Do Free Downloads Sell Books?

This, of course, is the question that many authors want the answer to (and also blog-reader Tim, in a comment to my last post). If you believe the Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi school, the answer is clearly yes; others remain skeptical. Publishers range from scared to enthusiastic.

For me, this is an ongoing experiment. The first part was a no-brainer: the first three Chaos Chronicles books were out of print, so it was unquestionably better to get them in front of readers and get them interested in the series. For that part of the experiment, the results are an unqualified—but also unquantified—success. There have been about 15,000 downloads of those books from my own site, with more from feedbooks, manybooks, mobileread, and now the Baen Free Library. Many people have written me, saying they tried my work for the first time with those freebies and liked what they found. Some of them said it prompted them to go out and buy a copy of Sunborn in hardcover. Hurray!

But wait just a minute. How many extra copies of Sunborn did it sell? Three? Three hundred? How many sales did I lose because I put it up for free in PDF? Truth: I don’t know. In the first place, it’s not like I actually get detailed information about sales; this remains one of the dark sides of publishing, the dearth of actual data coming back to the writer. (Sure, eventually I’ll see totals on a royalty sheet. But that can take years.) Just as important, though, is a question that no one can answer: how many would I have sold without the free downloads. The series was out of the public eye for years. I was out of the public eye for years. I have no doubt the sales picture could have been grim. As it is, from what I’m told, Sunborn is selling at least as well as its predecessor in the stores, Eternity’s End. (BSG is a side trip, and doesn’t really count.)

So what do the publishers make of all this? Well, Tor and Baen both seem to embrace the notion of giving books away as a means to selling more. Tor has had free download promotions from time to time, and Baen has their ongoing free library. On the other hand, I recently had an email exchange with a fellow writer whose new book is on the Nebula preliminary ballot. His publisher was reluctant to let him send out an electronic reading copy or to put a PDF up even on the members only SFWA site, for fear I guess of piracy. This, to me, makes no sense. If a book is published, chances are it’ll be up on the darknet regardless. Better to get people reading it and talking about it.

Tim mentioned the music and film industries as examples of reluctance. The thing is, they’re coming around. Amazon offers free MP3 music downloads. Itunes has a free song of the week. The networks put their TV shows up on the web for free. (That’s how I’m catching up on Chuck, which I missed in favor of Sarah Connor Chronicles, back when they were on at the same time. And that’s even how I’m seeing Battlestar Galactica—on Free On Demand!) And web comics—free. What that may imply for a business model for earning an income from writing is a much bigger question—a topic for another post, maybe.

Bottom line for me: I can’t guarantee that my books will sell better because I’m offering them for free download. The truth is, I may never know. But I don’t think I’m hurting sales, and right now, the enemy with the name Obscurity written on its back is a far bigger threat to me than the chance that some people are reading my books for free.

And wasn’t the hope that people would read my books the reason I wrote them in the first place?

“You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success—but only if you persist.” —Isaac Asimov

0 Responses

  1. Scott Roche
    | Reply

    Speaking as a consumer I’d say yes. Thanks to podcasting I’ve bought great books that I would likely have never heard of (Infected, Contagious, Brave Men Run, The Case of the Pitcher’s Pendant) and will buy more podcast authors books as time/money allows.

  2. Edward G. Talbot
    | Reply

    Excellent topic. The enemy with the name obscurity is ALWAYS the biggest enemy of any writer not named Asimov, King, Clancy, etc. As for whether free downloads sell books, I think you’re right that it’s hard to get hard numbers either way. I’ve seen statistics floating around that suggest that they help sales. But nothing you could take to the bank, so to speak.

    I would note that the point of free downloads should not be directly to sell books. It should be to help build a loyal audience. Which translates to sales. If you’re only giving away the first 2 or 3 chapters, then it might be more directly on point as a sales tool, but if you’re giving away the whole thing, you need to be looking at the bigger picture. Just ask authors like Scott Sigler, who leveraged tens of thousands of fans of his free serialized audio versions of the books into the NYT bestseller list for Contagious last month.

    By giving away certain formats for free, you’re forging a relationship with your audience that is different than it would be if they paid for it. Blogging and using new media to interact with your audience can add greatly to the effect of this. You’re banking on the fact that the closer relationship will mean much stronger loyalty and that they know that you can’t give everything away for free. Given the struggles of all but the top tier authors, it hardly seems like much of a gamble to embrace this approach.

  3. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Yes, I agree that building a relationship with an audience is a big part of it. And Scott, you give me hope for podcasting. Maybe one day I’ll find time to give that another try. (But perhaps start with a less challenging book to read aloud.)

  4. substandardTim
    | Reply

    Thanks for such an indepth reply to my question. Fighting the obscurity monkey has to be a huge challenge. Especially in a digital age when things move rather quickly and a book can take a long time to bring to market.

    I don’t think that what the tv studios are doing with putting shows online for free quite falls into the same category though. They still have commercials in the shows online so they have still made revenue from them.

  5. The Duchess
    | Reply

    Thank you for your insights and for sharing your experiences! I really appreciated the Asimov quote you shared. As an aspiring sci-fi novelist, I’ve been checking out your writing course on your website and following your blog for a few days now. I just wanted to say thank you for what you’ve put out there for us. :o)

    And I have an actual copy of the BSG novel you penned. :o)

  6. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Great, Duchess!

    And Tim, while you’re right that the networks have ads on the web-TV, they are very brief and I’ve noticed they often tend to be public-service ads. I’m sure the networks are getting some payment for them, but I doubt that it’s even close to what they get on an hour-long broadcast.

  7. Fred Kiesche
    | Reply

    I noticed the postings at Baen’s Free Library. One thing about the Free Library: you can purchase the books. I hope some of the money goes towards you (the author) and not just to running the site.

    And I have bought the new book (just haven’t gotten around to sending you a scan or a picture or whatever to get the eBook of the fourth as well).

    (And Blogger is asking me to type in “necking” as my word verification. Ummm….ooookaaaayyyy…)

  8. Wookie
    | Reply

    What a topic to discuss. Now, I am by no means an author or anything close to it. But I am an artist that has sold his work before. I’ve given out some free drawings and doodles in my day, for nothing more than to gain some good ‘karma’ amongst the folks. I really love what Mr. Talbot said, in the sight of growing more loyal audiences instead of having sales in mind. I’ve always had the mindset that, if you keep your customers happy you won’t have to worry about sales. Why? Because just like unhappy customers-satisfied ones go out and tell their friends what a great read they just had. I know I do! I always recommended books to friends and even people I just meet. On the same coin I find it slightly annoying to just get a few chapters and have to buy a book to read it all. That’s just a personal pet peeve, ha.

  9. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Fred — I wasn’t aware of any option to “buy” books from the Baen Free Library, so I went back to look. I see that when you click to download, it takes you to a “sales” page, where a price of $6 is indicated, with a button to donate to the free library. However, there is no cost to click the download links, so maybe that’s their way of trying to say “this book is a $6 value”? I dunno. However, I would expect that any donation made to the library would simply go to support the library. I have no contract with them for money changing hands, just a gentlemen’s agreement that they’re welcome to post the books for free.

    However, I have reason to hope that some or all of my books published through ereads (currently available on fictionwise and elsewhere) will show up on Baen Webscriptions before too much longer.

    Wookie, you’re not the only one who bristles a little at sample chapters, I don’t think. In any case, I’ve always had sample chapters of my books up on my web site, but I’ve never really gotten the sense that they were a very effective means of promotion. Then again, how would I know unless people told me–which they haven’t?

  10. Fred Kiesche
    | Reply

    Well, I bought (“donated”) them before I downloaded them. So I guess the money goes to the site, but if you put the fourth one up at Baen, I’ll buy it!

  11. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Your donation’s in a good cause, anyway. Sunborn will be out eventually as a Tor ebook, which I’m told will be sold through Baen among other places. However, if you’ve bought the hardcover, you’re entitled to a free ebook from me, so you don’t need to wait. Just send me an email with the info, and tell me what format you want.

  12. Tania
    | Reply

    I’m a long term Baen webscriptions user. Frankly, I’ve never heard of you before I read your books for free on webscriptions. I’m also in Australia and I’m not sure if your hard cover has made it over here.

    That said, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the 3 books, I downloaded the PDF for Sunborn and I made a Paypal donation as a thank you for providing me with 4 excellent books (haven’t read Sunborn yet but can’t imagine you writing a bomb after reading the first 3).

    It’s quite possible depending on your deal with Webscriptions that I’ll be buying it there depending if it comes in a ‘book deal’

    Thanks for the books, it’s a great series.

    Tania

    PS – For everyone who reads this, check out the free library at http://www.baen.com – some authors I would never have thought to buy books from are now in my ‘must buy’ list from reading their free books.

  13. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Thanks for the donation and the affirmation, Tania!

  14. CharlesWT
    | Reply

    I’ve spent a good bit over a hundred dollars at Web Subscriptions on books by authors who I read for the time by reading their books from the Free Library.

  15. Tania
    | Reply

    You are welcome Jeffrey, I really enjoyed Sunborn too. Waiting for the next one.

    Charles, I wish I ONLY spent over 100 dollars on webscriptions authors I found in the free library. Before the free library, I didn’t read Eric Flint, John Ringo, both of whom turn out prodigious quantities of books and about 20 more authors.

    And because I like both paper back and ebooks, in some cases I have been a first reader for an author, then bought the webscription, then bought the paperback. Addict here !!.

    Tania

  16. Command Line Guy
    | Reply

    Jeffery,

    I like some others have spent a heck of a lot of money over at Baen. That happens to be where I found your first three books, and where I plan to buy the fourth.

    The main reason I buy there is they have the lrf format for my sony ebook. Secondly no drm on any of the books from Baen. Unlike fictionwise and some other sites that drive me crazy!

    Thanks for a great series I hope to read some more of your books, you are a great story teller!

  17. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Thanks, CLG!

    Don’t be too hard on fictionwise, though. I think it depends on the publisher with them (unlike some others). My ereads books on fictionwise are all multi-format and DRM-free. I believe that’s true of all the ereads books. (But I’ve bought books on fictionwise myself that had DRM, and it annoys the heck out of me, too.)

  18. Command Line Guy
    | Reply

    Jeff,

    Yep your right went back and checked my facts. There are just those annoying ones from certain publishers.
    DRM is worse than windows to me, limiting your choices is just annoying.

    Again thanks for the great stories.

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