short-term influence of free digital versions on book sales

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.

3 thoughts on “short-term influence of free digital versions on book sales

  1. From a consumers point of view: You will definitely get me interested in you as a writer if you offer me a free sample. I joined the e-book world in April 2010. There were books I was definitely going to buy, because I was familiar with the writer and was really anticipating the books. Books are like cigarettes with me though, I really can’t afford my habit. If I only had books I was going to pay for, I would have ran out of stuff to read. Free books kept me going. I had the time and would rather try something out then not read at all. They were ebooks so they were easy to carry around. I did not have to go somewhere to get the book. With that, I was introduced to a few new writers I would not have read otherwise and will go out and buy future his/her works.

    1. Free samples are a must! Digital versions, too, of the full book. Recently I’ve been using B&N, Copia and Kindle apps on my BlackBerry and Mac for when I’m on the road (often lol), and I can’t lug around more than two or three physical books at a time, but when I went to look for the ebook, they didn’t have one.

      I know it will take time, but i think all bestsellers the past 20-30 years should have ebook versions. Or, if the author is a bestseller for one of their books, it should be a no-brainer to have their other books digitized.

      But back to your main point: everything is about free samples these days. We have short attention spans so giving us a quick taste is key so we know if we want to spend an hour or more with a product. It’s getting there, though.

      1. Absolutely. For the life of me, I cannot understand why a best seller (think JK Rowling) would not digitize the books. We are a busy and simultaneously lazy population. Digitizing books takes so much work out of actually getting our hands on their work. I think making access to a book easier will get more customers. That goes for known and unknow writers.

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