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I notice that a lot of computer and programming books are now licensed under various permutations of the creative commons license. Half of the books published by No Starch Press and Apress (at least the ones I looked at) seem to be available directly or indirectly under creative commons licensing.

What is the business model for creative commons books? Does it hurt sales? Does it help sales by creating more buzz around a book? Has the wide availability of pirated copies (and pirated PDFs) of traditionally copyrighted books affected the book publishing world, and does this help or hinder the creative commons licensing process? How does the advent of ebooks factor in?

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migrated from programmers.stackexchange.com Jan 2 '12 at 15:20

This question came from our site for professional programmers interested in conceptual questions about software development.

From the publisher's point of view, paperback version is still in high demand. I prefer paperback and stopped to buy electronic book after several attempts. From the author point of view, releasing a (great) book is a guarantee of lot of gigs. – Pierre 303 Jan 1 '12 at 15:34
up vote 6 down vote accepted

The fact is, you don't write books for money in science or IT: from the pure financial point of view, it's worthless: you'll spend months or years of work while gaining not too much from sales as the author.

Instead, writing books is a good way:

  • to become popular,
  • to show your deep knowledge in a specific field.

In both cases, Creative Commons only helps.

As for the publisher, as Pierre 303 mentioned in his comment, people will still buy paper version of books, even if they are able to get a digital copy (illegally or not), just because it's easier to read, just because... it's real. I want to own books that are worth it. As for books which are not very good, I wouldn't buy them even if they were available for free online.

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Many people writing CC books seem to be either educators, who want study material for their students, or evangelists for some project, who want to make their project more approachable. Either way there is a secondary benefit to the author that makes it worthwhile. Basically if you write the book for some need and there is no commercial market worth the effort of selling it, CC is valid option. – Ville Niemi Jun 19 '15 at 13:07

Releasing books under CC-license can be useful for different reasons. Cory Doctorow claims it is useful to the sales of his books (fiction in his case). That may differ for different persons/books.

What is the business model for creative commons books?

Where can be a lot of business models around CC-books. You can give away the eBook as CC but sell the printed copy for money (I think that is the model Cory Doctorow uses). You can have a standard-version licensed under a CC-license, and a premium-version that sells for money, including more content, maybe nice pictures or stuff like that. You can release the first book of a series or the first chapter of a book under a CC-license, to get more interest for the whole series (think if Donald Knuth's Art of Computer Programming has the first book released as CC). You could use your book to advertise something else (a service maybe). You could use the free free books, to get famous and make money maybe by speaking at conferences. You sell the printed copy with CC-license, but no eBook. So people may copy that, but someone has to scan it first. And probably there are a lot more possibilities.

Or you simply don't have a business model. You have created a book to help people and want to distribute it as far as possible and not thinking about money.

Does it hurt sales? Does it help sales by creating more buzz around a book?

I think this is directed towards the business model of CC-ebooks and selling the printed copy. Cory Doctorow claims it increases the sales of his books, because people start reading his stuff, who would never had started in the first place if it wasn't free. But in reality it is really hard to really measure the impact. Also, if it works for Doctorow, it may not work for you. There could be identified two groups of people:

  1. Some people may have bought the book or ebook, but as the ebook is free they take it and are content with that. These people are a loss to your sales.
  2. Some people may have never noticed your book but get in contact with the CC-ebook as it gets circulated freely. They read it and find it useful and buy the printed copy for more convenience or simply because they want to support the author. They may also tell others about the book, and as the entry-hurdle is low as they can download it for free many actually will read it. These are a win for your sales.

So, you win if Group 2 is bigger than Group 1. That may actually be the case, if you not very well known in the start. For someone like Donald Knuth the Group 1 might be bigger.

Has the wide availability of pirated copies (and pirated PDFs) of traditionally copyrighted books affected the book publishing world, and does this help or hinder the creative commons licensing process?

I don't know how this affected the publishing world. But does it help CC? Yes, as there is no longer a need for pirating if it is CC-licensed. Also the difference is smaller, as many people pirate anyway you may give it away in the first place and you may earn more readers who are grateful and purchase later on something to help you or because you earned their trust.

How does the advent of ebooks factor in?

Printing a book costs money. Copying an ebook cost nothing. So making a classic printed book CC may mean people can copy it, but that involves effort and cost. Making a book CC today means an ebook can be created and at that point it is easy and cost nothing to distribute it.

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