Tor writers on free ebook giveaways as a book-sales tool

Simon from Bloggasm interviewed some of Tor's authors who've given away their books for free online while they were available in stores and asked them if they believed the giveaways had sold more print books, and what made them think so:
“‘Scientifically’?” he [Scalzi] wrote to me in an email. “Probably not, unless you somehow managed to control (or at least account for and factor in) every incident of someone discussing your work and or going down a decision path to acquire the work, which is probably more work than it’s worth. But I don’t think that ’scientifically’ is the standard required here; I think ‘heuristically’ is probably better. If you consistently see a rise in sales of an author’s work after the release of a free e-book, then heuristically you have a good idea it’s beneficial.”

In his case, Scalzi watched sales of his book shoot up by 20 percent. But what’s even more interesting is that the sequel to Old Man’s War saw an increase of over 30 percent. Both he and Buckell benefited more from sales of books later in their series.



  1. Ancedotally, I can definitely say that I was unaware of Scalzi’s work before reading the free eBook of Old Man’s War. I enjoyed the work enough that I went out looking for his name in the bookstores, have already purchased and read Android’s Dream, and plan to do the same with the sequel to Old Man’s War (at which point, I’ll probably add the original novel to my collection, too).

    Of course, this is because Scalzi’s work impressed me. I, personally, would not buy additional books from every author who had a free eBook released under TOR’s promotion. It’s a great, low-risk way to discover new authors, though.

  2. it’s a win-win.

    I, who doesn’t usually have time to read very much or find new authors, get a free book delivered to my inbox every week.

    The authors and publisher get free publicity and potentially a new customer.

    nobody has lost anything of value, and both parties gain something of value.

    thus: win-win

  3. I read Old Man’s war from Tor’s free ebook program and I have picked up the 2 sequels. I am looking forward to Zoe’s Tale this fall, hoping to pick up a signed copy at his and Buckell’s, “Ohio’s coming to kick your ass with science fiction” tour!

  4. This piece certainly piqued my interest as I just published my first book, which I’ve made available for sale as a paperback and also as a free download online. My thinking was that most people wouldn’t read a 200+ page book on their computers, so if they downloaded it and liked it, they’d probably purchase the paperback. In addition, printing and binding (@ Kinko’s, for example) isn’t that cheap so purchasing the paperback isn’t a bad deal after all. And hey, if they do want to wade through it on their computers – more power to them. The book is “The Guide to Life After College” and you can download it for free at

  5. I sometimes find myself buying works by authors and publishers who give their books or stories away free, even before I’ve read the free versions. It sounds crazy, but it’s seldom disappointing: the free-ebook gambit is new enough that smart publishers don’t seem to do have started it with poor books much yet. I did this with Old Man’s War — I’d heard good things about it, but Tor’s confidence in giving it away was enough to get me to take a chance on it. (And yes, it was a pretty fun book.)

  6. I’ve been considering using a free e-book to advertise my blog ( I can only imagine that if the method is a successful one for book sales it would be a hit for a website/blog promotion. I have to conclude that the other commentators are correct … win-win.

  7. I think what’s being said is that it’s enough to show correlation* between free ebooks and increased sales; it’s not necessary to show a causal link**. This makes perfectly good sense, IMHO.

    * Math-oriented folks might want to read, but correlation merely shows “that when x occurs, y seems to occur, but we really don’t know that x causes y”.

    ** Causality is slightly less mathmatically defined in Wikipedia at

    See also,

  8. @Josh Smith: Just for the record, I’m not wading through eBooks on my computer. I’m reading them on my phone, on the train or while I’m waiting for something. I always have my phone loaded with several eBooks, just to prevent boredom.

  9. As a tactic, this cuts both ways. I’ve been reading the Tor ebooks, and there are definitely some authors – Robert Charles Wilson, Karl Schroeder, and Tobias S. Buckell come to mind – whose works I’ll be looking out for in future, in whatever format. There are others – no names, no pack drill – who I will know to avoid. Overall, though, that may be more down to personal taste than objective quality. Tor has done a good job of providing a broad sampling of their line, and I’m sure there are people who will like the ones I didn’t like and want to read more.

    “The first fix is free” is an old and proven marketing tactic, and giving a whole book away may be a better way to pique interest and build loyalty than just offering an extract. Doing what Tor did in some cases – give the book away and then add the first chapter of the sequel on the end – may be the smartest move of all, because it gets the reader when they’re at their most vulnerable, er, enthusiastic.

    I certainly hope the experiment works out for Tor and the authors who have participated.

  10. I’ve done almost exactly what #1 did (read “Old Man’s War” in pdf, then bought it, “Ghost Brigades,” and “Android’s Dream” and am waiting for “Last Colony” in paperback). My Tor subscription has been invaluable in demoing authors to me that I hadn’t heard of before.

  11. Like most of the readers above, I found that Old Man’s War was the best of the bunch, but I also purchased sequels to Garden of Iden and might read more from the Orphans of Chaos. Like the other guy, I’m not going to mention who the runts of this particular litter are…but the horror/trashy romance one came pretty close. Not a part of that demographic I guess.

  12. I, too, have been reading some of the Tor free eBooks – on my phone on the bus on the way to and from work.

    I would have purchased the sequel(s?) to Old Man’s War right after I read it if it weren’t for the fact that my local Barnes and Noble told me that Mr. Scalzi had only ever written one other book, and that it was humor, not sci-fi. Now that I know, I plan to go out and get them – just not from Barnes and Noble!

    Are they available for purchase as eBooks (preferably Microsoft or Mobipocket) anywhere? I’d rather not have to carry around a paper book on the bus.

  13. I think someone needs to learn a little about the nature of science. “Scientific” does not mean “absolutely precise”, which is what his comment about having to control for every little thing seems to imply. It means, “empirically reproducible and amenable to Bayesian analysis.”

    There’s no problem at all with proving “scientifically” that free e-books cause a statistically significant change in sales. All it would take is one well-designed experiment, albeit over rather a lot of titles and with good random controls. But showing causation is just not that hard–it constitutes a significant fraction of what scientists do.

  14. A friend recommended Peter Watt’s Blindsight, but more importantly, sent me the link to the free e-text. It was a fantastic read, and after I’d finished it, I donated ten bucks, bought it in paperback, *and* the first of his Rifters series, Starfish.

    Got a mail back from him from the donation, expressing his thanks, which made me even more prone to buy his works in the future.

    Another advantage. Web-published free ebooks also makes written works *incredibly* googleable — I blanked on Peter Watt’s name and (ironically) Blindsight’s title, so I just googled “vampires and consciousness in space”. Bing! First link was about the book!

  15. Tom, I don’t think he meant “absolutely precise”, I think he meant “using actual data”.

  16. It’s a brave new world — the only books I pay for are ebooks, DRM-free. These days, there is so much good material available that, from a practical standpoint, I HAVE to be selective. I go with the publishers that make it easy.

    Physical paperbacks are upwards of $8. Heck, that’s TWO stops at Starbucks! I don’t even hesitate to make the comparison; it’s become my new yardstick. Both are guilty pleasures for me, both are transient experiences. When I’m ready to indulge myself, I lean towards something that I can rely on to deliver.

    I’m not opposed to trying new things, I’m willing to do prelim research into new authors. But, if you’re a fiction author, you’ve got serious competition for my attention — not just sample chapters and free ebooks, but podcasts, seminars, lectures, audio books and readings. . . my days of buying random paperbacks at the bookstore are over.

    Good luck, I’ll be in the back corner at Starbucks, hunched over a laptop, reading and sucking down a grande iced mocha.

  17. Add me to the list of folks who’ve gone out and bought more of Mr. Scalzi’s works after reading the free version. And after reading the “Little Brother” download I went out and bought two copies, one for my teenager and one for her English teacher. And I wish there was a decent-sized ebook reader that was also reasonably priced.

  18. I’ve been pretty annoyed that I can get the teaser books in my preferred format (ebook), but then when they have me hooked on a series, I can’t buy the subsequent books that way. Not all of us still want to put up with the disadvantages of dead tree books. (needing to find shelf space, having a fixed type size, needing to set up the right lighting conditions, not being able to carry many at once…)

    Both the Scalzi and the Jane Lindskold Firekeeper series seem like series I’d love to read more of. Tor should sell the subsequent books electronically, the way Baen does.

  19. The following comment raises an interesting challenge to Cory’s standard “electronic copy will never substitute for a print book” argument:

    #14, Thank you for exemplifying one of the points I tried to make in my response to the above comment:

    #16, Here are some of my favourite sites, I’d love to hear your additions:

    – Podiobooks:
    – SFFaudio:
    – Voices in the Dark:
    – Cory’s page (d’uh):

    – WGBH Forum Network:
    – APM Word for Word:
    – TED:
    – OpenCourseware:
    – Conexions:

  20. I sent Cory an email asking for for his take on what’ll happen when eBook readers can effectively mimic the print-book experience. He referred me to the following column
    wherein he outlines his reasons for doubting that eBook readers will *ever* take off, hype notwithstanding.

    P.S. Here’s another Fiction site with free content:
    – Baen Free Library:

  21. Well, I’m among many who read Old Man’s War, and then went out to find the sequels. It helps that Scalzi writes awesome books. I haven’t had a chance to read any of the other Tor eBooks yet, as I’m currently embroiled in a re-reading of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle… But I might start loading them onto my phone just to have something to read when I don’t want to carry around a 5lb hardcover. :)

  22. @#22: Wow. Re-reading Baroque Cycle. Restecp! I’m still stuck about half-way through “The System of the World”.

    I’m reminded of the following exchange from the Simpsons:

    Lisa Simpson (in awe): “Are you reading Gravity’s Rainbow?”
    College Girl (snidely): “Well, re-reading.”

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