Can Free Ebooks Boost Print Sales?

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.


  1. The only pothole I’ve hit with free ebooks is the difficulty in actually giving them away.

    We’ve covered all 100+ of our paperbacks with ebook versions and — being ebook believers — we always offred them for the equivalent of single pound sterling in our own wee online store. We’ve always given them free to anyone who asked and have now decided to drop the charge altogether and offer free downloads of ebooks (when an author will allow us to — and the vast majority has agreed).

    The problem is, as I say, in the actual giving. Online retailers, for obvious financial reasons must insist on charging (in my opinion an unjustified high price) for ebook versions.

    So the offer is only ever noticed by those who happen upon our site, hear by word of mouth or download from a writers’ website that makes the offer on our behalf.

    Best wishes. Neil

  2. My my…this all sounds like Zooty the Hooty. You tole the world this would not work. It seem since your publisher is doing it, you have had a change of heart.


  3. More on Tor’s free ebook experiment from Simon Owens at Bloggasm, with quotes from Tobias Buckell and John Scalzi. A third Tor author, Daniel Abraham, did not see the sales bump that Buckell and Scalzi did, but still feels that the release was beneficial.

    Tor, which undertook the free ebook releases as promotion for its new website, may not be planning to continue with the giveaways.

  4. I’m both sceptical and hopeful about free ebooks. Right now, I think free ebooks neither help nor hinder book publicity, but it has the potential to help book sales. I’m pretty sure it can’t hurt, though.

    My own slightly cynical (for now) view is, simply put, “one format is for reading, another is for grepping“; people who write books might as well release printed books, because that’s what people who actually intend to read the book will want to get (and they’re still pretty hard to obtain illegitimately =), and at the same time release electronic versions free of charge for personal reference use – and, of course, it may also help strangers to find the books. (And yes, fiction also has perfectly sensible uses as reference.) Of course, this won’t work in today’s copyright paranoia climate…

    This might change, though – especially with the new ebook readers.

    And as a promotion tool for self-published authors? Sure! I’m one, and it’s working great for me! I have had dozens of hits to my web site! =) (Okay, I’m an unrefined amateur and I’ve done zero other marketing, but still =)

  5. This strategy will not work in genres that are mostly ebook-driven (such as erotica). People seem to have no problem paying for erotica ebooks in huge numbers (many erotica authors pull down 6-figure incomes from ebooks alone), so why should anyone offer them for free?

  6. Well, it’ll be great for the growth of eBooks as it pushes more readers towards that medium but I don’t know if it is such a hot move for writers.

    I’m almost completely converted over to eBook and have such a backlog of free, I don’t see me buying a book anytime soon.

  7. As one who paid full price for a Cory Doctorow book, a week before it was offered for free, I can say that sometimes that strategy fails to win friends.

  8. My novel, Michael In Hell, has been published three times by small publishers since 1999, and a few months ago I discovered it had been pirated as an e-book by the Chinese. I was right in the middle of the pirated books by the big authors. Never made much sense to me. Most of my sales have been through word of mouth and direct mailorder. So I don’t know why they chose to pirate mine.

  9. I’d like to point, here, at the success of people like Scott Sigler and JC Hutchins, whose free audio versions were an essential part of their successful “crowdsourced” marketing efforts.

    Tragedy of the commons?

    The commons is already FLOODED with free ebooks, both pirated and legitimate. The thing is, Sturgeon’s law applies, in huge measure. What people want to know is, “Where is the good stuff?”

    Most folks don’t trust advertising, and the number of reviewers they trust is rather small. Often, they DO trust their friends and family. The future belongs to word of mouth, and that requires a quality product.

  10. It’s good to see these numbers coming in in the positive, but it’s not terribly surprising. Shareware and freeware software titles have been around for quite a while, with much success. Not everyone succeeds with that strategy, of course, but there are many success stories based on free/demo software that has been promoted by word of mouth.

    Samuel is correct that just making something available for free won’t bring people to your door. But if it’s free and very good, you may only have to bring a small number of people to your door for them to then promote the product by word of mouth.

    You still have to create a great product, though. In fact, experience has shown that if you give something away for free, people are often more critical of it than if they paid for it.

  11. Good marketing can boost print sales; ascribing that to free eBooks alone is a form of magical thinking, a belief that if you put the free one out there it will spontaneously generate a mass of people willing to pay for the print version. Free eBooks can be a marketing tactic, sure, but generally only a secondary marketing tactic, once you’ve already got enough attention to pull it off.

    The real question for publishers would be “Can free eBooks undercut print sales,” to which the answer is, given all present evidence, “No, at least not in any meaningful way.”

  12. I think there’s a “tragedy of the commons” potential here–if everyone offers free e-book downloads, it’s not going to work very well as a marketing technique once the market is saturated.

    But I certainly applaud the people who are doing it and find that it works for them.

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