Today I’ve got a guest post from author Foz Meadows. A discussion elsewhere led to this very lucid and, to my mind, accurate post on the nature of piracy in the digital age and the pros and cons of authors offering free content. It applies equally to all forms of digital media. I agree wholeheartedly with Foz on this and hope it makes some interesting reading for you guys.
Piracy and Free Content
by Foz Meadows
Neil Gaiman tried the free giveaway experiment a little while back – the readers of his blog voted which novel of his they most wanted to recommend to friends (it ended up being American Gods), and then he made it freely downloadable for a month, after and during which time his publishers monitored his sales to see what happened. Similar to Cory Doctorow’s experience, sales of ALL his books (and not just American Gods) went way, way up, which I think Gaiman compared to something of a library/lending effect, i.e.: most people discover new authors because someone, be it a friend or a library, loans them a copy of the book, thereby encouraging them to buy that author’s works in the future but without the initial risk of paying money for a product they might not like.
What I took away from the whole endeavour (apart from the fact that, when it comes to any experimental sort of book sale process, it is very helpful to already be a megastar) is that it seems to work best for writers who already have a published back-catalog. Putting up one book for free, for a limited time, draws attention to all your works together; and if people like the free product, then they’re more inclined to pay for your other stuff, because you are now one of Their Authors. Which could work as a promotion for a second book if done right, I think – but the call is yours.
Regarding people who download, I do think there’s something to the argument that the majority (or at least, a significant proportion) of DLs don’t actually constitute a lost sale, per se, so much as a parallel form of consumption. Allowing for the 10% of assholes who will always rather steal than pay even when they can afford it, I know there have been myriad reported instances where people who already own physical copies of books have sought out illegal digital versions because of region control issues in the legal versions, such as someone from Australia not being able to buy an ebook version of a novel they already own because it’s only published in America.
There’s a whole argument about poverty, too: that some people who would love to get books from libraries, but have no access to a decent catalog or even to reliable library services, use pirate copies because otherwise they couldn’t afford to read such stories at all. And then, as per the Gaiman instance, there’s people who are being judicious: who want to try something new, but don’t want to risk losing 17 bucks on a book they might hate. For my money, the only time a sale is properly ‘stolen’ by an illegal DL is when someone with money was willing to spend it on a readily-accessible product right up until they realised they could have it for free- what we might call the Asshole’s Choice. People who never had the money, the willingness and/or the access in the first place, though, are something a bit different.
There’s two related points I think are relevant here. One is the webcomic economy, where a large number of webcomic artists – despite putting their entire product archive online, for free, forever – still make enough money to exist doing just that. Admittedly, there’s the additional site traffic/advertising revenues to bolster them in that instance, along with sales of related merchandise like t-shirts and bags (point of inquiry: do any authors go down a similar line?), but many nonetheless sell their comics in physical form, too – and successfully.
Glancing at my own bookshelves, I count 9 volumes of webcomics purchased either online or physically in comic stores. But the point of mentioning this is less that they’ve made money doing something that started out free and more that people were willing to subsidise the creation of a free product either by buying merchandise or, in many instances, donating straight to the author, just because they liked what they saw – which I think is a worthwhile case study of human nature re free content in the DL debate.
The second point is second-hand bookstores, which for years were the only way I could afford to acquire new books. As a teenager, I might not have had the $15 necessary to pony up for a new release YA, but I always had five or so to spend on a second-hand paperback, and in almost every instance, buying books secondhand eventually lead to me buying that author’s later works firsthand, either as a treat, through parental channels, or because now, as an adult, it would be unthinkable not to.
Recently, a girl left a question on my blog asking what I thought about second hand books – whether I was for or against them as a concept, seeing as how authors don’t get any money from the process. Until she asked, I honestly hadn’t considered that any writer would object to them: the books have already been bought once, after all, and even if the publishers and authors get no more revenue beyond that point, dozens of other people might end up reading the story through the beneficence of a parallel economy who otherwise would never have been able to afford it. Seanan McGuire had a fantastic post about the value of second-hand books re poverty and the digital divide recently (http://seanan-mcguire.livejournal.com/390067.html), but the point is this: in instances where people have been re-selling copies of legitimately-purchased ebooks online for cheap (for instance), are we better off condemning it as piracy or asking ourselves if secondhanding can translate to the digital realm, too?
I’d like to thank Foz for this great post. Weigh in with your thoughts. Is Foz right? And should authors consider the secondary income stream of related merchandise? I know I’ve often thought about it, but have yet to do anything. Also, Asshole’s Choice is now firmly in the lexicon of the modern age. Go forth and spread the concept.