04 September 2007

Cory Doctorow: Free(konomic) E-books

from Locus Magazine, September 2007

Can giving away free electronic books really sell printed books? I think so. As I explained in my March column ("You Do Like Reading Off a Computer Screen"), I don't believe that most readers want to read long-form works off a screen, and I don't believe that they will ever want to read long-form works off a screen. As I say in the column, the problem with reading off a screen isn't resolution, eyestrain, or compatibility with reading in the bathtub: it's that computers are seductive, they tempt us to do other things, making concentrating on a long-form work impractical.

Sure, some readers have the cognitive quirk necessary to read full-length works off screens, or are motivated to do so by other circumstances (such as being so broke that they could never hope to buy the printed work). The rational question isn't, "Will giving away free e-books cost me sales?" but rather, "Will giving away free e-books win me more sales than it costs me?"

This is a very hard proposition to evaluate in a quantitative way. Books aren't lattes or cable-knit sweaters: each book sells (or doesn't) due to factors that are unique to that title. It's hard to imagine an empirical, controlled study in which two "equivalent" books are published, and one is also available as a free download, the other not, and the difference calculated as a means of "proving" whether e-books hurt or help sales in the long run.

I've released all of my novels as free downloads simultaneous with their print publication. If I had a time machine, I could re-release them without the free downloads and compare the royalty statements. Lacking such a device, I'm forced to draw conclusions from qualitative, anecdotal evidence, skid plate and I've collected plenty of that:

  • Many writers have tried free e-book releases to tie in with the print release of their works. To the best of my knowledge, every writer who's tried this has repeated the experiment with future works, suggesting a high degree of satisfaction with the outcomes
  • A writer friend of mine had his first novel come out at the same time as mine. We write similar material and are often compared to one another by critics and reviewers. My first novel had a free download, his didn't. We compared sales figures and I was doing substantially better than him — he subsequently convinced his publisher to let him follow suit
  • Baen Books has a pretty good handle on expected sales for new volumes in long-running series; having sold many such series, they have lots of data to use in sales estimates. If Volume N sells X copies, we expect Volume N+1 to sell Y copies. They report that they have seen a measurable uptick in sales following from free e-book releases of previous and current volumes
  • David Blackburn, a Harvard PhD candidate in economics, published a paper in 2004 in which he calculated that, for music, "piracy" results in a net increase in sales for all titles in the 75th percentile and lower; negligible change in sales for the "middle class" of titles between the 75th percentile and the 97th percentile; and a small drag on the "super-rich" in the 97th percentile and higher. Publisher Tim O'Reilly describes this as "piracy's progressive taxation," apportioning a small wealth-redistribution to the vast majority of works, no net change to the middle, and a small cost on the richest few
  • Speaking of Tim O'Reilly, he has just published a detailed, quantitative study of the effect of free downloads on a single title. O'Reilly Media published Asterisk: The Future of Telephony, in November 2005, simultaneously releasing the book as a free download. By March 2007, they had a pretty detailed picture of the sales-cycle of this book — and, thanks to industry standard metrics like those provided by Bookscan, they could compare it, apples-to-apples style, against the performance of competing books treating with the same subject. O'Reilly's conclusion: downloads didn't cause a decline in sales, and appears to have resulted in a lift in sales. This is particularly noteworthy because the book in question is a technical reference work, exclusively consumed by computer programmers who are by definition disposed to read off screens. Also, this is a reference work and therefore is more likely to be useful in electronic form, where it can be easily searched
  • In my case, my publishers have gone back to press repeatedly for my books. The print runs for each edition are modest — I'm a midlist writer in a world with a shrinking midlist — but publishers print what they think they can sell, and they're outselling their expectations
  • The new opportunities arising from my free downloads are so numerous as to be uncountable — foreign rights deals, comic book licenses, speaking engagements, article commissions — I've made more money in these secondary markets than I have in royalties
  • More anecdotes: I've had literally thousands of people approach me by e-mail and at signings and cons to say, "I found your work online for free, got hooked, and started buying it." By contrast, I've had all of five e-mails from people saying, "Hey, idiot, thanks for the free book, now I don't have to buy the print edition, ha ha!"

Many of us have assumed, a priori, that electronic books substitute for print books. While I don't have controlled, quantitative data to refute the proposition, I do have plenty of experience with this stuff, and all that experience leads me to believe that giving away my books is selling the hell out of them.

More importantly, the free e-book skeptics have no evidence to offer in support of their position — just hand-waving and dark muttering about a mythological future when book-lovers give up their printed books for electronic book-readers (as opposed to the much more plausible future where book lovers go on buying their fetish objects and carry books around on their electronic devices).

I started giving away e-books after I witnessed the early days of the "bookwarez" scene, wherein fans cut the binding off their favorite books, scanned them, ran them through optical character recognition software, and manually proofread them to eliminate the digitization errors. These fans were easily spending 80 hours to rip their favorite books, and they were only ripping their favorite books, books they loved and wanted to share. (The 80-hour figure comes from my own attempt to do this — I'm sure that rippers get faster with practice.)

I thought to myself that 80 hours' free promotional effort would be a good thing to have at my disposal when my books entered the market. What if I gave my readers clean, canonical electronic editions of my works, saving them the bother of ripping them, and so freed them up to promote my work to their friends?

After all, it's not like there's any conceivable way to stop people from putting books on scanners if they really want to. Scanners aren't going to get more expensive or slower. The Internet isn't going to get harder to use. Better to confront this challenge head on, turn it into an opportunity, than to rail against the future (I'm a science fiction writer — tuning into the future is supposed to be my metier).

The timing couldn't have been better. Just as my first novel was being published, a new, high-tech project for promoting sharing of creative works launched: the Creative Commons project (CC). CC offers a set of tools that make it easy to mark works with whatever freedoms the author wants to give away. CC launched in 2003 and today, more than 160,000,000 works have been released under its licenses.

My next column will go into more detail on what CC is, what licenses it offers, and how to use them — but for now, check them out online at creativecommons.org.

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:

Comments are welcome, but are moderated.


At Wednesday, September 05, 2007 12:53:00 AM, Blogger dirty dingus said...

One question that Jerry Pournelle asks is whether this will continue to work as the book trade moves to an electronic form. He thinks, and I think, that the day of the cheap usable ebook reader is fast approaching (as in the next 2-3 years) and you might want to either explain why you disagree with our opinion that ebooks will never be as popular or explain how Creative Commons distribution of everything will still get a decent return in such an environment. I think a better approach is the Baen one - older books free, newer books pay but pay relatively little.

At Wednesday, September 05, 2007 11:53:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd say the cheap portable reader is here.

At Wednesday, September 05, 2007 4:48:00 PM, Anonymous David S. said...

The problems with the e-book market have little or nothing to do with the devices, no one is going to buy a device that can only be used to read e-books no matter how cheap it is. That's why all such dedicated readers have died or are dying as we speak. However, a device that can surf the web, send emails, organize your schedule, store addresses, take notes, play music, make phone calls *and* read e-books; that will sell (and they are, in the scores of millions, as PDAs, MP3 players and smart phones).

However, the e-book reader functions of these devices will only become popular if obtaining content for them is convenient, easy and economical (e-books priced like hb will never work, you're trying to *increase* your sales volume not replace one form with another), available in a universal format from all publishers and outlets, and if it's not crippled by DRM schemes that assume all customers are criminals, make moving already purchased content to newer devices a complex operation only a geek could love, and tie the customer into a couple of online stores with registration requirements and other limitations.

As long as the above problems continue the e-book market will languish irrespective of how good the screens on the devices become, and recreational reading will continue to decline in popularity and relevance compared to the all electronic offerings of music, video and gaming. Long term it's not about the survival of e-books, it about the survival of the novel as an entertainment medium.

At Wednesday, September 05, 2007 8:49:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find reading a book on the computer is no less detracting then reading a book in my easy chair. The one thing about reading in Firefox, is I can make the text larger. (Much easier on my aging eyes).

At Friday, September 14, 2007 12:57:00 AM, Blogger Jon said...

Having scanned over a hundred books for sites like Gutenberg Australia, I have got the time down to about eighty seconds per page. This requires using an 8Mp digital camera rather than a scanner, using good lighting, and photographing one page at a time (not a double-page spread). For most books this gets the error rate right down and makes proofreading - which is the really time-consuming step - much faster.

A breakdown: setting up, 10 minutes; photographing, 10 seconds per page; loading into OCR program, 5 minutes; recognising text, 5 seconds per page; fixing orientation problems, etc, 10 seconds per page. The remaining 60 seconds or so allows for an average of about four corrections per page.

Since the books I enjoy are usually about 200 pages, I can knock one over in a morning or afternoon.

At Friday, September 21, 2007 2:55:00 AM, Anonymous Suw said...

Deadtree books will never be fully replaced by ebooks for a whole host of reasons. I can read books at times that I can't read ebooks, e.g. on the plane during take-off and landing, on the beach, or in the bath. Books don't need batteries or charging, so I can read them whilst disconnected from the grid, e.g. on holiday, or on long journeys. Books look great on a bookshelf and there they form an expression of my personality, my likes and dislikes, my fascinations. Finally, I think the physical instantiation of a book is just a lovely thing in and of itself. Pages you can turn, a cover you can take care to keep pristine (or not, as you wish), the feel of the paper, and a smell that can't be beaten. The smell of old books takes me straight back to childhood - and I doubt we're going to see smellovision ebooks anytime soon.

At Friday, September 21, 2007 5:35:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It's hard to imagine an empirical, controlled study in which two 'equivalent' books are published, and one is also available as a free download, the other not, and the difference calculated as a means of 'proving' whether e-books hurt or help sales in the long run."

Okay, choose two authors, the chopice not necessarily random. say, you and Charles Stross. Each of you supplies two roughkly equal-length chunks of text, say a novelette or a set of chapters previewing a coming mashh-up novel. Call these Doctorow-A, Doctorow-B, Stross-A, and Stross-B.

Now you create two books:
Doctorow-A + Stross-A
Doctorow-B + Stross-B.

Format them like the classic Ace Doubles, with comissioned art from the same artist.

Now, make available as a free download, the other not, Equal marketing budget from the publisher, whether a major publisher or a small press.

Gather data, and laugh all the way to the bank.

This can be generalized to starting with 3 authors, all of whom supply 3 novellas. More chances to randomize and double-blind and other scientifically respectable methodological rituals. Now you can sell one from a standard publisher, one non-downloadable but P.O.D., and one only downloadable.

I mean, hey, if we are science fiction writers, with science backgrounds (I do count Computer Science, although I have Physics, Biology, and Astronomy credentials as well), then why not apply the Scientific method? Not only is this empirical, but it can assist in the marketing (readers interested in discussions ongoing at boingboing and slashdot and locusmag), and one can even publish in some peer-reviewed Econimics journal, or conference proceedings.

-- Prof. Jonathan Vos Post
(currently enrolled at California State University, Los Angeles, as a new grad student for the first time in 34 years)
12 years on the web
15,000,000 hits/year

At Friday, September 21, 2007 6:14:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

We should define "cheap" with regards to an ebook reader.

I'm no expert, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that $279 ain't cheap.

$50 is cheap, for a good electronic device.

$10 is cheap for a piece of crap electronic device, but hey, quality sure hasn't stopped people in the past.

Personally, when there's a sub $100, high-res color screen, small-format, i.e. paperback sized, ebook reader that offers a nice range of features, then you just might see some movement on the ebook front. But even then, the main users might be people wanting a quickly searchable technical library, rather than a big collection of fiction.

As a librarian, I'm pretty interested in how this all shakes out.

As a sometime book collector, I silently hope ebooks die a long, painful, unprofitable death.

At Friday, September 21, 2007 6:35:00 AM, Blogger Frank said...

Really, what it's going to take to move E-Books into the public consciousness is going to be the same thing that moved MP3s there: something on the level of coolness and style as the iPod and the ease and sophisticated elegeance of management with iTunes.

Right now every e-reader out there has the mass appeal of a Yugo. I think once flexible, rollable screens are ready for primetime, some kind of scroll-esque device that has the sheen and polish and *wow* factor of a Porsche, AND an all-in-one ebook store/manager that works with every (or the most popular) commercial DRM system as well as PDFs, HTML, DOCs and flat text files. The popularity of podcasting means an RSS feeder into the device, and subscriptions to online periodicals with automatic downloads is a near given.

Finally, it'll have to be priced intelligently; noone's going to buy one if the initial investment is too huge. This device might even have to be a loss-leader to get into the hands of the eager public and make it's money back on the sales. $99 bucks, maybe $199 for a larger one with more features, but thats it.

At Friday, September 21, 2007 11:01:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm surprised no-one's mentioned electronic ink. I'm pretty sure that eInk is the technology that'll give us the sub-$100 paperback sized ebook reader Tim is talking about. It'll also give Suw something to take on the plane.

Not sure about color, though, Tim. My comic books may have to wait a while!

As a tree-lover, I sure hope someone finds a way to make eBooks work. Adobe Digital Editions and the Sony Reader seem like baby steps in the right direction, but what eBooks really need is an inexpensive, sexy device and (most importantly, of course) publisher support.

At Friday, October 05, 2007 6:36:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The book may be provided for free, but this is a limited sort of freedom -- CC in fact, but not copy-left in spirit IMO. Which surprises me a little bit, given Doctorow's work with the EFF. Of course a writer needs to make a living, and perhaps the license used is the best compromise available - but it really seems to me a poor compromise. No derivative works (without permission) and no works that build upon it? Anyway, it's great step and certainly better than most alternatives, but I can't help but feel that it's a compromised sort of compromise.

At Friday, November 02, 2007 6:58:00 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

As far as e-books and e-readers being soon or here already, I don't see it. I live in Boston, and I've seen maybe 2 people ever reading a digital book. And this is the market for them, colleges and highly-educated people. They just don't exist. (A marked difference between this tchnology and say iPod or iPhone, or PSP, which are all in conspicuous abundance.)

At Friday, November 09, 2007 10:13:00 AM, Blogger Mike said...

Reading this column on screen was a strain. Locus needs to bump up the line-height a little. I've read some of Cory's novels on screen, and even bought a couple dead tree editions, but didn't read them that way. I agree computers are seductive, but if I try and curl up with a book, I'm thinking, I should be sitting in front of my computer, where I can get paid for doing stuff. I read Down'n'Out in a single session on screen, and suffered no strain. Paper, for all its benefits, has come to feel like Death to my fingertips. Especially in the cold of winter. Perhaps it's because I have dry skin. Cheers.

At Friday, November 09, 2007 6:54:00 PM, Blogger Mark Kelly said...

To Mike: Sorry for the eye-strain; the font size and spacing are default, as far as I recall setting it up. I'll check it out and see if adjusting it makes a difference.

At Saturday, November 08, 2008 3:06:00 AM, Blogger samantha said...

While I love physical books I have begun to hate them as well. Especially at moving time. Yeah they make great room (multi-room) decoration. But all these dead slabs just sitting there bother me. I forget what I have and don't have in the collection. I can't search for relevant stuff efficiently in these dead slabs. I am lucky if I remember I own a book or find all books on a subject, much less remember which book has the details I want to lay hands on at some moment.

If I could scan them all onto electronic media I would and crate up the original. I could easily have the entire lot in my laptop. That would ba a huge blessing. A simple X windows (or equivalent) pad I could carry like a book and access my home collection would be ideal.

Maybe I will keep the wall of books as decoration and conversation piece though.

At Saturday, November 22, 2008 12:46:00 PM, Blogger Tom said...

Every browser I'm familiar with allows the reader to adjust text size with the CMD (control) key and plus or minus.


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