At the beginning of last year, when I first got my Kindle, I went on a bit of a spree and downloaded dozens of free e-books from the Amazon store. There is something magical about the words "free" and "book", especially when strung together. It's like having a special literary Christmas only for bookworms.
If I'm to be frank, I was actually disappointed in the quality of many of the free e-books. Of the newly written e-books, there were a few stand-outs - one an e-book called The Old Man and the Wasteland by Nick Cole that reminded me a little of Stephen King, and another called Zomblog by TW Brown that was the diary of surviving a zombie apocalypse.
The other ones I liked were books that was now out of copyright and could therefore be downloaded for free digitally. I particularly enjoyed The Monkey King, a translated excerpt from an old Chinese fantasy novel, and The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura. Just for the hell of it, I also downloaded some books I had previously read: notably Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.
I think if there's a strong case to be made for a modified version of the traditional publishing model to survive, it is that the best quality e-books, in my experience so far, are still the ones that have been professionally edited.
Like with everything else in life, there are exceptions. The Old Man and the Wasteland and Zomblog were two books that hadn't been through the hands of an editor, yet were still finely crafted and thrilling enough to capture my attention and imagination.
But those two e-books were also relatively short. I'm not sure of the exact word count, but both of them were more the length of long-ish novellas. I'd say around 30,000 to perhaps 60,000 words.
Zomblog came as a trilogy, but as I had to pay for the other two, I can't include them in a discussion on free books. It was a rather clever way to hook readers in, I thought, by chopping a full-length novel into a series, and giving away the first one for free.
The biggest problem I found with the free e-books was not that the authors were crap. You could see that there were some amazing storytellers and good talent waiting to be discovered. It's just that, like with traditional publishing, there's a bottleneck. Picture a wall of zombies standing on top of each other like a pyramid - only the few at the top will get through.
The biggest appeal of e-publishing is its accessibility to anyone with a computer and internet connection who wants to write. But that is also where I think the model is in danger of collapsing.
Most passionate readers are selective people, often with particular tastes and quirks. They still want to read only the best quality of whatever genre takes their fancy. So even with e-books, they'll choose those that come highly recommended or well-reviewed.
And like what I learned early on with my Kindle, free doesn't mean good. It doesn't necessarily mean bad either, but most of the time, it will be of dubious quality. You have to crawl through a lot of mud to get to a little bit of gold. Can you tell I've been reading The Luminaries? ;-)
The decision I made in the end was to actually limit the number of free e-books I downloaded. I came to the conclusion that I'm far too impatient to sift through piles of mind-numbingly bad material just to stumble across a few quiet gems. I'd rather pay for the books I really want to read.
I know there are many problems with traditional publishing too, but I think e-publishing too, is also rapidly beginning to encounter the same challenges. Mainly, trying to determine who the audience is for a particular book, and after that, how to market and sell it to them. It seems to me that therein lies the key to saving publishing. It's the point at which the two industries can meet, rather than collide and crash.
What do you think about the quality of free e-books?