Cory Doctorow’s great experiment

We already know that giving stuff away can be an important part of building an effective revenue generation mechanism – and it seems to work quite well in publishing in particular (even academic publishing!). Two of the strongest proponents for giving away some version of work for free are Seth Godin and Cory Doctorow, and recently, both of them have talked about how people are highly skeptical about their approaches. So Doctorow has decided to try an experiment – which he describes here at Publishers Weekly.

He’s trying to set up a natural experiment by comparing the revenues generated by his upcoming collection of short stories against those genrated by his last. I’m not entirely convinced that the earlier book provides the best control conditions, but I still think it will be interesting to see how this turns out. He will make the book available in a number of versions at different price points:

  • E-book: Free
  • Audio: Free (but donations accepted for both of these versions, if you feel like making one)
  • Print-on-Demand Trade Paperback: $16, probably. This includes the physical book, with one of four covers done by well-known artists
  • Premium Hardcover: $250, only 250 available. High class printing, embossed cover, a sd disk with the ebook included, and custom endpapers which consists of original notes and documents provided by his (often famous) friends
  • Commission a new story: $10,000, one only. Sold months before the project was announced, so almost certainly underpriced

He’s also going to experiment with selling some ads to go in the free versions, and a few other things. The main problem with this experiment is that the people that demand proof that free works aren’t actually interested in proof, or data. If they were, they would doing their own business model innovation instead of trying to pretend that the new ideas are evil and must be shunned.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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5 thoughts on “Cory Doctorow’s great experiment

  1. Agreed Sam! Also, it will be great to see some actual data on this – so it’s cool that he’s going to share that all the way through.

  2. Surely though, it’s easier to give stuff away when you’re already rich or have successful band. it strikes me that people want free stuff, but people also want “free stuff that they might otherwise have paid for” because everyone likes the feeling of getting something for nothing. It’s Ok for Radiohead to say “pay what you want for this CD” because they already have a legio of dedicated fans that love them so much that they’ll pay to support the band. Ditto Cory Doctorow.

    if on the other hand I were to write a novel that was maybe amazing (maybe rubbish, but let’s not go there…) and I put it on the internet for free etc it’d be a struggle just to get people to look at it. I’d still need to spend time, effort and money marketing the book and that would probably necessitite print copies, waterstones, critics and the usual routes… or somehow ingeniously tapping into the vibe of an upand coming community like ScottSigler did

    I’m not trying to undercut your point so much as hopefully add to it – I think that free will only be free when it’s readily embraced by the whole system and not just a one off product/experiment that happens to be given away by an already successful author/artist. I mean, I think that these are proof of something… that the world is changing in biazarre ways we didn’t expect…

  3. Alex, I think those are very good points. The only thing is, Doctorow has done this for every book he’s published. Every single one – so a large part of why he is ‘the famous Cory Doctorow that can get away with giving away books because he’s famous’ is that he’s been doing this exact thing all the way along. As he points out in the article, when he was unknown everyone told him that the strategy only worked because he was unknown. It’s unquestionably easier to get people to look at stuff when you’ve got a name, but there’s something else that also plays a role (at least as big I think) in how well this route works. Tapping into the vibe ingeniously may well be that other thing, or at least a part of it…

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