Goo Goo G’Joob

Hi all –

Okay–last chance to post before I head for California.

Don’t know if you’ve seen the latest issue of THE WALRUS, but there’s an article in there about the death of the book-as-paper-artifact and the future of reading. It’s written by Jon Evans, an author upset that his publisher won’t let him put his novel up for free on his website.

In terms of content, the article doesn’t strike me as saying anything I haven’t heard before, but maybe that’s because a) I’m a writer and concerned about the future of publishing, b) I’m an SF writer and concerned about the future of publishing, and c) I’m a professional editor and concerned about the future of publishing.

So if you haven’t been previously aware of these issues the article might be a good place to go for an introduction. It does include a nice shout out about SF writers and publishers distributing content free online, and Canadian SF writer (and editor of mine) Cory Doctorow‘s free online fiction.

While most publishers tremble and fret, some authors actually want to put their work online. Many in this group are from the forward-looking field of science fiction. If you’re so inclined, you can go online right now and read (for free) highly acclaimed science fiction novels such as Charles Stross’s Accelerando, Peter Watts’s Blind-sight, and the entire oeuvre of Cory Doctorow. Science fiction publisher Baen Books has made available a “library” of copy-righted-but-free novels. You may be wondering why these authors and publishers have cut their own commercial throats. But the evidence to date indicates that releasing a book online actually increases offline sales. Readers try and then they buy.

The full article is available here.

When I eventually get off my duff and get a novel written I think I’d like to try the “Doctorow Method” and have it available free under a Creative Commons license. I, for one, used Napster as a kind of advanced music listening try-before-you-buy system, and figured that if I liked three or four songs off an album I’d generally like the whole thing and would buy it.

I think that someone who reads and enjoys a book online is quite likely to buy the hardcopy or perhaps the hardcopy of your next book. And when someone likes a book they tend to recommend it to friends, so you increase your potential sales a great deal by this read-before-you-buy system.

And I think this is the key benefit of the free online idea–expanding your readership. Especially as someone starting out and trying to get their writing noticed it could be a huge boon. Not many people will wander into the Sci Fi/ Fantasy ghetto of their local bookstore (it’s usually at the back of the store on a high shelf like it’s porn anyway) as there’s a real psychological barrier. But if someone recommends to you a book that, sure is sci-fi, but which you can read for free? Well, I think more people who “don’t normally read sci fi” would give that a chance. And the real future (and money) of SF lies in the ability to cross that divide and get out of the sci fi ghetto and be a sci fi writer who the mundanes will read.

And if someone reads the book free online and doesn’t like it (for whatever reason) you’ve perhaps lost that sale, but it’s unlikely you’ve lost any future sales to that same person. Generally when you don’t like one book by an author you’re unwilling to give another one a shot, right? So your potential benefits, in my mind, far outweigh your potential risks.

– S.

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