Selling books by giving them away

Ross Anderson is one of the more interesting security folks writing these days. He is a professor of security engineering at University of Cambridge (the other Cambridge) Computer Laboratory and seems to come up with new and useful perspectives on a wide range of security-related topics.

I particularly recommend "Why Information Security is Hard - An Economic Perspective", a 2001 paper detailing the economic reasons that people and companies do not always have the incentive to make the world safer. Ross wrote Security Engineering, one of the best security books around. He now has put the book online for free download, even though it's still for sale. Ross, and I assume Wiley, the publisher of the book, are betting that making the book available for free will increase sales of the printed edition.

Ross explains his decision to put the book online at his Web site. "My goal in making the book freely available is two-fold. First, I want to reach the widest possible audience, especially among poor students.

"Second, I am a pragmatic libertarian on free culture and free software issues; I think that many publishers (especially of music and software) are too defensive of copyright. I don't expect to lose money by making this book available for free: More people will read it, and those of you who find it useful will hopefully buy a copy. After all, a proper book is half the size and weight of 300-odd sheets of laser-printed paper in a ring binder." (I like the concept of a "pragmatic libertarian.")

Ross is far from the first person to think that making the text of a book available for free will increase sales. The U.S. National Academies, which advises the government on science, engineering and medical issues, has made its books available for reading and download online (at www.nap.edu/) for years. The National Academies is not as liberal as Ross is - it has perhaps the world's least user-friendly interface for reading the books online, while Ross just lets you download PDFs of the chapters. Maybe the Academies think that making it painful to read the books online will encourage purchases. Ross and Wiley demonstrate the more enlightened view that the content itself will be the selling tool.

Even with the awful user interface, the Academies is far better than most publishers, which seem to be petrified of the Internet for anything other than book sales. How else can you explain their lawsuits to stop Google's efforts to make it easy for people who might want to buy books to find which books they might want to buy? Google's Book Searchhas started making out-of-copyright books available for download, and Google wants to make all the books it can get searchable. Only excerpts of in-copyright books would be shown, so readers would have to find the book in a library or buy a copy if they wanted to read more than the excerpts.

Common sense would lead a person to believe that this could only be good for the publishers. Maybe they even could set up ways for on-demand printing of out-of-print books. I do not understand the publishers' "make the future go away" approach. Maybe Ross can come up with an explanation.

Disclaimer: Harvard has had a rather long time to understand that the future is rarely deterred, but the above book-selling advice is mine, not that of the university.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@sobco.com.

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