Monday, January 11, 2010
Who is the Gatekeeper
And is there a Key Master? (For those who don't recognize the reference, check out Ghostbusters. Of course, if marshmallow men give you nightmares, you will want to avoid the Stay Puft marshamallow man who comes to destroy the earth at Gozer's bidding. ;-p )
No, I'm not going to review the movie, although I may go watch it again later today. The original question actually comes from some earlier discussions we've had here as well as an interesting discussion on the Kindle boards at Amazon.com earlier this week. Someone asked if readers' expectations on books are being lowered because of the influx of free books available online. They weren't referring to all the books available through Project Gutenburg. Instead, they meant all the "new" books available for free either through Amazon, Smashwords, and a myriad of other online resources, including author websites. The basic question boiled down to, is the e-reading public more concerned with lower cost, or no cost, for a book than it is in quality of craft?
As of this morning, there are 57 books (assuming I counted correctly) of the top 100 best sellers in the Kindle store that are free. Of those, 33 are from Project Gutenberg or similar sites. The majority of the rest come from either major publishing houses, such as Harlequin or Random House, or small press houses. Only one jumps to mind as a true self-published and that simply because the author has been very active on the Amazon boards promoting her book. A quick check of the Sony e-bookstore reveals that they list their top downloads a little differently from Amazon. Their bestsellers are books that have a sales price on them and doesn't include free downloads. However, when you navigate through their links -- not quite as easily done as at Amazon, imo -- you will see they have basically the same free books available as does Amazon. My hunch is, if you compiled downloads for free and not free books, the results would be very similar to Amazon's numbers.
The consensus seemed to be that most of those downloading the free or almost free books may have initially done so because of the low cost, but they were just as quick to delete the book from their kindle or other device if the book didn't entertain them. Moreover, many of the responders said that they only downloaded the book if the description appealed to them. So, while the majority of those responding admitted they looked at the book's description because it was free -- or next to it -- they didn't necessarily download it for that reason.
Which led me to think about what I've downloaded since getting my Kindle in September. I currently have 180, give or take, books on my Kindle. Of those, three are current works in progress that I'm revising. Two are books I've purchased from Fictionwise. There are half a dozen I've bought from Amazon. There are three I've purchased from webscriptions (for those not familiar with it, this is where you go to get your e-books from Baen). There are a dozen or so I've pulled from author websites for free. I also have two dozen books from Project Gutenberg. That's roughly 50 books, if my math is correct -- not guaranteed this early in the morning. So, what about the rest?
The rest are freebies either from Amazon or from Baen. From Amazon, I've downloaded approximately 50 free books. Of these, there are 40 on my Kindle right now. Three of the Amazon downloads have been permanently deleted from my library because they were either so bad, imo, that I couldn't get past the first couple of pages or they were attempts by the publisher to hook the readers into buying a book by giving us a sample instead of the entire book as originally advertised. Of those remaining, they run the gambit from romantic suspense to sf/f to non-fic white papers. And all of them are from reputable publishers, some major houses and some small press. The remainder of the books on my Kindle are from Baen -- some I've purchased prior to getting an e-reader, some from the CDs Baen occasionally puts into its books.
Back to the question: has access to free books, many of them "self-published" and listed on Amazon and other e-book sites without having gone through a traditional editorial review lowered my standards on what I expect from a book? In a word, no. I still want books that are well-written, well-edited, and with a decent format. (Something a lot of self-published e-books lack.) I want the story to entertain me if it's fiction, even if the plot is uncomfortable. There has to be a reason for me to turn the page, even if all I do is hit a button. For non-fiction, I want a book that is well-researched, well-reasoned and not the same old tired schtick I've read for the last umpteen years.
Am I more likely to look at the description of a book because it's free or relatively inexpensive? Sure. I'm human. But I do read the description. And look to see if there are any editorial reviews. And check to see who published it and if the author has any other books available. Most of all, I'm not afraid to hit the delete button and to later remove the book from the archive if I didn't like it.
What has happened is that these free books offered through Amazon and other sources have broadened my scope of authors I read. There are a few publishers out there who aren't completely clueless. They offer the first book in a series for free a month or so before the latest in the series comes out. Guess what, it increases the sales not only of the new book but of the other books in the series. It has also taught me not to hesitate if there is a free offering that sounds good because these same publishers can turn around and be absolutely clueless -- offering the freebie for less than a day. While that might get word of mouth going, it isn't necessarily the sort of PR you want. Instead of readers talking about how good the book is, they're dissing because the book was available for such a short period.
But there's been another side effect from downloading free or relatively inexpensive e-books. My purchases of dead tree books has also increased. There are books I've read that I want physical copies of. True, most have been from Baen, but there have been some from Amazon as well. Also, while some of the books I've downloaded haven't exactly been my cup of tea, they have been exactly what my mother or someone else I know would like and I've bought physical copies for them. So while the publisher might have gotten nothing from me for the e-book, they made a dead tree version sale...that's money in their pocket.
In answer to my original question -- Who is the gatekeeper? -- I am. And you are. Every reader is the ultimate gatekeeper with regards to both e-books and dead tree versions. Publishers might be the key master, but right now too many of them are having trouble finding the door their keys fit. That leaves it up to us to decide what we like and don't like and what standards of professionalism we're going to demand in our books.
Have you noticed any changes in your book purchasing habits? Do you buy and read e-books? How about downloading free e-books? What do you require from a book and how do you choose what book to get? And who do you think is the ultimate gatekeeper? Inquiring minds want to know.