How Giving Ebooks Away For Free Increases Print Book Sales

This post, by Brad Vertrees, originally appeared on his Brad’s Reader blog on 5/31/09.

I’m always on the lookout for authors who not only embrace ebooks but use them to complement their print book sales. The most interesting way of doing this, I think, is by giving ebooks away for free. Science fiction writer Cory Doctorow does it and I’m sure a lot of other writers do too.

Last night I came across the blog of writer JA Konrath (who goes by the pen name Jack Kilborn) via this Enriched by Words blog post. As I side note, I’d like to mention that I had the pleasure of seeing Konrath in my local bookstore when he stopped by to sign a few copies of his book. He happens to also live in the Chicago area like I do. 

Anyway, in Konrath’s blog post Ebooks and Free Books and Amazon Kindle, Oh My he talks a lot about how distributing his ebooks for free has really helped his print book sales, not hurt them, as many publishers fear. He even lists out the reasons why he gives his ebooks away for free. Here are a few exampless:

2. Books Are Expensive. Many people don’t want to spend $24.99 or even $6.99 to take a chance on an unknown. And even fewer want to spend $14.99 on an ebook download. But people love a bargain, and free is the best bargain of all.

Let’s face it: There are many more unknown authors out there than famous ones. And people don’t like to shell out hard earned cash on someone who is unknown. When an author gives away an ebook for free, readers have nothing to lose. They are much more likely to give that author a chance. If they like the ebook, then they’ll probably buy the print book the author is selling. If they don’t like the ebook, they haven’t lost anything.

3. Free is Viral. If you Google Kilborn+Crouch+Serial, you currently get 6550 hits. Part of that is because of an orchestrated campaign done by Blake and I, in conjunction with my publisher, Grand Central. But part of it is because people are talking about it, picking up on it, repeating it, linking to it, etc. Publicity and promotion is free and easier to come by (if you’re a midlister) when you’re giving something away.

This reminds me of something Cory Doctorow said regarding book piracy (forgive me, I don’t have the exact quote). But he basically said he’s more worried about obscurity than someone pirating his books. I think Konrath has the same idea here too. Does Konrath worry about piracy? Probably not. In fact he appears to encourage people to link to his ebooks and some even offer Konrath’s work on their own websites.

Indeed, obscurity can ruin even the most talented writer. If no one knows about you and your books, no one will buy them. And with the sheer number of books being published and sold nowadays, getting noticed is harder than ever. I’ve always maintained that once an author gets a publishing contract and his/her book is on the way to bookstores, it is no guarantee of success. I’ve seen a lot of good books disappear from the shelves of my local bookstore, not because they are [not] selling well, but because they have been returned to the publisher for not selling at all.

Konrath understands this perfectly:

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in the print world is distribution. The number of print books I sell is limited by the number of books printed, and the places they are for sale. If no one is aware of my books, no one will buy them. I strive to make people aware I exist, so readers seek me out rather than accidentally run into me, but I can only reach so many people.

“Free” isn’t a replacement for traditonal print books at traditional price points. Instead, free complements those print books. Free is used to market those books. Free gives an unknown author a chance of being known, which is the key to selling books. This might seem counterintuitive – giving stuff away for free to sell more (and that’s probably why most publishers resist it so much). But it works. Authors like Doctorow and Konrath are proving it every day.

Read the rest of the post on Brad’s Reader.