I've been working with Amazon and Google on this issue. The goal is to provide copyright owners with control over how much of a book can been read for free, and to get Amazon, Google, and others planning similar systems to be all on the same page in what they display.
Advances in digital ink and digital paper technologies mean it may not be long before a majority of people find it pleasant to read books in digital form (5-15 years), at which time pirated books may pose a significant threat to incomes of authors.
To guide negotiations with Amazon, Google, etc., SFWA needs your input on how much of a book (or short story in an anthology) you'd like visible on Amazon for free to make a purchase decision. Please fill out the short survey below -- thanks!
(VP, chair of SFWA's Electronic Piracy Committee, and computer science prof. at the U. of Denver)
We'd love to see some hard, scientifically valid data and I'm hoping Amazon can conduct the necessary experiments to supply it.
These are innovative approaches, and I think all authors would love to find out that free e-texts make them more money; but we need hard evidence, not a few anecdotes that can be explained by other factors.
We also need to be cognizant of what happens when a majority of readers read digitally (as seems likely within 5-15 years), at which point the free versions are identical to the pay versions. Why pay when it's available free? This is a debate that has no clear result today with music. It would be extremely useful to settle the debate scientifically today with books, while we have this opportunity.
I'm personally not opposed to providing things free. For those who don't know, I founded the world's first free Internet service (Nyx), and I run a free online writers' workshop for SF, Fantasy, and Horror writers to help improve their writing. I put a huge amount of time into providing quality products for free, so I think I put my money where my mouth is when it comes to "free." I hope folks will trust me a bit when I say that we can't force authors to give their books away free. Force isn't the way to do it.
My personal goal is to see more books in the Search Inside program, but the way to get there is to allow authors the choice how much to display, not to force it on them. Authors fiercely resist being forced into things, especially ones that tread on the core protection that enables authors to make money writing -- copyright. On the other hand, when authors have the choice of what to show, trust me, they will be much more receptive to working with the program. The net effect will be for more books to be visible in the Search Inside system, especially certain types of books (such as anthologies, text books, reference books), and I'd venture more authors putting up free e-texts voluntarily.
But it's an authors choice, both legally and ethically.
1. Whether you view piracy as a problem today or not, it may be in the near future, with the advent of digital paper and digital ink (such as Philips, the inventor of the CD, is already making). It seems highly like that in the near future most reading will be done via digital content vs "fixed" ink or toner on tree paper (regardless which technology gets us there, digital ink on tree paper, digital paper, books bound up using same, cell phones, PDAs, whatever -- it seems highly likely something will cause us to quit using static text and move to dynamically generated text for most reading).
Today only a small percent of people read e-books digitally instead of on paper. But that's likely to change.
At the point when we read most things digitally, the free versions become identical in value to the for-pay versions, so it will no longer make sense to distribute 100% of a book for free digitally if your goal is to get paid for it. (Shareware models haven't proven they work to earn the same income, nor would patronage be a good idea for society, etc. See the e-piracy FAQ for more details. All these and more are worthy experiments, and should be experimented with -- but with an author's permission.)
2. Ultimately, though, this issue is not about piracy but about authors' rights: Do authors control their copyrights, or can a big company just come in and usurp control? (Even if it's "good for you." If you need a heart bypass, should Kaiser have the right to break into your house some night and give you one? :-) Our goal is to restore control to the copyright owner's hands how much is visible on Amazon/Google/etc. Then those who want more can have more, and those who want less can choose less. We'll see more experimentation then, not less.