Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Friday, January 26, 2007

More on OA full-text books increasing the net sales of print editions

James Boyle, Text is free, we make our money on volume(s), Financial Times, January 22, 2007.  Excerpt:

The internet makes copying cheap. Businesses that see their livelihood as dependent on the restriction of copying – concentrated in the recording, film, publishing and software industries – are understandably upset. Their goal is to have the same ability to control their content as they had in an analog world but to keep all the benefits of pervasiveness, cost saving, and viral marketing that a global digital network brings. To that end, they have moved aggressively to change laws worldwide, to introduce stiffer penalties, expand rights, mandate technological locks, forbid reverse engineering, and increase enforcement. It is not so much a case of wanting to have their cake and eat it, as to have their cake and make your cake illegal.

Yet there are hints in each of these industries of a different business model, one that aims to encourage, rather than to forbid copying....

Yochai Benkler is a prominent academic. His widely praised book about the network economy, The Wealth of Networks, was published by Yale Press – a publisher not known for its radicalism. Yet with his publisher’s approval Benkler’s book is available for free online under a Creative Commons license. Instead of paying $40 one can simply download the book. Its sales are reportedly in the top rank of academic books. Benkler is delighted with the additional 20,000 readers who have downloaded it.

Benkler is following in the footsteps of Larry Lessig, the founder of Creative Commons and author of Free Culture. Lessig’s work has been central to the practice of making books available for free online under licenses that make it legal for readers to copy, print and share them with others. He stopped counting downloads of his own work once the count hit 500,000. Yet his mass-market books continue to sell well.

Can this method work for authors – and publishers – who need to make their living out of books? There are hints it might....

Of course, these experiments are marginal. They are being tried by those in non-traditional genres, or those who can afford to gamble. At the moment, the numbers are small. But most innovation happens on the margins. It would be just as wrong for us to conclude that these experiments represent the future as to assume they do not....

Who is least likely to try free digital distribution? The blockbuster author. Do not expect to see Harry Potter released this way. JK Rowling does not have to struggle against obscurity, and, given market saturation, it is unlikely that her publisher would see the method working for her. But the next Rowling? That is another story. And perhaps a free one.