Locus column on the case for Creative Commons for sf writers

My latest column in Locus Magazine has just gone live. Called "Free(konomic) E-books," it's an attempt to enumerate the evidence that Creative Commons and other scheme for giving away free ebooks works to sell printed books. In my next column, I'l expain how Creative Commons works, and how science fiction writers can use it.
Many of us have assumed, a priori, that electronic books substitute for print books. While I don't have controlled, quantitative data to refute the proposition, I do have plenty of experience with this stuff, and all that experience leads me to believe that giving away my books is selling the hell out of them.

More importantly, the free e-book skeptics have no evidence to offer in support of their position -- just hand-waving and dark muttering about a mythological future when book-lovers give up their printed books for electronic book-readers (as opposed to the much more plausible future where book lovers go on buying their fetish objects and carry books around on their electronic devices).



  1. I’ve been thinking about this lately (as it’s been topical) and I realized that I use ‘e-books’ (PDFs and text files, usually) in two ways.

    1) To try out works I’m not sure about. In this case I’ll usually buy (or not) the book to finish it.

    2) (And this is WAY more common for me) To have a searchable version of a book I’ve already read so I can find specific quotes, etc. quickly.

    OK, not suprising, but it seems these days the obvious needs to be stated.

  2. So, how do you convince your editor to let you do the Creative Commons thing? I’m sure the red cape helps, and maybe Charlie Stross would have better luck if he owned one. But if he’s right that the major publishers want to buy (and sit on) ebook rights, and don’t want to negotiate on this, what do you do?

  3. I use e-books as an introduction to the author.
    If I like what I read, after a chapter or two I will buy the book, and normally several others by the same author.
    I started doing this after becoming a member of book-crossing and finding some great dead tree stuff by authors I had never heard of.
    I use that site the same way, find something I like and buy more, then release a couple of books by that author.
    I will often buy two or more copies of something I have found as an e-book and release it so others can enjoy it too.

  4. …just hand-waving and dark muttering about a mythological future when book-lovers give up their printed books for electronic book-readers…

    It looks to me like there’s a bit of hand-waving on both sides — neither side has the “controlled, quantitative data” to do much more. Cory does have a bit more data, since he’s (laudably and audibly!) jumped with both feet into the experiment, but…well, always in motion, the future is.

    It’s this “mythological” future that’s the sticking point for me — it just doesn’t seem that mythological. I can’t quite convince myself that nobody’s gonna come out with an iTunes for books in ten or five or two years that suddenly makes reading books on-screen really popular, and paper books the domain of fogeys. (ObSF: Rainbows End.) There was a time in the not-too-distant past when LPs were fetish objects, too — they offered that slightly musty vinyl smell, the slippery tactile bliss of the disk slipping free of the tissue paper sleeve, the coy little hiccup of noise when needle met groove. While I’d love to believe books will always need bookshelves and fingers to turn their pages, I can’t quite subscribe to their permanence, and any argument that rests thereon.

  5. Jere7my (#4): ObSF: Rainbows End.

    Which is, as far as I can tell, not available as an e-book (unlike both Zones books, the short fiction collection, or The Peace War). It’s like rain on my wedding day, or a free ride when I’ve already paid, or something.

  6. I think free is fine but you would do better to consider the market for paid ebooks. I’m far from convinced that the current limited readership for ebooks will remain limited because I believe that decent and affordable ebook readers will become available within the next year or two. I have some thoughts on this at my blog today.

  7. Why would I, or anyone else, give up paper books? They’re far more transportable. They don’t require power. They’re easier on my eyes. And I “own” them, to do with them what I want. I don’t have to worry about freaks attacking me for what I’ve downloaded or own. I don’t have “rights” which expire or the Company that unlocks my media for my use goes out of business. And I don’t loose them if one of my drives in my RAID array goes bad and I haven’t backed them up or if my license key gets wrecked.

    All these issues, of which I have first-hand experience, sometimes many instances, simply leads me to believe that paper books are, and will remain, superior to digital media for the rest of my life.

    And, while this is merely anecdotal, I’d never heard of you until recently because, well, while I may be a sci-fi fan with over 35 years reading the genre, I tend to wait for my favorites to publish. I just don’t branch out much because, even though I can easily afford it, it just bothers me to drop $8 on a crappy book written by some hack.

    Your e-publishing Down and Out… and your story about Robbie the Robot in one of the more recent anthologies has put you on my radar. The reasons being that risk of a bad story in a huge anthology is minimal (so I’ll buy) and the CCL book let me know you could write and write well at the novel length (not all can).

    For what it’s worth, this makes you the second author in the past two years (Alister Reynolds is the other) I’ve added to my short-list of “must buy.” So, in the future, you’ll be seeing royalty checks that include some small amount from me.

  8. As a devotee of the Sony Reader, I have to say that if that product is any indication then real ebook readers with mass market appeal are not more than a few years off. The fundamental requirements — a screen with good contrast without an eye-watering backlight, battery life good for half a dozen complete books, small and lightweight package — are there. The only big downsides are software (broken PDF support, no html support, poor navigation) and those will be fixed in time.

    (They’ve also got DRM, but it’s in the modern fashion: A token gesture that allows them to set up a proprietary store, but that doesn’t much interfere with real life.)

    The fundamental requirement for a book is that Ta<Tb — Time to Get Addicted to the book is less than Time Before Your Eyes Start Bleeding from the reading technology’s limitations. A reader who’s hooked on a book will keep reading even at the cost of staying up all night; a little thing like bleeding eyeballs from the ebook reader is no biggie. So a book that’s slow to grab you, that starts off gently — Moby Dick, say, which spends chapters dicking around Nantucket — that book demands print. A book which grabs you by the neck and doesn’t let go — Blindsight, to pick the book most recently on my Sony Reader — well, it could be written in yellow ink on the surface of light bulbs and it would still be read. Not to say that it’s a better or worse book for that, but it’s a different proposition.

    Naturally, then, ebooks are starting out with fast-paced stuff like Baen’s catalog of largely military sci-fi with a very small Ta. As Tb increases, expect to see higher-Ta books (and publishers in higher-Ta markets) start to take ebooks seriously. If they are smart, they’ll follow the lead that the early adopters are setting: Keep the back catalog free, sell series as bundles, and stay away from DRM lock-in (either by avoiding DRM, like Baen, or as a second-best selling in every DRM format, like FictionWise, or as a third-best selling in long-since-cracked formats like Microsoft .LIT that can be converted to common formats with trivial tools).

  9. Please check the free library at and the comments made by Eric Flint, the Librarian.

    One of the posts shows the sales of his own books before and after posting them in the library. Sales went up after the postings.

    Several of the hard-bound books have come with cds that contain the full text and no copy protection. The front of the cd states ” this disc may be copied and distributed but not sold.”

  10. “the much more plausible future where book lovers go on buying their fetish objects and carry books around on their electronic devices”

    This statement really hit home, as I am currently listening to my iPod, but opening up the vinyl records that just came in the mail.

  11. Years ago a writer I had never heard of posted a short story “One Perfect Morning, With jackals” to the old CompuServe SF Lit Forum. As a result I went out and bought everything I could find by Mike Resnick. Free lit = free advertising.

  12. I think you, Cory, have said this before, but this “ebooks-for-free, paper for money” notion is dependent on a couple of things:

    1. the experience of reading on screens sucking.
    2. our ability to produce paper books inexpensively enough for authors to generate enough on their sale to be profitable…

    While I think the industry is getting better about number 2, I think that we (writers/readers) are loosing ground on number 1. If implemented correctly, the new ipods might make really good reading environments. Not the same clearly, and I’m all about screens getting better, but at the same time, this could hinder “business models” like yours, so I’m interested in seeing what happens next…

  13. From my own personal experience, I suspect it will turn out, much like in the recording industry, that the greatest consumers of pirated material are also the greatest consumers of legally published material. A music fan acquires music, while a book fan acquires books, regardless of the format.

    My personal interest is role-playing game books. I own about 1,000 RPG books in actual paper, and have accumulated about 8,000 in PDF. Anecdotally, I have a bigger printed book collection than any other gamer I have met, yet I also have a bigger PDF collection.

    But rather than having easy access to pirated PDFs dim my interest in print books, the opposite has happened. Instead of buying fewer books, I am actually buying many more than I was 10 years ago, before RPG PDFs took off. I have found I am much more likely to buy a book that I have skimmed in PDF. Generally, if I actually start reading a PDF and decide I like it, I will finish it in paper. At least in my case, pirated PDFs have caused me to buy more books than any advertisement in any media.

    An example: a big, new $50 book was recently released by a big company. Flipping through a copy at the store a few times wasn’t enough to sell me on the book, even though I love the author’s work and the company’s line of books. But earlier this week I found a pirated PDF of the book. I started reading and I’m hooked. On payday, I will plunk down the money to buy this book that I was on the fence about.

    Sure, what I am doing is certainly violating copyright. And I fully understand that it is the publisher’s right to decide how to promote, release and control their content and punish me when/if I am outed. I can even understand their reason (500 people downloaded our book, but only one actually bought it. We lost 499 sales!) But I can’t imagine a successful business model predicated on jailing an industry’s biggest customers.

    Now here is hoping no wizard or white wolf shows up at my door with an all-powerful subpoena spell. I guess I hope I really will be anonymous.

  14. Jon (2):

    So, how do you convince your editor to let you do the Creative Commons thing? I’m sure the red cape helps, and maybe Charlie Stross would have better luck if he owned one. But if he’s right that the major publishers want to buy (and sit on) ebook rights, and don’t want to negotiate on this, what do you do?”

    After considerable effort I managed to get an interview with Cory’s editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and asked him your question. He said:

    1. Cory asked us.

    2. He made a good case for his ability to do it effectively and well.

    3. He also convinced us that even if it didn’t work, we’d learn a lot from doing it.

    4. Nobody’s e-books were making a lot of money. It seemed like a sensible thing to try.

    5. Charlie Stross’s problems were with another publisher.

    (This bit directly from Patrick: “We’ve let some other authors do this too. Peter Watts’s superb SF novel Blindsight suffered from poor initial sales. After we let him post a CC-licensed e-text, it got linked and recommended by several prominent blogs, and hardcover sales picked up considerably. It’s worth noting that both Doctorow and Watts did more than slap an e-text onto a server; they also went out and hustled up publicity.”)

    So there you go.

  15. There is always some kind of way around DRM for material that humans can sense. Content can always be intercepted from its physical manifestation, if not in its original digital form, then in the first-generation analog form that we see or hear. Less convenient than making an exact digital copy, but given the excellent quality generally available, good enough for folks who aren’t into paying for their use of IP.

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