Would You Pay for a Book After You've Read It?

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Fourteen years after Stephen King became the first major author to offer a work exclusively online, the publishing industry is still trying to adapt to the digital age. Amazon recently precipitated publishing's latest evolutionary step, Kindle Unlimited, an e-book subscription service that has been met with widely varying reactions, mainly centered on the services's somewhat, um, limited offerings. The problem is that although the catalog rolls 600,000 titles deep, it doesn't include books from any of the Big Five publishing houses: Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Macmillan, and Simon and Schuster. (Before that happens, they've got some things to settle first.)

Amazon's announcement has renewed discussion about how to save books (the novel is dead , after all) — or at least resurfaced it. TechCrunch writer Jon Evans presented one such idea in a column, aptly titled "How to Save Books." Whew, I thought, finally someone has figured it out.

Except not quite. What Evans, who is a journalist, novelist, and software engineer, is proposing is flipping on its head the current industry model that has been in place since Johannes Gutenberg cranked up his first printing press: He's asking readers to pay for their books only after they've finished them. Evans posits that this will capitalize on "the intimate, personal, long-term connection between author and reader, forged over many hours."

Now, I am not a journalist, novelist or software engineer (although I have tried, with varying degrees of success, to be two of those three things), nor have I been scheming many viable options for the continued existence of books (what would the publishing equivalent of SeinfeldVision be? Harry Potter-Vision?). But as I read through Evans' proposal, I couldn't help but feel like his argument left me with some questions.

Are we really supposed to trust people to pay for a book after they've read it?

Evans points out in his article that this model "implicitly puts an enormous amount of trust and faith in the average reader; again, I don’t see this as a problem." Call me jaded and cynical, but generally people can best be summed up like so:

Given the fact that people tend to sink to its lowest depths when money is involved, placing an enormous amount of trust and faith in them seems to me a fundamental flaw in Evans' model. People hate paying for things and will typically do anything possible to avoid it. Although it's wishful to think that if a book is truly good enough to forge a deep emotional connection with its reader, she will want to reward the author generously, altruism and generosity don't always win out. If the goodness of a person's heart isn't enough to compel a reader to pay for the book she just read, what will? A pop-up reminder, as Evans suggests? Hm, did you notice the one at the bottom righthand corner of this page?

So, how then do authors get paid?

Evans presents this model of book publishing as a great way for unknown authors to develop a fan base, as well as a way to make sure crappy authors wither and die on the vine. I'm all for both of these things (especially if it means we don't have to endure any more Kendall and Kylie YA epics). But how will it affect publishers', and therefore authors', bottom lines? Presumably publishers could still give authors advances, but royalty payments could get complicated (and smaller) when customers are the ones deciding when and how much to pay.

Although publishers at present sometimes miscalculate a book's earning potential based on retail price and projected sales, they at least have some understanding due to past precedent. Under Evans' model, there's even more uncertainty. And established authors would likely be reticent to get on board.

What about all the other free ways to discover and read books that already exist?

You don't buy concert tickets for an artist whose music you've never heard, so why would should you be expected to pay upfront for a book by an author whose work you've never read? Evans argues. Fair point, except he doesn't mention the numerous ways that already exist for taking an author for a test drive.

What about libraries? I found myself asking. Or borrowing a book from a friend or co-worker? Or the thousands of e-books that are available for free download? Or sitting in Barnes and Noble and reading a chapter or two before deciding to purchase a book? (Or is that something only I do?)

A post-reading payment system might be a novel way for an untested author to get her work out there and generate some buzz, but with so many options for readers to dabble in unfamiliar writers or genres, it's a feeble argument for overhauling the entire system.

Is it at all possible for this to work?

As someone who has watched the publishing industry fight to stay afloat amid the surging tides of technology with a quiet sense of impending doom, I actually want to say yes. Despite my naysaying, Evans' idea could work, with a bit of tweaking:

  • Don't make readers pay for the book upfront, but require that they enter credit card information at the time of the download. When they reach the last page, instead of giving them the option to pay, immediately charge the card on file. Readers still have the power to vote with their wallets, because if the book sucks, they presumably won't finish it, and won't have to pay.
  • Evans dismisses the idea of letting readers read a few chapters for free but charging them to download the entire book, but I think there's something to it. iTunes will let you listen to a snippet of a song free of charge, but if you want the whole track you have to pay for it. If it's a good-quality work that you're getting sucked into, you'll happily shell out the money to get your hands on the rest of it.
  • Of course, these solutions are only feasible from a digital publishing perspective. Since there are plenty of us who won't part with our print books unless they're pried from our cold, dead hands, publishers would also do well to make sure they're bestowing publishing contracts on worthy recipients, and not just people who make questionable decisions and cause scenes on basic cable.