Seth Godin gives away the store

Seth Godin, author of a book on a highly dubious concept called permission marketing, is giving away complete PDFs of his new book, Idea Virus. He tells Wired News:

”My feeling is that E-books are going to be free,” he continued. “There are just going to be too many of them. And when you look at the model, you realize E-books have more in common with Internet sites than with traditional books.”

The concept that a writer will get paid for writing may soon be a thing of the past, Godin said. He predicts that corporations will begin sponsoring writers and financing both fiction and nonfiction in order to have content to offer. [...]

He cites his experience with his previous bestseller as teaching him an important marketing lesson. “When we gave away a third of the book for free, more than 100,000 people asked for a sample,” he said. “This led to an instant increase in sales, much to the surprise of my publisher. By going from giving away just a third to sharing the entire thing, I hope to show that digital media wants to be free, and that those who contribute their ideas – and throw up the fewest barriers – are the ones who benefit the most.”

Sigh. A hundred thousand people will look at a sample of a book. Samples are alluring. The sight of an ankle inflamed Victorian woman-lovers. Samples are softcore.

Giving away the whole shebang kills the mystery. It’s also overwhelming. Full disclosure, while appropriate and desirable in a great many milieux online, is too hardcore.

Too hardcore for what?

For writers to survive. Digital media has no intent. It does not “want” anything. It is readily replicated, but capability should not be misread as volition. “Digital media wants to be free” is a mild reformulation of the Wired syllogism “Information wants to be free.” In that case, the catchphrase was used as an excuse to cover up Wired editors’ violation of a Canadian judge’s publication ban in a murder case. We guess that information’s insatiable desires outrank those of the lawfully constituted judiciary. (But we don’t want to hold a grudge.)

The prospect of corporations’ sponsoring book content, while partially at work already, is too shocking to seriously contemplate. Aren’t megalomaniacal media mergers bad enough? Doesn’t anyone remember the “Pepsi Presents Arithmetic” skit from The Simpsons?

– If you have three Pepsis and drink one, how much more refreshed are you? You, the redhead in the Chicago school system?
– Pepsi?
– Partial credit!

Megacorporations already decide who gets published. But at least they’re megacorporate publishers. Heaven help us when GM, Unilever, and Wal-Mart sponsor actual books.

You can give away content voluntarily. Literally tens of thousands of people and corporations do it every day. We’re doing it right now. But to give away an entire book – a brand-new book from a marketable author – is insane.

Ends and means

Godin is quite right. Sales will go up due to his (publicity) stunt. Given the choice between staring at a computer monitor or reading high-res print, smart people choose the latter.

”So,” you retort, “what’s the problem? He can give away his damn book if he wants, and people will endure only so much eyesore before they’ll just pony up for the printed version.” We don’t object to the practice; we object to the principles and the precedent.

Information doesn’t want to be free. Not all content should be given away. With a frictionless system like E-publishing, you may end up paying $50,000 in server costs to recoup $5,000 in payments. (Ask Stephen King.)

Or we’ll end up replicating the music industry, but with a twist (Cf. Steve Albini), where the publisher agrees to E-publish your book for nothing, docks you for server costs, and adds trivial royalties from the few people who paid for the E-book. You never recoup your expenses. It’s sharecropping. And what kind of royalties will you get for the print edition of your book? (Will there even be one?) How about your advance?

Print publishing is an expensive, wasteful system run by cartels. Nonetheless, it’s manifestly superior to Godin’s version of E-publishing. Authors should be paid, and not by some kind of corporate sponsorial interest masquerading as a patron/artist relationship. (Those aren’t books; they’re advertorials.)

Posted on 2000-08-14