Poland’s OpenBooks.com Asks, Is Pay-After-You-Read Sustainable?

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OpenBooks.com lets the customer download an ebook and the pay what they feel the book is worth. Is this business model really sustainable?

By Michał Kiciński, founder OpenBooks.com

Michał Kiciński

Michał Kiciński

Over the past few years, companies have started to increasingly use a “Pay What You Feel” payment system, like my own company, OpenBooks. We let the customer download an ebook and the pay what they feel the book is worth. However, is this business model sustainable?

There is a war going on with two banners waving. One says, “Freebies kill indie author sales.” The other says, “Freebies are an inevitable marketing tool for gaining visibility.” Most book-loving, coffee-addicted, peaceful introverts buried under a blanket in a big armchair with a book or ereader are unaware of this big battle raging underground, under the surface, in writer’s forums and blogs.

Indie Writers All Over the World, Unite!

“Our hard work should be paid for,” say authors gathered under the first banner. The writing class shouldn’t be exploited by the reading class! Authors who allow the free download of one or more of their books are considered as traitors. “They not only spoil the market, they spoil customers, who having been given something for free, will always demand everything for free.” Their ideal is solidarity among authors who will keep prices as high as possible and frightening away potential pirates through harsh punishments.

“It’s not that simple,” the opposite side answers: “The kind of people who’d download your book ONLY because it’s free are not the kind of people who’d have paid for it anyway. Five hundred free downloads does NOT mean five hundred fewer sales.” Most freebies are collected and never read. Furthermore, having no possibility to get the books for free, people of the kind mentioned above would find them illegally or not read them at all. Someone who reads something only because it’s free never reads what they want to … And, as most self-publishing indie authors are ready to admit, 90% of indie books are not worth reading (“But mine is!”). The same applies in part to those published in the traditional way.

Invisible Hand of the Market

“You all make all our hard work worthless. If something is given for free, it means it has no value!” There’s something in this: psychology says that weaker minds tend to connect value with price. But on the other hand, the green banner answers, there are so many books available. Do you know how many titles are on Amazon alone? Guess. Can you imagine it’s 34.7 million, and as I counted it yesterday, the moment you read these words, this number has probably already grown? Even the most brilliant book can be lost like a needle in haystack. “That’s why I need to offer a free download, e.g. the first in the series, in the hopes that the reader will find my writing interesting and will buy the other books.”

But not all books come in a series. So authors of several books sometimes offer one or two at a discount as a teaser. But even this teaser or first-in-series freebie can make the reader so satisfied that they want to express it by rewarding the author, but within the standard retail system it’s just not possible. “There are a number of books that I’ve downloaded illegally,” confesses Kevin Strexcorp, an OpenBooks reader. “I enjoyed them, and then wanted to give cash straight to the author as thanks for their work, only to discover that there were no means to do so. With music, it’s often really easy, but with books not so much.”

He’s caught two points at once. One: the possibility to support the author after reading. Or, Two: the possibility to support them directly. In traditional publishing, the industry between reader and writer not only arrogantly puts pressure on authors to compromise their artistic goals with sales demands and manipulates readers with marketing tools and prices, but also eats up most of the proceeds. It seems like those two problems are solved at once with the new system proposed by OpenBooks.com, where ebooks are downloaded without paying upfront, and the payment link is embedded in several places in the file, so people like Kevin can use them after reading, and the proceeds go to the author reduced only by a 30% service fee. Furthermore, a satisfied reader can copy the file and send it to anyone, spreading the word and giving others the opportunity to express their satisfaction the same way (the link is still there in the file).

“Treat People Fairly and They Will Do the Same”

But will people pay when they have the option of not doing so? Christopher Jackson-Ash, one of 170 authors publishing with OpenBooks.com, says, “I have an optimistic view of my fellow humans.” Probably he’s a honest person himself. Liars don’t believe anyone else. Those who suspect everyone around them of using their hard work and not paying for it are, as psychology research shows, those who would probably do it themselves.

Dear reader. Do not ask what writers can do for you (it’s obvious and available on the net), but what you can do for writers. What would you do, after finding such a message: “Hey, this is a piece of my very hard work. It took me two years to write it. I put a lot of research, effort, emotions and thoughts into this book. I really hope you’ll find something in it that will make your life a bit better (maybe you’ll laugh a bit, or find something helpful, or just enjoy a beautiful story that will take you on a great adventure).

“Since we most likely can’t meet in person I’d really appreciate it if you could let me know what you think about my book by paying an amount of your choosing for it. That would be great support for my writing. It will both buy me the time for creating the next book and give me the message that there are readers out there who are waiting for it, so I have someone to write for.”

With illegal or legal but traditionally published books, it’s not possible to respond to such a message. Just as Wiesenthal revolutionized sewing just by moving the eye of the needle from the end to the tip and creating the sewing machine, we’ve copied the payment link from the bookstore site and put it into the ebook file. Will this move turn the ebook world upside down? I hope so. I believe that only if people are free, they can become responsible. Just like how children become independent if you let them try to do things for themselves. And if people are free, they do good things freely. Indie authors are outside the publishing industry because they want freedom. The OpenBooks.com revolution seems to be the place where these two freedoms meet. The most important wars under the banners of all colors, and all the revolutions, were for FREEDOM. Here’s a video to back up that very point.

Michał Kiciński is the founder of OpenBook.com and is one of Poland’s modern age entrepreneurs. Having co-founded the highly successful game series “The Witcher” (which has been downloaded over 8 million times) and GOG.com (the world’s second largest independent platform for games distribution),Michał has proven that he can turn even the most outrageous idea into reality.

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.