The Lafayette Deception – Intermission: The High Price of “Free”

Have you discovered The Alexandria Project?

Welcome to the sequel to The Alexandria Project, a cybersecurity thriller. 

Think_About_Balance, courtesy of  ikaxer/Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later versionAs you may have noticed, last Monday passed without my posting a new chapter of The Lafayette Deception. I’d like to explain why, and also invite you to reflect on the role that the consumer of creative work will play in the future of writing.

The fundamental question comes down to this: will writers be able to make a living in the future from their craft, and if not, what will the quality and variety of writing be like?

Usually, an essay like this would go on to talk about piracy. But piracy is only an issue for writers and other artists that are already very successful. Somebody has to know about a writer’s work before they want to copy it. Most writers can only dream about worrying about piracy.

The real issues for would-be writers are two-fold: now that the middlemen that used to discover, package, promote and distribute the written word are being consigned to the ash heap of history, how will new authors become known to readers? And if readers become accustomed to free and $.99 downloads, how will writers survive?

At this point, you may be asking yourself whether these problems are real. And in truth, there are more ways for writers to be read today than ever before, as witnessed by the explosion of blogs and the proliferation of self-publishing and print on demand publishers. But if you look at how many writers are making a living from their work, what you’ll see is that in most areas their numbers are dwindling dramatically rather than expanding. Newspapers and magazines have already been decimated. And I expect that books are likely to head in the same direction as eReaders take over a larger and larger percentage of the market.

If you think that statement is alarmist, I invite you to click on these two links. The first is the top 100 hard copy best seller list at Amazon, and the second is the equivalent list for the Kindle. Notice a difference between the two? (hint: it won’t cost you a penny to download any of the books in the second column on the Kindle list. And check out the 8 out of 20 books in the paid column that sell for $.99 to $3.99).

So what’s behind this race to the bottom? One problem is that there’s simply too much out there that’s available for free. But another is that the Internet is a million miles wide, and for the most part, only an inch deep. It’s easy to see the impact of this reality when you look at advertising. Before the Internet, there were only so many billboards, TV and Radio ad spots, and magazine and newspaper pages to advertise on. Today, the number of places to post an ad on the Web is almost infinitely large, and those placements can be much more highly targeted as well. As a result, the price of an ad has plummeted by orders of magnitude.

The same thing has happened in photography. Today, even a smartphone, let alone a point and shoot camera, can produce a salable picture, and an increasing number of sites will sell a newspaper or magazine or anyone else unlimited usage of an image for $3 to $8. Do you want a picture of an elephant? Well, there are over a million images for sale within that price range (no, I’m not making that number up). How does a professional photographer stand out, let alone sell enough work to make a living, when so many amateurs can upload a passable photo and a key word search brings up thousands of images?

So much for the thousands of free lance photographers that used to sell their work, or for most of the staff photographers that were sent on location by newspapers and magazines and ad agencies. And so much, too, for photographs that tie into stories, rather than simply align topically at a high level.

It’s the same deal for writers (and especially fiction authors), except that they now have the worst of both worlds. Authors that used to be able to find agents and publishers are finding it nearly impossible to do so. When they are successful, the publisher now wants them to do much of the work the publisher used to do – including editing their own work and promoting it, too.

Meanwhile, authors that self-publish have to bear the entire burden on their own, and only a tiny fraction will be able to rise above the constantly increasing flood of writers that are taking this approach. As with the free lance photographer, the chance of a potential customer discovering the “elephant” of an author is almost zero.

At this point, you may be inclined to ask “OK, that sounds rough for writers, but all kinds of people are having a rough time today.  So why should I care?”

The answer to that question was most succinctly suggested by a successful new author I read about in an article focusing on self-publishing. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to locate that interview, but the author’s formula for success went something like this: every three or four months he churned out a new mystery novel with a similar title, which he sold in eBook form for just $.99. At that price, he only made about $.30 a book, but because he had attracted quite a following, he was making a decent living. He spent roughly half his time writing the same type of formula book over and over again, and half his time promoting his increasing body of work.

What struck me most about the article was the author’s response when asked if a self-published mystery author had to be as good as Stephen King to be successful. His answer went something like this:

I don’t have to, because my books cost only $.99. It’s Stephen King that has the problem, because if he wants to charge $9.99 for his books, he has to write ten times better than I do.

If this guy has a point, then I would suggest that we all have a problem, or at least those of us that value good writing. The fact is that writing a really good book in any genre requires an enormous amount of talent and work. Back when publishers provided the full package to those that bought their wares, books represented not only the earnest efforts of writers, but also the impact of skilled editors that helped authors turn their raw manuscript into the best piece of finished work they were capable of producing.

Isn’t it time you  read:
The Alexandria Project?

a Tale of Treachery and Technology

Remarkably accurate while consistently spellbinding: I ran across a reference to this book at a blog unrelated to the author, and after reading one chapter, bought the book

Great thriller: In the spirit of Vincent Flynn and Tom Clancy, this cyber-security thriller is a great read. Compelling characters, great detail and an an unsettlingly plausible scenario add up to a real page-turner.

Delightfully unpredictable!  Updegrove has managed what many attempt but few can execute: a plot that is both credible and surprising….A great read – I can’t wait for the next one!

Strong characters and compelling plot: I read a lot of novels and this is a very good one. The characters are believable and engaging and the plot is compelling with several clever twists along the way….Highly recommended

Excellent and accessible techno-thriller: Updegrove…clearly knows the subject matter inside and out, but is too self-assured and smooth a writer to hide behind that insider’s knowledge….I look forward to Updegrove’s next book with great anticipation.

Great Read:  This is a very well written, highly engaging story. The scary thing about it is that the entire plot is far too possible to come to life.

Fantastic!  The Alexandria Project is a gripping novel of intrigue and suspense. The characters may be fictional, but we all know their real-life equivalents. The storyline may be fiction – but maybe not.

Read these and more 5 Star reviews at Amazon

The only part that’s fictional is that it hasn’t happened yet

Available Now for $2.99 or less

Buy at Amazon

Buy at iTunes Store

Buy at Barnes & Noble

For hundreds of years now, authors have been able to nurture and perfect their craft throughout a lifetime of sweat and effort. Often, their publishers would stand behind them, and support them even when they wished to tackle a subject that looked iffy from a commercial perspective, but which seemed important or might push the artistic envelope. Publishers like these provided the kind of financial, editorial and commercial support, often through relationships that spanned many decades, that brought some of the world’s greatest literature into full flower. Those publishers didn’t make money on every book.

Nor is that the full measure of what publishing used to be all about. A few years back I had a meeting in the executive offices of one of the best known, old line American publishers. As I walked along the halls I passed dozens of original paintings, pen and ink works and water colors by artists such as Winslow Homer, N.C. Wyeth and Frederick Remington. Each had been commissioned to grace the cover or interior of a book the house had published. Those days are now decades in the past, but even today few publishers would put their name on a book that wasn’t well designed and produced. And the likelihood of finding a typo in a professionally published book, at least until recently, was almost nil. A printed book was something that authors and publishers took pride in conceiving and executing, and which readers took pleasure in experiencing.

The point is not that we should return all the way back to some golden age of publishing standards of the past. Those days are gone. But we do have a say in what the publishing standards of the future will be. Those standards will be as high as we insist they must be, if we make our expectations known. Or they will be as low as market forces will drive them.

In a future that will be increasingly dominated by eReaders, the crucial question will obviously be how high we will set our standards for content, because the device will control the delivery. But how good will that content be?

We recognize that engineers, doctors, machinists and just about everyone else needs to practice a trade full time in order to become and remain competent at what they do. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a skill or service that we benefit from that we do not recognize as being worthy of compensation.

Until it comes to creative work. There, we are increasingly ignoring the fact that a writer, or photographer, or artist needs to work at what they do full time to achieve the same quality of work as any other craftsperson or expert. But we can’t have it both ways – it’s not Hemingway and $.99 books. It’s Hemingway or $.99 books. Pick one.

But I would go further. Expecting writers and artists to work for little or nothing is exploitive and wrong, at least if we wish to have access to their work. Luckily for us, there will always be plenty of writers willing to work for free (this site has closer to two million than one million words of my authorship here already, and they’re all there for free).

But free writing almost by definition is writing that gets done in the odd hour, with less care, sometimes with less investment in creativity, and almost never with the improving touch of an editor. At minimum such work will appear more sporadically, and only through something close to divine intervention will it be likely to mature into the type of output that we will remember and treasure for the rest of our lives, and that will reach out to future generations of readers as well.

So let me return from the general to the specific.

Once upon a time, about three years ago, I got an idea for a book. Eventually, I started to write that book. My thinking was that I stood a chance of building a following that could lead me to write more books, using my blog as a platform, since I had some thousands of regular readers.

I called that book The Alexandria Project, and once it was well under way, I began posting it, chapter by chapter, at my blog. Because it was so time consuming, I had to give up most of the writing that I had been doing up until then on standards and open source topics, because I didn’t have enough time to do both. My best guess is that close to 4,000 people read the book, start to finish.

It took me about 1000 hours to write the first draft of the book.  When I got done, I completely revised the entire text three times, until I was satisfied that it was ready to publish. That took close to another 1000 hours. Then I began exploring the ins and outs of agents, publishers, and self-publishers. Predictably, I failed to get an agent interested, so I went the self-publishing route, and had to spend over $3,000 to produce a well designed, professionally proofread book in hard cover, soft cover and eBook versios that I could be proud of.  Then, I had to confront the question of how I would promote the book.

My thinking was that on part of my efforts should be to market the book to those that had read, and presumably enjoyed, the first draft in serial form. To attract their attention, I started a sequel, which I began to post in installments every Monday, and a new series, “Adventures in Self-Publishing,” to post on Fridays. These efforts alone required an investment of at least ten hours a week. Then I waited for my first book to become available, so that I could advertise it through the two new series, and enlist the help of those that were following my work to help spread the word.

Eventually, the book came out in eBook form, and I did advertise it through the two new series. Sounds like I had a pretty good plan, right?

Except that it didn’t work.  At all. Nobody who had read the book the first time it came out, or who was reading the sequel or the self-publishing series, bought it.  Even when I dropped the price to $2.99.

By nobody, I mean really, really close to nobody. After subtracting out the copies bought by people I knew didn’t read my blog, my best guess is that fewer than five copies have been bought to date by those reading my blog.

So the question becomes this: should I continue the sequel or not, and if so, to what purpose?

It clearly isn’t selling any books, nor is it likely that anyone reading this blog will buy the sequel, either, when it’s completed. If I’m going to be writing for free, there are many other topics that I could, and from a professional point of view should, be writing about instead. I’ve been neglecting those topics almost entirely, and it is those topics that help support my day job.

Every author without a trust fund has to face the economics issue eventually. If they can’t make a living out of writing, then they can’t live to write. And if they can’t live to write, then the reading public shouldn’t expect a whole lot from their writing.

Here, then, is the take away of this essay: just as you may support public radio with an annual donation, or a local band by buying their CDs, ultimately you will need to put your economic support behind authors, musicians and artists if you want to have access to first class work. And hey, it’s not a heck of a lot to ask. Even a full-priced eBook costs less than a night at the movies, and your enjoyment of it will last a lot longer. You can even re-read it.

But that’s not all.  Today, writers need more than economic support. Remember that in the introduction to this piece, I identified a second problem as well: the decline of the role of the publisher. Authors today need help from readers not only in the form of book purchases.  They need help just as badly in promoting their work, because the traditional promotional system is in a shambles, and a new one has not yet risen from the ashes.

So if you read and enjoy a book by a self-published (a/k/a, an “indie” author), tell your friends, or don’t expect that that author will follow up with another one, or if they do, that it will necessarily be as good. With today’s social media, it will only take a few seconds. Use Facebook, Twitter, or whatever else you use to stay in touch with those you know, and introduce a new author you’ve discovered to your friends. That’s a win/win for all concerned.

But if the price of a movie ticket and the time it takes to send a few Tweets still doesn’t seem like a reasonable exchange for the pleasure of reading a good book, you might ask yourself why not?

Before answering that question, consider how many wonderful books you’re read in your life, and what they’ve meant to you, as well as what the future will be like if the number of wonderful books waiting for you begins to decline. And finally you might want to reflect on what the authors of those books should be entitled to expect from you in return for making these books available to you.

Personally, I would not want to face a future where the odds of success were so poor that new authors were no longer willing to make the sacrifices necessary to see if they had it within them to create great literature. Or to research and write the kind of critically analytical non-fiction books that provide a last defense against prejudice, FUD and willful ignorance.

If that’s the price of “free,” then in my book, the cost of free is far, far too high.

Comments (17)

  1. For the record I would like to purchase The Alexandria Project in an electronic format and would willingly pay more than $2.99. Unfortunately I am currently unemployed and can’t afford an eReader for the moment. An option to download the eBook to any computer device does not seem to be available.

    Let’s pretend that I win the loto tonight and buy a Kobo eReader from the Canadian retailer (Chapters / Indgo) tomorrow. Will it be a case of too bad so sad you don’t own comptable hardware to read this eBook? I understand the reasons for these limitations but hopefully a more suitable solution can be found to enforce digital copyrights.

    If someone knows of a legal methode for me to download The Alexandria Project to my desktop system please reply to this post.

    Tom Weeds

    The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster
    than society gathers wisdom.- Isaac Asimov

    • Kidnle for PC, Or Stanza are good free ebook readers for PC’s.

  2. Tom,


    Unfortunately, Amazon and Apple so far haven’t been willing to adopt a common eBook format, for reasons of their own welfare rather than the reader’s.  Hopefully that may change some day sooner rather than later.  We’ll see.


    The good news is that you can download a free copy of the Kindle software to any desktop, laptop or mobile device from the Amazon Web site.



    I’m sorry to hear that you’re out of work, and will be happy to send you a copy of the final PDF file for the book if you send me an email.


      –  Andy

  3. I think part of the problem is that the consumer is being overloaded with entertainment options.  Long ago, books were one of the primary forms of solitary entertainment.  Video games have satisfied that need for many people and the Internet has eliminated solitude in general with Facebook and the like.  I suspect that the number of books and readers is declining with respect to population growth.  It may be the case that authors are fighting over a shrinking share of the pie.  With the ease of publishing there’s more competition for what’s left and it’s hard to stand out from the crowd.  It’s bad news from all angles unless you’re already well established or can ride the coattails of someone who is.

  4. First off let me start with saying I hope you finish this second story, even if you only release it in book format (and not free on here).


    The original story entertained me and my fellow SysAdmin every monday for the run of the story. It was a highlight to the week, and made Mondays a little bit more bearable.


    Now. I will admit that when the story finished, I did not keep track of your progress in making it into an actual book. I knew you were doing it, but did not keep my eye open.


    When you started this new story, I decided I wanted to re-read the original first, and my Fellow SysAdmin (DemonPenguin) sent me the link to amazon, since he had just purchased an eBook version of it himself. And grabbed myself a copy for the Kindle.


    So thats at least two of us who used to read your posts weekly who have purchased copies. And since we share an office we could have just got the one copy and shared. But thats not fair on Indi authors.


    Anyway. Whatever you decide (*subliminal command* finish the second story */subliminal command*) Thanks for the enjoyment of the first.


    P.S. When I finish the re-read of the original, I’ll happily blog a review on my site and link to goodreads etc. (Is bribery working here?)

    Anyway.. Thanks for all the enjoyment.

  5. Thanks very much for the words of support, and particularly for actually ordering the book – both are very much appreciated.


    I’m afraid that I’m putting The Lafayette Deception on hold for now.  It isn’t working, and I need to spend the time trying out other things that might.  If sales of The Alexandria Project pick up, maybe I’ll pick it up again.  We’ll just have to wait and see.


      –  Andy

  6. Less then 5 sold? That’s very, very sad. Yesterday, I ordered 2 hardcover books, at B&N.

    I liked the story, and I like TLD as well, so I hope you wil continue writing. I’ll keep an eye on the site 😉

  7. Thanks for the kind words.  I should clarify that I’m pretty much in the dark as to the actual number of books that have been sold, because I haven’t yet been able to see a comprehensive list of sales (that has to come through Dogear, the publisher.  The only update it monthly, and I haven’t seen the first report).


    What I’m left with is a definitive list of Amazon sales that resulted from a click on the ad in the blog entries at my site, the sometimes rather mysterious fluctuations of the Amazon Rank of the book, and the dates that it moves, relative to the dates that new blog posts go up.


    In particular, if most of the sales have been completed through Barnes & Noble and iTunes, then I would have underestimated by that amount.  I certainly would like to be pleasantly surprised when I see the numbers, but given Amazon’s market share, it seems unlikely to me that I would be off by as much as 2X or 3X (and, after all, that would mean 10 or 15 books instead of 5).


      –  Andy

    • Well, of course I can only speak for myself. But as a long-time IT-guy and Linux-user, if I get a choise, I buy at B&N. Maybe other readers also do that. Anyway, I hope that you will get a very nice surprise when the salesfigures come in.

  8. Hi Andy,

    Just a few notes from my perspective.

    Note 1:
    When I was in grade 9 – 11 I read voraciously. Sometimes I would read up to 14 books in a week this in conjunction with sport and an active social life meant I was really really busy. Once I counted and discovered I was reading 8 books at the same time. I slowed down in grade 12 but sped up again after school for a few years. Only after reading heavily for many years did I realise how incredibly valuable reading is for our development, I suppose it took a bit of time for my emotional development to catch up to my intellectual development.

    Intellectual and emotional development is heavily aided and enriched by a lot of reading. The thing is that was in the 80’s. If I also had a Nintendo Wii (or say an XBox), an Iphone or Android Phone, Satellite television with over 200 channels and a High Def TV with DVDs and Blu Ray or even 3D would I have had the same experience that resulted in my development as a human being? Sadly I don’t think so. I used to get into trouble reading as I would go sometimes nearly through the night. One of my best memories was getting into trouble once for waking up the entire household at 3am as I laughed so loud and uncontrollably reading Douglas Adams into the wee hours.

    Unfortunately @jhansonxi has it spot on. There are now many many forms of entertainment. In a way we were lucky to have reading as our biggest form of entertainment when we were young. I really believe that the kids in the current generation that are reading heavily and not spending most of their time playing games will have a massive advantages over their peers in the years to come.

    So yes reading is very valuable but unfortunately our viewpoint is sentimental and progress trumps sentimentality every time.

    Note 2:
    I would like to put something to you: I believe your blog series is far more valuable (to me) than your book. An inverted expected value I am sure. I have decided to self publish a book on Smashwords and while I don’t have the time to read your book your blog series on self publishing has been a godsend for me. It has taken me on a journey in which I can plan properly and discover what I need to do to get the book to completion and it has tempered my expectations of success.
    Maybe you should have given away the book for free and charged for the blog? 😉 I am kidding of course but it is an interesting viewpoint.

    Note 3:
    I was very surprised by something in your post. You give quite a damning verdict on the success of your book and then I was stunned to see that you had not yet received the full report for the first months’ sales! It must be the exuberance of youth but surely you can take the time to give your book a chance at success? To expect block buster success in the first month is very short sighted in my view. Surely you could do some more work toward the success of your book. With a little patience and application I believe your book could achieve something that in the least could be regarded as a modest success, more than many people achieve. In fact I think your blog post is incomplete, there should be at least one paragraph discussing your pride in being a published author an achievement many don’t accomplish.

    Regards, Martin

  9. Martin,


    Thank you very much for your long and thoughtful comments. 


    [Unfortunately, Geeklog keeps deleting this entry for imaginary spam, so I’m going to have to reply to you a paragraph or two at a time and throw away any parts seem to be the problem.  If there are any Geeklog pros out there, I sure could use some help here]

    Like you, I’ve always been a voracious reader.  In my case, from early elementary school through high school, when I read not only books for fun (all of the James Bond books in one week, much of it spent lying on the floor in the hallway under the nighlight when I was supposed to be asleep) but a lot of great literature.  When I turned about 30, I switched to non-fiction, which I’ve been reading ever since. 

    Sadly, as I focused on humanities in college, I had such a heavy required reading load that my self-chosen reading suffered greatly.  As a result, I’ve often thought that in one way, my college years were a serious interruption of my broader education.  But of course I learned a lot from that reading as well.


      –  Andy

  10. Martin,


    [Part II]


    I’m delighted that you’ve found the self-publishing series helpful.  While there’s a wealth of material out there to read on self-publishing, I found it very difficult and time consuming to find the information that I thought I needed to move forward.  Some materials that were very good when written were now very out of date, some focused narrowly on certain issues, and so on.  And the POD publishing world has changed radically in just the last year or two with the rise of eBooks.  I do hope that people will benefit from reading at the beginning of the process about some of the mistakes I made along the way.  I certainly wish I had had earlier access to the information I learned after it was too late to make use of it.
    It’s true that my series was self-consciously dour and "half glass full" rather than celebrating the new opportunities for self-publishing.  My feeling is that the vast majority of what was already out there was far too optimistic, and the deeper I looked, the fewer success stories there were to be found.  That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t self publish.  But it does mean that they shouldn’t have false expectations which can only lead to disappointment.

      –  Andy

  11. Martin,


    I’m just going to have to give up on this last part; I’ve tried four times making changes every time.


    So let me just say good luck with your book – be sure to tell me when you’re done.


      –  Andy

    • Andy, thanks for the good wishes on my book. It probably won’t be a page turner as it is a book on parenting and how to help you survive the first few years, something I could have done with as a primer. 🙂

      I’m in that awful place of being 3/4 done and suddenly having my life overtaken with busy-ness. I will persevere though and get it done and published this year.

      The self-publishing series put me on the right track and after much searching I happened upon a link to it at Groklaw and it made a huge difference to how I am approaching the whole publishing process. To a large degree it is a pilot or test scenario for another book I have mostly written but have not yet completed that I would like to publish with one of the larger publishing houses if it is accepted. Who knows, anything is possible right? 😉

      My challenge at the moment is working my way through the Smashwords Style Guide. While I am very grateful that it exists and is free it is not exactly a cliffhanger.

      Going back to your discussion about the value of professional publishing versus the current free-for-all on the internet the problem seems to be that certain people are "overlearning the game".

      I read a great blog post on this at "Andrew on Everything" where he posted "The "overlearning the game" problem". I will add the link in a separate comment in case it gets blocked but you can search for this entry if the link doesn’t come through.

      Regards, Martin.

  12. Martin,


    I’m well familiar with the phenomenon Andrew (on everything!) is writing about, but I’ve never heard that very apt name for it before.  I like it.


    In the self-publishing arena, it may be that we have the worst of both worlds – not only are these myriad tactics that people have come up with, but to my way of thinking it’s mostly pointless chasing of our tails.  I have to seriously question how many people will accomplish more than wasting their time.


    I recently read a blog entry by the author of "The Lace Maker," who is often held up as an example of the fact that you can succeed in self-publishing.  Except that what really happened was she happened to get introduced to a film producer who expressed some interest, and based on that, was able to get an agent to shop the book as the basis for a screenplay.  Only after she sold it for that purpose was she able to get a publisher, which was uninterested and unaware of how well (or not) she had done with her book sales.


      –  Andy

    • Andy,

      Yes I liked the way Andrew (on everything!) named it as "overlearning the game". I always enjoy it when someone illuminates something I have been very aware of but only under the surface. It takes good perception to bring something like that out into the open.

      In terms of self-publishing and the PODs I think that it has been turned into a bit of a gold rush at the moment. Of course the gold isn’t going to the creators but to the clever people that are "changing everything". It’s just a variation of the dotcom bubble. These guys don’t have a sustainable business model and at some point they will implode leaving only the companies that have either planned well for the future or have a strong business model. The wannabe writers that rushed in to cash in on the gold rush but don’t have the talent will realise the party is over and rush off to the next created gold rush in another industry. Once the dust has settled we will be back to where we were before the "traditional big publishing is dead" meme was launched and then everyone will realise it was only a format change.

      Regards, Martin.

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