People like their favourite authors • 25 May 2008 • The SnowBlog
People like their favourite authors
I imagine there are some highly sophisticated people out there who despise their favourite authors. They probably wouldn't use the term 'favourite' in fact. They might say that some of the work that they find most stimulating and intellectually satisfying is created by human beings who are not intrinsically likable and who might not be especially deserving of praise in other areas of their lives. But I suspect that's a minority attitude. My suspicion is that most people see their favourite authors a little like they see their favourite bands: as well as appreciation, there's a good helping of affection and a hint of awe in there too. It makes me wonder if authors who relied on voluntary donations would thrive or starve. I imagine Cory Doctorow thinks about that too. He has a new book out and it's available in shops... and online for free. It's called Little Brother and I'm currently reading an electronic version. It took about three minutes from deciding to read it to starting at page one. I downloaded a copy for my Sony Reader, which means I can take it all the places I would take a paperback (the Reader is actually slimmer than a paperback). Cory has a note at the beginning of the book suggesting that if you enjoy reading it and want to pay some money for it then you should order a copy online and have it sent to one of a list of librarians and schools who have requested a copy. He prefers this approach, compared with simply sending him a cash donation, because he wants his publishers to benefit - and he has a soft spot for Amazon too, so is happy to recommend them. It's a little clunky as a process (I had some difficulty even finding the list of potential recipients), but it's very interesting as a concept. The existing split of revenue for author, publisher and retailer is preserved, but it relies entirely on goodwill. I imagine no one who thinks he sucks as an author is likely to buy the book for a school.
What percentage of those who read the book for free will make a donation, do you suppose? And will the book reach a lot more people through being available online, without payment, in multiple electronic formats (there's even one you can read on your Texas Instruments calculator)? After all, those two considerations tend to cancel each other out. If the book reaches ten times as many people by being available to download, rave about and pass on to friends, that would somewhat offset the possibility that only one in a hundred readers will make a donation. (I'm making those numbers up, of course. I have no idea what the real fractions are.)
Now, at this particular moment in history, paper is still pretty popular. So there's an argument which suggests that even if no money is made from electronic versions of a book, online enthusiasm still makes sense as PR for the paper edition - even if it cannibalises a few sales of the paper edition. If one community (those who download it for free) are praising the book, then that enthusiasm may well seep through to the community of paper book readers. After all the two communities overlap in an intriguing way, because there is something of a link between enthusiasm and influence when it comes to the web. Active users of the internet tend to influence passive users. Or to put it another way: those who write blogs and who started doing so before it was so popular are more likely to have built up a readership and thus exert influence online than those who are more hesitant with technology and who have just started to read a few blogs. So early adopters of an internet-friendly lifestyle are a good group to have on your side praising your work - and they're exactly the people most likely to own a Sony Reader or a Kindle and to download e-books.
Of course one still needs to consider 'friction'. That's a slightly silly strategy-consultants' term for the energy dissipated performing a transaction. If you can buy a book online for the same price as in a shop - and that means you save two pounds in bus fare and an hour of your day - then you might well choose to minimise your friction and buy online. (On the other hand, if you use terms like 'transactional friction' then the chances are that you don't travel by bus much or worry about the fare.)
Cory's list of librarians seeking donations is a great idea as a one-off, but it's a little labour-intensive to use. You pick a name from the list, (and hope no one else is doing the same at that moment), you order the book from Amazon (or elsewhere) and have it sent as a gift to the beneficiary's address, then you e-mail a copy of the receipt to the lady who updates the beneficiaries' list online. There's room for streamlining there (and what techies call 'record locking' where you make sure you don't have two people unknowingly picking the same beneficiary at the same moment). But since this same process would be useful to lots of authors in the future, it makes sense to create a slicker mechanism for these structured donations either at the level of the publisher, the retailer or the industry itself - rather than have each author try to put something together. If, say, the Book Depository wanted to get their programmers working on a system, there's an opportunity there to do some pioneering work. Whether reading downloaded books ends up being 1% of the market or 95% of it, there's still going to need to be a method for voluntarily supporting the authors you love. It's what I've been thinking of as Otakunomics and people like Seth Godin have been writing about for a while now. Building conduits for fans to support the people whose work they love is likely to be the next wave of development in industries like music, and quite possibly books. In other words, there's an opportunity there.