Giving Away Digital Books for Free

May 30, 2008 by Thad McIlroy

Credit where credit is due: I was first informed of this fascinating tale about the future of writing and book publishing from David Pogue’s always fun, provocative and illuminating weekly column in The New York Times. His May 22nd column provided his take on whether he should provide free downloads of his (many) books.

After a couple of bad experiences he’s now firmly against it, while admitting that “I realize that it puts me, rather awkwardly, on the same side of the piracy issue as the record companies and movie companies, who are suing teenagers for downloading songs, and of whom I’ve made endless fun.”

But a far more intriguing story is referenced in Pogue’s column: the story of author Steven Poole, who took a successful book, “Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames,” and posted it for download on his blog. The book was first published in 2000, to favorable reviews, and, according to Poole, continues to sell well. But last November, as a simple experiment, he offered Trigger Happy as a free download, under a Creatives Commons license, which meant, if not in legal terms, but in technical reality, “no strings attached.” He asked only that “if you like the book, you can leave a tip via PayPal,” and provided a link for PayPal donations. The total was a vanishingly minuscule fraction of what I earned from the book’s traditional publication.”

The results were, to say the least, disappointing from a financial perspective. As Poole reported in an April 2008 blog entry, “the proportion of [31,697] people who left a tip after downloading Trigger Happy was 1 in 1,750, or 0.057%” and as he comments later in the responses to his entry, “the average donation was a (very reasonable) couple of bucks. What I found most important here are the nearly 230 comments found in both the original blog entry offering the book, and in its follow-up. A few of the comments are of course inane, but the sum of the comments (with a generous series of responses from Poole) amounts to the most fascinating discussion I’ve yet encountered on how writing and publishing are faring in the ongoing struggle to find an effective new business model that will encourage book-length publications (rather than articles and blogs) to flourish in the age of the Internet.

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