Authors Buy Into Rainbow and Unicorn Scam

Radiohead was bright as a shiny penny on the concept of releasing their CD “In Rainbows” in 2007 and letting their fans pay what they wanted for the CD after downloading it for free and listening to it.

It was a failure with most of Radiohead’s fans deciding that the album wasn’t worth paying anything to have on their techno devices.  Yes, seventy percent of their fans paid nothing (zip, zero, not a penny) for the download they took advantage of, and of the remaining thirty percent, most of them paid a pittance (far less than the usual cost of downloading a CD’s worth of music).

An experiment was conducted at an amusement park by researchers at the University of California Berkley in 2010.  Visitors to the amusement park were offered the pay what you want option to buy a photo of themselves taken when they were on a rollercoaster ride.  The average price paid for those photos was 92 cents.  That’s right.  They didn’t pay even one measly dollar.  But when the traditional purchase model was in place, riders willingly parted with $15 for that same photograph.

Now some are promoting and supporting the concept of readers will opt to pay a fair price for books they download for free from websites that purport to have authors’ best interests at heart.  Does anyone who knows the history of pay what you want really believe that because the product being treated this way are books that this is going to turn out any differently than it played out in other industries?

The mindset of people downloading for free (most of whom won’t pay, and the balance who will pay far less than what they should) and those illegally downloading is almost identical.  This means that, as with Radiohead, and as with the amusement park experiment, this business model will result in authors coming out all the worse for wear.

Most of these sorts of websites provide four simple steps for fleecing authors and getting away with it (since a fee is usually charged to become a member, and members download books for free).

1. Just one click to download a file that matches your device.

2. Choose how much you’d like to pay based on how much the book is worth to you once you’ve read it.

3. Make as many ebook copies as you like and send them to friends.  They can pay an amount they want based on what the book is worth to them after they’ve read it.

4. Enjoy complete freedom with no restrictions.

One website even stated that members could make as many ebook copies as they wanted and encouraged members to send those ebook copies to friends. That’s called copyright infringement.

It’s been proven that when this business model is in place, seventy percent of those who download chose to pay nothing because that’s how much the book is worth to them. The balance of whose who download will pay far less than what is fair market value.

And yes, I will point these facts out repeatedly when I see fellow authors falling for this very poor business model.

On one website, they proudly stated that they had nearly 30,000 downloads and that 360 people had contributed money for books they had downloaded. There was no mention as to how much money had been collected from those 360 members.

That being said, only 360 of those 30,000 downloads resulted in a monetary return.  Yes, slightly more than one percent of those who downloaded books on this particular site (which is one of the most recognized among these websites)

In other words, nearly one hundred percent of people who downloaded books on this particular site felt that the books they downloaded weren’t worth a plug nickel or a single penny.  It would be foolhardy to believe that of the slightly more than one percent who did pay an amount, that they paid market value for the books they downloaded.

After all, remember that with the amusement park experience, the average price paid for  the rollercoaster photos was 92 cents with the pay what you want option was in place compared to the $15 that was willingly paid when a set price was in place.  Since ebooks rarely cost more than $3 from sites such as Amazon, Smashwords, and other major download portals, chances are that those who paid, paid far less than 92 cents.  After all, the value of a photograph taken of the person enjoying a rollercoaster ride is considered by most people to be of greater value than the value of an ebook.

There will be those who support these businesses who are going to argue that authors should actually be paying them on the basis that the readers are giving them free exposure by sending copies of these ebooks to read, and telling them they can pay some money for it to the website if they like the book.

People die from exposure and in more ways than the traditional weather sense.  Exposure doesn’t pay the rent or the mortgage. It doesn’t cover utilities or groceries or gas.  It doesn’t put clothes on children’s backs and it doesn’t put shoes on their feet.

On most of these sites, the Terms of Service state that “any dispute or claim relating in any way to this Agreement will be resolved by binding arbitration, rather than in court” with the choice of mediator pre-determined. If you’re an author, you have no say in who that mediator is going to be, and in signing up for their service (in the hopes of making money from this business model), you are agreeing to “binding arbitration.” In a nutshell, if the mediator finds in favor of the website (and you can bank on that happening more often than not since what business would choose a mediator that wouldn’t agree with them), there’s nothing you can do about it.

That’s not a fair and equitable contract between these websites and the literary community it purports to serve.

Just as there are countless vanity presses out there willing to plunge clients into the pits of poverty, there are websites that are willing to sell desperate authors a rainbow-and-unicorn story of untold wealth and recognition.  Don’t fall for it.  While rainbows are real, unicorns are mythical animals that are depicted in art as white horses with flowing manes and a single straight horn on its forehead.

Don’t let flim flam artists cloud your good judgment.  As the adage goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it’s too good to be true.

Elyse Bruce


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