Thursday, January 15, 2009

Stupid Gits and Free Stuff

I posted a question about e-books to a mailing list I belong to because I wanted to get opinions about the possibility of releasing the books my company publishes in e-book form. I got a few responses – all interesting – and a couple of the responders mentioned free e-books.

Hmmmm.

I like free stuff and I've downloaded a few free e-books myself. There are tons of classics available. There certainly lots of other things available as well, although I'm not as keen to bother myself with them unless they're part of a promotion by a well-known publisher. That's not me being a snob; that's just me being practical. I get submissions all the time, most of which haven't seen the pen of an editor, and the hours of my life simply aren't worth the time it takes to wade through unedited books. And that's the reality of e-books: anyone can make a PDF file and call it an e-book. No editor required.

It's fine if the crappy stuff is free, but everyone seems to want the good stuff to be free too. I understand the desire; I think it would be great. But how do we reconcile the fact that without payment there is no incentive, and no mechanism to produce the good stuff? It won't be there if people don't pay at least a small amount for it.

Just this morning I was telling someone about my favorite tee-shirt. It's this hideous ratty old thing that's more than twenty years old. I treat it with only the kindest of handling, however, to preserve its life because it is one of the most valuable things in my closet. If forced to choose, I would sacrifice my St. John suit, or a Marc Jacobs dress before I would give up my old grey tee-shirt. Not because it has fond memories attached (although it does) or anything so sentimental, but because it's supremely wonderful to wear. Why? Because it was manufactured in an American factory using American grown cotton. My love for it isn't from national pride; it's because the quality doesn't exist any more. I would be willing to pay 10 times the price of a normal tee-shirt to get one like it, but they're not to be had (and I've looked). We don't make tee-shirts like that any more.

Every time I hear about new ways to nickel and dime publishers and authors (and any other producers of a product I value), I think about that tee-shirt and how I would feel if the thing that I cared about were no longer available. Sure; there would be other things that were almost as good, and there would be huge numbers of people ready to insist these new things were improvements over the old ones. But I'm pretty sure that I would be able to tell the difference.

When I first became aware that excellent tee-shirts had gone the way of the dinosaur, I began to search for them, thinking maybe I could find a remaining source and buy up enough to last for a while (like, the rest of my life?), but alas, I was a stupid git; I had left it too late. I simply cannot bear to do that with books – if I had to give up everything else, I would still need books.

There has to be a way to reconcile this. I don't know what it is, but there has to be a way.

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