The Merits of Not Pissing in the Wind

October 21, 2010

I’ve been spending some time lately (a lot of time) looking for web sites that might be willing to help promote my book, “Chasing the Runner’s High”.  Today I came across the site for Ben Tanzier’s new book, “99 Problems“. The book consists of a series of essays that combine the details of Ben’s daily run with whatever new insights the run might have jogged loose (blame me for that one, not Ben).

99 Problems coverBen’s eBook, like mine, is available at whatever price the purchaser chooses to pay, including zero.  (Unlike Ben, I also have a paper version, which is for sale at a fixed cost.)  We’re both looking for whatever help we can find to publicize our books, so we happily exchanged links to our book sites and mentioned each other in blog posts (like this one :-).

I posted a link to Ben’s book on Facebook, and that sparked a discussion of the merits of the “choose your own price” plan.

I was asked whether the plan was working for me.  In one sense it’s hard to tell, since I’ll never know what my sales would be if I tried to sell the eBook for a fixed price.  To know for sure, I’d have to run multiple simultaneous sales, offering a number of fixed prices along with the “choose your own” option to carefully managed groups. It’s not a do-able experiment, at least for me.

On the other hand, allowing readers to name their own price is already working for me.  I don’t have to try and win a fight against eBook piracy that’s already lost.

I look at it this way: there are essentially two possibilities, whether I like them or not. Either no one really cares about my book, in which case there are no potential sales for me to lose, or lots of people want to read my book, and the digital version gets pirated – whether or not it’s originally encumbered with copy-protection (aka Digital Rights Management, or DRM).

I chose to encourage people to find a reason to buy the book, rather than ignore the book or pirate it.  I believe that if you can pay what you think a book is worth, you’re more likely to buy. A sale for a little money is better than no sale at all.

eBooks should be significantly cheaper than paper books.  The production cost for each copy, once the book is finalized, is near zero. But just because a copy cost very little to produce, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth anything. If someone spends the time to read a book, they must think the book has some value.

If the book is read by thousands of people who got their copy from a friend, that’s a win. I’m better off than if they never read it.  Books have a long history of being shared freely, between friends and through libraries. I hope our society continues to honor that history, and I’m happy to do my part.

Some of the people who read the eBook for free will end up buying paper copies, buying copies for their local libraries, or visiting my site to pay what they think the eBook was worth.  I believe that enough people will be fair.  The ones who won’t be fair probably aren’t going to pay no matter how I package the book.

The Facebook discussion took a sharp left turn, veering off to a discussion of whether software piracy was right or wrong, and whether aggressive DRM that causes problems for legitimate customers is a good idea.  I’m not terribly interested in that.  To me, a discussion of what is is a lot more productive than a discussion of what “should be”.  The fact is, there is no DRM that is effective against a determined pirate, and if your product is valuable enough, there will be determined pirates.

We’re in a time of rapid change.  The best model for selling digital products is still evolving.  We can let it happen to us, or we can try things and see what works.  I certainly don’t claim to know any answers.  My opinion is that trying to limit the options of your customers with DRM and proprietary formats is not the way to go.

The only way this turns into a disaster is if the hordes descend on my site, order my book, and all decide to pay more than zero but less than Google charges me to process each non-zero order.  If I avoid that, I should still be able to keep food on the table (mostly because my wife has a good job :-).

Oh, one last thing.  Buy my book.  And Ben’s.

(Some of you will note that a lot of this echoes what Cory Doctorow has written on the topic.  You’d be right.  So buy his books too.)


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