Whether you’re an author, publisher, or reader, you may have heard of (or even engaged in) the debate on how accessible books should be to the general public. Should all books be free without exception, or should they only be accessible under certain conditions? Here’s my take on the matter.
Not all books should be free. On the one hand, people can access free book depositories such as public libraries and Project Gutenberg. On the other hand, people should also acknowledge the enormous amounts of time, money, and effort that go into producing books.
Below, I’ll discuss the common arguments in favor of and against making books accessible. Keep reading if you’d like to learn more.
Why Should Books Be Free?
If you’re an avid reader, you’d want books to be free. Who wouldn’t want unlimited access to all that books have to offer, like knowledge, entertainment, escapism, and comfort? Besides, there are other valid reasons to make books available at no cost.
Books should be free because:
- Everyone should enjoy the benefits of reading.
- Books get outdated quickly.
- Authors can use free books as marketing tools.
Let’s look closer at each of the reasons books should be free.
Everyone Should Enjoy the Benefits of Reading
- They boost brain function. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) published many studies on the effects of reading on the brain, like better brain connectivity and improved cognitive function.
- Reading increases empathy. When you learn about a fictional character, you put yourself in that character’s shoes, whether you’re similar to them or not. Doing so improves your ability to empathize, as numerous studies have shown.
- Reading can lower stress levels. Reading may reduce your stress by as much as 68%, according to a 2009 study from the University of Sussex. After all, being immersed in what you’re reading forces you to slow down.
- Books are essential to democracy. In 1953, the American Library Association (ALA) published a statement on the freedom to read. Diverse books contain diverse views, and censoring any book is tantamount to attacking the fundamental American right to free speech.
When you consider the benefits of reading, why wouldn’t you make books accessible to everyone regardless of their background and beliefs?
Books Get Outdated Quickly
Here’s the thing about books: They take a long time to make. Contract signing and official publication can take up to two years.
Anything can happen between those couple of years. For example, suppose you publish a nonfiction book about velociraptors as solo hunters in Year 1. If scientists discover that velociraptors hunt in packs in Year 2, your book becomes less credible.
That’s why print encyclopedias (except for The World Book Encyclopedia) no longer exist. Why should they when you have Wikipedia, a knowledge source that’s free to access that gets updated in real-time? Why should anyone shell out their hard-earned cash for outdated print materials?
Authors Can Use Free Books As Marketing Tools
Even full-time authors can benefit from free books. For example, free ebooks can help generate buzz for a book (through advanced reader copy (ARC) reviews) and possibly translate to concrete sales.
An author doesn’t have to give away all their books. They can offer free samples of their best work online to entice readers. Readers who like what they read may want to pay for the other books.
Next, let’s look at why books shouldn’t be free.
Why Should Books Not Be Free?
You won’t want books to be free if you’re a full-time author. After all, you don’t spend countless hours drafting, editing, revising, and rewriting your work without expecting some compensation. Authors aren’t the only people who have a vested interest in paid books, though.
Books shouldn’t be free because:
- Book production is expensive.
- Free books aren’t economically feasible.
- Commercial success is a good indicator of a book’s value.
Book Production Is Expensive
Book paper may grow on trees, but books don’t. Aside from authors, there are many other people involved in the book publishing process: agents, editors, proofreaders, printers (for physical books), and publishers. As noted earlier, books can take up to two years to publish.
If books become free, how will all those people receive compensation? Passion matters in the publishing industry, but so does the ability to put food on the table. Non-publishing professionals get paid for their hard work, so why should people in the publishing industry become the exception?
Free Books Aren’t Economically Feasible
Imagine if readers don’t have to pay a single cent for books. If that’s the case, someone still has to cover the cost of those books.
In the U.S., almost a million books get released every year. Of those, only about a hundred thousand become commercially successful. The rest fade into obscurity due to bad writing, bad marketing, or bad luck.
As for the books that become successful, who’ll subsidize them? Subsidizing all books isn’t practical for the government or the literary critics who rant and rave about New York Times bestsellers.
Commercial Success Is a Good Indicator of a Book’s Value
Whether authors like it or not, they have to produce works that appeal to as many people as possible to make a livable income from their profession.
If readers are willing to pay for a book, that means they believe the book is valuable in some way. Why splurge their limited disposable income otherwise? I know it sounds like an overly cold and pragmatic view on books, but that’s the reality.
Most books aren’t accessible for the reasons I’ve outlined above. At the same time, there are particular circumstances where books should be free, like in countries where most children can’t afford reading materials.
Overall, I don’t think the issue of whether books should cost money is a black-and-white one. When answering a question like “should all books be free,” it’s crucial to consider who benefits from free books and how.
- Healthline: Benefits of Reading Books: How It Can Positively Affect Your Life
- Edutopia: The Benefits of Reading for Fun
- Raven Reads: The Top 5 Benefits of Reading Books
- Mental Floss: 6 Benefits of Reading Every Day
- National Institutes of Health: Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain
- National Institutes of Health: Reading and solving arithmetic problems improves cognitive functions of normal aged people: a randomized controlled study
- The Guardian: Reading literary fiction improves empathy, study finds
- Discover Magazine: How Reading Fiction Increases Empathy and Encourages Understanding
- University of Minnesota Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing: Reading for Stress Relief
- American Library Association: The Freedom to Read Statement
- Writer’s Digest: How Long Does It Take to Get a Book Published?
- World Book: The World Book Encyclopedia 2020
- Just Publishing Advice: Free Kindle Ebooks — Do They Help Generate Real Book Sales?
- Quora: Should all books be free?