Free Writing

Whereas the movie and music industries seem to fight the technological advances that threaten to change their distribution methods, the publishing world seems to be embracing it. This is no more true than in the field of science fiction, where writers like Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi have pioneered making money in a revolutionary way: giving their products away for free.

Not too many years ago, self-publishing was a joke. There was a reason we called pay-to-publish companies “vanity presses.” Nobody who was anybody in the world of fiction took them very seriously. With the advent of Internet and ebook readers, things have changed. It’s also much easier, and cheaper, for writers to market themselves. Self-publishing is no longer a joke, although those who pioneer the non-laughable form prefer the term “indie publishing.”

In his speech at Google, Scalzi discusses how he decided to forgo a traditional publisher and give his novel away for free on his website. It wasn’t long until a serious publisher contacted him and asked if he could distribute the novel professionally. Today, that book is enjoying a very high average user rating on Amazon. You can frequently find it in lists of the 100 Best Science Fiction Novels.

The vast majority of Doctorow’s work is available for free in HTML and practically every ebook reader format you’d ever need. He has declined donations in the past, as it cut his publisher out of the loop, but recently self-published a collection of short stories in which he encouraged fans to send him money if they were so inclined. (I’m pretty sure a lot of them were, too.) And just because he gives it away for free doesn’t mean his books aren’t in your local bookstore. In fact, I see his books in Borders and Barnes & Noble all the time.

How can you give a book away for free and still make money on it? Consider how I began reading Charles Stross’s Accelerando on his website, but ended up buying the paperback to finish it. Who wants to read a book on a computer screen?

Likewise, I checked out a free copy of Doctorow’s Little Brother before buying the paperback… and the audio book to share with friends. Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman once pointed out that you typically discover a new author when someone loans you a book; discoveries rarely happen in the bookstore. When books are easy to get your hands on, they tend to find new readers, who are then likely to purchase the author’s future releases.

What the naysayers fail to realize is libraries have been around for a long time. So has friend-to-friend loaning. That didn’t kill the publishing industry. Neither will giving away most or even all of a book. People tend to buy the things they like.

What made the free model trendy is the Creative Commons license, the relatively new alternative to registering a copyright. The license is free, while registering a copyright is fifty bucks or more. There’s hardly any lawyer jargon to wade through when you’re choosing the license that’s right for you. The license doesn’t just apply to literature, either; The Free Music Archive and Flickr’s CC section have great music and photo collections you’re allowed to download for free.

Unfortunately, the mainstream hasn’t quite caught on yet, but science fiction readers tend to be forward-thinking people who aren’t afraid to try new things. Sometimes they discover the future before anyone else. I believe this is one such time.

Check out the huge selection of CC science fiction at Feedbooks, in which you’ll find almost all the writers I mentioned above as well as Rudy Rucker and James Patrick Kelly. Just try to discover the lesser known writers as well, ‘kay? Long live indie publishing!