The Model, The Model

So what are the revenue models for collaboratively produced free books? Seems like a very difficult proposition. Not only do you have to find some way to sell something that is free, always at least a little tricky, but you have then split that revenue between multiple authors, not just one. Sounds like a losing game to many publishers, I am sure. The ‘traditional’ model, or at least the model that is re-establishing itself through app stores, to sell the final product. App stores sell electronic books very very cheaply and make them easy to access – the theory being that you will buy something if it is cheap and not a hassle to get. You are in effect paying for a service, not the book. So the theory goes – it can also work for free content since the book is not the commodity but the service.

This could be the way and it at least appears to be working for some publishers, if you believe the evangelism for this model at places like the O’Reilly Tools of Change conferences. However, I think there are more interesting possibilities.

Recently a free book developed in FLOSS Manuals by a single author (James Simmons) was put onto the ‘crowdsourcing’ platform ( The Rural Design Collective put the book there to raise money to do the design and production of it. As they stated in the project summary:

How We Will Use The Money
 Our program will take place during the 2010 summer months, June – August. Using our collaborative work on the FLOSS Manual as a guide, we will build a three month course around eBooks. Custom-designed physical copies of the FLOSS Manual will be created by the participants in our program to continue to raise awareness and funds for our work. In addition, a stand-alone website will be created containing code samples and utilities to help others get started working with eBooks.

So they were pitching the book as tool that would have a very real and tangible output – a 3-month course on eBooks. The project effectively then has at least 2 tangible outcomes – the book and the course (plus the website etc). This is pretty much considered ‘best practice’ when pushing things on crowdsourcing platforms. Make the proposition tangible and real.

The Rural Design Collective raised $2130 US dollars for the project. Not a sum most publishers would be interested in but it does raise an interesting point – people are prepared to fund a book that they want. That’s quite a reversal – the consumer is actively switching sides to become ‘part’ of the production team by helping finance the product. The advantage of this process is that if you can raise the funds for the project like this then you don’t have to rely on sales to recover your costs or make a profit. That means there is a better chance for the product to be a ‘no strings attached’ free product. The content can actually be free because no one is anxious to recover their costs from sales. That also means that the post-production can focus on distributing the content as far and wide as possible because at that stage the return is recognition through distribution. This can, if done well, help with the next project that needs funding…the better you are known for producing good quality free products the easier it will be to convince people to help pay for their production.

But…’what about the real money’? Surely a question on every publisher’s lips right now… how to find people that want books to be produced and get them to pay for them. Universities want books? Get them to pool their resources and pay for the books’ entire production. NGOs want books? Same deal… turn the economics on its head. Don’t take the risk of getting a return from sales, find the people with the money that want to pay for the books before you produce them, and have your incoming revenue stream solved before you write the book…. Why do it collaboratively I hear the attentive reader asking? Because you can do it fasterthat way, and if you have someone paying for something, you don’t want to make them wait. Book Sprint it. This model can work for you, it can work for the ‘commissioners,’ and more importantly, it can work for free culture.