Since I’ve finished “The Sagan Diary” I’ve taken up reading Peter Watts’ Blindsight, which I bought a couple of weeks ago. As noted by others, it’s a terrific book, with all the hard SF goodness you’d want, and more besides, and seems a likely contender for various SF awards next year. So, yeah, if you’re looking for chunky, mind-busting SF, do try this one on for size.
Watts has recently made Blindsight available online through a Creative Commons license, so you can check out the book before you buy. Or perhaps make that so you can read the book if you can’t buy: What I find interesting about it is that he’s calling the CC release “an act of desperation more than experimentation.” Watts explains his thinking here (with additional thoughts here), but the short form is that according to Watts the book got a small first printing (3,700 copies),
isn’t being carried wasn’t pre-ordered by the bricks and mortar stores of Borders and Barnes & Noble, is hard to find in the specialty book stores, and is on the bubble as toward whether there’ll be a second printing of the book or not. By putting the book out in a CC online version, Watts suggests, at least people can find it and read it.
Watts doesn’t appear to be particularly optimistic that much can be done to save the book commercially, and doesn’t appear to be convinced that releasing the book in a CC version will do too much to change that; at this point he seems resigned to readers rather than book purchasers (he may of course disagree with me on any of these points; I’m going by my interpretation of what he’s written). As much as I hope that he converts at least some of the CC readers to purchasers, I have I think his lack of optimism on the score is reasonable. There’s lot of anecdotal evidence that releasing books online under a CC license or some other sort of freely sharable scheme has a positive impact on things like sales and author reputation, but at the end of the day it is indeed all still anecdotal, and one can make an argument that some of the most high-profile cases of CC distribution have been by folks who were on the upswing of their careers anyway.
For example, Charlie Stross last year released Accelerando online via a CC license; Charlie will tell you the book sold better than his previous books, and of course, it was also nominated for the Hugo, which ain’t chopped liver. Was it because of the CC release bringing in new readers and buyers? Or was it because by the time Accelerando hit the stores, Charlie had become one of the hottest writers in science fiction, with consecutive Best Novel Hugo nominations, brilliant reviews, lots of good press and a healthy and active online presence? I personally think releasing the book online didn’t hurt his sales in the least, but I wonder how much it helped sales. Maybe a little, maybe a lot, maybe not at all. There’s too much noise in the data to make any sort of concrete determination.
On a larger scale there’s also not been enough books released online in a CC-like fashion to have a useful pool of data. So not only is the data noisy, there’s not enough of it. And of course, every book has different circumstances. Watts is not releasing Blindsight under the same set of circumstances as Charlie released Accelerando, or Cory Doctorow released Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, or I released Agent to the Stars (which was not released via CC, but which is freely available online). Releasing the book via CC might do great things for Watts’ readership, for example, but unless a reasonable percentage of that online readership converts to people buying the work, from a practical matter it might not mean much; at the end of the day publishing is driven by sales. If people don’t buy his books, he’s going to find it harder to get published the next time around, and then all those new readers-not-buyers are rather less likely to get a new Peter Watts novel to enjoy.
This is the long way around to making what I think is a rather pressing point about something that doesn’t get discussed, which is what the responsibility of the reader is to the author. Let’s say I download Blindsight, read it, and enjoy it. Do I then have a responsibility to Watts to buy the book? On one hand, absolutely not — Watts released the work in such a way that I am not obliged to pay him for it, in any way. I don’t even have to say “thanks.”
On the other hand, out here in the offline world and here and now, authors are paid by how much they sell. Authors get book deals in part through their sale track record. Authors don’t generally make ancillary income (lectures, appearance fees, etc) unless the sales are there. If as a reader I enjoyed Watts’ work, the best way to show that appreciation — and somewhat more selfishly, to better the chances I’ll have more work to read in the future — is buy the damn book. This is why, aside from my own enlightened self interest as an author, I’ve bought all of Cory’s work, and Accelerando, and why, had I not already purchased Blindsight, I’d've put in an order for it. I personally see it as a responsibility I have to the creator to support the work in a direct and serious way. I can’t make you feel the same way, naturally, but I think it would be nice if you did.
Now, to be sure, there are times and places where a reader can’t just rush out to the bookstore and pick up a copy of something — tight budgets, caught overseas, parents won’t allow you access to that devil-loving science fiction or whatever. Fair enough. However, I don’t have any of these excuses, and suspect that rather large portion of the CC-loving citizenry of Teh Intartubes doesn’t have any of these excuses, either. These folks should vote their approval for a CC-released novel by picking up a physical copy; if they don’t want it for themselves they can give it to a friend as a gift, or give it their local library. Either of these will get the word out about the author as well.
In sum: I think you should read Blindsight, because it’s damn good. And if you get the Creative Commons version, when you finish it and think to yourself “wow, my brain seems roomier now, thanks to Blindsight’s mind-expanding powers,” you should head down to the local bookstore and buy it (or special order it), or buy it online. You don’t have to, of course. But you should. If you like it, help make it a no-brainer for Tor to fire up a second printing.