Should Publishers Put Their Books Online for Free?

book29.jpgYesterday, Yale University Press allowed me to post my book online for free. Over at the NYT’s Freakonomics blog, Melissa Lafsky writes about the growing trend of publishers posting free electronic copies of their books online. HarperCollins, for example, has started posting its books free online. In addition to my book, Yale University Press has allowed for the posting of Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks for free online.

One commenter to Lafsky’s post writes:

Imagine if books went the route of music and charged something like 1 or 2 dollars per download. Hardly a cumbersome fee when you consider most books will be over 10$ in a brick and mortar. Now, if a free ebook can sell 1 million copies in 1 day after some publicity on Oprah, imagine how many copies a trivially priced edition could sell over the span of several months. Certainly a few million, I’d expect.

Money is saved on raw materials, processing, printing, distribution. The only costs would be for the content and the server to house the content and some for publicity. So, say the split goes something like 70/30 for author/distributor. That’s still a great deal of income with extremely low overhead.

Another commenter writes:

Why can’t book publishers use the same business model that magazines use? Namely, inserting advertisements among the pages to offset the costs of production.

I for one, would gladly put up with some ads in favor of a lower price. Imagine paying $5 for a new release, rather than $30.

From the Associated Press:

More than 1 million copies of Suze Orman’s “Women & Money” have been downloaded since the announcement last week on Winfrey’s television show that the e-book edition would be available for free on her Web site, . . .

According to Saturday’s statement, more than 1.1 million copies of Orman’s financial advice book were downloaded in English, and another 19,000 in Spanish. The demand compares to such free online sensations as “The 9-11 Commission Report,” which the federal government made available for downloads, and Stephen King’s e-novella, “Riding the Bullet.”

The publishing community has endlessly debated the effects of making text available online, with some saying that free downloading is a valuable promotional tool and others worrying that sales for paper editions would be harmed. The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers each have sued Google for its plans to scan and index books for the Internet.

The offer for “Women & Money,” originally released a year ago by Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc., has not kept people from buying the traditional version. As of Saturday, the book ranked No. 6 on The paper edition of “The 9-11 Commission Report,” published in 2004 by W.W. Norton and Co., was a best seller for months.

“I can tell you that with respect to the `9-11 Report,’ the free download did not seem to hurt sales at all,” Norton publisher Drake McFeely told The Associated Press on Saturday. “There were people who wanted it quickly, in a less convenient form, and that was clearly a different market from the people who wanted the traditional book.” . . .

Is this trend a wise thing for publishers to do? Will it help sales? Hurt sales? I’m curious what readers think.

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5 Responses

  1. B.D. says:

    Help sales. Neil Gaiman was quoted in Boing Boing last week about this topic. In essence, he said that books throughout time have been loaned out via friends or borrowed via libraries and yet books continue to sell. It was his opinion that even if the person who got the loan did not buy that book s/he might decide that s/he would categorize the author as a good writer. Being remembered as a good author is never a bad thing for the writer. It might sell more books in the future.

  2. Orin Kerr says:

    It’s hard to know how it will play out, I think. Right now no one expects books to be posted online for free, so no one would decide not to buy on the expectation that they’ll be able to get a free copy. On the other hand, how many people who by books really care if they can get free electronic copies? You could always get a free copy from the library, but people buy books anyway.

    Very cool for the author, though: It increases the profile of the book and also makes it easier to cite (because others know they can find the copy online so easily).

  3. Well, not being in the book business, I can’t say what its effect will be on sales. Had your publishers given you any hint? Most certainly they have some numbers on this.

    Also I suppose your take would be different if writing books were your primary source of income.

    As a reader, I’m happy to have access to more books. But I won’t stop there. When Harvard announce that it was blazing the Open Access trail, I asked why academic publishing sites (such as SSRN) haven’t pushed articles to be conversation centers.

  4. Glenn says:

    As a young person practically raised by the Internet, I can hardly imagine living in a time when a free flow of information was not readily available. With that said, however, if I have serious reading I want to do, I’ll buy the book. I am looking forward to downloading ‘The Future of Reputation’ and looking over it, and I carry a copy of Seth Godin’s ‘Unleashing the Ideavirus’ on a thumb drive with me with the hopes of occasionally finding the time to read a few pages, but when all is said and done, I would much rather have a tangible copy sitting on my bookshelf.

    Considering the business aspect of allowing a work to be downloaded for free, meanwhile, I must agree with Kerr — such a policy would ostensibly generate a large amount of publicity and spread one’s reputation for a very low cost. If this trend encourages more people to write more and share their ideas… I am all for having the greatest access to the greatest amount of information, so bring on the e-books.

  5. Belle Lettre says:

    Help. People get hooked on the first few chapters, hence reading in bookstores or online. But sustained reading online isn’t that great–and what if you want to reference or cite later? I wish that I could test-drive all casebooks and social science texts before buying.

    Also, you can’t take online books on the train with you, and printing them out is more bother than it’s worth. I’d rather preview online and buy the book if I like it.

    And B.D. is right–you’ll be remembered as a good author.