Wheaton proves the Doctorow Theory

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Wil Wheaton is not simply an actor, he’s a writer, too. He’s got a serious following tracking his blog, his Twitter, and his various columns.

A few years ago, Wheaton started publishing books, mostly collections of his essays on his life that speak to us all.

A few days ago, he decided to make his latest book, Sunken Treasure, available in a DRM-free digital (PDF) version. It was an experiment of sorts. In a post at his blog he wrote that he wasn’t sure it was a good idea.

I admit that I had a brief flash of doubt. “Did I just screw myself? Did I just sell one and end up giving away a hundred?”

Nope. In fact, sales of the printed book have gone up as a result of making a digital version cheaply available (he’s asking for US$5 for the Sunken Treasure PDF).

Feedback from buyers suggested that a lot of people read the PDF, liked it, and wanted a physical copy of their own as a result.

Wheaton has proved the Doctorow Theory, which I’ve named after Cory Doctorow, the Canadian writer and technophile who has long been an advocate of liberal approaches to copyright.

Doctorow has been making DRM-free versions of his books available for years, many (all?) for free (if you’re interested, hit his blog, Craphound.com).

He’s a critic of the protectionist stance that making DRM-free digital versions of content will poach sales of real books. Doctorow has always insisted that letting the content be free, really free, will lead to an increase in sales.

And he continues releasing books with large publishing houses who agree to his contractual terms that permit him to release his books under a Creative Commons license. They wouldn’t do that if they were losing money as a result.

Neil Gaiman proved to his publisher Harper Collins that making one of his books available digitally and for free (although only using a proprietary online reader that was cumbersome) would not hurt his sales.

Gaiman writes about the results at his blog.

Sales of all of Gaiman’s books ticked up some 40% while American Gods was being read for free, and sales returned to pre-promotion levels after the promotion was over.

What Wheaton has proved is that the Doctorow Theory applies to self-publishers as much as it applies to large media conglomerates. Wheaton proved that books are no different than other forms of media and entertainment.

DRM-free digital versions are not candy to pirates. They actually increase sales of retail products.

It’s counter-intuitive to those working in traditional media creation. Believe me, I was there. But this lesson must be learned – and fast – if those media companies are going to survive the rapidly-approaching future.

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