Over the past week I’ve been devouring a bunch of Etech 2004 session notes, including one I read today from Cory Doctorow on the subject of e-books. Cory wrote the book Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and released it as a free download on his website in early 2003, under a Creative Commons licence. His book won much acclaim from the blogosphere, particularly for coining the term whuffie – a way of describing reputation as a currency. I read it at the start of this year in its paper edition, ironically loaned from the library (I did pay $1 to reserve it). I’ve downloaded his second novel, Eastern Standard Tribe, and I intend to read that on my Palm PDA.

Which brings me to Cory’s Etech presentation. It raised a number of important and I believe very innovative points about book-publishing. Firstly, Cory thinks that reading books is becoming much more interactive – dare I say, two-way. He writes:

…the shape of ebooks to come is almost visible in the way that people interact with text today, and that the job of authors who want to become rich and famous is to come to a better understanding of that shape.

In an earlier piece, Cory refered to modern readers as “slicers, dicers and copiers”. Much as Napster and Kazaa harnessed the power of the Internet to enable free downloads and mixing of music, Cory is advocating a similar digital revolution in book-publishing. But with one difference – it won’t be a technological innovation like Peer-to-Peer that is the main driver for this. It’ll be innovation in copyright, in the form of Creative Commons. We already have the technology to easily publish our writing – weblogs and websites.

Next we come to the sticky topic of Gettin’ Paid. The fact is, the majority of writers don’t earn lots of money. Most of the public don’t buy fiction. And even I, an English Literature major, tend to borrow books from the library as much as possible rather than shelling out money for them. But I’ll come back to that point. First, here’s what Cory has to say:

I take the view that the book is a “practice” — a collection of social and economic and artistic activities — and not an “object.”

Wow, that’s a big call. Traditionally an artist (be it musician, painter, writer, etc) is viewed by society as a person who creates a piece of art – an object – and we, the clamouring public, pay to consume that art. My copy of the Oxford dictionary defines art as “production of something beautiful”. Art is supposed to be a thing that is produced and then consumed by an audience. I think Cory is saying that a book should be an evolving thing, still produced by a single “artistic” figure – but the production doesn’t stop there. The audience keeps on producing, based on the original production but adding their own bit to the mix.

I have to say, this is a big philosophical step to take. When I did the Nanowrimo novel-writing contest in November 2003, I followed Erik Benson’s suggestion to publish it as I went. I did so using a Creative Commons licence, but one that did not allow other people to take my work and alter it:

No Derivative Works. You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work.

Cory’s now taken the brave step of allowing people to make derivative works of his Magic Kindom novel. This is interesting – for example I could take one of the characters in Cory’s novel and write a brand new novel of my own based on that character. So long as I attributed Cory and released my work under the same Creative Commons derivatives-allowing licence. Imagine if they had this back in Shakespeare’s day – there could be a thousand versions of Hamlet sitting in libraries today.

Come to think of it, they already do it in films. How many movie versions of Hamlet are there? Laurence Olivier, Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh, Ethan Hawke (I didn’t actually know about the Hawke one till tonight!) all played the Danish Prince. All of those actors brought different interpretations to the role. So why not do a different written interpretation of Hamlet, or Down and Out in the Magic Kindgom? Actually there are other interpretations of Hamlet around – e.g. the Klingon Hamlet(!). But that’s because Shakespeare’s works aren’t subject to modern-day copyright. So in a sense Cory is challenging us to turn back the clock of copyright, to when people were free to interpret and build on existing works of art.

Back to the question of how a Writer gets paid when publishing ebooks. Cory says that there is more chance his books will be bought if people can discover them (and discover him) online first. I agree with him there. Even though I’ve only shelled out $1 so far towards Cory’s books, I’m much more likely now to buy his books than I would be if he’d not published them as ebooks. For example, if I read and really enjoy a book I borrowed from the library – or downloaded from the Web – I may go out and buy a copy for my own personal library. And as Liam O’Donnell pointed out recently, it’s all about “data access over (paper) ownership”. Eventually ebooks will be the central form of publishing, because of the data-manipulation opportunities it confers to the reader. So while a writer may not necessarily get paid for ebooks today, they’re investing in the future by publishing their writing as ebooks.

One final thing, I also agree with this summary from Cory about why he writes ebooks:

“The primary incentive for writing has to be artistic satisfaction, egoboo, and a desire for posterity. Ebooks get you that.”
NB: e
goboo = ego boost for seeing your name in print.

Amen to that brother!