Just found an interesting post on that whole e-books issue (via The Book Is Dead). Steven Poole, British author and journalist, recently conducted a little experiment. He released an e-copy of his book, Trigger Happy, which was published in 2000. Punters could download it free, and there was a button for an optional PayPal contribution. His site registered 30,000 downloads, he gained a lot of publicity, but only 1 in 1,750 people paid him any money.
The verdict seems to be that putting up a free product with optional payment isn’t going to make you any money (unless you’re Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails, and you have squillions of fans and enough money to live on regardless of how the latest digitally-released album does). JK Rowling might be able to get away with it, and so could any other writer who has a day job with which to support themself. But a professional writer who needs the royalty money to pay the rent can’t afford to post their book online.
And why should they? The expectation that writers should give their work away for free has been floating around a bit lately, with various copyright wrangles, and different authors releasing free e-books and making all the other writers look cheap when they say "But I wanted a royalty check this month…" I find the concept pretty annoying. Writing a book is hard work, it takes ages, and yes, there’s a lot of rubbish out there, but shouldn’t good work get paid? Writers get diddly under the current publishing model as it is, and like someone in Steven Poole’s comments says, I think we need to be very careful about setting up a new model that incoporates an expectation of free stuff, cause writers are the ones who are going to suffer from it.
Having said that, I do like the try-before-you-buy concept, with downloadable excerpts and stuff like that (as mentioned in this previous post). Just not the whole book.
Steven Poole also has a good later post on that all-important quality control issue, comparing the different production processes of books, articles and blog posts, and outlining the general problem with instant web publishing.