Neil Gaiman: giving away ebooks sold my print books

Neil Gaiman and his publisher have published the results of their free online release of his novel American Gods earlier this year -- the conclusion? Giving away ebooks for free sold books:
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.
Link (Thanks, Neil!)

See also: Free download of Neil Gaiman's American Gods


  1. I haven’t a doubt that this tactic has helped Neil Gaiman, Cory Doctorow and many authors at Baen Books (and now perhaps Tor books, with the promotions they’ve been doing), but I do have doubts as to its long term efficacy.

    I think it’s working at the moment because of three factors:

    i) It’s a bit of a novelty, and attracts some publicity by the mere fact that an author is doing it.

    ii) It allows readers to try before they buy.

    iii) An electronic copy is, for most people, substantially inferior to a paper copy.

    I think some of this might change soon.

    – Free publicity may become harder to find (at least for midlist authors, who are the ones who really need it) as this sort of thing becomes less newsworthy.

    – Right now it’s worth paying money to upgrade to a paper book, as reading on a screen, whether monitor or PDA isn’t a very satisfying experience. I’m sure there’ll be a dirt cheap ePaper reader eventually which is compact, stylish and pleasant to use (the Amazon Kindle is interesting, but it’s expensive and one of the ugliest objects ever made by human hands). When that happens, the benefit of the upgrade to paper will be less, and fewer people may choose to take it.

    There will always be people (like me!) who love real books and collect great snowdrifts of them, but for marginal cases like the not-all-that-great adventure you read on the train to work, I can see free books on ePaper driving out bought books on paper.

  2. My understanding from the Baen work is that all their authors participating in free e-book or online access experiments experienced sales boosts, not just the more popular ones.

    I think that some skepticism is warranted, but the meta-results across all the experiments so far are that the effect is real, works, and is statistically significant. Perhaps in the long haul it turns out to stop working, but for now, I think most authors and publishers will benefit from freeing stuff up.

    I hope it works for the long haul. My perception is that people will to some degree buy more if they can try before they buy. And I hope that’s accurate. But people whose livelyhoods depend on book sales (writers, editors, book publishers) should keep on studying to see if there is a downturn eventually.

  3. Quite coincidentally, I picked this up the other day at the paperback swap shop. When I decided to get it, I vaguely recalled that this was maybe the one that he did a free download of a while back, but that idea didn’t affect my decision to get it. I recall not downloading the free book because, well, I just don’t really want to read a book on my computer screen. And I’ve been on the fence about whether or not to actually read any Gaiman. But picking it up for a quarter (using my credit at the swap shop for the rest ) seemed a no-brainer. Enjoying it so far. We’ll see, I guess.

    I did read Scalzi’s Agent to the Stars on his website, but it wasn’t available to purchase. Though it’s soon being reprinted. But I don’t see myself buying that either. I did, however, buy some of Scalzi’s other novels after reading Agent online. So maybe it does work…

  4. From my admittedly brief reading of the results, they did not give away ebooks, but permitted people to read the book (at no cost) via a web-based reader (which most people surveyed did not like so much).

    The radical lesson seems to be — do promotions and you will sell more of your product. Not exactly as ground-breaking as the headline would indicate.

  5. @1 Free publicity may become harder to find (at least for midlist authors, who are the ones who really need it) as this sort of thing becomes less newsworthy.

    It’s not about it being newsworthy so much as being available. For instance, I’m much more likely to buy a book by a midlist author if I can first check out some of the writing online. It doesn’t have to be the whole book just enough to get a flavor for the writing. This is particularly true when buying books online (how I do a majority of my shopping because I live in a small town without a decent bookshop).

    Chances are if it’s a more popular author I’ll buy one of their books without first reading a sample (or even going out of my way to look for one online) simply because past experience has shown that I’m more likely to enjoy their writing style.

  6. Free publicity may become harder to find

    There’s a race between ad-blockers and advertisers circumventing them. It’s becoming harder to get anybody to look at any kind of advertising. Offering a taste might be the only way to entice consumers to pay attention. It’s not a matter of “do promotions and you will sell more of your product”. It’s a matter of finding promotions that work in an era of consumer-media antagonism.

  7. The important part of this isn’t whether the giveaway boosted revenues or not. That concept is ancient in a lot of parts of publishing — for instance the how-to space.

    The important thing is that the authors had a choice. Whether they screw up their marketing or not, they have the right to participate in a giveaway program — or not — as they choose.

  8. @5, Elvix: Agreed. That on-screen viewer was unbearable. The question is, whether any other “promotion” can match the impact of the full product being available for perusal. Despite the limitations of the format they used, I am sure it was challenging to the powers-that-be.

  9. > The important thing is that the authors had a choice. Whether they screw up their marketing or not, they have the right to participate in a giveaway program — or not — as they choose.

    Well, yes – but I don’t think anyone’s said otherwise, have they?

    I’m all for giveaways – I like free stuff, and I like the idea of writers selling more. I’m just not convinced that it will continue to work as well as it does now.

    If cheap electronic books ever really take off it may be interesting. I know that when was still operating I ended up spending a surprising amount of money on music, despite the cheapness of individual songs. Perhaps the same thing will happen with cheap electronic texts.

  10. I bought the audio book of American Gods (20 hrs or so) and listened to it on a round trip between Columbus, OH and Traverse City, MI about 3 weeks ago. ABSOLUTELY LOVED IT. Had never even heard of Gaiman before, but thought the story was exceptional and the narrator was top-of-the-heap as well. Highly recommended, great buyer, would do business again! A+A+A+A+A+

  11. I started reading the book online and got instantly hooked, but as my eyeballs started to wither inside their sockets I decided to buy a copy and read the rest on paper. Since I’m brazilian and the portuguese edition of American Gods is sold out for years, I bought a paperback copy from Amazon together with Anansi Boys, Fragile Things, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish and some other stuff.

    It was a nice experience on buying literature in a language other than portuguese. I’ll probably do it more from now on (the brazilian Fragile Things edition sadly mutilates the collection), and I owe this to the hype started by Neil’s “free book” blog post.

    As a marketing strategy the giveaway worked for me because of its “hype” factor and also because I was already a fan of Gaiman’s work, so I fear it may be a short-lived thing. Then again, Neil pointed out that they’ll probably do it again, improving things based on feedback received, so maybe I’m just rushing too fast into pessimism.

  12. On a related (but different) tip:

    Tor finally has a date for it’s “new kind of scifi and fantasy” website: 20th July!

    So there is only one free book left after this week’s, and then they do a week with all the previous weeks books!

    So if you missed any (I did), this is your last chance!

  13. Expanding from the previous post, this is the complete list of the books that Tor distributed for free and should make available again in the final week:
    1) Brandon Sanderson, Mistborn: The Final Empire
    2) John Scalzi, Old Man’s War
    3) Robert Charles Wilson, Spin
    4) Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory, The Outstretched Shadow
    5) Jo Walton, Farthing
    6) Tobias Buckell, Crystal Rain
    7) David Drake, Lord of the Isles
    8) Jane Lindskold, Through Wolf’s Eyes
    9) Harry Turtledove, The Disunited States of America
    10) S. C. Butler, Reiffen’s Choice
    11) Karl Schroeder, Suns of Suns
    12) Cherie Priest, Four and Twenty Blackbirds
    13) Kate Elliott, Spirit Gate
    14) Peter Watts, Starfish
    15) C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp, Touch of Evil
    16) Daniel Abraham, A Shadow in Summer
    17) John Wright, Orphans of Chaos
    18) Kage Baker, In the Garden of Iden
    19) Patti O’Shea, In the Midnight Hour
    20) Jeffrey Carver, Battlestar Galactica
    21) L. E. Modesitt Jr., Flash
    22) Tobsha Learner, Soul
    23) Peter David, Darkness of the Light

  14. I agree that an electronic copy is inferior to a paper copy (as far as reading goes) but I hope that more authors follow Gaiman in this.

    I’m personally way more likely to buy a book from an author i’ve read before (and liked) then I am to try something new.

    Oh, and as a side note, does anyone know if Cory has a book out? It’s been awhile since i’ve heard.

  15. If you don’t know about it already, search for the Baen Free Library. It’s a massive collection of Sci-Fi and fantasy that’s driven any number of book purchases by me. They have a tendency to give you the first few books of a series, which is AWESOME because it lets you get hooked before you buy.

    If you’re anything like me, if you get hooked on a series you’ll buy the first one anyway, for completeness.

  16. These results point into the same direction as the results from Google’s book search and Amazon’s search inside the book with their positive impact on sales.

    For the majority of the readers, however, electronic versions are still an insufficient substitute for the paper version of the book so these results are not really surprising. I wonder how things will play out as soon as electronic reading devices have reached a stage in mass-adoption where the electronic version becomes a proper substitute and purchasing the paper version after getting hold of the electronic version for free is not really necessary anymore.

  17. I am a firm believer this worked BECAUSE Neil Gaiman was well known. Ebooks are cheaper and better and getting that way more anyday. I have a Nook and since I’ve bought it I download WAY MORE than I actually go buy a paperbook. It’s easier on the eyes that the computer, I can carry it everywhere, my toddler can’t really destroy it because of the way the buttons are positioned. It really is LIKE paper but so much better, sorry to say.

    I decided to do THAT because I’ve already heard of the successes for giving away Ebooks for Print Books. I did that for a long time, figuring it would be a great way to get started since it was a series. Instead I’ve gotten over 81 downloads but not a single sale because of it. Free books are often created by authors who just wanted to write, not put in any editing or are looking for a free buck. Cheap and free doesn’t entice the way it does anymore. Check out Amazon’s forum and type in cheap or free books. Respect is called into question.

    I’ve taken to do something else and have taken away the free option. Since I’ve done that, I am now making sales. I believe this method would work with someone who is well known and people already know their writing style and know it’s a bargain. For others, it might not work so well. So fair warning: Make sure you are 100 percent sure of this method before you try it.

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