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Selling books by giving them away


By Scott Bradner


Ross Anderson ( and is one of the more interesting security folks writing these days. He is a Professor of Security Engineering at University of Cambridge (the other Cambridge) Computer Laboratory and seems to come up with new and useful prospectives on a wide range of security related topics.   I particularly recommend "Why Information Security is Hard - An Economic Perspective" ( a 2001 paper detailing the economic reasons that people and companies do not always have the incentive to make the world safer.  Ross wrote one of the best security books around, "Security Engineering." He has now put the book on-line for free downloading ( even though it's still for sale.  Ross, and, I assume, Wiley, the publisher of the book, are betting that making the book available for free will increase sales of the printed edition.


Ross explains his decision to put the book on-line on his web page.  "My goal in making the book freely available is twofold. First, I want to reach the widest possible audience, especially among poor students. Second, I am a pragmatic libertarian on free culture and free software issues; I think that many publishers (especially of music and software) are too defensive of copyright. I don't expect to lose money by making this book available for free: more people will read it, and those of you who find it useful will hopefully buy a copy. After all, a proper book is half the size and weight of 300-odd sheets of laser-printed paper in a ring binder." (I like the concept of a "pragmatic libertarian".)


Ross is far from the first person to think that making the text of a book available for free will increase sales.  The US National Academies, who advise the government on science, engineering and medical issues, has made its books available for reading and download on-line (at for years.  The National Academies is not as liberal as Ross is -- they have perhaps the world's least user-friendly interface for reading the books on-line while Ross just lets you download pdfs of the chapters.  Maybe the Academies think that making it painful to read the books on-line will encourage purchases.  Ross, and Wiley, demonstrate a more enlightened view that the content itself will be the selling tool.


Even with the awful user interface the Academies are far better than most publishers who seem to be petrified of the Internet for anything other than book sales.  How else can you explain their lawsuits to stop Google's efforts to make it easy for people who might want to buy books to find which books they might want to buy?  Google's Book Search ( has started making out-of-copyright books available for download and Google wants to make all the books they can get searchable.  Only excerpts of in-copyright books would be shown so a reader would have to find the book in a library or buy a copy if they wanted to read more than the excerpts. Common sense would lead a person to believe that this could only be good for the publishers.  Maybe they could even set up ways for on-demand printing of out of print books.  I do not understand the publishers 'make the future go away' approach, maybe Ross can come up with an explanation.


disclaimer:  Harvard has had a rather long time to understand that the future is rarely deterred but the above book selling advice is mine not that of the university.