Can Giving Books Away Pay Off? No Starch Press Publisher Bill Pollock on his decision to offer two of his key titles as free downloads.
Bill Pollock, publisher of No Starch Press, is taking a leap of faith that he hopes will pay off for his San Francisco-based company, which specializes in computing titles. After a long struggle against pirated versions of his titles appearing on peer-to-peer (P2P) filing-sharing services, Pollock made a decision last week to essentially give books away for free. He created an official publisher-provided torrent—an electronic file used in online file-sharing—of two of the publishing house’s key titles, author Leander Kahney’s “Cult of Mac” and “Cult of iPod,” available for free download on one of the world’s largest file-sharing communities, The Pirate Bay.
As Pollock waits to see what effect this move will have on book sales, he spoke with Book Business Extra about how he came to make this decision.
Book Business Extra: Why did you decide to provide these two titles as free downloads?
Bill Pollock: The reason we’re doing it is that we have to do something. You watch music publishers fight P2P, [and] it’s a pointless fight. All it’s done is alienate millions of people. … I don’t know if you’ll see the same [level of traffic] with people downloading books as you do with music. But if you’ve got an Amazon Kindle, you may think, “This book is cool, but I really don’t want to pay for it. Someone told me I could go on [an illegal file-sharing site] and fill it up for free.” … This is happening. It’s not going to shrink.
Extra: How much did the core audience of No Starch Press’ readers—who seem to be more computer-savvy—play into the decision to provide these books via The Pirate Bay?
Pollock: We have the best-selling book about hacking right now. I go to probably a dozen hacking security conferences around the world in the course of the year. I know tons of hackers, and I find it a very interesting community. They’re puzzle-solvers; they’re not evil people. … What we’re doing here is very consistent with our community. I’m saying, “We trust you to support us.” …
Extra: How does the traditional book-selling model eventually come into play in this equation?
Pollock: Offering books through file-sharing is a way to take back what I’ve fought [against] personally. I fought book pirates. It’s like playing Whac-A-Mole. You hit one, and another pops up. … But just because we’re releasing [these titles] for free doesn’t mean that I’m giving up all copyright. It’s not giving everything away for free. This is a way that we can control an outlet that we haven’t been able to control. Instead of people saying, “I’ve cracked this book,” we’re saying, “Here it is. Enjoy. This is an official pirate version.” … I’m going to use this as a way to let people know that these books are out. Ultimately, I want people to buy the book.
We’ve been selling PDFs of our books from the beginning. There’s no [digital rights management (DRM) on the files]. They’re completely unlocked. I have a note on the [No Starch Press] site that says, “Treat them like a book.” … I can tell every publisher out there that any lock that they put on [a file] is going to be broken. I know that 100 percent. … All you need is one copy to be unlocked. Once it’s out there, it’s gone. … Instead of wasting time on this, let’s think of the fundamental problem we have as an industry—visibility.
Extra: How will providing the full versions of these two titles via P2P provide more visibility or help sales?
Pollock: If you really like “The Cult of Mac,” and you’re a Mac fan, you’re going to go out and buy it. … My argument … is it all comes back to visibility. … If I can find a way for [consumers] to know about [our books], I’m going to sell more books. People still like the printed book. …
Extra: Have you gotten any feedback yet from people in the industry?
Pollock: … The word is just getting out. I haven’t heard anything from friends of mine. What I expect to hear from some authors is, “I’d like you to try that with my book.” There will probably be a couple that are particularly concerned. …
Extra: What are your long-term goals for this experiment? How long before you expect to see a reward from this, or before you decide that it just didn’t work?
Pollock: We’ll have a sense in three months. I’m going to watch it for now [and] see what it does. … We’re definitely thinking of doing more stuff like this, but the challenge is to figure out a business model that can take this into account and monetize it. … If you’ve got customers who support you, you’re going to find customers that want to keep you around. People will support you, especially if you give them a great product. You’ll see the sales. Quality sells.