At the end of last year, I decided to give away my book, Trigger Happy, in DRM-free .pdf format. I called it “a kind of experiment”. Thirty thousand downloads later and counting, it’s time to collate the lab results.
Internet distribution is awesome, but you knew that already. More people got Trigger Happy from this website than ever bought a copy of the printed book. The interest shown in an eight-year-old book about videogames by people as far afield (from my point of view) as Brazil and Russia has been immensely gratifying. My book was converted to be readable on the Nintendo DS; and the Nebraska Library Commission made a spiral-bound printed copy for their collection. Links to the download attracted a lot of attention to this site, and in December there was even an article about the book published in the French newspaper Libération.
All of which is to say, it was a pretty good publicity stunt. It might have sold a few more hard copies; more importantly, it gives my future books a better chance of at least being picked up in a bookstore by people who downloaded this one.
Although I didn’t do it for the money, I was also, of course, interested in testing the idea of giving stuff away and allowing people freely to express their appreciation. So I put a PayPal button below the download. Is this, as some people say, an exciting new internet-age business model for writers and other creative types?
Er, not really. The proportion of people who left a tip after downloading Trigger Happy was 1 in 1,750, or 0.057%. I am of course very grateful to each of them, though I was particularly amused by several who left $0.01, which seems a lot of clicks to expend when you could just write “Fuck you” in the comments.
Emphasis added by me.
I highlighted several things.
1) "At the end of last year"
2) "Thirty thousand downloads later and counting" -- As of May 23, 2008, exactly 31,563 downloads (including my own).
3) "The proportion of people who left a tip after downloading Trigger Happy was 1 in 1,750, or 0.057%."
As I type this, it's now May 23, 2008. Close to six months after his initial offering. It took that amount of time for word to reach me. Why do writers think placing something "on the Internet" equals informing every single Internet user? If a writer finished a manuscript and queried one publisher, would he be silly enough to think that would also query all publishers?
Poole mentions getting a write-up in a French newspaper. So what? His book is in English. Further, his book is about a specialized topic: videogames. Where does he say he was interviewed by any videogame magazine or website or even blog? Did he even bother to try to spread the word to where his possible audience gathered? I don't know about you, but I've never heard of Liberation being a staple among videogame afficionados!
The number of downloads is piss-poor. I found out about this via David Pogue's NY Times column (via teleread). I say again: the number of downloads is piss-poor. It got mentioned in the NY Times and perhaps only another several hundred people downloaded it?
A major deterrent is that the file format is PDF. PDF is hell. Putting something in PDF is tantamount to saying you don't want anyone to read it. Even Sony has had to acknowledge that PDFs on its Reader isn't a gratifying experience and has been working on improving the way PDFs are handled (and even then, that improvement is dependent upon the type of PDF formating! Some PDFs might never work enjoyably.)
The number of people who left a tip was equal to 0.057% of the number of downloads. Well, what did he expect? What makes any writer think download = sale? Have any of them ever had any exposure to direct mail marketing? For all he knows that 0.057% could equal a huge percentage of the people who actually wanted and actually read the book. I say again: total number of downloads is meaningless when trying to draw a conclusion about target-market penetration. There are people out there who will download practically anything that's free. There are digital packrats just as there as physical hoarders. What matters is getting to the intended audience and once that's accomplished, tallying the results. What's wholly unmentioned here, and this statistic would be revealing, is how many people went to the download page, saw the subject of the book and declined to download it? It's not until the download page we find out:
Trigger Happy is a book about the aesthetics of videogames — what they share with cinema, the history of painting, or literature; and what makes them different, in terms of form, psychology and semiotics.
Semiotics? Now there's a term to dissuade most readers! The subject itself is aimed at not just a specific audience -- those exposed to videogames who also want to read about them -- but those who also want to think about videogames in an intellectual manner. So it's actually a sub-population (intellectual videogamers) of an already-small population (videogamers who want to read about videogames).
I downloaded the book. I looked at the first few pages. It's not a subject I'm interested in. Am I obligated to leave a tip now? Why should I be? If I'd come across the text in a paper edition at a bookstore and did even more browsing I wouldn't be expected to cough up a "browsing fee." No one should feel obligated until they've read it.
Poole then goes off on the freetards. That's a side issue entirely. (Especially since he never says his free book announcement got Slashdotted.)
He then returns on point with this:
A reasonable outcome, perhaps, would be something like an iTunes for books, where people choose to buy (DRM-free or at least DRM-lite) copies because it’s still easier for most folk than hunting down a torrent. That way writers would still see some kind of modest revenue from their efforts. Otherwise, if people can’t earn money from writing books, then books will only be written by the rich, and by people in their spare time.
But even that ignores reality.
Among what's available for pay on the iTunes Store today are many free things too. Does he think that also won't be the case with texts? You can bet there will be writers and publishers who offer at least one book free to:
1) Create an audience for a new writer
2) Shift an existing audience to the iTunes Store
Will Poole then bewail that his sales are shit because there's too much free stuff competing against his? Even though the free stuff will mostly be outside his book's subject area?
Earlier this week I went off after writer Richard Herley. Poole seems to make the same assumptions that Herley did. I see this over and over again from writers.
Listen, what the hell do writers think publishers do aside from packaging their text in a pretty container? They try to get book club sales, they try get library sales, they try to get academic sales, they try to get bulk premium sales, they try to reach the intended audience of the book -- this last point is especially true if the book, like Poole's, is a special-interest subject. (Which, don't kid yourselves, Poole's book is. The jillions of game consoles out there don't mean squat. Out of the billions of cars that have been sold, how many drivers have ever read about about the history or the social impact of the automobile?) Publishers sometimes actually do marketing work. Why do writers think they're exempt from that effort?
What I'm seeing over and over again from writers who say the Internet is nothing but thievery or a bad place to put books is an ignorance of marketing, an ignorance of response rates, an ignorance of the audience they claim to want to reach!
I'll repeat what I said earlier:
What did you do other than the equivalent of dumping a bunch of books on a street corner with a handscrawled sign declaring, “Please take and pay if you read it and like it”?
Writers: Show me the marketing work before you sit there and cry like a frikkin baby!
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