Cory Doctorow has some interesting things to say about the Amazon Kindle in The Guardian. Doctorow doesn’t like it much, as it doesn’t conform to his view of the Internet, which includes the ability to move files around without restriction.
What Doctorow doesn’t say, however, is that if the Kindle or its ilk (meaning useful ebook devices) becomes successful, Doctorow is going to have to come up with a new marketing trick.
Some background is in order. As a founding contributor of Boing Boing, frequent online poster, and established author of science fiction, Doctorow is something of an Internet celebrity. He is also a frequent commentator on that all-absorbing subject, How the Web is Intended to Work. And one way it works, he says, using his own fiction-writing as an example, is as a promotional medium for hardcopy books. Doctorow was among the first to experiment putting the entire text of a book online for people to sample, with the aim of then having that sampling drive the sale of hardcopy. It works for him; his sales are up. And, I should add, for every single example of similar online product sampling I have been able to study, it has worked as well. Free text on the Internet sells hardcopy books. There may be exceptions to this among reference titles (e.g., cookbooks, dictionaries), where viewing a short entry online may sate a reader, but generally, Doctorow is onto something, and he has personally profited from it.
Two important limitations to this marketing tactic, however. Since few current book-length works are available online at no cost, Doctorow’s free books are something of a novelty. If everyone took Doctorow’s advice and made the full texts of books available for free online, however, it would require greater and greater effort to call attention to individual titles: free online texts may drive hardcopy sales, but you have to find the online texts first. Thus if everyone followed Doctorow’s lead, few or none would prosper. Doctorow might have to go back to trying to get an appearance on Oprah.
More fundamentally, however, the great gamble that Doctorow is making is that the reading of a digital text will always be inferior to the reading of hardcopy. Print is better than digital formats for most people, especially those who read what have come to be called “long-form works,” which is supposed to call to mind something that looks like and is structured like a novel, meaning 200-1,000 pages long and organized more or less linearly. Sample a longish book online, sure, but read it all the way through? Not for most of us. Thus Doctorow’s business model: post texts in a “disergonomic” manner online and invite readers to get the better format through Amazon or your local bookstore.
Kindle and the Sony reader and some other devices, not to mention the many on their way, are making a different bargain, however: they propose that reading a digital text could be as satisfying as reading hardcopy; and on top of that, you get all the bells and whistles (search, bookmarking, etc.) that are peculiar to digital forms. Now we post the full text of a book online for free. Do we read it through a browser? Probably not. Instead we download it to our ebook device, where the text is displayed in a highly satisfying manner.
Thus, as ebooks get better (and Kindle is very good, if not what many observers were hoping for) the opportunity to use online texts to market hardcopy versions of the same books disappears. Doctorow needs a new marketing plan; he is battling with the giant behemoth of Amazon, IT innovator and marketer extraordinaire.
There is an intriguing implication here. Free text (also called Open Access content) is becoming more plentiful for a number of reasons, and one of them is the canny ability of marketers (Doctorow included) to begin to use OA as a marketing tool for other formats or services. Widespread use of ebooks may thus put downward pressure on the growth of OA texts, as the open content may come to be viewed as cannibalizing sales rather than promoting them.
Doctorow may or may not be aware that if many or most writers and publishers followed his lead, he might have to find another way to earn a living. It is a curious position to be in: To have the distinction of being a leader, but having a personal interest in having no one follow.
But I, at any rate, wish to follow, at least part of the distance. The noise Doctorow has made about himself and the virtues of free online texts has made me want to read one of his science fiction novels. So I am now browsing the used bookstores near my home. Buying a used copy is an article of faith, as it would be inappropriate for any money to find its way back to the author or publisher. Free means free. Cory Doctorow taught me this.