Think Like a Dandelion: advice for understanding reproductive strategies in the Internet era

My latest column in Locus Magazine, "Think Like a Dandelion," came out of a talk I had with Neil Gaiman about the bio-economics of giving stuff away for free. Mammals worry about what happens to each and every one of their offspring, but dandelions only care that every crack in every sidewalk has dandelions growing out of it. The former is a good strategy for situations in which reproduction is expensive, but the latter works best when reproduction is practically free -- as on the Internet.

1. Your work needs to be easily copied, to anywhere whence it might find its way into the right hands. That means that the nimble text-file, HTML file, and PDF (the preferred triumvirate of formats) should be distributed without formality – no logins, no e-mail address collections, and with a license that allows your fans to reproduce the work on their own in order to share it with more potential fans. Remember, copying is a cost-center – insisting that all copies must be downloaded from your site and only your site is insisting that you – and only you – will bear the cost of making those copies. Sure, having a single, central repository for your works makes it easier to count copies and figure out where they're going, but remember: dandelions don't keep track of their seeds. Once you get past the vanity of knowing exactly how many copies have been made, and find the zen of knowing that the copying will take care of itself, you'll attain dandelionesque contentment.

2. Once your work gets into the right hands, there needs to be an easy way to consummate the relationship. A friend who runs a small press recently wrote to me to ask if I thought he should release his next book as a Creative Commons free download in advance of the publication, in order to drum up some publicity before the book went on sale.

I explained that I thought this would be a really bad idea. Internet users have short attention spans. The moment of consummation – the moment when a reader discovers your book online, starts to read it, and thinks, huh, I should buy a copy of this book – is very brief. That's because "I should buy a copy of this book" is inevitably followed by, "Woah, a youtube of a man putting a lemon in his nose!" and the moment, as they say, is gone.