Cory Doctorow's new experiment: all sorts of formats, all sorts of prices

A self-publisher at home in his lab. (Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives)

A self-publisher at home in his lab. (Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives)

Cory Doctorow, the sci-fi author and ebook pioneer (at least when it comes to DRM and pricing), announced this month in his new Publishers Weekly column that he’s about to embark on a bold publishing experiment. He says he’s going to publish his next book on his own, or at least without a publisher’s help, as he’ll be calling in favors from professionals to help with artwork, editing, and printing. He’s going to use all the unconventional distribution formats he’s now familiar with, and he’s going to make a profit.

Best of all for the rest of us, he says he will document the process and share the results, which means any writer or publisher curious about digital distribution will be able to benefit from whatever happens. I’m rooting for ya, Doctorow.

I also think it might be interesting to look at this experiment in the context of three other online distribution experiments.

When Stephen King salted the earth

One thing that strikes me about about Doctorow’s planned roll-out, which includes everything from free ebooks and audiobooks to $250 limited edition hardcovers, is how much more sophisticated his offering is compared to something a much more popular writer tried nearly 10 years ago.

In 2000, Stephen King, working with his publisher, attempted to serialize a novel-in-progress titled “The Plant” on his website using an honor-based payment system. In 2000, your options for digital reading consisted mainly of your computer or a Palm Pilot/Handspring, and King’s experiment was therefore a lot less ambitious: he’d post chapters of the novel online, as he wrote them, and he’d expect readers to pay $1 per chapter.

King and his publisher expected, or at least wanted, most everyone to pay–freeloaders would be tolerated, but minimally. King said if at least 75% of readers didn’t pay with each new chapter, he’d pull the plug on the serialization. By the fourth or fifth chapter, King raised the price per chapter and paying readers plummeted, and he killed the project.

(Here’s a fun anecdote from a reader’s perspective: I was one of those paying per chapter and getting engrossed in the story, and I was furious at King when he killed it. It made me not want to support him on future books. Maybe not every reader felt that way, but hey, I did. It also made me realize that a writer should either ask for money up front or ask for money after, but never hold the work hostage during. Constantly threatening to abandon the story due to the actions beyond the reader’s control isn’t going to endear you to many readers.)

By contrast, the primary methods by which Doctorow will roll-out his new book seems designed to cater to freeloaders: he’s offering high-quality, free ebooks and audiobooks, licensed so that readers can manipulate them into other (equally free, as demanded by the license) works.

That’s a huge reversal from what King expected from readers in 2000. Doctorow seems to expect that the majority of readers sampling his work won’t pay, but that enough will that it will work out profitably in the end. Why would he think that? Well, he’s been offering free ebook editions of each of his books since he started publishing, and he’s a successful midlist author now. It’s not proof that giving away your work to some degree will eventually bring in buyers, but Doctorow has said he suspects the free copies work as advertising, bringing in fresh readers who, sometimes, turn into paying readers down the line2.

Is “free” really just a long-term ad campaign?

And that brings me to another recent online example in giving something away for free in order to drive sales, although in this case the digital entertainment isn’t a book but a videogame.

Earlier this month, the indie developers of an enormously popular and respected videogame called “World of Goo” held a “pay what you want” sale, where you could give as little as one cent to download a Windows, Mac, or Linux version of the game. The company, 2D Boy, documented the results (part 1 is here, and part 2 is here) in a way that I hope Doctorow does as well.

Some things that I thought were interesting about the experiment:

  • A significant portion of consumers elected to pay the minimum, one cent. When 2D Boy announced halfway through the sale that they only made money on purchases of 30 cents or higher, the average payment increased. Takeaway: if you’re honest about things like transaction costs, more customers will adjust their payment accordingly to avoid hurting your bottom line.
  • There was a considerable price gap between Windows and Mac users (although Macs paid slightly more) compared to Linux users. Linux users seem to have been willing to pay a higher price for the content. Is this because Linux users are more familiar with the concept of paying what you think the author/developer deserves instead of what you think you can get away with? Or is this because Linux users simply aren’t the mainstream, and their very adoption of an open-source operating system means they have strong opinions on how honor payment systems should work? Whatever the reason, this price gap does seem to illustrate that when you expand to the mass marketplace, you’re going to attract more freeloaders, or more cheapskates, or likely both. You may be able to persuade them to pay more through education, but the jury’s still out on that.
  • They sold 83,250 copies of the game. I don’t follow the videogame industry enough to know how that ranks to other independently-published games, and at least some of those sales were from existing customers buying copies of the game for other operating systems, but even a conservative estimate should mean that 2D Boy attracted 50,000 or more new customers on an aging game. These are customers who will now personally experience the 2D Boy brand and be more likely to pay attention to their next game release.
  • Most important, perhaps: the sale bumped up full-price sales of their game on third-party reseller sites. On Steam, a PC game reseller, sales rose 40% relative to the previous week. On WiiWare, the game store on the Nintendo Wii, sales rose 9% relative to the previous week.

Taking those last two points into consideration, is it possible to use “pay what you want” sales as an advertising campaign in disguise? And if so, is it possible to adjust the minimum price point so that the immediate net cost of the campaign is positive? I don’t usually get giddy about marketing, but the idea of actually making money off of an ad campaign makes me grin deviously. (That’s “giddy” for me.)

Introducing the mass-commission

Finally, I wanted to look at something another writer is doing to make money off of publishing without relying on mainstream publishers.

Robin Sloan is well-known by a subset of web-type people, or at least that’s what I gather from Googling him. To be honest, I don’t know who he is. What I do know, however, is he just raised over $12,000 from future readers in order to fund the writing of a novel he just finished earlier this month. I donated a dollar, and I will receive a digital copy of the book when he’s through editing it. Like Doctorow, Sloan created a tiered approach that lets readers self-select the amount they’re willing to pay–each step up the ladder of donations brings more copies, or an acknowledgment, or an autograph.

My first thought, after I absorbed what he did: I hate you, Robin Sloan, for thinking of this before I did. My second thought: Can other writers replicate his success? (Should King dust off The Plant and head on over to Kickstarter?)

Doctorow has already incorporated this strategy, in a way. As part of his experiment, he planned to offer a commissioned original short story for $10,000. Before he could make a public announcement, the guy who developed Ubuntu bought it from him over breakfast, so this strategy won’t be tested among general readers this time around.

But Sloan’s experiment worked and it worked among readers closer to the norm, not with a multimillionaire. Although Sloan won’t receive royalties from his book, he’s getting a fairly decent advance for a first-time novel that’s bypassing a publishing house and going straight from author to readers. And of course, any profit he makes from direct sales will remain entirely with him.

I have no idea if other writers can pull the same trick; certainly unpublished unknowns will find it hard to attract open wallets without first demonstrating that they have a talent worth investing in. But for authors who can reach a certain level of visibility first, or who can find a way to market themselves well, it may be possible to tap into your readership directly for an advance.


Isn’t this all fascinating stuff, seeing what writers and other content creators are doing to promote and sell their work?

By contrast, here’s the sort of stuff publishers are focusing on right now: finding a way to keep readers from lending books to each other. No seriously, check it out:

So, why are publishers opposed to the Nook’s crippled ebook sharing scheme? As one Unnamed Publishing Executive told Publishers Lunch:

“If publishers agree to lending then every ebook offer now and in the future will come with this consumer feature. Over time, I’m concerned that lending won’t grow the market and in fact could hurt it.”

I thought the gatekeepers were supposed to improve the quality of content and add value to it, not find ways to restrict its consumption by readers.

Hopefully experiments like these will gradually be absorbed into the mainstream publishing houses and benefit everyone–writers, readers, and even, despite their worst intentions, publishers.

“Doctorow’s Project: With a Little Help” [Publishers Weekly]

Footnotes! Hooray!

2. To be fair to King, as a known blockbuster author he occupies a different position in the marketplace; his concerns are likely more focused on people wanting free entertainment from a known brand than on people not knowing who he is. What we really need is a blockbuster writer like King who will attempt something on the scale of Doctorow’s plan–the publishing world’s equivalent of Radiohead and their free album release experiment or NIN’s ongoing free music releases. (click here to return to the post)

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