Open publishing – Cory Doctorow

It’s virtually impossible to talk about open publishing without mentioning Cory Doctorow. As one of the most vocal supporters and active users of the open publishing model, Cory is frequently cited as proof positive that open publishing works. I’m not sure that Cory’s success means that every person who publishes their work online under a Creative Commons licence is thus certain to also be successful – success relies on a lot more than availability. But what we can say is that releasing his material free online has helped him to build up a loyal fanbase of readers and a significant profile which helps him earn money both directly and indirectly from his writing.

Of course, writing is not all that Cory does – he’s also a renowned digital rights advocate with a formidable reputation as an expert and activist who worked for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He also blogs at BoingBoing, one of the world’s most successful blogs, and now he holds the Fulbright Chair at the University of Southern California. But this activity also helps raise his profile, bringing him to the attention of more people who might download or buy his book.

(I must admit that I’d known Cory quite a while before I first read any of his novels. I downloaded Eastern Standard Tribe, liked the first chapter, but before I could get round to buying it, I was given a paper copy by a friend. I don’t think I would have heard of Cory at all if it weren’t for his work at the EFF, and I wouldn’t have come to know him personally if we hadn’t then shared an office for a while because of my work with the Open Rights Group. But then, the world is full of these strange conditionals.)

In January 2003, Cory published his first book, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, through the world’s biggest science fiction publisher, Tor. At the same time, he posted the text online under a Creative Commons licence and let anyone who wanted to download and redistribute it. Within a day there had been 30,000 downloads, and by December 2006 there had been over 700,000 downloads.

Just as happened later to Lawrence Lessig‘s Free Culture, Cory found that people immediately started to play with his book. At first, it was different file formats – people took the ASCII text and reformatted it into HTML, PDF, PalmOS PDB, Apple Newton PKG, and many others. Then there’s a PDF file that when printed folds neatly into a booklet, the entire text as a printable poster depicting the cover art, audio versions and translations.

But it didn’t stop at reformatting – people got far more inventive than that. There was the Sausage and Mash Remix, where every word beginning with S is replaced by the word Sausage, and every word beginning with M becomes Mash; the Capipa Remix which reorders all the words in alphabetical order; and the More and Bloodier Wars Remix, where the original is run back and forth through machine translator Babelfish. (All are mentioned on Cory’s blog, but don’t seem to be available anymore).

Today, there are 29 different versions available for download from Cory’s site and the book itself – his first novel remember – has been reprinted six times.

Cory’s second book, Eastern Standard Tribe, was released the same way in January 2004. Again came the HTML version, the PDF, files for all sorts of different ebook readers, GameBoy Advance files – anything you could possibly want. Other remixes included a speed reader version that flashes the book up on your screen one word at a time, and a (frankly freaky) partial audio version using computer software to record and remix.

None of this creativity would be possible under traditional ‘all rights reserved’ copyright, but it’s not just about enriching the commons. It’s also about making a living. In a December 2006 Forbes article, Cory wrote “I’ve been giving away my books ever since my first novel came out, and boy has it ever made me a bunch of money.”

That seems to tick the box nicely.

The Forbes piece is well worth reading the whole way through, as Cory talk about open publishing in depth. He puts together more pieces of the puzzle as to how and why this works for him, one of which is to do with the genre in which he writes:

[S]cience fiction’s early adopters defined the social character of the Internet itself. Given the high correlation between technical employment and science fiction reading, it was inevitable that the first nontechnical discussion on the Internet would be about science fiction. The online norms of idle chatter, fannish organizing, publishing and leisure are descended from SF fandom, and if any literature has a natural home in cyberspace, it’s science fiction, the literature that coined the very word “cyberspace.”

Indeed, science fiction was the first form of widely pirated literature online, through “bookwarez” channels that contained books that had been hand-scanned, a page at a time, converted to digital text and proof-read. Even today, the mostly widely pirated literature online is SF.

Which does make me wonder, would books outside of the science fiction genre do so well? I’ll come to that in another post.

If there is a posterboy for open publishing, it’s Cory. He has the amazing enthusiasm and drive of the pioneer, and I can’t imagine he’d be happy anywhere else but out front, where the experimentation happens, where the risks are unknown, and where he can carve his own path.

But not everyone coming on behind is going to meet with the same success as Cory. Giving your stuff away is but one part of the story. You also have to work your arse off – I actually don’t know anyone who is as prolific and hard-working as Cory. I remember once sitting in the office with him, listening to him type with the speed and ferocity of a man possessed (deadline notwithstanding). It made me feel deeply inadequate. And, of course, you have to be a good writer, and that itself takes a lot of hard work and dedication, and years and years of practice.

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