Does 'free' devalue comics?

In case you hadn't already read, cartoonist Kyle Baker on Tuesday casually made put up on his website free digital versions of eight of his creator-owned graphic novels. That includes acclaimed works like Why I Hate Saturn, Nat Turner and You Are Here. You can read them through an embedded reader on his site, or download them. Sometimes the digital files aren't the best, but all the more reason to go for the print version if your interest is piqued; each page has links to Amazon listings. While most are out-of-print, re-sellers are offering new and used copies for less than cover price in most cases.

This is a veritable feast for readers, but it's an interesting and unexpected move by the artist. As mentioned, only three of the eight downloadable graphic novels appear to be in-print: Nat Turner, The Bakers: Babies and Kittens and Special Forces. As this doesn't appear to be a promotional campaign to boost sales, it may be a way to prove audience interest to a publisher. Baker mentioned on Twitter last night that he's negotiating for a new publishing deal, which could include a sequel to Why I Hate Saturn.

So if he doesn't really have to worry about cannibalizing print sales (even though we know that doesn't happen; we've seen time and again evidence to support the theory that digital sales actually help boost print sales), why just give them away?

Make no mistake: As a consumer, free is a great price! In fact, it's my favorite price! But some argue that free cheapens the finished product and devalues the work put into it. Some go so far as to argue it can even make the product less desirable because consumers question whether it's any good if it's being given away for nothing. I think that can be true, but it comes down to what are you giving away. Free stickers of something I may or may not know? Yeah, no thanks. Free comics from an Eisner-winning, world-class cartoonist who can make you laugh and break your heart whenever he wants? Yes, please!

It helps that I'm familiar with Baker's work, and that he has an established reputation he brings to the table. At first glance, it doesn't look like he shot himself in the foot by giving them away. Based on only his announcement on Twitter and Facebook, there's already been a buzz of activity and probably hundreds of downloads and reads (assuming that each Facebook "like" and share results in at least one book getting read online or downloaded). If this is to prove he has an audience, best to remove any resistance points like money.

So for his (albeit, assumed) purposes, giving it away makes sense. But maybe there's something to the notion of devaluing work by giving it away. Whether it's bootlegs, pirated downloads or just sharing free copies online or in real life, it's undeniable that there are more ways to consume more entertainment without any cost now than at any other time in history. But people still need to make a living producing our entertainment. Or at least enough of a living that they can set aside the time to make it. Is there a cumulative effect on the perception of how much something is worth? Is the commodity of entertainment being lessened by too much free stuff?

I don't think there's an easy answer to that. Promotional events, like Free Comic Book Day, comiXology sales, and Kyle Baker's digital giveaways, should still happen. But both producers and consumers alike have to remember that someone has to get paid eventually.

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