My Conversation with Dilbert creator Scott Adams on E-Publishing


Home   |   Blog   |   Writings   |   Interests   |   Philosophy   |   Sabbatical '95   |   Burning Man '97   |   Burning Man '99   |   Burning Man '02   |   PGP Key   |   Ex-WCG   |   Bevan   |   Auryn   |   Family   |   Arciem   |   Resume   |   Sciral   |  

Most of the action on my site is now in my blog and my tumblelog. I invite you to visit!


May 25, 2001

I was interested to learn that Scott Adams of Dilbert fame recently published a new book on religion called God's Debris. But I was then surprised to learn that he chose to publish only electronically, and in an encrypted, proprietary format that I can't even read on my Macintosh. I dropped him a note and he replied-- in fact we ended up in a full blown debate. With Scott's permission, I've put our e-mail exchanges below.

Robert McNally



To: Scott Adams <scottadams@aol.com>
From: Robert McNally <ironwolf@dangerousgames.com>
Subject: God's Debris

I would like to read God's Debris-- it looks interesting from what I can see in the preview. Unfortunately:

1) I use a Mac.

2) I don't use encrypted media.

I would be happy to purchase a PDF or similar media.

Thanks,

Robert



From: ScottAdams@aol.com
Date: Wed, 23 May 2001 23:55:45 EDT
Subject: Re: God's Debris
To: ironwolf@dangerousgames.com

Robert,

1. I also use a Mac and I feel your pain. I had to break down and buy a Windows machine to do all the cool things my Mac can't do.

2. Unlike other forms of media on the Internet, like MP3s (not as good as CDs) and comics (hard to collect a book full by copying them from the web one at a time) every copy of an ebook is exactly as good as the original. So encryption is a requirement for ebooks if the author is to be compensated. Otherwise I would be competing against a free version of my own book.

Thanks for the input.

Scott Adams



To: Scott Adams <ScottAdams@aol.com>
From: Robert McNally <ironwolf@dangerousgames.com>
Subject: Re: God's Debris

Scott,

Thank you very much for replying.

I too have a PC. I could easily use it to get and read your book. But I choose not to, partly because I enjoy using my Mac much more, and it's a PowerBook so I take it everywhere with me-- but primarily due to my refusal to use encrypted media. Let me explain the latter of these reasons in more detail.

As a software author myself for over 20 years, I have an acute awareness of copy protection's long and sordid history. (Inasmuch as anything having to do with personal computers can have a long history.) Like an e-book, every copy of an executable program is as good as the original. But every time someone comes out with a program with a copy protection scheme, software pirates see it as a challenge and break it. Breaking is inevitable because you can't distribute protected media without also distributing the "key" in some form, or the media would be useless. All you can do is play cat-and-mouse (and you're the mouse) by trying to hide the key. But the irony is that you have to reveal the key whenever a user wants to read the media, and pirates can always pinpoint the place in the software where this revelation takes place, and capture the unlocked data. The stronger the protection, and the more interesting the media in question, the more effort is focused on breaking it. The first pirates (they often work in teams) to break something cool take the credit. It's a game.

Copy protection schemes, the software industry has found, also vex paying users who legitimately wish to backup, transport, and move their media with them between platforms and into the future. For these reasons, copy protection often drives them to competing products that do not use copy protection (analogously, the stack of other purchased-yet-unread books on my desk.) As a result, very few software publishers use copy protection now.

But despite the general lack of copy protection, and despite the staggering number of dollars the Software Publisher's Association says are lost each year to software pirates, the software industry itself is thriving. How do you explain this?

I explain it this way: the world will always have software pirates. But the world will also always have honest people, and the honest people don't need copy protection to keep them in line. The honest people support the software industry.

But do software publishers merely give away their software with no incentive for people to buy it? Obviously, businesses have great incentive to purchase business software due to their inherent need to stay within the law. But what about individuals?

I know a person who makes his living writing shareware games. Practically all of his purchasers are individuals. He made six figures last year and expects to increase his income significantly this year. He knows another shareware game author who expects to make over one million dollars this year. With no copy protection. How do they do this?

Not by fearing the pirates. They do it by catering to the honest people. They do it with a variety of tactics-- chief among which is giving enough of the product away to get the honest people deeply hooked, and then selling them the entire set of game levels, or expansion packs. The game levels are analogous to chapters in a book. Why do the honest people pay for them, instead of just getting them from the pirates?

1) They're honest, so they don't bother to find and frequent the places the pirates do.

2) They're honest, so they're happy to pay for the author's work.

Why don't the honest people send them to all their friends, decreasing sales?

1) They're honest, so they recommend it to friends, or pass on only the free part.

2) Most of the friends they might send it to would not, in reality, buy anyway. For instance, I can think of several of my friends and relations to whom I might send a complete copy of your book, had I access to one. But I don't think most of them would have enough initial interest to shell out the $5 to actually buy it, as I would-- many of them would just glance over it. And of the couple that I think would buy it, they would be happy simply to receive the free part, get hooked, and then buy the rest themselves. And I would be happy to see it happen in their case, because I'm honest.

In your case, how much would be appropriate to "give away?" (That is, distribute, and encourage distribution of, while retaining all copyrights?) If all the chapters are similar in length to your sample "Holy Lands" chapter, I would say about half. That should be sufficient to truly get your real buyers hooked-- if they felt the first half was worth reading, they simply won't want to stop there, especially if you leave the first half on some kind of intellectual cliffhanger. Subconsciously, they will also know they have received enough value for "free" that their conscience will help compel them to buy. Honest people know that nothing really comes for free.

How do you distribute the free half? Any and every way available, including encouraging people to send it to their friends. The free half includes highly visible and explicit instructions for acquiring the rest. Companies like Digital River sell files over the Internet, and would also sell your paid half. People who buy the paid half would have both files. And people who acquire, and read, and enjoy, both files without paying would probably never pay anyway.

In making the leap to the digital, non dead-tree way of doing things, encryption and proprietary, platform dependent reader software is a misguided attempt to treat bits like atoms. When you sell bits, you have to work with the honesty of the people to whom you're selling, which includes tactics like giving away part and selling part, inciting a healthy sense of guilt to not give away the paid part (pirates have no sense of guilt) and other moves which encourage honesty, build loyalty, and foster repeat business (if you want it) among your readers.

Thank you for hearing me out.

Respectfully,

Robert

P.S. PDF files also have a non-selectable mode which makes it more difficult for casual users (i.e., honest, non-pirates) to simply copy and paste the text, in the process altering or dropping your copyright or payment incentive information.

P.P.S. If after all the above you still distrust what honest people might do with your bits, you might consider publishing your book simultaneously through iUniverse, which will make print-on-demand paper copies available through retailers like Amazon. Yes, dead trees, but oh, well-- Dilbert books still sell.



From: ScottAdams@aol.com
Date: Thu, 24 May 2001 09:26:30 EDT
Subject: Re: Re: God's Debris
To: ironwolf@dangerousgames.com

But despite the general lack of copy protection, and despite the staggering number of dollars the Software Publisher's Association says are lost each year to software pirates, the software industry itself is thriving. How do you explain this?

Robert,

Easy! With any big piece of software the copy is NOT as good as the original. Either I can't get tech support with a stolen copy or the file is too large to conveniently copy or I need the documentation.

When programs like Lotus 123 were small and easily copied I literally don't know anyone who bought software for their home computer. It was all stolen. You can argue that the theft was good for the industry, but not that it happened in gigantic numbers when it was easy.

But with an unencrypted book you have a small file, no installation hassle, no tech support needed and worse yet: it's a "gift" item so there is incentive to broadcast it to friends immediately, at least with my books.

So your example of software makes my case elegantly.

Scott Adams



To: Scott Adams <ScottAdams@aol.com>
From: Robert McNally <ironwolf@dangerousgames.com>
Subject: Re: God's Debris

I think you're overlooking the specific examples I gave about games shareware, which are analogous to what you wish to do: they are relatively small, have little or no documentation, require no tech support-- and use no encryption. Why are these games any less "gift" items than your book?

Robert



From: ScottAdams@aol.com
Date: Thu, 24 May 2001 11:51:30 EDT
Subject: Re: Re: God's Debris
To: ironwolf@dangerousgames.com

Robert,

Shareware has been a well-documented spectacular commercial flop with only a few exceptions, maybe including your examples, so that supports my point. Surely you aren't suggesting I emulate a well-documented spectacular commercial flop just because sometimes it works.

Since you didn't mention the specific shareware games I can't address specifically them but I assume a few things: 1) either they have some incentive for paying (like getting a tips book or more characters or something), or 2) The authors would have made ten times as much if the games were sold through traditional means. Or 3) the authors are lying about their income and giving you their optimistic projections.

If you're saying the shareware games are free and wonderful and people still prefer to pay because they want to be legal, well, I don't live on that planet.

I think that bad ebooks, like most of the ones available, will work fine without encryption because no one will want to steal them or give them as gifts. My best analogy for my own writing is two articles:

1. One by Dave Barry on attending meetings, which has been forwarded to me upwards of maybe 5,000 times (literally) without Dave Barry's name on it.

2. One by me on Engineers, from my book The Dilbert Principle (someone scanned it and did OCR) which was forwarded TO ME by maybe 4,000 people who didn't realize I was the author. That article was even published in magazines under other peoples names, resulting in significant legal costs to me.

So I have specific examples of my own written work being stolen in gigantic quantities, with my name removed. I have about a dozen more examples just like that one. But none were an entire book so it didn't hurt me that much.

How could that fail to convince you?

Scott Adams



To: Scott Adams <ScottAdams@aol.com>
From: Robert McNally <ironwolf@dangerousgames.com>
Subject: Re: God's Debris

You do live on that planet. As I said, the shareware purchasers do have incentive to pay: they get additional play that people who do not pay do not get. In you case, your paying customers would get the other half of the book.

Here is an article written by a friend of mine who is also a successful shareware author. While he will be the first one to admit that "the average shareware developer isn't exactly swimming in cash," (and in fact he says just that in the article,) he does not consider himself to be exactly average. Nor, would it appear, do you.

Two common ways to get rich from shareware - by Steve Pavlina

Please forgive me if I sound a little cynical, but I believe that both you and Dave Barry have been reasonably well paid for your popular work. Feel free to dispute this if you wish. If part of the price to pay for that success involves seeing your work reflected around the Internet thousands of times with or without your name on it, or requiring some legal fees spent on dealing with actual commercial copyright violations, then I wonder whether you'd prefer obscurity to where you are now. You have some problems that many struggling cartoonists and authors would love to have.

You seem to believe that an encrypted "cure" for e-publishing problems will somehow be better than the "disease" of piracy. Here are a few thought experiments for you:

* If I went out and scanned a complete copy of your latest Dilbert book and then uploaded it in an untraceable fashion to a well-known pirate archive (inasmuch as any pirate archive can be "well-known,") what percentage of its readers would really have been buyers? Would its existence really damage your sales noticeably?

* If you published PDF versions of a Dilbert collection downloadable for a small fee, would it significantly decrease sales of the printed version, or significantly decrease traffic to your web site-- or would you then have a second revenue stream with a high profit margin and whose cost scales in direct proportion to your number of buyers? Would publishing a PDF version that doesn't include everything the printed version does (but may in fact include a few things the printed version doesn't) give Dilbert collectors a reason to shell out a couple more bucks for the electronic edition so they can have a complete collection?

* In general, do you think Dilbert enthusiasts would conspire together to trade the electronic, yet clearly commercial, edition of said book without paying? Would you see (the rather sparse, I see) Dilbert fan sites saying, "Download the electronic edition of Men Who Love Cubicles Too Much-- For free! Without paying! Right here!"

* If said Dilbert PDFs included a highly visible notice at the front that the material is copyrighted, but that you can register your copy by using PayPal or some other online payment system, would honest people really send that material around to other honest people as "gifts?"

* Do the honest people who wish to purchase your current, encrypted version of God's Debris even bother to read and understand the lengthy End User License Agreement they must click past to get to the reader software? Is such an Agreement necessary to keep them honest?

* If I made an unencrypted version of God's Debris-- either by cracking the protection directly or simply transcribing it (it doesn't appear to be a really long book,) and then sent it through the pirate channels and even sent it to all my friends, would you automatically have a commercial flop? (Of course, its unauthorized distribution will inevitably happen anyway, if it's any good.)

* Is it possible, if I included your copyright notices and the statement that this unencrypted copy of God's Debris is unauthorized, and included an encouragement at the top, bottom, and middle of the work that, "If you like God's Debris, please send scottadams@aol.com $5 using PayPal," that you would actually see an increase in income? Are the pirates who will inevitably crack and distribute your work likely to actually put in such language on your behalf, or is it more likely to happen if you do it yourself?

Robert



From: ScottAdams@aol.com
Date: Thu, 24 May 2001 18:53:18 EDT
Subject: Re: Re: God's Debris
To: ironwolf@dangerousgames.com

Robert,

Please forgive me if I sound a little cynical, but I believe that both you and Dave Barry have been reasonably well paid for your popular work.

You're making a case for communism. Capitalism isn't designed to reward people based on what they deserve.

We've been absurdly well paid for our work precisely because it is difficult to steal. That's why a publisher will pay me gobs of money for my next hardcover -- because they know they will have a near monopoly on it. If they thought the book would be free on the Internet they wouldn't pay me.

The issue is not the past. The issue is whether in the future, when copying is easy and routine, whether copyright is useful and fair under that situation.

You seem to believe that an encrypted "cure" for e-publishing problems will somehow be better than the "disease" of piracy. Here are a few thought experiments for you:

* If I went out and scanned a complete copy of your latest Dilbert book and then uploaded it in an untraceable fashion to a well-known pirate archive (inasmuch as any pirate archive can be "well-known,") what percentage of its readers would really have been buyers? Would its existence really damage your sales noticeably?

I'm not worried about your example.

The real question is if you loaded it on the next incarnation of Napster, the peer to peer version, when that becomes ubiquitous, would anyone buy my book knowing it would be faster to steal it (no need to enter credit card info) and be completely untraceable?

* If you published PDF versions of a Dilbert collection downloadable for a small fee, would it significantly decrease sales of the printed version, or significantly decrease traffic to your web site-- or would you then have a second revenue stream with a high profit margin and whose cost scales in direct proportion to your number of buyers? Would publishing a PDF version that doesn't include everything the printed version does (but may in fact include a few things the printed version doesn't) give Dilbert collectors a reason to shell out a couple more bucks for the electronic edition so they can have a complete collection?

That's a whole different situation than my ebook. We probably don't have any differences there.

* In general, do you think Dilbert enthusiasts would conspire together to trade the electronic, yet clearly commercial, edition of said book without paying? Would you see (the rather sparse, I see) Dilbert fan sites saying, "Download the electronic edition of Men Who Love Cubicles Too Much-- For free! Without paying! Right here!"

Was Napster popular? You don't need a conspiracy once it's obvious that you can get free stuff from a particular source.

* If said Dilbert PDFs included a highly visible notice at the front that the material is copyrighted, but that you can register your copy by using PayPal or some other online payment system, would honest people really send that material around to other honest people as "gifts?"

YES!!!!!!!! I get copyrighted and clearly stolen stuff from my "honest" friends literally every day. It doesn't occur to most people that it's illegal to steal something if it's easy to steal it (as amazing as that sounds, it's true).

* Do the honest people who wish to purchase your current, encrypted version of God's Debris even bother to read and understand the lengthy End User License Agreement they must click past to get to the reader software? Is such an Agreement necessary to keep them honest?

Irrelevant to our topic.

* If I made an unencrypted version of God's Debris-- either by cracking the protection directly or simply transcribing it (it doesn't appear to be a really long book,) and then sent it through the pirate channels and even sent it to all my friends, would you automatically have a commercial flop? (Of course, its unauthorized distribution will inevitably happen anyway, if it's any good.)

Short term, no impact on me but free publicity. Long term, all rights would be lost, when the next version of Napster (peer to peer) is ubiquitous.

* Is it possible, if I included your copyright notices and the statement that this unencrypted copy of God's Debris is unauthorized, and included an encouragement at the top, bottom, and middle of the work that, "If you like God's Debris, please send scottadams@aol.com $5 using PayPal," that you would actually see an increase in income? Are the pirates who will inevitably crack and distribute your work likely to actually put in such language on your behalf, or is it more likely to happen if you do it yourself?

Shareware is the best example of that model, and we agree it does not work.

I think our main point of departure is timeframe. If the internet technology were to freeze right where it is forever, I'd probably release the book without encryption. But I predict the peer-to-peer pirating solutions will be ubiquitous long before this book has lost its audience. Stealing ebooks will be simple, risk-free, and much faster than buying. And the thieves will justify it by saying they wouldn't have paid for the ebook anyway, so there's nothing lost.

Also, there is a psychological impact on customers of having stuff available for free even if they are too "honest" to take it. It changes the impression of the value of the work and makes them less likely to believe that $4.95 or whatever is a reasonable price, for the ebook or for anything else I create. There is marketing value in restricting the availability of the product even if artificially.

How many times do I need to win this argument? :-)

Scott



To: Scott Adams <ScottAdams@aol.com>
From: Robert McNally <ironwolf@dangerousgames.com>
Subject: Re: God's Debris

How many times do I need to win this argument? :-)

Scott

That's plenty, thanks. :) I'd be happy to let your previous message serve as the last word in our discussion.

I found our exchange quite enjoyable. In fact, I would like your permission to post it in its entirety on my personal, non-commercial web site. I feel it would stimulate some interesting discussion about these topics elsewhere on the Net. I promise I won't editorialize on it further, and I will even put up a link to the God's Debris purchase page.

Wishing you continued success,

Robert



From: ScottAdams@aol.com
Date: Thu, 24 May 2001 21:08:39 EDT
Subject: Re: Re: God's Debris
To: ironwolf@dangerousgames.com

In fact, I would like your permission to post it in its entirety on my personal, non-commercial web site.

Robert,

Sure. I think it would be useful.

Also, check out the current Newsweek, May 28th edition, page 44, Steven Levy's article "The Day I Got Napsterized" for some insight on how his current book is being pirated on the web. It's spot on to our discussion.

Thanks for making me think about this stuff more deeply.

Scott Adams


Home   |   Blog   |   Writings   |   Interests   |   Philosophy   |   Sabbatical '95   |   Burning Man '97   |   Burning Man '99   |   Burning Man '02   |   PGP Key   |   Ex-WCG   |   Bevan   |   Auryn   |   Family   |   Arciem   |   Resume   |   Sciral   |  

Most of the action on my site is now in my blog and my tumblelog. I invite you to visit!