Sellin’ out


Neal Locke is hosting an interesting discussion at Presbymergents. He’s talked about this before, and it’s pretty fascinating to see the reactions.

Neal’s looking into the future of publishing and asking some important questions. We all know that we can get more and more information on the Internet. That it’s a vital source of research and information. Neal contends that if writers make their books available for free online, then we’ll reach more people and authors will sell more books.

And he challenges emerging church authors (namely McLaren, Pagitt, and Jones) to begin to make their books available for free. It makes sense, right? I mean, the emerging church’s on the cutting edge of technology. They’re reaching the wired faithful. So, why not?

We’ve seen some great experiments to this effect. He points out the Art Rock Band Radiohead who sold an album online for a pay-what-you-can price and science fiction author Neil Gaiman who’s making a book available for free.

I wrote a little dissertation on the comment sections of each post. The responses have been interesting. I’ve seen a couple of people call Neal naive, which is unfortunate, because Neal’s thinking about the future of ideas, and how to be creative and faithful in the midst of it. There’s obviously a shift occurring in publishing. And we need to be wrestling with these things.

There’s discussion about whether it’s the author or the publishers’ “fault” that this is not happening. In the spirit of wrestling, I figured I’d pick the thread up. As an author, I’m not so savvy, I guess. I got my first contract and went out to dinner to celebrate. Then, I sent it to three or four other authors to make sure that it was standard. It was, so I signed. And went out to dinner again.

It’s really hard to get a book contract. I can’t imagine having one in-hand and saying, “Oh, and by the way, I’d like to make this a free online book.” Neil Gaiman might. Rick Warren might. But until Tribal Church becomes a major motion picture (tee hee), I’m pretty happy to get the contract.

Another thing I wonder… is Neal’s conclusion correct? If something’s available for free online, would people buy it? Gaiman sold a whole lot of books before he or his publisher decided to put one online for free. I know I read the NYT everyday. I’ve never bought it. I can say this about hundreds of things. Generally, if it’s free online, I’m greedy enough that I won’t shell out the money.

And, since I’m in the confessional booth already…. I must say… Tony Jones is in this conversation… I’ve never met him. But I know that the guy’s got (what?) three or four kids? So, his wife probably can’t work outside of the home. He’s coordinating Emergent Village, and I’m sure he’s not making much doing that. We know he’s not getting any pension. Does he get medical? He’s finishing his dissertation, and he’s promoting his upcoming book. He’s not a monk, like Shane Claibourne, living in a community. He’s working hard and he’s got people dependent on him. I don’t mean to get into the personal finances of someone I don’t know. I’m just saying… he probably needs to make as much as he can on his books.

And you know what? Even realizing this, I shamefully confess that I read every page of Emergent Manifesto that was available on Googlebooks. I never bought it. And I have a book allowance.

So, dear readers, where do you think all of this is going? Do you agree with Mr. Locke? Would you say that having a book online for free will generate sales or take away from them? Do we have a wired generation (of which I’m a proud part) who’s too used to getting their music, news, and information for free?


14 thoughts on “Sellin’ out

  1. I don’t know anyone who would sit at a computer and read an entire book, or print it out and read it on regular paper. I’m sure such people, exist but I think they are a small minority.

    On the other hand, I know people (like myself) who are much more inclined to buy a book after reading part of it, and not just the parts they want me to read and make available.

    I also know that I would quote from books a lot more in my blog and sermons if I could easily cut and paste from an online file.

    Cory Doctorow is another author who releases all his books in digital form for free, and I own 3 or 4 of his books, as well as 5-6 of Neil Gaiman’s books.

  2. So, Shawn, are you saying that online books would be like going to a bookstore? You’ve got the whole book in your hands, you can thumb through it, you can read the pertinent parts, then you can buy it? That makes sense….

    Are people reading books on computers? Maybe not. But, as we see with Amazon’s kindle, we know that electronic book forms are gaining popularity. And they’re probably going to get more and more usable. I read some books on my computer. I’d definitely read them on my iPod. But… as I said… I’m a greedy girl.

  3. Thanks for adding to the conversation, Carol. And thanks for giving me at least some benefit of the doubt on an issue that one commenter correctly described as “an uphill battle” — one I believe is well worth fighting.

    Although I can understand where they are coming from (I’m about to be a very, very, poor, unemployed seminary student with a wife and two kids in New Jersey) I do get frustrated that people (especially authors) make this into a matter of “feeding the family” versus “publishing free content online.” As Shawn points out above, and as I think you’re groking in the first half of this post, it isn’t an either/or proposition. But somehow, despite the experiences of those who’ve tried it, we still fear that’s exactly what it is.

    Cory Doctorow (noted by Shawn above) published his very first novel this way (and every one since). At the time, he was not a giant in his field like Gaiman or Warren. He also had a family to feed. But he was someone who understood the times, and took a risk for what he believed in.

    Emergent authors seem great at understanding the times from a theological/cultural standpoint. Thanks, Carol, for being one who is struggling with understanding the times from a technological standpoint as well.

    @Tony — I’m looking forward to actually meeting you (if you don’t run screaming and hide from me, that is) at your book signing in Dallas this March. I promise I’ll actually buy the book. Unless you’d rather me donate fifteen bucks to Amahoro. Or I could do both. Or I could donate thirty bucks to Amahoro. … By now, if you do run screaming and hide from me, I’ll understand. I probably would too…

  4. I think that it is an interesting discussion to have. Since we need the money for your book to fix the roof that is about to completely fall off I certainly covet the check that you will receive. Admittedly, I am coming to the discussion late. Yet, I think that there is something to this argument. You know that I was very skeptical when you first pointed it out. Although, I wouldn’t support anything that hurts the bottom line of the already underpaid artist and writer.

    I would hesitate at pointing to Radiohead’s new album as an example. My understanding was that for less money or none at all fans could purchase a lower quality recording than if they paid full price. Plus, this was tried by other artists with much less success i.e. Nine Inch Nails with Saul Williams.

    Good discussion I will take my call offline.

  5. I understand from a couple of NPR reports that artists who have released their albums with a pay-what-you-want, on-line price are actually making more money because they don’t have to pay the record companies. However, downloading a CD is a great deal different from downloading a book.

    With binding, etc. the cost of producing a “finished” book would be considerably more than the cost of downloading an album. The technology makes producing a CD with cover much easier than the hassle of producing a book.

    Actually, as interesting as the discussion is, these questions are more than my brain can handle in one afternoon. I think I’ll go take a five-minute power nap!

  6. Tony,

    No problem. I know the “scary as hell” feeling all too well. I would just hate for people to confuse sizable name recognition with sizable income. After all, the kids will have to go to college some day…

    And, with that, I pledge to you that I will stay away from Googlebooks. I will buy your next publication with cold, hard cash. Even though you’ll be Borg-bashing. I’ll skip that chapter.


    I’m so glad you can sense my inner discord. I’m all with the free culture movement… (internal conflict: the big, fat “All Rights Reserved” on my blog). I know it’s the way we’re moving…. but then I guess it comes down to what Brian (SG) said, “I wouldn’t support anything that hurts the bottom line of the already underpaid artist and writer.” Or, I have to say, my good publisher. I know that you don’t want to hurt the writer’s bottom line either. And so I wonder, would free access hurt or help the artist?

  7. There is something magical about books, the look of the cover, the size of the pages, the smell… something that electronic books can never replace.
    I had a philosophy professor at seminary who encouraged us to just go and pick up a book and hold it in our hands. He said that even if we didn’t buy it or read it, that something of its contents would permeate us through a form of osmosis. I love that idea!
    Perhaps I’m getting old (39!) but I love my books, especially the hardcovers.
    I have many electronic books from Calvin’s commentaries to Spurgeon’s sermons and it’s great to have these as searchable databases but once I find what I’m looking for I reach for the “real thing” and engage multiple senses in the process of learning. (no two books feel the same)
    Let writers publish hardcover books and make some money from their talents but perhaps include a code to access a secure site where you could search the text and cut and paste small segments (not enough to create a copyright infringement).

  8. @Neil — Hey! Another Nei/al! I love real tangible books, too. But the internet is a great way for me to discover and encounter new authors, which in turn entices me to buy their paper works. Unless I get a few chapters in and realize I don’t want to read, let alone buy, this. Same thing I do at Barnes & Noble, but my laptop is open later hours.

    @Carol — you (and Brian) hit the nail on the head, and this is perhaps the way to move forward together: I, too, wouldn’t support anything that hurts the bottom line of the already underpaid artist and writer. BUT… In all ventures there is some degree of the “unknown” and the “risk factor.” Today we’re in that gray area where it’s still risky to go this way. Tomorrow it will be risky to do it the “old way.”

    This is why I want so much to write a book (I’m working on it, really, just slooooowly). I’m willing to take the risk. I believe that the potential gain (for God’s Kingdom and for the writer) outweighs the potential loss. But I can also understand and even be sympathetic to those who aren’t ready to take the risk, those who see potential gain and loss differently.

    Perhaps that’s why I really targeted Jones, McLaren, and Pagitt. Cory Doctorow aside, most first-time authors can’t go to a publisher and say “let me do it this way.” But Jones, McLaren and Pagitt, I think, are either in high enough demand that publishers need them more than they need publishers (McLaren, Pagitt) or they are in influential enough leadership positions that publishers are more likely to listen to them (Jones).

    That’s also why in my original post, I even suggested someone like McLaren could do this (make free version available online) with an older book that isn’t selling as well.

    Brian: RE Nine Inch Nails and Saul Williams, I listened to that. It wasn’t that good. It would have failed even more spectacularly if one would have had to actually pay for it…

    Carol: As far as the “All Rights Reserved” on the blog, have you considered some of the more restrictive Creative Commons Licenses? The ones that prohibit copying for commercial purposes, require attribution, and do not allow derivative works? That might be a good way to “test the waters” without diving in.

  9. sometimes I have a problem just reading a whole blog post. so I wouldn’t read a whole book online either.

    I don’t have an answer though, to the question about whether it might hurt or help sales.

  10. Neal~

    I think that my point about Radiohead and NIN was that this is a much different medium than the printed word. There may not be a one to one transfer of “marketing” between the two. The print medium might actually have more of a chance of success than audio/music.

  11. Carol,

    Surely this is one area we cannot make a universal policy… most people creating art (music, books, or whatever form) are not rich, even moderately so. I don’t know what the ratio of manuscript submissions to contracts are, but if it is anything like the music field, maybe 1 in 1000 or 10,000 goes anywhere… and then most of those books never sells many at all.

    In music – I have written all my life; started sending songs to publishers when I was 14… eventually moved to Nashville after college and worked in a studio for $400/month for a chance to do demos for free in the middle of the night (w/permission)… after two years of shopping songs around I got in to a place that stocks songwriters stuff – they like two songs and bought them, and put them in their catalogue (of 100,000+ songs catalogued by style, topic, etc…). One got bought a year later and was one of 10 tracks on a CD that might have sold a few thousand copies. That’s a real-world, moderate “success” story. Or, we could look at the self-created demos I’ve made since then and sold to friends for $5 each (or given away as Christmas presents). Every now and then I’m asked to teach and lead worship at a conference… sometimes for free, sometimes with mileage paid, every now and then for a $200-500 honorarium. I’m probably in the second tier of speakers (regional, rather than national).

    I’m a pastor – have an adequate salary, but have 3 kids, soon 3 sets of braces, etc… Not in debt, but having trouble saving anything. Just living kind of close to even.

    I just spent seven years on a dissertation on theology of worship and music. It’s what I speak and teach on at 4-5 conferences and seminars each year. I never demand money. I just wistfully said to my wife last night, “I think this thing could be turned into a nice little book and I think I have something to say that has not been said.”

    I do give it away locally every chance I get… but if I could get it published and also make some money, man that would be a blessing from God! It’s probably the only book I’ll ever write. I want the church to have it… but there’s something about a workman being worthy of wages, right?

    To speak to all writers/artists based on the extreme success of the .01% at the top of the commercial field is like telling high school atheletic coaches they should volunteer their time because pro athletes make way too much money.

    It seems to me like it would be helpful to qualify the conversation, and probably direct it to the superstars or to the publishers, and seek ways to achieve wide low-cost or free dispersal while still providing income to those who labor to produce the original material.

    This is getting figured out with music… I think a .99 cent track download on iTunes with a free :30 preview is a great step forward from where music was 10 years ago (either pay for a full CD or illegally d/l from Napster). It seems like Amazon (and iTunes) providing search services and previews while retaining the artist’s rights to sell the whole is a reasonable start in the right direction.

    Carol – I continue to love your blog and find many points of common interest. Thanks for writing! (After several months of free blog reading, I think I’m going to go buy your book!!)

  12. Robert,

    I have a friend who’s an amazing singer/songwriter who has similar stories.

    So, Brian and I were discussing over lunch what digital publishing would be like. I’m definitely a person who loves the smell, feel of a book (love Neil’s osmosis theory). But, I used to love the smell and feel of a newspaper, and I’ve mostly given that up. Maybe I’m not that attached to every book…

    I like the environmental aspects of digital downloads. Along with saving paper, the distribution wouldn’t be petroleum dependent…

    I’m small and short, and I’m still paying heavily for carrying a backpack with 10+ books with me at all times for years and years. So, in that sense, I love the thought of having something light and handheld with a hundred books that I could hold in my palm in the subway and when I travel. I love the searching capabilities too (I never use a paper Bible concordance any more, digital is sooo much easier).

    Brian thought we might go back to the serial model of old. Perhaps publishers will sell one chapter at a time, for 99 (whoa…what happened to the cent sign on my keyboard? How long has that been gone?) cents.

    Thanks for buying the book. And, I’ve made this offer before on the blog… if anyone can’t buy it, just let me know. I’ll buy one for you.

  13. Neal said, “I do get frustrated that people (especially authors) make this into a matter of ‘feeding the family’ versus ‘publishing free content online.'”

    Yeah. I can understand your frustration. And I’ve been trying to pinpoint the moment when I get defensive. I figured it out. It’s when people question the motives of the author (i.e., what are we in it for? Selling books? Or spreading God’s kingdom?).

    As I noted before, writing’s already a risky business. I’ve been writing faithfully for three hours every morning for the past two years. I’ve written for all sorts of magazines, for academic journals, for blogs, and for a publishing company. So, I’ve basically been working a 20 hour per week job for the last two years for a whopping $1,000.

    It’s a labor of love, for sure. Which I don’t mind. But it’s hard when there’s a perception that we’re just doing it to sell books, or that we just want the money, or to be famous, or whatever. There are a lot of ways to become rich and famous in our society. Writing a book in a genre that might sell 10,000 copies (if we’re really, really lucky) is not one of them.

    It’s kind of like being a pastor, when the congregation expects a lot, and then when we dare to whisper the word “salary,” because our mortgage is crushing us, and they ask why we’re just “in it for the money.” And you want to tear your hair out, because there are about a thousand other professions that you could have chosen if you were in it for the money.

    I don’t know the motivations of the emerging trinity (Pagitt, Jones, and McLaren), but I don’t question them. I know what mine are. I have a burning passion that people in my generation might find a way to connect with God. I have a gut-wrenching hope that the mainline church might begin to hear the voices of a new generation. That’s what motivates me.

    As we move forward in our conversations about church in the 21st century, we’ll need to be careful to protect the pastor/church leader. I’m often saddened by the expectation that we should have no concern for money. Or that if we do, then we’re selling out. That might have worked if we were coming into this profession with a zero balance. But we’re not. Most of us have a lot of debt, and it’s excruciatingly expensive to live. As much as I would love to step out of a capitalistic society, I can’t. And unless we’re careful, this is going to be a profession that only the wealthy or the retired can afford to work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s