18 April 2008

Free your mind

On writers, ‘digital rights management’, and the internet

(Update: Why write books at all when blogging is the thing? See this new post.)

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money — Samuel Johnson

At the end of last year, I decided to give away my book, Trigger Happy, in DRM-free .pdf format. I called it “a kind of experiment”. Thirty thousand downloads later and counting, it’s time to collate the lab results.

Internet distribution is awesome, but you knew that already. More people got Trigger Happy from this website than ever bought a copy of the printed book. The interest shown in an eight-year-old book about videogames by people as far afield (from my point of view) as Brazil and Russia has been immensely gratifying. My book was converted to be readable on the Nintendo DS; and the Nebraska Library Commission made a spiral-bound printed copy for their collection. Links to the download attracted a lot of attention to this site, and in December there was even an article about the book published in the French newspaper Libération.

All of which is to say, it was a pretty good publicity stunt. It might have sold a few more hard copies; more importantly, it gives my future books a better chance of at least being picked up in a bookstore by people who downloaded this one.

Although I didn’t do it for the money, I was also, of course, interested in testing the idea of giving stuff away and allowing people freely to express their appreciation. So I put a PayPal button below the download. Is this, as some people say, an exciting new internet-age business model for writers and other creative types?

Er, not really. The proportion of people who left a tip after downloading Trigger Happy was 1 in 1,750, or 0.057%. I am of course very grateful to each of them, though I was particularly amused by several who left $0.01, which seems a lot of clicks to expend when you could just write “Fuck you” in the comments. ((To be fair, paying the one cent does have a satirical purpose, to shame my money-grubbing behaviour; by comparison, writing “Fuck you” in the comments would be a little crude.))

Clearly this is not any kind of business plan. Still, some people insist that all creative work ought to be given away like this. Several idealistic types in the comments here welcomed my giveaway as reflecting the true spirit of the free dissemination of knowledge. Although I quite admire this sentiment as a utopian principle, I have some problems with it in the real world. Because, you see, this is what I do for a living.

Although I dislike the word “professional”, hostage in this day and age to multifarious abuses, I am a professional writer, in the sense that writing, and only writing, is what puts a roof over my head and food in my mouth. ((An academic on a comfortable university salary, on the other hand, has a different relationship with publishing, and might well want to give away his books gratis.)) As one commenter here suggested, maybe it’s the term “copyright” itself that rubs people the wrong way: perhaps reactions would be different were it changed to “righttoeat”.

If the breathless advocates of “the free distribution of ideas” are serious, they need either a) to come up with a realistic proposal as to how I am to keep feeding myself while giving the fruits of my labours away for free; or b) come out and say honestly that they don’t think any such thing as a “professional writer” ought to exist, and that I should just get a job like anyone else. ((My main gig is actually reviewing for the Guardian, but that’s “professional writing” too.)) In a way, I’d respect people who came out and said the second thing. What I don’t respect is people who can’t see that those are the choices.

There does exist a proposal that purports to be of type a). I’ll call it, for short, “the Slashdot argument”. It says that books, music, films, software and so on ought to be freely distributed to anyone who wants them, simply because they can be freely distributed. What is the writer or musician to do, though, if she can’t earn money from her art? Simple, says the Slashdotter: earn your money playing live (if you’re one of those musicians who plays live), ((There have been experiments in “writing live”, in which writers are put on display in glass boxes while composing texts, but this hasn’t really taken off as a mainstream spectacle, for understandable reasons: the act of writing is terribly boring to look at.)) or selling T-shirts or merchandise, or providing some other kind of “value-added” service. Many such arguments seem to me to be simple greed disguised in high-falutin’ idealism about how “information wants to be free”. Perhaps it’s not empty pedantry to point out that “information” doesn’t want anything in and for itself. The information in which humans traffic is created by humans. And most information-creating humans need to earn dollars or yuan to survive.

In any case, I think the Slashdot argument can actually be disposed of rapidly with one rhetorical question, as follows.

Oh Mr Freetard, you work as a programmer, do you? How interesting. So do you perform all your corporate programming duties for free, and earn your keep by selling personally branded mousemats on the side?

Didn’t think so.

Perhaps I could have tried distributing Trigger Happy the Radiohead way, making sure you had to pay a minimum to get the goods. Would I still have attracted 30,000 readers like that? I doubt it. The sublime In Rainbows seems to have been a nice little earner for Radiohead, but that’s because they’re Radiohead — and they became Radiohead through the nasty old music-industry business model. So did Nine Inch Nails, whose recent internet release of (the excellent) Ghosts was very clever — the first nine songs of a triple album for free in compressed mp3; the whole thing in a lossless format for $5. But if there’s been a comparable success by a band that hasn’t already gained its cultural capital and name-recognition through the evils of copyright and corporate promotion, I’d like to know about it. ((No, really, I would: tell me in comments if there is such a story.))

But this brings up a lucky difference (for me) between music and books. Music distributed over the internet is indistinguishable from music distributed in shops. Writing distributed over the internet is not the same as writing you buy in shops. Yet. There’s still all that business of the physicality of the book as object. Reading books on an electronic device is still less pleasant, for most people, than reading them on paper. And that’s why giving away electronic copies à la Cory Doctorow is still an excellent idea in publicity terms. (It’s analogous to the way writing direct to the internet for free gets some people nice book-of-the-blog deals, from which they expect to profit.)

The other alternative, of course, is to bypass traditional publishing channels completely. Instead of aiming for physical book distribution as the prize, some people despair of it altogether, and just post short stories and even whole novels straight to the internet, claiming again that this is a revolutionary new model that will kill the “old” system. I can’t have a very constructive opinion on this phenomenon, because (and please forgive me) I’ve never seen any of this stuff that was actually any good. ((I trust readers will point me towards some that is, in comments.)) It’s an iron law: take away the filters of commissioning and editing, and the proportion of crap rises dramatically. That’s not to say that there can’t be any good material distributed this way; just that if it exists, it will be terribly hard to find.

To come back to the relationship between traditionally published books and their electronic counterparts: the happy truth is that right now, electronic downloads don’t cannibalize printed sales; if anything, they encourage them. In fact, I would gladly give away my newer book, Unspeak, in the same format right now, except that I am contractually obliged to wait until next year to do so. (I intend to argue for those rights from day one in any future publishing contract.)

But if the day comes when most reading is done on electronic devices, the equation will alter drastically. Giving away your work in the same format in which you hope to sell it is a dangerous game, if that’s how you hope to make a living. And if books in the future are distributed mainly in DRM-free electronic editions, then writers won’t even have a choice. The version of digital rights management on Amazon’s Kindle, where your “books” are forever locked to that device and its successors, and you can’t even lend a book to a friend, is stupidly restrictive. But is a free-for-all the best alternative? A lot of people paid for the Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails albums even though it was also rapidly possible to download pirated versions for free. But perhaps that was because they were already Radiohead and NIN fans. Will as many people choose to pay for something they don’t have to pay for, when it’s a question of taking a punt on a new artist?

A reasonable outcome, perhaps, would be something like an iTunes for books, where people choose to buy (DRM-free or at least DRM-lite) copies because it’s still easier for most folk than hunting down a torrent. That way writers would still see some kind of modest revenue from their efforts. Otherwise, if people can’t earn money from writing books, then books will only be written by the rich, and by people in their spare time.

Luckily, as it happens, a lot of brilliant books throughout history have been written by rich people, and also by people cramming in the work around normal, non-writing jobs (banking, life insurance, power-station security guard). ((Faulkner had the pleasant option of actually writing As I Lay Dying during work hours, but the point stands.)) So literature itself is probably not doomed, even if the “professional writer”, sat there in her dressing gown with a pot of tea and a window open on Facebook, is increasingly nervous at what the future might have in store.

  • I downloaded it – my masters degree was researching the use of AI in computer games so it was an easy grab. I wouldn’t however have bought it unless I ran across it in a secondhand bookshop, and it was cheap.

    If you’re not going to make any significate money from an item any more (and an 8 year old title about an ever changing technology would seem a good candidate) why not give it away? Increase the good karma in the world, make people think you are a nice guy, increase your “connectedness” to a population who might well give you money for your next project. There are very few arguments against this behavior (IMHO).

    >take away the filters of commissioning and editing, and the proportion of crap rises dramatically rises

    True but the total number of publications rises massively, so there are more gems, they are just harder to find. Add a different form of filtering (Wisdom of crowds style filtering) and (hopefully) these gems rise to the surface. Filtering can also become personal, so all those other people who like books about dogs in space will influence whatever system to recommend me “Mega dogs in space 4*” which I might have missed. “Mega dogs in space 4” will never get across the desk of a tradional publishing house, unless they happen to have “K9 Moon Adventure” on their books and it was a freak hit.

    You also get a lot of gems which might not have been highlighted by the publishing industry too.

    *examples strictly made up, and not available in print. yet.

  • Forgive my long quote, but:

    …What is the writer or musician to do, though, if she can’t earn money from her art? Simple, says the Slashdotter: earn your money playing live (if you’re one of those musicians who plays live),3 or selling T-shirts or merchandise, or providing some other kind of “value-added” service.

    Oh Mr Freetard, you work as a programmer, do you? How interesting. So do you perform all your corporate programming duties for free, and earn your keep by selling personally branded mousemats on the side?

    No, you don’t sell mousemats, you sell your services. The software is free, but if some user wants a new feature, you charge for your time writing that feature. I worked for a few years doing just that: I wrote software that I gave away and charged for my time making improvements.

    The problem is that the lifestyle sucks. You make X dollars an hour, and that’s it. You can’t rest on your laurels, because you have to keep working to get paid. No benefits. No holidays. Just hand to mouth.

  • Thanks, Erigami, that’s interesting. Although I can’t quite see how it can be translated into a model for writers. The exception maybe is if you’re writing one of those books that tell corporations how to be ultramodern and groovy — then you can make such a good living in speaking and consultancy fees that you probably could give the book away free in the first place. But it’s a bit of a niche genre.

    coldclimate, I love the idea of being alerted as soon as there is a new book about dogs in space, but there might be a danger of some kind of Cass Sunstein-style echo chamber actually happening here, if readers only get told about the kinds of things they already like. I like to hear about books that are not like those I’ve already read. Will “Wisdom of crowds”-style filtering do that for me? I dunno. Are links that make it to the front page of Digg really the best things on the internets at that moment?

  • While the free ebook as promo and brand building tool works now in this transition phase, your question, what happens when the majority of book purchases are ebooks? is telling. Are we creating an expectation that such works should be free?

    Over the last five years a growing portion of my book acquisitions is by download, and my attitude as a consumer, once I decide I want a story or book, is just to go see where I can download it — for free, for pay, legal, illegal, doesn’t matter.

    I once had the chance to talk to Cory Doctorow in person about this topic, and he is persuasive. But when I look at my own habits — I am spending less on books than I used to — I know there’s a catch somewhere.

    There is an iTunes equivalent for books, fictionwise.com. Not as elegant as iTunes, some books have really annoying DRM, but some books are free, and you can buy individual short stories or novelas as well. When finding a free version of a book I want proves too difficult, I just go to Fictionwise and plonk down my three or four bucks. I also use it to browse for new stuff I might be interested in.

  • jhn

    You are correct. I am not a writer, and I still will buy paper books as long as they’re more fun to read. But once the iPod of books comes out, I’m sure I’ll do to dead trees what I already did done to physical music formats.

    And just like with music, I will only pay for something if “free” is not an option. Before I buy anything from Amazon MP3, for instance, I first check all the trackers.

    Anyway. While I think that blanket licensing is an option for music (read up on the EFF proposal, which even Warner is now considering), I’m not sure how it would work for books. Could I pay to subscribe to Google books or Amazon, with proceeds going to those authors I read or download? Any such scheme would reduce the amount on money pro writers got overnight. Something like that may turn out to be the only way forward, which is a shame.

  • I don’t think the Slashdot argument is that anyone who is creative (writing/composing/whatever) should be denied payment for their efforts, but simply that those who are going to be the most successful going forward are those that embrace a new business model, rather than continue to cling on by their fingernails to the old one.

    The record companies are a perfect example of what happens when you cling on too tightly. At first they tried to pretend the Internet didn’t exist, and then when Napster came along they sat there and just lashed out at anybody that tried to take away their comfort zone. Then they woke up a bit, and at least admitted they needed to do something. But they lock up their songs up with DRM, sue anybody who ever touches a file sharing network, and in one Sony case, install malicious software on your customers computer. This is simply not the way to conduct yourself. Not only is it hugely damaging to their brand, but it also devalues music even further, as those who truly do like the rebellion distance themselves even further from the money grabbing corporate whores the music executives appear to be. The harder the music companies push, the harder it is for them to win back the mindshare.

    But some of them are beginning to get it. iTunes was the first real step in actually providing what people wanted, easy access to the songs people wanted. And unlike Napster, you had a 100% chance of actually getting the song you wanted to download, with proper tags, and not an MP3 rip of a song recorded from the radio with a DJ talking in Spanish over the end. Starting to allow DRM-free versions, even in their previously feared MP3 format at Amazon, shows that they have finally realised you should treat your customers as people first, and thieves later; not the other way around.

    The lesson from this is that change should not be feared. Grab the internet generation with both hands and use them to your advantage, rather than locking your doors and cowering in the corner with your old business model pressed tightly to your chest, afraid that the mob is coming to steal it from you. For musicians this means giving away a few tracks from your new album for free and selling the rest, with a premium for the higher quality lossless versions. Or selling complete recordings of all your live shows. And using the momentum from this to sell more tickets to your next show (see TMBG and Barenaked Ladies). For writers, this means giving away your last book for free in order to create publicity for the one you’re about to release in hard copy. Or giving away the first couple of chapters for free as an incentive to buy the rest. Or selling your novel one chapter at a time, as you write it (see Stephen King). And if you’re a movie producer, let people download the first 30 minutes of your movie for free and then let them buy the DVD containing the rest of the film direct from your website.

    And most importantly, take the feedback from your audience, interact with them, let their word of mouth be your marketing machine and never treat them like criminals. People will be more than happy to pay for your work if the price and terms are fair. At the end of the day these are your customers, and for the first time in human history creative people have the opportunity to truly communicate with those who appreciate their art en mass, and that should be something artists should be excited about, not fearful of.

  • Steven, Erigami’s got it. The model described is already in place for writers of the magazine/newspaper variety. Specifically the part where a paying client needs something written and must come up with an incentive to get it done. This is different from the traditional book model where a writes comes up with a book, and must convince someone to *retroactively* make it worth their while. You could, for example, write on a form of commission, coughing up chapters and ideas as your audience shows willingness to pay for them. No pay, no write. The internet happens to make this part easy too.

    Your dichotomy only exists if you assume that you have to create the work first and figure out a way to compensate for all that lost time second.

    This is how I’ve found open source software to work: enough gets written for free to scratch the creator’s particular itch, but specific feature requests or promises of reliability aren’t addressed without some form of payback: a service contract, maybe a job.

    Calling your tip jar a “tip jar” really serves to reinforce the inequality you’re talking about, since tips are by definition an optional extra for services rendered. Start calling it a “next chapter jar” and don’t write until you know you’ve got an audience invested in your next move.

  • “writes” should be “writer” in that fourth sentence. =P

  • jhn: You’ve got it completely and perfectly backwards: check the trackers if and only if what you are looking for isn’t available on Amazon MP3. It’s the right thing to do, and at least you’re pretending someone else’s hard work is worth paying for.

  • But if there’s been a comparable success by a band that hasn’t already gained its cultural capital and name-recognition through the evils of copyright and corporate promotion, I’d like to know about it.

    There’s been a few MySpace artists who have built a fan base before releasing via “normal” industry channels and there’s been some other minor success stories. However, I agree: Radiohead and NIN’s foray into free or cheap give-aways were nothing more than publicity stunts. Radiohead’s album isn’t available via their site any more, proving that they saw it as promo only too.

    It’s an interesting time… There really doesn’t seem to be a good new business model for any creative distribution over the net, be it for software, music, books or video. It’s either the old way (sell at full price with DRM and punish those who copy) or the new way (give everything away for free and pay the mortgage with your day job, because you will have to keep one).

    The best solution as you said is an iTunes model… slightly discounted prices for higher convenience. It stops casual pirates and gives us all a unified distribution point. The benefit is that you’re fighting the bad guys with something that’s positive for your customers. Piracy is only going to get easier though, so the convenience angle won’t last forever, only until pimple-faced coder builds a better piracy app.

    …which leaves us in the same place again.

    Can we eat if our only source of income is an honesty box? Probably not.

  • Lord Buckethead

    Do any of you chaps visit confguide? We have a mong on there by the name of Skippy. Any relation?

  • Julian Dangerville

    Two more data points that I think are relevant to your ‘lab report’:

    1. By the time Trigger Happy was released online, what were its yearly sales numbers, compared to its first year in print?

    2. How do the initial sales numbers of Unspeak compare to the initial sales numbers of Trigger Happy?

  • There is always the library, isn’t there? I don’t know. It still doesn’t seem like the odds of someone buying your book or giving you cash for your words decreases very much if the stuff is widely available. I could probably run a google search and find the full text of your book way before you put it out yourself. I get the ease-of-use or ease-of-reading or even comfort-level arguments against digital books, I just don’t know if that’s quite how it works.

    I think it is indeed true that we will see many fewer people making huge gobs of cash for writing, just as we’ll see many fewer making huge gobs of cash for making music. However, I think we’ll see many more people *making a living* doing these things. I don’t think the ratio of good work:shit work actually increases that much when you take away the barriers to entry. I think there’s more of both with a slight lean towards the shit, but not nearly as much as one might think (or worry).

    The billion-seller is probably going the way of the dodo, but the thousand seller can still put food on the table, yeah?

  • Ryan

    Dude, virtually NO ONE makes a living writing fiction, on or OFF the internet.

    This isn’t about copyright or PDFs or DRM. It’s about, fiction is almost impossible to make a living from.

    Most people with hardcover physical books and contracts with major publishing houses are making approximately as much money on their works as you did on yours, which is to say zero for all practical intents and purposes.

    So you missed on, what, the $20,000 advance you might have gotten on that book? That would have half been eaten by taxes and a couple thousand more on out of pocket expenses….

    And nonfiction books are hardly better. Writers making money tend to work for periodicals, technical publishers, movie studios, tv studios, and even then they tend to feel poorer than everyone around them,

    Writer feels miserable and underpaid and is bitter about Something Wrong With Society Or A Subset Thereof, film at 11.

  • I think there is a place for cheap downloadable books alongside physical copies in the small press arena. Too much stuff is published or reprinted in a pretty limited print runs because that is what the publishers have the money to produce, and because over producing a book is an expensive mistake to make. I’d happily pay a few quid for a pdf of Lucius Shepard short stories whose 350 printed copies have now gone.

    I’m not sure what you do about the DRM aspect of things, I think the answer may just end up being that buying through online shops will be easier than searching for valid torrents, let people read extracts for free so they can do the equivalent of book shop browsing.

  • There is a vanishingly small number of writers who make a living writing books of their own choosing (that is, excluding those who have “real jobs” on the side, or who ghostwrite/are ghostwritten).

    Given the observed facts, it simply is not reasonable to expect to make a living writing books. Writing press releases, magazine articles, or Simpsons scripts can pay the rent, but books rarely do.

    So anyone who invests the large amount of time it takes to craft a decent novel or nonfiction book needs to be doing it for some reason other than money. If your reason is the love of the art, or because you want other people to read what you wrote, then giving away the fruits of your labor is a perfectly reasonable things to do. Given the odds against getting published (and the poor sales for most books which do get published), chances are you’ll be more widely read through a freebie than the traditional route.

    On the other hand, if your goal is to be the next J. K. Rowling and earn a billion dollars from your books, then giving them away probably won’t do the trick (though there’s always the movie rights). But if that’s really your goal as a writer, you might want to take a reality pill first thing in the morning.

  • Ryan

    And now I see the book was nonfiction, don’t I feel dumb. But my comments still apply. You’re attempting a form of writing that can be very personally rewarding, in terms of being enjoyable to do and conducive to your personal growth, but it’s never paid well for most people.

    Seriously — “the aesthetics of videogames?” You had about a one in a million shot at getting paid decently in any medium.

    You want to eat? Help other people eat. That’s why journalism tends to pay better than book writing. It’s actually more directly helpful. Programming, esp the corporate kind, is an even better example.

    If you are going to write something because that’s what you _like_ writing about, then write it, and stop acting like you’re doing it to live.

    Doing something you like AND making money is not a right or even common. It’s lucky happenstance, and rate. Get over yourself.

  • Ryan


  • Kieran


    The wisdom of crowds? Seriously? People are still banging that? Take a look at what happens when TWOC goes mainstream: I give you YouTube’s Most Popular… currently featuring a clip from ‘MostMuscular.com’, two DragonballZ movies, a couple of pirated sports clips and a video entitled – I kid you not – ‘Eight teenagers invite girl over and beat her up’.

    See anything you like? Good luck with that.

  • Vagif Verdi

    I feel your pain. Yours is one of the many professions made irrelevant and outdated by progress in technology. You are literally left behind.
    But it does not matter what do you feel and how hard it is for you. Just like slave masters would cry seeing as their families are destroyed in the wind of change that took away their only income (slaves working on plantations), same will happen to many professions because of the internet and computers. Many more professions will not die but will be drastically morphed and changed. Like musicians who will have to work much harder than just selling albums. They will have to actually play their music live, and use recordings as a promotional material. Still musicians are the lucky ones. They will remain rich (although not as rich as before)
    Ironically that would simply mean returning to the old ways they were living for ages before copyright.

    You are taking copyright for granted. But for thousands years writers did not have any copyright protection. In fact it is a technology progress (movable type) that brought such a weird and unnatural thing as copyright into relatively short existence. And now same progress is going to kill it, and return to all people what was taken away from them in 1709. Right to copy everything they see and hear. Right that belongs to every human being. Our copyright.

  • Jason Z.

    Perhaps I could have tried distributing Trigger Happy the Radiohead way, making sure you had to pay a minimum to get the goods.

    Actually, I’d like to point out that Radiohead’s minimum was the same as yours, 0.00.

    The real reason I replied was because you asked for anyone who wasn’t a big thing that became a big thing through giving away their stuff on the internet. Jonathan Coulton. He gave away a song a week and claims to make a pretty good living of it now. I doubt that he would have (for example) gotten to do Still Alive for Portal had he already not made a name for himself with stuff like Code Monkey.

    Now how often this will happen is the real question, but it does happen.

  • Let me add a data point for your experiment:

    I downloaded your book but did not get a chance to look at it yet. I would not read it as a PDF as I don’t find it convenient and printing it from a PDF is currently more expensive than buying the actual copy.

    I would not have used your paypal button because I don’t have a paypal account and I don’t want to have one.

    And a few remarks:

    Professional writers used to be paid a lump sum by the publisher for their work. Those publishers created the copyright system to ensure the exclusivity on the published material and prevent copy by other publishers. No digital anything at the time. Alternatively they had sponsors who cared about their legacy.

    Finally, as a more general problem, you would have to prove that your position as a professional writer living from the royalties (and that is important because it is very different from the money you earn from the guardian) on your books is more important than accelerating the circulation of knowledge. If you could also throw in a solution for out of print books it would be greatly appreciated.

  • Matthew King

    Another experiment would be giving away uncorrected galleys with the last chapter missing.

    Of course, that would work better for fiction.

  • km

    I think it is important to establish to people that you want to be paid. The idea that people will pay for things that are being “given away”, goes against everything they have learnt in their day to day lives.

    The next time you try this you should give people a price. Make it fair and make it clear that it is what the book cost. Format the book so the last page has not only the ending but a request to be paid if the reader has enjoyed your work. If you made it clear when they downloaded it that you expected to be paid. I doubt it will be an issue for any one that finishes the book.

    I don’t know about “comparable success”, but Jonathan Coulton is someone that has achieved a good deal of success without corporate promotion. Is he as rich as the two bands you mentioned? No. Is he able to make a good living off his work? Yes. He talks about it in an episode of TWIT (http://www.twit.tv/133). One of the things he made clear from the start was that he expected to be paid for his work.

  • jhn

    Sure, paying for something when I have a choice not to is the “right” thing to do. But I’m weak! Give me an annual fee to pay!

  • Nick Kallen

    Great article and great comments. As is argued by several other commenters, the “professional writer” is rapidly becoming an extinct animal. This will have some effect on the face of literature, perhaps we should expect shorter works… There will be winners and losers but I doubt scholarship and the arts will be much worse off.

    Analogously for music, the album as a genre and the three minute pop song no longer have their reason for being in the record and the radio. Is the quality of music deteriorating? How many times in history have we heard the refrain that culture is in decline?

    The existences of Wikipedia and the conversation of the blogosphere are evidence that the role of the solitary writer as the fountainhead of intellectual production is not only historically contingent but inessential.

  • Javarod

    I find this rather fascinating, especially as you point to the music model. I think giving music away works well, if people like what they see, and don’t think its over priced, they’ll pay. Printed word though, I can’t see that working. For music, download works well, CDs are over priced, and often you only want part of it, so downloads are the better choice. Books though, a person wants the whole thing, so making them available online provides little benefits to the author aside from getting copies out there.

    So what’s the answer? Dunno, but I suspect the current model won’t last, there’s too many titles for any store to stock them all, which means that they’ll pick and choose who makes money in the business. How do you make everything available at a reasonable price in a store?

  • Rob

    I only just found this site (via Daring Fireball), and I haven’t had a chance to look at your work yet. I can tell you I wouldn’t have sent you money, simply because I refuse to do business with PayPal. Too many things can, and do, go wrong with PayPal.

    If you want people to give you money, you have to make it easy for them to do so. No one is going to give you money if it’s a hassle, or a risk, and they’re not obligated to do it.

    Sadly, there’s not many good alternatives. Traditional credit-card processing imposes prohibitive fees on the vendor.

    I’ve downloaded a few non-DRM e-books. It’s more convenient than leafing through the first chapter of a book in Barnes and Noble. I’ve never read an e-book end-to-end. If the work is good, I buy a hard copy. I’m also a “serial reader” — if I like an author, I tend to go buy as many of their works as I can find.

    In particular, Baen’s policy of issuing backlist titles as DRM-free e-books has brought them a lot of my money. I’ve wound up purchasing entire series by authors that I would not previously have picked up off the bookstore shelf. That’s not something that can be easily accounted for with a spreadsheet.

    E-books are convenient for some things. I suspect that people like me — the sort of person who can’t leave the bookstore without at least $60 in purchases — are also people who enjoy having the books on the shelf.

    As a reader, my advice to authors is: Don’t hold on to the “value” of your work past its natural shelf life. It’s not likely that you’re suddenly going to become such a superstar that your back catalog starts selling again. At some point, it ceases to be a cash cow, and becomes your best advertising. Stop trying to milk it for all its worth. By turning it out to pasture on the Internet, you might lose some royalties. You will gain new readers.

    (As for new works, yeah, a sample chapter is nice… but I agree that the “shareware” model is too risky when it’s paying the rent. Go ahead, make me pay for the paper copy… I just ask that you push your publisher, hard, to print the hardcover edition on acid-free stock — and real stock, not tracing paper. Especially if they’re going to ask me for $27 list.)

  • Ben Rosengart

    The Grateful Dead charged for albums, but encouraged fans to record and share concerts.

  • Shaz

    You know, Denis makes a good point: PayPal still scares some people off. If one could manipulate reality in a science lab, it might be interesting to rerun the experiment, this time adding alternative methods of payment (Amazon tips? More explanation as to the nature of the Make a Donation link?)

    You may not be aware of this, you not being a software author (I assume), but downloads definitely do not translate to users. That is, 30,000 downloads doesn’t mean 30,000 people have read the book. Who knows how many actually read it all the way through? It’s definitely a fraction of your total download count. You’re lucky if a quarter of those people keep your software around. I’d assume that, similarly, an author would be lucky if a quarter of those people read past the first chapter. The analogy here is that a lot of people might pick up a book in the bookstore and browse it, but most of them put it back down out of disinterest. I think you need to adjust your expectations accordingly.

    Your book also seems to be located in a niche of a niche of a niche: people interested in an academic discussion of video game mechanics as they relate to other things in history. At least, that’s the impression I get from the Amazon reviews. I don’t have time for that sort of other-person’s-navel-gazing, so I haven’t actually read it (or downloaded it).

    Other questions you should be asking are: How does 30,000 downloads compare to the bookstore/Amazon sales figures? How much did I make off “tips” versus the bookstore/Amazon take? If I required payment for the book, but charged as much as Amazon does, and kept all the money myself, how much might I make?

    The notion that you can’t get paid for professional writing is total bullshit, but you’re going to have step up your game. Write things for a wider audience. Write prolifically. And start with realistic assumptions. There is no free lunch on the Internet, and information may not want to be free, but there is certainly other information out there, so what makes **yours** so compelling?

  • Shaz

    I’d like to amend the last paragraph:

    …but there is certainly other information out there freely available, so what makes **yours** so compelling that I should pay for it? And ‘because I said it is’ isn’t a good answer to that question.

  • I find it interesting that the only models that people are considering here are “free” and “paid for by the readers”. What about “paid for by patrons”?

    Let’s say you’d like to take in $90,000 from a book, to cover a year of living plus the minimal expenses of distributing online. You could have all 30,000 of your readers paying $3 each, but that will never happen. Okay. What about 3,000 readers paying $30 each. Maybe, if you wrote something that really resonated with people.

    But what about 300 people paying $300 each? Now we’re cooking. I would gladly pay $300 a year to support a single author whose work has had a significant effect on my life. Especially if that was my only book-related expense. I pay you $300 a year, and I get every other book in the world for free, because every other author has his own 300 patrons.

    What if patronage became an accepted and expected part of the culture, something that people could publicly be proud of? I would see someone reading your book, I would feel the pride of ownership, I would proudly claim, “I sponsored that book!”, and be respected for that…

    What if patronage served as a status symbol and a mark of style? People judge me today by my clothing and car, my job and my hobbies, the music I listen to, the goddamn wine I drink. What if I could somehow wear my sponsorships publicly, and be judged on those as well? What if patronage were fashionable?

    Getting people to give up the “slashdot world” of FREE STUFF EVERYWHERE is impossible, because it goes against human nature. But paying to make a fashion statement is very much part of human nature. Can we harness that force to support our society’s artists?

  • Walt French

    Pre-internet by decades, Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle foretells a world where the physically adept are hobbled by weights and the smart have static-only radios locked onto their heads, so the uhhh, “challenged” have equal opportunities.

    Rather than Vonnegut’s overly-PC state doing this to us, we have contracted with Triple Dub to do it instead. Everything is free but almost all is worth less than zero. Charging the receiver to pay a whole penny per gigabyte would go a long way to make people want what they get.

    I think the real problem is finding how to stand out, to separate people who WANT your stuff, and have a modicum of cash, from those who are maybe curious but have no real desire for it. That really and truly IS harder now.

    It’s not the people who claim everything ought to be free who are the problem. They may know what their work is worth, but their vote doesn’t really count. The problem is establishing a connection with somebody like me who’s happy to pay for material that I have reason to believe will be useful or entertaining. The NYT doesn’t write movie reviews of your stuff, nor do my buddies Andy and Robert.

    It’s ironic that access — including some hypothetical net neutrality — is NOT the good that we hoped it could be.

  • Kris Hunt

    I thought that was Harrison Bergeron.

  • Dave

    Those who cannot or will not create have no respect for creation. The huge effort, and expense of intellectual and physical effort involved is beyond their ken. They have the vision that it just happens in an instant, a brain fart. Oh it is so glorious— i should write that down, or make that, or paint that, or play that… to be never worked beyond the ecstatic, momentary vision—it seemed so simple at the time!
    Most of mankind will never realize the satisfaction of real creation; therefore they hold it of no value. So it should be free—consumers unite! We want it free and we want it now—like little ones entreating their parents for a popsicle. What a bunch of crying, infantile responders to your reasoned, plaintive question. Is this truly what we have become?
    i too found you by way of Gruber! that funky star that is to be a fireball.

  • John Scalzi is someone you should talk to about this. He’s participating in the Tor e-books promotion. I can’t speak directly as I’m not a professional writer, but I recall Scalzi saying that downloads appear to generate sales of physical books, both of the title downloaded and also of other titles in his catalog.

    He’s already an established fiction writer whose works sit on the shelves in Borders and B&N so your mileage may vary.

    Here’s one post from Scalzi that I found quickly:
    He’s written about the Tor promotion several times, and also about Baen’s similar program.

  • Ramon Leon

    “The problem is that the lifestyle sucks. You make X dollars an hour, and that’s it. You can’t rest on your laurels, because you have to keep working to get paid. No benefits. No holidays. Just hand to mouth.”

    To the due who said that… welcome to the real fucking world. Most people on this planet trade hours for wages, that’s life, get over it.

    Only a very few elite who happen to benefit from laws like copyright or patents that create artificial monopolies are ever able to “rest on their laurels” and continually profit from work done only once.

    To the author of this post, interesting post, but information *is going to be free* whether you or anyone likes it or not. The world has changed, the people are connected in ways like never before, and *free information* is the genie out of the bottle. You can’t put it back, and it shouldn’t be put back.

    The fact is information is free, and always has been, it’s the dissemination of that information that wasn’t, the publishing. Publishing used to have value, it cost money to print books, so a short term limited monopoly made sense, but those days are gone. Dissemination is no longer expensive, it’s virtually free and spreads like wild fire over the internet.

    The natural consequence is that people and industries who evolved to take advantage the old system will die off in the new system. Look around, newspapers are dying, professional writing is dying, the music industry is dying, the movie industry is dying, because the simple truth is, *we don’t need you*.

    These days, there are enough people writing and blogging for free, making music and video’s for free that the market will no longer support high priced professionals in large numbers. News papers are dying because their piggy bank, the want ads, are being killed by Craig’s list.

    You want to make money as a writer, continue blogging, get a huge audience hanging on your every word, and throw up some ads to monetize the traffic. That’s how you make money writing while giving away your work for free in the modern age. If you can’t get enough traffic to live off the blog, then you should reconsider living as a writer.

  • jhn

    I do write for a living, but the nature of my work is that I get paid to produce it and that’s it. There is something odd about someone continuing to get royalties for work only done once. Would anyone like to defend that?

  • Andy R.

    Check out this great article on the same idea but looking at the concept of working or free from the perspective of independent programmers and whether they should give a way their apps for free.

    “It Should Be Free?”

  • Ziad

    very interesting conversation.
    I think the case for fiction is very different from other type of books, for example tech books : I’ve been quite happy for the “library” model used by O’Reilly’s Safari : pay a monthly subscription, get access to all the books.
    I know as a reader I wouldn’t mind a cheap “time limited” access to fiction books : they are currently to expensive, takes too much shelf space (in their physical form), and most of them I won’t re-read anyway…

  • Scott Frazer

    I’m going to agree with those who talked about the free posting of a back catalog. An 8 year old book probably isn’t going to be burning up the sales charts. If you got new stuff that relates to that, you should probably go ahead and release the earlier version with a nice big plug (“If you enjoyed this, ask your local bookseller for my new work…”)

    As a counterpoint to Dave (“Those who cannot or will not create have no respect for creation.”) I’d offer this: Everyone thinks they can create, and everyone dreams of getting paid for it, but the truth is that those who consume the creation place a finite limit on how much creation can be paid for.

    Recorded music, movies, TV, video games, board games, live music, plays, books, magazines, newspapers, blogs. How many things can one person reasonably consume in a month? In a year?

    Technology is making the barriers to entry for creators lower and lower, and the niches that they can create in are growing daily. Each pulls from a pool of consumers, and some will cannibalize others. As a creator, you have to learn to adapt to this.

    Scott (I create nothing, really, but I’m a heck of a consumer.)

  • Perhaps an advertising model for books would work. Authors could find advertisers to sponsor the work, and then the book can feature their message in a callout on every page.

    Once you’ve done that, it becomes advantagous to get the book out in front of an audience as fast as you can, and you’re working with the distribution channel not against it.

    The question is whether the numbers add up. Anyone know the ad industry enough to give some prices? Perhaps we could compare with magazines.

    Note that the adverts also mean that the printed book becomes more attractive to readers as it is ad free.

  • Ben

    @jhn : there’s nothing odd about royalties. If the value of a work in the marketplace turns out to be higher than the advance paid, then the person who actually created the work gets a share.

    The alternative is that the writer would only get an advance, and if their book was a runaway hit, the publisher would keep all the profits. *That* seems odd to me.

    You don’t specify what kind of writing you’re doing; if the market for a work is well-defined or time-limited and a runaway hit is unlikely, then royalties don’t make sense. However, if you have corporate paymasters who are reselling your work, selling translations of it, selling archive access and so on, and you’ve written it on a “work-for-hire” basis (which is a common situation), then it’s kind of sad that you can’t even see what the point of royalties might be.

    To put it another way, would anyone care to defend a businessman getting rich off selling a book without sharing some of the proceeds with the writer? If you can’t see the point of royalties then that’s what you’re defending.

    Of course, a lot of books don’t earn out their advance and so no royalties are involved anyway.

  • Mo

    It’s an interesting, if slightly polarised question, and I think the comments here have more than answered it.

    I will say this, though:

    I build websites for a living. A good chunk of my day to day work is pure “creative output”. The company I works for gets paid in all of the manner of weird and wonderful ways people pay for sites, whereas I get paid a salary like any average Joe. (And, as it happens, I also write software and build web stuff in my spare hours, some of it open source, some of it not).

    I’m increasingly struggling to see the fundamental difference between what I do and what you, or say, a pop artist does. The only difference is that I’m employed to do it and he company I work for deals with (and, if they do it right, profits from) the disparity between monthly salaries and contracted fees and the like. If I chose to go freelance, I’d be in the same boat as you: and guess what? I’d have to churn out new work on a regular basis if I wanted to get paid for it (and, having been there and done that, I can say fairly categorically that it wouldn’t stop me giving away open source stuff, either).

    Does that answer the question?

  • I don’t think the Slashdot argument is that anyone who is creative (writing/composing/whatever) should be denied payment for their efforts, but simply that those who are going to be the most successful going forward are those that embrace a new business model, rather than continue to cling on by their fingernails to the old one.

    There is a huge problem with that business mode though. This model is widely suggested by the open source community, and many people in that community like nothing better than to stick two fingers up at capitalism. It’s very ironic then that the model they suggest to earn money is one that ends up making you a corporate bitch, which is the last thing many people want.

    The problem is that unless you’re big it’s hard to give away stuff. I write software for a living and sell it online. I can’t just give it away and ask people to pay me to improve it because I sell to consumers, creatives and small businesses. These aren’t really the people who pay to have software changed, these are the people who want to buy something off the shelf that does what they want already.

    I think it’s telling that the majority of those who think that all forms of creative art (and I include software in that) should be given away for free are those who don’t create any of that art.

  • Thanks for the mainly thoughtful comments so far, apart from those who seem to think I’m complaining about having made nothing from the download. I’m not complaining: I expected nothing and got close to nothing. And, as I explained in the post, I think there’s no downside whatsoever in this transitional moment to giving away a book free, and very good arguments to do so: I would do it instantly with my newest book if I could. As it happens, about a month after releasing the download I received the biggest royalty cheque for Trigger Happy that I had seen for a long time, so it was still selling in the previous calendar year.

    As for the people who say “What do you expect, it’s a niche subject, write something of more general appeal” — uh, that’s exactly the attitude that has publishers in trouble right now. Follow your rule and we’ll end up with nothing but trashy thrillers and cookbooks.

    I think that the “Stephen King” model mentioned, where you charge money per chapter, is another version of the Radiohead/NIN problem — it worked for King because he was already Stephen King, having sold an awful lot of dead-tree books. I don’t see how it can work for a writer who doesn’t have that devoted fanbase already built-in, but I’d be interested to hear of others who have tried it.

    Commenters are right to point out that the number of authors who make an adequate living solely from writing books is very small (and doesn’t include me). I guess the question is whether people are happy to see that number approach zero.

    Maybe my favourite suggestion here is that for the reintroduction of patronage, which was indeed the main “business model” for writers, painters composers etc for centuries. Maybe we need someone to set up a shiny new Web 2.0 service to connect willing patrons with creators.

    I look forward to checking out Jonathan Coulton & John Scalzi — thanks!

  • TS

    I feel for you Steven, seriously. What you stated is essentially fact: The freetards have no clear cut solution except to say the old ways wonʻt work, but weʻve got no clue as to how writing remains a valued skill.

    The internet/slashdot freetards will say thereʻs no such thing as a “professional writer,” and these are primary those who have no respect for the arts or craft of writing. Writing to them is information. Information to them is not a craft or skill. Writing however remains a skill, that should be highly valued, but often is not. Why?

    For one, density of material has devalued craft. Those who say “get over yourself” are the worst apologists of the freetards. Increased density of published works on the internet has not increased intelligence or literacy or quality. High quality is increasingly rare, especially with the increased freedom and number of self-published people on the internet. Itʻs counter-intuitive, which is why freetards ignore this fact.

    What the internet has done is fed the western quick fix for instant pleasure. Human nature is to seek out those who agree with our own views. In that sense the internet hardly challenges most minds, only encouraging reinforcement of beliefs and, in those who create primarily for profit, perceived marketability.

    The follow the crowd mentality increases mediocrity. Strong, individualist voices occasionally break through, but mainly because they adapt a homogenized and populist POV. Historically it seems the great, lasting works are often far from the common, particularly in fiction.

    To say that an academic work of non-fiction relegates its author to a life of starvation however is not completely unfair. Intelligent non-fiction of any genre is not highly prized in western culture. Lowest common denominator rules the day in modern America/on the Internet, however unfortunate.

    Sadly in the field of writing it seems even a sane and simple living wage is relegated to the very, very few, while insane gobs of cash are often thrown at those who make the most for the powers that be: Those who profit from selling to the lowest common denominators who are ironically, the quick fix, pleasure seeking, internet raised freetards.

    I admire your perseverance, as I agree with your assessment of the give it away experiment, and I look forward to more of your thoughts as a professional writer regarding the changing landscape of publishing.

  • On the patronage front, it’s not quite the kind of thing you’re thinking of, but Calabash are starting an experiment in attempting to combine music, social networking and microfinancing called Tune Your World.

    And there was the novel Fay Weldon wrote for Bulgari, though I don’t suppose product placement will be an available option for most writers.

    One particular problem the music industry has is that they already sell music DRM-free, on CDs, so it’s harder to persuade people to buy crippled versions of the same files. That doesn’t apply to movies, since all DVDs have copy-protection; it will be interesting to see whether as movie downloading grows, they manage to avoid some of the same problems. But in that sense books are like DVDs: the format they’re sold in at the moment (i.e. paper) is not easily reproducible. You buy one copy, and if you want to share it with a friend you either lend it to them or you buy them their own copy. I think the publishing industry should be very cautious about establishing any kind of precedent that e-books should be any different.

  • Toby

    You rail against the concept of free information, but do you believe that if this supposed utopia were to exist it would mean the end of professional writing? The same rule applies to you that applied to me when the desktop publishing revolution encroached on my ability to earn a living as a pre-press operator in the printing industry: if you can’t make money at it, find a vocation at which you can make money. If indeed the world needs professional writers and the internet is pushing them to extinction, your business model will become apparent.

  • Cory Doctorow is kind of the poster boy for the “new model” of how writers are supposed to make a living. It works if you’re Cory. Not sure how it works for everybody else. I had a long chat with him about this stuff. You can download the podcast (in three chunks of twenty minutes each) from my site wetmachine:


    When business models change, it’s a bitch. I’ve been a writer, or a manager of writers for a computer or software company, since 1980. I’ve written software and hardware manuals, magazine articles, marketing copy, a novel, novellas, and so on and so forth. I’m currently working as a ghostwriter on a book about software process management. In real terms, my income peaked in 1992 or so.

    I believe I was the second person, after Cory Doctorow, to put his or her novels under Creative Commons license. In fact it was that old gadabout Cory himself who convinced me to do it. They’re available at http://www.wetmachine.com

    I’m not rich yet.

    My first job was with Data General, a giant “minicomputer” manufacturer. That company, and all others in its class are gone. Most recently I worked for Laszlo, makers of OpenLaszlo, a great, free, open source platform. I got laid off after 4.5 years. It’s hard to make money when you give away the product of your labor, whether you’re a person OR a corporation.

    I’ve written a bunch of stuff for Salon.com, a fairly well-regarded “new media” outfit. The articles did really well, in terms of how many people downloaded them. I made about $.05/hour for writing them, but they did bring a measure of attention to my books.

    All of which is to say that I don’t have any idea how to make a decent living as a writer, but that’s what I’m going to keep doing because I’m old and don’t see anything else that offers a better chance of financial success. At least when you self-publish your books, you can keep selling them indefinitely. And there is always the chance, however slim, that you’ll have some kind of big break-out success, a la J.K. Rowling. Especially if you go out into the world and sell your books in person.

    If you see me selling my books from the trunk of my car at a truckstop on the Interstate, do be kind and buy one, won’t you?

  • But this brings up a lucky difference (for me) between music and books. Music distributed over the internet is indistinguishable from music distributed in shops.

    this is actually an untrue statement. though most people also don’t know the difference. Digital downloaded music is at a much lower quality.

    The music industry was sure that the quality was so low that on one wanted to hear it. The odd thing was the majority of people could not tell the difference.

    Currently physical books are better then any other way to read a story. The tick is the next way to read books does not have to beat the book format… it just has to be close enough.

  • I know one example of a writer who makes her living only through writing online. Her biggest work, which I like a lot, is Tales of MU. I was going to write a big description of it here, but I would just be repeating the contents of the link. It is an ongoing story that updates five days a week (usually Monday through Friday), and if a donation goal is met, the writer, Alexandra Erin, writes a bonus story on the weekend. Erin used to have a “normal” job, but then she collected enough donations to support herself with the promise that if she reached a certain amount of money, she would quit her current job and write new chapters more often.

    There is another sentence after this one, but for some reason it isn’t showing in the preview (maybe because it contains a second link), so I hope it appears in the actual post. This post in Erin’s blog contains her views and advice on making a living by writing online.

  • enris

    What I don’t get is that why creative professionals, artist, writers, record companies, publishing, newspapers etc are yelling that everyone else, the consumers, should come up with some new shiny business model that would rescue them. It’s your goddam business, it’s your job to figure that out. If my business was about to die, I wouldn’t count on some weed smoking artist’s help. You cannot blame it on technology or your customers. I don’t even belive that someone can come up with somekind of scheme in a economic vacuum. You have to think and try things out.

    Things that can be copied, will be copied, and their value will come near to zero. Fortunately there is lots of things and attributes that cannot be copied. Check Kevin Kelly’s writings.

  • Stefan — good point; I should have said “indistiguishable to most people”. (I can hear the difference, as I mentioned in this post on headphones.) But the bitrates on offer vary: my copy of Ghosts I-IV in Apple Lossless format really is indistinguishable from a notional CD.

    John — thanks for your comment. I certainly will. :)

    enris wrote:

    Things that can be copied, will be copied, and their value will come near to zero.

    I think he meant “price” not “value”, but the confusion sure is revealing.

  • First, I won’t presume to have a solution to this dilemma.

    We are living in a time where things are in a state of flux; I am not sure a great solution to this will present itself or not (does the flux settle down, or does it continue on?). I do a lot more reading nowadays, but my reading is done online through blogs.

    As a blog reader, I’ve found people to read that I wasn’t presented with via the media but rather through linking and word of mouth. The reading I do is not fiction, for the most part, but when the end of the day comes, I’m not sure I have time or the will to read more. In other words, I feel for professional writers because suddenly, some of us have so much to read that reading books, ebooks, or whatever else that costs money, can’t compete with free blogs.

    Right now, let’s say a book I just read and enjoyed was available in multiple formats: which would I choose?

    – Hardcover
    – Paperback
    – PDF
    – Interactive HTML
    – Interactive HTML with multimedia

    Here’s a spectrum; let’s assume they all “cost” the same. I’d go for the hardcover book or the interactive HTML with multimedia. By “interactive” I mean it’s organized so that it’s not one giant long webpage, and references to things are hyperlinked to respective webpages. By multimedia, I mean the text is enhanced with video, diagrams, and other content that otherwise can’t fit on a page in a book.

    I’d also likely pay a premium for these two formats. Hardcover books are more expensive to make; flashy websites, with customized multimedia content, are more expensive to make.

    In one case, I’m paying more because the material costs more. In the other, a portion of that extra work goes back to the author(s), but some of it goes to the publishers (web designers).

    So, when the book becomes available in a free format, my mind wraps around the package. PDFs are cheap like plain copy paper. I’m not sure MY American mind wraps the concept of paying for something as money going to the writer/artist/performer. DVD? $20. Blue-Ray DVD? $30. I’m paying for the medium, not the message.

    I hope we, as a society, figure this one out. I do believe, despite the way I have been trained to think, that the authors and artists should be paid handsomely for their work. But as you have pointed out, Steven, in your experiment, we seemingly value little your work. I did not download your work, but some did: they saw a deal when they saw your free PDF download.

    I would be nice to know of all the downloads, how many were read, start to finish? Are we a benevolent enough society to all put donation buttons on blogs and websites to pay our writers? The buttons, sadly, may not get pushed.

    Someone above commented that perhaps books ought to expire after a point in time, at which they are available for free. This echoes I think a short-term copyright idea.

    I might tempt asking myself if I was willing to wait 3 years when I hear a new, great book has come out… I might be cheap. I don’t know. It’s tempting to be cheap.

    I’m hoping that something like an iTunes model becomes available, and I think it will be tried (heck, it already is with Amazon’s Kindle). I might be able to pay for a book (let’s say $10) where $1 goes to the company providing the service and making the player (say, someone like Apple), and $9 goes to you, the author. If it had the extras I envisioned above in something interactive with added-value media, that might work.

    Thanks for sharing with us your experience, and the conversation here is a good one to be having.

  • James

    Hm, I actually donated (through a different pseudonym, obviously) – guess I won’t bother next time if you’re going to abuse the idealists.

  • dannyo

    The slashdot argument repeated here is the most radical of the many voices heard. I would say there is a general consensus that copyright is good, but certain specific rights holders have used legislation to allow them to hold their rights effectively in perpetuity. Many have used technology to degrade fair use rights and to nullify the public domain side of the exchange, i.e, Office 2007, which uses copyright to constrain the terms of your use of the software, will be public domain in 2107 and good luck finding a device that will read the disk and run the programs.) Copyright was never meant to guarantee ownership in perpetuity – it was never meant to be confused with a land deed.

    Let’s also notice that most professional writers are not writing books for publishers, but are journalists, documentation writers, ad copy creators, etc.

    I think your experiment showed a couple of things: the website, in days, attracted more attention from potential customers than the traditional sales channels did in months, and, donate-later was not an effective revenue-enhancing tactic. It says nothing about the need for DRM. By the way, that first item is huge. Clearly when effecting a sale, the buyer is engaging in a compulsive act and the money represents a gamble that the book is what it promised to be, either in entertainment or information value. Traditionally, a lot of money was spent in order to get that person into that store looking for that book.

    The shareware software sellers learned quite a while back that use now, donate later means large distribution and insignificant revenue. So what’s the next step? Selling out of the car trunk? Okay, that’s a way to go, though you still have to figure how to get that car over to where significant concentrations of potential customers would be.

    Before I filled the gas tank, though, I’d think about collecting the money before download and testing various price points. What about taking a tactic from Dickens: serialization and subscription? What about advertising and sponsorship, meaning the book looks a little bit like a magazine, but, increasing circulation numbers is the key to increasing revenues?

  • Hi Steven,

    It seems to me that a basic problem is that you’re asking for a payment before people have read the book. If they don’t know your work they don’t know if it’s worth anything. They would be much more likely to pay after they read some of it and realize they like it.

    So here is my suggestion. Split the book in two. The first part is free. The second part has a very low minimum price (10 cents?) but they have to type in an actual number and click a few times to get it. The minimum price (plus the effort of completing a transaction) should be just enough so that people who don’t know whether it’s worth anything won’t download both parts at once. A very low minimum makes it clear that they’ll have an easy decision about whether it’s worth that much if they like it even a little bit, and so they might as well download the first part. A minimum of 1 cent might be better than 10 cents for a paypal transaction, since it will be more obvious that this is just saying the value can’t be zero and they have to click through an actual transaction, not that 1 cent is the suggested price.

    They then go off and read the first part. If they like it they will come back to get the second part, and those who come back will be ones who feel it’s worth something, so your chances of getting a reasonable donation should be excellent. You might want to word the price description something like, “can’t be zero; your support will help allow me to write more books.”

    Incidentally, I would tend to make the first part be most of the book, rather than just a chapter or two. You want them to come back at a point where they’ve concluded that it’s a good book and they should pay for it, not at a point where they’ve merely seen a good premise or some dramatic tease.

  • Norm — very nice idea. I’ll definitely try that with a future release, either of Unspeak or of the book I’m currently writing.

    James — thanks for your donation! As to the question of whether the people I’m abusing really are “idealists” or not, I’m still unconvinced.

  • Jesse

    Here’s a thought about the donation method:

    Suppose I come to your site and downloaded your book, but I don’t leave a tip because I don’t like to pay for something that might suck. Further suppose that I then read it from beginning to end in PDF form. Depending on the length of your book and my reading speed, the elapsed time between me visiting your site and finishing your book could be anywhere from hours to months.

    First the (hypthetical) good news: I love the book! I find it to be insightful and useful, and I even plan to refer to it frequently in the future. But here’s the bad news: it’s been weeks since I visited your site, and I don’t have much incentive to go back to it for the purpose of making a donation. Whether that’s because I’m lazy or just forgetful doesn’t matter — there’s a barrier that keeps my money out of your tip jar.

    What if, instead, there were a link at the end of the book, embedded in the PDF, that went directly to your donations page? A short paragraph, printed in a larger font than the rest of the book, that says “I hope you enjoyed this book. A lot of work went into writing it, and your donations make it possible for me to continue writing. Click the button below to find out how you can support more books like this one!”

    Well that’s a different story! I just finished the book, and with this link sitting right in front of me, I am inspired to donate while my appreciation for the book is still fresh.

    I think I’m in agreement with some previous posters when I say that creating an expectation of payment is a good thing, even if you are relying on the honor system. Don’t irritate your readers with constant nagging, but don’t be shy about asking for money either. Make it visible, make it easy, and put it in front of the reader when they are most receptive to the idea.

  • I’m going to agree with those who talked about the free posting of a back catalog. An 8 year old book probably isn’t going to be burning up the sales charts.

    This goes against the so-called “long-tail effect”. Old and obscure works, for example, that all two or three people buy, tend to make up almost 50% of total sales for online music store “emusic.com”.

    This means that an enormous back catalogue can actually be quite profitable.

  • Scott Frazer

    Bananaranha: I think the long-tail effect only kicks in once you’ve got some recognition in the first place. Gambling on your early works becoming lost gems that the public is willing to pay while you still aren’t earning enough money from your current works to eat properly is a bad bet.

    I saw Jonathan Coulton mentioned, and he is my favorite example in the music space of being able to support a family while giving away his primary product. But he’s also a musician and Steven already talked about the difficulty of writers doing live concerts (Although I _did_ pay $50 to go hear David Sedaris read to me.)

    I’d like to also point out the Penny Arcade guys (www.penny-arcade.com) as an excellent example of new-technology content producers that searched long and hard for a way to make their craft pay over the internet. Their archive is down at the moment, so I’m having trouble finding some of Tyco’s posts on the pain they went through finding a way to make writing and drawing a thrice weekly comic pay the bills. They’ve ended up with a bit of a juggernaut, though, as they now helm an international charity that raises over a million dollars a year for children’s hospitals and they run one of the largest gaming conventions in North America.

    And while Enris said it a bit harshly, I think that the people who wait for the market to dictate a solution to them are going to be less happy (and less compensated) than those willing to find the solution themselves.

  • I like Jesse’s idea, but suspect you may make more money if interested readers have to come back. Not sure though, since completely voluntary donations at the very end may be larger.

    One further thought. If you do split the book, you may want to give readers the option of downloading the whole book as a single file after they pay. They may not want to keep it as two pieces.

  • Jesse — done. :)

  • ken

    “Oh Mr Freetard, you work as a programmer, do you? How interesting. So do you perform all your corporate programming duties for free, and earn your keep by selling personally branded mousemats on the side?”

    Sarcasm aside, I did work for years getting paid to write open-source software, which we then distributed to the world. (It was a small niche field, so “the world” meant “about 10 people per continent”, but even so.) Mousepads are a straw-man; I know many programmers writing free software and selling *useful* things, like support.

    “But if there’s been a comparable success by a band that hasn’t already gained its cultural capital and name-recognition through the evils of copyright and corporate promotion, I’d like to know about it.”

    I don’t really follow modern bands, but I know of many webcomics which have always published free online in the author’s spare time, and eventually sold paper editions and became the artist’s primary job. I have no idea if it would work for other things (comics sometimes seem almost designed for marketing), but it’s not inconceivable.

    All but one of the webcomics I read today are now self-sufficient. (The one that isn’t is interesting but rather poorly drawn.)

    Tough love time:

    The world of comics seems to be getting new life because people are falling over themselves to re-invent it for the internet. (Hi, Scott McCloud!) The only shake-up I’ve seen in the written word has been with blogging, and a few bloggers do earn a living at it. If the reinvention of the book for the 21st century is “drop a PDF on the web”, it doesn’t seem at all surprising to me that it’s not taking off any more than “drop an MP3 on the web” did. Even Leonardo wouldn’t have made a living with “drop monalisa.jpeg on the web”. How are you going to reinvent books?

  • I write for love, but I publish for money. — Vladimir Nabokov

    Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy. — Tim O’Reilly, O’Reilly Media

    If you’re going to write, I think that in many instances you’ll write regardless of whether you’re paid or not. At least now everyone has a printing press (read: weblog), so everyone potentially has an audience. The issue arises in getting people’s attention.

    If you’re a really good writer a Real Publisher(tm) will publish your works. If not, you’ll be slogging away and no one will know you. With weblogs, PDFs, and print on demand books you can potentially get people’s attention in an easier and cheaper way than a large marketing budget.

    I think downloads are a useful tool in marketing, but it may not wok in all situations. For an author’s first few books, PDFs may actually be necessary to get people interested. There are so many books published each year that it would be impossible to purchase (or even borrow from a library) even a small percentage of them.

    Once you’re semi-established, or perhaps if you’re known “ahead of time” through a well-visited weblog, then a sample chapter or two may be enough to wet people’s appetite.

    Anyone who’s quite well-known (Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Jane Jacobs, etc.) wouldn’t need to do anything as they have a “fan base” that will pick up any new book and help generate buzz to introduce new readers to the author. As a good-will gesture, it may be a good idea to release a book in electronic form a few years after the first publishing date. If you’re not making a lot on “long tail” sales, then getting people’s attention for future books could be worth more.

    For musicians (and perhaps other types of artists), there are other venues to generate income. So while they’re living in obscurity, giving out audio files gets the word out and buzz for their tour. A few links to an online music store (for higher quality files perhaps) could then useful to get some cash. Once they have a bit of a fan base, the ratio between free and paid-for content can be looked at again.

    I think each creator needs to determine for themselves how much they want or need to generate publicity versus getting money for every copy (physical or digital) of work that is distributed. Needless to say, it’s the copyright holder’s right to determine how their work is sent out to the world, but in the modern world, making copies (legal and illegal) has become a whole lot easier, so that now has to be taken into account in any decision.

  • // I can’t have a very constructive opinion on this phenomenon, because (and please forgive me) I’ve never seen any of this stuff that was actually any good

    Some of Paul Graham’s essays are among the best and most thought-provoking words ever stored, on any format. He has a quite unique style of writing, as he always intentionally discards everything that is beside the point or clearly true, leaving only the controversial bits, this makes reading his writings a true exercise for the mind. For a single example, I recommend “What you can’t say”

  • adam

    The second you equated copyright with ‘righttoeat’ you lost me as a reader, and I’m sure many others.

    You think you have some divine right to live off a crummy aged book about a quickly changing industry?

    I wonder if the people who actually can’t eat in countries like ethiopia, or hell, even in the U.S.A feel like if they jot enough words down on paper then they will have fulfilled their duties to society, and will get fed.

    My guess is, they don’t

    The fact is, most people downloaded it for free because there is virtually NO value attached — for good reason. It’s a novelty item that noone would have wanted if it cost even 5 cents.

    Furthermore, this isn’t news. Everyone in the publishing industry understands that you will not sell to certain people. Those people will borrow the book from a friend or library, copy it some other way, or just not read the damn thing.

    They never EVER intended to pay for it, so if you have a problem with that then you shouldn’t ante up your bandwidth to these people.

    I think you need to find a different industry, or learn to cope with the fact that you are never going to get paid for every reader.

  • adam

    Oh yeah, I should add that I don’t ever download movies or books or music or anything illegally. I find what I like that is free, and I find the cheapest legal source for the rest.

    I just wanted to make sure you understand that I’m not a freetard, although I still think you’re a retard.

  • Ilya Sytchev

    On a busy corner in São Paulo, Brazil, street vendors pitch the latest “tecnobrega” CDs, including one by a hot band called Banda Calypso. Like CDs from most street vendors, these did not come from a record label. But neither are they illicit. They came directly from the band. Calypso distributes masters of its CDs and CD liner art to street vendor networks in towns it plans to tour, with full agreement that the vendors will copy the CDs, sell them, and keep all the money. That’s OK, because selling discs isn’t Calypso’s main source of income. The band is really in the performance business — and business is good. Traveling from town to town this way, preceded by a wave of supercheap CDs, Calypso has filled its shows and paid for a private jet.

    The vendors generate literal street cred in each town Calypso visits, and its omnipresence in the urban soundscape means that it gets huge crowds to its rave/dj/concert events. Free music is just publicity for a far more lucrative tour business. Nobody thinks of this as piracy.


  • James

    Steven: I’m sure there’s politer names than calling them “freetards”.

  • James — I’m sure you’re right. I guess I picked that up from Fake Steve and didn’t think too hard before using it. After all, this is a blog not a book. ;)

  • You might want to look up David Wellington, who writes horror fiction serials on his blog and has gone on to do pretty well in print.

    I’m a musician and I’ve given away songs for free online since at least 2000, alongside CDs and other material I do sell. It doesn’t pay my rent, but I can say that I’ve made more money from music now than I ever did back in the pre-internet days when the only options available to me were endless touring and begging for radio exposure.

    At the end of the day, it’s still about focusing on building an audience that finds value in what you produce, and ignoring everyone else.

    Most people don’t care about business models or destroying the [publishing|music|film] industry. They just want access to stuff they like. So find that audience, give them access and lots of comfortable choices in how they can support you.

  • I don’t have any breakthrough ideas as far as a business model for you goes, but on the subject of:

    “I was also, of course, interested in testing the idea of giving stuff away and allowing people freely to express their appreciation”

    I think there is a huge number of variables that could impact your results here. You could spend hours crafting a better message to convince people to pay you, for example.

    You could look at ways of linking to ebook itself to a payment system, as suggested above.

    You could have people leave their email address, and email them a few weeks later saying “did you enjoy the book? Would you like to pay me a few dollars for it”, hoping they have actually read it.

    I suspect part of the problem is asking for ‘donations’, which has certain connotations, before people have read the book. It might not be worth paying for. With Radiohead, you already have a good idea what you are getting.

    My (long winded) point is that judging the success or failure of the entire idea on this one test might be too hasty. You could have had completely different results with the same book, had your approach been different in some way.

    Worth checking out.

  • GearsofWar

    “Dude, virtually NO ONE makes a living writing fiction, on or OFF the internet.”

    Another great excuse people give for pirating :p The writer/musician/programmer isn’t making any money off this anyways, so I’m justified in stealing it.

  • It seems obvious to me what needs to be done. Release the DRM-free version in something like Navajo or Esperanto, and if you want the lossless translation version in English, pay $5 (or whatever).

  • Adam: Read his post. He wasn’t expecting any money to be made from the PDF download. “righttoeat” ties into a much larger issue.

    Toby: you said:

    The same rule applies to you that applied to me when the desktop publishing revolution encroached on my ability to earn a living as a pre-press operator in the printing industry: if you can’t make money at it, find a vocation at which you can make money.

    Your point doesn’t quite translate to Steven’s dilemma: your forced migration to another industry was caused by folks getting something that they wanted more than the service you provided; in other words, they aren’t missing you now, are they?

    If professional writing is made a nearly-impenetrable field, there will be less professional-quality writing out there. No, this doesn’t mean that nobody will write in their spare time; however, people will write less because they will have less time to spend on it. This will result in less output or a drop in quality.

    People don’t seem to like accepting that the things that they want to have are created at some cost. You can, like I once did, cruise SourceForge for 3 frustrating hours looking for a DVD-burning application that will run on your computer. Or you can accept that there’s nothing wrong with paying for exactly what you want when it’s already out there.

  • “I don’t think the Slashdot argument is that anyone who is creative (writing/composing/whatever) should be denied payment for their efforts, but simply that those who are going to be the most successful going forward are those that embrace a new business model, rather than continue to cling on by their fingernails to the old one.”

    I have seen various riffs on this idea throughout the comment thread. I agree with the essence of most of these responses. I will make more-or-less the same point, from a somewhat different angle. This may help your see the situation a bit more clearly, and that’s the best start towards a more palatable solution.

    As someone in the business of marketing ideas and products, I have observed that the most successful purveyors of same are those who recognize not only the Value, but the very Necessity of marketing their wares. Marketing in some cases is more than half the battle.

    I have seen this frequently in blogs. The most highly-trafficked blogs are not generally the best-written, most insightful ones. The traffic goes to the most social, the most publicized, the most famous, and the most moneyed bloggers. Occasionally, yes, quality does find its way to the top. But in general it is those chasing fame the hardest who catch it.

    There’s nothing to be bitter about here. There are merely lessons to be learned. Two of them, to be exact:

    1) IT IS NOT A QUESTION OF YOUR PRODUCT. Oh, no doubt your product could be improved. By all means do so, it won’t hurt. But you must STOP doing it INSTEAD of proper marketing.

    2) PART OF MARKETING and success in your field is the form in which your product is ‘packaged’. In other words, handing out free PDFs clearly did not work, from the POV of keeping you in business. OK. But you need to LOSE THE MINDSET THAT IT ‘SHOULD’ HAVE WORKED, which seems to be all you can focus on. It did not work for you simply because that is a business plan that does NOT work. Steven King tried the very same thing, and it did not work for HIM, either. So tell me again why it ‘SHOULD’ have worked for you, and how the problem is with the audience.

    There ARE writers and other creators working online, who are making their living. In some cases, they are making a handsome living. Find them and study them. Learn what you can, and innovate.

    You know what does not work. So don’t do THAT. Find out what DOES. It is competitive in the marketplace of ideas? Yes, and it always was. But you have a better chance of reaching your audience today than ever before. Maybe someone will come along and find your audience for you, but I strongly suspect this is something you will have to do for yourself.

  • Drew Franklin

    This was a really enjoyable and thought provoking read.

    The patronage idea was really interesting. The $300 dollar version of exclusive NIN Ghosts is very much a form of patronage, and I never thought of it like that until now.
    They quickly sold out of the 2500 copies and made 750,000 dollars on it within the first week. This is definitely not possible on a smaller scale, but as Bret pointed out 300 people is a obtainable goal for a lesser known artist.

    I think the importance of collaborative filtering on all of this didn’t get the credit it deserves. I found this article through Daring Fireball along with a couple other readers as I noticed. I consider that one of my main filters for a lot of the interesting things I find. So there are many different avenues to receive this type of filtering, and although digg is a popular example it is not the only one. I think from the artists perspective what channels your work gets filtered through is a important consideration to make because it will have a huge impact who sees your work.

    This is why I respect Jonathan Coulton so much. It is that he has very carefully tailored his audience by what he releases, how he releases it, who he releases it too, and because of this (and other things as well) he has very loyal fans. (He probably also didn’t LISTEN to some MARKETING person that TOLD him he need not WRITE better songs but MAKE his BRAND better.)

  • But you need to LOSE THE MINDSET THAT IT ‘SHOULD’ HAVE WORKED, which seems to be all you can focus on.

    You need to work on your reading. Perhaps I didn’t use enough upper-case emphasis in the original post?

    Steven King tried the very same thing, and it did not work for HIM, either.

    False: Stephen King charged for each instalment of a serial fiction, and it worked very nicely for him, according to his own statement in the latest volume of the Paris Review Interviews. He made a quick couple of hundred thousand dollars, and then just got bored with the story and stopped.

    Drew — nice point re NIN’s premium package basically constituting patronage. I agree that John Gruber is a better filter than most. ;)

  • An 8 year old book probably isn’t going to be burning up the sales charts.

    It’s a novelty item that noone would have wanted if it cost even 5 cents.

    Not to blow my own trumpet too much, but Trigger Happy has actually sold pretty steadily over the years: it’s on a lot of university reading lists, and so forth. Even so, as I’ve said, giving away a free version has, in my estimation, been nothing but upside for me.

    Commenters are right to point out that 30k downloads does not necessarily translate into 30k readers. Very possibly far fewer than that read the whole thing.

    Ken asks:

    How are you going to reinvent books?

    Good question. Maybe the demand for books-as-we-know-them will go away. Although I don’t think J K Rowling is excessively concerned about that at the moment.

    Tuna says:

    Some of Paul Graham’s essays are among the best and most thought-provoking words ever stored, on any format.

    A thrilling claim!

    Matthew Patterson: good points. There are a lot of variables.

    Brian Warshaw’s point seems crucial to me:

    people will write less because they will have less time to spend on it. This will result in less output or a drop in quality.

    This ties into something I want to say in a follow-up post…

  • Hey, lookit that, I got name-checked in the comments.

    Steven, you’re absolutely right that what you described is no kind of business model.

    Putting a donation button on a page with a downloadable file is like putting a tip jar on the inside of a drive-thru-only restaurant. It’s going to take an awfully satisfied customer to come back and drop you a buck or two after having drove off and eaten their meal, isn’t it?

    A better approach is to make the work perusable online (i.e., chapter by chapter in a blog) with the donation button clearly visible in a sidebar. This way, people have the opportunity to show their appreciation while they’re still in the very act of appreciating. Makes more sense, doesn’t it?

    (Feel free to tell me, as so many others have, that people don’t like to read the printed word off the internet. Write a whole blog post about it, so all the readers of your blog can chime in about how much they do not like to read stuff on the internet.)

    Failing that, adding a solicitation for donations and (if applicable) a hyperlink to the donation page to the downloadable file will help.

    Basically, to make the “give away for free” model succeed, you need to make it easy for people to donate without having to remember to come back to the point of distribution specifically to do so.

    That said, I’ve got a couple questions which you may feel to treat as rhetorical or answer in general terms, as they touch on money.

    You mention the percentage of readers who donated. Are you viewing all of the readers who didn’t donate as “lost sales?” Considering that none of them were likely potential sales in the first place, I hardly think that’s the most accurate way of looking at it.

    You also mention the lowest donations, but there’s no indication of average donation, or how much money you made overall, or how this might compare to the book’s first run publication. I can easily guess from your treatment of the subject that the answers are “not much” and “poorly”, but it’s worth making those things explicit, if only for the sake of clarity.

    Having heard and read too many personal accounts of authors who’ve made nothing but pocket change for their efforts doing things the traditional way, I think there’s a lot to be said for getting a voluntary donation even from every one or two thousand readers.

    I have some thoughts in response to some of your other points, but I’ll save that for a post on my own blog as this is already quite long enough for a comment.

  • Hi Alexandra, thanks for dropping by —

    to make the “give away for free” model succeed, you need to make it easy for people to donate without having to remember to come back to the point of distribution specifically to do so

    Yes: this echoes Jesse’s point, and is an important lesson that I’ve learned.

    You mention the percentage of readers who donated. Are you viewing all of the readers who didn’t donate as “lost sales?” Considering that none of them were likely potential sales in the first place, I hardly think that’s the most accurate way of looking at it.

    Well, neither do I, which is why I said the opposite. ;) I guess that, if anything, physical sales will have been encouraged. My only evidence for this so far is anecdotal, of people writing to me and saying they were inspired to buy a copy. I won’t be able to compare hard figures for a while. But it looks like amazon.co.uk ran out of copies shortly after the download was released, for example.

    You also mention the lowest donations, but there’s no indication of average donation, or how much money you made overall, or how this might compare to the book’s first run publication.

    The average donation was a (very reasonable) couple of bucks. The total was a vanishingly minuscule fraction of what I earned from the book’s traditional publication.

  • I should be more precise when I talk about “lost sales”… I’m talking about whatever number of people downloaded/read it and then did not contribute in any way to your financial success.

    I think we can safely assume that number is larger than zero, and I would agree with anybody who said it would be better if that number were smaller… but I like to discourage people from following the RIAA Theory of Economics, which states that any money anywhere which does not end up in your pocket represents a net loss.

    Artists who find success online frequently follow models where a tiny fraction of their audience (sometimes less than 1%) pays for all the rest. Far from being a case of “Only the big guys can afford to do business this way,” only the big guys have any realistic alternative. People are far less likely to pay up front for an unknown quantity.

    The people who don’t pay still help by contributing word of mouth, and of course, just as with financial donations, you can do things to encourage this and make it easier for them.

  • I apologise for contriving to be unclear, despite my best efforts in the post and subsequent comments. No, I don’t consider the downloaders who didn’t donate “lost sales”. I consider them gained readers (at least potentially). What I didn’t also gain at the same time was any appreciable amount of money. I’m not whining about this, just pointing out a fact.

    I like to discourage people from following the RIAA Theory of Economics, which states that any money anywhere which does not end up in your pocket represents a net loss.

    Discourage away, but do be careful with that straw man, I hear they’re quite flammable.

  • Grover

    I want to start out by saying I actually agree with the basic premise of your article. Giving your content away isn’t something you owe the world or anything stupid like that. Giving your content away should be a business decision, and that’s your decision to make, none some idiot who can’t see the difference between the information and the work required to collect, create, and present that information.

    That being said…

    But if there’s been a comparable success by a band that hasn’t already gained its cultural capital and name-recognition through the evils of copyright and corporate promotion, I’d like to know about it.

    With bands, I can’t say there are a lot of bands that have achieved THAT level of success, but it’s only recently that bands have even considered that an option. To a band, a label is “How you make it big” and there are definitely bands that have a achieved a fairly ridiculous amount of success in a short time this way. Are you familiar with nerdcore hiphop, for example?

    But your description of the situation shows an ignorance of how the label system works. Unless you have THAT level of success, album sales rarely go to the band at all. In fact, the band usually ends up paying the label back for recording expenses. How can they possibly afford to pay the labels back? With money from touring. There are thousands of indie rock bands that are entirely successful (nicer houses that mine for sure) that do indeed make nearly all of their money from merch and touring. Album sales are the nearly always the smallest slice of the pie. Albums sales are also a bit different in that while you can create a reasonably good recording for very little, to create something truly professional sounding still requires a fair amount of cash in equipment and experienced labor.

    Oh Mr Freetard, you work as a programmer, do you? How interesting. So do you perform all your corporate programming duties for free, and earn your keep by selling personally branded mousemats on the side?

    Again, tons of examples of this (or rather, giving the software away and making additional services such as support or customization free). A lot of open-source software works in exactly this way, where the software is free and then you pay for additional services, Red Hat being the classic example. I’m currently in a pilot of a lecture capture system that works this way as well.

    But, those are metaphors. Let’s get back to the question at hand. Can a writer make a living on the internet? Writers are the content authors MOST able to make a living by giving away his/her content. Most of the people reading this are reading it because of a link from John Gruber, a writer who gives his content away. What about web comics like Penny Arcade, who not only sell books of the same content that’s available for free online, but who now have a convention named after them? What about magazines like The Escapist, which only exist online? How about David Wong, who published his book online a chapter at a time?

    It’s a mistake to assume that distributing your content for free online is the only way forward, but it’s also a mistake to say—in this late age where lots of people are actively doing it—that it doesn’t work.

  • I didn’t quite say “it doesn’t work” in general. I said what I did wasn’t a viable direct revenue model for writing books, though it was positive in all other ways.

    How about David Wong, who published his book online a chapter at a time?

    …and then had it published traditionally. Bzzzt!

    Daring Fireball does indeed make a living for the estimable John Gruber, and I take my hat off to him. But it’s a weblog, not a book. I never denied that there are plenty of bloggers making a living. More on the difference between blogs and books in a forthcoming post.

  • Toby

    Brian: While what is happening in the printing industry is almost as complex as the ‘righttoeat’ issue, on the topic of getting paid for a valuable skill it’s closer than most people think.
    As design and publishing applications became more accessible to people at home, they began wondering why they should pay the printer for pre-press and artworking time. The end result is a cheaper print job for them but a generally lower standard of quality globally. Is that not the kind of result Steven fears in his sector?
    What if rather than comparing to online music and software, professional writing takes the same place in modern society as art? People pay huge sums of money for the original piece but art galleries have had to keep entry fees incredibly low or nonexistent to ensure that art does not become extinct. There may be no direct contrast here, but it’s a good example of how supply and demand works in the content creation field.

  • Mike C.

    Nice article. You bring up many valid points.

    As a compulsive buyer of books, I find it frustrating when I look for a particular book and find that there are no versions available in any form.

    I’m curious on your thoughts towards making books available for download after they go out of print.

  • I’m not complaining:

    Well, yes, you are. And at considerable length. There’s more than a little denial at work here.

    But if you prefer, we’ll relabel it ‘whining with attitude’. Better?

    You need to work on your reading… the “Stephen King” model… worked for King because he was already Stephen King

    You need to “work on” YOUR reading:


    Wiki on how King stopped work on the project (i.e, as fare as he was concerned, it failed): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Plant

    Once King told readers the total cost of the book would be about that of a hardcover edition, downloads dropped of dramatically. (One might well argue that KIng was charging too much for the book, and that this was the reason for the failure. We’ll never really know.)

    Did King get a big initial response? Of course he did, he’s Steven King, and you are not, as you noted. Was the experiment a success? No, it was not. That is why he stopped. Had it been a success, at the level a Steven King can expect, he’d have continued. He has himself said, and through his actions made plain, that the model does not work for him. It does not work for you, either. It just does not work. There are more easily-found links than are worth posting that detail how this failed.

    Maybe your real complaint is that you’re not Steven King. That certainly seems to be the subtext here.

    And of course, you completely missed every single word I wrote on marketing, because it wasn’t what you wanted to hear. And I’m starting to get it. The real problem is that the unwashed masses don’t realize you’re far more worthy of their time than King. What’s WRONG with them?

    I understand now that you aren’t actually seeking answers. (And you certainly weren’t seeking criticism!) You want a soapbox from which you can preen and condescend. My error, and it’s a foolish one I won’t repeat. Please, carry on.

  • Let me help you out of your ignorance with Stephen King’s own words:

    Many people thought that I didn’t finish “The Plant” because the marketing strategy was unsuccessful. That’s one of the few times that I felt a gentle but firm media push towards untruth. In fact, “The Plant” was very, very successful. […] I made almost two hundred thousand dollars, with no overhead. […] It was a license to coin money, if I can be vulgar about it. But the story was just OK, and I ran out of inspiration. [The Paris Review Interviews, Vol II, p492: interview published 2006]

    You whine:

    And of course, you completely missed every single word I wrote on marketing, because it wasn’t what you wanted to hear.

    No, I ignored it because a) it was stupid where it was not obvious, and b) it mainly missed the point. The fact that I got 30,000 downloads shows pretty convincingly that “marketing” in the sense of getting attention wasn’t the problem. And you didn’t offer anything like the constructive ideas about “packaging” from Jesse and Norm upthread. So there really wasn’t anything to reply to.

    Although I must admit it has been funny to be lectured on “marketing” by someone whose blog has 18 feed subscribers. :)

  • Uh huh. Just picked up on an Amazon review of your book.

    “”Unspeak” might have made an interesting article for a magazine, but the material the author has gathered here doesn’t warrant a book. It embeds the journalistic fantasy that seems to plague so many modern ink-stained wretches: the fantasy that, since objectivity cannot ever be accomplished, subjectivity is just fine thank you very much, and that anyone’s subjective stance is therefore as objective as anyone else’s. [Incidentally, this is part of the reason for the awful modern ‘news’ practice of having journalists interviewing each other.]

    The book is really an embittered rant against (mostly) modern public political discourse. The author’s particlar political prejudices shine brightly, and badly distract from the central theme of exploring political speech.

    Minor errors (such as seeming to completely misunderstand the very old term “natural sciences”) further disrupt the flow.

    The book this one attempted to be still needs to be written.”


    Could it be your book was just… really, really bad? Could it be that the real problem here is that – you’re not really much of a writer?

    Although I must admit it has been funny to be lectured on “marketing” by someone whose blog has 18 feed subscribers. :)

    My oh my. We’re in grade school. I’m not the one complaining about the marketplace and not selling my wares – that would be you. My little blog gets as much attention as I’m willing to work for, and I have no complaints about it. But hey, thanks for going to all the trouble to check it out – that information on the RSS feed was buried somewhere at the bottom. Even I’m not quite sure where it is.

    Although I must admit it has been funny to be lectured by a whining, petulant, egocentric child whose life’s purpose seems to be blaming others for his shortcomings.

    Read that review again. The “embittered rant” part really hits home, doesn’t it?

  • Thanks for bringing up again the topic of my newer book, Unspeak, currently available at all good bookstores and with its own blog! I’m sure your interest in it is sincere and, not satisfied with cherry-picking the one inanely hostile amazon.com review out of six, you’ll want to check out what “professional” critics thought of it too before buying a copy. Happy reading!

  • Mike C —

    I’m curious on your thoughts towards making books available for download after they go out of print.

    I think that has to be a no-brainer for any author. Once publishing has given up on a book, any extra mindshare you can get through internet distribution is a plus (and money would just be icing on the cake). It might even prompt a reissue in future.

  • I write a lot of stuff I don’t expect to get paid for – right away. If it helps keep an audience happy, it helps with book sales and other paying projects. That said, I did try putting up half a book for free to entice my publisher to commit to the whole thing, but even with a nice little installed base they passed on the project. (High production costs, plus the fact that my then-editor just did not understand the book.)

    So I’m thinking of releasing it as a publication-on-demand book. Can’t hurt – and if people buy it, I’ll write some more of the storyline. It’s a side project, though, and if I didn’t have other income there’s no way I’d spend my time on an indulgence, no matter how enjoyable it was to write.

  • Guy

    I downloaded your book but didn’t leave a donation. It wasn’t that I wanted to rip you off, see, I’d already bought the hardcopy version. I thought it was a useful work, to the degree that I paid to get some key portions I’d highlighted typed up so I could do text search on them. I downloaded the copy so if I ever went back to that I wouldn’t have to get more data entry done.

    So don’t feel too bad. You were paid, upfront, but you just didn’t know it. If the business plan that was for had taken off, you’d have been strongly considered as a consultant. And if it ever should go, you still would be.

    You have my email, contact me if you wish.

  • I thought the post was interesting, and I’ve skimmed the comments. What’s been brought up a few times is the book vs. download debate, but what have been glossed over are ebook readers. These seem to offer the hope of both worlds: easily accessible content in a format people will want to enjoy (once the kinks are worked out). Of course, even once those kinks are worked out, there is still the issue of DRM. How do you get someone to pay for digital content?

    I don’t have an easy answer to that, and that is the answer you seem to be seeking here. What is it about easily copyable content that seems to divorce the creator from the content and makes people want to consume it only for free (and I admit guilt here as well)?

    Seeing as I’m a programmer, I’m drawn to the technical solution. For ebook readers, I see this as a limited copying system: you can copy the book to a friends reader, but once you do so, your copy is disabled until they copy it back, someone copies it to you, or you buy another. It mimics the current state of paper books. Of course, the final option is that I just loan you my ebook reader, and then no copying is involved. Since everyone seems fairly happy with the status quo, this seems to me like the first solution we should try. However, I don’t know how to make this translate to the online world.

    What I do know is that most people are perfectly willing to abide by the rules you set out for them. I also know most people are lazy. Make something free and most people will consume it freely without paying for it. So you have to find the happy medium: make it easy for people to consume what you’re offering while putting up a small barrier that asks for money or that they need to provide money to get past. Will this cut down on the number of people who read your book? Yes. It might even cut down on people who buy a paperback version. But if selling a paperback version isn’t your goal, but making a living off of digital versions is, it might be the best way to go.

    Now, what technology lets you do what I just said? I’ll get back to you when I figure that out.

  • I have an EMusic subscription, and I buy things EMusic doesn’t have on Amazon (preferably MP3s, but I’ll buy physical CDs as a last resort). I will happily pay for music if it’s good, and especially if it’s reasonably priced.

    Likewise, I buy plenty of books (especially technical books, for which I see a solid ROI as a programmer), and read others in free online versions or through my paid subscription to the Safari service. It’s easy to find high-quality technical books on certain topics (especially theoretical/academic ones), because the sites I use to keep up with tech information have good filters. Better filters than some professional publishers, judging from a few of the books I’ve bought.

    Honestly, I don’t begrudge anyone making a living producing content. As a programmer, I make a living producing content myself. At the same time, as a content producer, it’s your job to produce something people want enough to buy. If I produce software that’s not any better than open source, I can hardly expect all that many people to buy it just because I need the income. If you write books no one cares about reading, that won’t benefit you either.

    The fundamental problem with the music industry is that most of the products they want to sell you are perceived as a poor value and are *less* valuable than something you can track down for free. DRM is a pain in the ass. CDs are expensive, and less convenient than MP3s.

    Where are the $3-5 bargain back-catalog CDs? Where are the tools to make music consumers’ lives easier or better? The music industry has spent a decade completely uninterested in trying to provide their customers with a good value proposition, and they sit back, stunned at the fact that consumers have routed around them to get the music they want in the format they want.

    I feel sorry for the artists, but the music industry oligarchy may have to finish putting themselves out of business before things really start getting fixed.

  • >Are links that make it to the front page of Digg really the best things on the internets at that moment?

    Probably not, but the books which show up in people’s Librarything libraries that I follow often are. I follow them because they seems to like some of the same stuff, but the really interesting bits are those that are nothing to do with our shared interests,but just something else who’s brain works the same way as me likes.

  • Mark M —

    you can copy the book to a friends reader, but once you do so, your copy is disabled until they copy it back, someone copies it to you, or you buy another. It mimics the current state of paper books.

    Interesting idea. Reminds me a little of how the Microsoft Zune works. If you can find someone else who has a Zune, you can IIRC “beam” a song to their player for them to listen to, which autodestructs after 3 days. (The stupid part AIUI is that if you happen to have made the song yourself, it still autodestructs.)

    Andy — the apocalyptic stupidity of the music industry (firing their A&R staff, demanding royalties from iPods, etc) is indeed amazing. I think the problem is that it often makes it harder to have a reasonable conversation about artists’ “rights” in general, because everything the RIAA does is obviously so fantastically evil.

    coldclimate — I didn’t know about LibraryThing, looks interesting. Thanks!

  • @Kieran
    Yep, I’m definetly still banging on about that. The trick seems to be which crowds you listen to.

  • So which metacrowd is going to filter all the useless crowds for you? ;)

  • The followup promised is here.

  • If the breathless advocates of “the free distribution of ideas” are serious, they need either a) to come up with a realistic proposal as to how I am to keep feeding myself while giving the fruits of my labours away for free; or b) come out and say honestly that they don’t think any such thing as a “professional writer” ought to exist, and that I should just get a job like anyone else.

    Partipatory Economics (Parecon for short) is your answer to A, although you’d be giving it away for free only in the sense that it would be free as in freedom, not free as in beer, because you’re remunerated for effort and sacrifice, not output. People would have to actually want to read your stuff for you to be remunerated, of course.

  • With respect to your footnote #6, Geoff Ryman’s 253 may count. It was one of the first novels written specifically for the internet, and actively traded on the interconnectedness of hypertext. OTOH, it has probably been more successful — and is certainly a more comfortable read — in print form, notwithstanding the loss of clickable links. Moreover, Ryman was already a moderately successful author in traditional print media, and I don’t believe he ever suggested that 253 signified the death of publishing.

  • Leinad

    I torrented In Rainbows on general principle.

  • The general principle being?

  • Leinad

    I seem to recall it being hatred of Thom Yorke*. Also, unwillingness to go along with the ‘it’s up to you. no really.’ schtick when it was only 120 mbps or some equally ridiculous bitrate – anyone who forked over more than a few quid for that can consider themselves well and trully pwned.

    *I quite like Radiohead though.

  • The way people were expected to buy the tracks of Nude separately on iTunes for their recent “remix contest” was a bit cynical, to be sure.

    I think In Rainbows was 160kpbs. It didn’t sound that bad to me.

  • Leinad

    Ah, 160kbps it was.

    Regardless, the idea of paying more than a few bucks for what essentially were mid-range MP3 quality tracks (unless you owned Steven’s Headphones of Supreme Quality) on the strength of the Radiohead brand and pretending you were engaging in a paradigm-busting reveloutionary music-for-the-people jizzfest had me fighting down bile.

    (worse, I had friends who did think that and it was an effort to keep from sprinkling them with pungent flecks)

  • a paradigm-busting revolutionary music-for-the-people jizzfest


  • Otto

    Hi Steve.

    I agree that many people don’t have much of a conscience as far as putting themselves in the shoes of the authors and artists they admire, but nonetheless I think the “digital imperative” (that the easiness of digital copying will find for any intellectual property its proper channels of distribution) is a paradigm shift ongoing and largely beneficial for the functioning of our market democracy. It is also value neutral to the extent all structural adjustments are. I think music is under no threat of disappearing from the face of the earth, and I agree with your closing statements that books and novels will continue to be churned out all things notwithstanding… But do you know that cultural change is so impossible to predict that the best thing for people (such as myself, a musician, and you, an author) to do is to find remedies that WORK FOR THEM – just personal remedies and strategies. Radiohead and the bunch are doing just that. But not just big names. Some of the best music I’ve encountered recently has been freely distributed. And as for this book… Well, it’s been tremendously useful for me as I’m writing a theoretical article on videogames. I’m also someone who’s going to pick up a copy of Trigger Happy once I see it in a store, even though I have both the PDF version and even the fun, amazing NDS version (the reading of which, by the way, feels very exciting and, if you pardon the pun, novel).

    But internet sharing is just the next stage in managing intellectual property. Public libraries, for example, could easily have been the end of commercial writing: I mean if all the books are freely borrowable from a public pool, then where’s the incentive for people to buy books? Well, it turned out people still wanted to buy their own little copies. Today, when everything is pretty much up for grabs, people still want to spend their money SOMEHOW (whether out of respect and gratitude or just because shopping is so much fun), and this is what needs to be tackled! Strategies of luring customers, giving incentives, providing tie-ins, packaging, fan service, communities (online or real-life), offering special deals etc…

    I think people’s conception of what’s proper and what’s decent will be put to test as the P2P revolution accelerates. I still have hope that people will have enough disposable income to make the voluntary gesture of goodwill of sending some money (whether via Paypal – which I personally dislike – or via a hardcover or CD purchase). But perhaps e-books and i-tunes will mean the end of a certain era of material circulation of “stuff”? Man, things change so fast. Hard to tell. But, as Gloria Gaynor once proclaimed, “we will survive!”

  • Leon

    The thing about free software is that while the product itself might be top-notch, the support available for free does not have to be. For example, right now I am trying to support a change to the JBoss application server. Between versions 4.2 and 4.3, they changed the messaging service. I now have to pore over online documentation, which sucks by the way. Or I could get some support, for the low-low fee of a few thousand a year, so that they can help me out. Okay, that works for them.

    But for a writer, once your work is out, well, um, I don’t think that it needs any support. So the whole thing about supporting your “software,” which is really documentation, doesn’t hold. Now if you would charge people to get updates, like if you just put out the initial error-ridden draft online but would make the finished edited product available for a fee, and perhaps have the online community “debug” your manuscript for you, well, there you might have something. Good luck with that.

    BTW, there are some technical books put out by Manning that are available in PDF form, but they also brand the book with the buyer’s name on each page before sending it to you. Dunno if that would help, since the person who initially paid for it and plastered it over the Internet may claim that he or she had it ripped off.

    [BTW, the preview function sucks the life out of my MBP running Firefox 2.]

  • Good point — it doesn’t really make any sense to promise to “support” most kind of books, unless they’re specialist books that would benefit from regular updates/revisions — like tech books I guess, and perhaps some others.

    The notion of putting out an error-ridden draft first is a bit dangerous: if it’s really error-ridden and crappy people might not want to pay for the promise of a better version. Anyway, first editions of finished books never avoid errors, my own included. I correct all those I know about in subsequent editions, and readers already help with this.

    The comment preview is an unpredictable beast — sometimes it makes my MB wheeze, other times not. Who knows what gremlins live in it.

  • Steve … Steve … Steve…

    As Milton Freeman would have said – all “price” is – is information. At this time the “price” of fuel and food is front and center. This means some of us may need to think carefully how we consume these products. In socialist states (not Russia – take Michigan for example), the actual price or costs (ex.: of government services) are hidden so the average person is left out of the decision making loop. So information is important and we should be thankful for rising prices (as we are when prices go down).
    My point being that you get to charge whatever the market will bare.
    You need to finish the experiment: now offer a download for a buck and see what happens. Have some fun with it and try two bucks next month.
    I am amazed that I can make a living writing on the web. It’s hard work and challenging with the general economic slowdown, but I bump my head on the ceiling every morning getting up at 5:30AM. If the passion is there, so too will be the money. Best regards!

  • For the past many years I have given away a meditation CD just for the good of humanity. It is designed to help heal people. Lately, I have experimented with letting these subscribers know that they can purchase any of my other 12 self-help CD’s for download or in physical form. My overall results have yielded the same as your conclusion. Not many sales as a result of the good intentions. Of course, I am a polly-ana type. I do feel good that over 50,000 downloads have occurred.

    I have taken it as a challenge and have been reworking my site and the product image. Just so you are aware there is a lot of new technology to take this type of situation and make it profitable. My discovery is that they take time to learn but are supposed to yield. I’m working on implementing these and it all takes time.

    I expect that we are in this together and one day, hopefully soon, people will understand the universal law of what you take free means there’s always the opposite in their life somehow some way those accounting systems are very accurate. Until then may you have abundance from all that you have donated.

  • John Taratuta:

    I bump my head on the ceiling every morning getting up at 5:30AM.

    Is that because you have so much cash stuffed under the mattress?

    You need to finish the experiment: now offer a download for a buck and see what happens.

    It’s a good idea, though I think it would be a new experiment rather than a completion of this one, which was after all about voluntary donations. Maybe with the next book.

    S OM: peace to you too! We can at least wallow in our karma credit temporarily. ;)

  • person

    So here’s how it works:

    Any questions? Please don’t direct to me, rather to mike.

  • That guy hasn’t bothered to read what I wrote with any care, so no questions.

  • Paul

    Hi Steven,

    Publishing started with self-publishing; went into patronage; moved into newspapers, and book publishing, and grew into juggernauts that over-inflated and went pop; and now newspapers are turning staff writers into freelancers and publishers provide little to no support for new writers.

    The shift of late into Print-on-demand, self-publishing, and the internet are all tainted with the same brush of “Increased Crap Potential” (I’ll call it ICP!) because it doesn’t include the same recent filtering technique that was in the book or newspaper business — yet, why would it be the same? How can we improve / adapt filtering for the new business model?

    Crowd theory is a form of external filtering that will help you find stuff that others have liked, but it does little to actually improve the internal product.

    Yet, the “function” that was provided by the editors et al is still available, albeit it needs some help to rework to an internet age:

    a) Professional editors (who might have to work on commission, rather than up-front pay, with crowd-sourcing as to who is better than others, not that I have solved the backend!);

    b) In-person and on-line (closed) critiquing groups (who see it in its rawest stage); or,

    c) Beta-testers (which might even get closer to the “ultimate” client/customer by including generic readers).

    E-journals are doing it in niche areas following traditional models (see Writers Digest article recently) but not quite mainstream.

    If I see any promise in the publishing world, it is the awesome power of digital globalization and the tactile nature of books. We’ve tapped a tenth of a percent of the power because it is relatively new, but the tactile nature will be hard to overcome.

    I think the future is in adapting the models around the tool, finding innovative ways to address the ICP before the tool ever gets involved. I think, once the quality is there and seemingly guaranteed, revenue will get generated three ways:

    1. Sponsorship for lack of a better phrase — people will visit sites to get the latest book free to the consumer (because a patron or an advertiser pays for the DL of the book);

    2. Like iTunes, you’ll get sites that offer “get it here, get it legit, get it easily” with customers paying for a fully integrated solution that they don’t have to think about — I would go for an e-reader in that regard, if the files were personally portable and easily backed up rather than a chance I’ll lose them if my Kindle or Ereader or Palm or PC dies;

    3. Someone breaks the cost barriers down — the reality is that the cost structures are out of control, just as with CDs. But whereas iTunes breaks CDs into smaller more manageable chunks so I can buy just the part of the CD I want, I’m not going to pay $0.99 for a chapter of a novel. I might pay $4 to get it digitally; I might even pay $10 to get it quick; I won’t pay $15 or $20 when that is essentially pure profit (overhead online is a lot less than physically producing a book, shipping it to a store, and having it occupy a shelf until someone buys it).

    Personally, I am jazzed about Amazon’s new short story program — $0.99 for a short story. Will people copy them? Yep, but like the notes by others above, it isn’t lost revenue — they probably wouldn’t have bought it anyway. I don’t know anybody who DLed Harry Potter and printed it out on paper and gave it to a friend to read, it was all transferred by mostly techno geeks amongst techno geeks. I read Da Vinci Code on my PC from a pirated version — I still bought a hard copy to give it to my gf to read (uh oh, I have a gf, guess my geek status just died).

    And, despite my enthusiasm, how does Amazon limit the ICP? They require you to have published a book that is available through them. Not quite the model I would hope for, but promise!


  • I think the problem has less to do giving anything away for free as with bringing people around to seeing the value in buying written material, as creative intellectual property, on the Internet. This will happen eventually, and I see us in the middle of a transitionary period right now that will just take some time. People have gotten used to ordering consumer goods on the Net, iTunes (etc) is doing well, and ebooks are slowly picking up momentum, so there are some positive signs. A trade paperback is now approaching $20 (!!), so there will be a growing price differential between ‘legacy’ books and ebooks, just as there is with music “albums”. The big issue with this model is how the creative artist can control his or her intellectual property from piracy. The technology is there to accomplish this, but the options are still relatively limited. For books Adobe’s new DRM is just being rolled out, and it will be interesting to see what kind of functionality they’ve built into it. In any case, I don’t think it’s worth even responding to the ‘Freetards’, that would be giving them too much credence.

  • Jack

    My understanding is that Take Control Books does pretty well financially. Their ebook publishing model includes free previews (about 20% of the book), a money back guarantee, interactive links in the PDF, free or discounted updates for future versions, and variety of promotions/coupons. It works for me. I’ve bought a dozen titles from them over the last 3 years. http://www.takecontrolbooks.com/

    I don’t know if anyone else has linked to this yet, but Kevin Kelly had an interesting post several months ago about the value of what he calls True Fans: the importance of identifying them, connecting with them, catering to them, and converting lesser fans into True Fans. http://tinyurl.com/32zzlp

  • So far as I am concerned, writers and artists should get jobs or patrons. Copyright needs to be completely abolished, because it is being abused to such an extent that it threatens our freedom. (I would also be happy with a return to the way it was in say 1970). The questionable advantages of the copyright system do not outweigh its bad effects. Further, I would really like the music and movie industries to go away. We don’t need them. I don’t watch movies or listen to music, but I value my freedom, and I don’t like the way things are going with copyright laws and treaties. Also, the music and movie industries have a very toxic effect on our democratic government. The same goes for television. I don’t watch it, and it has an extremely toxic effect on government. Television should just go away.

  • Mark

    Did you ever consider that maybe, oh, the book wasn’t any good?

  • Paul — Amazon Shorts looks interesting, thanks for that!

  • rubaiyat

    So I came to the is through the techdirt article, and would never have read this I am sure except for the an inciteful comment which said that the original articles were not nearly as harsh as the comments. And that is what I found. I appreciate that you would take the trouble to experiment with the free pdf idea, and if I am reading it correctly the experiment has been a terrific success in your eyes. The one comment you offer is that people did not seem to donate when they picked up a copy.

    If I may offer myself as an example:

    I read the blog post, realized you are a reasonable person and actually most interesting. To that end I subscribed to your blog, read a few more posts and downloaded the book. I may or may not get to it (which is the sad reality of my life), and unfortunately the second book does not sound as interesting to me personally.

    Now you may have another fan because of this, and if I am able to read the book and like it, I will drop some money in the tip jar. I have made a point of giving money to people who offer worthwhile services and to freeware authors, not huge amounts but $5 here and $10 there.

    My understanding is that you could reasonably expect a spike in purchases around this (which is where you would eventually make money), so please study the figures carefully when they come in. Further, and as you pointed out you have 30k more potential readers (me among them).

    So first and foremost thank you for doing this. I look forward to reading your blog regularly


  • James — you’re very welcome! Hope you enjoy the book and/or the blog. ;)

  • Jay

    Have you considered that downloading a pdf is like picking up a book from the shelf at the bookstores and flipping through the pages to see if it is of interest? Making a donation is taking it to the counter and paying for it.

    I am sure a lot of people may pick up a book in a bookstore about your subject and place it back on the shelf when discovering it is a few years out of date.

    A more valid comparison be found by comparing the peruse to purchase ratio in the bookstore to the download vs donate ratio of the pdf file.

  • “Oh Mr Freetard, you work as a programmer, do you? How interesting. So do you perform all your corporate programming duties for free, and earn your keep by selling personally branded mousemats on the side?”

    No, they make their money by being paid by their employer (e.g. RedHat, Novell) to write the code.

    Their employer gives away the code. The employer then makes it’s money by offering support, services and/or very nicely packaged boxes of the software with manuals, etc., for the software that was compiled from that code.

  • codepro02

    I downloaded it – my pg degree was researching the use of AI in computer games so it was an easy grab.This site is very useful.

  • I have an idea which is somewhere in between giving away books for free and selling them one by one. It is as follows:

    1) Author publishes a demo (e.g. first chapter of e-book).

    2) Those who want to purchase state how much they want to pay.

    3) Author watches accumulated sum and as soon as it is satisfactory big releases the product. Everybody who promised to buy are charged and given the access to the product.

    I have a website digributor.com but it is still in the test mode. And I currently thinking on what would be the best product to sell on my site.

    Steven, could you please tell what do you think? My e-mail: feedback2@digributor.com

  • Susan Brooks

    I would argue that plenty of crap gets through the commissioned and edited pipeline. Go to Barnes and Noble and see if you agree with me.

  • Chris White

    “Freetards” is a pretty spot-on term for anyone who thinks that giving up your ideas for free is the true essence of creative work. Most of the best, deepest, and clearly expressed ideas surely come from prolonged contemplative engagement with the topic at hand. It takes a lot of time to arrive at complete, properly expressed ideas. Too much time to, say, do a full-time job (which allows you to go on feeding yourself and thus fulfil the primary prerequisite for all ideas: being alive).

    If we are all to give away our ideas for free, then we must all do the work to complete these ideas in our own spare time as we will be far too busy with a day job that keeps us alive to spend any serious time thinking long and hard on deeper or more complex matters. Thus, if ideas are to be given away for free, expect either a dramatic drop in their quantity, or otherwise their quality. Perhaps even both.

    There is a reason that historically many of the greatest thinkers have been hereditarily rich idlers. They have the money in their pocket to keep themselves alive without having to shed even one bead of sweat. They also have long days to fill without much to do, so there is plenty of motivation to spend time thinking hard! This is not a jab at wealthy idlers, and I have no issues with those great thinkers who were fortunate enough to be in a position where they could dedicate their time to thinking for free. Indeed, we are indebted to these people.

    Fortune is something we cannot choose, and cannot hold against others who are born into it. What we can hold against someone is the unreasonable request that we spend large amounts of our time thinking hard to come to fully-realised conclusions only to give them away for free. It is simply not possible for the average human to do this without risking their shelter and foodsource.

    However, in spite of my own impoverished bank-balance hre’s one idea I’m willing to give away for free: why not take into account at least some practical considerations when thinking about the economy of thinking?

    p.s. Yes, I know there may be one or two ideas that perhaps should be given away for free. For example, the solution to all of life’s problems. But these are exceptions, and what we’re really discussing is the rule. So, give away your hard-thought ideas for free? Seriously?

  • Josh

    Speaking as someone who is vehemently against DRM, but at the same time for people getting paid for goods or services, DRM is awful. It often belittles consumers and treats them like thieves. Kindle is getting way out of control with their DRM and it’s hurting faithful customers and future customers as well http://bit.ly/G0Ng

    I read about a way a bagel guy that would drop off bagels and a money can would cause 90% of the consumers to actually pay for their bagels by displaying a printout of a pair of eyes. This was from the book Freakonomics. I would suggest either figuratively or literally for you to try your experiment again using that type of motivation and see what happens. http://bit.ly/NSThn

  • I think authors who give away ebooks of their publications are onto something. Here’s what it all comes down to. What kind of author do you want to be?

    I know for me, being an author, I give away one of my books for free. I would rather have readers more than anything, and this way they’re familiar with me and know I won’t let them down. And I think giving away one book is plenty for someone to see your style. Here it is if you want it, goto http://www.daughterofnewyork.com and on the top right, on the black bar, there’s a secret link. Highlight the area with your mouse, or wave it around until it changes to a hand and you’ll see it. It’s meant for teens but by all means, go for it, and enjoy.

    I understand what it’s like walking through the bookstore and seeing so many books and authors, and the potential competition you are up against as a writer. It could be overwhelming. But I think the answer is more in the product and in the marketing. (although giving your book away is certainly marketing, but all your books? That’s up to the writer.)

    I think the percentage of people that will buy your books, after reading the previous ones for free are minimal, especially in this economy.

    People don’t even go to the movies anymore, or even rent dvd’s. They go to youtube because somebody had that time to upload the whole movie in thirteen parts. Unless they really want to see a movie in widescreen with rich color will they actually pay money. But after you’ve seen it on youtube, the experience is already gone, so what’s the point of buying it? You must really, really love it.

    Now here’s the thing, who’s your audience? Because if your audience is like the fans of the series of Twilight or Harry Potter, fans that love and embrace the book fibers that contain the story they love, then why give it away free? And look, I’ve never heard of one of those fans wanting a refund. Also, value is placed when you exchange money for something. But if your book is read by people that read hundreds of books, and yours will just be another notch, then who cares what you do with it really.

    I don’t think the question is whether to give your books away or not. I think the question is how do you want to market your book and yourself? If the answer is giving your book away? Then great. If the answer is running contests or giving away the first chapter free, then great. If your marketing is having a bookcover that stands out, and the text on the pages formated elaborately, then great. The question is how do you want to market?

    Mr. Doctorow has found a way to market himself. He even said in his interview he makes more money from other engagements than from his royalties.

    I think the fair thing to do nowadays is list your ebook for .99 cents on the Amazon Kindle or as a pdf somewhere. This way, your audience pays a dollar, big deal, a dollar, and you get a little something something. Because I think if you don’t charge, they will just wait until your next book is free. You create the market. Harry Potter fans are already in the mindset they have to fork over twenty-five bucks.

    I think what you want to create is a satisfied customer. A customer is someone who buys. If they get your book for free, how can they be a satisfied customer? They could be a satified reader, true. But I think being a satisfied customer and a satisfied reader is probably the best.

    So in closing, I think it’s great some found a way that works for them and is happy with it. But I think the focus should be on marketing, not only about giving your books away. Is giving your books away a short cut to creative marketing? hmmm…


    p.s. – there’s so much more to this conversation.

  • SD

    This is not only the case with books but also with blogs…and blog writers have to suffer….

  • sas