37Signals’ ‘Getting Real’ sets a bad precedent for self-publishing

Wildly popular software firm 37Signals is earning much press– predictably, some of the nicest is their own ;)- for the success of their latest book, Getting Real. If you haven’t heard, Real is a book on project management, software development, and business tips for the Web 2.0 era.

To their credit, the self-publishing model has allowed them to earn over $120,000 in profit by selling just ~6,000 copies of their book. For those who don’t know, that’s a pretty big deal, as most authors earn 8-15% royalties from their books, meaning that 6,000 copies sold is often either a failure or a moderate break-even for those choosing the traditional publishing route.

Although the firm deserves credit for their risk, I’m bothered by a precedent they’re setting. During the checkout process for the book (which I can’t link to thanks to their Ajax-ified site), they ask that buyers check a box agreeing to the following statement:

I understand I’m purchasing a single copy of book for myself and I won’t make copies of the book or distribute it to anyone else.

Think about that for a second: despite the fact that it’s in digital format, we are still talking about a book here. A book that- don’t forget, it’s in electronic format, meaning it’s nothing but a file- will cost you an already hefty $19 to own. That price ticks up a bit if you choose to print it, using your own paper and ink in the process (two things that are typically included in the price of a book). Now, they’re asking- ne, making me agree- not to distribute it?

They’re obviously reacting to the nature of the distribution platform; in this case the conventional wisdom is that a file is much easier to share than a physical book. But how much easier? Is it really so hard for me to carry a lightweight book to a friend’s house? Or to sell it or swap it on one of the innumerable auction/discount/trader sites out there on the web?

Sure, it may be more difficult than emailing a file. But imagine if every book you ever purchased came with a note that said “You must not distribute this book to anyone else.” Wouldn’t that be, oh I don’t know, laughable? How far would that kind of edict stand when discovered by intellectual property activists such as the fine folks at Creative Commons?

I’m not suggesting that 37Signals- or any author or self-publisher- should give away their product: far from it. As a published author, I’m keenly aware of the instinct to receive compensation in exchange for my efforts. However, it seems to me that there are two sides of the fence to come down on, and 37Signals has perhaps come down on the wrong one here.

Am I wrong, or is one of the advantages of selling your product on the web the fact that you can encourage distribution, sharing, linking, and via those factors employ your readers and buyers as evangelists, marketers, booksellers? Doesn’t it show more confidence in your product if you give more books away, not force your readers and buyers to watch over your property with little or no stake in it themselves?

That was the conclusion, but I won’t go away without offering some positive suggestions for altering their policy. Here goes:

* Lower the price. Guys, drop the price to $9.99. Let’s be honest here- some (read: lots) of the cost of publishing goes into, you know, printing and shipping the books: two big factors you’ve wisely avoided. So skip the vanity price in favor of one that will appeal to a wider audience and pass the savings onto your adoring fans. They may just thank you for it.

* Ease the draconian sharing restriction. Instead of telling buyers that they “won’t make copies of the book or distribute it to anyone else”, I suggest they re-phrase their agreement this way:

– Please do not distribute electronic copies of this book
– If you love the book and want to share it, please print a copy and share that. Then encourage others to do the same.

* Share the love. Send out 20-30 printed, bound copies of the book to bloggers, software developers, etc. Do it on your dime and ask them to consider reading the book and possibly offering their thoughts via their blog or in company meetings, etc. Then encourage them to share those printed copies freely. Guess what? Nobody will. Those 30 or so printed beauties will become like gold-plated trading cards among the tech blogerati, and you’ll get much better press for it in the long run. It would take away 30 guaranteed sales, but it might earn you a few hundred more from folks who may not have known you before.

UPDATE: I changed the spelling of the word “precedent” in this post after reading this rude, snarky comment on this guy’s Flickr photostream. Go, civility! And for those who think the above post is a “rant”, please explain exactly why in the comments. Be careful to define the word “rant” for the purposes of your argument.

3 Replies to “37Signals’ ‘Getting Real’ sets a bad precedent for self-publishing”

  1. Okay, Jason, sorry for any rudeness. Snark, sure. Just razzing you a bit.

  2. Draconian sharing restriction? They could have put DRM on it of they wanted to (but I am sure this is against their principles). I am sure they are OK with you printing it and showing a friend, which would then convert that friend into a possible customer, just to keep things fair. They are simply asking you not to e-mail it to everyone you know. I think this is fair. They got 25% of the readers of their blog to shell out at least $20. I am sure they thought this price through. They knew that this is the price the market could bear. If you want free advice from 37 Signals, just read their blog. If you want the good stuff condensed down to a collection in a book, $20 is fair. They don’t need to be giving away any free advice. This is what an up-and-comer or someone trying to break into a scene does. They are clearly the established leader in this space. They can sell anything they want to on their blog, and people will buy.

  3. I don’t see the harm in adding the statement not to distribute. I don’t think they mean you cannot print one copy and lend it to a friend. They mean don’t print 100 copies or don’t distribute the digital file. If I have one copy (the one I printed for myself to read) and I lend that one out I would bet that is ok.

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