Electric Reading

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Free downloads benefit artists and the public.

Charles Stross could be described as the latest in a new wave of science fiction writers coming out of Britain, though his first short story was published in 1987. His books Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise have had rave reviews, and the latter was nominated for the Hugo award for best novel. With his latest novel Accelerando, however, he has taken the unusual step of releasing it for free internet download at the same time as it has been published.

Stross agreed to an interview with me, in which I tried to understand why an author might do this. Knowing that book publishers live or die by their sales, I started off by asking him if they were up in arms about lost revenue. 'On the contrary - it wouldn't have happened without their cooperation,' says Stross. '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 internet around 1995. Similarly, computer journalist Wendy Grossman released her book Net Wars online in the early 1990s. 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 giveaway if they didn't expect to benefit from it.'

Stross went on to explain that he has 'been on the internet since 1989, and I've been increasingly annoyed by the failure of the publishing industry in general to understand and use it effectively. What keeps people in publishing - as writers, editors or 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. 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).'

Stross says that it is too early to say for sure if the experiment has been a success in increasing sales, but already the US edition of Accelerando has sold out, to the surprise of his publishers who had already printed more copies than his previous novel.

Given that there is a major debate in the music industry about the effect on sales of illegal music downloads, I asked Stross if he thought there were analogies with what he had done. He is 'quite certain that free downloads are a good thing for 80 percent 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 are unaware of their work.'

So why is the music industry so against the free downloading of music? Stross says that 'the big push against free downloading isn't coming from musicians, 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.' He goes on to suggest that as more musicians realise they can reach the public directly they won't need the music companies, 'and this the kiss of death for the large corporations who hitherto had a death grip on access to the listening public. Which is why they are fighting back hard.'

Stross also points out that book publishing is slightly different - publishers are 'used to the idea that people might read books for free. 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.'

So does he think that electronic publishing is the future for books? Not in the short term, he explains - 'Current devices for reading e-books are either too bulky, too expensive or too harsh on the eyeballs' - but 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. 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, has a splash-proof screen with the same contrast ratio as paper, 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.'

With writers like Iain M Banks, Ken Macleod and China MiƩville, there has been a growing trend in Britain for left-leaning science fiction. Stross's novel Singularity Sky deals with revolution, class and the state. So I asked what his politics were, and whether they had influenced his decision to publish online.

First of all, Stross admits he votes Liberal Democrat and explained that the constituency he lives 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.' He explained that 'the defence of the rights of the individual is the most important current problem we face. 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.'

He describes New Labour as a party that has 'created a new criminal offence every day they've sat in parliament', and which is 'useless as a counterweight to the natural party of authoritarianism (the Conservative heirs of Thatcher)'.

About himself he says that '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. 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, but I never did care much for free market orthodoxy - all too often it's a fig leaf for inhuman 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.'


Charlie Stross's novel Accelerando can be downloaded from www.accelerando.org.

You can read our review of the novel here.

You can read the full text of the interview here.