How Do Publishers and Authors Get Paid in a "Free" World?

Author Tracy Chevalier’s recent comments capture the mixture of fear and opportunity hovering over the book world.

From Times Online:

Ms Chevalier told The Times that the century-old model by which authors are paid — a mixture of cash advances and royalties — was finished. “It is a dam that’s cracking,” she said. “We are trying to plug the holes with legislation and litigation but we need to think radically. We have to evolve and create a very different pay system, possibly by making the content available free to all and finding a way to get paid separately.” (Emphasis added.)

Chevalier touches on the essence of the “free” issue: How do authors and publishers survive when their work is given away (or taken)? Or, more bluntly, how does anyone get paid?

The best answers I’ve found are in Kevin Kelly’s essay “Better than Free.” Kelly discusses eight generatives that inspire consumers to pay for material or services they could otherwise get for free. The essay takes a broad view, but each of Kelly’s generatives has a connection to the book publishing industry.

Immediacy: If an author or publisher has a loyal audience, readers will pay for early access to upcoming books, chapters and ideas. Moreover, Kelly says publishers have already tackled immediacy with hardcover editions: “Hardcover books command a premium for their immediacy, disguised as a harder cover.”

Personalization: A free generic book might serve the majority of a readership, but there’s a small percentage who want the benefits of customization, both in physical qualities (binding, paper stock, fonts) and content (editions, additional chapters, related material). Kelly’s suggestion: “The free copy of a book can be custom edited by the publishers to reflect your own previous reading background.”

Interpretation: Customers will pay for guidance, meaning and, if they’re in a rush, shortcuts. In this generative, authors could also expand and customize ideas on a consultant basis.

Authenticity: Knock-offs and pirated copies have opened the door for “book insurance.” A customer searching for a definitive, authentic copy will pay for peace of mind.

Accessibility: The idea of physical ownership isn’t likely to fade — we all love our stuff — but a fee-based digital archive offers a variety of benefits: shelf space can be reserved for the most used/needed/loved books; material can be accessed anywhere; and if disaster strikes, a library can be re-created.

Embodiment: There’s value in sensory experiences, particularly those that can’t be copied or contained in a digital environment. “PDFs are fine,” Kelly notes, “but sometimes it is delicious to have the same words printed on bright white cottony paper, bound in leather.” The experience of author readings, speeches and events can also demand a premium. Serving coffee doesn’t hurt, either.

Patronage: A small subset of readers will “tip” authors if the process is simple and there’s a guarantee the writer will receive those funds. Authors shouldn’t rely on goodwill as a primary revenue stream — unless there’s a lot of goodwill — but it’s certainly a possibility.

Findability: Author Leander Kahney and his publisher, Bill Pollock of No Starch Press, recently posted to BitTorrent free digital copies of Kahney’s books, The Cult of Mac and The Cult of iPod. Pollock summed up the move on his blog: “I think there’s something to this and logic tells me that if we increase the visibility of our titles, we’ll sell more books.”

This is just the beginning of a much larger conversation, so please share your ideas in the comments area. Do you see opportunity in a free system?

(Via TechCrunch and Peter Brantley’s read20 listserv.)

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