Once Free, Forever Free?

Yesterday I referred to a NYT essay by Stephen King on short fiction. Today, I’m cribbing from the Wall Street Journal, specifically a piece by Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) .

Adams used some of his past blog entries for a new book, which meant they had to be removed from the web. For that, he caught flak from readers, some of whom retaliated by giving the book bad Amazon reviews. As he said, “For readers of my non-Dilbert books, I inadvertently set the market value for my work at zero. Oops.”

Why does this interest me? Because next year I have an anthology coming out…of work I originally posted online for free. Let me explain…

In yesterday’s blog, I mentioned I did annual online novellas. Freebies. The #1 ongoing question I get asked is: when will these be available in a real book? I’ve always said they’re meant to be free, but I’ve admitted to hoping that someday I can publish them as a charitable endeavour.

My chance came this summer. Long story short, my agent was approached and, ultimately, the collection went to my regular publishers. We negotiated to keep most of the short stories, my latest novella and a graphic-novella-in-progress online. The older stuff (4 novellas & 2 stories) is being edited, and put into a single volume. My advance and any royalties I earn will go to World Literacy.

This seemed a good way to balance the demand for a “real book” version with my unwillingness to profit from these “freebies.” But am I totally comfortable with it? No. And I wouldn’t have been any more comfortable turning down the offer.

I would have liked to keep the stories online. I understand why the publisher won’t allow that (and it was what I expected). I suppose if I bought a book and discovered the same stories were currently free online, I’d be miffed. And I don’t even like to read online. I just wouldn’t like the feeling I’d been “ripped off” (yes, I’m cheap)

So, is Adams right? Does putting work (fiction or nonfiction) free on the web set the market value at zero? What would you say if you bought a book of stories, only to discover they’d once been free online? Or that they were still free online?

Kelley Armstrong is the NYT bestselling author of the urban fantasy series, The Otherworld. For info on her novels or to read sample chapters, check out her website at www.KelleyArmstrong.com


  1. In response to Kelley Armstrong’s question.

    I found your books in the last 2 months. I read a great deal and suffered an injury 8 weeks ago {my colt bucked me off} that left me with more reading time than normal. I read all of your published books {twice} and online fic in the last two month. While I am very sad to have missed the novellas online, as I am desperate for more, my only regret is the wait. I would have happily bought the book regardless of having read them on the internet. Once I commit to an author I will support them any way I can. I personally think there is something special about holding a book in your hands to read. I can hardly wait for the new books.

  2. I’ll admit that if I’ve paid for material that was/is available for free, I’d be miffed about it (guess I’m cheap, too). One thing to remember is how the tactile affect might smooth over any hard feelings; having a book they can feel, see, read (pages to flip) would be enough for readers to look the other way.

  3. I like having something permanent, both for something I can have in my hands and for something to refer back to or lend out to friends (who knows how long a story will be available online or if I can even find it again). I like to keep books I’ve read, and I’ll admit parts of my house look more like a library than a house. So, I would buy a book even if the work was available for free online.

    I have friends who, as soon as they read a book, they get rid of it, either passing it on to friends, giving it to charity, or selling it at a used book store. I’m guessing those people probably would not want to buy something that was available online. So I guess it would depend on the person and their relationship with books.

  4. […] Once Free, Forever Free? (Would you buy a book if the story were available free online?) […]

  5. I read books for free all the time — I use the library!

    If I read a short story in a magazine or anthology and like it then buy the author’s collection I don’t mind finding the story there that I already enjoyed elsewhere. Even if I had to pay for it the first time, too! I’m much more comfortable with a book than reading online anyway.

    I recently bought a book that collected comics I’d read online. The art is handsome and it’s nice to able to look at it closely.

  6. I have all of your short stories on my computer (and my back up drive, and my online backup drive, just in case :-)) and when you sell them as an anthology, I’ll probably buy that too. Why? Cause I like you, Kelley.

    No really. Look at it this way. There are people all over the place getting music for free off the internet (I won’t argue whether its legal or not…thats not the point) The point is that even though they can get almost any song they want for free, most to all of them will still buy albums of their favorite artist, simply because they want them to prosper and continue to make what they believe is high quality material. (Watching an episode of Cribs where a talentless rapper shows off his ten Escalades and his football arena sized bathroom, and you figure he deserves to give some of his material away.)

    So I like you. I buy your stuff, even though I have it on my hard drive, ’cause lets face it…it’s good stuff. I give your publishers the impression that “Hey, Kelley really does kick ass!” Thereby furthering your career and satisfying me with more Otherworld in my future.

    Everybody wins. The Gods are appeased. World Literacy gets a nice chunk of change.

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