Locus column: Special Pleading, the dirty rhetorical trick used to disqualify all open publishing successes

My latest Locus column, "Special Pleading," talks about the damned-if-you-do/ damned-if-you-don't nature of free ebook scepticism. When I started out giving away my print novels as free ebooks, critics charged that it only worked because I was so obscure that I needed the exposure. Now that I've had a book on the NYT bestseller list, a new gang of critics claim my strategy only works so well because I'm established and can afford to lose sales to free ebooks. The arguing tactic is called "special pleading," and it's a dirty rhetorical trick indeed!
The Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom experiment really pissed people off. It was denounced as a breaking of ranks with authors as a class, and as a stunt that I could only afford because I had so little to lose, being such a nobody in the field with my handful of short story sales and my tiny print run -- at least when compared to the big guys. Free samples were good news if no one had heard of you, but for successful writers, free downloads were poison.

To "prove" this, critics often pointed to Stephen King's experiment in online publishing, "The Plant," which King gave up as a bad job after earning a mere hundreds of thousands of dollars in voluntary payments, and which he never returned to. A genuinely successful writer like King had nothing to gain from the publicity value of free downloads, they said (ironically, this appears to be the story that Charles referred to in the July Locus, citing it as proof of the success of free downloads).

Special Pleading


  1. What critics who cite “The Plant” forget is that Stephen King said specifically that we should only pay for it if we liked it. I downloaded the first two parts, and they were awful. I even e-mailed him to let him know why I wasn’t going to pay, but never got a response (not a surprise).

  2. AKA Masnick’s Law

    “in any conversation about musicians doing something different to achieve fame and/or fortune someone will inevitably attempt to make the argument that ‘it only worked for them because they are big/small and it will never work for someone who is the opposite,’ no matter how much evidence to the contrary might be readily available.”

  3. Has anybody suggested that free ebooks can be profitable simply because ebooks aren’t the most popular way to read a book yet? Meaning you get exposure because people can download it easily, but the ones who like it will go out and buy it because that’s still the cool way to read a book. If print books eventually stop being the first choice, I doubt free ebooks will offer much profit potential. Am I missing something?

  4. 1) I think you’ll be less inclined to give away books when the majority of people read books on the iPhone and the Kindle.

    2) I don’t think you succeeded because you’re established. I think editing BoingBoing made a big difference. You’re able to generate a huge amount of publicity for yourself as a byproduct of the other work you do at BoingBoing. This isn’t free publicity because you work for it, but it’s part of the compensation.

  5. Interesting, all this discussion of free ebook downloads and whether they work for writers and readers or not. I’ve never thought one way or the other about the price of a book. It’s not the significant factor. The only payment I ever consider when flipping through a book is the payment of time.

    Time is paid for a book whether it is zero dollars or twenty-four dollars. I’m am no more likely to download a free ebook than to purchase a hardcover edition. Some books I buy over an over again with different covers. It doesn’t matter. Time is everything.

  6. Time may be everything for the reader, but I doubt that’s equally true for the author. Until the day when our credit cards are billed for each hour that the book is open.

  7. It *isn’t* special pleading if you realize that the argument is:

    1) You have to be at least known at some basic level for open publishing to work. It is one thing to get people to download a new book by you as you have proven that you can get things published in the normal channels and are making a point by giving it away, and quite another thing to interest people to download something by an unknown “author” who probably is just giving their unpublishable fanfic away.

    2) If you are truly famous, like Stephen King, open publishing gets you nothing, because there is no need to find new readers — everybody who is remotely interested knows your work.

  8. I read The Plant and I also paid for it, although I’ll agree with the other commenter that it wasn’t very good.

    Still my biggest problem with ebooks just surfaced again this week for me. I lent a book to a friend who replied that, “if you liked this then there’s this other great book but it’s on my Kindle”. This is one major use case that’s just not handled. There’s also no guarantee from the publisher that should the Kindle (or substitute any other DRM protected e-book) be discontinued that my investment will be protected in any way.

    Until my concerns are met I’m going to stick with the universal format – PAPER!


  9. @anonymous #4.

    You’ve got it at least partly wrong. I found out about boingboing after becoming a fan of Cory’s writing. I remember the first story I read of his – 0wnz0red, and was hooked. The story was published on Salon and linked to from Slashdot which is how I found out about it. It was years (and many stories) later before I started reading boingboing (and that came as a flow-on from following Cory’s work).

    So, while, yes, boingboing plays a part in helping to promote Cory’s work, I’m sure there are also plenty of fans who found out about his writing through other sources/had it recommended by friends etc. The other thing to remember is that when Cory first started releasing his stuff for free, boingboing probably didn’t have any where near the readership it does today.

    Basically, if you can write a good story, people will recommend it and you don’t need to edit one of the most visited blogs on the Internet to help get the word out (although that may help). They key part is “write a good story”. Fail at that, and you’re lost.

  10. Yeah, I found about about bOINGbOING after I’d already read several Doctorow stories, which I’d found while browsing among the public-domain works on

    That is to say, I was specifically looking for FREE STUFF, and Cory was placing himself in that category (thanks!).

  11. Re Badger:

    The post is about the fact that – when he was a nobody, they said it was a publicity stunt that no established author could do.

    Now that he’s an established author, it only works for him because people know who he is, so they are willing to take a free pass because they know his name.

    It is the very definition of special pleading. His was a ‘special case’ in two mutually exclusive situations. In this case, they attempted to dismiss the success of a valid promotional method as something without broad application – something that would ‘only’ work in narrow band, even when it is self-evident that the method has at least some merit for authors at many, if not all phases of their career.

  12. Cory,

    I wonder if you can explain something that has always confused me. Your website is Isn’t there some zine entirely unrelated to you called Craphound? And if so, why would you use that name? It’s confusing. Anyway, any explanation would be greatly appreciated. And if there’s some piece of this that I’m missing, I apologize.

  13. @#3

    It’s possible that the literature itself will be free and supplemented via some other source. Perhaps an additional portion of the story is published in book format (or some other medium). You get the main piece free but, if you really like the story then you get the “add-on” that expands the story. In that case the author gives most of it away and make some money on the portion of readers that are avid fans. It may not make the writer rich but, they may make enough to put food on the table.

    A problem I see with writers or any content creators for that mater is that they don’t really understand how the web works. Not only do they reject it as only a conduit for piracy they refuse to learn how to work within its confines. Some authors, Cory being one of them has adapted to this new model and has had some success at it. As time goes by more and more authors will adopt the web as the preferred medium to get their content out. As for the rest, what will they do when we stop buying mass market books?

  14. @11 anonymous
    But it isn’t “mutually exclusive” at all. The point is that it works if you are known but not *well* known.

  15. All books should be free. In fact, I am so convinced of this that I am going to take it further by registering ‘’

    I am tired of these writers who put in perhaps 400 – 500 man hours writing a novel and then expect millions of man hours to donated to them in the service of building their imaginary worlds many time over. I am going to insist on being paid to use my mental cpu cycles to generate these imagined virtual worlds that are only outlined by these freeloading novel writers.

    Every reader should be paid for building the author’s world. No more freebies. Only write what you want to pay me to flesh out for you.

  16. @badger,

    Your ‘special pleading’ is the most special of all — how narrow is the space between unknown and famous?

    Quite narrow I suspect, and getting narrower, as more people near both ends try it.

    Good creative work is plentiful to the point where people can spend every waking moment of their lives consuming it, and yet have much unheard, unwatched, unplayed.

    The reality is that of the subjectively good stuff available to anyone, they can have their needs met with entirely free stuff. (either post-copyright or free-release) This is what is meant by the phrase “attention economy”

    So when it comes to media, the economy is already post-scarcity. As wonderful as I’m sure your work is, the question is how do you deal with that?

  17. I think what is often overlooked in this debate is that print and electronic books are NOT complete functional equivalents, are not used in exactly the same modes, and that eBooks don’t compete with print books so much as add value to them by expanding a work’s spectrum of use. This is because print and eBook both are trade-offs with different ergonomic conveniences and inconveniences in different settings/situations. An eBook therefore potentially adds more sales rather than stealing them away because few people are actually using a free eBook as an alternative to print and those few that are probably wouldn’t buy the book in the first place. So whether you included a free eBook on a CD inside the cover of a print book (which might fly with larger former books but is sort of clunky with a novel) or offer it free for download on-line, it’s more or less the same thing in terms of the value added to the book and the impact on sales. Consider, how would this argument go if one were to give away free audiobook MP3s? How is that the same or different from a document file?

    We’re still a ways off from parity between the print and eBook. It’s still not the most practical medium for casual reading -which is why I argue that the real and overlooked impact of this technology is NOT in stuff you buy at the local bookstore, (if you still have a local bookstore…) it’s on the college campuses where this tech has powerful functional and economic impact -and right now that’s a freakin’ global battleground few people talk about!

    I was also intrigued by Cory’s question “Will people donate to support a free book? How much? Will they donate more to support an audiobook or a print edition?”

    This is a question I’ve been pondering a great deal lately because I’ve been in the process of developing a book for a space advocacy group and have had a lot of trouble cultivating interest and support for it out of that group’s membership. The project on this is an open futurist project I’ve been working on at this wiki site for a few years; ( and my objective is to ultimately create the modern-day equivalent of the legendary Colliers series “Will Man Conquer Space?” (now inspiration for the Man Conquers Space mockumentary) That series was the first and last time we ever saw an entire space development vision (Wernher von Braun’s vision) completely illustrated from the first communications satellites to the first outpost on Mars. What I’m working on is similar, presenting a whole scheme of space development from little marine communities engaged in marine launched rocketry to the first transhuman settlement of Proxima Centauri and -like Disney’s defunct Horizons exhibit- focusing on the human lifestyles likely to emerge along the way. And, of course, I’m hoping for the same sort of cultural impact. A key challenge for this project is that it would be predominately visual (like an architectural or industrial design book with a storyline), with a minimum of text, partly because of my pedantic writing style, partly to make multiple translations easy, and partly because text doesn’t seem to be adequate anymore for this subject area. Ideally, production would be on-demand in print with a digital version free. Such extensive illustration has a very large up-front expense.

    But it seems getting support for this project is like pulling teeth, partly because it’s hard to get people to read the work in progress but largely for reasons I just don’t quite grasp. It seems as if it now requires some Tony Robbins sort of NLP hoodoo to get people motivated toward concerted interest in anything.

  18. A friend lent me a book to read. It was “The Bridge of Birds” by Barry Hughert. I can’t say enough good things about it. It is a fantasy based on the Chinese story telling tradition in which each chapter is a story within an overall story. Characters accumulate to provide complications in later chapters. Hughert did a marvelous job. What follows is a cut and paste from Wikipedia’s page on the author. It shows you how publishers treat a first class writer like Hughert:
    Demise of the Master Li and Number Ten Ox series

    Hughart has blamed the end of the series on unsympathetic and incompetent publishers. The style of his books made them difficult to classify and he felt his market was restricted by the decision to sell only to SF/fantasy outlets. As an example of publisher incompetence, Hughart notes that his publishers did not notify him of the awards given Bridge of Birds. He also points out that The Story of the Stone was published three months ahead of schedule, so that no purchasable copies were available by the time the scheduled reviews finally appeared; finally, the paperback edition of Eight Skilled Gentlemen was published simultaneously with the hardback edition resulting in few sales of the latter. When his publishers then refused to publish hardback editions of any future books, Hughart stated that he found it impossible to afford to continue writing novels, which brought the series to an end.[7]

  19. @Jonathan Badger #14

    Cory’s point, as I understand it, is that people used to say ‘free samples’ only work for unknown authors. Now they say ‘free samples’ only work for well-known authors.

    But it isn’t "mutually exclusive" at all. The point is that it works if you are known but not *well* known.

    You seem to be saying ‘free samples’ only work for intermediate, moderately well-known authors.

    This seems like an absurd claim to make, just adding one more variation of the Special Pleading.

  20. That Stephen King example seems like a really bad one. I’d be ecstatic if I could earn ‘hundreds of thousands of dollars’ for an unfinished work.

  21. “And now, I’d like to return Charles’s volley, though he’ll never get to see it, because, you know, it’s his magazine, and he hired me to do this, and when your publisher hands you a straight line like that, you’d be nuts to pass it on.”

    Presumably, Cory meant “pass on it”, such as used in the context of “take a pass on it”, i.e., not taking up the opportunity to expand on something when given an opening.

  22. It’s hardly a dirty rhetorical trick in this case. Given that Cory points out that the two different stances were taken by two entirely different sets of critics.

    Unless of course you consider the set of everyone who disagrees with you to be a single individual for the purpose of pointing out their contradictory behavior. Now that’s a dirty rhetorical trick!

  23. If your friend says he can’t lend you a book because it’s on his
    Swindle, you might ask him to reconsider whether to use a product that
    stops its customers from acting like proper friends.

    I don’t think we should use the same word for the files Cory Doctorow
    shares and the e-books made for the iGroan and the Swindle. It’s like
    using the one word for both food and poison. E-books are a plan to
    take away readers’ freedom. We should have another name for the
    unencrypted files that don’t do so.

    “Free-books” would not fit; they allow sharing but they aren’t
    necessarily free. How about

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