The Website of The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field
Locus Online
Sub Menu contents


Friday, September 4, 2009

Cory Doctorow: Special Pleading

As I write these words, the news of Locus editor-in-chief and co-founder Charles N. Brown's death is only a week old, and I'm still in shock. Charles has been generous and supportive of me throughout my career, and producing this column for the past three years (three years!) has been a curious kind of pleasure. These columns, written directly (more or less) to the science fiction publishing industry are very different from the other kind of writing I do, and in some way, they are all continuations of a long-ago interview I conducted with Charles at the WorldCon in San Jose, five years ago, which was typical of Charles's interviews, as John Scalzi describes them: "it largely consisted of the two of us having a conversation, me on a couch and him at his desk, and him seemingly being a bit grumpy about it." That challenging, intelligent, and wide-ranging discussion has never really ended for me.

Nor, apparently, did it ever end for Charles. In the July issue — which just arrived at my PO Box this week — Charles writes about a little print-on-demand project I'm planning called "With a Little Help" (a short story collection that tries every imaginable income-generating technique for open publishing in order to get some data about which avenues hold the most promise): "I don't know what it will prove. Remember, Stephen King was able to see an incredible number of downloads of a short story, but I've never heard of anyone duplicating that success. Cory, with his vast Internet connections, may succeed. But will it affect publishing? Probably not."

And now, I'd like to return Charles's volley, though he'll never get to see it, because, you know, it's his magazine, and he hired me to do this, and when your publisher hands you a straight line like that, you'd be nuts to pass it on.

In January 2003, my first novel came out. Called Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, it was published by Tor as a hardcover original with a print-run of about 9,800, with an advance of about $7,500. Like practically every other first time novelist, I dreamed of selling a book and quitting my day job (though I had a really cool day job, working as a full-time activist for the San Francisco-based civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation); as with virtually every other first-time novelist, the advance for my first book totally failed to change my life and catapult me to financial independence. I was level-headed enough to know that this wasn't going to happen (even if I did occasionally daydream about it). I knew that if I was ever going to be a full-time writer, it would come as the result of a career of books that succeeded commercially and critically and that meant writing the best books I could and doing everything I could to help my publisher sell as many books as they could.

Down and Out was critically successful, garnering good mentions in the trade press and even the New York Times. I had already established a modest name for myself at the time, having sold about a dozen short stories and won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer at the 2000 WorldCon on their strength. Boing Boing, the blog I co-edit, had about 30,000 unique readers back then (now it's a couple million), which was a good-sized megaphone to be speaking through.

To make things more interesting, I became the first novelist to use the brand-new Creative Commons licenses on a book, releasing the electronic text on terms that allowed for its free, noncommercial sharing. Thirty thousand people downloaded the book in the first 24 hours (several million copies have been downloaded to date), and the hardcover did well, too — by the time the trade paperback came out a year later, we'd hit about 85 percent sell-through, a good number that pleased Tor, my agent, and me.

It's amazing to think, in retrospect, of the amount of foofaraw this garnered. At the time, the prevailing wisdom was that as soon as an electronic book leaked onto the Internet, its commercial life was over, first because readers would never pay for it; and second because publishers and booksellers wouldn't stock it. Even though Bruce Sterling had sold a ton of copies of his 1992 The Hacker Crackdown while simultaneously releasing the book as "literary freeware," even though Orson Scott Card had released several of his books on AOL; even though the nascent "bookwarez" scene had put thousands of current and classic titles online as text-files without obliterating their commercial fortunes.

The Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom experiment really pissed people off. It was denounced as a breaking of ranks with authors as a class, and as a stunt that I could only afford because I had so little to lose, being such a nobody in the field with my handful of short story sales and my tiny print run — at least when compared to the big guys. Free samples were good news if no one had heard of you, but for successful writers, free downloads were poison.

To "prove" this, critics often pointed to Stephen King's experiment in online publishing, "The Plant," which King gave up as a bad job after earning a mere hundreds of thousands of dollars in voluntary payments, and which he never returned to. A genuinely successful writer like King had nothing to gain from the publicity value of free downloads, they said (ironically, this appears to be the story that Charles referred to in the July Locus, citing it as proof of the success of free downloads).

Over the next six years, a funny thing happened. After publishing three more novels, two books of short stories, a collection of essays, a graphic novel, and a million or so words' worth of nonfiction, speeches, essays, and blog posts, I seem to have made it, more or less. I quit working for EFF on January 1, 2006, in order to write full time, though I've found that interesting diversions rise up to fill the vacuum left by the day job, from my 18-month-old daughter to a year's stay in Los Angeles on faculty at the University of Southern California under the auspices of the Fulbright program, to a little screen writing to some lectures.

And of course, there's Boing Boing, now grown into a modestly successful business that provides a nice supplemental income and provides some security, as well as a means of keeping my readers excited about my work between books.

The other thing that's changed is the criticism. Six years ago, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom couldn't be counted as a real success for open publishing because I was too obscure to feel the cost of the lost sales. Now, I'm too successful, someone whose name is so widely known that I am uniquely situated to benefit from open publishing, since the micro net-fame I enjoy provides the vital push necessary to wrest sales from freebies. Hilariously, some of the people who say this go back in time and revise history, claiming that I was only able to sell as many copies of Down and Out as I have over the years (nine printings and still selling great!) because I was such a big shot famous writer in 2003, on the strength of a dozen short story sales.

There's a name for this rhetorical tactic: "special pleading." Special pleading is when you claim that some example doesn't merit consideration because it lacks, or contains, some special characteristic that makes it unique, not part of the general discussion. I hear a lot of special pleading, taking one of two forms:

Your books only sell because you're such a popular blogger. No one else can do what you do unless they, too, are popular in some other field.

It's true that being widely read in one area is a good way to sell books in another area. Nationally syndicated humor columnist Dave Barry does well with his novels; folk legend Janis Ian has a good reputation for her excellent short fiction and poetry. More broadly, any kind of fame is a plus when it comes to marketing a book, as director Guillermo del Toro and his publisher knew before his novel The Strain went to press.

But some well-known people sell a book and then move on after the critics have their way with them, and some keep on writing and selling. These latter are writers who happen to do something else — just as Geoff Landis works for NASA and writes; just as Kim Stanley Robinson and Rudy Rucker taught at university while writing; just as a thousand other writers find that having a day job is too much fun or too satisfying or too necessary to give up.

You have sources of income other than science fiction, so you can afford to give your books away. Not everyone can found a successful company or get paid for speaking while working on novels.

It's true that I co-founded and co-run Boing Boing and that the income from it and from a few talks a year help to supplement my income, and it's true that not every writer can do this (by the same token, not every writer can be a shrewd investor like Robert Silverberg, an MIT faculty member like Joe Haldeman, or the great-grandson of an oil tycoon like Larry Niven). Many's the writer who found that — free downloads or no — having another source of income made good sense.

But the fact is that writing is a substantial and crucial part of my family's income. I'm not going to publish my tax return here, but you can do the math for yourself for my last novel: about 100,000 hardcovers of Little Brother in print at about $2 royalty each; 17 foreign rights deals ranging from a few thousand to mid-five-figures; audio rights; film option; etc. Then there's 26 columns a year for the Guardian, six a year in Locus, half a dozen short stories, and royalties from my backlist. While I'm awfully glad of my Boin­g Boing and lectures and incidental income,  I've got plenty of skin in the game and sell plenty of books. I don't give away downloads because I'm just a swell guy — I do it because I'm a self-employed entrepreneur who needs to make as much as he can to support his family.

Marketing and business are not science. Despite the conceits of quantitative economists, there's precious few good double-blind experiments to be run on commercial propositions. At the end of the day, all we know about any business-model is whether it appears to be working for the people who've tried it (and even then, we don't know what the future holds, as any number of once-enthusiastic derivatives hedgers can tell you from bitter experience).

Writers are all different, and the success stories are all unique. Some SF writers enrich themselves with grants, or film deals, or by writing ten books for every book that their peers manage to write. Some edit, some have wealthy spouses. Gene Wolfe co-invented the machine that Pringles come out of (true fact!). An artist's income is very much an a la carte proposition, in which writers choose some items from one or more columns in order to find the fit that suits them best. "That won't work for every writer," is as weird and pointless as "those directions might get you to the corner store, but if you're trying to get to the greengrocer's, they're useless."

All we can know, in the end, is what worked for some writers, so that we can see if they worked for us. Here's what I think I know about online publishing and free downloads:

  • The conversion rate is low; when the price is $0, a lot of people will come and kick the tires, but only a few will buy (just as lots of people pick up a book in a store and riffle the pages without buying the book)
  • Free downloads work amazingly well to magnify existing publicity, enabling friends to tell each other about books they love by sending them the e-book; among these people the conversion rate is much higher
  • Free downloads don't generate much publicity in and of themselves — they need to be part of a larger campaign that gets people excited about the project.

Here are some things I'd really like to find out:

  • Will people donate to support a free book? How much? Will they donate more to support an audiobook or a print edition?
  • How much work does it take to replicate a professional publisher's contribution to publicizing and distributing your book?
  • How much demand is there for premium editions, and what characteristics make those premium editions more valuable?

This is the kind of thing I hope to explore in the With a Little Help project. I'll be reporting in on what I learn. I'm sure there'll be plenty of people who'll be ready to dismiss it by asserting that something that works for one writer doesn't automatically work for every other writer. This is true, obvious, and unimportant. The important thing is what writers might try, based on the experiences of their peers.

From the September 2009 issue of Locus Magazine



OpenID WBT_rCEsudC3I4.FZluWqoN3PidvvN.JM4E- said...

Interesting commentary. I, personally, would never "only" download a book. I'm a big fan of actual dead tree for books (and books only), mostly because I read them many times when they are good. I usually have a couple of books on the go and they sit in different locations in my house. Reading a digital book would only whet my appetite for the book, or turn me off completely. I'm obviously one of those "low conversion rate" cases you cited.

On the other hand if I really like a book I would be willing to part with a reasonable sum to obtain a digital copy of a book, mostly for the purposes of being able to have a couple of hundred books with me at all times in case I have some time away from home and are bored. I would also (and have) paid a premium for certain books (including special ordering them) in hardcover for longevity and to survive frequent readings.

One thought I did have was around author's not having a "day" job. I would suspect that having a day job would enrich their writing by giving them character suggestions, etc...

September 4, 2009 1:26 PM  
Blogger MCM said...

It's a moving target, in the end. Where I started four years ago is so different from where I am now, that even if I hopped in a time machine and said to my younger self: "You need to do X!", it would never work. As a writer, I'm in a dramatically different place than I was, and it's the outside influences that change how the techniques work.

That said, I'm excited about the "With a Little Help" concept. I'd love to use your blueprint for one of my own projects, if only to see how the numbers differ along the timeline. Experimentation is fun!

September 4, 2009 1:30 PM  
Blogger Ringo said...

Very interesting column. And very usefull for my case in deed. I'd like to follow your example, but I'm still reading and thinking and reading again. I live on one of the such called developing countries. I haven't finished my novel yet, but I'm already thinking an strategy based on internet and free printed books. I want to be readed, don't want to fall into obscurity. Your work is really inspiring, thanks.

September 4, 2009 1:40 PM  
OpenID zwol said...

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller experimented with the Street Performer Protocol, publishing draft chapters of their next couple of Liaden novels online as they got donations (see and /saltation/). I don't know financial details but they might make an interesting data point.

September 4, 2009 1:59 PM  
Blogger TheName said...

Maybe we could just send them a copy (physical _or_ digital) of *Content*? I'd think you'd be hard-pressed to read your essays with an (even slightly) open mind and not be at least semi-convinced of your argument's validity.

September 4, 2009 3:40 PM  
OpenID annesible said...

Sharon's account on an email list we share is that they did quite well. Well enough to keep their roof over their heads.

I'm looking forward to hearing more about With a Little Help. I think trying out as many permutations for income generation in open publishing as possible is a great way to generate some useful data. Nobody knows for sure what really works, or doesn't. What's become clear to me is that there must be a better way than the status quo.

Your questions, Cory, are right on the money. Especially the middle one.

September 4, 2009 10:29 PM  
Blogger Árni said...

First off Cory, congrats on the success you've had with online distribution this so far. I had never heard of you before a friend pointed me to this article, nor had I heard of your efforts, but I am so happy to see that people are finally starting to think like you! It seems to me that in people's views the internet and online distribution on whole is always considered a bad thing or a failing thing.. always being connected with those bad bad pirates that are ruining the world.

As for the article it self:
I am a downloader. I openly admit that I download news, music, movies, TV shows, software and books. I am not afraid to admit that only because it is in fact legal in Iceland, but also because I believe in the downloading system and I know that I buy more stuff BECAUSE I had the opportunity to download it first. When I use freeware software that I find is good, I use the support link and send some money via PayPal. When I find shareware software that I like and the price is fair, I buy the software. If the price is ridiculous and unfair (e.g. Windows XP Professional, back when it came out years ago) I download it and never pay a dime. Fairness cuts both ways with me.
I do realize that not everyone thinks like me, nor probably even the majority, but my conscience is relatively clean.

Where books are concerned, I buy audiobooks online at a rate far greater than the rate at which I can manage to read them. I always download some audiobooks as well, but those are usually my 'backups' to be read when I finish those that I've paid for.. because I can't very well leave 'expensive' books unread :) So far I guess I have maybe 500 unread 'backup' audiobooks that I will probably never ever read, but only 4 or 5 unread that are paid for. But I digress...

Online distribution in any form is the way of the future. Word-of-mouth marketing is marketing at it's purest, where almost all the advice and references come from the people you know and trust and probably have similar interests as you. Thanks to online distribution (pirated or paid) I have found artists that I never knew existed, fallen in love with their work and started to buy their collections on paperback or hardcover.

I first found Dean Koontz in a downloaded audiobook and have bought nearly 40 of his books since. Likewise I found Lois McMaster Bujold, Bill Bryson, Robert Jordan, Orson Scott Card, David and Leigh Eddings, Neil Stephenson, Christopher Paolini (although the publicity would probably have directed me to him in the end), Carl Hiaasen, Charles Sheffield, Fred Saberhagen and Terry Brooks. I found these authors by accident, read them and enjoyed, and have since bought dozens or hundred of these people's paperbacks. I very rarely get hardcovers because A) They are hard to get in English in Iceland, and B) They are expensive. Those that I REALLY love go on my Hardcover Wishlist, out of which I pick a book from time to time to order online.

It's impossible to overstate the fact that I would probably never have heard of most of these people, if not for word-of-mouth marketing and online distribution.. some pirated and some bought at online stores.

And now I've found a new artist to try out, this guy called Cory Doctorow ;) and hopefully I'll enjoy your books so much that I'll want to bother with finding them in paperback. Brilliant!

September 5, 2009 4:40 AM  
Blogger joeclark said...

Both the statements you critique were correct at the time, at least in the context of your work as a novelist: When you gave away your first book, you were obscure enough that the risk was small, and when you give them away now it’s because you can afford to.

You are underplaying the fact that the main audience for your first book’s download was the netizens for whom you were not, in fact, obscure.

Hence I don’t see any actual myths here for you to debunk.

September 5, 2009 5:52 AM  
Blogger AngleBracket said...

>> How much work does it take to replicate
>> a professional publisher's contribution
>> to publicizing and distributing your book?

I can only speak from the typesetter's point of view, but to produce the PDF or e-reader format to publication standards takes a *lot* of work which the author and the reader rarely see.

Most books I have downloaded (or have been sent by publishers or authors) have been singularly unsuited to online reading -- too wide, too narrow, too tall, too short, too fixed, type too big, type too small, typeface chosen to look pretty rather than be readable, and a hundred other reasons. This is before we look at bad editing, bad punctuation, bad spelling, and all the stuff the publisher is supposed to do beforehand :-)

Most authors' work is submitted as unstyled wordprocessor files, which are fairly useless for publishing. Authors insist on adding vast quantities of intricate personal formatting to make it pretty to edit, so this all has to be stripped out down to the bare metal, and then the publisher's house style applied correctly.

It's not reasonable to expect authors to be typesetters, despite the belief that anyone can do it. If an author is going to try to go it alone, then some serious professional advice and help is still going to be needed; one of the major features of good design and layout is that the readers never notice it (just like interactive usability -- it "just works").

I still buy dead trees for my own use, as well as reading e-versions (eg the Hugo packs), but everyone's own mileage on this will vary.

September 5, 2009 6:38 AM  
Blogger Gary Farber said...

"true fact!"

As opposed to an untrue fact?

Single datapoint: I love books, but am perfectly happy to read novels on a computer screen, particularly given that I can boost the text size. I prefer HTML.

September 5, 2009 9:25 AM  
Blogger C.E. Petit said...

Just one warning here:

Cory's method works for Cory. I think that's primarily because Cory is both a good writer and has a coherent plan for what he wants to do with e-texts; has considered both the advantages and disadvantages for his business plan for his kind of works; and has made a rational decision.

Beware, though, the inductive fallacy. Neither Cory's plan nor the objections of the skeptics are valid for everyone. In particular, the final decision on availability of an e-text should rest with the rightsholder (should be the author, but may also include the publisher due to contractual issues). A third party's idea of "great free publicity" may interfere with the actual publicity plan. (Yes, that's a hint to, to quote Judge Cooper, "overenthusiastic fans" -- you might actually be interfering with the author you want to support by not getting permission.)

Similarly, though, the "industry" (or, rather, the bastard offspring of the three-century-long orgy of thirteen distinct subindustries that makes up what we call the "industry") has simply got to get rid of its not-invented-here, Modern Managerial Accounting mindset, or it's going to end up in the same place as the buggy-whip manufacturers.

September 5, 2009 11:41 AM  
Blogger Lee said...

I'm going to be trying a variation on the premium edition: free online text and audio versions (podcasts) during serialisation of my latest novel, but early on, a complete print and e-edition of the novel for those who can't wait to find out what comes next.

Whether it brings in enough money to pay for server space remains to be seen. It depends on an awful lot of factors, obviously.

September 5, 2009 1:31 PM  
OpenID RussellCoker said...

I'd like to see authors publish free work (as Cory does) and then sell print-on-demand t-shirts.

The sale of a t-shirt would give the same revenue to the author as a sale of a hard cover book, it would be more useful after the book has been read (something you can wear rather than something that takes up space on a shelf), and it would advertise the book. The amount of effort required to create a decent shirt is a small fraction of the effort required to write a book, in many cases the cover artwork could be used with only minor alterations.

September 5, 2009 2:11 PM  
Blogger MCM said...

@Lee: I'm doing what you describe (minus the podcasts, because my speaking voice sucks), and thus far, it's doing wonderfully. I release new chapters every M, W, F and give people the option of "upgrading" to the full version for $5. Thus far, ~16% of my readers have taken the plunge, earning me over a bit less than $5K in a month. I'm expecting that number to improve when I start offering the POD version. This system (which I call Serial+) is a win/win for everyone... readers can see if they like it with no obligations, and if they just can't stand to wait (which you always hope will be the case), they have an easy and affordable way to bypass the schedule.

It may not be the future, but it's definitely working for me!

(my stats update on the project from last week is here:

September 5, 2009 5:04 PM  
Blogger nzlemming said...

Brilliant. I've had just this debate with people (about you, incidentally) and they have pulled out just the lines you've mentioned above. They're right in that yours is a special case, but as a pioneer, not an exception. I look forward to the results of your experiment - real data is always useful. Good luck.

Mark Harris (NZ)

September 5, 2009 5:25 PM  
OpenID jteethy said...

Cory, the King story that Charles referred to is probably "Riding the Bullet", which was available as a free download for the first week or so before the pay wall went up. There were 400,000 downloads in the first 24 hours alone, and even after the wall went up the novella went on to become a tremendous success. This success led to King's voluntary payment experiment with "The Vault".

September 5, 2009 6:14 PM  
Blogger Red Mars said...

I remember downloading "Down and Out..." after friends told me about this great free book. I liked the book so much I went in search of a hard copy to add to my collection. I usually read most books two or three times before I feel like I extracted most of the "goodness" out of it. Reading the virtual version made me want to own the physical book for the tactile pleasure one gets out of reading a book. The flexibility of reading a physical book in a variety of locations, including in a hot tub with a tumbler of good single malt scotch, is something that virtual books have yet to replicate.

September 6, 2009 6:29 AM  
Blogger Robert Whitaker Sirignano said...

I think I tend to be like the previous commentator, and I do enjoy a book held in my hands--the dead tree version--and think the experience that I've grown up with has been ingrained. My son isn't this way, and he can sit in front of a computer and read fiction until I shoo him off and get on line for myself.

Perhaps the newer generation of readers will find "on line" to be the preference they enjoy.

September 13, 2009 8:01 AM  
OpenID cgfe said...

"Will people donate to support a free book? How much? Will they donate more to support an audiobook or a print edition?"

Speaking from personal experience, the answer is 'yes'. There is an online serial novel that I pay a monthly fee to read. The first three chapters are free, just enough to get you interested, then you pay to read the rest. The author just published part of his story through an online publisher, available in both print and e-book form. I purchased the e-book, which was in PDF format. Judging from the comments I read, I would say he sold a decent number of copies of both forms, all over the world. Whether he broke even, or made a profit, that I can't answer.

Maybe this scenario doesn't fit your criteria. This is an online serial and the author has had time to build a pretty devoted following. I do think that having the first few chapters free to read was very smart, as I doubt I'd have signed on without them.

Perhaps it would be different if he were to just publish an entire novel without anyone knowing who he is. The free chapters made all the difference for me. I would be less inclined to 'donate' anything unless I had a good idea of what a)the story is about and b) the author's writing style.

September 15, 2009 1:58 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

© 2009 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.