Freeing the Book from the Ties that Bind It…

Recent posts on this space and others devoted to e-books underscore the simple facts that knowledge wants to be free, and that there are forces at work that will inevitably result in a greater distribution of information at a lower cost to a larger number of consumers. We’ve already seen what took place in the music business once the creative sources (artists) realized they no longer needed the middleman to reach the listeners.

New models of distribution are rapidly emerging and causing major upheaval in the traditional publishing business. One, mentioned previously, is Flatworld Knowledge, has recently launched a “mini website”  (  which provides a clever, animated peek into their offering: free, open source, online custom textbooks. Flatworld turns the old textbook model on its head: it offers free textbooks online, and makes money by charging for on-demand printing, and alternative media (i.e., podcast versions) of the content.

Another site I discovered recently is Wowio (, a site that lets users choose from thousands of current  and older e-books for free. They use a commecial sponsorship model to compensate authors and publishers. Readers get the content for free, but those with legitimate claims on the IP still get rewarded for their creativity and effort. What about DRM, you ask? The Wowio site has perhaps the best justification of why DRM is well, “so 20th century”:

Since anyone can defeat the most “sophisticated” DRM with the print screen button, we believe that technology-based DRM is essentially a fraud. Our approach takes the market incentive out of misbehaving, rewards people for doing the right thing, and tries to stay out of the way of honest users. To help keep everyone honest, however, readers must authenticate their identity and agree to a licensing agreement when they set up their account.

How will the availability of free ebooks impact sales of print books?

There is good reason to believe that the availability of WOWIO ebooks will improve sales of print books. A few reasons are: (1) many of the people who download WOWIO ebooks would not otherwise buy the print versions — readers will give them a chance because they are free and because the ebooks are available on-demand, (2) this increased exposure will grow the readership and, correspondingly, the potential market for the print book, and (3) most people who really like a particular ebook will buy the print version because ebook readers and computers continue to lack the resolution and portability of print books.

Newsweek columnist Steven Levy underscored this hypothesis in his November 26, 2007 article introducing the Kindle:

For argument’s sake, let’s say cutting the price in half will double a book’s sales – given that the royalty check would be the same, wouldn’t an author prefer twice the number of readers? When I posed the question to best-selling novelist James Patterson, he said that if the royalty fee were the same, he’ d take the readers. He also remarked “The baby boomers have a love affair with paper. But the next gen people, in their 20s and below, do everything on a screen.”

Start-ups like Flatworld Knowledge and Wowio are examples of enterprises that are bringing the forces of “creative destruction” to the publishing industry. As they have no monolithic legacy or infrastructure to maintain, they can focus on creating a sustainable business model that delivers value to both ends of the knowledge supply chain: the producers (creative community) and the consumers (readers, students). The Creative Commons License makes this new paradigm possible. (


2 Responses

  1. […] As the creative universe grapples with the challenges posed by new technology, new concepts and ideas will need to be experimented with. One start-up which may be onto something, is wowio, a company that offers its registered users free e-book downloads that are ad-supported. (For an earlier post on this site, click here) […]

  2. […] Preston McAfee, enabled by disruptive innovators like Lulu and Flatworld Knowledge, (which I have blogged about frequently this year) begin to offer a viable alternative to the two extremes currently faced by […]

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