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Having my novel pirated and torrented all over the web has gotten me thinking a lot about copyright and distribution of creative work, what to do about pirating, and the freedoms that get touched when combating pirates.

One cannot write about this topic without mentioning long-time Electronic Frontier Foundation fellow Cory Doctorow, who observes that "Despite 15 long years of the copyright wars, despite draconian laws and savage penalties, despite secret treaties and widespread censorship, despite millions spent on ill-advised copy-prevention tools, more copying takes place today than ever before" (Guardian).

His observation is that "if I give away my ebooks under a Creative Commons license that allows non-commercial sharing, I'll attract readers who buy hard copies. It's worked for me."

When Doctorow came to Lawrence, KS, for the 2009 Campbell Conference (where we honored him with the Campbell Award for Little Brother, free download from Doctorow's Craphound site here), he gave a talk about an experiment he was planning to run. He's long argued for giving away ebooks as a tool to increase an author's visibility, and after hearing his plan to completely circumvent traditional publishing with his experimental project - the marketing supported by giving away books (marketing itself coming from Boing Boing, articles, and thousands of avid fans...) - I was convinced that it was a good approach for a new novelist, as well, and planned to give away my book for free.

Heck, John Scalzi made his name by giving away his work, and he's doing pretty well now.

Only the pirates beat me to the punch and cracked the Kindle version of my book, posted it to bittorrent sites, and posted links all over the web. So I'm playing catch-up with the pirates in a race to give away my work! It's available as a free .pdf download now; as I write this, a friend is converting the book into epub format, and I hope to offer more formats (html next) as soon as I can manage to make them. Not just sample chapters, but the whole darn thing.

Am I crazy? Well, when it comes down to it, it's already out there. As I see it, I'm losing nothing by giving it away. Now, we can have all kinds of ethical and philosophical debates at this point, wring our hands about the decline of civil society where people feel it's okay to take something that someone created, copy it, and give it away to others (or even charge for downloading it! One has to be a member of some of these forums to use 'em...), but that misses the point.

My book has been pirated and shared already. I can't stop that, and the methods necessary to create a pirate-free environment would transform the internet into something ugly and forbidding. Look at the Great Firewall of China. Do you want that? I don't. And even this unimaginably oppressive regime of censorship doesn't stop serious Chinese internet users who seek internet freedom.

Freedom isn't free, sez the dusty ghost. Musicians, movie-makers, authors, artists, and other creatives pay for the cool stuff we can get on teh interwebs - not with money (though, sure, that too; websites aren't free), but with creative energy that they could have used to make money. Before I turned to a life of teaching and fiction-writing, I worked in high-tech and used my creative energies to create software documentation. My career change cost me about $50k/year in salary and bonuses, not counting stock options and other perks. I no longer get fancy parties or logo-embroidered jackets or a 5th-floor office with windows overlooking forested hills and all that jazz.... But I love teaching. And when I'm not writing fiction, I get grouchy and unhappy. Will fiction-writing ever make up for the earnings I gave up in the transition from IT dude to teacher? Seriously doubtful, but that's not the point.

This is the same story for all creatives: Whatever you're doing for love is costing you greenbacks, probably a lot of 'em. If you were dealing crack or selling stocks or whatever, you'd earn a lot more dough. So there's a measurable cost to creative output. If - rather, when, because that's the reality of our times - someone pirates your work, be it a photograph or song or book or whatever, you are potentially giving up even more income that you could have earned from selling that work. To have created that work in the first place is to have cost yourself income due to the time and energy you expended to create it. So pirated work serves up a double-whammy, kicking you in the creative 'nads while you're down.

However! If someone encounters your art or book or movie or song or whatever via a friend's blog or in an email or wherever, and if they like it, and if - and this is important - if you are identified as the creator of that work, you've earned a new fan. This is someone who might potentially purchase your work, or at least spread the word to other like-minded people, some of whom might purchase your work. This was a functioning business model for Jim Baen's Universe, enough so that they paid pro rates for stuff they gave away. The idea is pretty simple: The more this happens - the more your work gets around for free - the greater the likelihood that someone will encounter it who'll buy it or make a donation to your PayPal tip jar. Assuming enough of these ethical folks see your work, potential losses from non-sales will be outweighed by the acquisition of new fans.

When it comes down to it, that's why we create stuff: To communicate whatever it is in our hearts that burns so strong that we are driven to create art and share it with others. To grab the stranger on the street by the collar and say, "Listen to this! I have something really important to say!"

Getting paid to do this just means we can continue to do more of it. I don't know any professional writers, artists, or musicians who honestly hope to get rich from their work. Though a lot of beginners have this motivation, few succeed, because creative fields simply aren't the best place to get rich. We do it for other reasons. If I could make a living writing fiction, would I give up teaching? It would mean another salary drop, similar to going from IT to the university, plus loss of more benefits like health insurance and so forth, but it would also mean giving up teaching, about which I am equally passionate. Happily, I won't have to face this dilemma any time soon.

But many creatives out there dream of earning enough from their art to pursue creative work full-time. It seems counter-intuitive to think that giving away one's creative output could serve that goal, but obscurity = poverty. Perhaps even worse, obscurity = no one can hear the really important thing you have to say. But if no one pays the creators, there'll be few creators to make the cool, quality stuff we love. Right here is the heart of the matter, and the eternal question regarding piracy and giving away our work. If I ever transition to full-time writing, I'd love to be able to earn enough to buy food and pay the bills. The only way to make that happen is to develop an audience now, enough of whom are willing to pay to enjoy my work later.

So am I bothered by my book getting ripped and torrented? Sure, at least I was when I first discovered the piracy. Now I see it as an irritant; I'm annoyed that the folks who ripped and shared it didn't ask if I was willing to give it away and let me handle that. Heck, I told an audience at ConQuesT (the Kansas City SF convention) last spring that I was going to give it away, and I've been telling people that ever since – and even wrote it on my website and blog! In fact, I'm a bit flattered that someone liked it enough to share it. But when people read my book in shadowy corners of the internet, I don't know about it. On the other hand, when they buy a Kindle edition or a paper copy, my publisher tracks those sales. When they download the ebooks from my website, I know about it. My primary motivation in writing is to share stories about things I can't not write about, so I want to know when people are reading it. I want to hear what they think about it!

So I urge you: If you enjoy a creative work - especially one you got for free! - tell the world about it. With my novel, at least, you needn't worry about getting caught, because I'm giving it away. Blog about it, post reviews at Amazon or Goodreads or wherever, and tell your friends whom you think might also like it. Post a link to my site where others can download it. Because those small efforts are payment-in-kind for my effort-cost to create the work and distribute it without demanding payment or imposing DRM on the free copies. Visit my my blog or Facebook page or send me an email to let me know what you think. Heck, buy a copy and give it to your local library or to a friend if you really liked it, but largely I simply want to know that I'm being read, that someone out there gets what I'm saying and is affected in some way by my work. It would be awesome if my writing could provide enough income to pay for a trip or fix the roof or so forth, but I'm not banking on it. I just don't want to be the idiot who worked his ass off for years to create something and then just let people run off with it without even saying, "Thanks."

I first encountered internet pirating a decade ago. My website contains a bunch of poetry, and some of the sex poems have made the rounds on various sites. I never expected to earn anything from those - they're poetry, famous for not making money! - so I found it flattering that people liked them enough to share with others. I wish the posters had at least identified me as the creator with link-backs to my site. To this day, when I find one of my poems on a site, I respond to those posts (when the site allows non-members to respond) something along the lines of, "Glad you liked it! Here's my website..." The moment that made giving away these works worth it was when a woman wrote to tell me that one of my poems had re-ignited her and her husband's sex life. (Yes, that was an appropriate response to the work *g*) Can an author ever hope for more than that? Also, a musician asked to use it as lyrics for what became one of his most popular songs.

That's what I'm talking about.

What did I earn from giving away those poems? Not much. But the value I got from my efforts was immense. I'm not willing to give up the exquisite freedom inherent in the Web as we know it today in order to make more money from my creative work. Trampling on net neutrality, imposing draconian safeguards over content, DRMing everything - these are baby-steps toward a Web that is not free. I give away my stuff because I want people to read what I have to say and then to tell others - and me! - what they think of it. I just don't want to be a chump about it; I want to make a little income from my efforts.

I'll let y'all know how my own experiment turns out: Will giving out my novel earn extra sales? That'll be tough to measure, because it's my debut novel, so I can't compare it to anything. My publisher might be able to guess a bit by comparing my sales to those of other SF books he publishes, but that won't say much more than what appeals to various market segments. But I hope to see results in the form of responses from readers. And maybe some of them will buy a copy of this or my next book!

EDIT: By the way, it's important to mention that I made prior arrangements with my publisher (and we put it into the contract) that I retain the right to sell or give away electronic editions of the book. In fact, he was very supportive of the idea, because Hadley Rille Books is a smaller press with a limited marketing budget, so he sees my giving it away as just another publicity tool.

EDIT2: I've been interviewed on this topic on the Lawrence Journal-World website, here. If digital freedom is important to you, check out the discussion! Some really good chat there.



( 76 comments — Leave a comment )
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Nov. 18th, 2010 04:44 pm (UTC)
You are not a chump. I truly believe more people are ethical than not and will do the right thing, so your strategy is sound.
Nov. 18th, 2010 06:46 pm (UTC)
I hope so! Though it's more than just a strategy to sell books; it's a strategy to find readers. And to fight pirates in the age-old "fighting fire with fire" approach ;-)
Nov. 18th, 2010 05:07 pm (UTC)
I, for one, think that the dead tree version's not going to disappear any time soon. I read electronic books, but those purchases are usually pre-travel convenience purchases... I've ordered your book from Amazon (which will get to me when it gets to me because of SuperSaver shipping, but whatever... not like I've time to read it anyway,) but I'll pick up the electronic version when I go to the In-law Gulag Archipelago for Christmas, as I won't want to lug paper when I can just hide behind my Sony Reader and read the pain away.

That being said, I'm nowhere near as comfortable with the Reader on a day-to-day basis as I am with a paper book. So, at least for old people, you're still safe.

Good on you for sharing your work, though. Nothing but good can come of it.
Nov. 18th, 2010 06:59 pm (UTC)
I agree that people will always want some kind of souvenir - that's one of the things Doctorow talked about: Giving away a book to enough people leads a certain number of them to want a memento of their reading experience.

Books, movies, and so forth are not the medium; they're an experience that happens to be delivered as a book (or ebook or whatever). So, yeah. Even when people are all reading direct mind-downloads, some will still want a souvenir. What that'll be, I dunno, but we'll still be human.
Souvenirs - (Anonymous) - Nov. 21st, 2010 10:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Souvenirs - mckitterick - Nov. 22nd, 2010 12:20 am (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 18th, 2010 05:20 pm (UTC)
Your response to this whole thing is a very healthy, very positive one. I'm proud of you!
Nov. 18th, 2010 07:00 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
Nov. 18th, 2010 05:22 pm (UTC)
Great post, Chris. After I had a long chat with Cory, I tried to talk my publisher into going the free route with my novel, but we both kind of chickened out at the end. Now we're moving into Kindle editions of the books. We'll see how that goes.

I can share hard-copy numbers with you if you want.

I know that there are pirated editions of my stuff floating around. I wonder if that is sales-positive, sales-negative or sales-neutral.
Nov. 18th, 2010 07:01 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Jim!

The way I see it, if it's already been pirated, there's no reason not to give it away, myself. I talked about this with my editor in advance, and he's totally behind it. A little shocked by how quickly it was ripped and shared, but happy with my giving it away. (He heard Cory's talk, too *g*)
Nov. 18th, 2010 05:40 pm (UTC)
I think piracy is a reaction to two things, either alone or in combination. Price and availability. There are always going to be pirates who do it for the "thrill" or out of selfishness, but most people will pay money for a reasonably priced product available in the format they desire.

I worry that "free" will become the new accepted value for books, and any other value will trigger piracy. This is what happened to newspapers for giving it away. Maybe there's some sort of ad model that will work. I don't know. Right now giving away ebooks can be used as a stepping stone for greater popularity, because most people would prefer print. That will eventually change.

I'd love to see a renewed interest in posh, limited edition hardbacks with author signatures.

All I can really say is that DRM doesn't work and wastes a lot of time to prevent something that can't be prevented. And the rest of it is all a bunch of mixed feelings. But I'm excited to see how this works out for you.
Nov. 18th, 2010 05:59 pm (UTC)
Our local paper quit posting its content online for free after doing so for two years. They announced that the free model was losing money for them. Why buy content that changes day by day when you can see the same content for free, they argued.

They may be right about newspaper content. I have no newspaper subscriptions now because I get my news from cnn.com and aol.com. When I wanted local news, I'd click on our local paper's website. Now I'll do without from them because I've gotten used to free.
(no title) - geekmom - Nov. 18th, 2010 06:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no title) - mckitterick - Nov. 18th, 2010 07:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 18th, 2010 06:39 pm (UTC)
Unfortunately, Jim Baen's Universe is now defunct. The model didn't work for them after all.

Giving away an ebook to encourage sales of paper books seems a strategy best suited to people who are very well known. I'll be watching your experiment with interest. (And I'll post a link to your free PDF on Facebook to help boost your Google location.)
Nov. 18th, 2010 07:06 pm (UTC)
That's a good point, Shauna! However, it was working for them until they decided to go to print, right?

I think that, in many ways, a new author giving away his or her debut book could have an even greater positive effect on sales than for a well-known Creative Commons type such as Cory. We'll see!
Well knowns - (Anonymous) - Nov. 20th, 2010 09:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Well knowns - mckitterick - Nov. 20th, 2010 09:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no title) - nickpheas - Nov. 19th, 2010 02:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no title) - mckitterick - Nov. 21st, 2010 05:38 am (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 18th, 2010 07:25 pm (UTC)
You might link to http://www.baen.com/library/defaultTitles.htm instead. It is the link to the baen free library and because of this site I have purchased more books by authors I would not have given a chance to if I had to pay for the book first. I have in fact purchased many of the books I read online so as to have it in my home to read again. I would also add that because of the free online library idea I am more likely to purchase a Baen book today than any other publisher. One nice aspect to the site is they will put books on there that are not being published by Baen so they are very open to sharing any work from any author that wants their work shared with the world.
I love that you were going to and have embraced the idea of giving it away to get more back. Odd how that works with anything you love. ;)
Nov. 18th, 2010 09:17 pm (UTC)
Good point, though I wanted to link to their philosophy page.

And you're so right about the more you give, the more (potentially) you get back. Especially if the giving is part of your reward ;-D
(no title) - jamer_31 - Nov. 18th, 2010 09:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 18th, 2010 08:33 pm (UTC)
I bought mine the old-fashioned way -- through my local book store.
- E
Nov. 18th, 2010 09:16 pm (UTC)
Thank you! That's the best way, and we all (bookstore, publisher, and me) thank you for it.
Nov. 18th, 2010 08:41 pm (UTC)
As an aspiring novelist, I've been following the e-book issues with great interest, especially as traditional publishing implodes.

I will be eager to see how this turns out for you. My guess is that it will be good. (or at least, that's what I hope)
Nov. 18th, 2010 09:15 pm (UTC)
I hope so! Thanks for the well wishes, and I'll report on what I learn from time to time.
Nov. 18th, 2010 09:10 pm (UTC)
I'm amazed at how quickly you responded. For now it's damage control, but perhaps it will pay off in the long run.
Nov. 18th, 2010 09:14 pm (UTC)
It's not really damage control, because I had planned to give it away all along! Eric was cool with that, too, partly (I suspect) because he also heard Cory talk about this. The "hurry up" part was because, well, I just hadn't found the time to upload yet! So much for that. :-D
(no title) - alaneer - Nov. 18th, 2010 11:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 18th, 2010 10:22 pm (UTC)
Hey, hie thee over to Scalzi's place and post about your book in the Open Pimp Thread! It doesn't happen often, but a lot of people rely on him for fresh new reads. Go! Post!
Nov. 19th, 2010 08:17 am (UTC)
Well, that's for OTHERS to post about stuff. Feel free!
Nov. 18th, 2010 10:43 pm (UTC)
The world needs more people with this kind of attitude.

I wish the very best for you!
Nov. 19th, 2010 08:18 am (UTC)
Thank you!
Nov. 19th, 2010 01:33 pm (UTC)
Yes, people are (mostly) ethical and honest. And lazy.
To you, and others, who worry that reliance on the honesty of strangers may turn out to be a losing a battle - don't.

A look at the computer games industry is instructive, as - I'm sure we can all agree - the computer gaming piracy scene is a such a hive of scum and villainy as would shame even Mos Eisley.

And yet...consider the size and state of the industry today, especially in light of the fact that it's 40 years old. And in those 40 years, not once has any gamer ever had to pay real money for a copy of a game. Okay, yes, there may well be a few outliers who have neither the technical, nor social wherewithal to obtain a copy without spending cash, but I would suggest those individuals are few and far between.

As for those who worry that 'free' will become the expected price of ebooks? That's not a significant worry, either, since consumers are generally happy to pay for convenience. If they can make a purchase straight from their reading gadget of choice, they will. The numbers may look skewed now, but remember, nascent tech is purchased by tech savvy early adopters, who are going to have the skills to acquire, convert, and load various pirated files well before the less tech savvy public starts buying up the gadgets, and starts shopping in the markets. (see also: mp3s and ipods)
Nov. 19th, 2010 07:39 pm (UTC)
Re: Yes, people are (mostly) ethical and honest. And lazy.
A lot of salient points here, and I think you're right on the money with your observations. Thanks for your comments.

By the way, I just about launched soda-pop through my nostrils at this: the computer gaming piracy scene is a such a hive of scum and villainy as would shame even Mos Eisley.

Nov. 19th, 2010 02:58 pm (UTC)
Hi Chris -- I've been keeping tabs on your story, though haven't had a chance to drop in and comment until now. I was so disappointed to hear your work was pirated, and I am so impressed by how you've responded to the situation and turned it around -- I hope -- to your benefit. You really set an example for us all.

I do hope that as authors we continue to be very vocal about the costs of piracy to the creative endeavor. We might not be able to get rid of piracy completely, but raising a little awareness can't hurt.
Nov. 19th, 2010 07:43 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I went through the full five stages of grief at first, too.

I'm really hoping that my little experiment provides more evidence that even lesser-known or beginning artists can give away e-copies their work as part of a larger marketing plan that builds readership - and sales! Because wouldn't the world be a better place if pirates had nothing to pirate? ;-)
Nov. 19th, 2010 02:59 pm (UTC)
Great post. What you say makes a lot of sense. I started blogging my surreal science artwork almost 4 years ago, and every client I've had has found me through the artwork I put up under a Creative Commons Licence - and then asked me for licensing or a custom piece of art.

I put a lot on the blog for free, and it's gotten me invited to speaking engagements, as well as illustration commissions.

Is it enough to live off of? No, not yet. But it's more rewarding than the years I spent toiling away unnoticed.
Nov. 19th, 2010 07:45 pm (UTC)
Thanks! Your method is also how my publisher found the artist who provided the gorgeous artwork for my cover. Geez, I can't believe I didn't mention that until now.

Anonymity is our real enemy.
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