Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Freedom and Free Stuff

Today, I'm going to draw a connection between two interesting, but at first glance very different, studies.

The first suggests that books which are 'protected' by copyright seem to have a shorter shelf-life than those which end up ex-copyright or public domain. This runs counter to one popular argument for copyright, which claims that allowing publishers to hold copyrights for longer gives them a reason to keep them in print (i.e. to continue exploiting the copyright). It's easy to see why this argument might be wrong - publishers simply hold more copyrights than they can handle, and many older works are unlikely to justify what they'd cost a big corporation to keep in print.

The second suggests that promotions based on giving away ebooks for free can help print sales. It comes with a few big caveats, like being quite a small study and, crucially, being three years old now (it's plausible that reader attitudes to free books could be starting to shift in response to the deluge of rushed self-published material, though I'm wary of claiming that they actually have - more studies are definitely needed).

The link I want to make is that both of these studies seem to support a more liberal attitude to monetising your writing. It's not that all content should be free and public domain (though maybe in an ideal world where we didn't need money to live...). It's just that fighting to 'control' or 'protect' content against 'predators' may well ultimately be financially counterproductive.

And really, this should be obvious. Compare the number of readers out there with the number of people you think might be running piracy businesses specialising in books. Books have never been a hugely lucrative industry, and certainly aren't these days. DVD and video game piracy are everywhere - around these parts, you'll occasionally be pestered in a pub by someone trying to sell dodgy DVD rips - but book piracy?

It's certainly out there, as Scott Turow found out, but, as Techdirt found out, it seems to be a supply-side-only business. People may well be sticking huge file dumps of pirated ebooks up on the web, but that's probably not where people who actually want to read a book are getting their books from (and yes, this is one anecdote, but here's another one about the effects of piracy if you're going to make a fuss).

And honestly, we want readers to borrow and share books, generally speaking. It's the most effective way to reach new readers. By contrast, damaging incidents of piracy - incidents where we actually lose money, or have our reputations besmirched by shoddy copies - are low-probability events. The possibility of them is an easy one to get upset about, but that's at least in part due to the fact that we greatly overestimate how possible they are.

The thing we as authors don't worry enough about is languishing in obscurity forever. We've all got that little voice at the back of our heads which pops up periodically to reassure us of our vast genius and inevitable Rowlingesque success. We have to believe that the graveyard of total obscurity is an impossible fate because otherwise we give up - but it's the graveyard we need to worry about.

And the way out of the graveyard is to get people to try your work. If you keep raising the entry barriers to doing so - with DRM, or high prices, or other behaviours grounded in the fear of piracy - then you make it harder and harder to get people to take a look. Your work should be able to convince people to support you on its own merits - if they like it enough, even if they got it for free, the second study suggests that they'll contribute to you financially, whether it's by buying a copy for themselves or for someone else, or by recommending and/or reviewing it. If your work can't convince people to shell out, the problem is far more likely to be one of marketing or quality than of piracy.

Relax. Don't fight for control of your work. Let it stand on its own merits.

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