Free ebooks' effects on book-sales

Simon sez, "John Hilton, a doctoral candidate in Instructional Psychology and Technology at Brigham Young University, crunched the numbers to determine whether releasing books through Creative Commons and other methods really does benefit authors and publishers. He found that four titles recently released for free by Random House saw an 11 percent increase in sales in the eight weeks after releasing the online copies compared to the eight weeks prior."
For his research, he has located, so far, approximately 40 book titles for which publishers have released free online versions at least eight weeks after releasing the printed version. He does not consider books that were released both simultaneously for free online and as print products because then he wouldn't be able to observe the before and after effects on sales. He then records the Bookscan numbers -- which account for about 70% of all US book sales, including those sold at most retailers -- for the eight weeks prior to the free release and the eight weeks after.

On March 4 of this year, Random House announced that it would release five books for free through its science fiction portal, all of which came in downloadable PDF files (among other formats). Hilton recorded the before and after book sales and found that "one of the five books has had zero sales in 2009. So no sales before or after the free version. But the other four books all saw significant sales increases after the free versions were released. In total, combined sales of the five books were up 11%. Together they sold 4,633 copies the 8 weeks prior to being released free and 5,155 copies the eight weeks after being released."

Did Random House's free online book releases affect sales? (Thanks, Simon!)


  1. If this really is the case, the increase could only be accounted for by the lack of a wide distribution of eInk devices. Once readers become common, releasing free pdfs can only hurt print sales.

  2. Having worked in the publishing industry, I can tell you that free ebooks had a substantially negative affect on sales for the press I worked for.

    Random House is very big and well-known, but for the smaller, independent publishers, doing that kind of “advertising” did not have the effect intended, even when the ebooks were sold instead of offered for free. People would invariably put the pdf’s onto scribd or other hosting sites.

  3. The same student also found that 20 out of 24 books released under CC by Tor had worse post-release sales than pre-, so the message is more mixed than Cory’s quote would suggest!

    As an exclusively e-reader, I’m one of the negative data points, I’m afraid. If I’ve got the book on my PDA, I won’t then buy the dead tree version.
    Mind you, if the dead tree version is the only one that exists, then that’s a book I won’t read, so whatever word of mouth I might generate won’t happen.

    While the business model of “give away the e-copy to people who’ll then buy the wood pulp version” holds, I’m a happy cheapskate reader!

  4. I want the name of the book that had 0 sales. I’m curious as to what sort of book gets published and manages to not sell a single copy.

  5. They were offered for free for Kindle also – and continue to be offered until May 31. Every single one of them was a first in a series. I think the point was to sell the following books in the series. I know I bought seven other books based on reading these for free – no one can resist a free book and they were books I would not have normally chosen. I don’t see how a free ebook would inspire someone to go purchase the same print version. These are, and should be treated as two different markets.

  6. I downloaded three of those books from Kindle. So far I’ve bought 25 (17 + 4 + 4) additional titles in e-book format from those three authors. I would never have tried any of them had they not been free. One of the series had in fact been recommended to me previously, but I turned up my nose because of who recommended them. I know not everyone is as compulsive about following a series as I am, but I thought this was a brilliant marketing idea.

    I saw two issues with the linked post:
    1) It appears that he looked at sales of the same books that were released. I wouldn’t expect a jump in those sales. I expect they did see a jump in other works by those authors.
    2) Did he look at only print sales numbers? It was unclear to me. If e-book sales numbers were not counted he missed the targeted audience/delivery method.

    Also, I downloaded some of those Tor titles but haven’t gotten to them yet. Like my bookshelves, books sit in my Kindle library unread until the spirit moves me. Eight weeks seems like a short time period to see trends.

  7. Crap. I totally lied. In my post above I said 25 books from the Random House authors. But seventeen of them were from an author not on the list. I got the first one of a series free from another publisher and the last one I bought from that author was a new release that came out last week. I payed 12.95 for the Kindle edition.

    So I’m at 8 and counting for the Random house authors. I just started a second trilogy by Robin Hobbs (Tawny Man) so I expect to buy at least two more. I downloaded Red Mars but haven’t read it yet.

    Publishers losing money in this are doing it wrong.

  8. Maybe the increase in sales comes from the increase in publicity: ‘Hey, these guys are giving away these books for free.’.

    If it weren’t for that publicity, maybe no one would’ve bought them anyway.

  9. I think a number of you are looking at this the wrong way.

    Sure, there are going to be plenty of folks who download the free e-book and don’t buy the print version. That’s fine. But if you look at the free e-giveaway model as advertising/promotion rather than a direct sales/moneymaking strategy it has two huge advantages right now:
    1) it doesn’t cost anything to try it–it’s something that Random House or even an unknown author can do themselves

    2) ultimately if you’re looking at an 11% sales jump or even as low as 5%, this is still a huge turnaround/buy-thru for any form of advertising!! At a time when many publishers don’t know what to do with marketing dollars (what works anymore) and when those very dollars are fast drying up, giving something away for free like this is a dynamite alternative!

    I’ve given my books away for free as PDFs, podcast audio, and text online to great success. It helped me build an online audience, sell real print copies, and then sign with Three Rivers Press (Random House) for an actual advance. Doing this–advertising myself with my own energy–turned around my writing career. It helped me find my audience!

    Here’s coverage on my path to publication from this weekend’s Boston Globe:
    And my book JACK WAKES UP has been out just one week today:

  10. Let me get this straight — people are poo-pooing free content because generated ONLY an 11 percent sales increase? Any salespeople in the house? Find me a salesperson who’s going to bitch about an 11 percent sales increase that has almost no cost-of-sales. Go ahead, find me one.

    Oh, wait … giving your books away free doesn’t work. Everyone should just stop it right now. I sure hasn’t worked for me. Yeah, that’s the ticket …

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