Friday, December 02, 2011

with a lot of help - is free culture proving to be economically unsustainable?

Cory Doctorow's much-publicized experiment in self-publishing and free digital distribution netted the bestselling science fiction author just a little over $17,000 in the nine months since the launch of his short story collection With a Little Help.

Now, $17,000 is an amount of money at which no self-respecting author should turn up her nose, but does Doctorow's experiment suggest self-publishing and free digital download is as promising an avenue for authors as so much of the recent hype suggests. I'm really not sure.

Let's review:

Looking at his website, Doctorow has at least 13 books to his name, with more on the way. He's won numerous awards, and has been a New York Times bestseller in the traditional publishing world. Here's a short bit of the bio for him from a new book called The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow:
"Cory Doctorow burst on the SF scene in 2000 like a rocket, inspiring awe in readers (and envy in other writers) with his bestselling novels and stories, which he insisted on giving away via Creative Commons. Meanwhile, as coeditor of the wildly popular Boing Boing, he became the radical new voice of the Web, boldly arguing for internet freedom from corporate control."
Anybody who has ever read a Doctorow posting on Boing Boing (considered the most popular blog on the web) is familiar with his relentless self-promotion of both his writing and speaking engagements. Doctorow travels the world as a paid lecturer, spreading the gospel of free culture and digital anti-corporatism. His speaking fee for a single event is reportedly as high as $25,000, and he draws crowds. I once went to see him speak at a library branch in Toronto on a cold, rainy night, and I literally could not get in the door because of all the fans who had come out.

If that's not enough to exhaust you, Doctorow also writes a regular column for Britain's The Guardian newspaper, and lists The New York Times, Publishers Weekly and Wired as other regular writing venues. The self-publishing experiment referred to above is, in fact, being performed for his column in Publishers Weekly.

In short, Doctorow has built himself a career, a network of professional connections, and a fan-base any professional writer would envy.

With a Little Help was launched as a free e-book, free audio-book, Print on Demand trade book ($16 price point), and premium hard cover edition ($250 price point). Doctorow created a donations channel toward the free downloads, and presented fans with the opportunity to have a new story written on commission for $10,000 (he described this offer as "underpriced"). Recent PW columns detailing the experiment document just how much help the author turned self-publisher has received from his traditional publisher, bookstore owners, librarians and his editor at Publishers Weekly. So, here's my question...

Shouldn't this book have made more?

Am I the only person who thinks Doctorow should be raking in significantly more that $17,000 from With a Little Help?

I believe in building and maintaining as diverse an eco-system as possible for writing and publishing. I may have disagreed publicly with Doctorow many times (over his positions and tactics in the copyright reform debate), but I would dearly love for him to have made 10 times what he has from this book because that would mean he'd proven there's a viable new market strategy for the legions of other professional writers trying to make their way in the world.

With Doctorow's overflowing rooms full of devoted fans all over the world, his endless sources of free promotion, his network of expertise and assistance, if he can't make a serious go of self-publishing, who can?

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Unknown said...

I would say, maybe? But I would also say, does it need to? In this day and age things tend to land on survivable more than breakout success. We're playing with an overly crowded market, in all fields, so carving out a niche and sustaining off that becomes more important than trying to constantly aim for that widespread success.

Greed should no longer be good.

John said...

Thanks for your comment, Asterisk-CGY,

I'm not sure I understand the link between sustainability and greed. Legitimate sales to legitimately interested customers don't strike me as greedy.

If you're saying that focused marketing to a niche might sustain a decent career through self-publishing and free downloading, I just don't think the numbers are there right now (which makes me wonder, if not now, when?).

Traditional publishers have always been good (and are getting even better) at focused marketing to a niche, but they also benefit from diversity of product and scale.

As well, I would note that while many traditional publishers have experimented with limited (and unlimited) free downloads none have adopted Doctorow's always-free doctrine for digital. And I don't think the numbers shown here will convince any to do so.

My feeling is that Doctorow did a hell of a lot more work on one product than he has done for others, to net less.

Just doesn't look sustainable as a model.

Faza (TCM) said...

A bit of back-of-the-envelope slicing and dicing of these numbers might provide some much needed sales context. Consider the following sales levels that could have generated the total revenue:

1. 1000 trade books and 4 hardcovers
2. 500 trade books and 36 hardcovers
3. 68 hardcovers

The first scenario closely resembles Kevin Kelly's 1000 True Fans model - with the key difference being that Doctorow's 1000 True Fans generate revenue an order of magnitude lower than Kelly postulated (his figure being $100,000).

The third one I think is most interesting, since it shows that the entire revenue could be produced by collectors among Doctorow's fans (and not that many of them either). It would represent "freemium" in its most pure form - where the only revenue you can expect is from luxury sales for the "snobbish", shall we say.

Overall, however, one thing stands out here: even in the most generous scenario (1), the number of sales is hardly impressive. I don't know how many fans Doctorow has, but I don't think we're even talking percentages here - more like fractions of one per cent.

I'd love to see some data that would allow us to evaluate sales conversion rates, because that would allow us to make guesses about how sensible Doctorow's model is for a fanbase of a given size. Or rather - me being cynical and all - how absolutely looney it is (unless you've got all the other income streams Doctorow has).

Marry Old Roe said...

John, the book is a compilation of short stories which, with only a single exception, have all been previously published. NYT best selling material this is not.

According to Doctorow: "The net income now stands at $17,146.46—better than I've earned from my other two short story collections combined. However, this one's been a lot more work!"

Do you really think he would have made more money than this by going though a publisher? Doesn't sound like it. Though perhaps he will learn a lot here and next time it wont be so much work.

Despite the antagonism between the two of you, I would have thought you'd be rooting for him here. If he could show that publishers aren't necessary, then that would give authors such as your self more viable options for publishing, AND a bigger stick to wield when negotiating with publishers.

John said...

Thanks for the detailed comment, Faza (TCM),

The sales figures would have to be higher than you've calculated, because the $17,000 is net income. Doctorow is assuming all responsibility for expenses as well.

That said, a net of $17,000 is still a hard sell as close-to-yearly income for someone jumping with both feet into the free-digital, self-pub world. In fact, it is probably a little bit less than the average Canadian freelance writer makes in a year through traditional publishing (based on a 2006 PWAC survey).

P.S. Just a reminder to other potential commenters... please make an effort to present a contextualized identity, and keep comments on point and reasonable. I won't accept anonymous comments or pseudonymous ones that offer nothing to the discussion.

John said...

Marry Old Roe,

I think I'm pretty clear within the posting about my wish for success from all business models, but certainly not out of some naive belief that publishers are not necessary.

I think the numbers suggest that yes, indeed, Doctorow would have benefited in this project from partnering with an established publisher... and from not giving his work away for free. That is my personal conclusion.

I leave it to others to form their own.

Marry Old Roe said...

Hi John. I'm not sure what a "contextualized identity" is, nor what difference any name provided makes since there is no way to validate any handle a person uses. That said, please let me know if the handle I am using does not meet your standards. It is one I've used often and it has personal meaning to me, but I can change it if that makes you feel better.

"Doctorow would have benefited in this project from partnering with an established publisher... and from not giving his work away for free. "

Well, he did indeed use a publisher with his last book to hit the best selling list (Little Brother), so you may be right there, though I don't think your post gets anywhere near proving this point.

He also has been giving that same book away right from the start, which sort of contradicts your second statement, unless you are arguing that he would have been higher up on the best seller list had he not given his work away.

Thorne said...

He uses a top ranked blog to subsidize many of his costs and income. Not a sustainable model. I have never understood his legitimacy as a voice in how artists should approach production and distro of their work beyond the fact that consumers want free stuff and he's willing to pander to that idea. Plus most artists prefer to focus on making art instead of doing that sidelined to a job as a kind of blogging guru. I'm more interested in what dynamic creators like Jessica Mae Stover who are working toward sustainable independent models for writers and filmmakers have to say.

John said...


Thanks for your comment. I agree. I think this self-pub, free-distro experiment has helped Doctorow book more speaking gigs and write more columns for pay, but what of the artists who want to make art excusively and/or have other responsibilities in their lives that keep them from the road. For them, this is not looking like a sustainable model.

I'm thinking now of the great indie folkie ani difranco who was all about the touring and the handselling for a while, but then had a kid and wanted to stay home and live off record sales instead. No such luck. I wrote about her dilemma here:

John said...

Marry Old Roe,

I would have thought "contextualized identity" was self explanatory. An identity that makes sense within the context of the discussion. I don't really care who you are or what handle you use, as long as I sense good faith and a reason to be here. Of course, I'd prefer if people identified themselves, because that's honest, but I accept that there are good reasons to use pseudonyms.

I had a bunch of fellows who spent years hanging out in my comment section offering next to nothing of value in terms of conversation. I've since asked them to leave and I don't publish their comments anymore. I can't imagine any of them would be pathetic enough to don a pseudonym and try to sneak back in here, but anything is possible on the Internet and some folks just have nothing better to do with their time.

That's the reason for my contextualized identity request. I wish it was unnecessary, but like with a lot of things online, it's the few really big jerks who ruin it for everyone.

As to your latest points, I'm not sure what they have to do with my posting. What Doctorow does with his other books is irrelevant. His stated intention with this experiment was to incur all costs and go it alone. If anything, this experiment shows that the traditional work of his publisher is what really helped Little Brother, and not the free distro, which does really seem to hold down sales.