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Tuesday, 15 April 2008 06:21

Unleashing a torrent of words online

Geek book publisher No Starch Press is experimenting with offering books online and, so far, has ended up seeing a huge surge in interest.

Two books about the Mac - Leander Kahney's The Cult of Mac and The Cult of iPod - were put online and more than 11,000 downloads were noticed in the first two weeks, publisher Bill Pollock says.

Cult of Mac was released in hardcover in November 2004 and in paperback two years later. Cult of iPod was released in November 2005.

Pollock says that he decided to release the books on file-sharing sites after recognising that the book business is changing and that books invariably end up on such sites soon after being released in digital form.

"I've always felt that these two books should have sold many more copies than they actually have but that they suffered from a lack of visibility," he says. "As four-colour, coffee-table books, they were never released electronically and never appeared on torrent sites. So these two were good choices for this little experiment."

In taking this route, Pollock has accepted that the battle to stop people from posting copyrighted material to torrent sites is one that cannot be won. The book Hacking: The Art of Exploitation (2nd edition), a best-seller for the publisher, was scraped from an e-book site and posted to many file-sharing networks within days of its release.

There is also a political angle to using this method of distributing books.

Pollock says that even as big corporations and internet service providers work to shut down file-sharing sites, they need to be reminded that peer-to-peer has valid uses for traditional content providers.

"File sharing itself, or P2P, is not a crime," says Pollock. "It can be a great way for willing artists to share their work. That's not to say that stealing copyrighted material is not a crime, and our actions are not in any way meant to endorse it.

"If this experiment works, we'll try more titles. And even if it doesn't work, we may try more titles, if only to beat the pirates at their own game."

No Starch Press is 14 years old and is one of the few remaining independent computer book publishers.

Pollock hasn't decided what book he will release next. "We don't know yet. We're going to see what happens with this one. We may release more titles as torrents or we may not release any more."

There are no strings attached to the downloads he offers. "The torrents themselves do not solicit donations though we've considered trying to come up with a sort of shareware solution for book distribution. We encourage people to buy the printed book if they like what they see.

"Ultimately, this is both a political and business decision for us and in using bittorrent to promote our books and our company in this way, our hope is that we'll increase our visibility and our sales even beyond their current levels."

Pollock says he does not know of other publishers taking this route.

"We've released several books under free licenses for years, (and) even included one with the Debian Linux distribution. We've used FDL, CC, DSL licence, and others. We'll continue to release books under free licenses as authors request that we do so, including our forthcoming How Wikipedia Works. Other publishers have released books under free licenses as well," he says.

Those who download the books have left their own comments on the site; Pollock likes one simple comment that says 'very nice, thank you.'

"The thank you part, especially," he says.


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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.



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