Learning from Doctorow’s ‘With a Little Help’

Claude AlmansiBy Claude Almansi
Editor, Accessibility Issues

This story is from Cory Doctorow’s new collection, “With a Little Help”. Visit craphound.com/walh to buy the whole audio book on CD, a paperback copy in one of 4 covers, or a super-limited hard cover.
This story, and the whole text of “With a Little Help”, are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, Share Alike, Non Commercial license.
Copy it, share it, remix it. As Woody Guthrie said: “This song is copyrighted in the US under a seal of copyright number 154085 for a period of 28 years, and anyone caught singing it without our permission will be a mighty good friend of ourn, because we don’t give a dern. Publish it, write it, sing it, swing to it, yodel it. We wrote it , that’s all we wanted to do.” (From the intro to all the recorded readings of the stories collected in Cory Doctorow’s  “With a Little Help,” 2010)

Dandelion business model

Dandelions growing at the edge of a sidewalk

From C. Doctorow: "Think Like a Dandelion". BoingBoing. Under a BY-NC Creative Commons License

Since 2003, Cory Doctorow has been both traditionally selling  his fiction works in print and releasing them online under the Creative Commons Attribution, Share Alike, Non Commercial license indicated in the quote above. And making a living of it.

Some people find that disconcerting. At a meeting about copyright and the Internet during the 2009  Cinéma Tous Ecr@ns festival in Geneva, Philippe Aigrain and I mentioned Cory Doctorow’s example to try to convey how there could be working business models based on both selling and releasing works under a CC license. The representative of the SSA collecting society objected: “I bet he wouldn’t be pleased if people put his stories on their own servers.”

We explained that this was precisely what Doctorow invited people to do, paraphrasing from memory Doctorow’s “Think Like a Dandelion” essay (published in Locus and summarized in BoingBoing, 2008).  The SSA representative remained baffled, though. Hopefully, he was intrigued enough to look up the source. Here’s an excerpt from the BoingBoing version:

…Mammals worry about what happens to each and every one of their offspring, but dandelions only care that every crack in every sidewalk has dandelions growing out of it. The former is a good strategy for situations in which reproduction is expensive, but the latter works best when reproduction is practically free — as on the Internet….

“With a Little Help”: an experiment in self-publishing

Of course, Doctorow himself tells of many exchanges with such skeptics, but also with critics who take the opposite line and ask him why he does not go the whole hog and manage the publishing and sale of the print versions too. Hence his “With a Little Help” project, which he announced and whose progress he described in his articles for Publishers Weekly, from October 20, 2009, to December 20, 2010. And as the above-quoted intro to the audio version says, there is further information — logistical and financial too — available on craphound.com/walh.

Text and audio versions in several formats, for buying, offering and downloading

From craphound.com/walh, you can buy the printed text in paperback or hard cover — or offer it to a library that has requested it — or the audiobook as an mp3 or ogg  CD.

And you can download them for free (there are also separate audio files for each story). Re the electronic text, Doctorow produced and simultaneously updates  html, txt, odt, pdf and sst formats via a SiSu master file. As these are all open formats, other people have derived new ones. All available formats are listed in craphound.com/walh/e-book/browse-all-versions.

Learning from “With a Little Help”

All this primary material and “meta” documentation offers many learning opportunities.


Of course, Doctorow’s detailed description of the project, from the initial concept to its actuation, is very useful to anyone wishing to venture into self-publishing with a diffusion beyond the immediate family/friends circle. But it can also be of use for traditional publishers: see the note added by Publishers Weekly to the first of his articles about the project:

… Cory will detail his specific experiences with his latest self-publishing effort, as well as his broader thoughts on the issues he — and many of you — are facing in the new publishing economy.

(…) We know you’ll find Cory to be at once entertaining, thought provoking and challenging as well. We realize what might work for Cory may not work for you. But we’re certain that the insights he’ll deliver will help you think more deeply about your books, your business — and your future.

Other learning opportunities

This incitation to thinking — rather than stating things to be swallowed as they are — also obtains for other learning opportunities offered by “With a Little Help.” Here are just some examples:

  • The intro to the audio versions of the stories, quoted at the beginning of this post, might lead to a further exploration of the original context of the statement by Woody Guthrie and of Creative Commons licenses
  • Each story is followed by a brief afterword where Cory Doctorow gives some information about why and how he wrote it. Readers might wish to reflect on why he does so in an afterword rather than in a foreword, and on how this afterword may or may not change their reading of the story.
  • Each reading of a story, even by the same person, produces a different version. So some people might wish to examine how a story is interpreted in its audio version.
  • Some of the stories have already been translated into other languages. See, for example, the translations listed for “Scroogled” in craphound.com/?p=1902 — no need to request permission to do so as it is already granted by their Creative Commons Attribution, Share Alike, Non Commercial license. However, it would be nice if not compulsory under that license to let Cory Doctorow know of your translation once you have done it.
  • If you know some English but not quite enough to comfortably read the original stories straight, you can use Google Translate. The resulting automatic translation is unfit for human consumption as it is, granted. However,  if you select  “view original,” you won’t be exposed to it unless you hover with the mouse over one sentence to see just the translation for that sentence, which might be of help (but exercise your critical sense).
  • You can also view the original text via the Lingro interface: clicking on a word will show its translation in one of the 10 other languages offered by Lingro (or if you know none of these either, get English definitions of the word from several dictionaries), then add it to a personal list. Beware that the whole text of “With a Little Help” is a bit heavy for Lingro to treat and might freeze your browser: better make a file of just one story and use Lingro’s “File viewer” option for it.
  • You can view the text of a story as you are listening to its reading, and try to look at it as little as possible. Or you can make a mock video with the audio file, publish it in a venue compatible with its Creative Commons Attribution, Share Alike, Non Commercial license, and use the text version to close-caption it. For instance, I uploaded a mock video of  Doctorow’s “Scroogled” read by Wil Wheaton to blip.tv/file/4706182, then captioned it on universalsubtitles.org/en/videos/FKXCpwJMLTVM (more info on how to).

Openness is the key

In With a Little Help: Can You Hear Me Now? (Publsihers Weekly, Dec. 7, 2009), Doctorow told how he gave up selling a former audiobook of his via Amazon’s Audible and iTunes:  iTunes insisted on adding DRM protection, and Audible, which has  a general End Users License Agreement that forbids moving an audiobook to another device, refused to let him add one for his audiobook, saying:

Random House Audio and Cory Doctorow, the copyright holders to this recording, grant you permission to use this book in any way consistent with your nation’s copyright laws.

Then in Doctorow’s First Law (Publishers Weekly, Aug. 2, 2010), he recounted how he had better luck with the Kindle division of Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Kobo, who all agreed to sell the e-book of “With a Little Help” without DRM and with a license saying:

If the seller of this electronic version has imposed contractual or technical restrictions on it such that you have difficulty reformatting or converting this book for use on another device or in another program, please visit http://craphound.com for alternate, open format versions, authorized by the copyright holder for this work, Cory Doctorow. While Cory Doctorow cannot release you from any contractual or other legal obligations to anyone else that you may have agreed to when purchasing this version, you have his blessing to do anything that is consistent with applicable copyright laws in your jurisdiction.

However, Apple iTunes and Sony refused, and thus lost the opportunity to sell “With a Little Help.” In that article, Doctorow further analyzes the paradoxes of retailers curtailing authors’ right to determine how their works can be used, which is the very first right mentioned in most countries’ copyright law.

Moreover, none of the learning activities suggested above (and none of many others) could be done on audio/text works “protected” by DRM and/or a EULA forbidding their reformatting and re-use. Education is a particularly profitable sector of publishing, so far. However, publishers should beware that no matter how serious or well-done an educational e-work is, if it cannot be re-used and modified for learning activities, teachers are likely to start shopping elsewhere.

5 Responses

  1. […] o un lettore, o ambedue? Questi sono alcuni temi che si possono sviluppare intorno al  post Learning from Doctorow’s ‘With a Little Help’, scritto recentemente da Claude […]

  2. Freedom, vested interests, life in cyberspace, publishing, managing copyrights, exploiting internet tools, learning strategies, reading and listening in a second language. What does it mean to be an author in cyberspace, what does it mean to be a reader or a listener in cyberspace, what does it mean to be an author or a reader, or both, nowadays? These are some of the subjects that could be discussed when reading this post.

    The contents of Cory Doctorow’s stories and its self-publishing experiment are plenty of clues for curricula that are somewhat related to ICT, digital literacy, media literacy and so on. Claude gives us some specific learning hints based on this work.

    Since I would like to exploit these ideas with my students, during the forthcoming semester, I translated the post in Italian, making it available in my blog.

    The idea of reusing learning material is a hot topic, today. Therefore new “objects” materialize and acronyms flourish, such as Learning Objects, Shareable Courseware Objects, Learning Object Metadata, Instructional Management Systems. When used appropriately and put in the right context these are useful objects, probably.

    However, often it seems to me that this sort of obsessive reification is a kind of selling your soul to the devil: you get the objects you presume you should work with, but, in practice, these turn out to be inappropriate or even fake ones. This concern is quite common – see for instance the recent note by Stephen Downes or (for Italian readers) this post by Antonio Fini. To be honest, even the Open Education Resources turn out to cause me some claustrophobic feelings, despite the adjective, “open”.

    What I’m afraid of, perhaps, is the idea to look for preassembled things, which is in sharp contrast to what I believe should be the attitude of teaching, that is perpetual adaptation.

    I like to think that the teacher of the (near) future will be a master in chasing ideas in the cyberspace, at the same time being able to adapt them to the reality of her or his students. No need for objects.

    That’s why I like so much the perspective offered by Claude in her post.

  3. Thank you for the translation, Andreas.

    Re: “To be honest, even the Open Education Resources turn out to cause me some claustrophobic feelings, despite the adjective, “open”.”

    :D I agree: they make me feel like the “Deutsches Lesen” (1) simplified-for-learners-with-comprehension-questions works of German literature we had to read when I was in high school.

    (1) = German Reading. The Deutsches Lesen publisher has apparently and fortunately disappeared: when I looked up Deutsches Lesen Verlag, Google wondered if I might perhaps mean Deutsches Essen (German Eating) Verlag …

  4. […] English version of this foreword is available as a comment to the original English post by Claude […]

  5. Cory Doctorow has continued his description and analysis of his self-publishing experience in his column at Publishers Weekly. See his last article there, With A Little Help: Heuristics, July 1, 2011. Excerpt:

    (…) the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that, while a popular blog is helpful in launching a self-published work, it is by no means sufficient for selling one, and if I wanted to generate interest in paperback sales of With a Little Help, I’d have to go where the traditional book buyers are: the mainstream press, the review sections of major newspapers, and Amazon’s retail system. To that end, I asked Lulu (which does the majority of my POD titles) to supply some review paperbacks, and I asked Tor, the publisher of my latest novel, for a list of potential reviewers. Both were gracious enough to comply; I shelled out for mailers and postage; and I sent out roughly 150 free review copies.
    It paid off. (…)
    So how did the media attention affect income? Most visibly, there was a sharp increase in donations. In the month following the press reviews, 89 donors gave a total of $916.75. By contrast, the previous six months had garnered $1,305.98 from 112 donors (most readers don’t donate anything, of course). But the articles and reviews didn’t do much for the Lulu editions, garnering a mere 26 sales in the following month. Amazon CreateSpace editions fared only a little better, selling 54 copies over the same period. But it’s fair to say that the paperback editions have fared worst to date and continue to lag far behind expectations. Why? (…)

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