Back in 2007, Radiohead stunned the music world by circumventing traditional music publishing channels and releasing their highly anticipated album In Rainbows as a digital download, through their own website and on a pay-what-you-want basis. While you could also order CD and vinyl versions at various set price points, the name-your-own-price strategy for the downloaded album was highly successful and helped motivate other bands to self-release their music.
Cory Doctorow is definitely not new to releasing his books outside of the traditional publishing format. Back in 2003, I felt ever so cool reading his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom on my snazzy Palmpilot Tungsten (with a COLOR screen!) on the New York subway. After all, Cory had released the book under a Creative Commons license, which made my very first e-book also a perfectly legal free ebook.
Since then, Cory has offered all his novels and short story collections under Creative Commons licenses on his website and did other highly neat things like serializing his novel Makers here on Tor.com. Some people will say “despite,” and others will say “thanks to,” but whichever way you spin it, he’s done remarkably well releasing his stuff for free and at the same time selling an impressive amount of books.
Cory’s new short story collection With a Little Help is a bit of a departure from his usual format—and seems to take a page from Radiohead’s In Rainbows playbook: rather than going with a major publishing company, the book is published under the author’s own imprint and comes in several formats:
- A print-on-demand paperback (from lulu.com) with four different covers by Rudy Rucker, Pablo Defendini, Frank Wu and Rick Leider.
- A super-limited hand-sewn hardcover that comes with truly unique “endpapers” donated by other authors (including folks like William Gibson and Neil Gaiman) and has an enclosure with an SD card containing the full text of the book and the audio-book.
- DRM-free audio and ebooks in every format under the sun, sold on a name-your-price basis and as usual licensed under Creative Commons.
- A CD audiobook with readings by folks like Wil Wheaton, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Mary Robinette Kowal, Mur Lafferty and others.
A fifth option included a one-time, $10,000 chance to commission a new story for the collection, but this was snatched up in no time by Mark Shuttleworth, the tech millionaire behind the Ubuntu Linux project. This lead Cory Doctorow to consider, somewhat ruefully: “Makes me think I’ll ask for $20,000 next time around. I think this is what the economists call “price discovery.”
As if all of this isn’t cool enough yet, Cory Doctorow is taking a few other unusual steps: the book’s financials are available on the author’s website, giving you a detailed look at how this experiment in self-publishing is doing. Cory is also chronicling the entire self-publishing process in a monthly column in Publishers Weekly, which makes for fascinating reading—see, for example, his struggles to get a DRM-free audio-book out to the wider world. One final neat touch: Cory acknowledges readers who email him typo corrections by mentioning them in the book’s footnotes. (You can find mine on p. 82.)
As for the stories, I think it’s safe to say that anyone who enjoyed Cory Doctorow’s novels will love them. Like his novels Little Brother, Makers and For the Win, they often start with a recognizable core: a present-day technological or sociological concept that Doctorow then pushes just a bit further than you could imagine, but in a way that’s so realistic and commonsensical that you’ll be considering “when” rather than “if” reality will catch up. Several of the stories play with one of Doctorow’s recurring themes: the relationship between information technology and personal freedom, with a special focus on privacy in the digital age. They range from hilarious (“Constitutional Crisis”) to deeply touching (“Visit the Sins”), and when Doctorow really gets going on how diminished our privacy has become (e.g. in “Scroogled”), they’re purely terrifying.
Anyone who is involved with books in ways other than just reading them knows that the publishing world is going through massive changes. If you want an idea of the impact those changes have on the authors you read and love, check out With a Little Help’s afterword by Cory’s agent Russell Galen, which makes some eloquent points about today’s changed environment and shows how this book is a great example of adaptation to those changes. Yes, the stories are excellent, and getting this book just to read them makes perfect sense, but there’s another very valid reason why With a Little Help is an Important Book: not only is it an interesting and ongoing experiment that could well become a template for other authors, it’s also a perfect snapshot of a moment in the changing world of book publishing.
Stefan Raets is a reviewer and editor for Fantasy Literature. He lives in San Diego.