Forbes has a new special issue on the future of books, and I have a lead op-ed in the issue, called "Giving It Away."
The thing about an e-book is that it's a social object. It wants to be copied from friend to friend, beamed from a Palm device, pasted into a mailing list. It begs to be converted to witty signatures at the bottom of e-mails. It is so fluid and intangible that it can spread itself over your whole life. Nothing sells books like a personal recommendation–when I worked in a bookstore, the sweetest words we could hear were "My friend suggested I pick up…." The friend had made the sale for us, we just had to consummate it. In an age of online friendship, e-books trump dead trees for word of mouth.
There are two things that writers ask me about this arrangement: First, does it sell more books, and second, how did you talk your publisher into going for this mad scheme?
There's no empirical way to prove that giving away books sells more books–but I've done this with three novels and a short story collection (and I'll be doing it with two more novels and another collection in the next year), and my books have consistently outperformed my publisher's expectations. Comparing their sales to the numbers provided by colleagues suggests that they perform somewhat better than other books from similar writers at similar stages in their careers. But short of going back in time and re-releasing the same books under the same circumstances without the free e-book program, there's no way to be sure.
What is certain is that every writer who's tried giving away e-books to sell books has come away satisfied and ready to do it some more.