Ass over teakettle and a farewell to free ebooks

About three weeks ago I had freak accident on my bicycle. My chain froze as I was pedalling up a hill. I went ass over teakettle and performed a lovely three-point faceplant in the weeds (2 hands + 1 face = 3 ), spraining eight fingers & two thumbs and bloodying up my left cheek, which led to two visits to the emergency room and one to my doctor who told me that much of the symptoms in my hand were coming from my neck, where CT scans revealed “moderate to severe arthritis.”

As I picked myself up off the ground, in shock at the gross betrayal of me by my insubordinate bicycle and angry at gravity, and with my hands hurting ferociously and tingling in equal measure, and later, after calling my daughter, who was off in our family’s only working car, to ask her to come drive me to the hospital, I realized that I was not Cory Doctorow. Even after my daughter had picked up my wife who took me to the emergency room at Martha’s Vineyard hospital & I had heavenly dilaudid pumping into my vein I still was not Cory.

I’m mostly all better now. I even rode my bike a lot yesterday, despite the heat, right down to the Tisbury Street Fair, where I served strawberry shortcake with the guys in the Firefighters Association. It’s been three weeks since my bike mishap & I’m still not Cory. Consequently, I’ve stopped giving my books away for free.

About a year ago Cory wrote an essay for the Guardian UK about why free ebooks should be part of the plot for writers. This article intrigued me, since I’ve been giving away free ebooks under Creative Commons license for nearly ten years (see interview with me on the Creative Commons website Reopening the Sundman Files), and it was in fact Cory himself who talked me into putting my books under Creative Commons, as I explained in a comment I left on the Guardian site:

When I put the first 13 chapters of my 60 chapter technoparanoid thriller Acts of the Apostles online in HTML in 1999, I was a totally unknown self-publishing nobody, and within days I was getting orders for the printed book from all over the world. The book began to collect favorable notices from prominent geeky websites like Slashdot & Salon, and I sold many more copies.

My second book, Cheap Complex Devices, is a novella about a storytelling contest between two artificial intelligence constructs; it’s even more geeky than my first book. In 2002 I put the first 1/3 of the book online for free download. This book too collected favorable notices on geeky and science fictiony websites, and I sold many copies (where “many” for a self published author means hundreds, not thousands of copies sold).

In 2003, I was at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, where the Creative Commons license was being introduced to the world. There I met Cory Doctorow, and at his suggestion, on impulse, I put the complete sources in PDF format to both of these books online for free download under the Creative Commons license. I believe that I am the second novelist, after Cory, to do so.

Both of my books were selling pretty briskly at the time, and favorable reviews were still coming in. Cory began calling me “gonzo sf writer John Sundman” on his site boing boing, and lots of readers came my way. Some even bought printed copies.

My third book, The Pains, is an illustrated dystopian novella set in world that combines Orwell’s 1984 with Reagan’s 1984. I have put the book under creative commons, but I have not put the PDF online; I’ve only made it available in HTML. I want people to buy the printed book from me to get the full typeset, illustrated glory. However, other people have translated the HTML into PDF, so ersatz PDF version of my books are out there in cyberspace and there ain’t nothing I can do about it. Sales of this book have been pretty lousy, and reviews have been pretty non-existent. I don’t think that that’s because the book is worse than the first two. I think it’s because I’m no longer a novelty act.

I think Cory’s right that you cannot stop the tide, but that others who have posted here are also right that what works for Cory will not necessarily work for everybody. The approach doesn’t scale, and giving away ebooks sometimes means that you just don’t sell paper books (although I would love to be proved wrong about this).

A Field Guide to John and Cory — how to tell them apart

Leaving aside visual identifiers (the internet can find pictures of us if you like) here are some other handy distinguishing features:

John: Writes 1 gonzo SF novel or novella every 3.3 years.
Cory: Writes 1 gonzo SF novel or novella every 3.3 days.

John: Has a blog with some regular readers
Cory: Has a blog with millions of regular readers

John: Has some fans who have bought his books
Cory: Has many many many many fans who have bought and regularly buy his books

John: Writes something or other that appears on the web every once in a while
Cory: Writes something or other that appears on the web every 5.5 seconds


Some numbers

As far as I can tell, my books have been downloaded from Wetmachine, in various formats, more than 20,000 times. And the books are also available on dozens of free ebook and torrent sites — legally, under Creative Commons–and Fred only knows how many times my books have been downloaded from them. Thousands, I’m guessing. So let’s say that at least 25,000 copies of my various books have been downloaded for free.

Is the ebook revolution here? Maybe it is

In today’s modern world of today, where modern contemporary people are known to buy kindles and nooks and ipads, there’s been plenty of talk about how the promised age of the electronic book may finally be here. In fact there’s been a surfeit of such talk. However, this blog post by self-publishing novelist Ruth Ann Norden caught my eye. Her thesis was that publishing houses offer fewer and fewer advantages to writers because publishers add very little value where electronic books are concerned, and electronic books sales are what count; they’re where the money is to be made. She supported her argument with the eye-popping stat that last month sales of her various paperback books came to 30 copies, while sales of electronic versions of her books numbered 6,000 copies. Wow. Ebooks outselling paper books by 200 to 1 at this early stage in the iPad/Nook/Kindle world? It would seem that contra Doctorow, maybe we should be giving away paper books and selling the ebooks.

Whether this means publishing houses will become obsolete or not is another story; I’ll gaze into that crystal ball another time.

In any event, it has begun to seem more and more silly to me that I should be giving away my (electronic) books when people are perfectly willing to pay me money for them.

Maybe this change in my thinking is just a result of landing on my noodle when my bike chain froze up, but in any event, I’m getting out of the “read my entire book for free” business.

Although PDFs of my books are still available under Creative Commons license from lots of places including a bunch of torrent sites, and although it’s perfectly legal to copy and share them under that license, they are no longer available for free from me here on Wetmachine. After a nine year long experiment in giving away free ebooks, I’m going back to experimenting with selling the complete versions. (I make portions available for free, about 1/3 of each book. ) You can buy the PDFs for $3/each here. And in other formats as described below.

So, let’s try this, shall we?

Here’s what I’ve decided to do, for now: I’m going to be in the business of selling my books, not giving them away. I’m going to sell Acts of the Apostles, Cheap Complex Devices and The Pains in ebook format through this site, through Amazon, and through Smashwords, which distributes to lots of other ebook sites such as the Apple store, Barnes and Noble, and so forth. I’m not going to do anything about the sites that host downloadable versions of my books for free: there’s nothing I can do practically or legally to make those versions go away even if I wanted to, and I don’t want to. I slapped the Creative Commons tag on them as an experiment, and it’s been a very successful experiment in many ways. Among lots of other benefits, my pal Cory has given me lots of free publicity on his site boing boing precisely because the books were free and under Creative Commons. So I have no regrets about that.

But I’m not planning to put my next book, Creation Science under Creative Commons. I’ll probably release it as a DRM-free ebook.

I started selling a Kindle version of The Pains on Amazon about a year ago, and as this writing I’ve sold a few dozen copies and it’s ranked #66,000 in the Kindle store. Which ain’t setting the world on fire, but the hundred bucks or so that I’ve made from the kindle version is more than the zero bucks I’ve made from the tens of thousands of free PDFs I’ve given away of my other books.

I recently made Acts of the Apostles available available in a bunch of formats from Smashwords and in Kindle version from Amazon, where my ranking has been as high as

Here again I’m not setting the world on fire, but making money is better than not making money.

I’ll report back in a few months an let you know how it’s going.

One Comment

  1. Excellent post!

    I’m off to sweep up the shards of my illusions. Thanks!

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