On the surface, it looks totally wild and keen and without many downsides. The obvious downside, of course, is if you're using it as a promotional tool to sell your book as it is released, then you run the risk of cutting out potential customers because they can have the book for free. So it's a pretty big risk, especially if it blackens your marketability with a publisher and makes your following novel impossible to sell. But to counter that, you have the potential of reaching thousands of customers who wouldn't normally have purchased your book. I found myself in a similar situation with Cory Doctorow's Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom. It was a book I wouldn't have normally paid attention too, but I read a chunk of it online, liked it, and bought a copy. In the end, I actually didn't like the book much--it simply went in directions I didn't want it to go, became a book I wasn't interested in. Still, I bought it, and considering that Doctorow sold out the ten thousand strong hardcover first print run I can only assume that a bunch of other people had the same initial experience as me.*
However, Doctorow is an established name. Even before the release of his first novel, he had built a fan base with his short fiction and non fiction work. More telling, however, is that he is one of the people behind the link blog, Boing Boing. In recent years, Boing Boing has apparently become so popular that the members have had to hire a manager, in a fashion similar to that of a band, thus prompting a whole new generation of cyber dreams that will rarely be fulfilled. Boing Boing is a valuable asset to Doctorow's ability to bring in the surfing audience to his novels, so the argument there, of course, is that he already had a pre-established base for the release of his novel over the web under creative commons, and that there would be enough utopian inspired individuals who would purchase the book to support the idea if it grabbed their attention. If you're wondering just who would be so utopian minded, well, that would be me. My purchase of Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom was directed by both these things.
Recently, Charles Stross released his new novel, Accelerando under the creative commons license as a way to promote it for sales. It's too early to decide if it will be a financial success for Stross and his publisher, but the downloads in six days have equaled twenty two thousand. Like Doctorow, however, Stross is a known commodity on the net, and has an established readership for the novels he has already written. In addition to this, Accelerando has already been published in high profile magazines like Asimov's and has been pimped through blogs all over the net, including Boing Boing. The last results in perhaps more net based advertising for his book than he would have received had it been done without the creative commons act. (Though, again, who knows. Maybe it would have. The risk with Accelerando, however, is small.)
What the examples of Doctorow and Stross demonstrate, however, is that using the creative commons license to promote your book when you are an established author with the right connections, is good business.*
What has always interested me, however, is the potential use of creative commons for the small press. On the surface, it appears a perfect combination. The small press operates with less of a budget than mainstream publishers, has a lower profile, and finds it difficult to reach new readers who might have shopping habits that do not include hunting for small press items. (This is not intended as a slight on customer behaviour. If you're satisfied with the current selection of books by mainstream publishers, then you have no need to go beyond it.) If the small press puts a title out on creative commons and has five thousand downloads, then you would at least have a couple of hundred people bleed over into purchasing the item, which is nothing but a goodness. However: since the small press has less of a budget, the risk is obviously larger and, since they are not linked to pre-established fan bases or fancy blogs that can provide them with a high level of promotion, there's no guarantee that it will result in sales. And unlike a publisher such as TOR, a small press outfit does not have the the budget to eat the failure and keep going.
Maybe I'm wrong about that, of course, but it strikes me that the success of using the creative commons license hinges on your ability to have a high profile with it, and there is, I think, a reluctance in authors to embrace it because of that. There are numerous examples of authors who have put up work that is out of print under the license, but that's an easy option, and not really tied to any kind of financial success or failure for the book as an object. But I still can't shake the belief that the option to put your work on the net for free and use it to sell your book and bring you new readers is something that could potentially change how the small press has operated--but of course, it might not necessarily take it in a direction that is beneficial.
* I assume that the majority enjoyed the book more than me, since it's been up for awards and so forth.
** This is also the case when a publisher gets behind a book and its release in such a way. An example of this would be Penguin and Lessig's book Free Culture. But then, of course, could they have done anything different with such a book?