// Internet Duct Tape

Cory Doctorow on Building an Audience

Posted in Building a Community, Digital Culture, Links, Technology by engtech on December 05, 2006

Cory Doctorow is a prolific author and runs the most popular blog on the planet: BoingBoing. He’s also been challenging the publishing industry traditions with his writing. I still haven’t read any of his books, but I should. Forbes as an interview with him where he talks about giving the milk away for free, but still getting people to buy the cow. (via Gaping Void)

I’m a believer that Digital Rights Management (copyright protection) is horribly flawed. By trying control every aspect of the consumer experience, content publishers are shooting themselves in the foot. Watching a copied DVD is a better experience because you can remove the “forced to watch” trailers at the beginning. Theatre goers are confronted with a “copying is stealing” message even though they’re the only customers who are guaranteed to have paid for the experience.

Movie theatre advertisement: Copying is stealing!
Movie theatre patron: I shelled out $10 bones so that you can call me a thief?

Digital music/video downloads are even worse. Even if you already own the record/CD/DVD/VHS you have to pay for a digital copy that can only be played with approved software (iTunes) and devices (iPods). Want to play your legitimate iTunes music with your Zune or Xbox 360? Tough luck. Oh, and you’ll have to buy all your movies again once we finally standardize to HD-DVD or Blueray.

I am a strong supporter of the local library. There are numerous cases where I’ve become a fan and a customer of an author because I can “try” an author without having to walk into a book store and invest money. With digital content, a friend can easily give me a copy of an album, a comic book series, a movie, or an entire run of a TV series. If I like it, they’ve now increased their fan base by one. More than one actually, as I’m the kind of person who will evangelize a product.

As a content producer, obscurity is more likely to affect your bottom line than piracy.

From the Forbes article:

I’ve been giving away my books ever since my first novel came out, and boy has it ever made me a bunch of money.

When my first novel […] was published by Tor Books in January 2003, I also put the entire electronic text of the novel on the Internet [… and] encouraged my readers to copy it far and wide. Within a day, there were 30,000 downloads from my site (and those downloaders were in turn free to make more copies). Three years and six printings later, more than 700,000 copies of the book have been downloaded from my site.

Most people who download the book don’t end up buying it, but they wouldn’t have bought it in any event, so I haven’t lost any sales, I’ve just won an audience. A tiny minority of downloaders treat the free e-book as a substitute for the printed book–those are the lost sales. But a much larger minority treat the e-book as an enticement to buy the printed book. They’re gained sales. As long as gained sales outnumber lost sales, I’m ahead of the game. After all, distributing nearly a million copies of my book has cost me nothing.

The thing about an e-book is that it’s a social object. It wants to be copied from friend to friend, beamed from a Palm device, pasted into a mailing list. It begs to be converted to witty signatures at the bottom of e-mails. It is so fluid and intangible that it can spread itself over your whole life. Nothing sells books like a personal recommendation–when I worked in a bookstore, the sweetest words we could hear were “My friend suggested I pick up….” The friend had made the sale for us, we just had to consummate it. In an age of online friendship, e-books trump dead trees for word of mouth.

>> Read the rest of the Forbes Article


17 Responses

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  1. Shirley said, on December 05, 2006 at 2:14 am

    Engtech, thanks for this article. I’m especially intrigued by the concept of giving away electronic books. May try that.


    Shirley Buxton

  2. engtech said, on December 05, 2006 at 2:50 am

    It’s a great article. I especially like how he talks about all the opportunities that are arising because his audience is marketing him, not just his work.

    Like a lot of people are discovering with YouTube, identity can become a marketable asset, not just the content you are creating.

  3. timethief said, on December 05, 2006 at 4:22 am

    Let’s not fool ourselves about the affects of copyright on the poor. The big picture is an ugly one indeed. For example, to purchase Windows XP operating system, an average person living in the UK would have to work 10 days, whereas in Bangladesh this would be over 1.5 years, and in the Congo this rises to more than five years’ earnings.

    (1) Copyright ultimately provides more profits for the publishers and distributors than it does for creators and authors.

    (2) Corporate shareholders (mostly based in industrialized nations) own the vast majority (a monopoly) of the copyrighted global information economy.

    (3) Copyright as a barrier to knowledge and it in effect creates the criminalization of the copying and sharing of information with and among the poor that keeps the poor poor. This is in conflict with many societies and cultures where knowledge owned by the community, freely shared and built upon.

    (4) The issues of copyright are similar to many of the struggles against the corporatization, privatization and commodification of agriculture, seeds, farm animals and peasants themselves. Many of the issues arising are so similar that there is much “convergence” between these issues. And strong resistance is building up across the different issues, all fighting intellectual property rights from blocking access to health, information and agriculture.

    (5) I am a small player in the resistance. This year myself and one other Canadian took part representing Canada in a 6 week FAO e-conference on the patenting of farm animal genes that will eliminate pastoral peoples and their livestock. I took on the agri-farm delegates (corporate lackeys) with no holds barred. All copyright and patent laws should be re-considered. Continuing to worship at the corporate altar and to champion profiteering will guarantee planetary annihilation. We need to do what we learned at our mother’s knee – sharing. We need to focus on building “community” the world over and we need to start doing that now.

  4. engtech said, on December 05, 2006 at 4:39 am

    The Sundance award winning film The Corporation is legally available for public download using bittorrent.


    It is a great documentary outlying what’s wrong with modern corporations (including genetically modifying crops so that seeds have to be re-bought every year).

  5. timethief said, on December 05, 2006 at 10:46 pm

    I’ve seen it and I highly recommend it. My small community has had opportunities to view it as well.

  6. Mike said, on December 06, 2006 at 11:13 am

    I think that Cory’s comments on how it works are perhaps due to the large audience he already has. A lot of work had to go into building that initially (haven’t researched BoingBoing) but he is now to the point where he can enjoy the fruits of his labors and all of the free publicity/advertising that comes with it.

    While his advice might have some merit, I think that for any normal person to assume that the content they produce will take off virally is a little silly. Look at youtube for guidance here; the most popular no-name videos still either feature cute girls or “man getting hit in the crotch by a football.” It’s hard to build a lasting reputation on either one of those.

    Success begets success, and I think that the advice given by successful people often assumes the first part. :)


  7. engtech said, on December 06, 2006 at 6:32 pm

    Actually, Mike, YouTube could be the counter to that argument. A lot of the early producers on YouTube managed to get write ups in popular culture magazines, especially by riding the Lonelygirl15 bandwagon.

    I wouldn’t call it a career by any means, but the guys at Ask a Ninja have gotten 500,000 views for some of their videos. Same with Chad Vader. Ze Frank averages something like 60,000 views per *daily* vlog he does.

    I’m sure some people will ride their “new medium early adopter with large audience” wave to success like the guys from Slashdot, Ebaumsworld, Penny Arcade and Homestar Runner did in the last Internet boom.

    So much of luck is recognizing opportunity, and at one time Cory was just a writter with a blog (with maybe the deciding factor being he was a writer with a blog at a time when there weren’t a lot of writers with blogs).

    I agree that you have to recognize success based on celebrity, but there will also be people who go against the grain and find success because of it.

  8. engtech said, on December 06, 2006 at 7:25 pm

    @mike: re-read what you wrote (post-coffee) and I agree that the success Cory is talking about does require a large “building an audience” phase before it can take off. :)

    The important distinction though is that you don’t need to already be successful / famous / whatever to get that initial audience — but it helps.

  9. raincoaster said, on December 07, 2006 at 12:19 pm

    But I remember BoingBoing when it was literally mimeographed and stapled together. I remember when they went online! It did indeed build virally, with the help of (if memory serves) just enough of an inheritance on someone’s part to be able to buy small ads in the back of Spy and other such cutting edge magazines. That would get it checked out once; the content is what kept people coming back.

    And look how fast a virus can spread: two weeks ago relatively few people were googling “Britney beaver shots” and now it seems it and the different misspellings are the ten or fifteen top searches. Of the current top ten posts on YouTube, four of them have titles tied to this twatmeme. I’ve gotten an extra seven hundred hits per day for the last four or five days because of it, and I didn’t even blog about it in the first place!

    Quality isn’t what’s required for the initial exposure, but it is, I think, what’s required to keep them coming back. Otherwise you just have to keep going viral with no continuity, and that’s tiring. It’s why rock stars die young.

  10. engtech said, on December 07, 2006 at 6:37 pm

    Rock stars die young because they contract some kind of terminal disease from not wearing underwear.

    I’ve updated the post to include links to some follow up examples of “giving it away for free” success like what Wiley is doing.

  11. jaybird said, on December 07, 2006 at 8:23 pm

    Remember how micropayments were supposed to “change the way the world works” in the late 90s?

    I still see paypal donation/tip jars, but does anyone make a living from that?

  12. engtech said, on December 07, 2006 at 10:00 pm

    The wikipedia page on micropayments has good info and links to the debate on the subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micropayment

  13. torchwolf said, on December 11, 2006 at 5:03 am

    The Doctorow article has a great point at the end too, highly relevant for not-yet-established, non-famous and possibly-never-going-to-be-famous writers:

    What’s more, having my books more widely read opens many other opportunities for me to earn a living from activities around my writing, such as the Fulbright Chair I got at USC this year, this high-paying article in Forbes, speaking engagements and other opportunities to teach, write and license my work for translation and adaptation. My fans’ tireless evangelism for my work doesn’t just sell books–it sells me.

    The golden age of hundreds of writers who lived off of nothing but their royalties is bunkum. Throughout history, writers have relied on day jobs, teaching, grants, inheritances, translation, licensing and other varied sources to make ends meet. The Internet not only sells more books for me, it also gives me more opportunities to earn my keep through writing-related activities.

    There has never been a time when more people were reading more words by more authors. The Internet is a literary world of written words. What a fine thing that is for writers.

  14. engtech said, on December 11, 2006 at 7:46 pm

    Scott Adams has the same thing to say about writing on his blog. He also mentions some of the fees he gets from speaking appearances… very good money.

  15. Rod said, on December 21, 2006 at 10:39 pm

    If you haven’t read any of Cory’s stuff, I would recommend Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Eastern Standard Tribe and Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (the last one was a little tough to wrap my head around, but still enjoyed it).

  16. engtech said, on December 22, 2006 at 2:09 am

    I just got the Magic Kingdom book from the library. :)

  17. […] Review: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow Cory Doctorow is a writer from Toronto. He is well-known for being co-author of one of the most popular blogs on […]

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