January 09, 2004
Eric Raymond on giving away identity goods – and then selling them

My thanks to Alan Little for commenting (on this posting almost immediately below) with a link to this response from Eric Raymond to Instapundit about giving stuff away. (And boy, did I have to scroll down to find that Insta-piece again? Boy: "Yes, you certainly did. So why didn't you just copy Raymond's link to it? Fool.")

Says Raymond:

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 Dictionary.

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.

And I severely doubt if slicing great gobs of his bloggings to put on a lesser blog does the guy any harm either.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:27 AM
Category: The Internet