Science Fiction, the Internet, and Free Online Copies
This recent article on Locus Online, the online companion to Locus Magazine, the "magazine of the science fiction & fantasy field," is very pertinent to the ongoing Cantor seminar on commerce and culture. Aside from an endorsement of copyrights, with which many Austrian libertarians will disagree, I find it to be explicitly in favor of free markets. The author of the article, a published novelist, also explicitly criticizes patronage, contrasting it unfavorably with markets. The primary focus of the article, as the title suggests, is the great boon to SF writers that the internet is and can be.
The Internet is enabling a further decentralization in who gets to make art, and like each of the technological shifts in cultural production, it's good for some artists and bad for others. The important question is: will it let more people participate in cultural production? Will it further decentralize decision-making for artists?
The author even insightfully remarks on a phenomenon that has been noted by Jeff Tucker and others on Mises.org, that providing free electronic copies of a published work online serves to improve sales of hard copies of that work.
Some writers are using the Internet's affinity for SF to great effect. I've released every one of my novels under Creative Commons licenses that encourage fans to share them freely and widely — even, in some cases, to remix them and to make new editions of them for use in the developing world. My first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, is in its sixth printing from Tor, and has been downloaded more than 650,000 times from my website, and an untold number of times from others' websites.
I've discovered what many authors have also discovered: releasing electronic texts of books drives sales of the print editions. An SF writer's biggest problem is obscurity, not piracy. Of all the people who chose not to spend their discretionary time and cash on our works today, the great bulk of them did so because they didn't know they existed, not because someone handed them a free e-book version.
But what kind of artist thrives on the Internet? Those who can establish a personal relationship with their readers — something science fiction has been doing for as long as pros have been hanging out in the con suite instead of the green room. These conversational artists come from all fields, and they combine the best aspects of charisma and virtuosity with charm — the ability to conduct their online selves as part of a friendly salon that establishes a non-substitutable relationship with their audiences. You might find a film, a game, and a book to be equally useful diversions on a slow afternoon, but if the novel's author is a pal of yours, that's the one you'll pick. It's a competitive advantage that can't be beat.