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Old 05-11-2010, 05:31 PM   #1
starrigger
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Do free downloads kill paperback sales?

I have a personal interest in this question. It is the currently accepted wisdom in the progressive ebook community that putting books up for free download spurs regular book sales, rather than hurting them. It appears to work for Cory Doctorow and several other high-profile authors. But I wonder, and here's why:

Regular readers of this forum know that when my novel Sunborn was coming out, I put the first three books in the series (Sunborn is Book 4 of The Chaos Chronicles) up for free download in a multitude of ebook formats. Then I put Sunborn itself up for free download. (It was up for free for a year. I recently took down all but the PDF and html versions, following the release of the official Tor ebook.) As a result of the free downloads, I picked up many new readers, which I know from the download figures, and from the anecdotal evidence of lots of emails from readers, Paypal donations, etc. This is clearly all to the good.

But what about sales of the book itself? Well, the hardcover sales were so-so, which may be better than they would have been otherwise, due to my being out of print for a number of years. But I've just gotten some numbers on the paperback sales, and they're awful. Terrible. The worst numbers I've seen on a book in my entire career. Given that the book itself got good reviews in many of the right places, and email response from readers has been positive, I'm trying to figure out what's going on.

There can be many factors that affect a book's sales. Mass market paperback sales are down across the board, for all but the bestsellers. Distribution is problematic. Amazon yanked the book for a week during the critical initial sales period. Maybe the book just didn't have mass market appeal. But I wonder, too, if maybe the publishers' concerns about ebooks cannibalizing paper sales don't contain more than a kernel of truth.

So I put it to you folks: If you download a free ebook, and assuming you actually read it and like it, what are the chances that you'll pick up a paper copy of it, either for your own library, or to give as a gift to someone else? Do you talk it up and recommend it to friends? Are there less obvious ways in which you support the authors of books you like?

I'm not asking in a judgmental way at all. I like free books as much as the next person. But authors need to eat, too, and I'm trying to understand the current, and ever-changing, state of things.
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Old 05-11-2010, 05:36 PM   #2
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It's hard to say. Ever free download (be it a giveaway or an illegal download) is one less potential sale for that book in most cases. Not many are going to buy a paperback after reading the e-book.

But there's no way to really know how many who got the download would have ever bought the paperback in the first place. Then you also have little way to know how many people end up buying other books (be it paper books or e-books) from that author after reading one book for free (legally or illegally).

So in short, there's no real way to answer your question with much certainty.
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Old 05-11-2010, 05:42 PM   #3
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I actually don't buy dead tree books anymore since I've gone electronic. I will donate to an author if I feel his/her book is a good read. If I like a book, I may buy a dead tree version as a gift for friends/family who I think might enjoy it.
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Old 05-11-2010, 06:06 PM   #4
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Jeff, the answer is yes and no. I don't buy paperbacks ever, so in that sense it doesn't matter. But I do buy either an ebook or a hardcover and here it does matter. If you are an author with whom I am unfamiliar, the free ebook introduces me to you and if I like it, I will find other books you have written and buy them in either ebook or hardcover. Absent the free ebook, I may not discover you at all. Of course, the flipside is that I learn from the free ebook that I do not enjoy your writing style and so do not purchase any other books. But absent the free ebook, you may well not have had any shot to sell me your writing.
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Old 05-11-2010, 06:13 PM   #5
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For my own consumption, there is no doubt that I will buy fewer paperback books because I can download them for free.

But I often give as Christmas presents copies of books I have read in the past year. So it's very possible that a paperback of a book I read for free now will be purchased in December as a gift.
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Old 05-11-2010, 06:32 PM   #6
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For fiction, I conciser ebooks to be the first choice of formats, and a replacement for deadtree copies. So, yes, if there is a free (or cheap) ebook version available, there is virtually no chance I'd ever buy a deadtree copy. The only books that I prefer in deadtree are non-fiction reference books, which I prefer in hardback. (This being for fiction books generically, not you specifically, my having never-- no offense intended-- read any of your work in paper or ebook.)

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Old 05-11-2010, 06:43 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by starrigger View Post
So I put it to you folks: If you download a free ebook, and assuming you actually read it and like it, what are the chances that you'll pick up a paper copy of it, either for your own library, or to give as a gift to someone else? Do you talk it up and recommend it to friends? Are there less obvious ways in which you support the authors of books you like?
For my own library, pretty much zero, unless it's a truly epic story that I fell in love with and want to own a hard copy of, in which case I'd buy the hardcover version, not the paperback.

It's possibly I'd buy it for someone else. I don't have many friends who read so the chance of this is also small but in theory I'd do it.

I like the offer-one-free-and-charge-for-the-rest method. You could also maybe offer just the first chapter free or something like that to split the difference.

I think there are two kinds of people: one is the kind who actually appreciate the work authors do and are willing to pay whatever they can afford for it, even if it's in the form of small donations. The other kind is cheap and getting any money out of them will be like getting blood from a stone. I think somehow you have to weed out the second type without scaring off the first type.
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Old 05-11-2010, 06:45 PM   #8
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I suppose there is a chance I would buy it as a gift, but now that even my mom has an ebook reader, probably not. Bottom line for me is, I never bought a hardcover novel in my life, even before the ebook days, and I do not buy paper fiction anymore because I read a lot of books and don't have the space to *store* a lot of books. For me, the lack of need to store ebooks has meant I but a lot more books than I ever did because I can get the ebook and not have to worry about where I am going to put it.

I think a better question for you will be 'how can I convert the freebie ebook readers into paid ebook readers' rather than what you are asking. If you price your books right, does it really matter whether they buy the paper or the pixels so long as they are buying? Someone like me, I read over 100 books in a year, an author should want my business. But if the author is only concerned with the paper sales, they will lose a reader like me because I don't buy in paper anymore, no matter who the author is. You take my money for an ebook, or you don't get my money at all.
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Old 05-11-2010, 07:04 PM   #9
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I have gone to ebooks almost exclusively. If the book is not available in electronic form, I get on the list at the library. Exception is books about the Chicago Cubs. I buy any and all of those I come across. But free ebooks do prompt me to buy more ebooks by the same author.
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Old 05-11-2010, 08:23 PM   #10
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I'm with Ficbot on this subject.
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Old 05-11-2010, 08:28 PM   #11
starrigger
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Thanks for the responses, everyone. I understand the part where winning a reader with a free ebook might win you readers for your other, not free, ebooks. And indeed, I've seen that occur with my other ebooks, available at your favorite ebook emporium. And, to be clear, quite a few readers have responded generously with donations for the free ebooks.

But from the point of view of the economics of writing, paper books are still where most of the money comes from. And one's standing with one's publisher, and with all the wholesalers and bookstore chains, depends far more on the sales of one's current p-book than anything else. So, it's possible to make encouraging inroads into the ebook market, but get killed in the paper market. (And many authors, not just me, are getting killed in the paper market, especially mass market paperbacks.)

I don't really think that offering free ebook downloads hurt my p-book sales, nor does my editor, but I am wondering if, or how much, they helped. (Dang, what I need is a parallel universe where I did things differently, and then I could really tell.)
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Old 05-11-2010, 10:36 PM   #12
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For garden variety novels, for a dead tree version I would I only ever buy them after I have read them, unless you are someone I consider a superstar (e.g. if your name is not Reynolds or Egan), because they are very expensive. And a novel, basically, is just one throwaway story that is likely to be only average-decent.

(Exceptions being if at webscriptions as part of a bundle, but that isn't dead tree).

Garden variety foreigners are less likely to be in shops or libraries here, as they have to compete with the best UK, USA and all the Australian.

You are also right that if there were more MMPB versions, I'd buy more. I never buy hardbacks new, and dislike the sell the same thing at 1.5 times the price and waste more shelf space paperback variety.
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Old 05-11-2010, 10:45 PM   #13
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But from the point of view of the economics of writing, paper books are still where most of the money comes from. And one's standing with one's publisher, and with all the wholesalers and bookstore chains, depends far more on the sales of one's current p-book than anything else. So, it's possible to make encouraging inroads into the ebook market, but get killed in the paper market. (And many authors, not just me, are getting killed in the paper market, especially mass market paperbacks.)
I get what you're saying. But here's the thing, there are some readers (like me) where you are never going to get that paper sale anyway. I do buy paper books, but they are all cookbooks and fitness books and things like this. I have enough trouble making bookshelf space for those! So I can love the author and support the author or whatever, but if they are waiting for that paper sale from me, they are going to be waiting a long time because it's just not going to happen. This whole idea that if the ebook sale is restricted, it will preserve what would have been a paper sale is completely not true because you were never going to get the paper sale anyway. Granted, this is not going to be true for everyone. But many ebook readers ARE voracious readers and I bet you'll hear this story more than once. It's not 'will you buy the paper or will you buy the ebook?' for me. It's 'will you buy the ebook, or will you buy nothing?' So trying to preserve the paper sale is a futile argument.
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Old 05-11-2010, 11:50 PM   #14
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But from the point of view of the economics of writing, paper books are still where most of the money comes from. And one's standing with one's publisher, and with all the wholesalers and bookstore chains, depends far more on the sales of one's current p-book than anything else.
Obviously retailers don't care about them, but does Tor consider sales of the ebook equivalent to pbook sales? If so, I'm wondering how the delay in a commercial ebook might have hurt you, among people like me and the others above who resist buying in print at all costs.
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Old 05-12-2010, 12:09 AM   #15
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Because of reading your free eBooks, I went and purchased your backlist. If I didn't have the free eBooks to read, chances are, I may not have purchased them. But, I did and eventually will get around to reading them. I don't buy a paper copy of an eBook these days. And as for hardcover sales, I don't buy hardcovers any more. Not even as gifts.
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