To make sure your time is invested rather than wasted, start by looking at a corporate novel’s price.
Reading Time: 11 minutes
I noticed recently that I spend as much time browsing, searching, and weighing novels against each other as actually reading them. And it makes perfect sense: For every good business novel, there are ten bad ones out there. Luckily, with books, as with most other goods, price is a good first indicator of quality. For other indicators, read on here.
Let’s be clear: I am not talking about classic literature such as Robinson Crusoe, where the authors are dead more than 70 years and thus the copyright has lapsed. Those novels are part of the canon and have the seal of approval on them. I am talking about recent financial thrillers, corporate fiction, and suspense dramas where the e-book version is priced at zero dollars. In this blog I will put a monetary figure on your loss when reading a bad novel. Second, I will show why the probability of reading good fiction for free is very low. A look from the commercial angle demonstrates there is a clear correlation between price and quality. Stay tuned until the end and you will find some bonus tips on how to still save money when your reading budget is tight.
The strain on your time budget
An average novel offered for free counts between 50,000 and 70,000 words. Books priced above that are usually between 70,000 and 120,000 words in length. There are statistics saying that the better performing novels are those above 100.000 words, so this is the first reason not to go with free business novels.
But let’s have a look how much time a bad novel will cost you. After all, free is not free. Your time can and should be quantified too. An average person reads about 200 words per minute. Keep in mind that this is a best-case estimate. If you aren’t sitting on your desk highly concentrated, chances are you will often get interrupted, lose your train of thoughts, or even fall asleep. If it is a business novel you are reading, you might even have to jump back a couple of pages to keep track of the many characters that drive the story. So let’s assume a net reading capacity of 100 words per minute. For a free novel you would spend anywhere between 8 and 12 hours. That is at least a very intense workday. Or put differently: A vacation day. Now ask yourself how much money you lose, if you take an unpaid vacation day. 100 dollars? 500? Maybe 1,000? This is the real cost for misjudging a novel. Suddenly the 15 dollars for the book look quite puny, don’t they? The investment case is clear.
For those finance experts among you, also think of the opportunity cost: Every minute you spend reading bad and boring commercial novels, you could have been reading something truly life-changing. And let’s face it: Nothing life-changing comes for free. Or when was the last time you heard somebody say a LinkedIn post had turned their worldview upside down?
IMPORTANT disclaimer: Yet even if your day is worth 1,000 dollars, it makes economically sense to read, as long as the stuff you are poring over is of high quality. Great literature is worth the time personally and financially. I have aggregated a number of scientific, University-led studies that show the phenomenal effect reading corporate novels has. But don’t waste time on something that won’t engage you, stretch you, or keep you highly entertained. If you really are among those, whose workday is worth 1,000 dollars and more, you probably know this anyway. You wouldn’t have gotten this far without reading the right things.
The economics of free corporate novels
We live in an age of zero-based pricing. Google offers its search engine, its maps, its Android operating system and so on for free. Facebook and LinkedIn do the same with their social networks. We got accustomed to not paying for services, because we sign them over our data in terms and conditions nobody reads or understands. But how does it work with books that don’t have number-crunching algorithms turning ones and zeros into dollars?
Let’s say you as an author need to earn between 50,000 and 100,000 dollars a year to cover your living costs, probably depending most on whether you live somewhere in the Midwest or New York City. This is the profit you need at the end of the year. But this is only your time writing the book. If you are a self-published author – as are most authors that give away free e-books – then you must factor in other costs such as cover design, editing, proof-reading, your own time for coordinating the suppliers, and obviously there are huge marketing costs. What does it matter if your corporate novel is unbeatable at its pricing, when nobody stumbles over it? And don’t forget the overhead: You need to keep managing things such as your website and your social media. In short, producing and getting your business novel out there costs a good deal of money. So how can it be economically viable to give away your novel for free? After all, you might easily end up with a goal of earning 150,000 dollars to get to your initial target of 100,000 profit.
The way you pay
So, what’s the business model? Non-fiction authors often use the book as a sales tool to be presented on their website or to have a door-opener, let’s say for big consulting pitches. With fiction it’s trickier. A large chunk of free fiction novels is vanity publishing. Those people just want to have their book out there, regardless of whether it makes money. The problem for the reader is: If something does not make money, chances are it’s not a good product. Wanting to make money is a good motivation to write an awesome book. When startups used to ask me for funding in my former hob, I always posed the same question: What is your motivation? My favorite answer was high sales numbers and profit. In this case they would be forced to give the customers whatever was good for them, rather than what they thought was best. It is the same with banking thrillers and corporate fiction: The reader must be at the center. I must admit though, that to my great surprise there are many successful novels (especially in literary fiction) that are rather akin to a self-therapy for the author than an entertaining story. You don’t believe me? Check out the highly successful Karl Ove Knausgaard.
The math of mass behind free corporate novels
What about those commercial fiction authors that live from their writing, but are still giving away their books for free? They use a technique that marketeers call loss-makers, pricing one or two products at zero dollars and then hoping there will be some spillover effects. If people like their free e-book, the authors hope, they will buy some of the others too. Hence, you get a lot of series with this type of authors. The idea is that readers might fall in love with the writing style, but even more so with the characters.
That is quite an expensive loss-leader given the calculation above. This technique only works out for authors who have many novels published. So, unless they are in the writing world for decades and have had the time to publish, say 20 novels, I would put an asterisk to the quality of that book. And even if somebody is publishing novels for a decade, he would need to come out with a new book every six months. That sounds more like conveyor belt work, than art, right? Can you really churn out one great book after another in such a short time? John Grisham and James Patterson sure can, but that’s why they are among the richest and most-widely read writers. Plus, they have major publishers and agents that take care of basically everything, so they can focus on writing only. And still: Neither John Grisham nor James Patterson are giving away any novels for free. Have you ever wondered why? Probably because good fiction has its price.
Consider this: You can get your daily news for free from so many daily newspapers that are distributed free of charge in front of the subway. Or you could read them on the internet. Yet many of us choose to buy a subscription to the Wall Street Journal or The Economist. Why? Because we trust their figures, their analyses, their professional standards. They will shape our worldview to a certain degree, and we readily fork out a couple of bucks to bend it into the right direction. We see it as an investment into a small investment into our future. Corporate novels work the same way.
Beware of the “I want to make the world a better place”-argument
Our commercial analysis shows clearly that quality costs. Whether the authors’ motivation is cross-selling, the conveyor-belt technique or personal branding, many brush away those concerns by claiming altruistic motives. They want the world to become a better place by disseminating knowledge for free, they say. I don’t buy it and either should you. As a banker I am very skeptical when someone tells me they are doing something for the greater good. Especially when I know how much effort really goes into putting up such a product. For Call to Power I spent three years of vacations, weekends and evenings.
Don’t get me wrong: Corporate novels do make an impact on individuals’ lives and the world. It was also one of the motivations to write my book. But if I was solely doing it for the good impact, the hundreds, if not thousands of hours would have better been invested in a soup kitchen. Put bluntly, an author giving away his book for free only to make the world a better place is just as trustworthy as the mission statements of hubris-infused start-ups from the West Coast.
Alternatives for cash-strapped lovers of corporate fiction
I know from my writing, that most readers of corporate thrillers tend to earn above average and will gladly fork out 15 dollars for a good novel. But my readership is also made up of hungry, aspiring go-getters, who are often in their twenties and for whom every dollar counts. Been there, done that. I managed to read a truckload of good books without spending a fortune. How? There are basically three ways.
First, timing. A fiction title is generally something you don’t need to read immediately. Whether you get the book next week or in three months makes no difference. This makes bargain-hunting easier. Publishers and authors experiment with price and play with them to achieve certain goals. Whether it is to push the Christmas sales figures or to support a successful launch campaign that will catapult their business thriller onto the bestseller charts. The best way to monitor this, is by simply singing up for newsletters of authors you are interested in. Follow that easy technique and save a small fortune. But take care: Some authors will spam you. Unfortunately, the likelihood is higher when they have dozens of titles, series, or other products they sell, such as writing workshop. Now you might argue that it is easy for me to criticize this kind of marketing because I don’t offer such services. Fair enough, but I honestly feel annoyed by these e-mail storms and wanted to warn you. Anyway, give it a try. If it’s too much, simply unsubscribe. And if you still want me to send you some campaigns, you can register here ?
The second great way to get a bang for your buck is to buy used books, a technique I myself used excessively during my student years. Many books might be much thumbed or bear some scribbled notes, but let’s face it: You need a library, not a book collection.
And the third route is to go to a library. Yes, it’s old school, but tried and tested. Also, it comes with some side benefits of its own. Thanks to the unparalleled calm you can devour your corporate novels at a much faster reading pace than 200 words per minute. For me there’s also something special about libraries. The sole idea that knowledge is culled from all over the world and from different epochs and you can simply tune just inspires me. I admit, though, this is a personal benefit not everybody might get out of it.
Evading free corporate novels is the first step in making sure you don’t waste your time with bad books about Corporate America. For the next steps of your filtering mechanisms read on here.
You can easily calculate the costs of picking the wrong reads about Wall Street, commerce or manufacturing. Especially if you are looking to grow personally as a result of your reading experience, you should never cut short on the initial investment. Just consider the commercial angle and you will quickly realize there is no world-class literature you can expect here. Think about it like this: A small garage band would lunge at the opportunity to play their music for free to a crowd of 200 people. But you also wouldn’t expect Bono there, would you?
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Pictures: Kevin Ku on Unsplash; Jonathan Francisca on Unsplash