It is a universal truth that everyone loves a freebie.

Free trial of a subscription service? Yes please. Free food sample? Don’t mind if I do. Buy one get one free? Oh, go on then. Free book?…Well, that’s a bibliophile’s dream, surely. 

But what happens when we peek beneath the dust jacket of the publishing industry and ask—how can publishers actually give away books for free, and what does it mean for authors?

The free content debate has long plagued the industry, but the issue was thrown into the spotlight once again by the coronavirus pandemic. As bookshops closed their doors and book production ground to a halt, publishers had to find new ways to market their books and reach their readers during lockdown.

Children’s publisher Nosy Crow turned to their backlist, giving away a free audiobook and picture book every day. During The Bookseller Children’s Conference, Tom Bonnick said they thought long and hard about how to help out families without harming author income. When choosing which titles to give away, they prioritised books in a series so as not to ‘cannibalise’ author sales.

Egmont’s website 14Stories14Days also distributed free content, with a new children’s story every day for the recommended 14-day self-isolation period. This became a platform to up-sell, via a recommendations page that included links to Waterstones, WHSmith, and other retailers where their books could be purchased.

So, what does this mean for the creators of these books?

The Society of Authors says it is imperative that authors make a sustainable living from their writing. But the annual income of a professional author is just £10,500; a breath-taking figure that falls far short of the minimum wage. Regardless of possible brand benefits, can authors afford to give away their work, and their time, for free?

“Is it worth being an author? I frequently ask myself that and, quite honestly, the answer is no.”
—children’s author & illustrator Shoo Rayner.

Free content is an accessibility issue; for authors who cannot afford it (a majority, it would seem) and also for those in the early stages of their writing careers who don’t have a backlist to fall back on.

I spoke with children’s author Rashmi Sirdeshpande who says we have to find a way to change the narrative around creative work. She thinks publishers should be advising authors on the kinds of free promotions that ‘actually shift the needle in terms of sales’, whilst shielding them from time-wasting events that only pay in exposure. As she rightly points out, ‘exposure doesn’t pay the bills’.

For children’s publishers looking to get cut-through in an increasingly crowded marketplace, there is a compelling argument to be made for using free content to raise awareness of titles and authors. In an age of social media, this is all but inevitable. But publishers must do so selectively and with extreme caution—to ensure that the real price of free content is not paid by the creators themselves.