With the growing purveyance of digital books and ebook readers flooding the publishing and consumer markets, respectively, it was apropos stumbling upon this paper by John Hilton III and David Wiley of the Journal of Electric Publishing, tackling the question that’s on many authors’ and publishers’ minds:
Increasingly, authors and publishers are freely distributing their books electronically to increase the visibility of their work. A vital question for those with a commercial stake in selling books is, “What happens to book sales if digital versions are given away?”
Fellow writer, corporate bboy, and good friend, Timothy Prolific Jones, recently released an ebook preview of his upcoming magnum opus, Musaic, entitled Abu Simbel. Jones, in an attempt to spur interest in the forthcoming title, allows readers to download the book free of charge. (I gave the suggested donation of $3, which i believe is well worth the six remarkable poems.)
Jones’s tactics are parallel to those of other artists who are all interested in viewing consumers’ and readers’ reactions to the ubiquity of digital in a physical world. The importance of quantifying the impact of digital book on physical counterpart’s sales isn’t a fleeting concern.
The question of how freely distributing an electronic version of a work affects print sales is difficult, if not impossible, to answer experimentally because there is no way to simultaneously release and not release free versions of a book. It is not possible to determine causation; nevertheless, the effect of free distribution on print sales is an important issue to examine.
Analysis of printed book sales before and after its digital release allowed the JEP duo to garner some insight into the situation, to know if releasing a free digital version was akin to poisoning an author’s creation.
The results were mixed among the four book groups, which consisted of different genres throughout. Although no exact link can be made from this experiment given its limited scope, the sales outcome was a hopeful sign that digital and print can coexist peacefully.
I encourage all aspiring and current authors to read the full findings. Below are some concluding words from Hilton and Wiley:
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.