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Sat, 23 Jul 2005

Q & A about free ebook editions

A month ago, a reporter from The Book Standard got in touch with me, to ask some questions for an article they were researching on the topic of authors who release free ebook editions of their novels. Well, the article surfaced in the due course of time – but most of their questions and my answers failed to make it into the final piece (which was, in fact, shorter than my Q&A).

As these questions keep recurring, I thought I should blog them here.

Q: The first question is, of course, why you chose to make an electronic version of the book available before the print version comes out – and why you decided to make one available at all.

A: First, let me say that it's common practice these days for publishers to release a couple of chapters of their new books on the web, as a teaser. The rationale for this is that the ecommerce business needs some sort of equivalent of shelf-browsing. Readers don't buy totally unfamiliar works or authors, but if you can make a reader in a shop pick a book up and open it you're halfway to a sale, and the same is true of the web. If you've ever read one of these samples, it may well have motivated you to order a hardcopy book. So I'd say that the practice of putting extracts on the web is on a sound footing (and note Amazon's support for it of late).

Putting the entire book on the web is a bit more controversial – at least, to people who haven't investigated the marketing response from it, or realized that it happened as long ago as 1992, when Bruce Sterling released the text of "The Hacker Crackdown" after the paperback had been in print for a year. But these days, a number of publishers are experimenting with it. There is one clear advantage to it: readers like samples, and the ultimate sample is the entire book. People are more likely to download the entire thing, because there's the promise that they can read it all on their computer. However, in practice most people don't like reading on a screen or a PDA. If they get hooked, they'll continue reading until it hits their personal pain threshold – then they're highly motivated to seek out the paper edition (in hardcover, if necessary).

A secondary consequence is that you get lots of coverage very cheaply. In the first week on the web, I've logged 22,000 direct downloads of ACCELERANDO from my web server. (Update: 57,000 downloads in the first month.) Another 500-1000 users have downloaded it via BitTorrent. I can't put a figure on the number of readers who have acquired copies from direct consumers yet, but I've got the logging facilities in place to produce some figures in due course. (There's not much point in doing so in the first month.)

Q: Are you concerned that the electronic version will affect sales of the hard copy?

A: Yes – that's the whole idea!

When Cory Doctorow released the entire text of his first novel, "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" (Tor, 2003) on the web, he got 35,000 downloads in the first month, and probably a total in the hundreds of thousands over the first year (including secondary download sites). For an anonymous midlist novel, it then went on to sell very well indeed in hardcover and trade (I believe both editions were reprinted). Given the huge number of readers who may download a free ebook edition, even a 1% sell-through rate translates to a rather nice boost in the bottom line.

Again, Baen Books – a medium-sized SF/fantasy publisher – have taken to releasing free ebook editions of some of their titles, when their paperback sales peak is past. They've noted a strong secondary sales blip, mostly affecting hardcovers, when the ebook comes out. It seems that readers like novel-sized samples and in many cases they aren't content to own just the e-text – they want the paper artifact as well.

Q: Is this the first book you've made available online? (and it's the full text, right?) How long has Accelerando been online?

A: It's the first published novel I've made available online – for values of "published" that approximate to "coming out next week". ACCELERANDO will be published by Ace on July 1st, and in the UK by Orbit (Time Warner UK) on August 4th. The ebook went online on the 17th of June, two weeks ahead of first US publication. This release schedule was discussed and agreed with input from the editorial and marketing people at both publishers, for maximum impact. It takes readers time to digest an ebook, and by running it two weeks ahead of the official publication date we're aiming to give them enough lead time for anticipation to build, while not so much time that the memory goes stale.

Q: Do you think this kind of strategy would work for authors like Dan Brown or Stephen King or J.K. Rowling as well?

A: In a word, no.

The primary commercial reason for pursuing a free ebook strategy is to build market awareness of your product. It's a supplement to word-of-mouth and conventional marketing, not a replacement. The best-selling authors have already reached saturation in this respect, and giving away free samples won't help build their sales further. For example: I have not read Dan Brown's novels, but I know enough about them, through word of mouth, to know that they're not the sort of thing that appeals to me. Free samples probably wouldn't add anything to this.

In contrast, like all midlist writers I face a major obstacle: most people who might buy my books haven't actually heard of me, or read enough of my work to get hooked. So I can benefit a lot by making myself more accessible to the audience.

Q: Do you think it hurts the Biggest-name authors more than it hurts midlist writers?

A: I don't think it hurts at all.

Here in the non-internet world, we have a technical term for people who, without the permission of the authors, take copies of their books and give them away for free to lots of readers: we call them "librarians". Complaining about readers "hurting sales" by reading free ebook copies "instead of" buying the paper edition is a bit like complaining that library withdrawals hurt sales. It assumes a false either/or dichotomy. In the first instance, some library users are too poor to buy the book in the first place – hence, they are not a lost sale: they were never a potential sale in the first place. Secondly, many library users go on to buy copies of books they first read via the library. The library is a great browsing opportunity, and only drives sales in the long term. I think that sector of the publishing industry that angsts loudly about "ebook pirates" is missing the point by the mile – the readers are not your enemy, and once you start viewing your ebook rights as a marketing opportunity to boost your paper sales, rather than as an unfeasible and unusable profit centre, things fall into place and the pain is replaced by gain.

Ebooks are worth much less to readers than a paper edition. They're harder to read, they're not useful and ornamental artefacts either. If they're encrypted using DRM they're worth drastically less than a paper book – you can't lend them to a friend and say "read this" – frequently you can't even copy them to a new computer when you upgrade! Commercial ebooks therefore sell rather poorly compared to paper editions. But by the same token, a freely available ebook edition is a hugely powerful viral marketing tool.

If we're talking about sources of pain, the real pain comes when someone starts producing unauthorized commercial editions of a work. That's why I released ACCELERANDO under a license (from Creative Commons) that explicitly forbids the creation of derivative works and redistribution on a for-profit basis. If anyone breaks that license, my publishers and I want a cut of the money. But it hasn't happened yet: the availability of a free ebook actually undercuts the profitability of pirate paper or electronic editions.

Q: Why do you think more publishers don't use this as a marketing device?

They're beginning to do so. The main problem is inertia; nobody wants to risk the company, so proposals to do this sort of thing tend to get referred to a committee where they die. Baen were able to start aggressively using this technique because as a small company (about 8 staff, total) they had no such barrier to adopting a new technique. They've been doing it for about six years, now. Meanwhile, the larger publishers are beginning to do it. When I first proposed it to Ace and Orbit, the idea was met with blank incomprehension – then they discovered they'd already been doing it (in a parallel non-fiction imprint) and it slotted right into place immediately. As more imprints and more staff become familiar with this device it will become commonplace.

A final word: obviously it's too early to tell how well ACCELERANDO is doing from the publisher's sales figures (it's only been out for a month), but if you use's sales rank as a rough indicator, ACCELERANDO has been significantly out-selling my earlier SF novels at the equivalent point in their publication cycle (for values of "significant" that approximate to "is ranked twice as high as the other books ever got").

So I'm not complaining.

[Discuss Writing (2)]

posted at: 12:30 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Engadget ]
Gizmodo ]
The Memory Hole ]
Boing!Boing! ]
Futurismic ]
Walter Jon Williams ]
Making Light (TNH) ]
Crooked Timber ]
Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
Baghdad Burning (Riverbend) ]
Bruce Sterling ]
Ian McDonald ]
Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
Terra Nova ]
Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
Justine Larbalestier ]
Yankee Fog ]
The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
Cough the Lot ]
The Yorkshire Ranter ]
Newshog ]
Kung Fu Monkey ]
S1ngularity ]
Pagan Prattle ]
Gwyneth Jones ]
Calpundit ]
Lenin's Tomb ]
Progressive Gold ]
Kathryn Cramer ]
Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
Hitherby Dragons ]
Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
NTKnow ]
Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
Fafblog ]
BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

Older stuff:

June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
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April 2005
March 2005
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November 2002
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March 2002
(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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