The Web and Identity Goods

InstaPundit writes:
This seems to me to suggest that free downloads don’t do much to
cannibalize actual [book] sales.

I have more (or at least longer-term) experience with this than
anyone else. Back in 1991, The New Hacker’s Dictionary
was the very first real book (like, with an ISBN) to be released
simultaneously in print and available for free download on-line. Both
of the books I’ve done since, The Cathedral and the
and The Art of Unix Programming, have also
been released for free download at the same time they were in print.
You can easily find all three on my

Of all my books, only the very first (Portable C and Unix
Systems Programming
, 1987) didn’t get webbed. It was a decent
seller, but the least successful of my books. It’s now out of print, made
technically obsolete by things that happened in the early 1990s. All
three of my other books, the ones that got webbed, have remained
continuously in print.

My four books do not a controlled experiment make, but the
thirteen years of experience with simultaneous print and Web
publication that I’ve had suggests that Web availability has boosted
the sales of the print versions tremendously. And my publishers
agree. Even in 1991 I didn’t get resistance from MIT press, and
Addison-Wesley was positively supportive of putting my most most
recent one on the Web.

I’m one of a handful of technical-book writers who publishers treat
like rock stars, because I have a large fan base and my name on a
cover will sell a book in volumes that are exceptional for its
category (for comparison my editor at AW mentions Bruce Eckel as
another). I’m not certain my experience generalizes to authors who
aren’t rock stars. On the other hand, it’s more than
possible that I’m a rock star largely because I have been
throwing my stuff on the Web since 1991. It’s even likely —
after all, I was next to an unknown when I edited The New Hacker’s

So I don’t find the InstaWife’s experience very surprising.
Webbing one’s books seems to be really effective way to build a fan
base. My impression is that people start by browsing the the on-line
versions of my books, then buy the paper copy partly for convenience
and partly as what marketers call an identity good.

An identity good is something people buy to express their tie to a
group or category they belong to or would like to belong to. People
buy The New Hacker’s Dictionary because they are, or want
to be, the kind of person they think should own a copy of it.

Here’s the causal connection: A Web version can’t be an identity
good, because it doesn’t sit on your bookshelf or your coffee table
telling everybody (and reminding you!) who you are. But Web exposure
can, I think, help turn a book with the right kind of potential into
an identity good. I suspect there is now a population of psychologists
and social workers who perceive the InstaWife’s book as an identity
good, and that (as with my stuff) that perception was either created or
strongly reinforced by web exposure.

If so, this would explain why webbing her book made the auction
price for the out-of-print paper version go up. The price of the
paper version reflects buyers’ desires to be identifiable as members
of the community of readers of the book. By making softcopy available
for download, the InstaWife enhanced the power of the paper version as
an identity token, by making it easy for a larger population to learn
the meaning of the token.

I would go so far as to predict that any book (or movie, or CD)
that functions as an identity good will tend to sell more rather than
less after Web exposure. All three of my in-print books happen to be
identity goods rather strongly, for slightly different but overlapping
populations. I suspect the InstaWife’s book has this quality too. About those
things which aren’t identity goods, I can’t say. Not enough experience.


  1. I think the most important reason is simply the fact that reading a whole book on a computer is tiresome, but wheter the identety concept is the #2 or the #1 reason is diffucult to say..

  2. I’ve given a couple of copies of the New Hackers Dictionary to people as gifts. Somehow this doesn’t work if you just e-mail them the URL of the jargon file. And they are much more likely to pay attention (ie actually read it) if you send them a physical book.

  3. Interesting and useful analogy. And others, perhaps less successful to date, persist in electronic publishing and are making their way with it from sex advise ebooks to any other kind that can be imagined. In the case of she’s a mini rock star using promotion through a blog in a similar fashion, some content publishing to promote the sale of eBooks, a twist on what you’ve accomplished (and which has been most appreciated by many).

  4. As someone who has to answer “where should I go to learn about this stuff instead of bothering you all the time” on a fairly broad range of technical topics, having AUP online meant I could read enough of it to decide that it was consistent with what I’d lived (a more polite way of saying “not on crack”), and then recommend it to other people – and I’ll probably pick up my own copy someday too, even though I’m not really the audience and certainly don’t have a current use for it…

  5. life is kinda simple some times.
    I’m NOT about to print out 200plus pages of an entire book , nor do I find it all that comfortable to actually read what is a multi-page anything on my computer screen.
    online books might in and of themselves be fine for reference materials gathered into two or three paragraphed sections , but not for information which requires entire chapters.

  6. Also see for an SF author doing his best to drum up publicity. Its working for me as I would otherwise never have heard of him and now he’s on my list. Whether I buy or not depends on how much I like the book (so far so good), but I doubt I would have even looked at the book in a bookstore so he’s ahead of the game anyway.

  7. You have had a great insight. Book sales are essentially unaffected by Internet piracy. At least in my own case.

    It is also the case in some audiovisual products. I bought the extended version of LotR I and II, and would have done so even as I had a pirated copy at hand. The reasons were the ones you mentioned: Even having the (*sigh*, wonderful) casing in the shelf was of value to me.

    Supplier-sided analysts are not always neutral or objective… when the interests of the suppliers are at stake. The most crass example is piracy. I do not contend that piracy generates losses. But the otherwise-so-rigorous economists that publish piracy studies have obvious fallacies.

    For example, when estimating the “money lost to piracy” it is customary to count every pirated mp3 disc as being the equivalent of one disc less bought. This is an obvious disregard of high school microeconomics.

    It is not rocket science: You are a kid who spends 1$ per pirated CD, and 20$ a year in pirated CDs, so they follow that the music industry has lost 200$. You may have had that much money, but would you have spent it all in that much music?

    The same goes for overpriced software. I would even contend that Microsoft’s *success* in the 80’s was due to many people having a pirated copy of their OS.

    And Playstation I’s success goes coupled with its being the only pirateable console. Its competitors were arguably better, but with Playstation you could have many more games for the same money.

  8. Interesting, though I wonder what happens if electronic paper or somesuch makes it as pleasant to read an electronic copy as a paper copy.

    The other argument I’ve seen for why people buy paper books/authorized CDs is that they want the maker to get the royalty–but while I suspect that it frequently applies, your story about InstaWife’s book on ebay is a strong counterexample.

    As for another two cases of free access apparently not damaging or probably promoting sales, there’s public libraries and the superstore policy of encouraging in-store reading.

  9. I’m one of the (admittedly rare) individuals who feels no difference between reading a paper or electronic format. I have 3 rather large walls in my house filled with books, plus books in many other places…I read an average of 5 books a week :) The one advantage ebooks have over paper books is a matter of space…when you read as much as I do, that becomes important. I buy books at in electronic format and read them on my computer and/or my ipaq and enjoy them just as much as I enjoy the paper books I buy all over the place.

    As for the “ebooks don’t kill paper sales” premise…I absolutely agree…for instance, there’s 4 authors that I would have never read had I not found electronic copies of their books at baen or other places…now, I buy every single thing they put out in electronic form, but also have bought everything they have in paper-only printings.

  10. Having followed the writing of “The Art of Unix Programming” since it first appeared on your website, I couldn’t wait for it to appear in print.

    The main reason for that being that reading books online just plain sucks, IMHO.

    I find that even a good monitor tires my eyes much more than a book. A book also doesn’t run out of batteries.

    Books are also more accessible. If you have to put a book away, just lay it down open, or put in a bookmark, and you can pick-up were you left off with little effort.

    Leafing through a printed book is much easier than through an online book.

    And then there is the art of typography. A well-set book is a joy to read. Most books use a serif font (with little cross-bars at the end of stems to demarcate them), whereas a lot of websites use sans-serif fonts (probably due to the relatively low resolution of monitors). Most people find a serif font easier to read.

  11. I agree with this assessment — my only comment would be that it’s a bad idea to release it to the web until after it’s been published in stores for a while. The only reason I suggest this is that publishers often insist on having first publishing rights to your work, and if you post any significant amount on a freely accessible website they’ll consider it already published (in some cases even if it’s a fragment) and either refuse to publish it or pay you a lot less for it.

    This advice may be more applicable for, say, fiction books than nonfiction. I don’t know. But I just thought I’d throw it out there. It’s not an ethical or moral opposition to web publishing by any means (since I publish on the web myself, that would be pretty stupid)but just a recognition of what people who might give you money tend to expect in return.

  12. I don’t buy the identity good idea. I believe that the only reason that books simul-published on the web still sell in the paper form is that there hasn’t been a dominant format for portable electronic reading. Once some e-paper, a cyber-book, or whatever becomes the portable reader of choice, web publishing will destroy the sales of the pulp version.

  13. This is part of a trend where open content information bemores more prominent
    and more prevalent compared to closed-content, unfree-to-use information. Other
    examples: are open source software (of course),
    Wikipedia becoming
    more prominent than Britannica
    , the net has becoming the best resource
    for computer reference information, more text published in web pages than in

  14. I’ve seen that happen with a friend of mine. He has published a short guide on a relatively obscure topic and released it online at the same time.

    He became a small rock star. Now everyone wants him speaking at conferences and all that.

    What makes it different, maybe, from your books is the fact that he published a short guide. That is, something that you can consult online easily unlike TAOUP which is better read as a book. Also, the market was seen as non-existant.

    It worked nevertheless. Now the publisher is actively pressuring other authors to do the same thing. Unfortunately only a few of them are convinced.

  15. I actually have bought 4 of the 5 books that Baen published with *gasp* freely redistributable CDs with 15-30 novels on each. That’s $100+ I’ve spent on those 4 novels.
    I downloaded the other one, simply because I couldn’t find the book at the time (though I’ll probably buy it eventually anyway). I probably will use Baen’s paid online library, as I don’t mind reading on a computer much (I don’t get a sore neck, and I spend lots of my time using computers anyway).
    Regardless, I do have a rather large quantity of books. I do tend to ocasionally get copies in paper, and then give them away if I have an electronic copy because that means that I still have a copy and can encourage someone else to read it.

  16. The writer of a financial site I enjoy, William Bernstein of, webbed a manuscript that had been rejected for publication several times. When its popularity took off on the web, he was able to get it published.

  17. I have more (or at least longer-term) experience with this than anyone else.

    Well, your next book could be “How to become an arrogant git in 21 days.”

    Or maybe “Open-Source musings for dummies.”

  18. Everyone at least prints out a book they get online, paper is easier on the eyes (even compared to new monitors) majority opinion rules no one wants to sit at a glowing screen while reading a good book. Anyone that does is insane and should be executed.

  19. I have a personal question for you ESR:

    Do you realize what an egotistic jerk you are? It’s not justified either, you are a common thief, stealing people’s work.

    How’s the stock fraud business going?

  20. Case in point – I downloaded a PDF copy of ‘Atlas Shrugged’ from Kazaa and a few days later ended up ordering a print copy online.

    Now this wasn’t an identity good thing. Yeah right, like I want people thinking I’m an Objectivist, because they have, like the best reputation, man (not!)

    Nor was it a royalty issue. Rand’s dead, and I don’t really give a fuck whether Piekoff gets some more money.

    No, it was a “I want to be able to read this on the train to and from university” issue. And frankly I doubt I would have ordered such a big book out of the blue like that if I hadn’t read the PDF copy first.

    (Also, electronic copies are great for cut& paste quoting)

  21. Dead cell, you’re making a fallacy–namely, “what I think is correct is automagically correct for everyone”.
    I’m happy to admit I prefer reading electronic books (preferably on a nice big LCD, in a format I can bookmark multiple places.) I recognize that many people DO prefer dead-tree editions, but there are those who don’t.

    What’s your take on the idea of piracy here, though?–that is to say, the primary idea that publishing online doesn’t harm sales of the physical media? I’m of the opinion, personally, that if it were feasible to reproduce books in dead-tree format as easily as burning a CD, Eric might have reached a far different conclusion.

    Finally, stock fraud? WTF? Link or documentation, please, or are you just trolling? (as bloody usual.)

  22. I like to browse books online but prefer real dead-tree versions because I like to dog-ear the pages and highlight passages I want to find later.

    A few years ago, an Microsoft Canada employee told me about “The Thumb Factor.” While studying e-books, MS found that readers lacked the sense of satisfaction that comes from holding a large book and feeling the progress you’ve made. Even if there’s a note on the screen that says “page 200 of 300,” readers are somehow more satisfied to FEEL that they’re two-thirds through a book.

  23. There’s also the physical comfort factor you get from reading books. I can go anywhere with a book and read it lying on the couch, at the breakfast table, outdoors. I cannot fathom lugging along a computer and reading from it. The risk of losing it is too great, the bother of dealing with batteries to onerous. And if it gets broken?

    BTW, do you know there’s over 11,000 trackbacks to this entry?

  24. i agree with esr in this entry. in fact, the best promotion that a good book, or music, etc, can do of itself is its content. there are (still) people that doesn’t get flashed by reviews, critics, easy-listening-radios (all that is sold) and look directly after the thing itself (sometimes this people get online, and then discover open source software, and use it :)

    lets go back in time. before gütemberg books were copied by hand. that meant that very few people had the chance to read them. and thus there wasn’t a reading culture and there wasnt need for books. now think that inmediatly after press was invented someone could read a book from some friend’s desk and then think about buying it. after reading it.
    gutemberg made books cheaper. did it ended with literature?. in fact, we could even say that it started it. now think of graphical art. i can get a photograph of ‘el guernica’ from picasso downloaded and use it as wallpaper. does it -making and sharing a photograph – downgraded the painting? did it has less value? the same with music and discs. in fact, beyond the pretty image of a book selling itself, with no junk between the art and the spectator, a pure market rule says that to create the need for something in a customer, the customer must be exposed to the product.
    another example would be i bet that if all distribution enterprises get music and books online, sells would be even more. and we could then get closer to the utopia in witch one thing get to people for how good it is, and not for how god it is been sold. (n.b. please forgive my languaje-bugs, english is not my mother tonge (spanish is))

  25. Let’s not forget one key point here … what makes Mrs. Insta and the Baen Free Library’s efforts so interesting is that they have chosen to release their books in this fashion.

    The BFL has some breakdown of how authors who put their works on the BFL start to get more royalties as people read the books then go out and buy every book by (whoever) they can find.

    I agree that it is a viable model. But here’s the big gotcha:

    These folks released their own books on purpose, and decided to take their chances on how it would work out economically. That’s a far cry from those who download unauthorized copies. (I’m still laughing about the guy who bootlegged Atlas Shrugged. Good Lord, the irony.)

    I’m a huge fan of free books, because I’m a cheapskate who will, in fact, print out the whole dam’ thing (use Word, 10pt fonts, and 2 pages per sheet of paper). But I can’t support the idea of unilaterally releasing *someone else’s* book for free. Even if it chances that the author makes dough off of the network effect, it is still wrong to violate his copyright.

    Electronic storage makes copyright violation easy, safe and fun. It becomes even more necessary, therefore, to maintain a strong set of ethics and discourage the practice. I’ts Just Plain Wrong, folks.

    (gasp) Okay, rant over. We return you to your regular programming.

  26. Here it’s me again on this interesting subject (okie, now i realized i could put <p> tags :-), natural-languaje-bugs are harder to eliminate than style bugs, tough)

    I agree no one has the right to distribute any other’s work. Not everything out there is GPL’d :-)

    There is too the fact that as sharing ebooks can be done in a safe (a.k.a. anonymous; but not all-the-way-anonymous, simply anonymous as a bee is in the middle of a 50000 bees hive) it is been done.

    And yes, esr was talking about authors that released their work to the public, not about p2p. But it is representative that when people are told about if providing the book for free would make it’s sells grow up, people start talking about p2p, and breaking copyright laws.

    In fact, sometimes i have a hard time explaining people that i dont use my dsl connection to keep the overnet core trying to download the entire world. There is a lot of people for whom the word “internet” associates inmediatly with “downloading movies”. Try to talk to them about copyright laws, and they would cut with a “e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e else does it” (sometimes followed by a comforting “you geek”).

    Lets talk about Before Gütember era again (yeah right, I am boring). Copyright laws changed before books where made in an easier way. I dont think no one would have thing that
    a medieval monk copying a book by hand is, or was, “ingfringing copyright laws”.

    Perhaps the point of view of the actual laws must change to face the reality. I am not sure if saying “after being released to the public, as people can redistribute it, without breaking anything”, but the fact is that it will be shared.

    Another example to open the view. My mother is a good cook (yeah, I know, all mothers are). And have the hability to guess the exact ingredients and recipe of anything she eats. She can get to a restaurant, eat a brave new (and “secret”) dessert, and came home and recreate it (sometimes even better). Is she infringing copyright?.

    It seems that each case is different. But the share of movies, music, and books is going to make all copyright issues different.

    Okay, enough, I was thinking about struggling out of my mind the reasons why I think all software should be released with it’s source, either commercial or not, and put them right here, but of course I will be only bad resuming things said by other people quite well (i.e. esr, rms, etc).

    And it is clear that it is not the same. While software can be developed using the bazaar (from
    The Cathedral and The Bazaar
    Books are always developed in the Cathedral mode (!wikis, but usually peoples are written by one or two people), for example)

    Hum. So I dont know. I will post this, tough, to demonstrate again how one can write a lot of lines without saying anything. As the one in the previous post said, nuff rant, back to tha code.


  27. Check out the Electronic Free Library at the experience there seems to show that older novels peak sales agains when free access on line is available.

    SciFi books are bought to read not to create an identity.

    The really insidious part is when they let you read the first few books of a series.

    I not only ended up buying whole series but I even bought a hard back copy of one or two of the newest novels. ;-)

  28. The point about identity goods is very perceptive. I’ve noticed the same thing with an online webcomic, Megatokyo ( The author, Freg Gallagher, is an ex-architect who started the site as a hobby with a friend. Every comic is still freely available online. They get several thousand hits a day and don’t charge anyone for bandwidth. The author has refused to ask for donations, choosing to rely solely on book and merchandise sales. He’s the biggest of names at anime conventions, and his web fame has apparently taken care of him financially. He’s published two books now, including one with DarkHorse comics (a major comic publisher). I believe his first book sold over 100k copies. When he was laid off from his architect job, he chose to pursue Megatokyo full-time. He is apparently very successful now. This is a clear example of freely available online goods that still sell in print. Obviously merchandise like t-shirts and mugs isn’t downloadable, but that merchandise is only valuable to a fan. As far as functionality goes, it’s just a t-shirt, mug, etc. So popularity generated by freely available materials (i.e. the comic in this case) can generate into a huge fanbase which in turn generates sales.

    The strong fanbase/community that surrounds Megatokyo strongly suggests that many sales of books are the result of customers’ desires for ‘identity goods’.

  29. > About those things which aren’t identity goods, I can’t say.

    The implication being that identify items would work the same way? I find this laughable. The only way I would agree with this is if the value of “identity” is more than the cost of the item.

    What is potentially lost? The true value of the item! If you download something for free and can reproduce it (which you really can’t with books), then you gain the value of the thing for free (sans identity value). Seems to me that is a lot of money to leave on the table.

    The book analogy doesn’t work with things such as movies and music, because you can obtain the equivalent. That only leaves, ironically, group identification, which I think of as particularly meaningless and empty.

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