Friday, April 15, 2011

Libraries: How the Ancient Tree-Killers did Free

Free-form Friday

The prophets of the digital millennium, a utopia of always-on, uber-connected, instant gratification, cry from their virtual street corners that free is the way to attract eyeballs.

The thing is, we stodgy old authors have been there and done that.

With all the talk of boldly going into an infinitive-splitting future, I haven't seen anyone point out that there are hoary institutions, built on the carcasses of dead, ink-smeared trees, that have been providing free content for a long, long time (nearly 10,000 years ago in Internet time): they're called libraries.

I will grant that going to a library isn't as convenient as clicking a link in your browser, but if you were willing to expend a little effort it has been possible for readers to sample an author with no direct cost for almost a century.

The true disciples will doubtless point out that you had to 1) get a book published, and 2) get it in the library, so you weren't free to make your work freely available even if the library was free.

Clearly it is easier now to put your work out where people can get it if they want. We have gone through an inflection point where the content problem has shifted from scarcity to abundance.

None of that changes the lesson of the libraries: free doesn't guarantee an audience. Yes, you might decide you like an author well enough to go buy their books. But you might also decided you're never going to buy an author's books

So what is the answer for those who produce long-form fiction in the new eWorld?

I don't know. But as we try all the things there are to try in the new content world, fraught as it is with possibilities and pitfalls, can we please move on from simplistic answers like make it free?

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

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