16 July 08 | Chad W. Post

Both of these stories came out last week, but are really interesting bits about the impact of free ebooks on sales.

First off, HarperCollins did a special promotion for Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, in which you could, using HC’s Browse Inside program, read the whole book for free. (To the best of my knowledge, you couldn’t download the book, something readers complained about. Actually, it seems like readers weren’t all that keen on the entire HC Browse Inside program—56% of those surved said that they didn’t enjoy the process.) HC tracked the results, tried to correlate this with sales and came up with the following, which Neil Gaiman posted on his blog:

The Indies [ie. independent booksellers — Neil] are the only sales channel where we have confidence that incremental sales were driven by this promotion. In the Bookscan data reported for Independents we see a marked increase in weekly sales across all of Neil’s books, not just American Gods during the time of the contest and promotion. Following the promotion, sales returned to pre-promotion levels.

This is what a lot of ebook advocates have argued for a long time. Although on the other hand, one could speculate that the fact that the majority of people didn’t like the HC Browse Inside process led to more people buying the actual book after getting frustrated with the web version. Regardless, more copies were sold during this promotion, which is good for the author, publisher, and bookstores.

On the same day, I came across this article about Tor’s free download program.

A few months ago Tobias Buckell noticed a trend in his book sales that most midlist novelists don’t typically see. His book Crystal Rain, which had been released in mass market paperback a year before, experienced a sudden spike in sales, more than doubling from the previous week. [. . .]

When Buckell opened a Bookscan account to track his sales he had to sign a nondisclosure agreement barring him from giving any specific numbers, but in a phone interview he asserted that the sales bump was significant enough not to have been a fluke.

But what caused this sudden increase?

Because of all the myriad factors that drive product buys, it’s incredibly hard to pinpoint specific triggers, but it just so happened that the jump occurred right after Crystal Rain’s publisher, Tor Books, had released a free e-book version of the novel online.

Tor began putting out free e-book titles earlier this year to pump up subscriptions to its email newsletter. It will use that newsletter to promote a new science fiction “super site” it’s reportedly launching on July 20 to coincide with the date Americans landed on the moon. Rather than posting the books at a specific URL where people can go to download them, only those who have joined the newsletter list are given access to the titles.

There have been other instances of publishers giving away free e-books—like the promo last year for Beautiful Children by Charles Boch, or the entire Wowio setup (which, you know, is offline right now)—but I suspect that more results like these will lead to even more experiments, hopefully from both large corporate publishers and indie presses.


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