Will free e-books kill the book industry or save it?

Much ado is being made about the best-selling books on Amazon being skewed by the prevalence of free books.

By my count on the top 100 Kindle books on Amazon, 59 books are either free or cost a cent. Only three books in the top ten cost more than a quarter. And the book publishing industry is not pleased. Interesting, though, is the contrast between how the book industry feels about the free books versus authors. Industry flak says:

“At a time when we are resisting the $9.99 price of e-books,” said David Young, chief executive of Hachette Book Group, the publisher of James Patterson and Stephenie Meyer, “it is illogical to give books away for free.”

Indeed, said Brian Murray, chief executive of HarperCollins, “free is not a business model.”

But dude- now it totally is, actually. And again, industry tries to control the market instead of going with the fast-moving stream to their peril. As a kid, I was an avid consumer of books (as well as Ring Dings.) I burned through at least three a day on weekends, sometimes one and a half under my desk away from Sister Anthony Therese’s gaze, at the risk of being whacked with a ruler. But when the internet came along, I stopped reading books. As long as content was in my eyes, I could give a frick if it was on a blog or in a book. All the better that I didn’t have to put on clothes or go out in the sun to get books from the bookstore or library. Books vs. internet, internet wins.

Now the publishing industry is being handed a golden opportunity in the form of e-books and all they can do is whine that it’s not good enough. Even though it’s been like ten years since Napster came along and people quit buying music the old fashioned way- and in fairness, that one kind of slapped the industry in the face- book publishers refuse to accept the the market has changed and won’t go back to suit them. The authors, who wisely point out that without the chance to hook readers in with a freebie, they’d be buried under a thousand million copies of RPattz’s face seem to get it:

Charlie Huston, the author of the Henry Thompson crime trilogy and a series of books about Joe Pitt, a vampire detective, said that “the part of me that grew up in a union household” still feels as if he were occasionally undermining himself by sanctioning digital giveaways by his publisher, Random House.

But, he said, “I guess my attitude right now is that I can be afraid of what’s coming or I can try and aggressively embrace it in some form.”

Going back to my random sample of one, in the ten years before I got my Amazon kindle iPhone app, I bought a handful of books. Maybe three. I’d already given up my reading attention to the internet, where I could read high quality things that never ran out of pages. Actually, I lied. After being pulled into a fascination with True Blood, I bought a discounted set of the Sookie Stackhouse books. The key here: content drew me in. Then I got an iPhone.

In the past 5 months, I’ve amassed 60 books on my iPhone. About 20 are free, the rest purchased happily even though free books are readily available. I even bought duplicate copies of all my Sookie books because I love them so much. I paid more for the Kindle versions than I did for the paper copies. The money I’ve spent on books has skyrocketed something like 5,637% merely because books became easy to obtain and easier to read. My phone is backlit. I can read in the dark. I always have it. I can carry all 60 books in my bra, where I keep my phone. Easy peasy.

Although only 5% of the market share of all books now, e-books will eventually stomple the paper book market. It’s coming. And free books will always be available by authors who are very good and know they’ll hook you on their crack content. As it is with the internet, these excellent authors will float in a sea of horrible writers, but the good ones will be evangelized and people like me and you will pay for their content and they will make a lot of money.

Seth Godin, in his laser-y and pithy way, addressed the general issue of whining about “the market” in a recent blog post:

The Marx Brothers were great at vaudeville. Live comedy in a theatre. And then the market for vaudeville was killed by the movies. Groucho didn’t complain about this or argue that people should respect the hard work he and his brothers had put in. No, they went into the movies.

Then the market for movies like the Marx Brothers were making dried up. Groucho didn’t start trying to fix the market. Instead, he saw a new medium and went there. His TV work was among his best (and certainly most lucrative).

It’s extremely difficult to repair the market.

…it’s not easy or fair, but it’s true. You bet your life.

The wealthy people who peddle books can’t fall back on this being news, like it was to the music industry when everyone started downloading music rather than paying $20 an album. The writing is on the wall- but will they accept the opportunity they have to reclaim some of the market they’ve already lost to the internet at large, or just sit their throwing their toys out of the pram because consumers have more choices now? I’m inclined, if the quotes above are any indication, to think it will be the latter.