Why My Book Can Be Downloaded For Free (2014)

Why my book can be downloaded for free People are frequently surprised that my book, Higher-Order Perl, is available as a free download from my web site. They ask if it spoiled my sales, or if it was hard to convince the publisher. No and no. I sent the HOP proposal to five publishers, expecting…

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Why my book can be downloaded for free

People are frequently surprised that my book, Higher-Order Perl , is available as a free download from my web site . They ask if it spoiled my sales, or if it was hard to convince the publisher. No and no.

I sent the HOP proposal to five publishers, expecting that two or three would turn it down, and that I would pick from the remaining two or three, but somewhat to my dismay, all five offered to publish it, and I had to decide who.

One of the five publishers was Morgan Kaufmann. I had never heard of Morgan Kaufmann, but one day around 2002 I was reading the web site of Philip Greenspun . Greenspun was incredibly grouchy. He found fault with everything. But he had nothing but praise for Morgan Kaufmann. I thought that if Morgan Kaufmann had pleased Greenspun, who was nearly impossible to please, then they must be really good, so I sent them the proposal. (They eventually published the book, and did a superb job; I have never regretted choosing them.)

But not only Morgan Kaufmann but four other publishers had offered to publish the book. So I asked a number of people for advice. I happened to be in London one week and Greenspun was giving a talk there, which I went to see. After the talk I introduced myself and asked for his advice about picking the publisher.

Greenspun reiterated his support for Morgan Kaufmann, but added that the publisher was not important. Instead, he said, I should make sure to negotiate permission to make the book available for free on my web site. He told me that compared with the effort that you put into the book, the money you get back is insignificant. So if you write a book it should not be because you want to make a lot of money from it but because you have an idea that you want to present to the world. And as an author, you owe it to yourself to get your idea in front of as many people as possible. By putting the book in your web site, you make it available to many people who would not otherwise have access to it: poor people, high school students, people in developing countries, and so on.

I thought that Greenspun’s idea made sense; I wanted my ideas about programming to get to as many people as possible. Also, demanding that I make the book available on my web site for free seemed like a good way to narrow down the five publishers to two or three.

The first part of that plan worked out well. The second part not so well: all five publishers agreed. Some agreed reluctantly and some agreed willingly, but they all agreed. Eventually I had the book published by Morgan Kaufmann, and after a delay that seemed long at the time but in retrospect seems not so long, I put the book on my web site. It has been downloaded many times. (It’s hard to say how many, since browsers often download just the portion of the PDF file that they need to display.)

Would the book have made more money if it were not available as a free download? We can’t know for sure, but I don’t think so. The book has always sold well, and has made a significant amount of money for me and for Morgan Kaufmann. The amount I made is small compared to the amount of work I had to put in, just as Greenspun said, but it was nothing to sneeze at either. Even now, ten years later, it is still selling and I still get a royalty check every six months. For my book to have lasted ten years is extremely rare. Most computer books disappear without a trace after six months.

Part of this is that it’s an unusually good book. But I think the longevity is partly because it is available as a free download. Imagine that person A asks a question on an Internet forum, and person B says that HOP has a section that could help with the question. If A wants to follow up, they now must find a copy of HOP. If the book is out of print, this can be difficult. It may not be in the library; it almost certainly isn’t in the bookstore. Used copies may be available, but you have to order them and have them shipped, and if you don’t like it once it arrives, you are stuck with it. Tea barrier is just too high to be convenient. But since HOP is available on my web site, B can include a link, or A can find it with an easy web search. The barrier is gone! And now I have another reader who might mention it to someone else, and they might even buy a copy. Instead of drifting away into obscurity, HOP is a book that people can recommend over and over.

So my conclusion is, Greenspun’s advice was exactly correct. As an author, you owe it to yourself to make your book available to as many people as possible. And the publisher may agree, so be sure to ask.

[ Addendum: Some people are just getting the news, but the book was published in 2005, and has been available as a free download since 2008. ]

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  1. insulanian

    "Free stuff sells well!"

    — I can't remember where I've read it.

  2. marijn

    This aligns with my experience with eloquentjavascript.net, except that I put it online before publishing on paper, and my hunch is that it wouldn't have reached anywhere near the level of fame (and thus sales) it did if it hadn't been available online.

  3. harryf

    Higher Order Perl is one of the most enjoyable books I ever read on programming for being both a great intro to functional programming and also highly pragmatic in application of FP.

    Sadly it’s hard to recommend because prejudice against Perl

  4. gorgoiler

    Darn, I was hoping to see the code that formatted the beautiful final typesetting. The author’s workflow ends with HTML, alas.

    However, I’m also kind of glad to see that the typesetting was done by a real person earning a living as a craftsman designer. While I selfishly would love to have access to automated book-quality typesetting I’m also in favour of craftsfolk having a place in the economy!

  5. notRobot

    Article is from '14.

  6. DrNuke

    It makes sense for authors if they get an increment in status and different leads, say: a number of sponsored appearances, a promotion at work, etc. Generally speaking and in most cases, though, it is just free work for the world, which is good at large and yet unsustainable as a business model?

  7. diggan

    "Clojure For The Brave and True" is also another book who's author explicitly chose their publisher (No Starch) because they could also publish the book for free on their website. Not only is it free but also amazing book, one of the most enjoyable books I've read about programming overall and also made me dive into the Clojure rabbit hole that I'm now lucky to work professionally with during my day job. braveclojure.com/clojure-for-the-brave-and-true/

  8. CorbenDallas

    Makes sense, but it's still exclusively up to author to decide if he wants to have his work available for free or not.

  9. arkpafisto

    "… the book was published in 2005, and has been available as a free download since 2008"

    Actually he didn't follow the advice.

  10. IAmEveryone

    There are different types of authors.

    For this author, and many others, the book is somewhat of a loss-leader of some sort: a form of marketing for a consultant, freelancer, aspiring politician, scientist, activist, or similar. PhD theses often work like this, too.

    In that scenario, the royalty cheque is sometimes nice, but not considered necessary. If given a choice between, say, ten people reading the book for free versus one person buying it and never getting around to reading it, these authors will always chose the former.

    But there is, quite obviously, a different kind: the professional author. GoT wouldn't have happened within George RR Martin's lifetime if he had to teach English or run a really strange cult on the side to pay rent. Many non-fiction authors fall into the same category. James Gleick might be one people here enjoy.

    This isn't necessarily a binary distinction. Noam Chomsky, Richard Feynman, or Edward Tufte could have all lived quite comfortably on just their salary as professors and the occasional Nobel prize. But their success as authors drastically increased their freedom, possibly allowing them to take risks in their work they would have avoided otherwise, like talking truth to NASA (and/or capitalism).

    As an analogy, consider the not-uncommon offer to work for free on someone's (commercial) software project in exchange for "exposure". This is more common among designers and musicians these days, but used to happen quite frequently to programmers as well. It's exactly the same logic, and not always entirely wrong. Nonetheless, it has become somewhat of a running joke/faux pas/universally recognised sign of a person having no clue of the industry and to be avoided.

  11. Fragoel2

    The author has a point but I also believe that it exceptional longevity also comes from the fact not many authors are writing books for Perl. More popular languages, like Java, JavaScript or Python have a lot more competition going on.

  12. ChrisMarshallNY

    I am not a fan of book DRM. I have one reader app that I prefer, and want to read everything on it.

    I have absolutely no issues with paying for most books; especially if they are about my work. I do have an issue with “price-gouging” books, though. I think those are usually textbooks. The markup on them can be eye-watering, and I give them a hard pass.

    When I write, I like to make it public and free. I have been approached about having my work behind a paywall, and have declined. Maybe I’ll consider it in the future, but I’m not doing it for the money.

    As the author of the post mentioned, writing a book is a fraught process. It would have to be an Oprah’s Book Club special to make it truly worth it, monetarily, and that ain’t happening with geek books.

    I do it mainly because I love writing. I’ve been doing it since I was a child. It also helps me to learn, and organize my own thoughts.

    But that’s just me. YMMV

  13. franze

    my book[1] is

    1) beautiful print book – paid and giveaway

    2) paid kindle on amazon

    3) DRM free epub, pdf, mobi on gumroad – paid and free

    there is a reason for all three cases.

    my general agenda is that I wrote the book to a) improve the status quo of the topic (SEO) as it's a horrible b#lls#it driven discepline. and b) to reach new clients. these were the driving factors. the money return from the book is not a main motivator, for this it is too niche, as it targets developers who don't want to suffer under SEO anymore.

    ad 1)

    so I created a print book that gets displayed in the offices, so that people talk about it, easily share and borrow it. it is a paid product so that it percieved to have inherent value. also I don't want to make a loss with print. but I also give it away at workshops so that it spreads wildely. additonal I hope that in the future I can start from a higher knowledge level and that the knowledge stays longer in the organization.

    ad 2)

    the kindle store is a strong channel in its own. you can not set the price to zero, so it costs something. even if I promore the free DRM version (see 3) people download it via the kindle store, as it is easier.

    ad 3)

    DRM free on gumroad. free because DRM sucks. has a pricteag as if it's free($) onlye people might not see it as valueable. free with vouchers, as I regularly promote it via all kind of events.

    I set it to 0 for some time in general on gumroad, there was no positive uplift in the long term, so I use promotion vouchers.

    [1] the book is fullstackoptimization.com/b/understanding-seo, gumroad is gumroad.com/l/understanding-seo/hacker-news [with 100% voucher for hacker-news], Kindle is amazon.com/Understanding-SEO-Systematic-Approach-Optimization-ebook/dp/B07L3BSQHG 5 stars, 16 reviews

  14. econcon

    I never pay for any book even tho I am high net worth, I always downloaded books from libgen.

    Most of the books are not worth it

  15. maps7

    Does anyone have a list of free programming books?

  16. roland35

    This is great advice, it seems like offering the book for free is just as good, if not better, than marketing it with traditional advertising!

    The author's point that having it online keeps the book relevant is also a great point to consider. An online book is now integrated with the rest of the internet, instead of being firewalled away into obscurity.

  17. rikroots

    The key takeaway from the article (as far as I'm concerned) is this:

    > "So if you write a book it should not be because you want to make a lot of money from it but because you have an idea that you want to present to the world. And as an author, you owe it to yourself to get your idea in front of as many people as possible. By putting the book in your web site, you make it available to many people who would not otherwise have access to it: poor people, high school students, people in developing countries, and so on."

    … Which is why I give all my books away for free[1][2], and have been doing so for over 10 years.

    [1] Obligatory spam link to my website: rikverse2020.rikweb.org.uk/publications

    [2] The fact that there's no money in writing poetry is entirely incidental.

  18. hn_check

    This is one of those articles that is self-promotion disguised as a "lesson" of some sort, and it gets upvoted by loads of people who then want to engage in their own self-promotion.

    "Oh yes, this is true..my experiencing with my book [link]"…

    Tech/software dev books make extremely little money. The #1 reason people write such books — knowing that they're unlikely to see much more than a coffee or two of proceeds — is for reputation/career development. Getting a book "published", even through actual publishing houses, is the easiest part of the process: Agile printing and the absence of editorial standards makes it a close to riskless process for them.

  19. Veera_Sivarajan

    I'm a student and I always scout for books online. I promise myself that, if the book helps me, I'll buy a copy of it in the future.

  20. fullstop

    I highly recommend Worm [1], available for free and it's some of the best fiction I've read in ages. It's only available online and not in any sort of (official) e-book format, although there are scrapers which can do that pretty seamlessly. It's a great story and I would gladly throw money at the author for an official e-book version.

    [1] parahumans.wordpress.com/

  21. mark_l_watson

    I used to make my eBooks available for free download on my web site (and still do for my older books) but in the last few years I have sold my books (on leanpub) with a Creative Commons Share and Share Alike, No commercial Derivatives License. I also try to "seed" my books by giving copies away. In the prefaces, I make it clear that the eBooks can be shared.

    I think this is a good compromise since I earn a little 'walking around money' and my stuff gets fairly widely read.

    The super-power advantage of writing books is getting to meet interesting people and expand networking.

  22. svat

    Related and similar: See also the blog post (“Why Textbooks Should Be Free”) “The Case for Free Online Books”[1] by Remzi Arpaci-Dusseau, professor at Wisconsin and (co-)author of the fantastic Operating Systems book “Operating Systems: Three Easy Pieces” (ostep.org/)

    [1]: from-a-to-remzi.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-case-for-free-online-books-fobs.html

  23. djaychela

    I have written a book – on music technology, specifically using Cubase, but giving a good all-round basis to start understanding and creating music using Cubase. It took me a long time to write (years of prep work, and then a full year of spare time to actually properly write, typeset and proof and self-publish), and then it languished as I'd never thought about publicity; it was used by students of mine who found it immensely useful, but that was pretty much that.

    Only a fluke meeting of the book with someone from the software house who create the book led to some increased popularity and sales, along with incremental improvements in sales from my youtube channel [1].

    The book is only available in print form, as I've never trusted any DRM to be worthwhile, and nearly everyone I know who makes music does so with software they haven't paid for. I know this is entirely counter to the article and also everyone's experience on here, but I'm wondering if this is a little different as there aren't consultancies etc in the music tech segment. The most you'll get from someone who has read your book is a few hours' work (at normal rates) either classroom teaching, or one-to-one online.

    At the current time (as nearly everything I normally do is face-to-face), the sales from the book are the only income I have; it's not a lot, but last month's sales were about half the baseline I need to pay my bills, so I can't complain. I know I could be completely wrong about this, but I can't imagine that giving it away would do anything other than decimate this income.

    [0] – tinyurl.com/cubasebookamazon

    [1] – youtube.com/c/musictechtuition

  24. dang

    Discussed at the time: news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8692627

  25. munificent

    In this post and most of the comments here, people assume you have a binary choice:

    1. You can put your book online for free and sacrifice extrinsic reward (money) for greater intrinsic reward (popularity, impact on the world).

    2. You can maximize your financial income by only selling the book.

    I thought I was making that choice when I decided to put "Game Programming Patterns" online for free, but that's not actually how it turned out. I have made much more money from the book than I would have if I'd gone with a traditional publisher and not put the book online for free. The model I have now is something like the classic marketing funnel. To make the most money from a thing, you need to have as many people go through this series of steps as possible:

    1. Know that the product exists.

    2. Decide to want it.

    3. Be just willing to pay the price to acquire it. (Anything less and you're leaving money on the table.)

    4. Keep as much of that money for yourself as possible. (In other words, reduce costs.)

    For technical books, most people don't get past step 1. Putting the book online dramatically improves that. Of the people who do, many stop at step 2. There are so many articles out there, it's easy to convince yourself you don't need a acquire a whole book. Again, putting the book online helps: you can try before you buy.

    Step 3 is the interesting one. Putting the book online for free obviously leaves, like, all money on the table. But what I have found is that there a self-selected market segmentation seems to come into play. Many people do read the book for free, but some choose to pay anyway.

    Step 4 is the dirty secret of the big technical book publishers. They take an embarrassingly large chunk of each sale. That could maybe be justified in the old days of publishing when you needed to run a whole printing press and maintain relationships with independent book publishers and all that. But, frankly, they do not do enough to justify how much they take. Self-publishing fixes that, at the expense of having to do more of the work and management yourself. I had to find a freelance copy editor, and typeset and design the cover. But I effectively "got paid" to do that work at a much better rate than it would have cost me to "pay" a publisher to do that by giving them the lion's share of each sale.

    I don't want to generalize too much from my one single data point, but it seemed that for me, the increased widening of the first two steps and the greater share at step 4 more than compensated for the money left on the table for some readers at step 3. It was a clear enough signal that I'm taking the same approach with my second book. And, equally importantly, I really liked the subjective experience of it being my book and being able to put it out into the world exactly the way I wanted to.

  26. lazyant

    For ebooks only, there are options to charge and make them available for free as well.

    One option is honor system: pay if you can, see for ex twitter.com/b0rk/status/1254396387703361536 .

    Another option is where people can buy the book and pay for other people as well.

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