Is Cory Doctorow Bad for E-Books?

04.09.07 | 5 Comments

I have noticed renewed buzz in the writing and ebook community lately. For instance, The Digital Book 2007 conference–which I almost signed up for–is in New York only a couple days from now. Meanwhile, Charlie Stross’s editorial on why ebooks are failing to catch on touched off a firestorm with more than 200 replies. Over at Bloggasm, Simon Owens asks whether releasing your novel under Creative Commons will help boost your sales, and Galleycat takes notice, twice.

Finally, the podcast novel movement seems to be gaining steam. JC Hutchins, Scott Sigler, and Cory Doctorow are all taking advantage of streaming audio to grab listener attention, and at least in some cases focusing that advantage into print book sales. This is an interesting time to be an author.

At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if this new generation of alternate-format marketing is actually detrimental to e-books. From what I can tell, JC Hutchins is hoping to use his large audience to land a big print publisher for his 7th Son trilogy. (I think he may also be selling copies through Lulu in the meantime.) Scott Sigler uses the podiobook exposure to sell print books, and after the audio book has finished its first run he sells the entire audio set on iTunes (and elsewhere). Cory Doctorow? He too uses the podiobook to sell print books. He also gives away the text as PDF, HTML, plain text, Microsoft Reader, Mobipocket, Sony eReader, Ereader, Palm Doc, iPod notes, and Plucker PDB.

What does this tell me about his books? It tells me that when I buy his book from Amazon, I’m paying for the paper because the content has no value. I am afraid that Cory, and to a lesser extent JC, Scott, and a host of other authors using creative commons to promote their work, are training readers to place value only in wood pulp bound together with glue rather than a well-told story. Readers are being trained to expect audiobooks and e-books to be free, because only physical books are worth paying for. It isn’t like they are the first—Baen has been giving away e-book editions of their print titles for a number of years—but each author who uses this marketing technique influences numerous others to try the same. But what’s the big deal? So what if people value actual books over text or audio files?

The problem arises when a creative work is only available in one format. In short, what about books that aren’t available in print but only in e-book format? Are authors who try to sell e-books at a disadvantage because readers are being trained by Cory to expect e-books as free promotional material instead of something worth paying for? Will readers place enough value to pay for an audiobook or e-book when other authors treat those formats as second-rate citizens?

What’s the solution? At this stage, I’m not sure. I certainly won’t gainsay the success some authors have experienced using creative commons to market their work. But as pointed out on the Bloggasm piece, some of that success stems merely from the novelty of the approach. As more authors jump on the bandwagon, will they see diminishing returns? Is it too late to re-train readers to value content rather than format? What do you think?

Note: The fifth paragraph was edited slightly for clarity on 4/10 at 8:50 am.

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2007-04-10 05:28:14

[…] Flametoad seems to thinks so. He suggests that authors like Cory Doctorow, JC Hutchins and Scott Sigler are devaluing the audiobook and e-book formats, and buying the p-book is “paying for the paper because the content has no value” […]

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Comment by Dirty Unicorn
2007-04-11 10:45:29

[advocating devil mode]
Here’s the thing… if an object has no replication cost (beyond the initial production cost of the master copy) than is it fair? moral? ethical? to charge as though it did?

I know it always comes down to supply verse demand and what the consumer will pay, but honestly I have read a LOT of interesting arguments on both sides of the fence and I am pretty much divided.

Point in case: if modern technology eliminates or reduces some factor from oil production… lets say pipelines and iron barrel containment, then how would you feel if the oil companies continued to charge you the same rate which clearly includes those costs?

I won’t buy physical CDs anymore because I would rather buy the songs at .99 a pop… and if a “new iTunes” appears with songs for .49 or .25 or .10 you can bet I’ll take my purchases there as well.

No matter that I work in digital medium, it just will never *feel* to me worth as much (economically/monetarily) as a physical book, physical CD, etc. Of course I will always being willing to purchase a digital file first if the savings are deep enough.

On the flip side there are times when even I will splurge and put out much more money for something I need to feel in my hands or have in my collection (Savage Worlds, Runepunk, etc.).

Would I be upset if the industry shifted to PDF files not being worth more than pennies a piece? Would I be mad if people stole Flatlands or my other PDF files and distributed them for free? Hell yeah. But am I mad that I am being stolen from or am I mad that I am not making as much money as I would like?

Does Tom Hanks deserve $20 million for his next movie?

Should Pro athletes (even the crap ones) have 6-7 figure incomes.. and triple that with shoe commercial deals???

Intangebility =>

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Comment by Prest0
2007-04-12 10:42:29

I see where you’re coming from, but I think your oil production argument is flawed. A closer (but still flawed) analogy would be this:

What if gas stations gave you a free oil change just for dropping by? No strings. You can buy a cola something inside or not. But if you like the oil, then you can reward the gas station by buying their gasoline. If you could do that, would you still go to a quick lube place and pay to have your oil changed? If you did, would you be willing to pay as much as you used to?

In the above scenario, if enough gas stations started that practice it could change how much value consumers place in oil changes. Rather than being something worth paying for in their own right, they’re an expected fringe benefit, like soapy water and a squeegie for cleaning your windshield. Why go somewhere to pay for it when someone else is giving it away for free?

Comment by Prest0
2007-04-12 10:43:54

I heard $50 million being bandied about for Tom Hanks. I hope the movie is a flop. The book had a plot hole the size of a truck.

2007-04-23 16:30:35

[…] may remember that back on April 9 I wrote a short essay called Is Cory Doctorow Bad for E-books, which was about the growing trend of giving away e-books to fuel print-book sales. This essay […]

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