So this past Sunday, independent author, J.A. Konrath decided to run an experiment.  In order to prove his theory that piracy doesn’t hurt sales he’s encouraging people to steal one of his books for the next month.  Yes, that’s right – he wants people to freely trade, post, share, and distribute his eBook, Jack Daniels Stories for the next thirty days.  The way the experiment is set to work (note this is my simplified explanation) is that he will keep track of the current sales and ranking of the book on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc. and see how free trading of his books affects their sales.

To help spur this trading/sharing, he’s offering a zip file containing multiple formats of the e-book on his site. He’s also encouraging those who download the file to upload it to all the file sharing sites they use and distribute it in any way possible (or, if they prefer, not distribute it at all).  Basically he’s giving permission for people to steal his book so he can see if it really hurts sales.

The problem with this experiment however, is that it’s really nothing more than a marketing tactic. By giving permission for people to share this book he’s not, in any way. embracing piracy, but rather he’s embracing alternative distribution channels.  Copyright law grants the copyright holder or administrator the right to determine the price and distribution allowed for any work owned/administered, so obviously if he’s telling people to trade the file and download it without payment, that’s his right to do as the copyright holder. All he’s done is lowered the price of this book to zero for the duration of his experiment.  (If this non-price will continue to be enforced once the thirty days are up, and if so, whether he decides to do anything about it are unknown.)

This is the point I’ve been trying to make (and my core argument in Starving the Artist): a creator absolutely should have the right to determine the price and distribution of his or her creation.  If someone wants to give away their work, that’s up to them.  In this instance, however, Konrath is not telling people to download all of his books in eternity for free – nor is he encouraging the more explicit pirates to actually print up copies of his book in printed format and sell them on their own (with no portion of sales going to Konrath).

What this “experiment” is is really nothing more than a version of the “free sample.”

Think of it this way: Let’s say you’re at the grocery store and they are giving out samples of a potato salad they’re trying to sell.  They have little paper cups filled with the potato salad, complete with little plastic spoons for you to eat it.  The goal is to get people to try it out and, provided the potato salad is any good, a percentage of those people sampling it decide to buy a pound for their barbecue.  For extra bonus points some of them even come back next week and buy it again (and the week after that, and the week after that).

Konrath’s experiment is really nothing different.  The blog post promoting this endeavor states, “JA Konrath, known for the Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels thrillers set in Chicago, offers this collection of short stories and novellas from the Jack Daniels universe.”  So what Konrath is doing here is offering one part of a larger whole of product.  In this case, his product is the Jack Daniels thriller brand. In fact, for this experiment it’s actually a sampler of samples, since the book being promoted is a series of short stories.  The point is, if someone downloads this collection and likes it, Konrath wants people to want to read more (and this time, pay for them).

Again, this is just simple marketing: offer part of a whole for free so people can decide if they like it or not, then encourage them to buy either the whole thing or your other, related products. Konrath’s positioning this as “testing if piracy is harmful” is really just semantics – it’s not piracy if he’s allowing it.  What’s more, by engaging in this promotion and all the press it has received (like the article you’re reading, or the one on Techdirt), is this anything more than a stunt to get those who don’t know about him to find out?  Or maybe even to encourage pirates to buy from him to strengthen their argument that piracy doesn’t hurt sales?

So, Joe, this is where my questions come in.  I’ll be interested to see the answers once they’re available.

  1. What percentage of people downloading your book for free read it?
  2. What percentage of increased sales are due simply to the extra press you’re receiving from this promotion?
  3. What percentage of people who downloaded your free book paid for another one?
  4. What percentage of people who downloaded your free book decided that, since you set your price at zero, the rest of your books were worth zero as well?
  5. By pricing your book at zero, have you decided that your work is really worth nothing – and everything above that price point is gratuitous?

Here are my final thoughts:

It’s great to use free wisely; it’s an extraordinarily powerful tool. But by doing so, do we diminish the perceived value of other creative works?

When you give someone permission to take your work, you’re not encouraging piracy. Instead you’re giving away your work. The motives for doing so are yours alone.

J.A. Konrath Is Not “Embracing Piracy” With His Free eBook Experiment
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6 thoughts on “J.A. Konrath Is Not “Embracing Piracy” With His Free eBook Experiment

  • June 1, 2010 at 7:04 pm
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    I partly agree.

    Yes, it’s not piracy. But it doesn’t matter, because a free book is a free book. The point is that if people can get it free, does it affect sales.

    True, it will not be the end-it-all evidence, but if his sales don’t go down, it DOES mean that free books, be it pirated or not, might not affect the sales as much as people fear they do.

    And those 5 points: 1, can’t be known and doesn’t matter. They miss the book, but they wouldn’t have read it anyway. 2, prolly lots of it, but not all. 3. We’ll see it afterwards, maybe. 4. Do you mean that they’ll just pirate the others too? Sales are already up by 200%… 5. Nope, have you ever read what he has said? He definitely wants to get paid for what he does.

    And if he gets heaps of money with free books, and it diminishes other’s value, then it happens. Maybe you should jump in the same bandwagon too?

  • June 1, 2010 at 7:05 pm
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    And yes, it’s semantics. Even if that’s not technically piracy, a free book is a free book and they should affect the sales similarly. Also, not everyone who downloads the books can know they are actually allowed to do so.

  • June 2, 2010 at 6:45 am
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    I’ll say this for J A Konrath. He is posting links on his blog to your blog, and to those of other authors who blog about him.

    I think I saw that he is now citing authors whom he claims are unknowns, along with their Amazon rank.

    Good publicity for them, I suppose. My instinct is to whizz over to the pirate sites, to see if those books are also pirated.

    I’ve a chicken and egg thought coming on.

    I suspect that success precedes piracy, and that is the opposite to the argument that some of Joe’s piratical supporters are making.

  • June 2, 2010 at 11:04 am
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    William,
    If you follow Joe regularly, it seems pretty clear that the “experiment” had a lot to do with his questions about why one of his chargeable books had many more downloads than the free books on Amazon.

    Could the experiment be to validate (or invalidate) the idea that “something is worth what you pay for it?” Perhaps there is a perception that a downloaded book you pay for is perhaps a better book than one you download for free.

  • June 24, 2010 at 1:00 am
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    William,
    I have to admit that I dont know the specific author and case study you cite here but there are some interesting ways to make free content dramatically improve sales.
    In a case where an artist has a large body of work, giving away some representative material in exchange for an email address to follow up and see how the reader liked it and if they want more makes alot more money than it costs.
    In a case where an artist has a series of stories it would be brilliant to give away some of the introduction and plot setting episodes to get new people interested and more importantly , caught up with the current storyline. Who wants to go buy volume 4 in a series if they havent read vols 1,2 or 3 yet? it can actually be a handicap to current sales to have a long timeline of interconnected volumes if a prospective reader considers that ” if I really want to get into this author theres alot of BUZZ about, I’ll have to buy/read like 6 books just to be hip and not able to just get by with this one purchase”.
    PDFs can be secures, even in such a way as to know who opened them, and when. online media can be tracked when its coming from the authorized source and ROI of a marketing FREEBIE content campaign can be pretty easily measured.
    the main achilles heel to a free campaign is if the content sucks, you’ll likely never get a shot to sell em anything.

    anyway, just my 2 cents.
    thanks for raising some interesting points.

    seems like there was controversy around someone giving away something free.
    in the whole vast scheme of things,
    seems like some of those complainers might wanna rethink their priorities if whining about some guy giving his own book away is an important part of their day.
    thanks and take care,
    Bryan
    @Social_media_wi on twitter

  • August 17, 2010 at 7:31 am
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    He mentions on a different article that he could have placed ads for his ebooks.

    But he didn’t 😉

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