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Nobody wants to be told that their business model is obsolete. Ask Kodak. Or Hollywood. And the publishing industry is slower on its feet than most. Bookstores don’t want to believe that they’ll ultimately lose 75% of their pre-e-book business to that scourge plus Amazon delivery. (I’m assuming e-book market share will eventually plateau somewhere north of 50%.) Meanwhile, publishers cling to the model wherein readers purchase books individually, usually before they’ve been read: a model so entrenched that many seem to find it literally impossible to believe that alternatives might exist.

I’ve been lamenting that paucity of imagination in my columns here for some time now. It’s why publishers have lashed out so ineptly at any suggestion of a subscription model. But I’ve also been saying for five years that publishing’s business model will ultimately become even less restrictive than that. In the end, lo these many decades from now, most books–and all novels–will be free to read, and their readers will decide whether and how much to pay for them after reading them.

I know, big talk, no action, right? So:

The rights to my technothriller Invisible Armies finally reverted to me last month. It’s my personal favorite among my thrillers; it’s won acclaim from The Economist, Bruce Sterling, and a host of others — and now I’m releasing it and its sort-of-sequel Swarm1 online, for free, under a Creative Commons license. You can download them to the device of your choice from Feedbooks. (Which, by the way, is awesome. Android users: the mega-popular Aldiko e-reader app is one of several with built-in Feedbooks integration)

Links: Invisible Armies, Swarm.

(Some Kindle users may have to sideload, I’m afraid. Sorry. Talk to Amazon.)

Anyone who wants to pay for either book after they read it can buy an e-copy from iBooks or the Kindle Store2 at their leisure. (I’m deliberately not linking to either here.) That’s pretty clumsy, I know: I expect that in the future e-books will come with a “Pay What You Want” interface on the very last page. But hey, you have to start somewhere.

Obviously I’m far from the first to free my books. The Baen Free Library has been around for years. Tim O’Reilly says, “In my experience, losses due to piracy are far outweighed by the benefits of the free flow of information, which makes the world richer, and develops new markets for legitimate content.” And Cory Doctorow, of course, has been doing it for his entire oeuvre from day one.

But Cory is kind of sui generis. The real test is whether a critical mass of hundreds, if not thousands, of writers — especially ones who, like me, have been previously anointed as Real Authors by the almighty dinosaurs of the publishing industry — start doing it. And, well, here’s one more small step in that direction. Let’s see where we all end up.

1Invisible Armies is about hackers, anti-corporate protestors, globalization, and the surveillance society; Swarm is about fleets of UAVs in The Wrong Hands.

2Unless you live in Canada, where HarperCollins still claims those e-rights. Sorry. The whole international-publishing-rights thing is a colossal mess, and will remain that way for some time.

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