My first taste of this sort of thing (if you don't count illegal .mp3 downloading) was Doctorow's Little Brother. He made available the free version, which I devoured and then purchased as a present for my husband. The free-book-promotion worked on me: it is the only reason I purchased the book. (Likewise, most of my illegal .mp3 downloads led to a purchase--if I tried it and like it, I bought it.)
Doctorow is still, in my opinion, the expert on this. As he says,
For me — for pretty much every writer — the big problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity (thanks to Tim O’Reilly for this great aphorism). Of all the people who failed to buy this book today, the majority did so because they never heard of it, not because someone gave them a free copy.
And that's true. I'm living proof that free-downloads-lead-to-sales.
But, is it viable? Is it a good marketing tool? Doctorow is a pretty well established author, and his free download policy is promotion in and of itself. Gratz and Konrath are giving away previously released titles to promote a new current release. Unpublished authors use free e-books to establish a readership for future books with no guarantee that any future book will be published.
I turn the questions to you (and I'm really eager to hear your reponses, so please share!):
Is giving away a free electronic version of a book a good marketing tool--does it lead to more sales?
Does it work better for established, developing, or unpublished authors? How?
Should free electronic versions of books be universal practice for all authors?
Does it work better as a promotion for a new release (which seems to be the standard) or in a creative commons licensing setting where all work is available for everyone free?
Well, I know on Oprah, often times authors will come on and then announce at the end of teh show, that there will be a free download version of the book available on Oprah.com until a specified time. I think in that instance, if you miss out on the free version, you might feel more compelled to buy it because you might feel like you are the ONLY person not to have it if Oprah was giving it away. I am seeing more and more of this kind of promotion.
On a professional level, I do not yet have an opinion. I suppose once I am published, I will be willing to do anything to get my book and name out there. If I give Joe Shmoe my book for free and he loves it and he tells his friend who then goes out an buys it, like you said, I am then helping myself to be less obscure.
PLUS... what about libraries??? You can borrow any book from a library for free. No one ever worried about how libraries would effect sales...
I think a lot of it is building a name and reputation. And the more people who read your book, the more people they can tell, and thus the more people who will know who the heck you are.
On a personal level, I believe in the creative commons license, and having it free to everyone. I'm like you, Sheri--I see a free download of a book as no different from borrowing it from the library (just as I see mp3 downloads as no different from making a tape off the radio).
However, were my book to be published, I just don't know if I could feel the same way. Could I separate my personal ethics with a a desire to make money? I'm not sure...
It seems to me the opposite could happen. After reading the free version, if a person didn't like it, he wouldn't buy it, and also, he might not consider looking at other books by the same author. So, I think when an author allows a large number of people to read his book without buying it, he knows he's taking a calculated risk. Dorothy Ray
Plus, I tried to download SOMETHING ROTTEN and couldn't. How many people does that happen to?
*waves hello!* Hi Dorothy! How are the revisions coming?
It's true that if I person didn't like the free book, there would be no sale. But I do think there would be a greater chance at selling that author in the future--if I had something free from someone that I didn't like, I'd feel less resentful than if I had something I had bought from someone that I didn't like. Of course, it does open the door to some people who just will never ever like the author again...I wonder how much of a calculated risk would have to be taken?
Sorry you had trouble with the download! It worked great for me...odd...
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