The Creative Commons Confound: Whether releasing your book for free will help boost your sales

When Nick Mamatas’s novel, Move Under Ground, was first published, he had the kind of publicity that most small press authors don’t get. A major men’s magazine printed the first chapter as an excerpt. He had positive reviews in The Village Voice, Booklist, and The Believer. He ran a semi-popular blog to give its release extra press. But despite all this, the book only sold moderately well, and when the trade paperback later came out from Prime Books, a major chain backed out of ordering any copies.

Mamatas knew he had to find another venue to spark sales. A month earlier, another author named Peter Watts was suffering from a similar predicament. His novel Blindsight wasn’t even going to make it past its first printing, and things were looking bleak. But then he decided to release it under a Creative Commons license, and after the popular blog boingboing linked to it, word spread until he had sold enough copies to push the book into its second printing.

Watts noticed that Bookscan numbers nearly tripled afterwards, and it was recently announced that the novel was nominated for a Hugo, something he said likely wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the CC release.

A Creative Commons (CC) license allows artists to release their works under less-restrictive guidelines than traditional copyright law. Though it has many different forms, a typical CC license permits users to distribute a piece of creative work freely as long as it’s not for commercial use.
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nick mamatas
(Caption: Nick Mamatas)
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Mamatas was enrolled in an MFA class on technological and editorial processes, and he needed to complete a research project on this topic. With all these combined factors weighed in his mind– the mediocre sales, the success of Blindsight, the opportunity for a research topic– he eventually decided, like Watts, to release Move Under Ground under a Creative Commons license as well.

The response was immediate. John Scalzi’s popular blog The Whatever quickly linked to the online version, and within a month over 100 bloggers followed suit.

“We [had] about 2500 downloads [Editor's Note: That number is now 3,200],” he said in an email interview, “ranging from featurettes by John Scalzi and the publishing blog Galleycat, to people on Livejournal and myspace leaving comments saying ‘Check this out!’”

But in this case, one blog didn’t give him the link that he was hoping for: Boingboing. And both Watts and Mamatas agreed that the success of a book released under a CC license hinges off this crucial factor.

“The thing is, there’s a confound here,” Watts explained. “It wasn’t the CC release per se that gave me the boost; it was all the people talking about it. Boingboing doesn’t pimp every novel that comes down the pike. It has to be newsworthy in some way, and an author giving his work away is, for the time being, newsworthy. It attracts attention.”

In Watts’s case, Boingboing was the only blog he contacted after releasing the book online. After the site linked to him, it created a ripple effect and more bloggers piled on.

“Very, very few people came across the release by reading about it on my site,” he said. “Thousands upon thousands saw it on Cory’s, Kathryn‘s, and John’s. They gave Blindsight the kind of push money can’t buy (at least, not the money I had to spare)”
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peter watts's blindsight
(Caption: Peter Watts’s Blindsight)
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Sean Wallace is the editor and publisher for Prime Books, and he has been tracking Move Under Ground‘s sales closely through Bookscan. Mamatas owned the e-rights to his book, so he didn’t need his publisher’s permission–but Wallace quickly showed his approval and contributed the final text.

“The effects are largely reliant on how much word is gotten out, I think,” he said. When Wallace checked the Bookscan numbers after Mamatas released the CC novel, he saw that there was only a “minimal uptick.”

But direct book sales, he said, are only one factor to measure success. “There may be associated results,” Wallace explained “Like people buying other books by Mamatas.”

Though it’s hard to track those kinds of indirect effects, Mamatas agreed with this assessment.

“Anecdotally, a number of people have told me that they bought Under My Roof after reading Move Under Ground for free,” he said. “And a couple of newspapers have given Under My Roof some good ink, it seems after hearing about it through the publicity surrounding Move Under Ground.”

Most authors will tell you that it’s extremely difficult to measure how effective a particular form of marketing can be, and the authors I emailed who released their works under CC licenses were hard pressed to produce concrete numbers.

And though both authors reached relative success after they used the CC license, they were skeptical of its overall ability to sell books.

“So what happens when this catches on?” Watts said. “What happens when everybody releases their work through a Creative Commons licence? Then it’s no longer newsworthy, and while it will certainly continue to make my work more accessible to people who already know of my existence, it certainly won’t lure in any new readers the way the Blindsight campaign has done. It’s a niche strategy, in other words. It only works as long as most artists aren’t doing it– and as long as that’s the case, I’d certainly consider releasing my future books under a CC license.”

Over the past few years, publishers have become more willing to allow their authors to release their books this way. Watts’s publisher, Tor, printed several novels by Cory Doctorow, one of the early champions of less-restrictive copyright.

“Doctorow has set all of his stuff free with Tor’s blessing,” Watts said. “Granted, there had been some inconsistency in Tor’s perspective in the past– back when Cory was offering his first novel under a Creative Commons license, Tor was absolutely forbidding me to do the same thing– and in fact they even tried to stick a clause in my contract stipulating that I couldn’t even post excerpts on my website of more than 1700 words.”

But despite these early attempts he persisted until the restrictions were removed, and when Watts went to his editor for permission to release his book for free, he was told to wait a month and then to go ahead.

Mamatas and Watts agreed that there were few pitfalls to the CC license. Neither had any trouble selling foreign language rights to their books. Watts has offers from German and Spanish publishers, while Mamatas has had a German version of Move Under Ground published already.

Two months after Mamatas released his book for free, I asked him if there was a particular medium (other than books) more likely to benefit from the CC license.

“Well CC isn’t really for books,” he replied. “it works much better when the source being opened up is more easily adjustable, as software is. For books, stuff the nerd crowd likes: SF and fantasy, will work best. Also, various experimental texts may also work. I wonder if Douglas Rushkoff’s Exit Strategy, which involved reader-generated footnotes, would have been more successful had it been made totally open to remixing. Something short but very open-ended, a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book with an infinity of choices, would likely be very popular CCed.”

But in the end, despite their skepticism of the long-term benefits of the license, both said they’d likely try it again.

“I guess I’m in for the duration,” said Watts. “And when the novelty wears off I’ll just have to find some other way of getting attention. Perhaps I could get some fan to climb up a clock tower and start shooting random pedestrians, all the while shouting ‘Peter Watts’s Blindsight made me do this!’ I bet that would increase my sales even more than a CC release. And I wouldn’t have to give anything away.”

3 Comments

  1. Josef Assad Says:

    And then there’s the debut authors with their quirky little debut novels that scares any reasoning agent or publisher off on sight.

    5K downloads in the first 3 months on a zero dollar marketing budget: that’s what Creative Commons got me. No complaints.

  2. Hapax Legomenon Says:

    Alas, my CC book of erudite erotica (see worksafe URL) received 150,000 unique visitors last year, but (so far) no book contracts. I’m waiting for that phone call, but still sticking with my dayjob. Really, I’m not complaining.

    Practically speaking, a lot of online fiction is already available for free, so really there is nothing special anymore about CC licenses. A key question is whether a book/ebook format is something convenient to buy. Also, the solution mentioned (i.e., “Head a prominent blog” or “beg a A-list blogger to link to you”) isn’t always a viable (or fair) strategy.

    One problem is that some forms are just not suitable for reading on the web. Novels are one such form, and yet it is so easy to put fiction online. Fortunately new laptops and devices make it easier to read on the web, so it’s conceivable that reading habits will evolve for more immersive kinds of things.

  3. Bloggasm » Neil Gaiman’s ebook results Says:

    [...] touting their successes with free ebooks happen to have very popular blogs. I noted as much on an article about creative commons licenses I wrote last year. This is somewhat of a given, a kind of elephant-in-the-room situation. Yes, a [...]


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