Should EA Buy Distribution Rights for Foundational Books?

by Cullen_OKeefe2 min read17th Jun 202038 comments

102

BooksBuilding effective altruismForum PrizeTranslationCommunity
Frontpage

[Idle speculation; not a systematic analysis]

A number of books are foundational to the EA Movement. I am thinking of such books as Reasons and Persons; Doing Good Better; The Life You Can Save; Animal Liberation; and Superintelligence. Ideas introduced or summarized in those books serve as both the intellectual basis of EA and as a common inspiration for EA-aligned actions.

Yet, for most people, there are nontrivial costs to accessing these books. True, many people could get them at no monetary cost from a library, though the ease of this probably varies with life stage (i.e., student or not) and geography. As a former EA student group leader, I know CEA was happy to reimburse the expense of getting some physical copies of our own, and that was excellent.

However, there have been many times when I would have liked to cite these books and have not been immediately able to because this would require a trip to the library (probably preceded by a waiting period) or paying money to download the books from Amazon or a similar service. I imagine others are in a similar situation. These costs may well inhibit people from first exploring these ideas to begin with.

This situation seems suboptimal to me. EAs value the contents of these books a lot, and their contents are free to copy on the margin. This suggests that the efficient ex post cost of accessing the content of these books should be zero. Unnecessary barriers to access could also deter potential readers and thus reduce the number of people who could be exposed to and convinced of EA ideas.

There are certain ways in which it makes economic sense to give some EA organization the right to distribute these books, too. There is currently a principal-agent problem wherein the rightsholders of the books (publishers, I assume?) have only pecuniary interests in promoting and selling the books, yet we as a movement have high, nonpecuniary interest in having those books widely distributed. Our longer time horizons than publishers may also lead us to continue promoting them long after publishers normally would.

I also imagine that for most publishers, profits are concentrated after release, whereas the value EA as a movement derives from the availability of these books is more constant over time. This suggests the possibility of exploiting different time preferences by buying distribution rights after the books have been on the market for a few years and therefore produced most of their expected revenue.

The main downside I can foresee is cost, and I have no idea how much such rights would cost. A cheaper way to acquire such rights might be to acquire digital-only distribution rights, especially since EA is hardly in a position to actually print and ship books (though this can in principle be contracted out). A digital distribution model also overcomes the barriers for people who are primarily interested in citing the books.

Note that none of this is a criticism of how the authors of the aforementioned books have chosen to publish them. I assume they have good reason for the arrangements they chose, and I know that some of them donate proceeds. This is simply an inquiry into whether such post-publication acquisition is desirable, as I have not seen this idea discussed before in EA. However, I would not be surprised if either the authors of the above books, nor would I be surprised if an EA charity considered this before and determined that it was not worthwhile.

102

38 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:49 PM
New Comment

Great post — this is something EA should definitely be thinking more about as the canon of EA books grows and matures. Peter Singer has done it already, buying back the rights for TLYCS and distributing a free digital versions for its 10th anniversary.

I wonder whether most of the value of buying back rights could be captured by just buying books for people on request. A streamlined process for doing this could have pretty low overheads — it only takes a couple minutes to send someone a book via Amazon — and seems scalable. This should be easy enough for a donor or EA org to try.

I also imagine that for most publishers, profits are concentrated after release

I looked into this recently, using Goodreads data as a proxy for sales. My takeaway was that sales of these books have been surprisingly linear over time, rather than being concentrated early on: Superintelligence; Doing Good Better; TLYCS

The key question here, is whether (and if so, to what degree) free download is a more effective means of distribution than regular book sales. So we should ask Peter Singer how the consumption of TLYCS changed with putting his book online. Or, if there are any other books that were distributed simultaneously across typical and unconventional means, then how many people did each distribution method reach?

The key question here, is whether (and if so, to what degree) free download is a more effective means of distribution than regular book sales. So we should ask Peter Singer how the consumption of TLYCS changed with putting his book online.

Free distribution seems to have helped a lot. The original version sold ~45,000 copies in its first 10 years; in its first 6 months, we’ve distributed roughly the same number of copies of the 10th anniversary edition.

The original edition has presumably had more readers than the updated version so far: over 10 years you can rack up a lot of library checkouts and used book readings that aren’t captured in the sales numbers, and people are more likely to consume a book if they’ve paid for it than if they got it for free. But based on the first 6 months, I’d expect the new edition to be read many more times over the long term, and for that to be driven by it being freely available. (I'd also expect factors like promotion by the celebrity narrators of the audiobook to increase distribution.)

Nice. We could check how many actually read the book by noting whether the book accumulated Goodreads ratings more quickly after the 10-year anniversary - especially once another 1-2 years have passed.

Good idea! Just set myself a reminder to look at this a year from now :)

I'd be very interested in seeing this analysis!

I took a look at the Goodreads data. Unfortunately it’s pretty messy and I don’t think it’ll be much help in understanding the popularity of the new book. Goodreads does distinguish between the different editions, but it’s clear from reading the reviews that some people are reviewing the old book but talking about the new one. And the interface won’t let me see total reviews across all copies by year, so we can’t see if that number has spiked.

Looking past the Goodreads data, I think it’s safe to say that the launch of the new edition was a success. TLYCS is on a much improved growth trajectory (including moving a record $18.2 million in 2020), new donors are telling us that they found us through the book (more so than prior to the relaunch), other organizations like GWWC are also seeing improvements they can trace to the book, etc. Some of this is discussed in TLYCS’s 2020 annual report, which just came out.

Of course some of this impact is because we released a new book, but I’m very confident that it helped a lot to make it free. It’s hard to believe that some people contributing impact weren’t enticed by the free offer and/or would have been put off by a financial cost. “Read this book” is an easier pitch than “buy this book.”

Owning the rights also gives us a lot of flexibility we wouldn’t have if we went the normal publishing route. We can do whatever we want in terms of cutting up the content into pieces to distribute via various channels, we can do translations on our own schedule, making future updates/additions to the ebook, etc.

My take is that owning the rights to foundational books or other IP has a lot of potential for EA. And for anyone considering this I'd say the earlier you figure out that you'll be giving the book away for free the better, as you'll need to have a distribution plan and may want to shape some of the content accordingly.

As it happens, I did a quick-and-dirty version of this analysis yesterday - see this spreadsheet. It looks to me like Goodreads is actually helpfully aggregating ratings/reviews across editions (if you click on any one of the editions here, it shows you the same figures), and the rate at which the aggregate numbers have been going up seems to have increased meaningfully since the relaunch, which does seem to provide additional (encouraging!) evidence regarding its impact.

Thanks for doing this, hadn't thought to use the Wayback machine. Really cool to see the quantitative perspective line up with our qualitative impressions!

You can get more granular data on the number of ratings (but not reviews) from this page.

Nice, so we should buy the rights to all the other EA books...

A related idea would be to buy copies of e.g. the precipice for university libraries...

Good idea, but one issue with donating books to a library is that the librarian still has to decide whether to accept or reject the donation. Most librarians are very selective about what gets included and what gets weeded out of their collection.

Another option is to use the library website and find the "Suggest items for the library" web form. (Search the library catalogue first to see whether the library already holds the item.) If the librarian decides to purchase the book, it is completely funded by the library budget.

You can suggest the format too: print, ebook or both. I would say both because both print and ebook formats have their respective strengths and limitations.

For university libraries, if you mention the course or unit (e.g. ethics, philosophy) that would benefit from the book, it helps the librarian to justify the purchase.

One way to do the analysis is to record the number of reviews on different dates using different snapshots in webarchive; my guess is that this is what Matt was doing with his analysis. (EDIT: Just saw that Bastian already did this)

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

Also, are you able to disclose the cost of buying those rights?

Not sure, I'll check with the team and get back to you.

The book rights cost $30,000 to acquire.

It’s important to note, however, that there would likely be a ton of variation for different books. This would likely depend on what the publisher paid the author in advance and how many books they've sold / how much money they've made back.

Thank you for this datapoint!

It’s important to note, however, that there would likely be a ton of variation for different books. This would likely depend on what the publisher paid the author in advance and how many books they've sold / how much money they've made back.

Presumably most of that is sunk cost and what the publisher ought to care about is discounted expected cashflows from the book.

Presumably most of that is sunk cost and what the publisher ought to care about is discounted expected cashflows from the book.

I think that’s conceptually right. But it brings up another important point: negotiating to buy the rights was time-consuming and frustrating. And part of the annoyance was due to the publisher not acting as economically rational as you’d expect. We actually spent years saying things like “surely there’s a figure for which you’d be happy to sell the rights, could you just let us know what that number is?” There really wasn’t any progress until we got a (pro bono) lawyer involved who has a lot of experience in IP negotiations. Once she took over working with the publisher, things started moving along (though still at a relatively slow pace).

It's worth remembering though that when people who paid for the book are much more likely to have read it

This is very helpful data; thank you!

To your knowledge, has Singer ever considered doing the same for any of his other books?

I don't think Singer has considered doing this for other books, but I'm not positive about that.

The 80,000 Hours career guide is available for free with an email signup. They might be in a good position to know, though that does not address the counterfactual. I agree TLYCS is better for that :-)

I've set up a system for buying books for people on request. If people are interested in using it you can read more and express interest here: eabooksdirect.super.site 

Ah yes, I forgot that we already did this for TLYCS. Would be good to see a retrospective on this :-)

The EA Meta Fund gave $10,000 for this, which seems very worthwhile. Of course, this may not be the full cost, and this also covered some other things. I like that they included free audiobooks; we should probably do that too if we pursue this.

The EA Meta Fund gave $10,000 for this, which seems very worthwhile. Of course, this may not be the full cost, and this also covered some other things. I like that they included free audiobooks; we should probably do that too if we pursue this.

FYI, this $10,000 grant (while greatly appreciated) was a (small) fraction of the total cost of the new edition of TLYCS. However, that project was significantly more ambitious that simply buying the rights and publishing an ebook; it was closer to writing, editing, and publishing an entirely new book given the scope of the updates. The project also included a complete overhaul of TLYCS website, which was largely outsourced. Finding and working with the celebrity narrators for the audiobook was also labor (and therefore cost) intensive, though this wouldn't be relevant for most books.

Re: a retrospective, there’ll likely be a more detailed one down the road, but TLYCS’s 2019 annual report includes a good deal of discussion about the early experience around the book project.

I looked into this recently, using Goodreads data as a proxy for sales. My takeaway was that sales of these books have been surprisingly linear over time, rather than being concentrated early on: Superintelligence; Doing Good Better; TLYCS

Presumably, the trends in Goodreads ratings/reviews need to be interpreted in the context of the (considerable) growth in Goodreads' active users over time, and for that reason, linear-ish trends in the Goodreads data actually point towards more frontloaded growth profiles for sales/# of people who have read the books?

I wonder whether most of the value of buying back rights could be captured by just buying books for people on request. A streamlined process for doing this could have pretty low overheads — it only takes a couple minutes to send someone a book via Amazon — and seems scalable. This should be easy enough for a donor or EA org to try.

This is a good idea as well, though it could have the downside of preventing some of the more creative uses of community-owned digital distribution such as aiding translation and making excerpting easier. I think something closer to a Creative Commons license for digital versions would be best (though the publisher might not agree to that).

For future reference, next time you need to look up the page number for a citation, Library Genesis can quickly let you access a digital copy of almost any book: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_Genesis

Many books are still not available on Library Genesis. Fortunately, a sizeable fraction of those can be "borrowed" for 14 days from the Internet Archive.

One relevant datapoint is Stripe Press. The tech company Stripe promotes some books on startups and progress studies, with the stated goal of sharing ideas that would inspire startups (that might use their product). They outsource the printing.

Does the rate of consumption of books increase when Stripe reprints them?

Yes.

  • Of its 600 ratings, the The Dream Machine has recieved 300 since Nov 2018 (published in 2001, re-published in Sep 2018), based on viewing the 10th page of ratings sorted by new. So it's read at ~10x the previous rate.
  • Of its 900 ratings, Stubborn Attachments has 300 ratings since Jun 2019 (published in Jul 2016, re-released in Oct 2018). So it seems to have doubled the previous rate.

But these books are relatively unpopular, relative to Superintelligence, which has 12k ratings, and TLYCS, which has 4k. We can see that reprinting can help revive unpopular books. But it's far from clear that it would help already-thriving ones, if it would cut the flow of that book into physical bookstores. It could just as easily hinder. So it'll be interesting to see more data.

It also occurs to me that doing so would aid in translation and therefore entrance into new markets

Another historical precedent

In 1820, James Mill seeks permission for a plan to print and circulate 1,000 copies of his Essay on Government, originally published as a Supplement to Napier's Encyclopaedia Britannica:

I have yet to speak to you about an application which has been made to me as to the article on Government, from certain persons, who think it calculated to disseminate very useful notions, and wish to give a stimulus to the circulation of them. Their proposal is, to print (not for sale, but gratis distribution) a thousand copies. I have refused my consent till I should learn from you, whether this would be considered an impropriety with respect to the Supplement. To me it appears the reverse, as the distribution would in some degree operate as an advertisement.

Ernest Barker suggests it was quite successful:

Mill's article was thus given a wider circulation that the Supplement to the Encyclopedia would have afforded by itself ... By 1824 ... there had appeared what was possibly a second edition ... Mill, in a letter of August 1825, speaks of the second reprint 'being all gone, and great demand remaining.' (He also mentions ... that his essays 'are the text-books of the young men of the Union at Cambridge'.

As one data point, the Institute of Economic Affairs (which has had pretty major success in spreading its views) prints out many short books advocating its viewpoints and hands them out at student events. That certainly made me engage with their ideas significantly more, then give the books to my friends, etc. I think they may get economies of scale from having their own printing press, but it might be worth looking into how cheaply you can print out 80-page EA primers for widespread distribution.

Hayek's Road to Serfdom, and twentieth century neoliberalism more broadly, owes a lot of its success to this sort of promotion. The book was published in 1944 and initially quite successful, but print runs were limited by wartime paper rationing. In 1945, the US magazine Reader's Digest created a 20-page condensed version, and sold 1 million of these very cheaply (5¢ per copy). Anthony Fisher, who founded the IEA, came across Hayek's ideas through this edition.

Source: https://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/320553.html

I wonder if there have been any "cost per conversion" estimates for the Gideons.

In addition to lowering the cost for readers, buying the rights to a book could allow certain improvements to be made.

The paperback version of Reasons and Persons is poorly typeset (the text is small and cramped) and unevenly printed (some parts are too light; others too dark). The form factor is close to that of a mass market paperback (short, narrow, and fat). The cover photo is bleak and blurry. These factors combine to make the book seem dated and unappealing.

On What Matters, a book with the same author and publisher, is a beautiful volume, and an example of what's possible if someone puts some effort into the process and uses modern technologies.

Living High and Letting Die influenced me more than any other book. Unfortunately, it seems not to have been edited. Here's a passage from the first page:

Now, you can write that address on an envelope well prepared for mailing. And, in it, you can place a $100 check made out to the U.S. Committee for UNICEF along with a note that's easy to write.

I count two odd-sounding filler phrases ("well prepared for mailing" and "that's easy to write"), one clearly superfluous comma (following "And" in the second sentence), and a bizarre choice to italicize the name of an organization. The whole book reads like it was dictated but not read. Another problem is that it gives unrealistically low estimates of the cost of saving a life.

Changing the text of a book might not always be feasible (you'd need the author's buy-in, and many authors wouldn't want to spend time helping to re-edit an old book), but it's something worth exploring.

Good arguments. I'd personally love if we found a way to move to a different economic model for all information goods. But particularly here, free distribution seems important.

Possibly worth considering: motivating future authors with prize-based incentives; prize based on number of downloads/reads/upvotes of their books. Of course the authors may be credit-constrained, but perhaps others could finance them by buying shares in the future potential prizes?