then you wouldn't see cheapie books all over the place and consumers would better understand the value of purchasing a book.