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Free books and expired copyrights

Updated on March 31, 2008

Why aren't books free?

It's interesting to note the economics of book publishing. Writing a book takes the time of an author or multiple authors. In the case of academic pubilcations which are not generally profitable, there is a secondary step of peer-reviewing to ensure that all the information is accurate and the theories are sound.

It's funny that the author, who is the person we most commonly associate with the book, does not count for the majority of your book's cost. The author gets paid for time and ingenuity, but the majority of the book's cost goes to publishing and distribution. Then another portion goes to retail.

Did you know that stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble throw away perfectly good books? In order to get bookstores to stock shelves with millions of copies of Hilary Clinton's autobiography or the latest Tom Clancy novel, the publisher makes an agreement with the bookstore that any unsold books will be refunded on the condition that they are destroyed!

The bookstore will tear the covers off of perfectly good books and send those to the publishers as proof. The rest of the book goes in the dumpster outside the store coverless. That's why there is a warning on many books that tell you "If this book has no cover, it is stolen".

It is more profitable for big companies to sell millions of copies of a single book than it is to sell a few hundred copies of many books. So they invest a great deal of money in books they know will get thrown out just because they need to keep shelves stocked so you think those books are worth putting on your own shelf.

Also, big companies are the best at handling the marginal cost of increasing a book's distribution. A small printer and publisher can make a few thousand copies of a book with ease at a certain cost, but they don't have the overhead to make tons of books and ship them everywhere. When I say marginal in the beginning of this paragraph, I mean it in the economic sense. The marginal cost of adding a single additional reader is something business people look at very seriously. It gets more and more expensive to add one more reader/buyer after a certain point. At least it used to be more expensive because of the cost of printing and distributing the book.

How can books be free?

The Internet makes it so most of the marginal cost of adding a reader vanish. If I have a website it costs me a certain amount of money to run that site. If 100 people download the book, it costs me the price of running the site. If 101 download it, I pay the same thing. If 10,001 people download it, I pay virtually the same thing.

As a result, the costs are no longer prohibitive to cheap book distribution. That means the only factor keeping books from being free is that original work on the part of the author (THE WAY IT SHOULD BE). The author still deserves to make some money even if we cut out the expensive middlemen who notoriously rip covers off of good books and throw them in the dumpster.

But eventually, authors make their money and then some. After a certain amount of time, authors die and their children pass on and eventually their books become public property. They got some good mileage out of those books, so it's reasonable that they're free now.

If you want some of the classics, the chances are you don't have to pay $8 for a Penguin classic print of the book. You can just download it for free. Almost none of that $8 goes to the author or even the original publisher. Most of the $8 is wasted on moving around books that are gonna get thrown out frequently and it's aggravating.


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    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Heck yeah this is extalcy what I needed.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      That is so......COOOOL!!!!!

    • Danielle Farrow profile image

      Danielle Farrow 

      9 years ago from Scotland, UK

      Very interesting, and useful links - thank you!

    • Mrs Hozey profile image

      Mrs Hozey 

      9 years ago

      Excellent article. I always wondered what that message about the ripped covers was all about.

    • mroconnell profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from France

      Thanks for your comments, y'all.

    • About-The-Home profile image


      10 years ago

      Great hub and thanks for the links to free books.

    • Violette DeSantis profile image

      Violette DeSantis 

      10 years ago from Broomall, PA

      Great Hub, my husband and I are bibliophiles and read often on this topic.

    • mroconnell profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from France

      You're too kind. But maybe that pthonos theon is already here. Sometimes, I think it takes the form of sadness. I see how common depression and social disorders are and I think the reason it is so hard to be happy (even though the world is full of wonder) is that it can be really tough to have personal contact with that wonder. We're surrounded by corporate policy, scientific achievements we exploit without understanding, government bureaucracy, waste, waste and waste. And it's terrible to interface with a good book through a system that actually hates good books and only likes dollars.

      I'm all about the free market, but I wish we could be more responsible consumers and favor systems that didn't value dollars over everything else.

    • Bozyslawa profile image


      10 years ago

      i must say i did expect the best of you - but this is just fabulous! How do you find the time to learn so much and be - mentally - in so many places?

      i once saw big dumpsters full of books being thrown out by a public library - official and formal policy - they were throwing out perfectly good books, undamaged, if nobody read or asked for them for a few years, or if they were read a lot and a page was torn or the pages looked a bit old... Well, you just can't win, if the book is read and has marks of being used - out into the rubbish; if the book looks brand new and nobody read it for a few yers - out into the rubbish! perfect philosophy of a wastefull age - and i wonder when the gods' wrath (pthonos theon) will start hitting us for this anti-life behaviour?

      Thanks for the great tips, and for such a quick rsponse!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      That's funny (your comment!) but thanks for the article. Very eye-opening and sadly, an extravagant waste. Kinda like the military NOT spending thousands on a measly, uncomfortable sofa just so they can make sure they at least receive the same spending budget for the following year. Sad but lucky for us it's not at our expense! (right)

    • mroconnell profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from France

      Ya, it's legally unwise for me to talk about breaking the law so I'm going to say that I never dumpster dive and I don't find tons of awesome books. I didn't just get four sets of the Philip Pullman trilogy. I'm not sharing them with all my friends :)

    • Blogger Mom profile image

      Blogger Mom 

      10 years ago from Northeast, US

      Great hub - I had no idea that books were being thrown out! What a waste.

    • In The Doghouse profile image

      In The Doghouse 

      10 years ago from California

      Interesting information. I am such a book lover, I can't imagine throwing them away! It is almost enough to make you sick! Books on line are awesome, and a way to really get some good quality information fast. Thanks for the tips.

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 

      10 years ago from Central New Jersey

      very nice hub mro'c and thanks for the tip about Internet Archive. I'm gonna check it out.I've said from the start that the internet is a total paradigm shift --bigger than the invention of movable type--we are still at the is sooooo exciting


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