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Sam Harris on the ‘death knell for traditional publishing’

Sam Harris (Photo courtesy

Over on his blog, Sam Harris — a thinker whose work touches on the messy intersection of science, religion and global conflict — offers interesting some provocative analysis on “The Future of the Book.” Harris draws on his own experiences as a book author, a blogger and a user of social media to examine how free online publishing has altered readers’ expectations of how much they should pay for the written word.

The piece — first published last September — is worth reading in full, but here’s a taste:

I am currently writing a traditional, printed book for my mainstream publisher, the Free Press. At the other extreme, I do a lot of writing for free, almost entirely on my blog. In between working for free and working for my publisher, I’ve begun to experiment with self publishing short ebooks. Last week, I published LYING, my first installment in this genre. The results have been simultaneously thrilling and depressing.

The essay appears to have had its desired effect on many readers. But others were not satisfied. Some did not understand the format—a very short book that can be read in 40 minutes—and expected to get a much longer book for $1.99. Many wondered why it is available only as an ebook. Some fans of ebooks were powerfully aggrieved to find it available only on the Kindle platform—they own Nooks, or detest Amazon for one reason or another. However, the fact is that Amazon made it extraordinarily easy for me to do this; the Kindle Single is the perfect format for so short a book; and Kindle content can be read on every computer and almost any handheld device. I decided that it was not worth my time or other people’s money to publish LYING elsewhere, or as a physical book.

On the surface, the launch of LYING has been a great success. It reached the #1 spot for Kindle Singles immediately and #9 for all Kindle content. It is amazing to finish writing, hit “upload,” and watch one’s work soar and settle, however briefly, above the vampire novels and diet books.

I would be lying, however, if I said that I wasn’t stung by some of the early criticism. Some readers felt that a 9000-word essay was not worth $1.99, especially when they can read my 5000-word blog posts for free. It is true that I put a lot of work into many of my blog posts, but LYING took considerably longer to write than any of them. It is a deceptively simple book—and I made it simple for a reason. Some of my readers seem not to have appreciated this and prefer to follow me into my usual thickets of argument and detail. That’s fine. But it is, nevertheless, painful to lose a competition with oneself, especially over a difference of $1.99.

One thing is certain: writers and public intellectuals must find a way to get paid for what they do—and the opportunities to do this are changing quickly. My current solution is to write longer books for a traditional press and publish short ebooks myself on Amazon. If anyone has any better ideas, please publish them somewhere—perhaps on a blog—and then send me a link. And I hope you get paid.

Posted on April 10th, 2012Comments RSS Feed

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