Sam Harris has posted a rather provocative entry to his blog discussing the problem faced by writers in an era when audiences “increasingly expect digital content to be free” and have such short attention spans that increasingly full-length books are seeming just too long.

It’s a topsy-turvy world, Harris posits, when people with popular blogs get so many hits that publishing it in even a famous and well-regarded magazine like Vanity Fair is “tantamount to burying their work” by comparison. He cites as example an article by his friend Christopher Hitchens, whose numbers of Facebook likes and Twitter references are miniscule compared to those for posts on popular blogs.

Harris’s own increasing impatience with the length of books led him to experiment with a 9,000-word Kindle Single, which he sold for $1.99. And though the e-book proved successful beyond his expectations, Harris noted that a lot of people complained it was too short for the money when they could read blog posts of similar length for free.

Harris concludes:

One thing is certain: writers and public intellectuals must find a way to get paid for what they do—and the opportunities to do this are changing quickly. My current solution is to write longer books for a traditional press and publish short ebooks myself on Amazon. If anyone has any better ideas, please publish them somewhere—perhaps on a blog—and then send me a link. And I hope you get paid.

I suspect a number of TeleRead readers are ready to take issue with his essay (though I would suggest you read it in its entirety first, rather than relying solely on what I say about it here). And I’m no exception.

It seems to me that a number of Harris’s points are necessarily subjective. If audiences “increasingly expect digital content to be free,” how come Amazon is raking in money hand over fist for e-books? Sure, there are pirates, but there always have been and always will be pirates. And Harris seems awfully quick to generalize from his own increasing impatience with full-length books to the entire general public.

That being said, Harris is perhaps right to worry about “the future of the book.” but then everybody else is worrying about “the future of the book” too, in a million different ways. I don’t think that the future is necessarily as imperiled by people wanting stuff for free or people having increasingly short attention spans as Harris thinks.


  1. I suspect that am no more typical a book-buyer than Harris is, but I do know that “types’ like both of us exist in fairly large numbers.

    I bought 13 ePUB books in September, ranging in price from $6.50ish to $15 and change. This was definitely not a typical month for me, but with the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist books all being available in digital editions this year (as opposed to only five of them last year) and some 20% off discount codes from Kobo, well, it happened.

    I have no doubt it will happen again.

    One difference between how I bought books in the days before eBooks and now is that I am definitely more aware of the price changes that happen over time. This year I waited and watched for a couple of weeks as Amazon and Kobo matched prices on the Giller books. Had I not had discount coupons, I probably would have waited a few months until the prices on some of them dropped even further. I am also far more likely to look at a newly released book that seems a bit pricey and then decide to buy something by the same author that is older and less expensive.

    Price definitely matters to me, but a $2.99 book I won’t enjoy is no bargain. It is, however, more likely to be an impulse buy than a $15.00 book. This is not new behaviour for me. I chose more expensive books more carefully when I was buying pBooks, too.

    I have no idea how this will all shake out, but I’m betting that people who bought books before digital books existed will continue to buy books and that those book buyers will buy books that are priced in ways that make sense to them based on their personal understanding of what that means.

  2. I haven’t read this guy’s blog before but if this is an example I am not surprised he doesn’t sell that many eBooks.
    Firstly he is not a fiction writer and I submit that fiction writing is really the core of the overall discussion of eBooks. Although I fully support what he stands for and his writing in principle, his genre is ‘opinion’ writing or ‘editorialising’ – hardly something to set the world on fire, and inevitably caught up in the whole mish mash question of ‘when is a book and book and when is it just a long article’.
    All of the other writers he refers to are also in his genre. A genre often composing, especially in America, of journalists who think that writing a full book of their opinions somehow gives them a gravitas that articles in a newspaper does not. Imho it doesn’t, and their work is not of very serious value beyond the value of their single articles.
    Mr Harris’ extrapolation from his experience in this narrow and rather frothy genre to the overall eBook market is tenuous at best. It is wholly unconvincing.
    He offers no evidence for his theories about the future of eBooks as a whole and at the end of his post I am left with the feeling that this writer is clearly suffering from the ‘simply not being that good a writer’ syndrome.
    Even when he tries desperately to extract some support for his theory from his observations of Mr Hitchens work (and I am a huge fan of Hitchens) he failed miserably.
    I was wrong … after that last feeling I was left with, I had another feeling .. this blog post is a clear demonstration of why the readers he refers to do not hugely value the books he and his colleagues publish. They are just blog posts. Not really thought through comprehensively. Not really supported by much evidence. Based on limited personal experience. Speculative, and when it comes down to it – nothing more than one person’s opinion. Jeez I could publish a collection my comments here on teleread and then complain that readers don’t value them much ……Big deal.
    And if anyone thinks I am being pretty aggressive and harsh on Mr Harris, I am only being so because of his own elevated valuation of his own work and extrapolation of that to his conclusions.

  3. Writers and intellectuals are not so special. This is just one aspect of a much larger problem. In a world where most everything is getting digitized, computerized and robotized how will most people earn a living?

    Prepare to see robotic order takers and cooks at fast food outlets, fully automated checkout and restocking at Walmart, more computerized medical and legal processes and so on and so forth.

    When I was a boy futurists predicted this kind of automated and robotized world. But the consensus was that it would be a good thing because society would share the benefit and we could all live with more leisure and wealth.

    The harsh reality however is that wealthy corporations and the rich have complete control over the process and they have no desire at all to share the gains with the rest of us.

    So, to a large degree, writers are just feeling the pain that many of have already felt or will soon feel. Very few writings are really special and deserving of large recompense in a world where anybody and everybody can write and publish digitally and we are all swimming in cheap digital media.

  4. “The harsh reality however is that wealthy corporations and the rich have complete control over the process and they have no desire at all to share the gains with the rest of us.”

    Yet today writers all around the world are now free to self publish in a way that they never ever were in the days of the paper book, and a growing proportion of them are doing exactly that, and doing so successfully.

    The truth is the direct opposite to your statement. This new technology is liberating writers of all kinds from corporate control. It is liberating writers of all kinds to regain control of their work, their skill, their art . . . and to earn a living in ways that could only have been dreamed of a decade ago.
    New business models for writers are emerging. New opportunities are being invented. Never before hav writers had a more exciting vista in front of them.

  5. I thought it was an interesting blog post. And while I may not agree with every point, I do agree with his general premise that it is difficult to make money in a field where people expect well-written, intelligent discourse and reporting for free. People obviously expect news articles and blog posts for free. And, more and more, they are even expecting full-length fiction novels for free — at least the first novel in a series. Not a 20% preview, but the whole first book for free. (What if you don’t write in a series? Too bad. Then I guess all your books should be free.)

    I recently had an Amazon reviewer state that they “really enjoyed” my first book, and would like to read the sequel … if it was free, but they didn’t feel like paying $2.99 for it. Well, if $2.99 is too much for 2 novels (after getting to read the first one and finding out you liked it for free), then it will be impossible for more than a small handful of people to make a living writing. You know, pretty much the same as in the old legacy publishing system. Ah well.

  6. I am hesitant to purchase a first novel from an author I have never tried before and would strongly suggest to these writers to start getting their books put in the library system. Perhaps this could be the basis for a National Digital Library system I have talked about in the past.

    Let me think on this and I can probably come up with a solution, Ideally I’d like to see a subscription based service for say $2.99-$5.00 a month that authors could deposit a few of each of their novel to help get buzz started by early readers. Not so many copies that everyone will get a copy in the first year or so, but enough where people who will review to have a change to read it risk free. At that point the free market will sort out success and failure.

    I do say that the era of purchasing content before you know you enjoy it is coming to an end and content creators can enjoy the ride or come along kicking and screaming. Either way is fine with me. Evolve or die.

  7. Howard, I agree with you. Writers are liberated in that they can self-publish or publish with smallish digital publishers. But the flip side of this is that ALL writers are liberated. This means that we will see a flood of content and it will be increasingly difficult to actually make much money from writing.

    My comment about corporations and the rich retaining control was more in the context of the bigger societal issue of mechanization, robotization and computerization. Writers are in a unique position where they can push their product direct to the consumer. But this is not true for the great majority of other professions and trades.

    The question of how all members of the public will make a viable living in a very digital, computerized and inter-connected world is the great issue of our time.

  8. Binko – point taken – though a little conspiratorial for my sensibility 😉

    So essentially all writers are liberated to compete against each other for the attention of readers – instead of an elite chosen arbitrarily and subjectively by a group of publishers who make that choice based on their perceived assessment on how many copies they can sell.

    I think the new system is better.

    Is the fact that all writers won’t make a living some kind of problem or tragedy ? Do all writers have talent ? Do all writers deserve to make a living ? Is working hard as a writer a justification for making a living ? I suggest the answer to all of these questions is a resounding no.

    Your question about how ‘all’ members of the public will make a viable living … is odd. When in the history of the world has every member of the public made a viable living ? I am not that old … but even I don’t think it ever happened 🙂

  9. Chris makes an excellent point when he says: “how come Amazon is raking in money hand over fist for e-books?” It was the first thing that came to mind when I started reading this. I know that on the Kindle forums we have people who say they never pay more than $2.99 for a book. Are these people really readers? If they pick by price alone with no discrimination, what are they getting out of the material? Unless I already know an author, I take advantage of the Kindle sample to get a feel for something which sounds as if it might be good. And I do read Publisher’s Weekly reviews. But some excellent books fall through the cracks like Shayne Parkinson’s excellent stories of New Zealand in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Those are self-published, and I luck into things like that occasionally through word of mouth. However, 95% of what I read is from the big publishers and I am buying them in digital format. Obviously so are a lot of others, so I don’t think books are in peril.

  10. Well Mary 95% of the eBooks I read, and that is quite a few in the last 12 months, I get from indie sites and I rarely pay more than 2.99 for them. The rest I pay up to 4.99 for. I never ever pay more.
    After about a year of this policy I have to say that apart from the odd dud or three, I have enjoyed the titles more than when I bought paper books from the best seller list. And when they are a dud, I lose 2.99 and not 15.99 which is very very sweet.
    It is a complete and utter fantasy and fiction that the big, promoted titles are better. They just have more money spent on them.
    The public, I believe, are starting to cop on to this more and more. It is a serious error to infer the quality of titles from their price.

  11. ‘no one wants to buy my book!’ = ‘people don’t respect good writing, don’t want to pay for it and only a tiny number of writers will be able to make money’


    That’s a complete misrepresentation of my post, and completely missed my point.

    Yes, it was just one piece of anecdotal evidence, but it’s representative of a pattern I’ve heard many people experience. And it had nothing to do with how many books I sell or don’t sell.

    If you think that a large number of people are making a good living writing with the current climate, then we can agree to disagree. If you just wanna take swipes at me … meh.

  12. The public always wants what they can get for free. No surprise there. Authors hope giving away free samples will eventually make them famous. No surprise there, either. But I suspect that, eventually, authors who produce quality content and ultimately want to be paid for their effort will decide that some free excerpts/products are enough, but overall their work will have a price on it. Much like a grocer that tosses you a free apple, he expects you to buy much more than you’ll get for free from him. And if you don’t buy… he’ll stop tossing apples your way.

    Heilagr: Since library systems are still tied tightly to the traditional publishing system, I wouldn’t depend on seeing indie authors there for a long, long time. Sample excerpts of 10-30% of a book’s content are very effective to give a consumer a taste of an author’s work. Excerpts are the way to go.

    We’re still in a transitional period for ebooks as products, and it’ll probably take a while for a system that works for everyone to shake itself out.

  13. “I recently had an Amazon reviewer state that they “really enjoyed” my first book, and would like to read the sequel … if it was free, but they didn’t feel like paying $2.99 for it.”

    Ouch. Being frugal is one thing, but this is bizarre. Even a short novel would take a few hours to read and you have to value your time very cheaply for it not to be worth $2.99. Or to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, your reviewer seems to be someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

  14. I’d like to know how (or if) these people acquired books before they were available digitally. Did they buy hardcover books? How often? Used books? Library borrowing? Maybe they seldom read. An acquaintance of mine downloaded over a thousand books, mostly from the darknet, in the first week or two after getting an eReader. She read a book or two, and although she continues to accumulate free books, she doesn’t actually read very much.

  15. You may be shocked Vicki but my mother never bought a single book in her life. from the age of ca 25 to her death at 68, she borrowed four books or so every two weeks from our local library. My maiden Aunt was pretty much the same for almost as long. Your fixation with piracy is misguided.
    Apple demonstrated clearly and effectively that people all around the world are happy to pay a fair price for music despite what the Music Industry predicted. The same goes for eBooks. Millions of people are buying lots of eBooks at 2.99 and 4.99. The pricing of the A6 eBooks is crazy and unjustified by the so called ‘quality’.

  16. I am not shocked that a person who never bought a book in her life is willing to pay 2.99 or 4.99 for a book. Are you shocked that a person who used to pay $35 for a hardcover is willing to pay $15 or more for an ebook?

    My point was that people will make their minds up about what seems reasonable to them in very individual ways that may reference their prior book-buying experience.

  17. @Vicki “I’d like to know how (or if) these people acquired books before they were available digitally. Did they buy hardcover books? How often? Used books? Library borrowing?”

    Most of my pre-digital reading was from the library. I could not afford to buy new all the many, many books I wanted to read. If I thought I would re-read one, I’d check for used first (UBS or online) and then only buy new if the prices were close, or if giving a gift.

    Now, most of my ebook reading is done with books borrowed from a Kindle lending club. If I really like one, I buy it outright (no UBS for digital) so I am actually spending much more money since going digital than I did with paper. The exceptions are agency six books, which I had been getting in paper still from the library because they were not lendable for Kindle. Now with Kindle library lending I will be able to get some if them that way, the others I’ll still read in pbook, and I can eventually get most of those in used pbook if I want to re-read, because I’m not paying $12 or $15 dollars for anything digital.

  18. I take your point Vicki but I personally don’t think people’s historical habits rule their future habits. What will influence them is what choice is available at the time they seek to purchase.
    I used to buy pBooks for 15 euros for years. But now I would never ever pay more than 5 or 6 euros for an eBook except in exceptional circumstance. The reason is that I find the quality of those titles equals or exceeds those I used to have to pay 15 euros for and I know the writers are doing just as well out of it. I believe this is an experience that is spreading more and more as people discover more and more sources for their reading.
    Amazon may be dominant now. People are lazy after all. But as they become more and more experienced and as they explore other sellers they will discover that the big publishers marketing effort, telling them that price is a guide to quality, is a total nonsense.

  19. We could probably go ’round and ’round on this and never actually have an answer other than “this is how it is for me” and “this is how it is for you”; wow we buy books in different ways.

    In trying to understand it all, I looked at my husband’s reading pattern, which had been buying big name mystery and action books. He can find indie authors writing equivalent books for much less money as long as he is willing to do a little research to figure out what is actually worth reading. I read what is sometimes called contemporary literary fiction, and I have less success finding equivalent books by indie authors. In Canada, many books of this type are published by smaller publishing houses, rather than the Big Six.

    Generally, if I am willing to wait a bit, prices in my preferred category fall. Occasionally there is a real bargain. For example, when I was thinking about buying Ann Patchett’s newest book, I saw that an earlier one that I had not read was priced at $2.99. I ended up buying the cheaper book, and then a few weeks later springing for the new (more expensive) one.

    In any case, my point was never that people buy books in the way I do, but rather that there are many different ways people choose to buy or not to buy and what books have value for them. I still believe that people’s past history as readers and book buyers colour how they view purchasing digital books, but that is not a question for which there is a data based answer.

  20. Chris, this was really well-written, and I enjoyed this. I really did. Thank you. Ha ha! I could say you’re adding to the problem of freequality content. Just teasing. Ha ha.

    But you know, there’s 1 thing I really question. Amazon supposedly came out with an ad supported Kindle device (I don’t even own a Kindle, that’s why I say ‘supposedly’). But are any self published authors going to see any coin from this windfall, or just keep producing the free ebooks that helped lure customers into purchasing Kindle to begin with?

    I don’t think it’s right and the only people really making money from artistic content are APPLE & AMAZON. They use content creators to make their devices look more desirable (iTunes 99 cent music, Kindle 99 cent ebooks,everything 99 cents while the platforms earn millions & the content creators struggle to make ends meet).

    Agree or disagree? It’s something to think about.

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