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Free Books, Inverse Power Laws, New Paradigm

I made a new “Free Books” page with links to five of my books that are in free Creative Commons licensed ebook editions, plus five more books that can be read for free online, either as webpages or as PDF files. Ten free books! Go get ‘em.

As I say on that page, I release free editions of my books for several reasons. One is to keep the books alive and in circulation far into the future. A second reason is to allow those unfamiliar with my work to sample it for free. A third reason is to allow open access to my books for research and teaching. A fourth reason is that giving away books builds an author’s “name brand” and may ultimately bring in book sales, speaking engagements, and commissioned story gigs.

We’re seeing a new paradigm for how creative artists support themselves. I’m thinking about writers in particular, but some of this applies to musicians, painters, photographers, film-makers and other kinds of artists as well. I’m thinking in particular of the writers and so on who aren’t in the tiny top one-percent of their field. There will always be money at the top—but surprisingly little on the bottom. The “long tail” doesn’t do artists much good once the tail is only a hairs-breadth above the zero axis.

This phenomenon has to do with the pestiferous inverse-power-law curve, also known as the scaling law. if you’re the hundredth-most popular writer, you earn a hundredth as much as the most popular one. Instead of a million dollars, you get ten thousand bucks. Or maybe just a thousand (the law may have a scaling exponent). That’s how nature is. It’s not anyone’s fault.

The scaling law applies across the board—to the populations of cities, the number of hits on websites, the heights of mountains, the number of friends that people have, the areas of lakes, and the sales of books. The Nth biggest one racks up something like 1 over N as much as the number-one biggest dpes. Or there can be a scaling exponent, and maybe the Nth-ranking person only gets 1 / (N-squared) as much. It’s a natural phenomenon, and you can’t exactly be mad about it. Instead you have to deal with it.

I go into this in some detail is section “5.3 Commercial and Gnarly Aesthetics” of my nonfiction tome, The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul—here’s a link to that section of the book, which is currently living online as a huge PDF file. And shown below is a graph, with explanation, having to do with various ways in which author advances might be skewed.

[Drawing by Isabel Rucker for The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul. Caption for this figure is copied below.]

The curve shows the inverse power law Advance = $1,000,000/ Rank. The double lightning bolt indicates where I had to leave out six or seven miles of space so as to fit in the point marking where the most popular writer gets a million bucks. Despite this big spike, the total area under the curve between one and one thousand is only about six million, which represents the total in book advances that society hands out to the top thousand writers. The two straight lines show a couple of options for how a central committee might allocate six million dollars to a thousand writers in a “more equitable” fashion. The horizontal line depicts the possibility of giving each writer a flat six thousand dollars, irregardless of popularity. And the sloping line shows the option where the most popular writer gets $l0,000 and the thousandth most popular writer gets $2,000.

Why is nature filled with inverse power laws, also called scaling laws? Oddly enough there doesn’t seem to be any really clear explanation—I’ve seen attempts, but none of them quite add up. My personal opinion is that the explanation has something to do with the fact that natural processes are, as Wolfram has it, universal computations…you can see my conjecture to this effect buried in the text of my Lifebox tome here.

So what-frikkin-ever, that’s the computation-theoretic underpinnings of why artists have it hard. The practice is that, in order to make it, it helps to have patrons, whales, special gigs. Kickstarter is part of the answer here—asking your fanbase to directly support you and, yes, fishing for a few deep-pocketed whales in the fanbase.

And having the name recognition can impel people to ask you to give talks, or do some kind of consultation. Early on I might have been so flattered that I didn’t ask for money when some business was asking me to give a talk or a reading to their employees. “You’ll make it up in increased books sales,” was the belief. But now it’s backwards. Your income from book sales is in the toilet, and it’s gonna be staying there for the foreseeable future. So you ask the businesses to pay you to speak.

But what if the people inviting you say, “Oh, we don’t do that.” That can be tough. If it’s something like a small SF gathering, and they clearly don’t have money, then there’s no use pushing. But schools will pay, and businesses can pay. Always ask. If people with serious money want to stonewall me, there’s the building-the-brand and egoboo temptation to knuckle under and speak anyway. But I’m doing that less than I used to. I get a bad feeling when I knuckle under to a fat cat. They gotta give me something, even if they want to call it “travel expenses” instead of “honorarium.”

The street performers in Manhattan pass the hat, of course, and to make sure you don’t melt away, they pass the hat just before their best and final trick. I’ve never actually been in a position of literally passing a hat after a talk. Sometimes you do it indirectly, like in a book store where people are supposed to buy your book, or at a more informal gathering where you try and sell some of your books directly from the podium, books that you brought in the trunk of your beat-up traveling-snake-oil-salesperson or country-musician-type car.

But on my new “Free Books” page I am, for about the first time, electronically passing the hat, that is, I put a “Make a Donation” button the page.

In the same vein, I’ll be launching a Kickstarter for my next project on May 1. It’ll be called “Transreal Trilogy + All the Visions.” But that’s another story. Stay tuned!

Rucktronics, Inc., marches into the future!

3 Responses to “Free Books, Inverse Power Laws, New Paradigm”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    great post Rudy. “[Y]our beat-up traveling-snake-oil-salesperson or country-musician-type car,” god I love literary license!

    Since Google reader died I don’t see the updates to your blog unless I happen to catch you on facebook. Wish you would do a google+ too, you don’t have to complete with facebooks broken filtering — if we don’t ‘like’ every post we will miss some. I think you should have Rudy JR. write you a program that posts the first two paragraphs on each post. And

  2. fantastic. Says:

    I find this argument extremely compelling and I feel that more authors that complain about book sales should take your approach.

    It seems similar to a musical artist making money off of tours and merchandise. Although I’m not sure how much I care for the latter, I still feel that it lends to the propagation of aesthetic works that hold a more culturally representative popularity value. Rather than the artist which receives the biggest contract from Sony.

    This entry reminded me of this video:

    Much love!


  3. womans_voice Says:

    “Kickstarter is part of the answer here…”

    Absolutely – I know a couple of very successful film makers who used KS to get their projects off the ground and one of them is now showing nationally.

    Making movies is an inherently collaborative, not corporate art form. The commercial film industry (lately it’s all about superheroes and sequels thereof) is notoriously closed and – dare I say – corrupt? KS etc is a better initial funding option, especially for people who want to produce a piece of art that is free of secondary corporate interests.

    The same may apply to those in the literary arts.

    Ps – I liked Duncan’s web link. Cute.

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