The very first academic article I worked on has been published by Tech Trends. It’s called Free: Why Authors are Giving Books Away on the Internet. For the article, David Wiley and I interviewed ten authors who had made some or all of their books available for free on the Internet. Most of the authors we interviewed also used Creative Commons licenses. Our purpose was basically to get the authors’ opinions on five questions:

  1. What motivated you to provide free digital versions of books?
  2. How did free digital distribution affect the distribution of your work?
  3. How did free digital distribution affect the impact of your work?
  4. Are you glad they made your books freely available?
  5. What effect (if any) do you think does free digital distribution have on print sales?

The authors we interviewed were:

  1. Hal Abelson (Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, Blown to Bits)
  2. Yochai Benkler (The Wealth of Networks)
  3. James Boyle (The Shakespeare Chronicles, The Public Domain)
  4. Cory Doctorow (Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom , A Place So Foreign and Eight More, Eastern Standard Tribe, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, Little Brother, Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present, Content).
  5. Leander Kahney (The Cult of Mac, The Cult of iPod).
  6. Chris Kelty (Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software and the Internet).
  7. Lawrence Lessig (Code, Free Culture, The Future of Ideas).
  8. Kembrew McLeod (Freedom of Expression).
  9. Eric Schulman (A Briefer History of Time).
  10. Eric Von Hippel (The Sources of Innovation, Democratizing Innovation).

The authors’ responses are (in my opinion) extremely interesting. Major motivations for making work freely available include “to increase visibility,” “to increase sales,” and “it’s a moral obligation.” All of the authors were glad that they had made they work available for free, and most reported that they thought it had increased the reach of their work. Nobody perceived that sales had decreased as a result.

A few excerpts:

“I think that openness has extended the long tail of my book. It may not have sold a large amount when it was first released, but it continues to sell well. I think part of that is the visibility that open licensing created and the good will it has created.” — Kembrew McLeod

“The number of people who tell me they would never have seen the book had it not been freely licensed is extraordinary.” –Lawrence Lessig

Eric Von Hippel reported that sales of his book were double the publisher’s initial estimates. In addition to these sales, Von Hippel’s book was downloaded 90,000 times from his website.

“The number of people who wrote to me to tell me about how much they dug the ebook and so bought the paper book far exceeds the number of people who wrote to me and said, “Ha, ha, you hippie, I read your book for free and now I’m not gonna buy it.”” –Cory Doctorow

Another facet of paper was a two year case study looking at what happened to sales of Lessig’s The Future of Ideas over the year following it being made available for free. We compared sales of The Future of Ideas with sales of Lessig’s Free Culture (which had been free from inception). I won’t give any spoilers here as to what happened.

I personally gained a lot from talking with these authors and am very grateful for the opportunity I had to work with them. They were kind and gracious in sharing their knowledge and insights.

Special thanks to Tech Trends for honoring the Sparc Addendum, and allowing the article to be placed in BYU’s Institutional repository. You can access the article here.