image As reported in Neil Gaiman’s blog, Neil Gaiman’s publisher HarperCollins is going to release his book Neverwhere as a PDF file that is downloadable at no cost, for thirty days.

Unfortunately, it is not actually going to be "free."

As Gaiman himself explains:

"The bad news is you don’t get to keep it forever. It’s yours for thirty days from download, and then the pdf file returns to its electrons. But if you’ve ever wondered about Neverwhere or wanted to read it for free, now is your chance. And free is free…"

No, Mr. Gaiman—in this case, "free" is most emphatically not free. "Free" is downloadable in an unrestricted format and yours to keep forever. Downloadable in a format only readable on full-sized computer screens and expiring after thirty days is nowhere near that. It may not cost financially, but the cost in annoyance at its restrictions is far too much to pay.

It seems decidedly odd that a writer of Mr. Gaiman’s clout would not be able to get his publisher to agree to less restrictive terms. It is all the more strange when you consider Gaiman will be hosting an Open Rights Group discussion in October called "Piracy vs. Obscurity," concerning "piracy from the perspective of a creator, what it means to be one of the tribe of readers, and why most people discover their favourite authors for free."

Neil Gaiman is one of the biggest names in fantasy today. Why is he not even able to get HarperCollins to agree to release one of his oldest works, which has long since passed its peak sell-through days, with no strings attached the way Baen, Cory Doctorow, Tor, Jeffrey A. Carver, and so many others have been?

Make no mistake, Neverwhere is a marvelous book. If this is your only opportunity to read it, then by all means you should do so—you will not actually be paying them for the privilege. But it is disappointing that this book which comes with so many aggravating restrictions has the indecency to try to pass itself off as "free."

For those looking for a real e-book of Neverwhere, it is available for $6.99 on Fictionwise ($5.94 with the paid Club discount) or eReader ($6.29 with the free newsletter discount). It still has DRM, of course, but it will at least be readable on hand-held devices and not expire after thirty days.

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  1. The publisher’s restrictions are weird. I’m one of those folks who have read Gaiman’s comics and seen some of the films he’s been attached to, but haven’t read his novels because, frankly, I perceive them as fantasy novels and I generally do not like fantasy stuff. Maybe he’s different, but I’ve got a lot of other books to read.

    It would be interesting to see what the yearly sales figures are on Neverwhere. Maybe it still sells like crazy and they don’t want to risk canibalizing sales (though, again, Gaiman’s work is already heavily pirated anyway).

    Seems like they’d be better of not releasing a “free” electronic version at all like this. A better approach would be to make the first chapter free download and point people to the physical and electronic versions.

  2. From a cultural point of view, I am strongly opposed to active DRM, restricting what and how long you can do something with a piece of information. If DRM would increase the attractivity of professional writing and thus leads to more creativity and sophistication (which it perhaps does not), it is still very questionable if this outweights the limitations stemming from restricting the flow, accumulation and durability of ideas.

    From a business point of view (which includes that authors want to make a living), the answer is so far less clear. As an author, your interest in exposure and payment per reader are conflicting, and the outcome of this conflict largely depends on your popularity: if you are little known you are likely to gain more from exposure than you are loosing from piracy. For famous and especially for fashionable authors, the equation looks different. Some content types, such as textbooks, will probably be doomed without DRM – unless the authors are directly paid by some educational institution, instead based on copies sold to individual customers.

    Clearly, the interests of the publishers are different once again from these of the authors. Publishers are not interested in publishing as many different books as possible and hold them in circulation as much as possible; for publishing, it is much more attractive to limit attention to fewer books, selling them in greater numbers (and at higher prices) and thus reducing the proportional cost of production and advertising. Thus, as a publisher, I would want to train customers to accept DRM.

    In the long run, it would be desirable to find a compromise between the interests of culture and creativity, and the financial interests of the authors (perhaps, in the digital age, we can live without many of the publishers). This compromise might look like a combination of limited term DRM, after which the content enters the public domain. Thus, we could have a commercial life-span of an idea (perhaps something like 5-25 years after publication, depending on the type of content), and then everyone would be free to archive, to adopt and use the content to their liking.

    But for know, we have not found such a compromise. We do not have many proven business models for authors and publishers of DRM-free books. We do not have reliable data on the commercial impact of DRM in different fields of content. We need more data. Perhaps Neil Gaiman is conducting an important experiment.

  3. Pretty annoying indeed. Sort of like software that claims to be free, but then you find out it expires after 30 days, and oh, it has restrictions on how many times you can open it in one day — or something equally ridiculous.

    They could at least say ‘free for 30 days’, a little less s**y, a little more truthful.

    On another note — they could at least tell you what ebook reader(s) you should use to read this book. Why should the person downloading the ebook have to spend time finding out that the ebook requires Adobe Digital Editions?

  4. “No, Mr. Gaiman—in this case, “free” is most emphatically not free. “Free” is downloadable in an unrestricted format and yours to keep forever.”

    What an absurd statement.

    If I go to a “free” movie or a “free” concert the actual experience vanishes rather quickly. What I am left with afterwards is memories of the event.

    Do I get upset that I have nothing else to “keep”?

    Neil has arranged to make one of his earlier books available at no cost for a limited period of time. Sounds like free to me.

    Free, as in beer.

    Thank you Mr. Gaiman.

  5. For those of us who are digital packrats (I’ve got e-mail going back to 1990), this isn’t a great thing. If we are told something is “free” – We want to have the option of continued use – forever.

    Whatever the definition of ‘free’ is.

    On the other hand, I can see why it would have a limited life. If you like it so much you want to re-read it — the publisher wants you to buy it.

    It all depends on whether it is a ‘classic’ and is “re-readable” (A lot of modern fiction isn’t worth keeping around after the first read (I haven’t any of Neil Gaiman’s stories yet so they could be worth keeping. I’m not going to make that judgement call.)

  6. Ah well, whatever Gaiman wants or may want, it appears that his publisher insists on treating us as criminals (guilty unti found innocent) as this is designed to make sure we don’t send it to our friends.

    Anybody want to bet you can’t already find this (and others) on the “darkweb”? For years now?

    Silly publishers.

  7. Sorry, Chris… I have to disagree with this on several points.

    First, you don’t get to define ‘free’. A lot of people equate ‘free’ with ‘bears no financial cost’, maybe even a majority – and common usage is what guides the way most people react. And as HeavyG notes, a lot of things that are ‘free’ aren’t permanent – heck, a library lets you check out a book for ‘free’, but you have to return it! Where is all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about how libraries don’t let you keep books?

    (And yes, your reaction to ‘free as in beer’ was pretty ridiculous. You drink the beer, and a few hours later it’s passed through your system and left only memories. [And hopefully not a hangover.] Sound familiar? You certainly don’t get a never-ending tap, or even just a keg, to take home with you.)

    Second, I think you have a highly exaggerated view of Gaiman’s clout. He’s certainly a well-respected author from a literary standpoint, but I would be extremely surprised if he sells even on the level of the Wheel of Time books, let alone megabestsellers like King, Clancy or Rowling. And that’s the kind of clout publishers listen to, first and foremost. Awards and critical respect are clout only in so much as they give the publisher bragging rights in some venue that matters to them, or as they can be used as sales tools.

    Third, as you yourself allude to, publishers are not some monolithic bloc. We’ve already seen that different publishers (and their parent conglomerates) have very different attitudes towards e-publishing. So holding up the Free Library and saying ‘Well, Baen does it!” is hardly a convincing argument, or even a useful yardstick for measuring the behavior of another publisher.

    Finally, in light of the above, “It seems decidedly odd” that you would try to juxtapose the behavior of Gaiman’s publisher, which I seriously doubt he has anything like the amount of influence over that you seem to think he has, with Gaiman’s own behavior in hosting an Open Rights Group discussion. Just what were you trying to say, here?

  8. I realize that I’m very much in the minority in terms of operating systems, but I couldn’t read Neverwhere with the Linux Adobe Reader 8 in Linux emulation mode on FreeBSD because it’s missing some security plugin. Does this mean one can only read this on Windows? Another reason why DRM is evil.

  9. I have to disagree. Library books are “free” to read but, like this offer, the user’s ownership is temporary and expires. The opportunity to read the book comes at no cost. Ownership is an entirely different story and, in my mind, should be.

  10. It has come to my attention that this post has been linked from Neil Gaiman’s own journal.


    Now I wish I’d been perhaps a touch less angry when I wrote it. (But then again, who knows whether Mr. Gaiman would even have seen it, let alone linked to it, if I had?)

    I still dislike the fact that the e-book is being Indian-given away “free” by the publisher in an expiring format I can’t use. It seems to cheapen the use of the word “free” as it applies to people like Tor and Baen who actually do give stuff away for free. But I suppose my anger should have been more properly directed entirely at the publisher rather than partly at Neil Gaiman for failing to talk them into better terms.

    The restrictions are such a joke, anyway. I’m sure that Neverwhere has already been circulating for “free” on peer-to-peer networks for years—and even if it wasn’t, the versions for sale on Fictionwise and eReader could be trivially cracked and made so.

    I suppose it’s at least better than HarperCollins’s “free” e-book of American Gods, which could only be read on-line. Maybe next year they’ll actually give something away for real.

  11. Oh, boo-hoo. You get to *read* it for free, and now you’re pissing and moaning about not being given more for your money.
    Whenever something appears in digital form, that does not immediately entitle everyone with an internet connection to a copy of it. As I say, HarperCollins is allowing people the chance to *read* this book without paying for the experience. That you don’t think their offer (which they were under no obligation to make in the first place) goes far enough doesn’t mean that HarperCollins is cheapening the meaning of the word “free.”

  12. Look a gift horse in the mouth much?

    Get over it you bunch of whiners. You get to read it for free. Just like if you borrowed it from a friend or the library. It’s like someone is willing to lend you their lawn mower and you’re pouting and saying you don’t want it unless you can keep it. Given that the e-book you CAN keep forever is (as included in the original post) incredibly cheap anyway, what the hell are you complaining about?

    Kudos to Heavy C and Travis Butler and anyone else who isn’t acting like a big whiney baby over this.

  13. the offer is like a library book, isnt it?
    isnt that free? i consider that free.
    i already have neverwhere, so i am not affected by the offer.

    i love free stuff (who wouldnt?)
    and whenever i am near a library, i borrow stuff.

    but i also like personal copies of books (like kirk in star trek) in print form. So i buy books.

    books are for a lifetime, and i like re-reading.
    sometimes books such as this are given free, so that one can discover an author. if you havent discovered gaiman, free stuff like this would introduce you to him. Or if you havent read this book, this gives you a free read. if you like it, and want it to be yours forever, that’s when you get a book.

    havent you ever bought a book only to be disappointed? this way, there is no disappointment.
    just my 2 cents.

    i discovered neil gaiman with his endless (sandman material). he had wonderful characters there

  14. So, the issue that most people seem to have is this; it’s an older book – I own it already. I’d *love* to have a digital copy on my PC/PDA/Convergence-device-of-choice to read at some time in the future, say on an airplane trip or during a boring meeting. Lugging a tattered copy of the paperback around for years would be unworkable, sic. let me have it DRM-free please.

    Second – You can’t control bits. That’s an old-world fantasy. They are way too easy to copy and replicate and distribute. Our modern culture depends on it, in fact. A lot of brick-and-mortar businesses are used to controlling replication of bits (content), in much the same way dinosaurs were used to warm weather. Evolve or die.

    Neil; your core audience is young and tech-savvy and very very engaged – they are your real sales force, and the source of your income. To quote Daniel James when he talks about monetizing the passion that a community has for authors; “Money can’t get you love, but love can get you money”.

  15. I was going to use the “free movie” analogy that someone else mentioned above; I don’t really have anything with me after I’ve watched. But I’ll expand on it, even even I pay for a movie I don’t have anything (other than the experience) when I’m done.

    Maybe it should be referred to as a free 30-day rental of the the book?

  16. It seems decidedly odd that a writer of Mr. Gaiman’s clout would not be able to get his publisher to agree to less restrictive terms.

    Actually, I’m amazed that he was able to convince his publishers to do it for an entire book at all. Yes, it expires, but it is intended as a sample; if you like the book enough to want to keep it, buy it. That will encourage the publishers to release more free (‘at no cost’) content in the future.

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