Are Free Downloads Worth the Cost?

Farewell and good riddance oceanofPDF. For those who somehow missed it, this site offered free pdf downloads of books regardless of whether the books were still in copyright or not. It was driven by user request and if a writer or publisher requested a book be removed, the website refused to do so.

The site’s founders appeared to be aware that they were not helping writers and urged users to “leave reviews so authors get something back” and use word of mouth to recommend books to others. Urging others to use free downloads does not help writers either.

I get that

In some places books are difficult to get hold of or heavily censored or prohibitively expensive, but that doesn’t give you a right to a free download

Books are viewed as expensive by the same people who will buy an ebook reader, spend money on tickets to a one-off event like a sports game or cinema visit when a book can be revisited many times

Sometimes your money just doesn’t stretch to accommodate a reading habit so why not take up reviewing and get free books in return for a review, or is that not a fair price (and why is it not a fair price)? Do you demand supermarkets give you groceries for free because you’re too busy buying books to afford food?

It’s too inconvenient to visit a library. Tough. Try Project Gutenburg or Google Books. In the UK, writers do get paid when books (print, audio or ebooks) are borrowed so borrowing from a library instead of freeloading does make a difference.

People who use free downloads aren’t necessarily going to buy the book so the download doesn’t represent a lost sale. That doesn’t give the freeloader the right to make the download available to readers who might have bought a copy and helped the writer.

What if I buy a book and loan it to my friends? Great. But you probably don’t have 10,000+ friends; free downloads are available worldwide on a larger scale.

Shouldn’t writers be glad they’re being read? Samples of my poems are available online. These are free to access because I have chosen to make them free to access. You can read my work without infringing my copyright.

From a writer’s viewpoint

Free downloads aren’t recorded as sales. If sales for a current book are low, publishers won’t risk taking on the next book. Lack of sales also impact the amount of marketing budget publishers are willing to spend on the next book.

Writers don’t usually set the prices for books. Even self-published books can be discounted by stores so giving writers little control over how much they earn since their earnings are usually a percentage of the (discounted) sale price. A percentage of nothing is nothing.

The Society of Authors’ earnings survey indicates writers in the UK earn an average of £10,000 (average wage in the UK is £26,000). Most writers already do full or part time jobs in addition to writing. Taking away chances to earn money from writing mean writers get to do less writing. This not only means fewer books but also impacts on a writer’s ability to experiment and develop their craft and talent.

Unless a writer signs their rights away, copyright is still owned by the writers. Infringing that copyright impacts the writers and has a negative and demotivating effect on them.

It’s relatively easy to take a document and convert it into a pdf, stick it on a site and let others download it. But you can only do that if the document exists in the first place. Writing a book takes work, effort, emotional labour and time. Writers deserve to be paid for that. Depriving a writer of the opportunity to be paid means depriving the writer of the means to produce future books. Do you want all your books to be written only by those who can afford to work for free?

I have a search engine alert that lets me find sites offering downloads of my book and I will request my books are taken off and report the site to Google. I am fed up of having to do this because it eats into my writing time.

I know that the model behind oceansofPDF will be replicated elsewhere. I know many oceansofPDF users were adamant they loved the site and want it back. But not one of those users was supporting the writers they purport to love. Every free download comes with costs, are those costs acceptable to you?

Advertisements

Publishing and Diversity

Lionel Shriver’s arguments are generally more nuanced than reported and the click bait headlines do her no favours. Underneath the headlines and selective quoting, there are some valid points for discussion.

I am not generally a fan or initiatives that shift the focus from the writing to the writer. Labelling someone ‘a women writer’, ‘a disabled writer’ or ‘a writer from an ethnic minority’, implies the label is significant, a lazy shorthand for someone who writes chicklit, someone who writes about triumphs over adversity or someone who writes about the experience of being from an ethnic minority. Once labelled, it can be hard for writers to escape that label and has a restrictive impact on their writing. It sets the expectation in the reader’s mind that the writer will write in a certain way or even flag a writer as not being for them even if the writer is exploring a topic of interest to them because the reader doesn’t see beyond the label.

The label ‘male, white writer’ is never used because there’s an assumption the default writer is male and white. The work of the default writer has evolved into a yardstick against which all writing is judged. Writing can’t just be measured on objective criteria. You can produce a technically proficient sonnet that’s boring to read. Subjective criteria and cultural values become part of the measurement and, against a white, male yardstick, it’s no surprise writing by writers who are not white or male gets under-represented. Under-representation occurs when writers face additional barriers to publication and when published writers find themselves less likely to get reviewed and less likely to be put forward for prizes.

This is where initiatives to increase representation from under-represented writers have come from. Some of these have been recording statistics on who gets reviewed and who does the reviewing. Some have been in creating new prizes to draw attention to under-represented work. More recently, Penguin Random House have opened a mentoring scheme (publication is not guaranteed) and a crowdfunded anthology focusing on working class writers is underway.

If an increase in representation could be achieved by encouraging under-represented writers to write and submit more work, the imbalance would have been cured by now. It hasn’t done so because “submit more” assumes gate keepers, such as editors, agents and publishers, don’t have biases and work on objective criteria only. Rejection is a key part of being a writer, but writers are only human and no one rises above a long string of repeated rejections, particularly when making submissions to magazines or publishers who don’t publish work by writers like them. For example, if a magazine publishes 40 poems in an issue, each by a different poet, and 35 of those are by men and 5 by women, it doesn’t inspire women to submit work. If women do submit work and get rejected, they are more likely to assume it’s not worth trying again because only 5 publication slots are open to them. A man, seeing the majority of contributors are men and assuming that he has 35 publication slots open to him, is more likely to assume it’s worth trying again.

Balancing initiatives also have to define who they regard as under-represented and assume writers would be happy to identify as the relevant category of under-representation, even if such identification carries stigma and prejudice. Initiatives risk being criticised as filing quotas and possibly diluting the quality of work due to being part of a numbers game instead of focusing on quality. There’s also a risk of alienating those who qualify as under-represented but don’t want to be labelled. Most initiatives rely on writers self-identifying.

Broadly, I think the balancing initiatives have merit, but the debates they’ve triggered need more nuance and less black-and-white thinking. Immediate responses to click bait headlines or selectively quoting to support an agenda is not the way to contribute to the debate.

Who are you invisible to?

Who are you invisible to? This was a question asked at a meeting of Leicester and Leicestershire writers’ groups that took place towards the end of last year. Here’s some answers:

The Leicester city councillor who failed to make it to the meeting but recorded a video of what she would have said had she attended where she mentioned one author. Another city councillor, when the question of whether Leicester should consider applying for UNESCO city of literature status, wrote on social media, “Nottingham’s got it, why should Leicester bother?” When they have a question on literature, they go to Curve. Curve is a great theatre that does support local playwrights and performers. But most writing happens off stage.

The local paper does print some book reviews. Occasionally it interviews an author. The last Leicester author interviewed (in my memory) was Nina Stibbe who lives in London. In a recent list of Leicester writers, all six of them, one may have still been alive. BBC Radio Leicester joined in the BBC’s book club initiative. It decided to follow the national book club recommendations rather than include local writers. Someone told me no one bothers reading/listening to local media anyway. A Leicester author said it was easier to get reviewed in the Washington Post than it was locally.

I find myself sitting near a new face at a spoken word/poetry event. They ask me for my name and if I write. After I answer, they say they’ve never heard of me. I ask if they’ve read any poetry magazines, been to other local live literature events. When they answer no, I say that’s why they’ve never heard of me.

Someone told me they’d never seen any listings for literature events I’d been involved in promoting. I asked if they’d been to any local venues recently. No, they hadn’t so they hadn’t seen the leaflets distributed there. I asked if they read local media. No, they didn’t and it hadn’t occurred to them that a local event wasn’t going to be publicised in a national newspaper. Did they listen to local radio? No. How did they expect to hear about local events? They couldn’t answer.

The late Graham Joyce once had a manuscript returned with a (London) publisher’s reader’s note still attached. The note asked if anyone would want to read a novel set outside London. The reader felt no one would be interested in a novel set in Leicester. Graham Joyce’s 5 British Fantasy Awards and World Fantasy Award would suggest differently.

Leicester’s always been a great place for creativity. A place where you can have a go, try out a new piece in front of an audience, find a workshop, a writers’ group and discover new literature. However, it’s also a place of outsiders, where writers seem to have to find their audience elsewhere and import back to their city of creation. Leicester lacks a central network/listings point where people can find out what’s going on and be pointed in the right direction. I’ve been told Leicester’s “Not Nottingham” and “A City Full of Surprises”. So Leicester’s identity is shaped around a negative and a lack of knowledge. Its writers lurk in shadows and find audiences elsewhere. Surely it can do better.


Rod Duncan launches Queen of All Crows at Leicester Writers' Showcase

Leicester Writers’ Showcase: Literary Activity in Leicester

Leicester Writers' Showcase logo

Wednesday 13 December 2017 from 6.45pm at Leicester’s Central Library, Bishop Street, LE1 6AA, free entry, Leicester Writers’ Showcase is hosting an event focusing on literary activity in the Leicester and Leicestershire and what can be done to raise its profile locally, nationally and internationally.

Speakers include:

  • Councillor Sarah Russell, Assistant City Mayor for Children, Young People and Schools
  • Henderson Mullin, CEO, Writing East Midlands
  • James Urquhart, Relationship Manager for Literature in the Midlands, Arts Council England
  • Emma Lee, President Leicester Writers’ Club, poet, reviewer, editor and event organiser
  • Farhana Shaikh, Dahlia Publishing who also organises Leicester Writes meetings and festival and publishes The Asian Writer
  • Bobba Cass, activist, performance poet and spoken word event organiser
  • Carol Leeming FRSA, of Dare to Diva Productions, poet, songwriter, playwright and performance artist.

The event will be chaired by Attenborough Arts Centre director, Michaela Butter MBE.

There will also be a display of books by local writers, and a discussion and question and answer session with those present.

Leicester Writers’ Showcase

The Leicester Writers’ Showcase started in January 2017 and hosts a literary event once a month. Featured writers and publications include “Welcome to Leicester”, “Lost & Found: stories of home by Leicestershire writers” (both Dahlia Publishing), Carol Leeming, Marianne Whiting, Andrew Bannister, Julia Herdman, Mahsuda Snaith, Siobhan Logan, Soundswrite Poetry Press, Ella@100 – an evening of jazz-inspired poetry and November’s event will feature Margaret Penfold (15 November from 6.45pm, Central Library). All events are free to attend.

For Readers

The Leicester Writers’ Showcase offers a chance for local readers to meet and hear from local writers and find out what books local writers publish. Readers can discover local authors who have won major book deals, been shortlisted for the Hugo Awards, Carnegie Awards, won short story competitions, have been published both in the UK and abroad and host live literature events and readings locally. It gives readers the chance to ask questions directly to authors about their journey to publication, what promotions and publications are forthcoming and be the first to hear about new work so it’s a great networking opportunity.

Local writers are those either living or working in Leicester or who have been published by a Leicester publisher or who regularly attend a writers’ or spoken word group in the city. Showcases so far have included Leicester-themed anthologies, short stories, contemporary poetry, historical fiction, science-fiction, contemporary fiction and spoken word.

For Writers

Leicester Writers’ Showcase offers local writers the opportunity to use Central Library free of charge to hold a launch-style event, combining a reading, talk and question and answer session to suit with the library providing light refreshments during the interval. It is possible to writers to team up with another writer or for a writers’ group to showcase the group’s work. Writers and spoken word artists can bring books, CDs, pamphlets, etc to sell at the event.

Writers also benefit from the Libraries producing leaflets for distribution throughout Leicester City Libraries and similar venues. In addition the Leicester Writers’ Showcase prepare press releases which are sent to the Leicester Mercury, Great Central, BBC Radio Leicester and Writing East Midlands. In addition each Leicester Writers’ Showcase event is videoed and photographed and featured writers are able to use these in other promotional materials.

Leicester Writers’ Showcase Projects

Projects that have arisen from Leicester Writers’ Showcase include the Local Writers’ Fair held during Everybody’s Reading and the Local Writers’ Corner, which will feature books by local writers and will be set up during 2018. Leicester has a great literary tradition which the Leicester Writers’ Showcase supports.


 

Should Writers be on Twitter?

Yes, Writers should be on Twitter:

  • With 140 characters, you have to keep tweets to the point
  • Keeping in touch with other writers
  • Keep up to date with submission call-outs
  • Keep up to date with publication news
  • Useful for quick questions and links to help shorten research
  • Useful for others to contact you
  • Potential to pick up writing/reviewing commissions
  • Holds reader engagement between publications
  • If you are social and retweet others, the favour is returned

No Writers should not be on Twitter:

  • If unmanaged, can become a procrastination tool/time suck
  • Tweets are momentary and easily lost in the noise
  • It doesn’t necessarily translate into sales
  • It’s not a great tool to show off writing skills
  • It encourages readers to interrupt your writing
  • Writers should broadcast literature, not offer social/political comments
  • It feeds a writer’s ego

No writer should be on twitter or any other social media outlet either. All writers should be free to decide which social media outlets (if any) work for them. For some of you that will be twitter, for others it won’t. And that’s absolutely fine.

If you’re enthusiastic about twitter, it will work for you. If you lack enthusiasm, it will show and could lose you readers.

What’s not fine is publicly criticising other writers for their choices. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to marketing and reader engagement.

BTW I’m @Emma_Lee1


Andrew Bannister reading at Leicester's Central Library on 17 May from 6.30pm

Self-Published Books – to review or not to review?

I do consider self-published books for review (see my review guidelines), but some bloggers and magazines don’t. I treat self-published books the same as traditionally published books: what I’m looking for in a review is quality of writing, poetic craft and whether the book would appeal to readers. Generally I can satisfy myself as to whether the book under review meets those criteria before opening the book.

Why Reviewers Don’t Review Self-Published Books

  • Concerns about the Quality of the Book
  • Concerns about the Quality of the Writing
  • Concerns about Vanity Publishing
  • Concerns about Authors’ Reactions

I’ll look at each in turn:

Concerns about the Quality of the Book

These concerns apply equally to self- and traditionally-published books. A printed book should cope with repeated opening and closings, the cover shouldn’t curl, the pages should be numbered and the text should be readable. An e-book should be page numbered, navigable and the text should be readable.

Generally there’s very little difference between self- and traditionally-published books in terms of print quality. However, some self-publishers omit to consider:

  • Cover image – if one is used it needs to be quality, uncluttered, relevant to the book without spoilers, and not render the cover text illegible.
  • Pagination – the easiest way for a reviewer to find that section they wanted to quote is by page number. When the pages aren’t numbered its harder for a reader to keep their place and few readers read a book in one sitting.
  • Table of Contents – you’ve gone to all the trouble of giving your poems hook-worthy titles so don’t waste it by not including contents.
  • Acknowledgements/Publishing Credits – a list of where the poems within have been published before or placed in competitions is a quality mark, i.e. a sign to the reviewer that the poet has submitted work to editors who have decided it worthy of publishing. A book with no acknowledgements has no quality mark and the reviewer may suspect the writer has rushed into print.
  • Author Biography – a writer with a track record will reassure reviewers over the quality of writing. No information about the author is a red flag. Even if the writer is using a pseudonym, there should be a way of conveying what qualifications the author has to write this book.

Concerns about the Quality of the Writing

From experience, this is a non-concern. Both self- and traditionally-published authors are in the business of selling books and it’s fair to say that some traditionally-published books have been published because the publisher knows the topic or author will sell the book even if the writing quality is uneven.

Self-publishers can allay these fears by including publishing credits and an about the author section that demonstrates their track record.

Concerns about Vanity Publishing

Vanity publishing has long plateaued and is actually dying out. With printers and publishers advertising self-publication services and plenty of advice about the pitfalls of self-publishing, vanity publishers are finding it harder to hoodwink naive writers into paying over the odds to see their book in print.

Concerns about Author Reactions

This is a tricky one and a valid concern. A self-published author has more at stake and is more likely to view themselves as needing a positive review. A traditionally-published author at least has the publisher to remind them that reviews aren’t particularly influential, the reviewer wasn’t part of their target market, the important thing is sales and one person’s opinion is just that.

Unfortunately social media makes it easier for authors to contact the reviewer and/or comment on the review publicly.

My experience is that for every negative comment, I’ve had at least three positive ones. I also know that I wouldn’t have the track record I do in reviewing if I wasn’t any good at it. Every negative comment I have received has reinforced the opinion I formed in my review. I’m not going to be derailed by comments from one author and/or their supporters so I will continue to consider reviewing self-published books.


Jazz-inspired poetry at Leicester Central Library to celebrate what would have been Ella Fitzgeralds 100th birthday

Social Media Bullies

Would you

a) Tag a writer in a public Facebook status to ask them to read your manuscript whilst pointing out that they ought to help struggling or beginner writers
or
b) Approach a professional service to review and critique your manuscript because you’re aware that writers will charge a fee, may not have the time and acknowledge that just because a writer has had a book published, it doesn’t make them experts in how to get your book published because writers aren’t publishers?

Would you

a) Tweet a writer publicly to ask them to review your book with a link to where the book is for sale (effectively implying the writer should buy a copy and then review it)
or
b) Check if the writer has a reviews policy and follow it or find a contact address and email them privately to ask?

Would you

a) Tag a writer in a public status to ask about an event the writer is not taking part in and has no connection with
or
b) Sensibly realise the organisers might be better placed to answer your question?

Would you

a) Use a public Facebook comment to ask a writer for help with a school project saying you will lose marks or get a lower grade if the writer doesn’t help
or
b) Acknowledge that a writer is not obliged to help with your school project and make a polite request by private email without the blackmail?

Would you

a) leave a public comment after a blog post to ask a writer to review a blog site on the basis that the writer should be interested in the blog topic
or
b) Accept that a writer’s job is to write, not to review your site and certainly not for free and in any case a private request might be better?

Would you

a) Publicly tag a writer to ask them to recommend magazines or publishers to submit work to.
or
b) Acknowledge that there are no short cuts to doing your own research and targeting the right markets for your work and that another writer may be able to tell you where they got published, but would not be able to tell you which publishers would accept your work?

Did you answer mainly a) or mainly b)? Discuss.