Can giving away electronic versions of print titles boost print sales? For years, a handful of authors, notably Cory Doctorow and Eric Flint, have been arguing that it can.
With the exception of SF/fantasy publisher Baen, which pioneered the Baen Free Library in 2000, and romance publisher Harlequin, which has been using free ebooks as a sales incentive since 2006, commercial publishers have been cautious about this approach to book promotion. Recently, however, a spate of ebook giveaways suggests things may be changing.
- In February, as a promotion for a new website, Tor began offering free electronic versions of its frontlist print titles via its newsletter. (As with most of the giveaways, each free ebook is available only for a limited time.)
- Also in February, HarperCollins began providing free e-versions of selected titles on its website.
- Again in February, Random House provided a free download of Charles Bock's Beautiful Children, and allowed Oprah Winfrey to offer Suze Orman's Women and Money as a free download on her website.
- In June, St. Martin's Press gave away e-versions of Julia Spencer-Fleming's first two books in order to promote her third. It is currently doing something similar for Sherrilyn Kenyon.
- Even Yale University Press has gotten into the act, with electronic versions of two of its books available for free on an ongoing basis.
As results of the giveaways come in, all indications are that print sales can benefit.
According to PW, Harper's giveaways have boosted print sales of frontlist and backlist titles, and/or increased pre-orders, for at least some authors (in some cases by a substantial margin). GalleyCat reports that "informal" word from St. Martin's is that first-week sales of Ms. Spencer-Fleming's new book are double those of her previous hardcover. And Tor authors John Scalzi and Tobias Buckell have both blogged about the print sales increases that followed electronic giveaways of their novels.
As difficult as it is to prognosticate about anything pertaining to the future of publishing, I'm betting that in the next few years the free download will become a standard promotional tool for publishers.
What about as a self-promotional tool for authors? That's more iffy. Commercial publishers have the ability to support free downloads with publicity and advertising, and well-known authors or media figures already have a fan base. Joe Writer, however, especially if he is self- or small-press published, may not have either. Who is going to download your free ebook, much less rush out to buy your print book, if they don't know it exists? That's the Catch-22 of all self-promotion: it's intended to make you visible, but for much of it, you have to be visible already in order to reap the benefits.