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.
- What percentage of people downloading your book for free read it?
- What percentage of increased sales are due simply to the extra press you’re receiving from this promotion?
- What percentage of people who downloaded your free book paid for another one?
- 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?
- 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.