Back in 2003, I was the first writer to use a Creative Commons license in connection with a commercially published novel—my first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (Tor) was released as a freely shareable e-book the same day it came out in stores. It's now gone through several printings, has made me a fair bit of money, been widely translated—commercially and noncommercially—and it's been followed by three more novels, including the New York Times bestseller Little Brother (Tor Teens, 2008), all of which are also available as free, remixable downloads. Two more novels are on their way on the same terms.

I've also published two collections of short fiction reprinted from magazines, A Place So Foreign and Eight More (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2004) and Overclocked (Thunder's Mouth, 2007), both critically well received, award winning and excellent sellers. Finally, I've also done a collection of essays, Content (Tachyon, 2008), and IDW published a graphic novel collecting six of my stories adapted for comics, Cory Doctorow's Futuristic Tales of the Here and Now (2008), under these very same terms.

Free e-books work for me. I've been a full-time writer since I quit my day job as European director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (a charity that works for online civil liberties) in January 2006. Since then, I've made my living through a combination of royalties and licenses (foreign translations, film options, etc.); earnings from Boing Boing, the popular blog I co-edit and co-own; speaking fees; column writing; and the occasional grant, teaching gig or residency. Mine is the semirandom hodgepodge of income sources that characterizes most of the freelancers I know, as skills, circumstances and capacity dictates.

Still, this business of my giving away e-books is a controversial subject. I encounter plenty of healthy skepticism in my travels, and not a little bile. There's a lot of people who say I'm pulling a fast one, that I'd be making more money if I didn't do this crazy liberal copyright stuff, or that I'm the only one it'll ever work for, or that I secretly make all my money from doing stuff that isn't writing, or that it only works because I'm so successful. Of course, when I started, they said it only worked because I was so unknown.

People want proof that this works—that I'm not deluded or a con artist. But it's hard to prove. I don't have a time machine I can use to republish all my books without the free downloads and compare royalty statements. And the skeptics aren't the only people who claim I've got it wrong. There are also the True Believers. The True Believers are the people who say that I'm a fool to give 90% of the cover price of my books to the publisher and bookseller. After all, I have three or four million people a day who read my blog. I could just self-publish all my material and get it directly into the hands of my readers, and pocket the lion's share of the income.

I'm a contrarian on both of these propositions: that I'm losing money by giving away e-books, and that I'm losing money by using a publisher. I have a nice little Goldilocks gig going—not too hot, not too cold, just the right amount of DIY, independent publishing and just the right amount of professional support and administration from my publisher to sell. But I'm as curious about both propositions as anyone. While it's fun to argue about whose intuition is more correct, I think facts on the ground beat a priori assumptions every time. So I've come up with an idea to get some facts in evidence, while making some money and raising a little hell.

The Experiment

Here's the pitch: the book is called With a Little Help. It's a short story collection, and like my last two collections, it's a book of reprints from various magazines and other places (with one exception, more about which later). Like my other collections, it will be available for free on the day it is released. And like my last collection, Overclocked, it won't have a traditional publisher.

Let me explain that last part: Overclocked was published in January 2007, just weeks after Advanced Marketing Services, the parent company of Publishers Group West, which distributed Thunder's Mouth, the publisher for Overclocked—went bankrupt. You remember Advanced Marketing Services. What a mess. First, a senior executive was arrested and convicted of fraud for falsifying the company's earnings, then the company tanked, and the resulting whirlpool threatened to suck half of New York publishing down with it. As a result, Thunder's Mouth went though a series of mergers and acquisitions. My editor and then his replacement both left or were let go (I never found out which). By spring, no one was communicating with me.

Later that year, I did a kind of self-financed minitour, piggybacking on speaking gigs, and every time I went into a bookstore it seemed like I was seeing another edition of the book with a different publisher's name on the spine. The book's currently listed in Perseus's catalogue, for which I am glad. The royalty checks keep coming, and the book continues to do well, but I could no longer be said to have any particular relationship with this publisher. As far as I can tell, it is listing the book in its catalogue and filling orders, but not much else.

This makes Overclocked into a fine control for my little experiment. It is a good book. It sold well and was critically acclaimed. But it is solidly a midlist title, a short story collection published by a house turned upside down by bankruptcy. It will be the baseline against which I compare the earnings from With a Little Help. And those earnings will be diverse—like the musicians who've successfully self-produced albums in a variety of packages at a variety of price points (Radiohead, Trent Reznor, David Byrne and Brian Eno, Jonathan Coulton), I have set out to produce a book that can be had in a range of packages and at a range of price points from $0.00 to $10,000.


Doctors swear an oath to do no harm. For this project, I've taken an oath to lose no money. That means that my capital expenditures have to be as low as possible. In the ideal world, every object I make available will either cost nothing to produce or will be physically instantiated only after it has been ordered and paid for. With this in mind, let me run down the packages.

E-book:free, in a wide variety of formats

I have always released my books in three formats (text, HTML and PDF formatted for two-column portrait printout), and my readers have always followed up by converting them to an astonishing long tail of other formats for their preferred readers. I maintain the three canonical files, updating them to fix typos, etc., but I don't attempt to do this with reader-conversions; it'd be way too much work. One advantage to having so many geeky readers is that they find it rewarding and easy to hack together automation tools for me. Vaskin Kissoyan, a reader in the U.S., recently sent me a beta of a package called “Ange” that he's written to single-source my master text files into HTML, PDF and EPub, so that all I need to do is make an edit in the text file and run the script, and it converts the updated file to all the other formats and uploads them for me. There's a reason this collection is called With a Little Help!

Audiobook:free, in a wide variety of formats

I've always taken great pleasure in reading my works aloud. I've done 150-plus installments of a podcast of me doing just that. But I'm no pro. However, many of my friends are pro voice actors, and I've called on them to each record one of the stories from the book. The impressiveness of the roster is incredibly gratifying to me, including as it does such voice talents as Wil Wheaton, Mary Robinette Kowal and Leo Laporte, as well as pals like voice actor Emily Hurson and CBC radio personality Jesse Brown; colleagues like Spider Robinson, JC Hutchins and Hugh Spencer; and fans like Roy Turnbull.

Not only am I an amateur when it comes to readings, I'm a total noob when it comes to mastering audio. Again, a reader saves my bacon: John Williams of DC's Wryneck Studios is a talented sound engineer who got fed up with the poor quality of my podcasts, so he's been mastering them for me for some months now. He'll be doing the same for all these disparate recordings, and I've offered him a cut from the net of sales of the CD/DVD versions of the audio.

These recordings are Creative Commons licensed, and I'll be approaching all the major science fiction and tech podcasts—to which I am a frequent contributor and guest—to include as many as they'd like in their feeds. Science fiction podcasting is pretty concentrated, and I expect that I'll reach a good 300,000 fans with this expedient. There's also some supplementary material in the audio edition: the introduction, written by Internet rock star Jonathan Coulton, will be read aloud by him as well; the afterword, written by my agent, the publishing veteran Russell Galen, will likewise be voiced by him.

Donations:whatever happens

I have never solicited donations for my works before, despite the urgings of True Believers who would like to see my publisher cut out of the loop, because I wanted to be sure my publisher was in the loop. This time around, I'm the publisher, so let's see what people are interested in giving.

Print-on-Demand trade paperback:$16 (approximately; price TBD) produces beautiful books, objects that look every bit as good as the Lightning Source trade paperbacks that Ingram will sell you, provided you know what you're doing when you design them. A designer, I am not. But John Berry, who designed my essay collection, Content, for Tachyon, is. He's a legendary typographer and type designer, and is also a pal of mine (the book is called With a Little Help, remember) and he's agreed to do the interiors and help with the overall package for a percentage of the net from book sales.

For the covers, I've approached four different cover artists: Hugo winner Frank Wu, SF writer and painter Rudy Rucker, veteran Rick Lieder and honcho Pablo Defendini, who produced the art-heavy serialization of my forthcoming novel, Makers, for as well as running up a stupendous fan-art poster for my last novel, Little Brother. The book will be available with all four covers, and I will also be on the lookout for suitable pieces of art to license for limited-edition covers that I'll sell at a premium for a week or two.

I'm also offering a custom-cover package for people running events or giveaways: for a setup fee (I'm thinking $300, but that's not fixed in stone), I'll sell you as many copies at Lulu's cost as you'd like with your own cover on it.

Proofing and copyediting are less onerous here than they would be in a work of original fiction. All of these reprints have already been through a copyedit and proofing pass at the magazines where they were originally published. But I'm also lucky to be the son of Dr. Roslyn Doctorow: my mom is a king-hell proofer who routinely finds typos and even character-name switches that are missed by my editors, copyeditors and proofers. Naturally, she's not charging me for the service (thanks, Mom!).

Now, lots of people have used POD as a way of avoiding a lot of sunk costs in publishing ventures. But I want to see how far I can push it. With my previous books, my readers have sent in typos as they discovered them and I've fixed the electronic texts immediately, storing up lists of changes for my publisher to incorporate in future printings. But POD means that I can fix typos as soon as they're reported, and what's more, I can add an acknowledgment to the reader who caught it on the page where the correction appears, as a footnote. I have a feeling that readers will happily buy a second copy of the book in order to have a printing in which their name appears.

Premium hardcover edition:$250, limited run of 250 copies

My office is in Clerkenwell, in London, close to several artisanal binders and some damned fine printers. My favorite binder is the venerable, family-owned Wyvern Bindery, which has agreed to bind a fine limited edition of With a Little Help for £20 a copy, in quantities of 20. The interior pages will be printed by Oldacres of Hatton Gardens, which will do them on all-rag stock for £17 each. Of course, hand-bound hardcovers are pretty common stuff. So, in keeping with the “nothing exceeds like excess” ethos of the project, I've come up with three very nice bonuses for the books.

First, embossed on each cover will be an original illustration of me as a superhero in cape and goggles, drawn by Randall Munroe, creator of the immensely popular XKCD Web comic (Randall frequently features me as this character in his strips, and it's become such a running gag that I'm routinely greeted at speaking gigs by fans bearing goggles and capes for me to wear).

Second, also embossed into each cover will be a rectangular indentation, just the right size for an SD card containing the full text of the book and all the audio. I'm going to use the nifty SanDisk cards that fold in half and plug right into your USB slot, for PCs that don't have built-in SD readers. The cards are glued into the cover with a dot of rubber cement, and so you have to decide whether to leave the book in “mint” condition and download the electronic material, or to play with the new toy—the perfect collectible conundrum.

Finally, every book will have unique endpapers made from paper ephemera solicited from writer friends, ranging from William Gibson and Neil Gaiman to Kelly Link and Eileen Gunn. These have been coming in all summer and they run the gamut from the wrenching (Jay Lake's cancer diagnosis) to the uplifting (Joe Haldeman's watercolors) to the uproarious (Kathe Koja's second-grade report cards). These will also be scanned and made available as a free, Creative Commons—licensed Flickr set.

Commission a new story:$10,000 (one only)

I probably underpriced this, but it's too late now. The idea was to give my readers the chance to commission a story to be added to the collection at a later date—thus benefiting from an additional burst of publicity and possibly selling a second copy of the “expanded edition” to people who wanted to get the compleat text. I thought $10,000 was a nice high number, but attainable, maybe the kind of thing a co-op of readers could come together to buy, a little existence-proof of the wonders of crowdsourcing, etc. As a sweetener, I threw in a half-page ad for a “mutually agreeable” cause, product or service.

But back in June, as I mentioned this over lunch with Mark Shuttleworth, the South African tech millionaire responsible for the Ubuntu Linux project (and also the first civilian to go into space as a tourist, courtesy of the Russian space agency), and he immediately bought it. And a few readers have come forward since to say they'd have happily gone $10,000 to commission their own story. Makes me think I'll ask for $20,000 next time around. I think this is what the economists call “price discovery.”


Since the paperbacks are print-on-demand, and the electronic files can be trivially modified, I'm going to sell a single ad unit on a time-limited basis: a half-page, or 500 pixels square, or five lines of text (depending on the image), at a price to be determined, in month-long increments. After a month, I'll remove the ad from the downloads and the print templates.

Donations of books:TBD

Since the publication of Little Brother in spring 2008, I've run a donation program for my books wherein I ask librarians, teachers and people who work in other “worthy” institutions (halfway houses, shelters, hospitals, etc.) to put their names down for free copies. I publish this list online and mention it in the introductions to all the digital copies of the works. Public-spirited readers who want to donate a copy go to the list, pick and then order a copy for them from their favorite bookseller, electronic or physical. They send me the receipt and I cross off the names. I've sold several hundred hardcovers this way, which comes into real royalties, a substantial lift to my sales figures, and many, many happy readers. Up until now, I've paid an assistant to do the hard work on this, going through the solicitations to ensure they come from legit people, updating the Web page as requests are filled. This is expensive and cumbersome. This time around, my agent, Russell Galen, has offered the services of his agency to handle that, and Lulu has offered to automate the process somewhat.

The Results

That's how the money is going to come in. To be honest, I have no idea how much money that will be ($10,000 has already come in, of course). But I do know what I'll do about it. I'm going to disclose it, all of it, every month, in a running tally in a monthly column here in Publishers Weekly. And incidentally, this article is grossing me all of $900, less my agent's 15% commission, and the columns $400 hereafter. I will then put this into an appendix, which will be added to new editions of the book and compared to the revenues from Overclocked. That's as close to an apples-to-apples comparison as I can come up with, but I think it will speak well to the question: what's the best a writer like me can do on his own, versus with a traditional publisher for whom he does everything he can to aid in book sales?

There's plenty more details, of course—how I'm going to use Twitter, what I'm going to do to get this into bookstores, the marketing and publicity plan. But I'm out of space for this month—and many of those details will fill a column on their own. One thing I need to mention, though: I'm seriously considering writing a book about the experiment, no matter how it turns out, selling it to a traditional publisher and adding the advance to the balance sheet.

Read Cory Doctorow's Column Monthly in 'PW'
With the digital revolution well underway, these are interesting—and sometimes uneasy—times for the publishing world. So we are especially delighted to announce that Cory Doctorow—bestselling author, Boing Boing blogger and one of the world's most forward-thinking culturists—will be a monthly columnist for PW. Cory's column, With a Little Help, will run in the first issue of each month and will be freely available online on the PW site. In the column, Cory will detail his specific experiences with his latest self-publishing effort, as well as his broader thoughts on the issues he—and many of you—are facing in the new publishing economy.

At this year's inaugural Tools of Change conference at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Cory made waves with his presentation (referring to advocates of DRM as “the real pirates”)—and we expect he'll make some waves here, too. We know you'll find Cory to be at once entertaining, thought provoking and challenging as well. We realize what might work for Cory may not work for you. But we're certain that the insights he'll deliver will help you think more deeply about your books, your business—and your future.