Do free ebooks actually affect the sales of dead-tree books?

For those retaining an interest in ebooks and publishing economics, here are a few interesting links. First, via Nick Harkaway: proper academic research that asks what happens to book sales if digital versions are given away for free? The answer: well, it’s not entirely clear, but it probably doesn’t do much harm.

The present study indicates that there is a moderate correlation between free digital books being made permanently available and short-term print sales increases. However, free digital books did not always equal increased sales. This result may be surprising, both to those who claim that when a free version is available fewer people will pay to purchase copies, as well as those who claim that free access will not harm sales. The results of the present study must be viewed with caution. Although the authors believe that free digital book distribution tends to increase print sales, this is not a universal law. The results we found cannot necessarily be generalized to other books, nor be construed to suggest causation. The timing of a free e-book’s release, the promotion it received and other factors cannot be fully accounted for. Nevertheless, we believe that this data indicates that when free e-books are offered for a relatively long period of time, without requiring registration, print sales will increase.

Secondly, via numerous sources (of whom Richard Kadrey was the first I noticed), the number of books available in the iPhone apps store has overtaken the number of games. Some wise words on interpreting this statistic from Penguin’s digital publishing boffin Jeremy Ettinghausen:

“I travel on the tube every day,” he continued, “and you do see people reading books, reading newspapers and playing games. As publishers we need to be on the things that people are using during that distraction time, that commuter time.”

But he argued for caution in focusing on the number of titles being published, stressing that “it’s very easy to produce books for the iPhone”.

“It’s interesting to see what’s selling,” he said, “rather than what’s being submitted – quite a lot of the books are free downloads, whereas the games tend to be paid for. I’m more interested in what’s going out than what’s going in.”

One thought on “Do free ebooks actually affect the sales of dead-tree books?”

  1. I wouldn’t necessarily buy a paper copy of a book I can get for free electronically, but I would buy (and have bought) other books by the same author. Free ebooks have introduced me to a number of authors and I have gone on to buy copies of their other books (both paper and electronic). It’s mentioned in John Hilton’s paper that they haven’t investigated the link between the release of a free ebook and sales of an author’s other works, but I suggest there could be a significant link.

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