Giving literature away

Saskatchewan writer Don Kerr’s latest poetry collection, The dust of just beginning (2010), has two interesting things on the copyright page. First, the book is under a Creative Commons license, under the terms of which anyone can “copy, distribute and transmit the work” for non-commercial purposes, as long as the author is properly credited. Second, besides issuing the collection as a handsome paperback, the publisher (Athabasca University’s AU Press) also offers it in an electronic format. Go to their web site and there it is— a photo of the book cover and the usual button to click if you want to order it, but also a tab labelled “E-book” where you can download single sections or the entire book. It’s a PDF of the book, so not in the same format as the e-books you get for an iPad or similar device, but still— an entire brand-new book of poetry, for free!

My first reaction was “Neat!” My second was “How can they afford to do this?”

AU Press makes all its publications available for free over the Internet as a matter of policy:

AU Press operates on the model of a knowledge-based economy, to which we contribute by providing peer-reviewed publications unfettered by the desire to commodify thought or to restrict access to ideas.

They say, moreover, that academic presses find their sales actually go up when readers can sample their works online.

Academic presses aren’t the only ones trying this out. Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman and his publisher decided to offer one of his books on the Internet for free for one month, to mark the seventh birthday of his blog. Here’s what happened:

The results of putting AMERICAN GODS up here for free that month came in in August. Sales of my titles — all my titles — in Independent Bookshops went up significantly while we had American Gods up here for free. We sold more copies of American Gods. And we sold more copies of everything else. And then, when we took AMERICAN GODS down, they dropped again, to pre-free book levels.

I suppose it’s sort of like browsing in a bookstore. You read a few pages, maybe even a chapter; you want to read the rest; you buy the book. Or, you borrow a book from the library or from a friend and decide you want to own it and re-read it, or you buy something else by that author.

Not all writers are keen on giving their work away, and not all readers think it’s fair to the writer. It does feel risky. Writing is work; writers don’t want to risk not getting paid for their work; and making literature available for free sounds like sacrificing income for the sake of gaining readers.

Yet the experience of people like Neil Gaiman suggests that isn’t necessarily the case. The interplay of electronic and print media, of writers and readers and buyers and sellers, is decidedly more complex.

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