(Posted from The Publeconomist, published 1/23/10)
Technology can lead to scary things! An interesting article was posted yesterday in the New York Times. Author Motoko Rich wrote about how many new and emerging authors are experiencing an enormous boost in sales without making a penny. How are they doing it? By giving away their books for free.
Meanwhile in other industries, movie studios are fighting tooth and nail against bootleg copies of their films in both movie theaters and on new release DVD. Music companies continue to combat the download of free music. Software giants squirm at the idea of their titles being copied and mass-distributed online. So how the hell did the world of book publishing embrace freebies?
One of the answers, cited by the author of the Times article, is that many of the books being given away for free are not new releases. These are older books by authors with numerous books in print. And now that electronic books are becoming more widely downloaded, these authors can put their titles onto a device like Kindle and tweak pricing. The lucky authors not only benefit from wide (and free) distribution of their complimentary e-book, but start to see increased sales for their other books too.
The model makes sense. Reading a novel takes longer than popping in a CD or going to the movie theaters. Unless you’re one of those ultra-speed readers, but who knows how much content (and meaning) they actually retain! Reading books is a time investment, and as you can tell by visiting Amazon.com, there are a whole lot of books to choose from. So for some authors hurting from all the competition, giving away one of their titles for free might not seem like such a bad idea, if it drives sales for other titles.
Unfortunately, the Times article didn’t have much data on how free copies have helped authors, aside from name exposure. I’ve probably downloaded the iTunes “free song of the week” just about every single week, and have only once or twice bought additional songs from that artist. Free is free, and it’s safe to make the argument that some people will download anything if it’s free.
As a publisher and a writer, I don’t know if I’d take the huge leap in offering books for free. If I was the author of a seven-book series and really needed cash, then I might give away book one, and see if that piqued interest for books two-through-seven. But I do think that there are other ways to advertise. Websites like Scribd.com allow authors to post large portions of their books for free download, without giving away the entire thing. A nice chunk of the upcoming book from inGroup Press, “A Pale Existence,” will be featured on Scribd for a free download. In this model, readers can sample anything from one chapter to half of an entire book before deciding whether or not they want to buy it.
Free is free, and economic cost is–well you get the idea. In economics, “economist cost” is essentially your opportunity cost. If I sell a book for $0, and the list price is $9.99, then I’m losing almost $9.99 every time someone downloads that book. Why? Well, if you downloaded an entire copy for free, then why would you go back and pay for it?
I’ll be interested to see how the giveaway of free books correlates to higher sales volume (if much at all). The thing about electronic books is that there’s no raw cost (aside from time) that goes into publishing them. It’s not like a print book, where you have to pay the printer, warehouse, etc. So, authors and publishing houses will continue to be able to give e-books away for free and not feel like they’re losing money. For me, this seems like a lazy way out of other sources of free online outreach, like Twitter, Scribd, or Facebook, to name a few. But for cash-strapped authors and publishers, the lure of free downloads might be worth the risk.
Anthony DiFiore, Publisher
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