Free Ebooks and Sales

A little less than a year ago, I blogged on ebook giveaway experiments by major publishers (including Tor, Random House, and St. Martin’s Press), and the question of whether such giveaways could boost print sales. At the time of my blog post, what reports there were (from both industry sources and individual authors) indicated that sales could indeed benefit.

Now someone is trying to quantify that information. Bloggasm reports that a doctoral student, John Hilton, is collecting data on the sales impact of ebook giveaways. He has identified approximately 40 titles for which a free e-version was released after the p-version was published, and tracked Bookscan numbers for eight weeks on both sides of the e-release.

Results so far are interesting. While four of the five Random House books Hilton identified showed an uptick in sales post-e-version, 20 of 24 Tor titles showed a decrease. Why the difference? “One possible explanation is that by making the free books available for only one week a different dynamic was present [for Tor] than when the books were made permanently available [by Random House],” Hilton says. “The opportunity for word-of-mouth to spread about the free book may have been significantly diminished in the model used by Tor.”

Ultimately, as Bloggasm notes, “These are all unknowns, and these unknowns leave enough wiggle room so that proponents of both sides of the argument have plenty of leeway to argue why releasing a book for free — whether it’s through a Creative Commons license or Google Books — has a net benefit or detriment to sales.”

Hilton’s study is continuing, and presumably more information will be forthcoming.


  1. No offense, but Neil Gaiman has fans who flew from Australia to see him at Balticon, (a Baltimore Maryland SF/F convention), a few years ago.

    His fandom is not typical of most authors. If Neil was doing a reading from the local phonebook, I guarantee he could get a couple hundred to show up just because “it’s Neil”.

  2. A lot of people in a lot of areas – not just writing – have said free boost their sales.

    For behlerblog and Helena Halme nip over to and type ‘economics of free’ into their search engine. The second one to come up is:

    “Watch Neil Gaiman Read His Whole Latest Book Online For Free… And Note That It’s Still A Best Seller”

    It’s worth browsing through the site and old stories too, as somewhere there are videos of lectures from conferences on the subject.

  3. Man, I really want to see this guy’s numbers. I’ve been compelled to protect all of my work with a Creative Commons License because I didn’t want anything to be “lifted” (i.e. stolen); however, it sounds like applying the CCL to completed work might be a good marketing strategy. I’m very curious.

  4. I’m with betherblog. How can free books make money? Possibly sales of traditional books can be increased with word of mouth in a transitional phase when most people have not got e-book readers. But if they’re given free now, what when 75% of us read online or on palmtops?

  5. I’m just happy to see someone is trying to quantify the results of marketing claims. I’m always reading of the great ideas publishers have for authors to market their books, at no cost to the publisher. I never hear of any empirical evidence as to which of these methods work, if any. It’s always more along the lines of, “This is the hot new idea. Why don’t you give it a try for us?”

  6. I’m more than happy to let Random House and Tor be the guinea pig. Free books just goes against my grain, and makes me drink heavily.

  7. I was also thinking around the same lines as Kristin L. Most of the books Tor gave away were first in a series; I wonder how the rest of each series did after that?

  8. I was thinking along the same lines as Kristin L. It would be interesting to see if there was an increase in sales of an author’s backlist due to the give away.

  9. I think it’s interesting to use the ebook as a marketing tool for a “hard copy”, but what about the stand-alone ebook? Is there any hope for it as a product? I hope my own adventures in ebook publishing based on a traditional-publishing model aren’t indicative of what will be happening to authors in the future.

  10. I wonder if he took into account whether the book being given away was first in a series or not. 😉

  11. Is Mr. Hilton taking into account sales of the authors’ other books, or only the one given away? It could be possible that giving away one title would boost readership and thus sales for the rest of the authors’ work.

  12. There are different needs for different modes of books. I prefer reading e-books while I am running around doing errands and waiting online and such. But I much prefer the feel and aroma of a bound book when I am reading at home. I would actually prefer to have both bound and e-book versions.

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