Lukyanenko Launches E-Publishing Experiment

WSB Special Correspondent Valentin Ivanov reports exclusively on Russian writer Sergey Lukyanenko‘s new experiment.

The Russian science fiction and fantasy writer Sergey Lukyanenko (of the “Night Watch” fame) just reported on his blog (Attn, it is in Russian: the results from a small experiment on e-book sales.

Actually, the experiment is not that small – apparently he asked the readers of his blog ( to pay him 1 Russian ruble (about 0.03 US dollars, as of Nov 29, 2010) to support his writing. In return he promised to release a free piece of his writing. Many of his books are already freely available over the net, albeit without his approval. Also, he wants to test if the donations could be sufficient to support a SFF writer.

He is not pressed for money so he promised to donate the income to some charity, and after the test was over he said he would even match every ruble to double to donation to the charity. The donations are collected via some Russian analog of PayPal (PayPal doesn’t work in Russia, or rather you can pay with it, but you can’t draw real money).

The post was read by nearly 52,993 people. It is not clear if multiple visits were accounted for, i.e. via IP checks. Lukyanenko points out that this number is higher than his typical number of readers which is about 25,000.

Donations from 2640 people were received, for 6404 rubles (about 200 US dollars) in total. Many people donated more than the one ruble he asked for.

It appears that only about 5% of the readers are willing to pay money to support their favorite writer.

Lukyanenko draws two conclusions:

(1) A new writer in Russia typically sells 5000-7000 copies. If only 5% of the readers are willing to support him or her, there is no hope to sustain a writing career via donations.

(2) An established writer like Lukyanenko himself sells 200,000 copies (the blog readers mention that the typical cover price is 250-300 rubles). He doesn’t quote his income but he implies that it exceeds by far what he would have made if he was getting only the full cover price for 5% of the sales.

Finally,  Lukyanenko said that the low response level didn’t surprise him, but that nevertheless he will release to the readers a piece of his work for the money that they have sent him.

* * *

It is a curious experiment and it does give some food for the thought. The low returns are not a surprise to me given the state of the Russian economics, and the low fraction of people would Internet access, with respect to the West. However, I suspect that with time the public consciousness of the readers will cause more and more people to reach for legal e-books and to become more … accustomed to the concept of supporting their favorite artists.

It is interesting to compare this “study” to the on-going project “With A Little Help” ( of Cory Doctorow.


4 thoughts on “Lukyanenko Launches E-Publishing Experiment

  1. Interesting read.

    The subscription model is probably a major factor here. The incentives don’t seem that attractive. For a reader who’s never heard of Lukyanenko, their one rouble gives an item of uncertain value. So he gets only that subset of readers who visit his website AND can afford to lose a rouble AND don’t mind uncertainty AND don’t let prior negative experiences with other authors affect their current purchase. This subscription model partitions the set of all readers because it imagines the reader as if s/he is someone who is willing to lose a rouble, willing to take a chance on a story, willing to ignore prior negative history, etc. Readers who don’t fit this as-if model are out of luck. This is similar to what happens in the iTunes store. If I have twenty bucks to spend, then every song I buy means some other song will not be bought. When the economist Will Page studied consumption patterns in the iTunes store, he found that most tracks were never even sampled, let alone purchased. The iTunes store is thus modeling the consumer as someone who’s aware of their preferences and effectively discourages browsing. But suppose we had a subscription model that was more of an “even-if” thing. A model that made minimal assumptions about the reader. Thus, even if readers were not too adventurous or even if reader didn’t have a buck or even if readers had been burnt in the past with bad purchases etc etc., the store could still have something to offer. The even-if approach would bring in things like refunds, yearly subscriptions (rather than per-item), and access to multiple authors, not just one author. They’d had clever solutions to let readers share. These buffet models all encourage the reader to browse. This might explain why when Chris Anderson analyzed the listening habits of Rhapsody consumers, he famously found that the majority of sales came from the tail. At that time, Rhapsody used the buffet model– consumers paid a flat fee for unlimited sampling of every item in the store. There’s a nice write-up on these two models here. In short, subscription models seem to work when the items are served as a buffet and not as a sit-down meal.


  2. I think the success of these efforts is dependent on a lot of things besides financial climate–how well-known is the author? are they doling out chapters in serial form for contributions or asking for contributions for a finished product? is it free in some forms but costs money in others? what kind of additional incentives are there for participation? is the book one in an ongoing series with a fanbase or a stand-alone? what kind of relationship does the author already have with their readers?

    I know of two other U.S. authors who have done different types of contribution-funded novels, with different results. So, case studies:

    Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland was crowdsourced (the last section has now been taken down, since it will be published in print in 2011). I believe she just posted as a serial and asked for donations. She also did a subscription short story experiment, which is not quite the same thing, but not traditional publishing, either.

    T.A. Pratt got dropped by his publisher after book 4, and wrote book 5 as an online serial. Print and ebook versions cost money, but the HTML version is up there for free. He did a tiered incentive donation scheme, and has some really interesting break-downs of the numbers here:

    One of the things I found interesting was that his average (mean, median, and mode) were all well above what a new paperback costs in the U.S. ($8): The average [mean] donation was about $63.86; the median donation was $35; the mode was $10.

    Even without ebook sales, My readers, thus, paid me about 80% of what the world’s largest publisher used to pay me.

    One thing he noted was that he thought offering tiered incentives made a big difference when compared with how his previous donation-funded novel did.

    I don’t see any reasons a model like that couldn’t be applied to a Russian market/fanbase, or anywhere else. It would simply have to be adapted. Of course, it’s not really at a point where it’s necessarily a substitute for traditional publishing, but it can work as a complement to it, and has some advantages traditional publishing does not.

  3. It might even be more successful here in the U.S., since, needless to say, more people have Internet access than they do over there.

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