by J. Daniel Sawyer
Thanks to Amy Gahran for sparking the idea

Literacy is like heroin – it’s habit-forming. The more people try out the habit, the more likely they are to retain it. Exposure to books breeds consumption of books, which is good, because the act of reading requires deliberate commitment. This is important to keep in mind, particularly for those who wish to arrest the publishing industry’s current implosion before it becomes more like the razing of Carthage than the decline of the British Empire.

Despite its pretensions to the contrary, publishing is a business. The novel, the newspaper, the short story, and the magazine were all shaped to fit market niches, not vice versa. Eventually, somewhere along the line, the people who actually produce and polish the content (i.e. the writers, editors, and publishers) have to get paid.

We writers – and the publishing companies that once made a tidy profit off our work – don’t have a divine right to exist. If there’s no market, we go away.


The artificial scarcity strategies that media companies have (unsuccessfully) employed to preserve their markets won’t work for books, even in theory. All DRM is laughably easy to crack or circumvent. Also much DRM strips both content creators and consumers of their rights. Readers, like music fans before them, won’t put up with that. They will pirate instead.
While publishers try to create market scarcity by fiat, writers are trying to stay alive — and readers are trying to figure out how to find the books they want. In the struggle to limit readers’ ability to read the books they pay for, publishers (like the movie and music industries before them) are cutting their own throats, because readers (unlike movie and music fans) have ALWAYS been able to go elsewhere to get what they want. It’s perfectly possible for almost anyone in the western world to read for a lifetime without ever paying a dime for the privilege. That’s been true ever since Andrew Carnegie started endowing libraries.

Therefore, the game for book publishers is different than it is for music or film publishers. People like to search favorite books for quotes. They expect to be able to excerpt passages. They prefer books that are always available. While DRM doesn’t work well for relatively disposable entertainment like pop music and movies, it doesn’t stand a chance in the world of publishing. No copy protection scheme could possibly work, and no reader will endure draconian limits placed on her for long.


Public libraries might be a contained threat for now – but increasingly they are going online like a monster version of Google Books. How can our culture survive that? Authors’ copyrights will be shot, our revenue streams will dry up, and the whole literary establishment of the western world will…

..Oh, wait. I’m sorry, for a moment there I thought I was a record company executive.

But seriously, what of freely available books online? If everything is on Google Books, isn’t our business model blown?

No. Google Books merely samples sections of books – a drug pusher’s trick, wonderful for whetting the reader’s appetite. Our libraries should do the same thing, and go one step further:

Let people rent online access to books.

If someone wants to read a book online — or maintain access to one for a research project, or just have an old favorite at the ready wherever there’s wifi — let him pay a dollar for a week, or $2 for two weeks, or $10 for lifetime access. Let him read it on his Kindle or his Mobi or his laptop or his iPhone. And let it remain on the library’s server accessible only with his library card account.

This approach benefits both authors and publishers by providing a new revenue stream for themselves and for libraries. It creates a new market segment without gerrymandering artificial scarcity. And it does all this without curtailing the existing rights of readers, who may still walk into a library and check out the book, or buy the book in a bookstore.

It might also boost e-book sales: creating a niche market among travelers and others who want access to a broad catalog while away from the ‘net, and who will accept draconian restrictions in exchange.

Of course, there will always be a segment of the literate market who won’t actually read. For a variety of reasons, some readers will always gravitate towards audiobooks. Well, libraries could rent out streaming audiobooks. They could even promote print books with audio samples – call it a “gateway drug” strategy.

The audio sampling method is a proven success. A number of novelists (myself included) are already cultivating new markets by giving away audiobook versions with resounding success. Scott Sigler, the front-runner in this new game, hit the NYT Bestseller list for a print book he’s also giving away online in audio form. His strategy is enough like a drug dealer’s that his fans call themselves “junkies.”


Saving its market won’t be enough to save book publishers — but it will help them survive long enough to fix their other massive internal operational problems. Between print-on-demand, e-books, and Google Book Search, we have the opportunity to grow- the literate market share from its current historic lows, rather than letting it continue to shrink.

If we’re going to do this we must adapt to the market rather than try to strong-arm it into standing still for us. Tom Lehrer had it right for heroin, but he could have been talking about literacy, too. Remember the less on of the Old Dope Peddler:

He gives the kids free samples
Because he knows full well
That today’s young, innocent faces
Will be tomorrow’s clientèle.


  1. The Maryland Digital eLibrary Consortium ( ) has a system for renting e-books, videos, and audiobooks. It’s free with a Maryland public library card, and the downloads expire after 14 days for e-books and audiobooks, and 7 days for videos. And if someone has an item “checked out” you have to wait for it to be “returned” before you can download it. It’s the first system that I’ve seen like this, although I’m sure there could be others out there, but I think it’s interesting.

    I have become a lifelong fan of many authors by discovering them through free media, whether that be libraries or podcasts. If I fall in love with your work, I will buy it and tell all of my friends to buy it too. If I have to buy your book first and hate it, I’m going to tell my friends not to waste their money. If I hate a book I got for free, I’ll just eject it from my life and move on; it’s not worth the effort to trash it publicly. I think the assumption that “why by the cow when you can get the milk for free” is detrimental to these macro-purveyors of entertainment. Even food companies and grocery stores give out samples.

  2. I must say it certainly works for me at Trader Joes. I’m a sucker for their free food samples. If I like it, I usually buy it, and often I will buy it again and again. Why shouldn’t the same thing work with written material? I’ve found that any kind of over-protection backfires. For example, I no longer buy music from iTunes because I’ve had too many problems with their “safeguards” on tracks I legitimately bought causing me to not be able to play or download onto my iPod, and the workaround (and yes I know how to do) is too much of a hassle, I’d rather not own the music at all. Publishing houses are also going to run that kind of risk. If the house becomes to much of a “digital hassle” to deal with, readers will just go elsewhere or, worse, stop reading all together.

  3. Hey Dan, interesting to see where you took this idea

    You mentioned to me recently that there’s a growing business in book “trailers” on YouTube. That’s intriguing. Would love to learn more about that…

    – Amy Gahran

  4. Pingback: Bookmarks for March 9th through March 16th | The Author-izer

Comments are closed.