Saturday, May 23, 2009

Controversy: Part 2

This is part two of a short series of posts where I'll voice an opinion that might be controversial and then step back and let others react to it.

Please feel free to discuss, argue, agree and disagree in the comments section. All I ask is that everyone to be polite and respectful to everyone else.


Could a "Freeware" Model of Sales Work in Publishing?

This post was inspired by a comment made recently by Sarf, and I thank him for the input that led me to consider this question. Here's Sarf's original comment:

I have some questions for your readers.

First the set up:

A person pirates your book by downloading a copy from the web.

They love it. Are you as the author glad or sad?

Now said person writes you a check for the cover price of the book and mails it to you. Do you care if they pirated the book or not?

My (abridged) response to this was:

If I wanted to give it away for free, that's easy to arrange; by trying to get published, it's implied I don't want to give it away for free. I'm not [doing this for attention or praise, so book-love is not enough.]

[As to the question of being paid after the fact,] I want money for my work, but at the same time, I believe I should control whether or not my work is for sale in the first place [thus payment does not erase the ire I feel at having my work taken without my consent].

Sarf is a programmer, so I understand why he's curious about this question. The model he suggests is in keeping with the one "freeware" works under: a computer program is put onto the web for anyone to download, and the creator asks people who like the program to either pay hir† or buy a more powerful non-freeware version of the program.

It's a model worth thinking about, because pirating is something we'll never stamp out, and there's a lot of wisdom to trying to find a system where pirating simply isn't considered a problem. The freeware model views "pirating" to be a way to win customers.

The author Cory Doctorow is buying into this idea. He has said that obscurity is the thing that threatens his livelihood, not piracy, and so he offers some of his books online, for free, and asks people to pay him if they decide they like what they see. To him, he's getting his work read by new people and hopefully winning loyal customers.

I will note that there's not much empirical evidence to suggest this is working, although there's also not much evidence that it's doing Mr. Doctorow any harm. The jury's out.

The last thing I'll note is how music piracy gave way to iTunes. Some people will always steal, but most of us are uncomfortable with that. When the music industry started offering their customers what the customers wanted (the ability to browse for music, the ability to download, the ability to buy one song instead of an entire album) rather than what the industry wanted them to want (the status quo), the public bought into that in a big way. Most of the people downloading music now are paying for it. A few years ago, that wasn't the case.

As eBooks become more popular, the publishing industry should be thinking carefully about what they want the future to hold. Enforcing the status quo could backfire, so thinking flexibly about how books are sold is a worthwhile endeavour.

† "hir" is a gender non-specific way of writing him/her. I like it; I'm usin' it.


What do you think? Is piracy theft, and therefore always wrong? Can piracy be harnessed as way to generate sales? Can the freeware model work for publishing? Is there another model that you think would work better? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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