Counterintuitive counting

You know those greedy media companies who are so afraid of relaxing control over every aspect of a book’s/song’s/movie’s commercial life that they crush innovators trying to add value, sue the fans on whom their livelihood depends, subvert public policy, poison international treaties, and spend more money on lawyers and lobbyists than on, you know, actually producing more of the content they guard so jealously?

I have a data point for them.

Fourteen years ago I wrote a book called Writing GNU Emacs Extensions. It was a technical book on an obscure topic, with a decidedly limited audience. I had some modest income from it for a few years, then the royalties petered out to less than nothing — not surprising, since it had become very outdated with respect to the latest versions of Emacs, the technology it described.

Around that time, eBooks were starting to get big. My publisher, O’Reilly, asked whether I would consent to making my book available online, at a lower sale price, in a format that would all but ensure the spread of pirated copies. Why not, I thought, and agreed.

Sure enough, pirated copies of my book now exist on the web, but something else happened — sales began to increase again. My royalties went from a low point of negative $1.71 for 3q2006 to a whopping $78 in the check I received yesterday! …OK, $78 isn’t exactly whopping, but it’s positive — much more so than -1.71 — and represents a sales volume for my old, outdated, limited-appeal book that O’Reilly and I haven’t seen in probably ten years.

So greedy media companies, relax your intellectual property sphincters, let the content flow, and enjoy the multiplier effect that comes from making your titles more available instead of less. For as Princess Leia™ warned, “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin,™ the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” (® and © 1977 Lucasfilm Ltd. and 20th Century Fox.)

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