Author Cory Doctorow Talks Tech, Trotsky, What He's Reading, and Why He's Giving Away His Books For Free

Categories: Literary

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Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
Your first novel, "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" was published under a Creative Commons license, allowing readers to circulate the e-book version as long as they didn't make money off of it or use it to create their own works. Your subsequent novels have been offered in similar suit, and available for free. What made you decide to do this?

There are three dimensions to it really. The first one is the economic one. I think that so long as more people are enticed to buy the book than get a free book version, then I come out ahead. It's hard to tell whether or not that's the case, there's no controlled experiment that you can do, there's no alternate reality in which I release these books without the CC licenses, whose sales figures we can compare. But ultimately, anyone who wants to get a book for free on the internet can. It takes one or two clicks to download all of the book without having paid for it. Afterall ,people only make copies of books because they love them, and by performing generosity and trust for my readers I hope I channel their energy into helping me.

I'm not really concerned with being sure that everybody who reads my books pays for them, I'm much more concerned with making sure that everybody who's willing to pay gets a chance to read them. There are other dimensions to this. One is artistic. As I said before, it's the 21st century and copying is never going to get harder, so if you're making art that's contemporary you have to assume that people are going to copy it. Otherwise it's not really contemporary art, it's kind of an anachronistic art. And anachronistic art is fine, if you want to be the blacksmith at pioneer village, or reenact the Civil War that's cool, but science fiction writers are supposed to be at the very least contemporary if not futuristic. So I get all this artistic satisfaction from allowing people to copy my books.

And the last dimension is the moral dimension because there are ever increasingly Draconian measures being enacted and proposed to defend copyright in the internet era, to somehow figure out how to make it harder to copy things. And they're not having any success at making it harder to copy things. More people copy more things now than they ever did, but they are monotonically increasing the amount of surveillance and censorship on the internet. And as an artist, I think that it's my duty not to have my works form part of the rationale for increasing censorship and control and surveillance on this amazing information medium that we all use for everything.

So what's the answer?

My only prescription is whatever you do, don't do things that lead you to demand censorship, control and surveillance on the internet. You can pursue any kind of marketing strategy that you want. Most works of art that are made don't generate any economic activity, and most books and films and music that's made end up losing money no matter what strategy people do. I'm all for people trying lots of different things, but among those possibilities, I don't think censorship or surveillance should be in the realm of acceptable strategies for earning a living.


"Homeland" is the sequel to "Little Brother." LB's premise centers on four teens who survive a terrorist attack in San Francisco and defend themselves against the Department of Homeland Security's attack on the Bill of Rights. What inspired you to write a book about this?

There were a lot of different things, I've been the European director and before that a local activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is like the ACLU, but focused on the internet. And my work with EFF really alarmed me to the erosion of civil liberties in America and the fact that technology was at the nexus of that. But also I wanted to write a techno-thriller, where the technology worked.

I was tired of going to movies that were nominally thrillers about technology but where all the technology acted like magic. I felt like people who wrote techno-thriller didn't really like technology very much, they just liked the thriller part. And all my life I've been thrilled by computers, and I thought: these are pretty thrilling devices, someone should really write a book where the computers are as thrilling as I know that they can be. And so, I kind of combined those two thoughts and out came "Little Brother."

Why did you choose to target young adults with the topic?

I think writing young adult fiction is very exciting, because being a young adult is very exciting. Young adulthood is a period in which you do a bunch of things that later become mundane, but because you're doing them for the first time they're incredibly exciting, because the first time you do these things they change you forever. So the first time you tell a lie of consequence, you'll never be the same person again.

And what's more, going into it, you have no way at all to predict what it's going to be like. You're jumping off a cliff, with wings that you've made out of wax and feathers, and you're just hoping that they catch the wind before you've crashed on the rocks below. So it's a pretty exciting existence, the existence of a young adult, and making them the center of a work of fiction means that the work of fiction's more exciting too.

Do you have plans for making it a trilogy?

No I didn't even have plans to make a sequel, so of course anything is possible. But one of the things I realized when they gave me the publication date for "Homeland," a little bell rang in my head and I thought, "wait a second, that's exactly ten years and two days after my first novel came out.

"And that got me thinking about a sequel, so I've been sketching ideas for a sequel to "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom." Maybe it's the season in my life for sequels.

As a writer, what was the best advice you ever received?

Write every day. And it's advice that took me about 10 or 15 years to actually pay attention to. I thought it was one of those unrealistic things like get an hour of aerobic exercise and eat five servings of vegetables and drink 8 glasses of water every day, the kind of thing you would do if you had a personal trainer and a life of leisure. But it turns out that if you write every single day, writing becomes a habit, and habits are things that you get for free. Once you get past where you feel like some days you aren't inspired and when you actually write every single day, you find that even on days when you aren't inspired you produce good work.

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