Thursday, June 17, 2010

"Giving it Away" by Cory Doctorow

Source: The Internet Archive (mp3)
Length: 9 min
Reader: Jan Rubak

The essay: This essay, originally published in Forbes magazine, was reprinted Doctorow's non-fiction collection Content. In it, Doctorow gives his own testimony on how he can make money by giving away some versions of his books for free.  Giving away ebook and fan-made audio versions of his books, Doctorow claims, actually increases the sales of the hard-copy versions of his books. Most of the people who download the books wouldn't have bought a copy anyway, he reasons, so only a small percentage are actually lost sales. Balancing these lost sales are the readers who get the free electronic copy, then either buy a hard copy themselves or recommend it to friends.

Does it work? Well, Doctorow has certainly become fairly successful, but I'm not completely sold on this working for every author on a large scale. I have no problem reading most of my books from a PDA or listening to amateur readings of books. In fact, between free (legal) downloads and borrowing from friends or the library, I rarely buy books any more these days. I do think that, for authors I've never heard of, I would be more likely to buy their books if I had previously read or listened to another work of theirs previously. I have, in the past, bought books that were sequels to books that were given away freely. This "take the first, pay for the next two" strategy, along with the free distribution of a few short works, such as short stories and novellas, would seem to me to be a great strategy for beginning authors trying to convince readers to support them with their money.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Jan Rubak speaks clearly and distinctly. In fact, this is sometimes too much of a good thing as his over-enunciation may annoy some people, while others might find it helpful. Other than the distinct consonants, there's really nothing to complain about in this reading. He has good recording setup with very little noise. After the initial stilted reading of the title and source, Rubak settles down into a tone consistent with Doctorow's casual style.


Jan said...

Hi Sayeth,

Thanks for the review, and the constructive comments. I'll try to take it to heart as I start recording the essays in the follow-up collection "Context", due out later this year. (Although I have small children, so I tend to over-enunciate as a matter of course in my day-to-day. :) )

If you want to sample some of Cory's short stories, read by folks far less amateur than myself, give the "With a Little Help" collection a listen ( Also, the Quirky Nomads podcast did a nice full-cast adaptation of another story of his a few years back ( And of course, Cory reads much of his own material in his podcast, some of it while it is still being written ( Two of his novels are also available for free (or donation) at

Although I'm a huge fan of both his opinion pieces and his fiction, I agree with you that his success does not guarantee that the model would work for everyone. I personally think that his being a bit of a net-celebrity (through BoingBoing) probably has some impact, as does the fact that there really aren't any other professional authors (that I'm aware of) who pursue the free culture model as aggressively as he does (resulting in people like me who want to support that model going out of our way to buy his books, even if we weren't huge fans). That said, I have huge respect for him for using his professional livelihood as a proving ground for his activist positions, and I love that his opinions are often more about pragmatism than idealism (e.g. uncontrolled file sharing will only increase as digital technology improves, so to succeed, business models ought to leverage that fact rather than resist it).

Will there be some authors for whom the changing technological realities are a better fit than for others? Undoubtedly so, and in fact Cory himself is still actively experimenting with the exact approach that suits him best (see his Publisher's Weekly columns). But that doesn't mean that the long-term impacts of the digital revolution on the media landscape are necessarily any larger than those of previous technological advancements (all of which engendered some new players while being detrimental to some of the incumbents), nor that they should even be resisted. (This last thought paraphrased from Anyway, I guess my point is that I'm extremely grateful to have the one strong data point on the matter (even if slightly distorted) that Cory provides by his example. and podcasts like Escape Pod and the Drabblecast provide some additional data points (warning: content quality of podiobooks varies greatly, though I suppose that actually makes the "pay-what-you-will" model well-suited to it).

I personally find the "first one is free" strategy to be a disincentive, but I'm sure there are lots of consumers who feel either way. Also, for my part, I'm finally gainfully employed and am finding myself quite happy to go back and financially support some of the payment-optional services that have given me so much joy over the years (and to purchase the new books of some of the authors whom I have grown to love from such exposure).

I suppose the bottom line is that each author needs to find the best way to cater to the market that they think is available to them, and Cory in my opinion makes a compelling case throughout much of his work that the best way to do so is to shed our legacy ideas about copying, intellectual property and monetization.

Jan Rubak

Listener said...

Thanks, Jan.
I really liked your reading; the distinct enunciation is something I wanted to note for people who don't like that style, but I thought it was fine.

I really appreciate the extensive reply to the subject of the post. I really don't know which of the free giveaway models works best for authors. As a scientist, I'd like to see more data in a large study. Everything I've seen so far has been for a limited number of books given away using one model of "free". Designing a good experiment for this is difficult, given the number of variables, but I do believe that free giveaways do boost sales.

I'm planning on reviewing some more of Cory's fiction in the near future and have reviewed "Anda's Game" in the past.