Do free ebooks actually affect the sales of paper books?

We’ve had a good few years of activists like Cory Doctorow advocating the free digital book as a loss leader against the physical product, and in the last twelve months or so we’ve seen a distinct rise in the number of authors and publishers getting on board with the idea. The question is – is Doctorow right? Does giving it away make people more willing to pay?

Simon “Bloggasm” Owens has evidently been wondering the same thing, so he thought he’d chase up some of the authors who’ve recently had free versions of their novels released via Tor‘s mailing list. Tobias Buckell and John Scalzi both reported noticeable upticks in sales following their freebies, though fantasy author Daniel Abraham saw no change at all – neither up nor down.

Scalzi points out that it’s risky to make the results into science:

“… I don’t think that ‘scientifically’ is the standard required here; I think ‘heuristically’ is probably better. If you consistently see a rise in sales of an author’s work after the release of a free e-book, then heuristically you have a good idea it’s beneficial.

But the telling thing is this:

Every Tor author [Owens] spoke to for this article said they hoped the publisher would continue offering the ebooks even after the new site debut. When [he] asked them whether they would be willing to offer another book of theirs to the giveaway list there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation with their answers.”

So, we can’t be sure that giving away ebooks is a good thing, but we can say that few who’ve tried it think it’s a bad thing.

6 thoughts on “Do free ebooks actually affect the sales of paper books?”

  1. Personally I much prefer to read books in paper and if I enjoy an e-book by a given author will be more inclined to pick up more of their work. I tend to find it so much easier to be entwined in the plot of the story if I have a copy right in front of me and it also prevents the lurings of distractions via the internet.
    The problem there is I currently own a massive backlog of actual books to work my way through ^_^.

  2. I think that something is wrong with your conclusions. The cited article says that the authors who have offered their books as e-books would enthusiastically do it again, but you conclude that “we can say that few who’ve tried it think it’s a bad thing.” Did you mean good thing?

  3. Technically, e-books aren’t a “loss leader”; they’re more like advertising – like a movie trailer – because a) they essentially cost nothing to replicate/distribute so there’s no direct financial “loss”, and b) e-book reading options are still an issue for most people who prefer a dead tree version. So while they’re like music on the first count (a), they’re effectively nothing like music on the second count (b).

    That’s the issue I have with people getting all worked up about Doctorow’s “free digital book” effort. So what? It’s just smart business. He’s not giving up any IP rights of consequence. And he’s protected by a different kind of DRM: people’s preference for the tangibly-printed medium.

    Do I think it’s smart? Yes. For now. But not for much longer. If Doctorow is to be an example, let’s be sure we understand exactly what that example is.

  4. I, personally, rarely read paper. The only paper literature I read is school textbooks (when I can’t find a PDF) and magazines. If the magazines I read were available digitally, I would ditch those too. I collect but don’t read paper comic books. I loved Doctorow’s books and read all of them on a Pocket PC with the eReader software. The only sale Doctorow has gotten out of me is a gift purchase. I am in one of the categories Doctorow talks about, though: poor college students. I really doubt that I’ll kick ebooks once I graduate and get a “real” job, but I might be more likely to pay for them.

  5. The recent Tor giveaway (once they caught on that PDF as the sole available format wasn’t the best idea) introduced me to a number of authors whose work I wasn’t familiar with, including Mr. Buckell. I’ve since purchased the sequel to his book as well as that of another of the authors involved.

    I’ve always maintained that free ebooks, in whole or in part, and books offered via podcast are superb promotional activity, even when the ebooks are also offered for sale. I’m just as likely to purchase an ebook version of an author’s work as I am the print book.

  6. … you conclude that “we can say that few who’ve tried it think it’s a bad thing.” Did you mean good thing?

    No, I meant bad thing, but you have a point in that my wording is sloppy. What I meant was that, of the set of authors who have tried the giveaways, few seem to have had a negative experience, while the majority have had a positive one. Does that make more sense?

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