A future of free books would come at too high a price

Chris Anderson, author and editor of Wired, the computing industry 'bible' recently implied the future of reading and book-buying when he said his next book, The Long Tail, is to be issued by publisher's Disney in a range of editions. Nothing new there. But wait. One edition will come at most people's favourite price: free. But it will include a range of adverts. On the other hand an advert free edition will cost the standard price. This is not only borrowing what is now a well used Internet business model, where freebies are given in return for lots of pop-up ads and spam, but also from supermarket chains who sell loss-leaders such as bread for 10p (or there abouts) in return to get you into the store and buy other full-priced items. It is also not too dissimilar from the slew of free newspapers that one is bombarded with outside any bus/tube station, giving yesterday's news tomorrow. In music too we have seen the adoption of this business model by artists such as Coldplay and Prince who have either given music away or let fans pay what they want. But do not be fooled, this is no attempt at bringing music to the grateful masses, it is no different from the supermarkets' and is only theirs (and their record companies') own version of loss-leaders, serving to build and retain a loyal fan-base and in the process drive people onto purchasing the money-spinning concert tickets and other paraphernalia.
It does not take much imagination, then, to look in the not too distant future and see big name publishers wanting to adopt the model for their fiction titles. Imagine. A re-issue of Amis' Money, for no money, but lots of adverts on every other page from independent financial advisors,
banks, stock-brokers and rehab clinics. Or Dickens' Oliver Twist with adverts for paternity tests and porridge oats (organic, of course). Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses could sell Norwegian log cabins in the middle of nowhere for the rat-race disillusioned and disaffected, and J.G. Ballard's Cocaine Nights could do well selling a different side to Spain than most tour operators.
Joking aside, however, whereas supermarkets and the likes of Coldplay
and even Wired's Chris Anderson, still benefit from the drive to other revenue streams, it is also not too difficult to see how the publishers could benefit. But how would authors gain? Would there be a steady stream of authors happy just to see their work in print in return for a slice (or a nibble) of the advertising pie, which would be contingent upon number of units sold, or, instead of 'opportunities to see', the new ad term would no doubt be 'opportunities to read'? It is, in my opinion, a vision of apocalypse in which not only would the vast majority of authors lose out, but it would also serve to devalue literature altogether. And yet it cannot be far away with technology and reading mediums 'advancing' at an alarming rate. Fiction read on mobile phones has already taken off in Japan where it would be more than easy to provide free mobile-lit in return for a bombardment of ads into your text in-box. Whilst flash fiction no doubt has its place there is nothing flash about fiction that cannot afford to contain words longer than a syllable or two, lest they take up too much room on your mobile's screen. Whatever the scenario any prospect of free reading including adverts would come at far too high a price and would, as usual, only benefit those at the very top. And the vast majority of authors would be on a hiding to nothing.

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