It's been five months since Timothy Ferriss launched his bold experiment in modern publishing. The best-selling author bypassed the "big six" publishers, signed with Amazon and, as if that weren't unconventional enough, partnered with BitTorrent to help promote his new book, The 4-Hour Chef.
The whole thing seemed almost designed to generate press, which it did. But now for the important part: Did the experiment work?
It sure looks that way. Despite being boycotted by Barnes and Noble and other bricks and mortar retailers, Ferriss's book has sold over 250,000 copies and landed on all the major bestseller lists.
Of course, Ferriss is a well-known and established author, which helps. So does signing with Amazon, which is powerful enough to send the U.S.'s biggest brick-and-mortar book retailer into a book-banning fury.
But as mighty as Amazon is, being banned from big-box retailers is a serious handicap. To compensate, Ferriss had to forge some unexpected partnerships, such as with smaller retailers and Panera Bread, the sandwich shop chain. He also teamed up with BitTorrent, through which he published a 680-megabyte bundle of bonus content, including behind-the-scenes videos, a sample chapter and author notes.
Can BitTorrent Actually Drive Sales?
"To be honest, I was initially skeptical about how many sales would result from BitTorrent," says Ferriss. "After all, that's where people go to get stuff for free, right?"
Indeed, most people associate the P2P filesharing protocol with pirating movies, music, software and yes, books. BitTorrent, Inc has been busy trying to shed that reputation, in part by partnering with well-known content creators like Ferriss, even if they're somewhat nervous about the idea.
"It turns out that I couldn't have been more wrong," he says. "The click-through rates from BitTorrent to Amazon were higher than anything I've ever seen through paid advertising. Orders of magnitude higher."
More than 880,000 people have clicked through to The 4-Hour Chef's Amazon landing page. Amazon doesn't offer its authors conversion metrics, so it's hard to say how many of those people actually purchased the book. But it's an impressive amount of exposure. BitTorrent also sent nearly 300,000 people to the book's video trailer on YouTube and over 327,000 to Ferriss' website. Not bad.
The Piracy Question
But there's an elephant in the room: piracy. Just as easily as they can grab Ferriss' 4-Hour Chef promotional bundle on BitTorrent, users can find pirated copies of all three of his books.
"If someone is willing to spend time finding a legit bootleg source and reading a DRM-broken hard-to-read copy of my book on a computer screen not intended for reading, just to avoid spending $12 or so, they weren't ever my core audience to begin with," Ferriss says. "If I get them, it's nothing but bonus points."
So, the Amazon/BitTorrent publishing hack seems to be working, for Ferriss at least. There are lessons to be learned here, but with the usual dose of caution. In the same way that Radiohead didn't single-handedly make "pay what you want" a viable model for all musicians, Ferriss's example is going to be of limited value to new authors.
Still, it demonstrates the potential of today's platforms and protocols when it comes to one-upping long-entrenched players and leveling the playing field a bit. We all can't be Tim Ferriss, just like we all can't be Justin Timberlake. But just as the Internet has opened a new potential path to success for YouTube pop singers, platforms like Amazon and BitTorrent could be where tomorrow's authors find their audiences.