Cory Doctorow: Think Like a Dandelion
from Locus Magazine, May 2008
Regular Locus readers will have noted a recent front-of-the-book item about my recent Good News, a little daughter named Poesy, born to us on February 3, 2008. This feat of nanoengineering mostly accomplished by my Alice, with 23 chromosomes' worth of programming assistance from yours truly has got me thinking about reproduction, even more than usual.
Mammals invest a lot of energy in keeping track of the disposition of each copy we spawn. It's only natural, of course: we invest so much energy and so many resources in our offspring that it would be a shocking waste if they were to wander away and fall off the balcony or flush themselves down the garbage disposal. We're hard-wired, as mammals, to view this kind of misfortune as a moral tragedy, a massive trauma to our psyches so deep that some of us never recover from it.
It follows naturally that we invest a lot of importance in the individual disposition of every copy of our artistic works as well, wringing our hands over "not for resale" advance review copies that show up on Amazon and tugging our beards at the thought of Google making a scan of our books in order to index them for searchers. And while printing a book doesn't take nearly as much out of us as growing a baby, there's no getting around the fact that every copy printed is money spent, and every copy sold without being accounted for is money taken away from us.
There are other organisms with other reproductive strategies. Take the dandelion: a single dandelion may produce 2,000 seeds per year, indiscriminately firing them off into the sky at the slightest breeze, without any care for where the seeds are heading and whether they'll get an hospitable reception when they touch down.
And indeed, most of those thousands of seeds will likely fall on hard, unyielding pavement, there to lie fallow and unconsummated, a failure in the genetic race to survive and copy.
But the disposition of each or even most of the seeds aren't the important thing, from a dandelion's point of view. The important thing is that every spring, every crack in every pavement is filled with dandelions. The dandelion doesn't want to nurse a single precious copy of itself in the hopes that it will leave the nest and carefully navigate its way to the optimum growing environment, there to perpetuate the line. The dandelion just wants to be sure that every single opportunity for reproduction is exploited!
Dandelions and artists have a lot in common in the age of the Internet. This is, of course, the age of unlimited, zero-marginal-cost copying. If you blow your works into the net like a dandelion clock on the breeze, the net itself will take care of the copying costs. Your fans will paste-bomb your works into their mailing list, making 60,000 copies so fast and so cheaply that figuring out how much it cost in aggregate to make all those copies would be orders of magnitude more expensive than the copies themselves.
What's more, the winds of the Internet will toss your works to every corner of the globe, seeking out every fertile home that they may have given enough time and the right work, your stuff could someday find its way over the transom of every reader who would find it good and pleasing. After all, the majority of links between blogs have been made to or from blogs with four or fewer inbound links in total that means that the Internet has figured out a cost-effective means of helping audiences of three people discover the writers they should be reading.
So, let's stipulate that you want to reproduce like a dandelion and leave mammaldom behind. How do you do it?
There are two critical success factors for dandelionhood:
1. Your work needs to be easily copied, to anywhere whence it might find its way into the right hands. That means that the nimble text-file, HTML file, and PDF (the preferred triumvirate of formats) should be distributed without formality no logins, no e-mail address collections, and with a license that allows your fans to reproduce the work on their own in order to share it with more potential fans. Remember, copying is a cost-center insisting that all copies must be downloaded from your site and only your site is insisting that you and only you will bear the cost of making those copies. Sure, having a single, central repository for your works makes it easier to count copies and figure out where they're going, but remember: dandelions don't keep track of their seeds. Once you get past the vanity of knowing exactly how many copies have been made, and find the zen of knowing that the copying will take care of itself, you'll attain dandelionesque contentment.
2. Once your work gets into the right hands, there needs to be an easy way to consummate the relationship. A friend who runs a small press recently wrote to me to ask if I thought he should release his next book as a Creative Commons free download in advance of the publication, in order to drum up some publicity before the book went on sale.
I explained that I thought this would be a really bad idea. Internet users have short attention spans. The moment of consummation the moment when a reader discovers your book online, starts to read it, and thinks, huh, I should buy a copy of this book is very brief. That's because "I should buy a copy of this book" is inevitably followed by, "Woah, a youtube of a man putting a lemon in his nose!" and the moment, as they say, is gone.
I know this for a fact. I review a lot of books on Boing Boing, and whenever I do, I link to the Amazon page for the book, using my "affiliate ID" in the URL. If you follow one of those links and buy the book, I get a commission about eight percent. I can use Amazon's reporting tool to tell exactly how many people click on my links, and how many of them shell out money for the book, and here's the thing: when I link to a book that's out soon, available now for pre-order, I reliably get less than ten percent of the purchases I get when I link to books that are available for sale now. Nine out of ten Boing Boing readers who buy books based on my reviews don't want to pre-order a title and wait for it to show up later.
The net is an unending NOW of moments and distractions and wonderments and puzzlements and rages. Asking someone riding its currents to undertake some kind of complex dance before she can hand you her money is a losing proposition. User-interface designers speak of how every additional click between thought and deed lops a huge number of seeds out of the running for germination.
In my next column, "Macropayments," I'll write more about this consummative act, for this is the key to enduring success as a dandelion. Here's the gist: expend less effort trying to ensure that small sums of money are extracted from your fans for individual copies of your work, and focus instead on getting larger payouts, making each germination count for something more than a buck's royalties.
Cory Doctorow's website is Craphound.com, and he is co-editor of Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things.
Cory Doctorow is one of a dozen Locus columnists and reviewers. Every issue, we review over 50 books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.
Previous Cory Doctorow columns posted on Locus Online:
- Put Not Your Faith in Ebook Readers
- Artist Rights
- Creative Commons
- Free(konomic) E-books
- The Progressive Apocalypse and Other Futurismic Delights
- In Praise of Fanfic
- You Do Like Reading Off a Computer
- Blogging Without the Blog
- The March of the Polygons: How High-Definition Is Bad News for SF Flicks
- How Copyright Broke
- Science Fiction is the Only Literature People Care Enough About to Steal on the Internet.
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