Should EA Buy Distribution Rights for Foundational Books?

[Idle spec­u­la­tion; not a sys­tem­atic anal­y­sis]

A num­ber of books are foun­da­tional to the EA Move­ment. I am think­ing of such books as Rea­sons and Per­sons; Do­ing Good Bet­ter; The Life You Can Save; An­i­mal Liber­a­tion; and Su­per­in­tel­li­gence. Ideas in­tro­duced or sum­ma­rized in those books serve as both the in­tel­lec­tual ba­sis of EA and as a com­mon in­spira­tion for EA-al­igned ac­tions.

Yet, for most peo­ple, there are non­triv­ial costs to ac­cess­ing these books. True, many peo­ple could get them at no mon­e­tary cost from a library, though the ease of this prob­a­bly varies with life stage (i.e., stu­dent or not) and ge­og­ra­phy. As a former EA stu­dent group leader, I know CEA was happy to re­im­burse the ex­pense of get­ting some phys­i­cal copies of our own, and that was ex­cel­lent.

How­ever, there have been many times when I would have liked to cite these books and have not been im­me­di­ately able to be­cause this would re­quire a trip to the library (prob­a­bly pre­ceded by a wait­ing pe­riod) or pay­ing money to down­load the books from Ama­zon or a similar ser­vice. I imag­ine oth­ers are in a similar situ­a­tion. Th­ese costs may well in­hibit peo­ple from first ex­plor­ing these ideas to be­gin with.

This situ­a­tion seems sub­op­ti­mal to me. EAs value the con­tents of these books a lot, and their con­tents are free to copy on the mar­gin. This sug­gests that the effi­cient ex post cost of ac­cess­ing the con­tent of these books should be zero. Un­nec­es­sary bar­ri­ers to ac­cess could also de­ter po­ten­tial read­ers and thus re­duce the num­ber of peo­ple who could be ex­posed to and con­vinced of EA ideas.

There are cer­tain ways in which it makes eco­nomic sense to give some EA or­ga­ni­za­tion the right to dis­tribute these books, too. There is cur­rently a prin­ci­pal-agent prob­lem wherein the right­sh­old­ers of the books (pub­lish­ers, I as­sume?) have only pe­cu­niary in­ter­ests in pro­mot­ing and sel­l­ing the books, yet we as a move­ment have high, non­pe­cu­niary in­ter­est in hav­ing those books widely dis­tributed. Our longer time hori­zons than pub­lish­ers may also lead us to con­tinue pro­mot­ing them long af­ter pub­lish­ers nor­mally would.

I also imag­ine that for most pub­lish­ers, prof­its are con­cen­trated af­ter re­lease, whereas the value EA as a move­ment de­rives from the availa­bil­ity of these books is more con­stant over time. This sug­gests the pos­si­bil­ity of ex­ploit­ing differ­ent time prefer­ences by buy­ing dis­tri­bu­tion rights af­ter the books have been on the mar­ket for a few years and there­fore pro­duced most of their ex­pected rev­enue.

The main down­side I can fore­see is cost, and I have no idea how much such rights would cost. A cheaper way to ac­quire such rights might be to ac­quire digi­tal-only dis­tri­bu­tion rights, es­pe­cially since EA is hardly in a po­si­tion to ac­tu­ally print and ship books (though this can in prin­ci­ple be con­tracted out). A digi­tal dis­tri­bu­tion model also over­comes the bar­ri­ers for peo­ple who are pri­mar­ily in­ter­ested in cit­ing the books.

Note that none of this is a crit­i­cism of how the au­thors of the afore­men­tioned books have cho­sen to pub­lish them. I as­sume they have good rea­son for the ar­range­ments they chose, and I know that some of them donate pro­ceeds. This is sim­ply an in­quiry into whether such post-pub­li­ca­tion ac­qui­si­tion is de­sir­able, as I have not seen this idea dis­cussed be­fore in EA. How­ever, I would not be sur­prised if ei­ther the au­thors of the above books, nor would I be sur­prised if an EA char­ity con­sid­ered this be­fore and de­ter­mined that it was not worth­while.