February 05, 2011
Why Not Philanthropic Book Buying?

Say you are reading a book you really like and want others to read it too. Maybe you just one certain friend to read it. Maybe you want to try to influence millions of people you do not even know. Or somewhere in between. It should be possible to easily buy restricted or unrestricted book distribution rights.

For example, imagine some wealthy guy with an interest in some policy area, someone who already might now be donating to think tanks like, say, the Manhattan Institute (and I happen to know such people in that specific case). They come across a book that delivers some message (could be about health care, banking reform, immigration, etc) they so enthusiastically agree with that they want to see it reach a much wider audience. It ought to be possible to go to a web interface of an online bookstore or publisher and bid for the right to make the next 10,000 copies of the book free to download. Or bid for the right to make the book freely downloadable for the next 3 days or the next month. Or make it free to download only in one geographic area (e.g. where a measure is on a ballot and you want people to read a relevant book).

Many policy books have very small readerships. They sell hundreds, thousands, or maybe even tens of thousands of copies. Ray Sawhill, who used to cover the publishing industry for years when he worked at Newsweek, tells me large numbers of books end up paying their writers so little that they are written far more for prestige than for money (though many authors writing their first books do not yet know this). Labor for a couple of years and be lucky to make $20k. In fact, the occupation "author" has the lowest income as compared to IQ for a long list of occupations, as Audacious Epigone has recently shown. Lots of smart minds write good books that sell few copies.

After a couple of months on the market many books show little signs of becoming big sellers. So their rights for wide distribution ought to be available for sale. Publishers ought to either publish the prices for wider distribution or they ought to provide a way to submit a request to bid on various forms of distribution rights. Want to make democracy promotion books freely downloadable at Egyptian IP addresses? Want to make a bunch of books about air pollution and health freely downloadable in Beijing or Shanghai? There ought to be a way.

Publishers ought to consider these ideas and, in agreement with authors, suggest to interested parties that certain titles could have rights to free download from Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble purchased for anything from a day to a week to a year or indefinitely. The cool idea about having rights for free distribution available for just a day or week is that blogger and big media fans of an otherwise obscure book would have an incentive to mention that some book they really like is available for free for a limited time only. Get over there today or tomorrow and get this great book before its price goes back up to $12. People would download it without even being sure they'll read it.

It should also be possible to pay to discount a book. Rather than buy full rights one should be able to say "I want to pay half the cost for the next 5000 buyers of title X". The discount on the web page could even announce who the benefactor is and a link to the benefactor's motivations. Again, this could be restricted to a geographic area or by a friends list or other filter. This is something that Amazon and other online book sellers could offer without needing to negotiate with book publishers. The publishers would see the same amount of money.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 February 05 03:20 PM  Worthy Causes Information Flow


Comments
PacRim Jim said at February 6, 2011 12:52 AM:

What is needed is artificial intelligence that "digests" millions of books and matches them with the preferences of billions of individuals, as determined by each person's personal AI agent. That would optimize the matching of memes with humans.
Will require strong AI.

Brett Bellmore said at February 6, 2011 5:13 AM:

I've done that at least a couple of times, bought some book I though needed wider circulation, so I got multiple copies, and donated them to local libraries. Got any idea how frustrating it is to visit the library the next week, and see that new book up for sale with their worn out stock, priced at 1% of what you paid for it? There's nobody in modern America more prone to censorship than a librarian, they consider it one of the perks of the job, I guess, and they will NOT let uppity donors deprive them of it.

After they sold the Hugo award winner printed on acid free paper, and autographed by the author, for fifty cents, I told them they were dead to me, and I've never darkened their doorstep since.

Your modern version seems more effective.

dk said at February 6, 2011 9:00 AM:

which hugo winner did they censor?

Randall Parker said at February 6, 2011 10:58 AM:

Brett Bellmore,

Your story illustrates why the information gatekeepers need to be disempowered.

PacRim Jim,

Strong AI would decide what we ought to read: new gatekeeper.

Woozle said at February 6, 2011 11:39 AM:

Far too many years ago now (i.e. this should have happened by now), I proposed a system whereby creative works (I was thinking of music, but it would work for books too) would be contributed to a pool where there would be incentives to experience (listen/read), categorize, and rate works which had not been previously rated. (As the number of ratings for a given work increased, the incentives would go down.) Highly-rated works would then be promoted in various categories of interest to the larger audience of the site (who would then provide additional ratings -- reviewers whose ratings were generally disagreed with would get a downgrade to their "credibility" rating, discouraging people from just assigning random ratings without reading/listening).

By this system, works with merit would have a greater likelihood of rising to general attention, while those without would remain buried -- and the type of promotion musicians and authors (or their record/publishing companies, anyway) have to do in order to get any attention at all would be far less crucial -- with the goal being to render it completely irrelevant.

Randall Parker said at February 6, 2011 2:26 PM:

Woozle,

Your system would work especially well if people whose ratings get agreed to by others could get automatically marked as trend setters. Then they could get free access to lots of new works in order to do ratings. New stuff would go on sale. But for the people who have a track record of spotting good books or music otherwise unnoticed by others they'd get access for free in order to do rating.

Woozle said at February 6, 2011 4:58 PM:

Randall,

Yes, that's very much the kind of thing I had in mind. Tastes being what they are, I also had the idea that trends could be compartmentalized so as not to penalize someone who recommended bands with "cult" or "niche" fandoms. End-users would "recommend" individual reviewers by rating agreement with their picks. The formula should probably count {intensity of agreement} as being just as important as {number of followers}, to encourage diversity over pandering to the least common denominator. The only reviewers whose opinions wouldn't count for much would be those whose followers were few and lukewarm.

In other words, reviewers could be merit-promoted by much the same mechanisms that the works of art themselves are merit-promoted.

Aki_Izayoi said at February 6, 2011 5:16 PM:
Publishers ought to consider these ideas and, in agreement with authors, suggest to interested parties that certain titles could have rights to free download from Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble purchased for anything from a day to a week to a year or indefinitely. The cool idea about having rights for free distribution available for just a day or week is that blogger and big media fans of an otherwise obscure book would have an incentive to mention that some book they really like is available for free for a limited time only. Get over there today or tomorrow and get this great book before its price goes back up to $12. People would download it without even being sure they'll read it.

If the donor has to defray the entire $12 in your hypothetical example, I doubt it would work. Of course, in the real world, it is likely that the owner of the intellectual property would come to an agreement with the donor where the donor pays a reduced price; in this case, the intellectual property holder would agree with this price since he receives a guaranteed amount.

You mentioned a potential problem in your last statement about people downloading the book and not even reading it. If people have to pay full price for access to the contents of the book, it is highly likely that the payer would have an interest in the content of the book and invest the time in absorbing the contents. However, the donor might agree that paying full price for the content if the recipient would actually read and comprehend the material, but the donor might be concerned that those receiving the freebie would just download it simply because it is free and not actively read it. If the latter is the case, the donation would not be providing much value for the donor.

Randall Parker said at February 6, 2011 10:02 PM:

Woozle,

Agreed. Recommenders would need to be measured inside of niches rather than all in a single big ranking system.

Aki_Izayoi,

People who buy larger volume download rights should get big discounts since they will increase sales and some of the downloaders, yes, won't even read the book.

Lono said at February 7, 2011 1:04 PM:

I thought this was what Bitorrent was all about?

Fight the Power y'all!


Brett Bellmore,

Hmm... Your anecdote only goes to confirm my suspitions about such behavior.. That's some bullcrap alright!

M. Report said at February 9, 2011 11:26 AM:

I wonder if the Feds can require one to buy and distribute
an equal number of books with the opposing view ? :)

Seriously; The best investment a philanthropist can make
is in the dissemination of truthful seditious rumors and
propaganda concerning the actions and intentions of the
Progessives.

pst314 said at February 9, 2011 11:34 AM:

Brett Bellmore: What was the Hugo winner, and what city did this happen in?

David H Dennis said at February 9, 2011 11:40 AM:

I read an enthusiastic recommendation from Glenn Reynolds of one book that cost $80!

Instapundit is a mainstream blog, and if the person interviewed expected to sell books, he has to ensure that the book is priced in a way that mainstream people can afford it :(.

I would expect the publicity from Instapundit would sell significant numbers of books, but only if they are priced fairly.

I thought the book was interesting and would surely buy a Kindle edition for $10, which is a lot better than the $0 I actually wound up paying, by not buying a book I could not reasonably afford.

D

JohnnyMac said at February 9, 2011 2:49 PM:

I had a similar experience to Brett Bellmore (above at 2/6/11, 5:13 AM). After my friend Avram Davidson, an award winning author, died in 1993, I bought several of his books to donate to our library here in Portland, OR as a memorial. Since the library already had some of his works in the collection, I chose titles that they did not have. They were good quality hardbacks, a couple new and some secondhand. I wrote a cover letter explaining who Avram was and why I was donating these books. I went to the library and presented them; telling the librarian I dealt with that this gift was in memory of a valued friend and author.

Several months went by without the books I had given appearing in the library catalog. Finally, I asked a librarian what had happened to them. She calmly told me that they had probably been sent to the used book sale. She explained it was library policy not to put such donated books into the collection because it would make extra work for the staff.

I do not think this was a question of censorship as such. The library had then and still does several of Avram Davidson's books on their shelves. Just a typical bureaucratic disdain for the public and disinclination to do work beyond the minimum required.

michael schrage said at February 9, 2011 5:08 PM:

an exceptionally clever idea that i hope a foundation will explore

Reuven said at February 9, 2011 8:21 PM:

In the field of Jewish religious books, it is not uncommon for the cost of publishing to be subsidized by individuals who then get 1-2 dedication pages.

JohnnyMac, you need to add a punchline to your story: "Two months later, I got a letter from the library asking me to contribute money to their book-buying fund." :-/

Maureen said at February 10, 2011 3:30 AM:

Re: donated books, this is pretty standard at libraries these days. I had some novels in Russian that I wanted to donate to the downtown library's Russian language section, and it turned out that it would be a real pain for them to accept any books for the collection that didn't come out of their budget.

Which is of course stupid and pointless, because I'm sure the cataloguer could have added the books in 5 minutes and put them out to be shelved in a couple more; and nobody would ever have to do any paperwork besides the cataloguing. But there you go. Pointless bureaucracy is everywhere.

Post a comment
Comments:
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
URL:
Remember info?

                       
Go Read More Posts On FuturePundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright