Cory Doctorow (the EFF) Interview

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EFF Outreach Co-ordinator. Published Author. eBook Pioneer. Cory Doctorow is all of those things and more. Ewan cathces up with him and in the first part of his interview, he talks about eBooks, publishing online, and how this new market for authors is developing.

Cory Doctorow and his BooksThose of you who've had even a passing interest of legal issues and copyrights on the Internet will recognise the name of The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Working for them is Cory Doctorow, a noted commentator for electronic civil liberties, technical policies and standards, and he's one of the most well know public faces of the EFF. He's also causing a lot of people to pay attention to his career as a Sci-Fi novelist as he sits on the bleeding edge of eBooks. Ewan caught up with him after a talk at Edinburgh University.

ePostcards From The Edge

It's easy to find out what Cory's doing now, but what are his roots? "I dropped out of four Universities in two years. The last drop-out was when I went to work for a CD-ROM house in New York. The bottom fell out of that market, and I went through some hoops doing commercial programming and some tech services. I was CIO of a film company, then an ad agency, and eventually co-founded a company, doing an Open Source Peer to Peer(P2P) file transfer program. Once the lawsuits started hitting sites like Napster and Audio Galaxy, our financiers freaked out. We sought good legal advice from the EFF, and when I left the company, I went to the EFF and been there ever since."

"All my experiences have come together in the public speaking role I have with the EFF. We're the guys who made sure you could have cryptographic technology in your browser, and made sure your email couldn't be intercepted without legal permission, to name two things."

As well as the EFF, Cory's an honest to god, been published, got a book out, writer, aren't you? "I sure am. My first book was a non-fiction title, written alongside Karl Schroeder. It was called The Complete Idiot's Guide To Publishing Science Fiction. At that point I was doing a lot of short stories, and that book gave me the confidence to go out and do my first full length novel, Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom. I've made the short list for the Nebula Award last year for a short story called 0wnz0red and this year for my novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and I just won for the Locus award for the best first novel, as well as the Sunburtst Award for best Canadian Book for my short story collection, A Place So Foreign and Eight More" So it'd be fair to say that the novels are a part of your livelihood and not just a little hobby? "Yeah, sure."

Cory's novels are tailor made for those of us living on the technological edge of the 21st century. His third novel (Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town) is an urban fantasy based around wireless community networking in Toronto. And only a tech-head would understand the work in progress title of usr/bin/god. The former will be out in Feb, 2005, the latter in 2006.

"I'm also looking at a joint project with Charlie Stross about the first multi million dollar heist in a Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game." So watch out pocket Kingdom fans. "I'm still doing short stories. The next set are all named after famous science fiction novels as a nose thumbing to Ray Bradbury for claiming Michael Moore was stealing Fahrenheit 9/11 from Farenheit 451. For a champion of free expression to go around calling people crooks for riffing on his titles is madness. So I've just finished two short stories, called "Anda's (Ender's) Game" and "I Robot."

eBooks, Sales and the New Frontier

With all the EFF talk of P2P networks and file sharing, Cory must hear the argument "how would you feel about your novels freely circulating on the internet?" What they fail to realise is Cory's personal website carries the full text of his novels and most of his short story collection as plain text files. "ASCII is the new PDF, that's what I say to them. Hundreds of thousands of copies of my books are in circulation. Half a million downloads of the novels from just my website, plus all the emailed copies, the copies on the P2P networks... it's out there, and yes, it does lend a moral authority to the day job."

So the simple question to Cory is why? Settle down folks, because one thing Cory is good at is going on at great depth on subjects he believes in. And the future of eBooks is one of those subjects. "There are answers that cover the short, medium and long term. Everyone needs to realise that the thing the internet is good at is copying files, especially text files, between different locations. It is not a bug that needs cured, it doesn't need fixed, it's what makes the internet work. More people are reading more words from more screens everyday. It's not going to be long before the majority of text people read is in a digital format."

"If I am going to be a writer, earning a living in the era of digital text, I need to understand where the opportunities are. They won't disappear, they'll just be different, and need to be recognised. In the last days of Vaudeville Theatre, they sued Marconi because radio was killing Vaudeville, where you had to pay to go into a relatively small room to listen to music and voice. But it didn't kill music, the outcome was a thousand times more music, making a thousand times more money, reaching a thousand times more people. But in the short term, there was panic. If digital text will result in hundreds more authors, with hundreds more novels, I need to be in the middle of eBooks. I need to be heavily engaged. All those people downloading my text is good news."

Cory is prone to littering his beliefs with clear examples that easily relate to modern legal problems and practices. the overriding idea is that things change, and every time there is a change the old companies rarely adapt in time, and try to use the law against the innovators. The digital age, with everyone carrying a computer in their pocket, has already started.

"There are people already sharing eBooks out there," Cory continues, "and they do it simply because they love books. You don't buy a second copy of a book, cut the spine off, lay each page on a scanner, run that .tif through an OCR (Optical Character Reader), hand edit the resulting output for errors and then post it online if you don't love the book. it can up to 80 hours to turn a printed novel into an eBook. I figure if someone out there is willing to put in 80 hours of work promoting my book, then I'd prefer they do it in a way that gives a better return to me."

"And it is promotion. My publisher, Tor Books, have some modern methods that allow them to make a profit on as little as 3,000 copies of a hardcover novel. The traditional methods would need a print run of 50,000 paperbacks. That means Tor can afford to have tons of first novelists every year on much shorter runs. But then the marketing effort is diluted to cover all those authors. It's not possible to make a good living from being a mid-tier author, just selling in the bookshops. I need to promote myself, with all the tools I have."

"is it any different to loaning a book to someone? There was a book in the US (Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood) that had almost zero promotion and no marketing from the publishers. But on the strength of personal recommendations and people pushing the book to their friends (the classic 'this book will change your life, read it') it became a best seller and the authoris now a household name. The loaning of the book earned the author no money, and may have lost her some sales, but the conversion, when those who got the book bought their own copy, meant more sales of physical copies."

"if I want to enable my readers push copies to their friends, and they're in circles like Slashdot, Wired, Boing Boing, who never meet face to face, just online, well i need to give it to them in a suitable format so they can do whatever they need to do with it. SMS, MMS, Email, FTP, Cut and Paste, P2P, all are valid."

"Put simply, I want to treat my readers as partners and not crooks. There is no future in calling your most active promoters crooks."

"Finally, in the short term it's really obvious. People need to hear about my book, and if they've found out about it and buy it, I make money. The net cost of eBook distribution from my website is approaching zero. With half a million downloads of Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom, it doesn't matter if my conversion rate is a tiny percentage, it's still doing incredibly well in physical sales. The first print run of 10,000 was sold out in months, and so was the second print run. The hardcover was twice the size of a normal run, and it's on it's second run as we speak. The numbers are modest on the scale of the Internet, but that gives you an idea of what the stakes are in science fiction publication. To raise the stakes, you need to go outside the traditional realm. If I rely on just the bookstore sales, I won't make a living. Putting it online does not put my livelihood at risk, you make a living finding new ways to do business."

Phew. Remember all this has come from a single word question, 'why.' It's hard to put over the enthusiasm Cory shows when talking. None of the above appeared rehearsed, it just poured out of him like liquid gold, stutters, pauses, moments of reflection. But one stream of consciousness. When people say eBooks are going to kill publishing, Cory really does makes it sound like they're the Vaudeville acts he mentioned earlier. I wanted to know what his publishers thought of all this. After all, most publishers would want every single right for themselves.

"Tor sat down and said 'the future of text is digital. We don't know what it'll look like or what the market opportunities are going to be. The stakes with Cory are very low, so why not take the risk?' So my editor (who I met online through the GEnie BBS system, many years ago) thought it was definitely the right time when I broached the subject with him. There was no question that I was the right author. The potential upside of the deal was very promising."

"What Tor and I have found now is that we get advanced notice of everything happening in eBook publishing. When people do research, or write new software, or see the interaction of 14 years olds with eBooks, they can use dummy text (lorem ipsum) which is great for testing but not reading. They can look at a Project Gutenberg text - but all that happens then is they get a 14 year olds reaction to Chaucer. Or they can grab a modern text, designed to be put into new formats and eBook readers. I posted the text as .txt, MS-Word and HTML, under the Creative Commons licence. When someone converts to another format, they post it back on my site. You want a list of every eBook format out there? It's on my site. Students the world over email me and say they used that as the almost definitive list. There's even an Apple Newton version!"

Has it been a success though, I ask. "I don't know," replies Cory. "I don't have another first novel that wasn't pushed electronically to compare it to. But the book itself is doing very well. Looking at other publishers, a good example is Baen Books , who do a lot of multi volume series of books. From experience, they know how much volume 13 should sell based on the sales of boook 12. So when volume 13 comes out, they bundled a CD-Rom with eBook versions of the first 12 books. They also hosted these eBooks online for free. When this happens, the sales of volume 13 were beyond expectation, and volumes 1 through 12 see a bump in sales as well."

"What little empirical evidence is out there points to eBooks and free downloading increases sales on a net basis."

Coming up in part two of the interview, Cory talks about the wireless market, from mobile phones and pricing plans to ad-hoc networks and co-op GSM stations.


Boing Boing, A Directory of Wonderful Things.

Cory's Hompage,, for eTexts of his novels.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The All About Symbian Guide To EBooks.