Readercon and E-Books (Part 2)

Okay, on to the Readercon panel on e-distribution of our books and stories, which was titled, “If Free Electronic Texts Are Good Promotion, What’s Piracy?” I was on the panel along with James Patrick Kelly (moderating), Cat Rambo, Graham Sleight, and Gordon Van Gelder (editor and publisher of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction). The basic questions, which are seriously intertwined:

1. Is it good for a writer (or publisher) to give away your goods for free on the net?
2. If the answer to (1) is yes, is it so bad if someone else decides to give your stuff away for free on your behalf (e-piracy)?

I’m not going to be able to repeat the exact points made on the panel, so let me try giving the gist, in the form of Q&A.

Q. Does it really help writers to put their stuff up for free? Does it help book sales, or hurt?
A. No one knows. Anecdotal evidence (ala Doctorow, Scalzi, and others) suggests that it helps. But that’s very anecdotal, and to the best of my knowledge, no one has released any actual sales figures as evidence. But no one seems to feel that it hurts—and the fact that Baen gives away free e-books, and Tor too (and the fact that Tor is fine with my giving away my books if I want to) lends some authority to that position. But…this could well just be the early adopter effect. And while it’s seemingly helped some people, is it also reinforcing a perception in the public that stuff online simply ought to be free, dammit? What will happen when e-books are a bigger part of the whole publishing picture? Will readers be willing to pay for the cow when they’re used to getting the milk for free?

Q. Is it better to emulate the drug dealers, and give the first one for free—and try to hook them, so that they’ll pay for the ones that follow?
A. No one knows. But that’s kind of what Baen Books does, and it seems to work for them. So should I put up my new (forthcoming) book Sunborn for free, along with the first three books in the story arc—or is three enough, and if you like those, c’mon, just buy the next book, please? No one knows. Or at least I don’t. (But that’s how I’m leaning at the moment.)

Q. How do audiobooks and podcasts fit into this?
A. It’s sort of the same deal. Some authors, Jim Kelly in particular, have been energetically giving away podcasts of their own readings, as a way to promote the printed stuff. According to Jim, when he won the Nebula Award for his novella “Burn,” it had probably been heard by more people as a free podcast than read by people on the page. His audio promotion probably has increased his readership, and now it’s resulted in a paid arrangement with audible.com.

Q. Is it okay that strangers are scanning in our books, or hacking the protected e-books, and putting them up online on BitTorrent sites, in complete violation of copyright and common courtesy?
A. No, it’s not okay. It sucks. It’s piracy, and it’s illegal and immoral. Only one person should decide whether a book or story goes up for free—and that’s the author.

Q. What if I ask the question again. Will you give the same answer?
A. Maybe not. Unquestionably it’s free publicity, and it may well draw new readers into the author’s fold. After all, what’s the bottom-line difference between someone finding a pirated version of your book on BitTorrent and grabbing it for free, and someone paying a penny for a used copy on Amazon? Neither one makes the writer a cent in royalties. But there’s that new reader thing; we like it when new people discover our stories. Sometimes they go on to buy other books, or even the same ones, in royalty-paying copies. (Sometimes they don’t.) But at least they’re reading our stuff.

Q. Are there any other parallels with the music biz, beyond the audiocasts?
A. The emusic/itunes/etc music model of selling songs for a reasonable price has clearly established that many people are willing to pay a fair price for a legit copy of something they want—even if they could get it for free in pirated form. Clearly this is working for the mp3 retail industry. But is it actually working for the artists? (By which I mean the midlist artists.) I don’t know. One thing I do know is that the e-book industry has yet to fully grasp the concept of fair price; most legit e-books still cost way too much. And I include my own in that. (However, I have no control.)

Q. Would it make sense for a magazine like Fantasy and Science Fiction to go to a free, online, giveaway model?
A. Sure, if the purpose was to put it out of business. That’s the opinion of publisher Gordon Van Gelder, and the experience of online magazines seems to bear it out.

Q. How much time and effort should a writer put into all this, if he/she desires to put stuff up for free.
A. That’s a good question, because every hour spent making corrected book files or audio files (or writing blogs) is an hour not spent writing new stories. And it can be stressful. Sometimes very stressful. And creatively draining.

Q. There are a lot of unknowns here. When are we going to start seeing some answers?
A. Nobody knows. But if you’re just joining the conversation on this blog, scroll down a few posts for more on the subject.

I hope I’ve been able to clarify the picture for you. (Hah.) No doubt I’ve forgotten some things that were said on the panel. If so, perhaps someone out there can add it in a comment.

“When we read, we start at the beginning and continue until we reach the end. When we write, we start in the middle and fight our way out.” —Vickie Karp

0 Responses

  1. Charlza
    | Reply

    I’ll just make one more comment about ebooks. Incidentally, it matches one of the blogs that I read about the topic.

    I’ve downloaded every Tor book. Have I read them? No! Why? It’s a combination of things. I have a ton of physical books with an ever growing reading list. (and yes, I’m running out of shelf space.) The other…I can’t stand reading books on my computer. After 16 years in the IT field, I don’t want to sit at my computer to read! It’s not relaxing me.

    We have a Kindle at work, but I don’t have the money for one and I’m not sure I’d actually use it enough, anyway. I love having a paper or cloth book in my hand.

    However, I have purchased 2 ebooks (both Peter F. Hamilton: Night’s Dawn Trilogy and Pandora’s Star) that I have read, but the funny thing is that I also bought the physical books too. I did this so I could easily read them at work and elsewhere via my laptop, without having to lug the heavy hard covers around.

  2. Cat Rambo
    | Reply

    As one of the editors of an online magazine, I just wanted to say that I don’t agree with Gordon. I think there are a significant possibilities for new business models beyond things like tip jars. Give it a few years and (in my opinion) some interesting things are going to start to emerge.

  3. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    > new business models beyond things like tip jars

    You can't leave us hanging like that, Cat. (Please.) What income source do you see for online magazines–beyond, I assume, not just tip jars but advertising?

  4. Pam Phillips
    | Reply

    I say free e-books are good to the extent that they make it easier for readers to discover your work, and more importantly, buy it in hard-copy.

    For example, in Jim Kelly’s reading of Burn, he shamelessly exhorted listeners to buy it.

    I don’t read e-books, so maybe it’s already common practice to do things like listing the other titles in a series, or offering links to Amazon.com, your website, etc.

Post your comment before you lose your train of thought. (Mine already left the station.)