By Charles StrossMartin Empson
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Interview with Charles Stross – the full text

This article is over 16 years, 9 months old
This is the full text of the interview referred to in Martin Empson's article Electric Reading in the November 2005 issue - it didn't appear in the printed edition.
Issue 301

Is it not strange for an author to post an entire, newly published book online. Surely your publishers must be up in arms about lost revenue?

On the contrary, it wouldn’t have happened without their cooperation – they have the rights to publish my books in electronic form as well as on paper, so their permission was needed before I could do it. Nor is it particularly a new phenomenon, outside of fiction. Bruce Sterling published The Hacker Crackdown in 1992, and released it on the net around 1995; similarly, computer journalist Wendy Grossman released her book Net Wars online in the early 90s.

It’s a bit less common in the field of fiction, but by no means unprecedented. And publishers wouldn’t grant permission for such a give-away if they didn’t expect to benefit from it …

What was behind your decision to publish online like this? Is it simply about publicity?

I’ve been on the ‘net since 1989, and I’ve been increasingly annoyed by the failure of the publishing industry in general to understand and use it effectively.

While the publishing industry is concerned with making money, it’s a bit of a pantomime horse of an industry, one stitched together from a whole bunch of bizarre business practices that have the common characteristic of not having caused some other publishing house to go bust. Nobody stays in the business for long if what they’re really interested in is making their fortune; as an engine of capital accumulation, publishing is a bust (except for a few very lucky individuals). What keeps people in publishing – as writers, as editors, as booksellers – is the practice of putting books in front of the public.

One tool publishers have become accustomed to using in order to keep their heads above water is copyright: anything that involves making lots of uncontrolled copies or giving stuff away makes them itchy because their capitalist instincts whisper “lost sales!” in their ears. But the flip side of free downloads – or library books, for that matter – is new readers. An author with no readers is an author who isn’t going to sell another book. And the biggest enemy of any new author isn’t some guy putting a poor-quality scan of their book on a web site, it’s obscurity.

If readers don’t know you exist, they won’t buy your books – because they can’t. Giving away the e-book edition as a free download is certainly one way to raise your profile among people who’ve never heard of you (it’s free, after all, and we’ve been trained to take anything on offer that comes with a price tag but is available free because it must be worth something). Some of them will like it but not buy the paper edition, which is okay – they’ll tell their friends, and maybe they’ll buy one of my other novels later. Some of them won’t like it and won’t buy the paper edition, and that’s okay too – people have different tastes. What this does, though, is lower the cost of trying out a new book to nearly zero: which means a given reader is much more likely to try it than if you ask them, sight unseen, to plonk down 16 pounds on a hardback by some author they’ve never read anything by.

Has having Accelerando online meant sales of your other works have increased?

It’s too early to say for sure (the e-book release only happened three months ago, and publishing cycles are measured in years). However, I can confirm that the US edition of Accelerando sold out and was reprinted eight weeks after publication. As Ace printed rather more copies of Accelerando than of the previous novel, Iron Sunrise, this was unexpected. Normally a publisher will set their print run as close as possible to their expected sales over a period of about a year to eighteen months; what this demonstrates is that demand outstripped supply by a good margin.

There are big debates going on in the music industry about the downloading of music. Some argue that free downloads lead to higher sales, others the opposite. Do you think there are analogies with what you have done?

Yes. I’m personally quite certain that free downloads are a good thing for 80% of authors and musicians – and possibly for film studios as well. The subset for whom it’s a bad thing are those who have already saturated the market so thoroughly that they no longer need to reach readers/listeners who’re unaware of their work. (In fiction this would be the Stephen King/J. K. Rowling end of things: in music it would be really big names – U2, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones.) They’ve got all the publicity they need, and letting potential customers get the work for free would be disadvantageous to them.

So why doesn’t the music industry – or the film industry – see it this way?

I’d have to say that the explanation is that the big push against free downloading isn’t coming from musicians or authors or film directors, but from big corporations that make their profits by standing guard on the choke-points in the distribution chain. If all your music has to go through a wholesale supply chain in the form of neatly packaged CDs that are sold through chain stores, you can extract enormous profits by simply taking a percentage cut of everything. Free downloads subvert the process by playing to the strength of the artists. Everyone knows that rock bands don’t make their bread and butter off of big label contracts: they don’t even make it from ticket sales while touring. What makes their living is sales of merchandise at gigs – the 25 pound T-shirt and the 12-pound CD, sold direct, with the band taking the entire retail and wholesale cut, are worth ten times as much as a single sale through the normal retail distribution chain. A band that sells 2000 CDs direct to fans can make as large a profit as they would by selling 30-40,000 CDs via a major label.

As an increasing number of musicians figure out that they don’t need the major labels – they just need to reach their fans directly, and the best way to do that is via free samples delivered over the internet – they’re dropping out of the established A&R system and adopting a DIY approach. And this is the kiss of death for the large corporations who hitherto had a death-grip on access to the listening public. Which is why they’re fighting back hard.

Publishing – book publishing – is a lot more sanguine about things. Publishers are a more recent invention than lending libraries, and they’re used to the idea that people might, gasp, read books for free. (Besides, they’ve got much less money at stake and they’re generally much closer to the creative sharp end and the consuming public than the music or film industries.) Even so, there are a lot of folks panicking because they don’t understand that the real implication of free e-books is not a dog-eat-dog deflationary race to the bottom which will leave them poverty-stricken, but as an adjunct to the beleaguered public library system.

Do you think that online publishing and e-books are the future for the publishing industry? Do you think downloading like this will ever become as popular as more traditional book buying?

In the short term, no. Current devices for reading e-books are either too bulky or too expensive or too harsh on the eyeballs. I read e-books, but I’m in a minority.

In the long term – it’s already happening in some sectors. Computer-related technical material was the first to go mostly online, and many universities are now publishing their coursework and textbooks as e-books. This makes sense for students (who don’t need to carry around a stack of dead trees when a slim laptop can hold dozens of books for them), and it hasn’t dented sales of the dead tree versions either (after all, it’s a lot easier to read a paper book in the bath or somewhere with no electricity). When we have an e-book reader about the size of a large paperback, that runs off cheap disposable batteries for more than a day, that has a screen with the same contrast ratio as paper, which is splash-proof, and which (crucially) can be built and sold for less than the price of an expensive hardback, then we’ll see if e-books finally make the move into displacing paper from our affections.

Together with Iain M Banks and Ken Macleod and others, there seems
to be a recent growth in left-leaning science fiction. Your novel “Singularity Sky” deals with political subjects like revolution, the undermining of the state and challenges to society by the arrival of new technology. What would you say your politics were and did those politics inform your decision to publish online in this way?

(Shuffles sheepishly.) If I can start by separating the personal from the public, then speaking personally, I vote Liberal Democrat. The constituency I live in has a New Labour apparatchik as MP and, being north of the border, I have the luxury of not having to worry about accidentally letting a Conservative in if I vote for my conscience. As to why my conscience doesn’t lie with Labour, I tend to consider the defence of the rights of the individual as the most important current problem we face. The past century has demonstrated a consistent failure of the ideologies of the post-monarchical age – a failure of both the left and the right – to forge a future that doesn’t rely on autocracy in some shape or form. Liberty and human rights appear to be precious and deeply endangered qualities in the developed world today, in no small part because we seem to be congenitally unable to avoid reinventing new types of autocracy to replace the broken, old ones – for example, the semi-hereditary elite of CEOs with MBAs now running America. New Labour – the party that has created a new criminal offence every day they’ve sat in Parliament – seems to me to have a nasty autocratic streak running through it, which is sufficiently serious to render them useless as a counterweight to the natural party of authoritarianism (the Conservative heirs of Thatcher).

On economic issues, I’m a pragmatist: whatever maximizes overall wealth and minimizes poverty will work for me, and I’m quite happy to deal with messy solutions – the real world, after all, isn’t a neatly laid-out ideological sandbox. Which is why I’m happy to give away a free e-book edition of a novel. Like all full-time novelists under our current system I’m effectively required to be a self-employed small businessman, and what I’m doing doesn’t fit with conventional free market orthodoxy (gasp, some people might get something they haven’t paid for!), but I never did care much for free market orthodoxy – all too often it’s a fig-leaf for inhumane greed.

Giving away free e-books is an interesting experiment in casting bread upon the waters – and to the chagrin of the likes of the RIAA, it seems to work.


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