Few questions in publishing are more clearly polarised by personal opinion than whether open-licensing is compatible with increased revenue. In general, fans of open-licensing don’t work for commercial publishers, and claim that open-licensing boosts sales. And those whose salaries depend on selling copies of books won’t even risk trying open licences. There has been precious little data to prove either’s case.
I have feet in both camps. As someone who genuinely believes widespread literacy could solve deep-rooted problems, open licensing seems to be a necessary leap of faith for any publisher who gives a damn. That’s why at Bettercare we put Creative Commons licences on our books. Still, as someone who needs Bettercare to stay afloat, this gives me the shivers.
At Paperight, too, we struggle with this. We recently spent tens of thousands of rand developing a CC-licensed book that Paperight outlets would sell. When a partner organisation started giving the PDF version away for free, we felt disappointed: those should have been our sales! We need that cash!
Of course, those giveaways were probably never going to be our sales, anyway. The book’s market is huge, so we’ll find our own customers. Still, it stung emotionally. We wondered whether the CC-license was a good idea. And in the absence of real data, emotion rules.
So it’s very encouraging to see that for Pratham Books, sales data clearly shows that open-licensing correlates with increased sales. Not only the licensing, though, but easy, free access to that content, too. In their case, on Scribd:
… when we looked at the cumulative sales data for CC books that were available on Scribd vs. CC books that were not available on Scribd, we were astounded to see that the former outsold the latter in such dramatic fashion in almost a 3:1 ratio. While we would be hesitant to say, given the specifics of our market and our model, that making books openly licensed and available online increased sales, we are a lot more confident in claiming that, at worst, it does not seem to depress sales of those books. And that, in itself, is an important learning for us and as it should be for the rest of the publishing industry.
I highly recommend reading the entire post, which explains how they gathered the data. It wasn’t an easy journey for them either. Just as it isn’t for us.
Luckily, I work with people who are willing to take the leaps of faith we need to overcome our worries and do the right thing. If all goes well, Pratham Books’ experience will be ours, too, and the gods will keep us in lunch.