At some juncture last year, I came across the following clip (entitled "Pay the Writer") from a film about sci-fi icon Harlan Ellison:
In it, as suggested by the title, Ellison talks about writers getting paid for what they do. Despite being only a few minutes long, the clip is laugh-out-loud funny in certain areas. However, one of the the things that struck me is Ellison's statement that writers should get paid for everything they do. (For instance, the clip starts off with Ellison providing an anecdote of someone wanting to use an interview he did for the television show Babylon 5. However, they want to use the interview for free; Ellison insists on being paid.) Ellison states that it's the amateurs out there doing everything for free that make it so hard for the professionals, who understand that they shouldn't be doing anything without getting paid.
Ellison's comment puts me in mind of the current state of indie publishing, wherein many authors will offer their work for free. Of course, the logic behind free is fairly straightforward: readers might take a chance on an otherwise unknown author if his work is free, whereas they might pass if they have to pay for it. Hopefully those who obtain the book for free will read it and become fans, such that they might thereafter be willing to pay cold hard cash for future material by that particular author.
It's a strategy that has worked for a number of highly successful indie authors, but is it in fact poisoning the well? Is "free" conditioning a certain segment of the reading population to only want to read books that don't cost them anything? I remember a few years back reading a statement by Joe Konrath (who is clearly an indie publishing success story) that he planned to eventually rotate all of his books in and out of free. One of the comments to that statement was from a reader who essentially said he'd never buy another Konrath book, because now he knew that - at some juncture - he'd be able to get every one of them for free.
From all accounts, Joe Konrath is still doing quite well, so maybe the number of readers willing to wait until all of his books are eventually free is minuscule. (And maybe that's the case across the board.) Still, it's troubling to think that maybe free books are sending the wrong message to potential readers. After all, Stephen King, James Patterson, Danielle Steel and others never had to start out offering books for free (at least not that I'm aware of). That said, the advent of self-publishing has undoubtedly crowded the marketplace, making it harder than ever to get noticed.
In retrospect, I think Ellison makes a valid point: writers need to be aware of the value of their work and not be afraid of asking that they be appropriately compensated for it. At the same time, because of the ever-shifting landscape that is indie publishing, there is no doubt that "free" has its place. However, it's a tool that has to be used judiciously as part of an overall plan. It is not, in and of itself, an answer or a solution to the barriers indie authors face.