Open publishing – Why do people publish books for free, and what about audiobooks?

When I think of ‘open publishing’, the first thing I think about is people like Lawrence Lessig, Cory Doctorow and Tom Reynolds who have all persuaded their publisher to allow them to release electronic versions of their books at the same time as the physical dead-tree version. (More on those three later.) In all cases, this seems to have been to the benefit of the book, but to give your book away at the same time as you put it up for sale is a bit of a leap of faith. Why would you take that risk? It’s far from being a proven economic or promotional strategy.

I think Chris Saad gets to the heart of this very quickly, when he asks, Am I being heard? He says there is:

A fundamental human need that I think podcasting, blogging and all forms of social/citizen journalism speaks to… the need to be heard. People just want to feel connected and understood.

At a very basic level, Larry, Cory and Tom share in common with me, you, and pretty much everyone else a desire to be heard, to be read, to have the things that we’ve laboured over appreciated.

Chris Anderson, editor of Wired and author of The Long Tail, also confesses that he just wants to be heard (although he doesn’t seem to have published an ebook version of his book):

I know I shouldn’t say this, but I’m actually delighted to see that my book has been pirated and is available on Bittorrent. (Presumably this is the audio book version, even though it claims to be an “ebook”, which I wasn’t aware existed. UPDATE. One file is the pirated audiobook, the “ebook” is actually this ChangeThis pdf of the original Wired article, which was already freely available).

My publishers want to make money, and I like them so I usually do what it takes to keep them happy, but in truth I just want to be read/listened to by the largest number of people. Leave it to me to figure out how to convert that reputational currency into cash–just get me in front of the biggest audience and I’ll do the rest. My agent doesn’t want to hear this, but I’d rather take a smaller up-front advance or lower royalties in exchange for more liberty in distributing free versions, because I think I’ll actually be better off in the end.

Anderson, however, tangles up a few threads in his piece, the first is a discussion of equivalence: ebooks are assumed not to be equivalent to books; digital audiobooks are assumed to be equivalent to CDs.

Reading an ebook isn’t currently a great experience. Specialised ebook readers are expensive, and most people don’t like reading on-screen, so the ebook is seen as not equivalent for a paper book, i.e. people are more likely to go and buy the paper version if they like the ebook. Thus it is beneficial to release a free ebook so that you can reach as wide an audience as possible, as you stand a good chance of converting ebook downloads to paper book sales.

Conversely, it doesn’t really matter whether you have an unlawfully downloaded copy of an audiobook, or the real thing, whether bought as a download or as a CD, because either way you are probably going to listen to it on your iPod, computer or other MP3 playing device. The assumption is that giving away ebooks encourages sales of paper books, but giving away audiobooks, or allowing unauthorised downloads, will cannibalise the sales of the legitimate ebook. This is exactly the same logic as used by the RIAA and BPI for suing file-sharers, and the rest of the music industry for attempting to slap DRM onto everything in sight. It’s a very compelling and sensible looking argument, but it’s based on unproven assumptions behind the motivations of the downloader/buyer.

We don’t have much real evidence to go on when looking at the cannibalisation of audiobooks by P2P versions. I’m not aware of any studies that focus on audiobooks. But certainly within the music industry the picture is not as clear as it at first seems. Felix Oberholzer and Koleman Strumpf compared real download data and real sales data (pdf) and found that downloading does not have a statistically significant impact on music sales, except in the context of the most popular songs, when it was shown to improve sales slightly. Could it be that the same might be true of an audiobook?

The other issues is the assumption, again promulgated by the RIAA and BPI, that every download of an unauthorised file, whatever it be, is equivalent to a lost sale. In fact, there are many different motivations and outcomes: Some people are nearly sure they want to buy the item but want to try it first, some people are curious and don’t know if they would buy but can be convinced, some people were never going to buy it anyway (so no lost sale as there was no intention to buy), and some people really are lost sales – they would have bought it but they downloaded it instead.

The question is not if some sales are lost, but if more sales overall are gained because of the free version? Providing a free version does not necessarily cannibalise sales overall, but instead acts as a promotional tool encouraging them.

Counterintuitively, there was a study last year that showed that people who downloaded the most MP3s also bought the most music. Sadly, I can’t lay my hands on a link right now but I’ll try to find it. Perhaps, as the audiobook market develops, this could hold true for audiobooks too.

Finally, there is an intimate relationship between a book and its audiobook version, and I don’t think that we really understand how users relate to both together or each separately. What makes a book compelling, and what makes an audiobook compelling are two different things, and my reasons for buying each different. I’m absolutely certain to be buying Neil Gaiman‘s next book, whatever it is and whenever it comes out, because I’m a fan and I love his stuff. I trust him, as a writer, to produce work that I enjoy. I would be unlikely, however, to buy an audio version of one of Neil’s books if it was read by Some Random Voiceover Guy, because for me there’s no incentive to do so (I don’t frequently listen to audiobooks). But an audiobook actually read by Neil, or by Lenny Henry, is a different kettle of fish because I already have an emotional involvement with the author as a fan of his, and with Lenny Henry by virtue of the fact that I saw him and Neil reading one of Neil’s books at an event I went to a while back. My motivation for buying that would not be a desire for any old audiobook version, but a desire specifically for Neil’s or Lenny’s audiobook version.

So when Anderson says that he can’t see the case for producing legitimate free audiobooks, he’s treating them as if they are wholly separate from the paper book or ebook, and as 100% equivalent, and I don’t think that we can say that with any certainty.

What really happens if you both sell and give away an ebook? What really happens if you both sell and give away music? Didn’t seem to hurt the Arctic Monkeys, after all. But until someone somewhere does a rigorous and balanced study to find out, we’re stuck with a bunch of poorly formed assumptions and music industry propaganda.

Right now, I’m left with more questions than answers. The publishing industry, though, is being pushed into experimentation in a way that the music and movie industries are not. Authors are forcing publishers to do things that might seem counterintuitive, and we’re slowly starting to figure out, through trial and error, what all this means. Still lots to find out, though, about this open publishing idea.

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