Tangible assets

As a certified, dyed-in-the-wool Internet Person, I am forever mystified by the electronic hills that publishing chooses to die upon.

If you're going to get into a life-or-death struggle with Amazon, it certainly shouldn't be over book pricing or co-op—it should be over data.

I just came off a US tour for my YA novel Homeland, which Tor Teen published in the US in February, and which Titan will publish this coming September in the UK. I went to 23 cities in 25 days, a kind of bleary and awesome whirlwind where I got to see friends from across the USA—Internet People to a one—for about 8.5 minutes each, in a caffeinated, exhausted rush.

Inevitably, I had this conversation: "How's the book doing?" and I got to say: "Oh, awesome! It's a New York Times and Indienet bestseller!" (It stayed on the NYT list for four weeks, so I got to say this a lot). And then, always: "So, how many copies does that
come out to?" And my answer was always, "No one knows."

This is where the Internet People began to boggle. "No one knows?"

"Oh, there's some Nielsen reporting from the tills of participating booksellers—you can get that if you spend a fortune. But there's no realtime e-book numbers given to the publishers. We'll all find out exactly how the book performed in a couple of months."

And that's where they lost their minds. The irate squawks that emerged from their throats were audible for miles. "You mean Amazon, Apple and Google knows exactly who comes to their stores, how they find their way to your books, where they're coming in from, how many devices they use and when, and they don't tell the publishers?"

Making a guess

Yeah, that's about the size of things. When Amazon or Google want to test out a commercial proposition—moving a certain button a few pixels over to see how it performs relative to the old spot, say—they get to make the change, run it against a few thousand users, and examine the data on the spot. When a publisher wants to try out new cover art or different catalogue copy, it makes the change, waits six months or a year, and makes a guess about whether that was a good idea or a bad idea.

Is it any wonder that the e-book channel is running circles around publishing? They've chucked in all kinds of creepy, privacy-invading rubbish that lets them know how and where you're reading, which search terms you're using to get to where in the book, and they won't even share it with authors or publishers in realtime! This is the worst of all possible worlds—e-books that threaten the intellectual liberty of their readers and provide virtually no realtime intelligence to publishers and authors.

If the publishers want to go to the mats with Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo, and BN.com, this is the issue they should be fighting over and for: realtime equitable retail intelligence and a reader's bill of rights to ensure the long-term health of books' special penumbra of
virtue—this latter is an intangible asset far more important than the "intellectual property" rights, and the DRM deployed in the name of the latter lays waste to the former.

And once you've got a realtime view into the e-book numbers, hire a couple of coders (for God's sake, don't outsource this, especially to a lumbering Big Six consultancy!) and start to build apps that do stuff with it. Little apps, the kind of thing you can build and deploy
in a week or two. Try a million things.

The future is unpredictable, and it's not the sort of thing upon which you want to be making big all-or-nothing bets in the dark.


Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger.

Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross is out now from Titan Books. Pirate Cinema (June 2013) and Homeland (September 2013) are released later this year.