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Giving Away Free Content As Publishing Industry Shakes Down

The publishing world is increasingly abuzz about its own struggling right now, and talk about the general need for publishers to adapt their business models (the music industry’s failure to seize the digital-distribution opportunity until several years too late is frequently mentioned*) seems to be focusing on two things: e-publishing and free content. I’m inspired to bring this up after participating in the conversation over Seth Godin‘s post at The 26th Story.

In the general realm of business models, it’s far more productive to adapt to a changing market than to complain about said changes. As such, I’ve been fascinated to see how different publishers and writers have been weighing in on the current state of the industry: some are eager to innovate, some are eager to, well, complain. The innovators see a world of possibility but also one of uncharted territory, and so they’re in a constant state of risk assessment. The complainers see a world that’s different from the one that supported their business model for so long, and they don’t like the change. They see other industries as having had it easier when it came to their own business-model shifts in the digital age, and they do a lot of hand-throwing-up at the perceived impossibility of making a go of it in this business climate.

Now, the topic of adapting to an increasingly digital marketplace is something I’d love to dive into, but not right now. The topic I want to swim in right now is that of whether there’s a benefit to giving away things for free.

From the very beginnings of CrochetMe.com, I’ve had a fairly constant opinion of the value of giving away some content and other work for free. I think providing free work can be hugely beneficial to a creative professional, on many, many levels.

It’s been a while since I’ve participated in the conversation about this within the crafts industry. But where the last time I listened the conversation was mostly centered around indie publishers and designers, the greater publishing industry now seems to be changing things up a little. Or maybe they aren’t. I’ve had my head down for long enough that I can’t feel confident in what I may or may not be noticing.

So, what do you think? As a designer or writer, do you give some of your work away for free? If you do, why? And does it “work” for you (where each person might have a different definition of “work”)? If not, why not? As a consumer, do you consume free patterns or writing? If so, do you also pay for some? Do you pay for work by the same people you take free work from? Are there any publishing-industry people who would like to weigh in on the print-digital “divide” and/or on free vs. paid distribution? And finally, do you think what we do in the crafts industry might translate (in ways minor or major) to the greater non-fiction and fiction publishing industry?

* ETA: Shannon pointed me via Twitter to a relevant article in yesterday’s NY Times. A few weeks ago the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild struck an agreement with Google for Google to digitize and sell millions of out-of-print copyrighted books. Read the article; this is a game-changing event. Gotta say, though, I take issue with the first half of this quote: “Until recently, while the music business was decimated by digital piracy, book sales rose, aided by the ability to browse and buy from online stores like Amazon.” The music business (by which I assume they mean the big-label music business) was decimated by its failure to do two things: Listen to its consumers and innovate. As people in publishing squabble over whether comparing music to books is comparing apples to oranges, they are missing this massive point. There is another area where publishing and music overlap entirely: Right now, we’re in the dawning age of digital publishing, and not all books are available digitally. Know which books will be pirated? The ones Kindle and other e-reader owners can’t pay to download because they aren’t available. And while I’m on the topic, another thing publishing should learn from the debacle of the music industry’s transition into the digital age is that DRM should be dead.

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emmajane

Please define “free.” I will assume you mean, “Free to consume.” Of course there are other ways to define free as well: http://www.creativecommons.ca. I've been talking about “free” for a while and I'm (personally) totally into it. The trick is not giving it away for free, the trick is deciding which bits to give away for free.

When you decide to hop on the “for free” band wagon, make sure you're smart about it. People will assume you're only as good as what they can get for free. Therefore, you must give away a sample of your best work. Choose carefully. Think also about how people can consume your freebies. A blog post that scrolls by might have a free snippet or tip that is very useful, but not totally thought out. A downloadable take-away with a permanent link incorporated into your navigation/site structure is different. And consumable products are different again.

Dru Lavigne did a most excellent summary of a talk that I gave a few weeks ago. http://it.toolbox.com/blogs/bsd-guru/fsoss-2008 It's better than the slides because it's an actual summary instead of being a bunch of presentation aids. Dru is also the editors of Open Source Business Resource http://www.osbr.ca/ojs/index.php/osbr, which might be of interest to those of you who are interested in the business of “free.”

emmajane

Hm. Disqus editing != FTW. Tried to add http://www.creativecommons.com….maybe it will appear eventually.

knitgrrl

Thanks for adding that update, Kim. I'm ALL for having things available for sale — Kindle, e-book, PDF, whatever — for me, it's all about the convenience. I will slap down $9.99 ('click down'?) for something on Kindle now now NOW even though I'm pretty sure I could get it from the library, you know? (Or order it used on Amazon and then try to find somewhere to store it).

I'm not *against* this whole Google thing, but what's squicked me out a little bit about the samples I've seen online in Google of my own books is that they'll give a multipage sample — which is one or more full patterns! — and that's very much different than most novels or historical fiction or whatever. 5 pages of “1776”? Who cares? 2 or more patterns from a 20 pattern book? Well, come on…

See, for example: http://tinyurl.com/6gwgjq

More to think about, for sure.

Kim Werker

Yes, it's certainly about choosing which “bits” to give for free
(where an entire work might be seen to be a “bit” of all you can do).
When my power comes back on, I'll read through that summary.

On 10-Nov-08, at 12:12 PM, “Disqus” <notifications-

Kim Werker

Oh, right. “Free” means people don't pay to acquire it–be it a book,
an essay, a pattern, advice, an image, etc.

On 10-Nov-08, at 12:12 PM, “Disqus” <notifications-

pixiepurls

I agree with everything you said about e-books. I only went to project gutenburge when I couldn't find the books I want for cheap on amazon.com kindle store. I'm not paying $7 for a digital version of a public domain work! I've found the gutenburge stuff doesn't formate well even though it's supposed. My big frustration about the kindle is I got a photographers field guide but no way to view the photos online of the detailed graphs etc. I also got a child phycology book and it had several small tables showing various details for certain ages of children and again, I couldn't view it on the kindle. Highly frustrating. I love my kindle but it's annoying how publisher's don't seem to have a clue. I want to be able to buy a hard copy of a book I love and get the discounted digital copy just for ease of reading or so I don't “bend up” my nice copy. I would love harry potter in digital form. I already own the hard copies but it would be nice to keep them in good condition and re-read them on my kindle. Kindle is still too expensive for most of the books. They claim “half price” but it's a bit of spin as amazon never sells those books full price in the hard copy form anyway. In some cases it's only a savings of $2 or $3 which boggles my mind when there is no paper, no transportation etc. Considering my pattern writing business is entirely online (with 10% of the sales going to bright and mortar yarn stores) I like to think I am forward thinking as my business is basically entirely digital (ravelry helped with that and is WAY ahead of its time with the digital downloads/library feature… Read more »

Kim Werker

I wonder if there will be a way for authors to interact with Google to prevent something like ten percent of the patterns in a project book from being shown. I think there might be cross-border issues with what's excerpted; it tells me there's no preview available for Knitgrrl 2. Interesting. I could see a preview of TYV Crocheting, though, and that shows quite a lot from the book. I was a little surprised by how nonplussed I feel about it, though. I wonder how many people might buy our book because they see the preview, versus how many who weren't buying it anyway might make a felted bag from a pattern they keep open in their browser.

knitgrrl

I think part of the problem with the Kindle stuff right now (because if you do it RIGHT, tables, etc all look just fine) is the publishers being lazy with their formatting. Like anything, there's a right way and a wrong way to do it…you can even make photos look fairly decent. Many publishers, I think, are just uploading a PDF and hoping for the best.

julie

Holy cow. I had no idea.

Kim Werker

About what?

julie

Holy cow. I had no idea.

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