On the Signal Value of Paying for Digital Works

I didn’t think I would like this article by Chuck Wendig “Why I Hope You Won’t Pirate My Book”, but after reading, I find there’s actually a lot here I agree with. He’s not making one of those obnoxious pseudo-moralistic arguments about “stealing” digital works by copying them. He’s talking about supporting the author, which is something I enthusiastically support, both as a fan and as a creator of digital works.

He’s also talking about the signal value of what people are willing to pay for a book — and I definitely understand how that can be a problem in the free-culture world. Here’s my story about that:

I published a book, “Achieving Impossible Things” based on a series of articles I wrote for Free Software Magazine. I know that this book has been downloaded more than 10,000 times from some sites, and over 7,500 times from the Internet Archive alone.

There’s only one review, although it’s a 5-star rating. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad review of the book. I have encountered a handful of people who’ve expressed interest in the book and a couple who were starting to translate parts of it — clearly it must have some value to them.

On the other hand, I’ve only sold a handful of books (less than 10) and received two donations through the site. I made a little bit of money on the original articles, but the book publishing itself has been a loss of about $150 for me.

Now, I’m not upset about that — I didn’t write this book to make money and fortunately, I did not claim to have answers for how to make money on free culture projects — just how to get things to happen. Also, I should emphasize that this is all perfectly legal and you are encouraged to download the book — it’s under a CC By-SA 3.0 license.

But the book was published in 2009, and I think it really could use a 2nd Edition with more information about crowd-funding and other stuff I’ve learned since then. Also, I’d like to update some of the example “impossible things” that I used.

BUT… is it worth it? Or should I find something more worthwhile to do with my time?

Those thousands of downloads by people who didn’t pay — what do they mean?

Did lots of people like the book, but not pay?

Did lots of people download the book because it was free, but never even look at the PDF?

Did people start to read it and then think “This is crap!”

Or what?

It’s hard to tell, for exactly the reasons that Wendig notes: copying is so cheap for the viewer, that it really doesn’t tell me anything about how much they valued my work — all I know is that it was worth a couple of clicks and a download of 31 MB.

As a writer, one of the things you want is some kind of real-world check on whether you’re doing a good job and not just fooling yourself. You want to know that you are writing something that people want to read, and not just engaging in some elaborate act of mental masturbation.

Nina Paley has suggested that artists shouldn’t worry about that — that such concerns damage the purity of the artist’s vision. In fact, she goes so far as to compare art to poop — something the artist produces without effort (or that the effort is one the artist was compelled to make anyway for internal reasons), which need not have value to anyone else.

But I don’t see art that way — to me, art is a form of communication. So unless someone is listening (or watching or reading) then no art is actually happening. And, of course, there are bills I would like to pay, so I’m not above doing work specifically so that people will pay for it.

Sometime this year, when my other commitments aren’t quite so thick, I’m going to put up a Kickstarter for a 2nd Edition of “Achieving Impossible Things” and find out if anyone wants to pay for an update to the book. I already have a pretty complete plan for what to do with it, and I’m willing to do the work for a few thousand dollars — essentially if I sell a few hundred copies of the book. But without feedback, it’s not obvious whether that’s really something I should be doing.

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About Terry Hancock

Terry Hancock is the producer and director of "Lunatics" ( http://lunatics.tv ). He is also a regular columnist for Free Software Magazine ( http://www.freesoftwaremagazine.com/articles_by/5 ), and a lifelong advocate for space, science, and technology. More at http://terryhancock.narya.net
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2 Responses to On the Signal Value of Paying for Digital Works

  1. S.E. Hudnall says:

    I like your definition of art as communication. Whether it is visual, auditory, literary, or any other form without audience, what do you have? Without feedback how do you know? No one produces without effort. Production of anything takes time from your life, whether minutes, months, or years. Feedback, whether good, bad, or indifferent, can tell you if you’re communicating with the audience you intended or not.

    Good post, Terry!

  2. ” I have encountered a handful of people who’ve expressed interest in the book and a couple who were starting to translate parts of it — clearly it must have some value to them. ”

    And it does – it’s just that I’ve had a limited time to keep translating the manuscript. Perhaps I’ll upload the chapter one so you can proofread it.

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