Technopeasant Class Wars (An E-book Follow-up)

04.23.07 | 21 Comments

You 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 garnered a few comments at Teleread, which was in turn picked up elsewhere. That was interesting, as I had the honor of author Scott Sigler likening me to “the old guard” gatekeepers who want to decide what other people can and can’t read. It was like someone had forgotten to tell me I’d gotten a promotion. I’ve become “The Man”!

Of course, my little essay was quickly overshadowed two days later by SFWA vice president Dr. Howard V. Hendrix. When I wrote it I suspected my essay calling out internet patron saint Cory Doctorow would be controversial to the “information just wants to be free” crowd, but Dr. Hendrix knows how to one up a fella. He wrote a rant on the SFWA Livejournal site in which he mirrored my position but likened people who give away their content to a union “scab” who “feathers his own nests and advances his own careers by undercutting the efforts of his fellow workers to gain better pay and working conditions for all.”

As you can imagine, that didn’t go over very well. It’s ironic that a professional writer, and someone who even served on the SFWA board, could miscommunicate that badly. Sadly, I think he and I had the same goal; namely, to get people thinking about the long term impact of e-books in the world of literature. Unfortunately, his message was drowned out by moral outrage and counter name-calling. In all fairness, he did later clarify his position, but I think the damage has largely been done. The best I hope is that “there’s no such thing as bad press” in that at least people are thinking about and talking about e-books.

Still, it is a deep shame that some people are reacting with such knee-jerk emotion. I’ve seen my message quoted out of context, and I learned second-hand that my name was dropped in the post-webscab firestorm on the SFWA LJ. It’s probably for the best that I can’t search LJ for that reference. Someone even took a line from Dr. Hendrix’s rant and designated today “International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day”. I guess it’s too much to ask that actual discourse arises from this, and not just a shallow imitation of discourse marked by masterbatory moral outrage.

I am a Libertarian and a marketing professional, so about the last thing I’m going to do is tell people how to market their books. (Which makes the idea of painting me “The Man” that much more hysterical.) My concern isn’t over the individual, but the impact on the embryonic e-book market. The choices we make today might literally affect generations to come. Over the weekend I’d mentally composed an essay clarifying my post, using a great analogy involving studios, movie theaters, and DVDs. But today as I was doing research I found that Dr. Hendrix summarized my own feelings much more succinctly.

“In the short term, free online posting of entire novels for promotional purposes may well strengthen the hand of those authors who gravitate to that promotional technique. My concern is that, in the long term, as more and more people become schooled to reading off the screen rather than from the printed page, free online whole-book posting may set a precedent of “why buy the cow, when you can get the milk for free?” which in the end will benefit conglomerates rather than authors as a class.”

More to the point, giving away your e-book is fine if you actually have a print edition with which to “upsell”. But the true Pixel-Stained Technopeasants whose work only exists in electronic format are pretty much screwed when trying to sell what other people are giving away for free. I am a technopeasant, and I don’t want the only means of compensation for my work yanked out from under me. In one recent conversation with a SF writer and editor, his response was basically “Meh. Some things [e-books] are just loss leaders and I don’t have a problem with that.”

What are we teaching readers about the value of e-books, and what happens when the text-messaging generation in grade school today becomes the target book-buying market ten years from now? Can we un-teach them that e-books aren’t worth paying for? Will books be forced to move to an advertising-based model like so much other electronic media?

I don’t hold out much hope that anyone will bother to actually read this with an open mind. It seems as if the lines have already been drawn. Either you believe that e-books have value or you believe they are loss leaders. I support the right for authors to choose how their works are distributed, but personally my e-books are worth buying. I hope the Technopeasants don’t run me out of business.

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Comment by kyle
2007-04-23 17:12:25

Scott Adams, the Dilbert author, has an interesting post on his blog that talks about this issue.

He gave away one of his books via download, thinking it might spur sales. It didn’t. But a lot of people downloaded his book, and he didn’t make a penny off of it. It didn’t increase his sales of the print version one darn bit. In fact, he compared it to another book where he didn’t do the e-book. One was a bestseller, the other isn’t.

Libertarian is fine and all, but if you’re a capitalist, you gotta play by the market’s rules. If you want to eat, that is.

The ebook might eventually become more mainstream. But the technology is going to have to evolve to where the ebook is as easy to operate as a real book. And smell funny after a few years on the shelf like a real book.

I’m not seeing that one happening.

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Comment by Prest0
2007-04-24 09:00:19

Sorry, not so. You’re confusing rights with likes. You believe strongly in upholding the Constitution, but that doesn’t mean you agree with what everyone says under the 1st amendment. Just because I support an author’s right to do what he wants with his work doesn’t mean I have to give up my own opinion or preferences. I’ll support and author’s right to distribute however he sees fit, but I don’t have to like how they do it.

Comment by kyle
2007-04-24 11:23:47

Actually, I’m not confusing the two. You’ve got the right to either play by the rules, or do something else. But if the market preferences aren’t for something else, don’t gripe about not making any money at it. The consumer has the right to buy whatever they feel the most comfortable with. You’ve not the right to dictate what the customer likes.

If an author wants to do an e-book: great. More power to him. Even more kudos if he can make money at it, as Scott Sigler apparently has done.

I in no way, shape, or form said you have to give up your own opinion or preferences. But until I can curl up with an e-book that I don’t have to plug into anything, turn its pages, and have it still work after it falls out of my bed when I fall asleep with it, I’m not interested. I think a good bit of the book-buying public agrees.

However, I do like the idea that authors are getting their stuff out there, and avoiding gatekeeper editors whose tastes might not reflect what would actually sell. I feel the same way about the music industry.

But music can be played on darn near anything. The kinesthetic qualities of a book aren’t going to be as pleasing on an Ipod.

The market will dictate e-book success or failure, eventually. I think the consumer will probably have to accept it, if paper costs become so high they can do nothing else. They won’t like it, though.

Comment by Prest0
2007-04-24 13:22:27

My first reply died, so let’s try this again. Actually, the more I read your post the more confused I get. Are we even talking about the same thing? You say that the consumer has the right to buy whatever they feel most comfortable with and that I don’t have the right to dictate what the customer likes. I think that goes without saying, and I’m pretty sure I never indicated otherwise. I’m writing about how I see authors are short-changing their work by treating one medium as a loss leader for another. Consumers will buy or they won’t. But of those who do consume e-books, if we (authors and publishers) set their expectation that e-books (or, using your example, music MP3s) should inherantly be free, then when technology and the instant-messaging generation catches up authors will still be stuck giving away their work because that’s where the bar was originally set.

Comment by Stephanie
2007-04-23 22:33:26

…and I learned second-hand that my name was dropped in the post-webscab firestorm on the SFWA LJ…

If you’re referring to my remark the other night, I meant that I’d seen you commenting in one of the threads, not that I’d seen others referring to you. Sorry I was unclear!

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Comment by Prest0
2007-04-24 09:00:56

Strange. I wasn’t even subscribed to the SFWA LJ until you mentioned it to me.

Comment by Stephanie
2007-04-24 11:16:24

Weird. One of Nicoll’s or Shetterly’s posts, perhaps? I’ve conflated them all into one “SFWA election clusterfsck” mental box.

Comment by Prest0
2007-04-24 11:23:33

I bantered on Tim Pratt’s LJ last week, but that’s about it.

Comment by Scott Sigler
2007-04-24 00:01:45

I have to admit that your stance confuses me. I can’t find your name on this blog, so I can’t look up the eBooks that you’re selling – if you’re selling them for standard paperback prices, my argument below has no merit.

You’re saying that the eBooks are a valid form of revenue for you – but why are you putting out eBooks rather than paper books? Because it sure sounds to me like you’re using the electronic media to provide fiction at a price below the market value of paper books.

Therefore, you are undercutting the print publishers, and the print authors that make their living selling paper. This seems to be okay in your book. You are allowed to provide a product at a lower price than the competition, with instant global distribution using a distribution network that you did not create and did not pay for. You haven’t spent decades building efficient printing press operations, a distribution chain, shipping, re-seller relationships, trade magazine marketing, or any other investment made by publishers both large and small. Yet you have ZERO problem undercutting this network, a network developed by investment, sweat, love and pain, a network that provides revenue for authors.

So why is it okay for you to undercut them, but not okay for me to undercut you? I’m using the same distribution network that you are, except my price is lower than yours. My price is zero. I make money by developing a large audience with free content, then selling print books to that audience. I also generate revenue from advertising on my podcast, which is the exact same content I give away in my eBooks.

So please answer this question – why are you selling eBooks as opposed to going through a traditional, existing publisher to sell print books? All the complaints you make against the people who give away eBooks seem to be the same complaints that print publishers could level against you.

And as for the Scott Adams book, I can’t speak to that example. What I can speak to, however, is the Doctorow’s “Eastern Standard Tribe” is in its sixth printing, and his free PDF of the same book is a key part of that. I just hit #7 on Amazon.com by selling ANCESTOR, a print book that I gave away as a podcast AND as an eBook. Maybe Scott Adams isn’t giving his free books away to the right audience, I don’t know – but the “give it away to build an audience” model doesn’t really apply to one of the top five cartoonists of all time.

The bottom line is that eBooks are here. They are a reality. Many people are giving them away for free – that is the marketplace. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle anymore than you can ask people to stop using cars so your buggy-whip business can flourish once again.

Stop complaining about the environment, and figure out how to profit from it.

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Comment by Prest0
2007-04-24 09:46:32

Howdy Scott. I appreciate your taking the time to stop here and respond. I purposefully keep my name off the blog because prospective employers like to Google their applicants. While I don’t have anything incriminating here, I’d just as soon keep my professional life and personal life separate. You can see the ebooks I publish at 12tomidnight.com. I have writing credit for a few, but far from all. If you don’t feel like visiting, I’ll save you the trouble by explaining that we publish in the hobby RPG market. It’s very niche, and the RPG publishing industry has deflated in the last few years. I’m sure some publishers would in fact blame e-books, but it actually has more to do with market glut, shrinkage of retail outlets, and distribution problems.

I’m not sure I can adequately answer your (probably hypothetical) question, but I’ll give it a college try. Maybe it’s not okay for 12 to Midnight to undercut print publishers. (Of course I could count p-book modern horror RPGs on one hand.) Maybe it’s just a cutthroat market and all is fair in publishing and war. But I embrace e-books and see them as a future viable (and profitable) form of publishing. I see a trend undercutting my vision of the future, and from my perspective that makes it wrong. From a print publisher perspective what I do may be wrong. Maybe “wrong” just means what’s wrong for our respective niches. But that doesn’t mean we both aren’t right, too.

The print publishing world has been changing ever since the internet, and rising paper costs, came along. The e-book market is still trying to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. In other words, the whole publishing system is in a state of transition right now. I’d just like to see e-books (one day) stand as a format on their own, instead of only having legitimacy when coupled with a print edition.

I find it pretty funny that both you and Rob in the comment below use the example of cars and buggies, but in totally opposite ways. I wrote the first and second essays (if you can call them that) to get people thinking and talking about e-books, and I’m glad that seems to be happening. I know I have an unpopular opinion. I respect both your work and your marketing strategy. I’m a marketing guy by day, so I appreciate what you’re doing on a professional level. I just don’t like what it could mean for e-books as a stand-alone market.

Comment by Scott Sigler
2007-04-24 10:44:33

The big factor here is that printing books and giving them away as lost leaders costs money. Publishing eBooks and giving them away does not. So when the eBook market “grows up,” you’re going to have people giving it away, and people selling it. Unless you believe and invest in DRM technology, the book you’re selling me could be the book I’m giving away to Rob, who won’t buy it from you, because he already got it for free. You can do the same thing with print books – but only one at a time. With eBooks, however, I can give away 1,000 copies with one click of a mouse. They self-replicate. There is no scarcity of product or physical property, they are infinite and without number.

Any business model that depends on eBooks needs to have alternate sources of revenue: advertising, donations, free updates, etc. If you’re looking to sell eBooks alone, even with DRM, it’s going to be a dead market, because other people will be giving them away. It’s like asking people to pay for network TV – why would they when it’s free? I know that’s what you’re saying, “let’s think about making it free before we plow ahead,” but regardless of our debate, it’s going to happen anyway. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does technology. Unless you propose some kind of legal control over giving away free content, free eBooks are the reality that will only increase.

I think the whole concept of eBooks as stand-alone is already dead. Move instead towards ad-supported content, auto-inserting ads that update each time a pdf is opened, free, automatic updates if they pay a small up-front fee, donations – there are ways to make money off of your content without trying to impose false marketplace controls. I gave my book away for free as a podcast, and found I made 3x more than what a typical first-time novelist gets for an advance from a large publisher. Imagine my surprise there!

Comment by Prest0
2007-04-24 13:50:32

I know that’s what you’re saying, “let’s think about making it free before we plow ahead,” but regardless of our debate, it’s going to happen anyway.

I suppose that’s the crux, isn’t it? The genie really is out of the bottle, and e-books will probably become something neither of us can yet predict. Between Microsoft, Adobe, and IDPF, the technology will continue to evolve and authors/publishers will have to struggle to keep up. I think you’re probably right about the concept of a simple file with text as an “e-book” to be a short-lived concept. We’re probably entering an e-book feature space race, and authors (or publishers) who don’t demonstrate technical sophestication will get left behind by those who do. Technical barriers will be just as effective at keeping some authors from self-publishing as editoral barriers are at keeping them from traditional distribution.

Comment by Joseph Harris
2007-04-24 05:40:56

I have had this argument at length on two lists, and agree with Prest0. But it is tied in tightly with copyright issues, and the effective ‘give-away’ being developed by Google.

While the literal ‘free download’ may work in the SF niche I have never seen any support for quoted figures; but sci-fi readers do tend to be very loyal and word voracious ;-).

One can only hope that it will parallel the development of the supermarket, where sugar was, for a number of years, the loss leader. Today supermarkets are almost the only place to shop for most of us in the US and UK [probably other countries too] and there isn’t a loss leader in sight ;-).

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Comment by Rob Preece
2007-04-24 07:48:49

Hi Preston,

As an eBook publisher, I think you raise some really important points here. Could eBooks be a case where what benefits a few may harm the many? It’s obvious to me that electronic media will become increasingly prevalent and people giving away eBooks to sell paper will increasingly be like people giving away cars to sell buggies. While I also wouldn’t argue that authors shouldn’t have the right to give away their property if they want to, I do suggest that they consider the impact both on others and even on their long term careers as fiction moves into the world of electrons.

One thing most every publisher and eBook retailer does is offer excerpts of electronic works which, I think, serves the same effect by letting readers have a feel for the book (and get hooked on it, we hope) before we actually ask them to spend money.

Whenever dramatic changes take place, it takes time for people to figure out how to do business. But none of the other models of paying for fiction that I’ve seen discussed (advertiser-support, product placement, generous mentors, public readings for fee, voluntary payments by happy post-reading customers, government subsidies) seem to offer much promise (actually, government subsidies would be fine if I got to choose who’d receive them). For now, at least, ‘selling’ books seems to be the best way to match reader’s tastes with author income.

Rob Preece
Publisher, http://www.BooksForABuck.com

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Comment by Prest0
2007-04-24 10:07:03

Thanks for putting in your $0.02, Rob. You’re preaching to the choir. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one up here singing (off-key) the message.

Comment by Scott Sigler
2007-04-24 10:47:30



At least in my case, advertiser-support works great. I make more with that than I would make as a first-time novelist. A lot more. And there’s nothing for me to “earn out,” the revenue keeps coming as long as I have listeners. And when I was taking donations, that also brought in a good chunk of change. Now neither source of revenue is enough to be a “full time writer,” but it’s vastly better than the ten years I spent trying to get into the traditional print book market, AND when I had an eBook for sale.

Comment by Rob Preece
2007-04-24 14:39:56

Interesting, Scott. Certainly the advertiser model has worked for television and radio (and to a large extent for magazines) for a long time. I think the model could also work for novels to a limited extent. Specifically, a few big authors (Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Tom Clancy) could sell advertising and make money. Which would, I think, further distort an already disturbing predominance of the best-sellers (and big publishers) and make it even tougher for new talent to break out.

For smaller publishers and authors, relying on Google Ads seems to me to be doomed to failure (although I do use Google Ads, as well as sell banner space when I get the chance). Still, I’m interested to hear that you’ve made a success out of it. I’ll certainly check you out and see if I can figure out how to emulate your example.

Rob Preece
Publisher, http://www.BooksForABuck.com

2007-04-24 20:00:26

[…] Presto the ebook author finds some common ground with Howard Hendrix, SFWA’s Vice President in charge of offensive ranting. […]

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2007-04-26 15:58:08

[…] Having shared my opinion (and stirred up trouble) on the whole technopeasant thing, I’m still left with all the same tasks I was faced with before. If you haven’t read that post, or only the post and not the comments, I encourage you to check it out. As Scott Sigler said, the genie is out of the bottle and my bitching isn’t going to change that. However, I wanted people to at least think before giving their work for free. It’s one thing to give away your work because you’ve carefully considered the benefits and detriments, and incorporated it as part of a well considered, long-term marketing plan. It’s another thing to give away your work because the cool sheep say it’s technopeasant day and thus it’s what all the cool members of the flock are doing this year. I still think it’s a bad precedent for the e-book market as a whole, but I’ll try to stay posistive and hope that something better (in terms of a model that compensates authors for their work) emerges from the ashes. […]

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Comment by Earl Newton
2007-04-27 11:51:19

I think something that hasn’t been raised here, something that should be raised, is how much this debate quietly centers on how we look at the audience as a whole.

Someone once said, (paraphrasing) “Professions are a conspiracy against the laymen.” This seems to be the same sort of attitude: instead of serving the audience, going with the flow of the marketplace and providing them with material they want, it seems people are digging in their heels and saying, “No, we don’t want to do it like that, we want them to pay for it on our terms!”

We can’t afford to sit back and throw material into the void and hope people pay for it anymore, fellows. The old ideas of celebrity – geniuses in ivory towers – are falling away, bit by bit. The future, as I see it, depends on cultivating an audience: of being real and honest, making a genuine connection, and being faithful to it.

Scott has found enormous success, in my point of view, not just because of the quality of his work, but because of his willingness to speak to his audience as his equals. He doesn’t wrap himself in the spotlight of success, he shares it with his listeners. They become part of his success, and rightfully so, feel personally invested in what he does.

In short, we cannot afford to treat our audiences like demographics. The Internet is not just a media network: it’s the biggest small town in the world. It’s time we start getting to know our neighbors.

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2007-06-04 14:31:17

[…] recent hoopla notwithstanding, it seems that the jury is still out. It would be nice to get additional data from different types […]

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