Free ebooks are all the rage these days. Oprah gave away over a million copies of Suze Orman’s, Women & Money: Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny and became the #2 bestseller in the nonfiction/general category.
Other publishers are toying with the free ebook giveaway. Tor is giving a free book away a week for a period of about 6 weeks to promote the authors and its new website/social network platform. John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War was the second book. According to Scalzi, he saw an increase in his backlist sales since the free ebook giveaway.
The Ghost Brigades sales are up 33% from the week prior;
Old Man’s War sales are up 20% from the week prior;
The Android’s Dream sales are up 9% from the week prior.
A couple of weeks ago there was a fierce debate on the Smart Bitches about the efficacy of piracy as a form of positive publicity. One of the arguments against this notion that the giving away of a book for free could increase book sales was that romance was simply a different business model than other genre modes out there.
Not being inside the book business, I am just going to have to take their word for it. What I do know is that romances generally have larger print runs, comparatively speaking, to other fiction books regardless of genre, and consequently must sell more in order to make it profitable for a publisher to keep publishing an author. But given the success of the Suze Orman free book giveaway, you can’t say that the size of the print run is per se prohibitive for a free ebook giveaway.
When HarperCollins decided to start posting free ebooks, Jane Friedman did not believe that the free online version would not cannabalize print sales. Paul Coelho, one of the HarperCollins authors whose work is being given away, states that he believes individuals will only read 20 to 30 pages online. In keeping with that philosophy, HarperCollins is making 20% of a select number of hardcovers available for free online reading.
As an aside, I really dislike the way that HarperCollins is doing this. To read the free book, you have to be tethered to the internet and it appears to be scanned page instead of free flowing text. The scanned page loads in your browser and a comfortable reading size makes only half the page visible. It’s one way to discourage individuals from reading the entire book for free, I guess.
Recently, I learned about a new ebook program dedicated to kids called kidthing.com. Kidthing is a digital media platform that is designed to bring interactive books, movies, and games to children. Kidthing, in conjunction with Dr. Seuss Enterprises and NEA’s Read Across America, is giving away an animated version of Horton Hears a Who, one of my daughter’s favorite stories. I downloaded the program and the free ebook. It was a great experience. Kidthing took the book and animated the illustrations so that it is one part book, one part audio book, one part movie. That free version led me to buy the other books in the bookstore (there were only 6). I didn’t buy the Horton book, true, that one was free; but I wouldn’t have bought a thing had my child and I not experienced the full version and liked it so much.
It’s just an example of how the free thing seeds the pay thing.
We all know that the thing that separates a great book from a bestselling book is promotion. I think it is time for the romance publishing industry to take a chance. Give away a book for free of a romance author, a midlister who is on the verge of making it big. See what it does for the author. Guarantee the author a certain amount of royalties based upon her past sell through so that it doesn’t financially harm the author. I.e., if the royalties for the book that is subject to the free ebook don’t exceed the previous royalties, the amount of the previous royalties would still be paid to the author. It’s an investment, of course, in the author and in the program, but the key is that I don’t believe that the royalties would be less. I think that the sell through would be more or that the uptick in the backlist would make up for the potential missed sales of the free book.
Until ebooks become mainstream, I think giving away the book will only assist in creating a broader base for that novel.