Last June I announced that I had published my book, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. It was released both as a book by Duke University Press and as an open access publication via a website that I created and maintain. For scholars in my fields—anthropology, history, science studies, media studies—this is one of the first experiments, if not the first, of this kind. As such, I’ve been doing my best to keep some notes on the process, with a mind towards reporting on the results of going open access with a first book.
Herewith, therefore, are two reports generated by Google Analytics, which is hands-down the most un-evil thing Google has ever done (General Report | Traffic Source Report). These reports are chock full of information, beautifully organized and fascinating to explore. Unfortunately, they are also pretty hard to interpret. I’m posting them now, because I think they show a few things pretty clearly, such as the initial spike of interest, the fact that 4 times as many of my readers use Firefox as do Internet explorer, the role of small communities in creating attention (savage minds, hastac, and a handful of close friends account for a significant portion of the traffic to the site).
My book is in kind of a strange space. On the one hand, it is a conventional academic book, a first book by an assistant professor (now tenured, thank you very much Duke University Press); it is accessible, but not popular; it has a large potential audience beyond academics because of its subject matter; and it is beautifully designed and people tell me it is well written. So much for the pro column. In the con column: it is long, it contains complicated theory in the first chapter, including Habermas, which is fatal to any reader even in small amounts; it doesn’t have any sound-bitable arguments and people tell me it is poorly written.
In short, it’s a pretty standard academic book, and therefore a good candidate for this experiment. People always ask what I had to do to convince Duke to let me release the book. On the one hand the subject matter made it easy: I couldn’t respect myself, or Duke, if a book about Free Software were not freely available. On the other hand, I think they were really eager to experiment, to see what would happen. I created the website, so they didn’t have to; and they agreed to use a CC (By-NC-SA) license and to give me the pdf and a very clean HTML copy (thank you Achorn) for distribution. The designer, Cherie Westmorland, used an open source font and the Boston Public Library let me use the cover image. All told, things worked out swimmingly, and the whole process has been, well, entirely normal. Duke is making as little or as much money on the book as they do on others of its ilk, and yet I am getting much more from it being open access than I might otherwise.
So what have I learned so far? A few things:
1) The Internet is dead. Well maybe it’s not that bad, but the era when simply putting something online guaranteed orders of magnitude more readers/viewers/listeners than normal is long gone. To put a finer point on it, let’s say the ‘Age of Boing Boing’ is dead. Sorry University Presses, you missed it. The place is just so saturated with everything and everybody that it now feels more like normal life and less like some special place. This amounts to saying that things have returned to normal levels of hard work. To get a book to sell, one has to invest a lot of work in marketing it, promoting it and distributing it—but all these things now include new forms of marketing promoting and distribution online. Just putting a book online means nothing unless one is going to work hard to bring attention to it (a fact Rex has noted repeatedly as well). How do I know this: because the Google reports tell the story. All the spikes in traffic correlate precisely with mentions in major and minor media outlets, ranging from Savage Minds to the New Yorker. Placing links in widely read places (print or online) increases traffic. Full Stop. But more than that, I know this because the ratio of
print sales to downloads downloads to print sales has been 3 to 1 (Thanks, Cathy for the correction) . Not 1000 to 1 or even 100 to 1, but 3 to 1. That’s kind of amazing. It means that neither my outsized expectations of hordes of geeks downloading the book, nor Duke’s fears of massive numbers of lost sales have come true.
2) I have tenure. Putting my book online did not ruin my career. Having Duke publish it, as opposed to, say, some online vanity press, contributed to my tenure case, but simply having it available for free is not career suicide. Quite the opposite, I would say. I have more requests now for talks, reviews, contributed papers, conferences, interviews and projects than I can accept, and probably more than half of them come from people I don’t know from Adam, which means people who have found the book in public rather than through connections with my peers and friends. Lots of people are assigning the book in class, or bits of it, which I can only assume is facilitated by the ease of access. Duke, of course, might not like to hear this since it means people are assigning the book without ordering copies for class, but I’m ambivalent. On the one hand, I would like those people to assign the whole book and for Duke to be remunerated as a result; on the other hand, I know what creating a syllabus is like, and how great it is when something can be added just by inserting a link, as opposed to dealing with bookstores and administrative systems for ordering the book–a book students may or may not buy anyways.
3) I’ve had a pretty excellent amount of media attention. There are books it might be compared to that have done better: Jonathan Zittrain’s book came out at the same time, and he was on the Colbert Report, as was Clay Shirky. But as much as I love Colbert, that’s exactly the opposite of the kind of attention I would want. I have no “message” which I want a hundred million people to hear; I have a scholarly book which I wish Zittrain and Shirky would read, not Colbert and his audience. Nonetheless, I have had mentions in The New Yorker Blog, The Times Higher Education Supplement, Technology Review, Inside Higher Ed, and others. I’ve had conversations with people from Korea, Argentina, Brazil, and India about the book. I’ve had excellent response from European scholars interested in the book. In short, I can’t complain. According to Duke, the amount of marketing that went into my book was more intensive than most, and this may no doubt accounts for some of that attention. Frankly, it’s more than enough. I’m not quite sure what I would do with more, but I do know that with a bit more marketing, the dynamics of attention might conceivably change much more dramatically than just ten years ago. For some books that university presses publish, this fact is worth mulling over.