October 28th, 2009

typewriter monkey

Giving away books (or art) as a business model.

By now, many of you have probably read Cory Doctorow's piece in Publisher's Weekly, where he lays out his current publishing experiment - first announced at the 2009 Campbell Conference (about which I wrote a guest editorial for Abyss & Apex, out now!). Each month (for a year) in PW, Doctorow will update us on the progress of this project.

Michael Stackpole writes an incisive and insightful critique of Doctorow's project on his blog, and will follow up with a couple more articles over the next couple of days.

If you're a writer pondering the future of publishing (or other artist pondering a similar future), Doctorow's personal experiment is quite interesting. However, don't dive head-first into trying to duplicate Doctorow's project for yourself without first reading Stackpole's analysis and determining if it'll work for you. Do you have:
  • The time to devote to all of the things necessary to assemble and promote a project of this magnitude. Trying to duplicate Doctorow's project will not succeed (beyond the success he's already enjoyed in the form of PW support, pre-sale of the expensive and unique copy, and massive support from friends) unless you build a powerful and attractive online presence to draw potential buyers. And blog and speak and write about it to spread the word.

  • Generous and talented friends willing to donate their creativity to your project. Doctorow wouldn't be able to do this without help from a diverse talent pool who are working for free. This is an intriguing model, essentially creatives forming a creative union that each will likely be able to call upon for their own future projects. Small-scale socialism. I think more of us should do such, as well as help promote one another (as xjenavivex has been doing). This kind of cross-promotion only helps everyone involved. To me, this is one of the most interesting aspects of Doctorow's project - and I hope to discover later that he's doing the same for those who helped him.

  • The network bandwidth necessary to deliver massive volumes of electronic files, including ebooks, podcasts, and whatever else you create for your fans. Doctorow has a powerful tool to deliver his content: Boing Boing.

  • An established name and reader base. Note how Doctorow is able to promote his new novel on his website, which "attracts more than 5 million unique visitors to its site each month, and has over 600,000 RSS subscribers," according to Federated Media Publishing. So he'll be able to use this tool to deliver bandwidth-heavy downloads without incurring a new expense. Most of us won't have to worry about this too much, but the goal is to get so many downloads that we want to worry about bandwidth!

  • Enough wealthy or dedicated fans to purchase special-edition volumes. One special copy of Doctorow's book will cost $10,000 (already sold). That's a true - and wealthy - fan. About a year ago, Kevin Kelly wrote a definitive article about "1,000 True Fans" and how they can support an artist. He defines a "true fan" as someone who will "purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can't wait till you issue your next work... each will spend one day's wages [or $100] per year in support of what you do."

  • And the time and patience to do all this while trying to work on your next piece.
I'll be following Doctorow's progress closely, because my novel, Transcendence, comes out in print this winter from Hadley Rille Books, and I'm looking into ways to promote it and help it find readers. If free - both in terms of cost to readers and help from creative friends - works as a business model, I'm all for it. In the mean time, I remain curiously skeptical.